I want to write a poem about the fish dinner nights of my childhood. They were different than every other night because they were silent. We were not allowed to talk while eating fish.
Every other night was clamorous, confrontational, and riddled with laughter. My sister’s giggles sprayed stray pieces of chicken makhani onto my graduation gown hours before I walked. Every meal would end with single grains of rice sticking themselves into my arm where I leaned on our table, embedding themselves between my toes as they fell from someone’s plate. There were always a hundred conversations going on, but we would return to a chosen few– bartering inside jokes, and offering up half-told stories as circumstantial proof of every idea we’d ever had. Someone would always take something too seriously.
We liked to put the serving dishes on the table, so no one had to leave to get more. We reached over each other, under each other, around each other. It wasn’t uncommon for a child to push behind your chair, borrow from your plate, or drop a building block into your water.
We didn’t serve alcohol, but we might as well have all been drunk on dinnertime.
Except for fish nights.
We were not allowed to talk while eating fish.
We ate our fish whole. The eyeballs stared blankly up at our silence, the bones protruded from the crinkled skin, the body rested in a shallow grave of spice and color. Around it, there would be a small plate of white bread, a few side dishes from varying countries… and there was rice, always rice.
We ate our fish whole because Portugal colonized Goa in 1510, and in the 500 years it took India to lay claim to her again, a part of India absorbed a part of Portuguese culture forever.
Or maybe, we ate our fish whole because my father went to school in France for a long time, en route from Saigon.
We ate our fish in silence because one time, years before my parents even met, a man died at our family’s table on fish night. The bones are so small, invisible almost. They catch in your throat like the hooks that caught the fish. The man laughed. The man panicked. The man could not be saved.
The white bread was a safety measure. If we felt a bone in our throat, we were to immediately roll up a piece of the bread in a ball and swallow it whole. It might catch the bone.
Whole sardines would sit in our individual plates, staring blindly on top of fluffy basmati rice. A larger fish would rest in the center of the table and beside it, there would be fish sauce, achar, ketchup, soy sauce, adobo-laced olive oil. We all ate our foods in different ways. The food didn’t matter.
We were eating dinner because it gave us an excuse to sit together, and sharpen our personalities on those we planned to grow alongside. We were eating fish whole for the same reason my father counts on his fingers in a way that makes no sense to my American friends.
We were eating in silence because fear is inherited as flawlessly as skin tone and laughter. It is taught like the recipes for fish, and the ways we use our hands to count numbers or to hold tightly to family traditions.
I want to write a poem about the fish dinner nights of my childhood, but nothing I’ve just explained would be in the poem.
It would be about the women at the table.
It would be about the graduation caps, wedding gowns, ballroom dresses, overalls and lab coats we wore and stained there. It would be about the whispers we passed to each other like serving dishes full of rice, in hopes that any of the grains might be the one to press into skin and protect our sisters and daughters. Each grain of wisdom came from a different woman and a different part of the globe, but they were somehow identical. They could fill anyone’s bowl, and maybe there was too many, because so often they just fell to the ground and we would walk all over them.
I want to talk about how it is to be served something because habits and traditions are so easily confused, and sometimes we seek nutrients from things that aren’t good for us.
And what it’s like to see a plate of bread in front of you and know that it is there in case you die– because you really actually might— and how no one is talking about it.
I want to write a poem about how it is when no one talks at all,
as if they already have a fish bone stuck in their throat, but have forgotten how to panic because they’ve learned how to roll white bread into tiny little balls
and swallow down all the fear.
And about how I went to visit my sister in Philadelphia last year, and my family was eating fish and laughing. It was chaotic, loud, and confrontational. I was so proud of her– for lifting the silence from the dinner table as deftly as she pulled the bones from the fish.
It is not easy to change the way things have always been done, but sometimes it is necessary.
It is not necessary to fill the silence with chaos, but sometimes that is how we find our way to the real reasons we all took a place at the table.
I want to write a poem about our table,
and the great things we could accomplish if we all took our seats,
all I can keep thinking about is the fish dinner nights of my childhood.
♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥
Ra Avis is the author of Sack Nasty: Prison Poetry and the girl behind the dinosaur at Rarasaur.com. She is a once-upon-a-time inmate, a reluctantly-optimistic widow, and an exponential storyteller.
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