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Everything I need to know

Commentary: This poem is based upon the literary structure of a poem in the novel Sold, called, “Everything I Need to Know.” It narrates a mother telling her daughter all she needs to know in order to be the best woman, wife and mother. Beyond simple rules, it reveals cultural, religious and geographical biases on social constructs of gender and identity. For my vignette, I wrote in the perspective of a Chinese-American girl being told by her older cousin, Nuna, how she must be fiercely defensive of her rights as a woman because of the history of the oppression of women.

Before today, Nuna says, a girl’s feet were broken and bound before she could say no.

Now, Nuna says, you must stretch your toes every morning to remember that you can.

Never forsake health for beauty,

Never be afraid to be good, or to be great,

And never hesitate to be bold.

Otherwise your grandmother’s lotus feet will remain achingly, undeservedly beautiful.

Once you are married, which you need not do for a reason other than love, do not give him what is not his.

If he forces you away from a passion or a livelihood that you love very much, he will never be worthwhile.

If he asks only of love from you, have mercy on the man.

If you have a son, teach him that a headstrong woman is not an unfeminine one.

If you have a daughter, tell her never to be afraid to be good, or to be great.

If your husband asks you to be anything more or less than all that you are, cast him aside.

I ask Nuna why. “Why,” I say, “must we prepare always for the worst?”

“This has always been our fate,” she says. “And those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

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