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Book Excerpt

'The Broken Country' Explores Cultural Trauma, Legacies of War

The cover of "The Broken Country." (University of Georgia Press)

The following excerpt is from Paisley Rekdal’s new book, “The Broken Country.” It is published on Truthdig with permission from the University of Georgia Press.

It isn’t until he’s reaching for the list on the passenger seat that he hears a man’s voice behind him say, “Hey.” Keltin straightens, turns and sees an Asian man around his age wearing a nubbed wool sweater and three thin coats. The man’s face is impassive, his dark eyes blank as a shark’s, but his hair is stiff with grease, the skin of his hands seamed with dirt. Keltin has just registered the oddness of the man’s appearance—three jackets and a sweater at the end of April?—when he feels the stranger shove him, pushing hard at the base of his sternum.

Only he hasn’t pushed Keltin. Blood has begun to pump from Keltin’s chest, darkening his shirt. Keltin can’t feel any pain, but the blood is warm and pulsing, and as the stranger jumps towards him, he scuttles behind his open car door to put something between him and this stranger. The man swings his fist wildly at Keltin: at his back and sides, at his left arm, something flashing in his fingers. Keltin shouts, blood rushing in a thick gush from his left arm, until somehow he’s away half-dashing, half-stumbling towards the glass entrance of the grocery store.

People are everywhere, running through the sliding doors past Keltin to get back into the store or into the parking lot where he assumes his attacker must be. Keltin stays where he is, too stunned to do more than look as Keltin’s attacker now lunges at another man: someone much taller than him, since Keltin sees the homeless man rear suddenly upward, one arm raised, then plunge the blade into his victim’s eye.

Keltin slides to the floor. Blood streams from his arm, his torso, his chest, his cheek. The homeless man who attacked him, Kiet Thanh Ly, stabbed him nine times in the space of two minutes. The push Keltin felt while standing by his car was the force of a serrated blade being punched into the base of his sternum. Then Ly twisted the knife so that the blade ran parallel to the ground, puncturing bone and tissue but, miraculously, missing all of Keltin’s vital organs. Keltin will wear a large L-shaped scar on his chest, as he will also have a small, scythe-shaped scar on his left cheek. Ly stabbed both Keltin’s sides in two vicious swipes that scraped the skin up and off his ribs, wounds that are now slowly pricking to life, the skin of Keltin’s torso pushed up by the blade like plaster scraped up by a putty knife—crackling under his t-shirt. Keltin doesn’t know that the knife has punctured clean through his arm, shearing the radial nerve and scraping the ulna; the scar he will later have after several surgeries will look like a thin coil of pale pink beads roped around his left elbow.

Outside the store, Kiet Thanh Ly, Keltin’s attacker, is surrounded by people who have blocked off his escape. A man behind Ly swings a backpack at his arms and head, but Ly lunges at him with the knife. The knife he purchased just ten minutes ago from the store, a 10-inch blade he’d had to ask the checkout girl to cut out of its plastic packaging, is slippery. It feels small and useless in his hand as Ly turns, staggering like a clumsy bear. He can’t see all sides at once, all these wide, white mouths and screaming faces. “You killed my people!” he shouts, and the white faces expand; they
waver and elongate like stretched putty, their teeth and eyes shivering. “Why did you kill my people?” he moans. From down the block, the screech of sirens echoes toward him.

Paisley Rekdal
Contributor
Paisley Rekdal is the author of a book of essays, “The Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee,” the hybrid-genre photo-text memoir...
Paisley Rekdal
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