I want to name that…

Larissa Pham traces the origins of her unlanguaged feelings, and the process of coming to terms with them.

Part of The Stakes of Naming, a series that asks an array of writers and artists what they need to say to live.




Lately, a phrase has entered my vocabulary: “I want to name that…” Every time it leaves my mouth I feel embarrassed, over-therapised, like I’m using language as a shortcut, bypassing the unruliness of emotion and conflict by lassoing them into a neat, tidy ellipse. Yet I keep reaching for it, surprised by how in its frankness it flips me inside out. I want to name that I’m not mad at you. I want to name that I don’t know what I’m doing, but I will try. I want to name that I am scared, but I am listening.

I’m not used to this, this act of containment, which paradoxically leaves me so bared. So much power lies in naming, in this moment of articulation—in holding my words, which I have searched for, up to the light. For when I first feel something it never comes to me in language; it’s never a cry but a seam of heat. Blurred shapes and mottled colors, moving dimly in a closed room. It’s only later that I find words for my emotions, which don’t always even feel like emotions, but something more impulsive and inchoate: the writhing outline of a snake in the grass. For many years, I thought that this was what it meant to love, as well as what it meant to fight about love: that the bigness of the feeling made you small and helpless in the face of inarticulacy. That was why I cried when we argued: my mouth could never catch up to all the things twisting inside. When I was quiet in an argument, it wasn’t because I had nothing to say—rather, it was that I didn’t know how to say it, or if I even could.

I was not born into an environment where emotions were described in words. My parents and I did not share a first language, which is not to say that we couldn’t communicate, but that it was in haphazard, fragmented ways. Rage was a slammed door; love was a hand towel, saturated with warm water, wiping the sleep from my eyes upon waking. Fruit was washed and cut, arranged on a plate. Things were thrown. Sometimes I threw them. Sometimes, alone in my room, I made fists of my hands and squeezed until little crescents appeared in my palms, crescents which were white and then turned red. This makes me feel. When you do this I. I don’t like how. I wish you would. I had no language for this then.

For years, while I lived at home, and after I moved away, I kept a diary, putting the minutia of my life into words. Writing my own narrative felt good and productive. Being the master of my own story, and therefore my own fate, felt like freedom. For a while I continued in this way, writing things down, writing everything down, trying to capture life exactly as it felt, as it had been lived. Then I found that language was a thing I used to build a wall between myself and another person. The wall was a story that meant one thing to me, and another thing to them. And in trying to make a story of something I had closed myself off instead of letting the real world—its doubts, its pains, its particularities—in.

Because I once tried so hard for perfection, and because I failed, I’m more skeptical of language now, of its deceptive finality, its pockets of meaning and specificity that are invisible until uttered, the way the form of a slip-cast mold of clay is unknown until filled. The mold is split in half; a shape is revealed. But is that shape the shape you imagined when you spoke to me, and is it the shape that I thought you were trying to make?

Some years ago, I entered a relationship in which we did not know how to speak. That relationship ended, and I entered another, which took place in the same way. So I have known silence, too: that which redacts, blankets, and snows. Between two people, silence can become a weapon, not because it pierces but because it obscures. I look at his back. I look at his back walking away from me. I look at his back and there are no words for it, only a shape that blots out language, silent as a tomb. There were times that I believed we were beyond words, and it’s true that we used other means, like our bodies, to speak. There was a safety in that. Not saying how you feel protects you from being misunderstood. But there is a sound snow makes when falling; when snow keeps falling, and does not melt, it accumulates. The space between us grew and in that space we ended things.

When I left that space, I entered a silent, lonely tube, and at the end of it I saw there was light coming through leaves, and fireflies moving low in the grass, and I walked through the grass to where people were reading poems aloud. This wasn’t exactly how I returned to language, but it is the best approximation I can make. Another way to tell this is that in the meadow, I met an honest man, and I learned that even if the word flower does not tell you what kind of flower it is, you know it is a flower, and slowly and then quickly I learned the other names of flowers, and I grew unafraid to say them. I want to. I believe that. I could. I will. I counted the flowers blooming in my own heart. This is a metaphor, but it’s also exactly what I did. I looked for the shapes the snake left in the grass, and I became unafraid to describe them.

And I have turned, clumsily, back toward language. I want to name that… Though I know it can fail; though I know it fails. Toward naming, which still inverts me, bares me, makes me say what I’m not always ready to say. When I say I’m naming something, what I mean is I’m setting my intention to speak truly to you. Naming is an act of declaring how I feel, murky and imperfect as it is. Each time I speak, I’m searching first to find the words. To draw them up from that place before language, to show them to you, holding them up to the light.



Larissa Pham is an artist and writer in Brooklyn. She writes essays and criticism and is the author of Pop Song, an essay collection, and Fantasian, a novella.

Banner illustration: Jocelin Kee. 



Larissa PHAM

Fri, 13 Oct 2023

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