In this gorgeous essay from The White Review’s archives, Natalie Linh Bolderston writes about her Vietnamese mother, food, the stories of ancient spirits passed down in their family, and the ghosts that live inside those we love. You’ll be drawn to Bolderston’s beautiful observations on wanting, caring, and eating, and delicate descriptions of her mother.

Mum fled Vietnam and came to the UK as a refugee a few years after the end of the war, along with her parents and siblings. They left almost everything behind except for the ghosts, and the language they spoke to them in. These were both the ghosts they had carried from birth — ancestors, old gods, the cursed spirits from stories — and the ghosts that rose from the war. The new ghosts were shapeshifters, most visible at night. Sometimes, they wore the faces of the soldiers who raided family homes for hidden gold and other valuables. Sometimes, they appeared as the old men who were taken away to re-education camps, or young girls after weeks of eating too little.

I wonder how Mum learned to carry such hunger, whether it felt like she too was turning into a ghost. I’ve never known how to fill the spaces that still exist inside her. All I can do is let her watch me eat.

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Cheri Lucas Rowlands

Cheri has been an editor at Longreads since 2014. She's currently based in the San Francisco Bay Area.