David Naimon: Today’s episode of Between the Covers is brought to you by Amanda Earl’s editorial service. With over 20 years of experience as a writer, editor, and publisher, Earl will help you create unique and effective poetry, prose, visual poetry, and hybrid work through a collaborative process of connection, exploration, and whimsy. Earl is managing editor of Bywords.ca, publisher of Angel House Press, and a poet herself. Her latest book Beast Body Epic is a collection of long poems about her near-death health crisis. Writer and communications professor Rob Thomas says, “I think every writer should have a sticker above their laptop screen that reads ‘But what would Amanda Earl do?’ Few can balance playful experimentation with a keen editor’s eye as deftly as she.” Poet Manahil Bandukwala says, “Amanda Earl offered incredibly valuable feedback on some of my earliest poems. As a new poet, I felt she approached my work with sensitivity and care.” For more information, visit amandaearl.com. Today’s episode is also brought to you by Otter Country, a captivating memoir by Miriam Darlington that pursues one of nature’s most endearing and fascinating creatures, the otter. Following Darlington over the course of a year, this memoir takes readers on a winding expedition from Devon, England to the wilds of Scotland and Wales, revealing the scientific, environmental, and cultural importance of the otter and the places it calls home. In the words of Marc Bekoff, “Otter Country is a must read for anyone who wants to know more about these fascinating and mysterious animals with whom we share our magnificent planet.” Otter Country is out on February 20th from Tin House and available for pre-order now. I have to say that 2024, looking across the people scheduled to come on the show from beginning to end, I can’t think of a year I was more excited for as a whole than this one. Now granted, conversations that haven’t yet happened that are still living dynamically and fabulously in my imagination don’t always materialize the way one hopes they will but so far with Mathias and Alvaro, and now Diana, it feels like 2024 is already surpassing my high hopes for it. Today’s conversation touches on so many things from one’s work outside of language and its effect on language to writing into family silences, from ghosts, hauntings, and doubles to writing with the non-human to Diana’s many ways of engaging with what she calls radical eulogy. As part of all that, we find ourselves also talking about the process of making a book and how this book began as a 200-page manuscript and ended up a book half that size. For the bonus audio archive, Diana talks further about this and also shares some of the image-shaped texts, the text shaped like bodies that didn’t make the final book and thus now, in her words, haunted from an elsewhere. This being the first contribution to the bonus audio in 2024, I wanted to mention the highlight contributions from last year. There’s the 40-minute-long epic call and response of readings between Sofia Samatar and Kate Zambreno. There’s Bhanu Kapil’s late-night reading in hushed tones of everyone from Annie Ernaux to Eunsong Kim to passages from her own notebook. There’s Lydia Davis reading her translation of Peter Bichsel. There’s Naomi Klein reading a letter between the fake Philip Roth and the real Philip Roth in Operation Shylock. There’s Roger Reeves reading Ghassan Kanafani and Isabella Hammad reading a letter from the Palestinian political prisoner Wallid Daqqa. There’s Christina Sharpe reading Canisia Lubrin, Dionne Brand, and Victoria Adukwei Bulley. There’s Melanie Rae Thon’s craft talk The Ethics of Perception, and definitely, the most outside-the-box contribution by Johanna Hedva created just for us while they were on book tour, recording their moans, groans, screams, and written texts city to city as they traveled, then mixing and layering them with the universe’s own voices, the sonifications of a black hole and of the helix nebula, raw audio of the sun, a field recording of the aurora borealis, an experience only Hedva could have created which they called The Saddest Thing of All Is When a Lone Astronaut Falls in Her Suit—Who Is There to Help Her Up? This only scratches the surface of last year’s contributions, let alone all the previous years, and access to the bonus audio archive is only one of many potential things to choose from if you join the Between the Covers Community as a listener-supporter. You can check out all that every supporter receives and the various things you can choose from at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Now, for today’s conversation with none other than Diana Khoi Nguyen.
David Naimon: Good morning and welcome to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. Today’s guest, poet and multimedia artist Diana Khoi Nguyen received a BA in English and Communication Studies from UCLA followed by an MFA from Columbia, and a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Denver. Her first book, published while she was still pursuing her doctorate, Ghost Of won the Omnidawn Open Poetry Book Contest selected by Terrance Hayes. In his citation as judge, Hayes says, “Sometimes it is as if these poems address the reflection of a ghost in the mirror. Other times the poems here look off to a father’s rooftop in Saigon. Or they look deeply into the interiors of family, a brother’s silhouette in the doorway. These poems mean to make a song of emptiness and the spaces we house. This collection is deep in the poetics of exile and elegy. This poem sings to and for the ghost of identity, history, and culture. They sing like a ghost who looks from the window or waits by the door. Ghost Of is unforgettable.” Lucie Brock-Broido adds, “Dina Khoi Nguyen’s Ghost Of is nothing short of an extraordinary debut. At its center is the haunting disappearance of a brother, gone by suicide. These poems are uncanny renderings of an invisibility made visible by the sheer will of candor, bemused forms, agility of lexicon, and a voice, almost noiselessly extravagant. What she gives us, she takes away; nearly impossible transformations transform. ‘Something keeps not happening,’ she writes. And then she causes it to happen in a language of grief—bold and often colder than most daring, exquisite acts. Nothing here is ever entirely complete—ghost of mourning, ghost of yearning, ghost of the kiln unfilled with the probable impossibility of an afterlife. It is as if a medieval scholar were transcribing an ancient Latin manuscript, pieces of script are missing, illegible, annulled by time. Nguyen’s voice is both wraithlike and astonishingly frontal; this is one of the most gifted first books I’ve read,” and the world heartily agreed. Ghost Of was a finalist for the National Book Award and the LA Times Book Prize and was winner of the Kate Tufts Discovery Award and the Colorado Book Award. Diana Khoi Nguyen has taught in many places from the Lighthouse Writers Workshop to the Juniper Summer Writing Institute and currently teaches at the Randolph College Low-Residency MFA, and at the University of Pittsburgh. She has garnered a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. Her video work has been exhibited at the Miller Institute for Contemporary Art. She’s a Kundiman fellow and she’s a member of the Vietnamese artist collective She Who Has No Master(s), a collective of women and non-binary writers of the Vietnamese diaspora who engage in collaborative, polyvocal, and hybrid poetic works that enact a politics of connection across diasporic boundaries, which also includes past Between the Covers guests Dao Strom and Vi Khi Nao. Diana Khoi Nguyen is here to talk about her much anticipated second poetry collection Root Fractures. Victoria Chang says of this book, “In Diana Khoi Nguyen’s beautiful and heartbreaking book, Root Fractures, the leaping imagistic declarative sentence becomes fractured and unreliable, as a way to parse and thread memories and feelings. Stacked to the sky, the declaratives become tenuous and subjunctive, leaning under the weight of family, history, and trauma from displacement and a brother’s suicide.” Layli Long Soldier adds, “In Root Fractures, we come face-to-face with a dark gravitational pull, the great black hole of war. Through the Vietnamese American experience, Diana Khoi Nguyen languages a feeling many of us can relate to, so often buried, silent and deep, within land, blood, bone, into molecular DNA. Yet because a black hole, deceptively, is not empty space, Nguyen tunnels through memories, photographs, family stories, death, grief, belonging and separation, motherland and mother tongue, relocation and empire—the points of entry and departure in those holes left in her siblings, parents, grandparents, and skyward to generations before. ‘A hole is a hole, but none of them are the same,’ Nguyen writes. Yet, she reminds us, there is a way out. As they ‘illuminate what once was broken,’ each of these poems glimmers and pulses along a pathway out—not for one person alone, but as enduring starlight, for generations to come.” Welcome to Between the Covers, Diana Khoi Nguyen.
Diana Khoi Nguyen: Thank you, David. What a wonderful introduction and just to hear the words of other poets I admire, read, and teach. It was also lovely to hear Lucy’s voice. You know we share the same birthday?
DN: You and Lucy did?
DKN: Yeah, Lucy and I. I think of her every year of course.
DN: This year in particular for some reason contains several guests where we’ve been anticipating the conversation for a particularly long time but probably none longer than you and me, I went back to our email archives and you reached out in March of 2018, a month before your debut was published, the show had been recommended to you by poet and critic Diana Arterian, and you mentioned that you were using my conversation with Tyehimba Jess in a class where you were teaching his book Olio. I was very interested in pursuing a conversation with you but at that point, the show was in person only and the two times you could have been in Portland, I couldn’t do, so we agreed to look together toward a conversation about a future book and between then, and now your book skyrockets in the national poetry consciousness and now flash forward six years, and we’re finally here, as part of a way of marking that time, it feels important to orient readers to the family situation you portray in your first book since Root Fractures extends and extends from that exploration, and to spare you from reiterating yet another time the fundamental circumstances of Ghost Of, for those who haven’t read it, two years before your brother’s suicide, your brother quietly removes all the family photos on the walls of your house, cuts himself out of the pictures, and replaces the photos back in the frame without his image. Nobody in your family says anything to him about it and remarkably, the pictures stay up for several years like this, then for several years more after his death, silently there, and eventually, you ask your sister to take them out of the frames, make copies for you and these brother-absented photos become the material or the ground from which the poems of your first book arise. Sometimes your poems fill the empty space of your brother’s silhouette and are constrained by that form. Sometimes the text is outside the empty space seemingly creating the space or holding it up, so it’s not surprising that Terrance Hayes would think of your book alongside Tyehimba Jess and Douglas Kearney’s work to other people who’ve been on the show and conversations that I think would be good compliments to ours because this engagement with the visual and with the visuality of text is part of their, and your contemplation of identity, self, other, and peoplehood. This is just a long preface and orientation to me giving the first question over to another Victoria Chang who you asked a question to when she was on the show.
Victoria Chang: Hi, Diana. This is Victoria Chang. I’m so excited to be able to ask you a question about your new book Root Fractures. Our culture can be very book-focused, meaning our spilling and capacious art is contained in a book form by forces beyond us as artists, and I was thinking about your work in relation to my work because I feel like my work just from book-to-book is one long conversation circling around similar themes and obsessions and once, I likened it to a paintbrush that you scrape across books, meaning that it just keeps going and it might take a different shape, form, or color but it’s still the same thread. I feel like your second book is also a continuation of your first more as a part of versus separate from and I really admired that about your second book. I wondered what your thoughts are on this and I would love to hear about your experiences working on a second book in general as well.
DKN: Oh, so lovely to hear Victoria’s voice and to receive that question but also, I can’t go over that image of that paintbrush right across books and how, of course, the materials that comprise each book are slightly different, so the quality of the same paint, if it is the same paint, is still going to be different and also time ages paint differently. The question wasn’t for me to just analyze that image that I’m so taken with, so I understand the question to extend for me to discuss continuation of threads right from one piece to another. As I said thread, I was thinking about the word tendril. I think in order to talk about this, I have to talk about process, so I never set about writing a book ever. I’m always just trying to figure out what’s in me, what’s there, and what’s possible, which is actually really hard. Writing is hard. I think people know this, so I create these conditions which I’ve been doing for at least the last 8 to 10 years where I have concentrated periods of time where I write every day alongside somebody else over email correspondence. It began originally as a 30-day poem a day, the grind, except it was my version, then I split it up to be two 15-day periods and that’s what I’ve been doing, just that’s what it’s been peaceful for me. Of course, what results then is you exhaust your usual poetic tricks on the page, at least I do. When I say you, I mean me. That usually happens in the first three days. It’s like the dregs from the last time I was writing something. [laughter] It’s like you clear that out, then you hit rock bottom where you feel like you can’t make anything that feels exciting to me. I feel like I can’t make anything and actually, I love that part. I hate it but I love it. I hate it because it feels terrible and I have this terrible existential crisis. My therapist is always prepared. [laughter] But what I love about it is that’s when you really become so porous. When I become so porous like a sponge, what’s that Kafka quote? “A cage goes in search of a bird.” Isn’t it a cage?
DN: Yeah, “A cage goes in search of a bird.”
DKN: Yeah. I feel like that except I don’t want to cage any birds but just the metaphor where I’m just like the sponge just looking for all the other microbes to inhabit my being because I need something. I just need material. During those periods, it’s like I’m hypersensitive, hyper-aware, constantly foraging, receiving, taking notes, then when I sit down to write finally that day, not all the time but oftentimes, something remarkable happens where I go, “Oh, what is that?” Then I do that again until I’m done, until the 15 days are done, then I don’t think about it. It’s very like, “How do I protect myself and the work, myself from the work and vice versa?” Then maybe six months later or three months later, some amount of time where I forgot that I did it, then I’ll go back and I’ll look, then I’ll see like, “What was the thread? What was there? What is still interesting to me that’s exciting my neurons?” I do that year after year, David, then I slowly begin to create, or I don’t even have a file management system. It’s just like I know my brain like those ones, those pieces, then a certain number of years pass, then I go, “Maybe I should look at all of them and what is it.” I think it’s more akin to taking a geological sampling of Earth over time. I do that and I see what’s there, then I ask myself these important questions like, “Is this a gathering that could be a collection?” It’s less like I was trying to write a book about this or I was trying to pick up threads of this. I can’t avoid myself ever, so I’m more interested in what was there in the conscious and unconscious, and what might it assemble into. Of course, threads are going to continue but I’m not the same that I was when I first wrote to you in 2018. My relationship to family, to grief, to these photographs, my contemplations about where my family has come from and where I come from, it’s not the same. The work that was produced, I was like, “Oh, it’s a different project.” But yeah, for sure, the themes carry and continue but like a person that’s still familiar, there’s still so much you still, I still didn’t know.
DN: Well, I want to ask you about the ways in which you’re not the same in relationship to art-making around this charged material because it’s clear that you’re not the same to me. I’ve watched many videos of you as a guest speaker or a guest lecturer in various classroom settings over a long number of years and you almost always, unprompted, invite people to ask you anything, to not feel like talking about anything in your work is taboo. Then you often share details yourself, some that appear in the poems and some that don’t but that I think add some texture and context to them. We already know, given the fact that the pictures stay up both before the suicide and after without being spoken of, that there was an intense atmosphere of silence. You share that your parents went back to work the day after your brother’s body was found. You’ve shared that among your many feelings about your brother’s death, you felt relief, relief that he didn’t harm someone else in addition to himself, that your parents weren’t eating the food in the fridge for fear that he had poisoned the food. That prior to Ghost Of coming out, when your mother would read individual poems as they were published, she threatened to sue you if you continued writing about the family. You say all of this and the invitation to ask you anything, and the details you offer in this really remarkably calm and measured voice, which made me wonder when I was watching these videos if this were simply your temperament, one that was different than your family to go into the silences and excavate them, and to do this with a certain amount of equanimity or whether this was something hard one and achieved through practice, time, and will. But then you shared in one conversation the detail that when your father picked you up the day after your brother’s suicide, that he was wearing your brother’s hat and he had a second hat from him that he wanted to offer you, and you report in an interview recognizing that you didn’t want to be anywhere near his things, that you didn’t want to engage with his clothes, that you didn’t cry at the funeral, that you kept your distance for years from these photos on the walls, that they had a radioactive presence that you were avoiding, that the silence wasn’t just around you but within you and one you couldn’t yet breach or broach at one point. But now with both books, you’ve done so in an incredibly powerful way and I think other art makers writing about an end of traumatic familial events would be curious as I am, maybe to hear about how that journey looked from not being able to engage at all to a real avoidance, which feels very different than this process that you do in the 15-day periods, which feels motivated by a certain curiosity about what’s inside of your psyche. To start from this place of willfully not engaging to this really intense and continual, and what feels like a deepening engagement over the last seven or eight years, what does this practice look like emotionally or artistically that brought you from the place when your dad picks you up to now?
DKN: Thank you for that, David. I really floored by the amount of time that you’ve spent listening and watching. I feel really moved actually. I think in order to talk about that moment of my father picking me up from the airport when I flew in for the funeral, I think I have to talk about the years before that too. I think that’s really important. I left home on my birthday, the day I turned 18 when I was legally able to do so and it was like in my teens, I had made this vow to myself, there were really oppressive, abusive, violent conditions and I knew that I could either take my own life, this is something I really wrestled with to my teens, I could take my own life or I could just bear through it, then have the life I wanted as soon as I legally could. I couldn’t figure out how to get emancipated so that was just how I did that, and I did. I lived a great life. I went to college. I supported myself and my parents tried to reach out a couple of years in saying that they were wrong, which was huge for them. It’s been rocky ever since and it still is even to this day actually often. But I’ve made this conscious decision where I really don’t want to erase them from my life, yet I still can’t reconcile some of the things that happened because—and I will get to the point about my seeing my father in the car—but I remember all these events, my brother remembered all those events and he took his life. My mother cannot recall them even though she was a primary agent in them. My father never talks about them and my sister doesn’t not believe me but she also doesn’t remember anything actually. I feel like I’m the only living person with a fallible memory who remembers it and that’s hard. There was so much silencing about so many things and I really internalized that. Actually, throughout my schooling, throughout my MFA, undergraduate, I wrote poems about bad stepmothers, like Eastern folktale variants because those really spoke to me. [laughter] I really understood what those children were feeling. It really wasn’t until my brother’s death that really forced me to confront what I’ve been ignoring, what I was fleeing from, what I was avoiding but I couldn’t do it right away, David, so I went home for the funeral. I wasn’t sure if I was going to do that actually. My parents actually told me, “You don’t need to,” which was weird but that’s maybe part of the same mindset of like, “Well, what an inconvenience it would be for you to disrupt your life.” Kind of the same mindset of like, “Well, they go to work afterwards. They only knew how to continue with that routine.” And because I was so intimately familiar with suicidal ideation, to know that my brother did was painful on so many accounts, I knew what it was like to be on the precipice of that state of mind except I didn’t cross over. He crossed over. I don’t think I was even aware of it then but I knew as soon as my father wanted me to have my brother’s beanie, I was like, “I don’t want to touch that,” as if it was contagious, like the suicide of the brother, as if I might get sucked right back into that place. There’s this thing where sometimes for some folks when they go back home even though they’re 40 years old, they go back home, it’s like you’re a 12-year-old child in that house again, everybody falls back in line into their ranking within the house and it’s like that for me too. I become that grumpy eldest daughter. I didn’t have language, David, I didn’t have language for what was going on but I was watching everything. I remember how one aunt scolded me the whole week and I understood that she was scolding me for leaving my family for all those years and that there was this implied notion of like it was my fault that my sister found my brother because it should have been me. I should have been there. Not even that like, “Oh, if I was there, this wouldn’t have happened,” but “I should have been there, so my sister didn’t have to deal with this.” There was a lot of that which was just like, “How do you deal with the weight of all of that crap?” Everybody has their feelings and their grief, and their maybe acting out in ways that aren’t necessarily kind to others. I was just receiving, I was just witnessing and this is related to the equanimity I think. Was that the word you used? It’s as if I can just make my heart rate calm, which means then I have to really scuttle away my emotional self, like I’m just going to be present to witness and I’ll deal with what I feel later because I’m not really sure what I feel. I was gathering during that period and I gathered for a long time after that period. I think when I sat down to write within that first year, I couldn’t even directly write about my brother actually. But the biggest shift was now I wasn’t writing about European folktale variants and I was actually looking at my [inaudible] history. I had to confront my own feelings with my brother. It’s like I’m circling the wound but I can’t get too close because I’m so scared I’m going to fall in and I won’t come back out as if I’m going to die too. I really felt like there was grief but then there was also all the baggage of all the reasons why I left that house because I was scared it was going to kill me and I was still scared it was going to kill me to be so close to all of that. I didn’t know how to have language for that. I really like to share this which I think was really so important to my practice now but it was after that first death anniversary, I’m asking my sister if she wouldn’t mind scanning those pictures for me because I didn’t want them to have power over us anymore to haunt us but also, David, I had to confront those pictures. I hadn’t looked at them. They don’t have eyes in the picture, I mean I guess the people have eyes but I had to look at it. It’s like looking at an awful event. Everybody always turns away. We avert our eyes. I was like, “I cannot avert my eyes.” You know when you scan a digital photo, for some reason, when you open up the PDF, it’s ginormous? [laughs] I don’t know why this happens. I don’t know what the phenomenon is but it’s like knocked a scale to your screen and it’s somehow zoomed in a thousand percent, so all you see are like pixels of one area. That was great because then I didn’t have to behold the whole wound. It was just so disorienting that it was a relief and I could then slowly zoom back out. In the act of doing that, I was able to be curious like, “Oh, what is this new map? What is this picture? What am I seeing now?” versus like, “Oh sh*t, I’m going to now look at this whole.” It wasn’t that. It was just more of like, “Okay, it’s an artifact. It’s an object that now I can handle versus this emotional reminder of all of our stuff, all the familial stuff.” I’m moving between my emotional self and my curious self which is a great place to be I think because I feel safe enough to engage. I didn’t write anything. I was like, “Okay, I just want to carry these around with me because I don’t know what I have to say about them,” so I did. I had them in my pocket. I was living in Colorado. I walk the dog every day and it’s one of those things where you’re like when you’re a kid, you just do stuff but you don’t know why, same thing. Like the dog was pooping over there by the daffodil, so I was like, “Okay, I’m going to throw this over a dandelion.” [laughter] I was like, “Oh, I like the way that looks. I’m going to take a picture of that.” I don’t know and I did that for all of spring but now I understand when I look at it. I’m like, “Oh, that was my non-verbal engagement with the archive,” and it was my way too of filling in the void after winter thaws, spring. Spring comes up. It makes so much sense. It was actually really nourishing to have green and flowers coming up through that space. I think that really changed the temperature in terms of my fear to the archive, that then the next time when I sat down to write, I just dropped it into a Word document and I was like, “Hi, guys.” It’s like you have to denature the spooky parts in order to handle it. Just thinking about how you have to let the cake cool on the baking rack completely before you can frost it because if you rush it, it’s just going to slip on and off. It’s going to melt. What a mess. Wow, what a weird metaphor, Diana. I could handle it. I was curious but I was also aware too now a little bit of how I felt, which is I acknowledge that I had fear. I was able to confront that fear through these physical acts, these non-verbal acts and this is actually really important. I had a mission. My mission was to engage further with the photographs so that I could share it with my sister and we could just not be scared or avoidant of this thing that we weren’t talking about. God forbid, we couldn’t have talked about it with our parents. At least, between my sister and I, we could. There’s a different relational pact between siblings, especially siblings who played together, who survived the same abuse together, whether or not my sister can remember. The first thing I thought was, “Well, okay, an impulse would be to fill in the hole,” and I did that with a text box. I like to talk about this moment as a keyhole because some people ask, I didn’t write a poem, then paste that in. I was writing within the boundaries of where my brother cut, which is very different from writing, then pouring something in. It’s like I’m pouring myself into the mold that my brother made and there’s something extremely intimate about doing that within the photograph, and my mind met that task with surprising language to me and it revealed to me what I probably have been holding in my body for that one plus year. Of course, those body holes are small. Once those floodgates were open, I needed to keep pouring, so I just started writing on top of the photograph and so on, and so on, so folks will understand that from the Triptychs in Ghost Of. I feel like I don’t know if I’m answering all of the points that you raise but I’d like to carry that in terms of the evolution to where this is here and I will talk about the invitation that I do for others. Actually, I’ll talk about that right now, which is I did all this for me and my sister really. Kind of on a lark, I realized one summer living in San Antonio that I had a lot of these poems, a lot of these dead brother poems and I was like, “Is this a book? Then I didn’t like that because I was like, “No, I can’t share this with anybody. It’s our pictures.” It’s not even like the speaker, I mean yeah, but that’s my mom, so I was like, “Whatever. It’s fine.” All my friends, I know so many people, it took them 10 years to have a book. Whatever. I’m not sending it anywhere. Let’s just gather and see, and I did. I did decide ultimately to submit it thinking it would take a really long time to get picked up because I thought the book was really weird. But in order to make that decision, it wasn’t because I wanted a book if that makes sense, it’s like if I’m going to make this deeply personal thing with photographic evidence of who we were back then and who I am now more recently, there’s such a one-to-one correlation here. It can’t just be because I wanted to have a book with my name on it. I did not want the endeavor to be exploitative. Of course, you brought up my mother that she had threatened to sue and that was back actually, those weren’t poems from the Ghost Of, those were like the Hansel and Gretel poems.
DN: Oh, wow.
DKN: Those are poems I wrote pretty shortly after my MFA and she would find them, and she’s like, “I read what you wrote about me,” and I was like, “What are you talking about? That’s the speaker’s mother,” or whatever and she’s like, “Bullsh*t.” She understood. She understood the persona and the mask, and she felt wounded. I thought about my mother but I’m not here to obey my mother. That didn’t work out for me when I lived with her and it doesn’t serve me. I was like, “Well, what serves me? What is the purpose of sharing this really personal project?” I said, “Well, it has to be because it’s an act of speaking up, speaking out, speaking against silence and the violence, and not just the familial history but the diasporic history too. All of it.” There are so many silences. It’s not that my mother is not the villain. Sure, she did a lot of bad things but the story extends far beyond her. I remember thinking in grief, I read a lot of elegies and there are so many beautiful books out there but I didn’t read ones where the speaker’s experience mirrored or closely resembled my own. I also definitely didn’t read one that said some messy things like the messy thoughts I had. I have a line in that book that says, “I’m glad that you are dead. I’m glad that you are dead. I’m glad that you are dead,” which was like there’s a relief too when the person you know is troubled for years, like something bad is going to happen, and you don’t know how to fix it, then when it does happen, you’re glad you don’t have to dread it anymore but then you have to now live with the fact that that person is actually dead, which is its own onslaught of feelings. If the book was going to exist, then I wanted to make sure I engaged in a really frank and open discussion about everything contained in it, and to also make space for others who perhaps have thoughts or feelings and didn’t know or weren’t yet sure how to manifest that in the creative work. I’m sure there are lots of texts out there. I didn’t encounter those yet in my various years of schooling. I’m very conscious when I go and I present the book, I don’t want to perform a racial trauma. That’s not what I’m interested in. I read the poems about my experience from that time but I’m really more interested in facilitating conversations about family or difficult topics. I don’t have the answers but I can share my journey through them, which is to say to be transparent about some possibilities and to really give permission to others to have those feelings because so often, we redact that in our own imagination and I really wanted to give people permission to do those and say those things, even if they don’t ever publish. I think it’s really important to just allow it.
DN: I do too. Well, we have another question for you that I think deepens and extends from my question. It’s from past Between the Covers guest and fellow multimedia image text poet and writer, and fellow compatriot in your collective She Who Has No Master(s), Dao Strom.
Dao Strom: Hi, Diana. Thank you, David, for inviting me into this conversation. I’m so honored to be a part of this. Congratulations, Diana, to you on Root Fractures. This book is amazing and resonated with me on so many levels. I’m so excited for it to be out in the world. My question, I’m thinking about roots and fractures, things we are bound to or bound by and things we are uprooted or fractured from, and how these conditions can be intertwined in complex ways. I’m also thinking about how what we are bound by can at times also lead to the need for fracture in order to negotiate survival, for instance. I’m thinking of your Đổi Mới poems in particular, how they play on this motif of renewal and how in those poems, there are these recurring declarations and movements I felt by the poem speaker away from the family, and declarations of separation from the family, from the mother but then how there are also statements about not being able to separate like the way water comes back in to fill a space, which was in one image or one of the poems near the end, when the poem observes how no tree in nature clears a space setting out to find its own way. It is only a person who thinks to do this. I think that was on page 102. I have it written down. That line I felt the tension acutely in my own self and in regards to my own feelings about belonging, family, and this complicated burden of what we carry as inheritors in the diaspora. But I’m also thinking about how these poems for me feel like they are also creating their own bodies, new types of bodies to live in and speak through. I’ve had the fortunate grace to collaborate with you, Diana, in our Vietnamese artist collective She Who Has No Master(s) so I know a little bit about your techniques, especially using family archival photos and how you work palpably with the outlines, the shapes of the bodies of your family members. My question is perhaps twofold. First, I want to ask what your experience of negotiating those tensions, the impulse to pull away from the pool of being held by, what your experience of that has been as a writer moving through this material but also as a diasporic person, as a daughter, as a woman navigating the binds, the roots of familial and communal expectations that we know can be more pressured for those who are gendered female and perhaps folding into that, I’m wondering if some forms of fracture, of cutting, of separating might be necessary or at least beneficial or instrumental in order to create new bodies, new forms of being to, in effect, be able to renew ourselves in a sense. I think what I’m wanting to ask you about is writing and art-making as a potentially reparative process, I’m wondering if it has been so for you, if you believe it can be so for those of us who have had the experience of being rooted in fractures. Thank you, Diana, for fielding this question.
DKN: Thank you, Dao. I was so struck in Dao’s question and also observation about how roots entangle but also sometimes fractures happen but sometimes they happen because they’re necessary for survival too, and there’s a complicated push-pull. I understood, Dao, your question to be about the relationship also for me and art-making, and all of the life stuff around that. I’ll share this. I write in order to figure out what it is I’m thinking and feeling first and foremost. I write to figure out what’s going on because I don’t always know. It’s not that I’m not a self-aware person. I do. I think about a lot of things, myself, my interactions with other people, the relationships, other writers that I’m reading and engaging with but there’s something about the way in which it appears on the page when it surprises me. That’s really valuable as a different kind of reflection of oneself. I’m sure many writers have said that in more eloquent ways. But the act of writing it is not reparative for those feelings. I don’t feel like things are okay now with my mom because I wrote that statement or something but it gave me a clarity of, “Oh, this is where I’m at right now in my feelings.” It’s as if there’s a way in which I can have that one-sided conversation as if in preparation for an eventual dialogue with somebody and maybe the dialogue never happens. In a sense, it’s not necessarily reparative but there’s a calming effect in that—and I’m using the word play here—in that it’s practice. There’s a practice or practicum element toward real-life relational conversations if they happen. Actually, the part that’s actually deeply repaired is only when I’m in conversation with others, other writers, other artists actually. Do I feel a sense of belonging? Am I able to have really rich conversations that leave me really feeling whole? Because my mother’s not going to ever be able to do that for me for various reasons and nor do I expect or think that could happen with my mother or anybody else in my family actually. I think it’s only working through these things on the page in the multimedia ways that I do it, then inviting space for others to do so or befriending and being in conversation with others who do so, which is a lot of what happens in that collective, then realizing how much resonance there is and how sorrowful that is, but also like, “Hey, we’re alive. We’re here.” There’s something powerful about our ability to give voice to these things when we weren’t able to read things like that if that makes any sense. Honestly, that’s why I write. It’s not even just like, oh, to reflect to myself, yeah, sure nobody has to read that. That doesn’t have to be a book. But I think it’s really something about offering into a space where it might connect or stimulate conversation and prompt others to share things that would then further seed things within me. That’s tremendous and fruitful. Immediately, I’m thinking in terms of images, like sometimes, I leave a pothos too long in a small pot and all those roots are really densely clustered, and that’s not good for it. Not at all. By the way, I don’t know much about gardening but this is just my shoddy experience with plants. Then you need to sometimes separate them or put them into different pots so they have room to truly thrive and get the nutrients that they want, and painfully, because I can hear the popping of the roots sometimes when you’re trying to separate because they tear because you’re not able to go through it with tweezers to untangle everything but the plant usually can still survive. It’s painful, that separation, I can’t go back in time and prevent that from happening. But this funny thing, when Dao was asking that question like, “That’s how painful it was for me over and over again to extract myself or to distance myself from my mother or my family because it wasn’t a positive force or factor in my life at that moment.” Yet those wounds, of course, they heal. New roots grow around the wound tissue for sure. But there’s still a yearning for what used to be there and rather than trying to banish that from my mind, I’d rather make space for that yearning too even though I know I’ve chosen to be distant. I think it’s actually really important to just be transparent again about all the complicated feelings, even if they contradict because life is like that. Here’s the other funny thing. You don’t like the pothos and their different pots, they’ll continue to grow and they form new pothos communities and families, and who knows actually sometimes, enough of that particular pothos contingency might find its way back to the part it was originally separated from and they’re not the same, they’re not going to entangle in the same way. I’m just using pothos as a standard for myself and my family members here right in the diaspora and the folks that I’ve met, writers with whom I feel a sense of kinship and belonging. It’s true. Sometimes we do have to tear only because the entanglement was just so strong. There was no easy way to get free.
DN: Could we hear the poem that she references, the one that’s on 102, 103?
DKN: Yeah, sure.
[Diana Khoi Nguyen reads from Root Fractures]
DN: We’ve been listening to Diana Khoi Nguyen read from Root Fractures. I wanted to spend at least a moment with all that you do outside of language that you’ve already referenced and how much that is part of the journey of being able to speak into and about this. Your poetry, to begin with, begins not only with photographs but redacted photographs, and they were redacted by another as we’ve already spoken to and about. The first thing on any page in a sense is not a word but you also have engaged with your family story in many other ways outside of language, the short videos you’ve made where you’ve used home videos from your childhood or old videos of your parents from then and which sometimes involve you now reenacting past movies of your mother with you as her or where the frame of somebody’s body in a video is replaced with a childhood video within it or with a rushing river or flowers blowing in the wind. Even more, I think of your reenactments of eating the same foods from your brother’s last meal or making a cardboard facsimile of his coffin and lying within it, both in your house and out in the fields, and sometimes filming the sky from within the coffin. All of these actions and reenactments, this intense imagining of yourself as your mother or as your brother, something that you’ve called radical eulogy or radical empathy, I’d love to hear more about them in their own right but also if they’re playing a crucial role in you being able to come to the page with language or whether they’re just another thing that you’re doing alongside the poems that you’re doing in the book.
DKN: The answer would be both, which is yeah, for sure, they exist alongside and I don’t have a desire to try to adapt any aspects or stills from the video projects into the manuscript here but at the same time, they share roots, they share root systems, for sure. I’ll take a couple of steps backwards, which is my sister actually found the videos. I guess we knew where they were all along but we had forgotten about them and this is after my brother had died. Her roommate actually, her roommate’s father digitizes these VHS, so we got them digitized and I don’t even know if she watched it actually. Of course, she knows me. She’s like, “Do you want these?” I said, “Yes, yes, I want them.” Just for the record, I have no training and video work whatsoever but I wanted to know. I’m a person who doesn’t avoid anymore like I did for a time. Now I feel like I have a practice where I can approach. It just takes me time. I spent time with the videos. I wasn’t trying to make video project pieces but I found myself immediately hungry for them because here, my brother was moving and was alive. Of course, he didn’t cut himself out of every picture in the whole house, not in all the photo albums, just on the wall. But here I could hear his voice again at different stages of his life. But not only that, it was like, “Oh wait, who were we?” Of course, this was during my PhD so in my brain, I’m thinking like an autoethnographer. I got the scholarly brain of what I’m seeing as if like, “Who are these people?” That’s not me but it’s a version of me but I’m also charting my own emotional journey and what I’m thinking as I’m encountering, so those two things are converging and they don’t always overlap. That was a remarkable experience. I just was like, “Wow.” I would stop sometimes and I’d be like, “I need to do something with this.” There’d be a moment where I’d stop and my brother would be overlapped over my body, and we’re in a field and there’s a sewer drain. I don’t know, just that one image itself felt really apt for some reason, like the two ghosts in the archive overlapped on each other. In the same way, when I engaged on the page, I was like, “I have iMovie. That’s free.” I opened it up, I put in the file, and I began cutting. Editing is maybe perhaps similar to assembling a cento with found language. You already have the images and now it’s like, “Oh, these bits were calling to me, so I’m going to just use my electronic razor blade to just splice those moments and put them on a timeline.” It’s linear. It only goes in one direction, the timeline, at least for me at that moment. Then I was like, “I may not have any training but I’ve had many years of thinking about poem, juxtaposition, or sound, image, all those things.” I found that I could translate that with the archive and use the archive as my huge pantry of materials, so of course, naturally I began to assemble these things for no reason other than it was fun. [laughs] It was fun and it scared me, it spooked me, and it made me sad. I cried a lot and I also laughed a lot as we do when we look at old family things, again, for what other purpose than to have it and I think I maybe shared it with my dad. It became really vital because it opened up new pathways for how I was thinking about family via text on the page. I think a lot about Carolyn Berg Ball’s work and how it will manifest as a book but it can also be like a video piece but also an installation but also XYZ. Maybe a project might exist in multiple different forms because the creative question and drive are the same. They’re not even adaptations of each other perhaps but it’s just like, “Oh, it’s now also this and it’s now also this.” I guess when I said it was both, it’s because both practices fuel each other into existence and they’re essential to each other. They enable each other to see and to be. They’re like siblings in that way. Now they’re part of this family of work. I really love it because it helps me to continue to have discovery and that’s what I’m looking for when I’m making, and I use that word now too. I compose things, not a musical composer but I’m not just only composing words on a page but I’m thinking about video texture and what am I doing with those materials. The forms and the constraints are different but I think I approach both of the playfulness and also like, “What happens if I do this? What happens if I turn the sentence in this direction, what will emerge?” I don’t always know and that’s what I’m looking for, like what happens.
DN: Thinking of Victoria’s question about how the second book is or isn’t related to the first, while Root Fractures continues engaging with the photographs, they don’t feel like a small part of the new book but they feel like a smaller part of the new book compared to Ghost Of or maybe slightly less central to the project, and the Vietnamese language seems more prominent in the new book. There are more words, just generally in the new book but also more Vietnamese words, not just the titles of the series you just read from but the dedication at the beginning, “To my mother and father and their parents,” where the word for parents is in Vietnamese. Similarly, the first poem of the book is a poem entirely in Vietnamese with no translation. Thinking of the notion of root fractures and growing from within a fracture or regrowth within a fracture, and Dao’s question about the reparative, I wonder about the relative flourishing of a Vietnamese in the new book compared to the first and if this is a sign of that in some way. But either way, I’d love to hear about the choices you made about how and when to include Vietnamese in the book.
DKN: Yeah, I love this question. I can’t even repeat what you just said but you said something about the flourishing and immediately in my head, I just saw Vietnamese popping out of English and that’s what happened actually. [laughs] A little bit of backstory, Vietnamese is/was my first language, and right before kindergarten, my parents said, “No more Vietnamese. Only English,” because they didn’t want me to become an ESL student in elementary school. All my memories I only thought I only spoke English actually and it wasn’t until the home videos that I see myself speaking really fluent southern slang and dialect like my father’s side of the family, Vietnamese. Shocked, like, “Who is that? I can’t do that. Diana right now can’t do that but that little Diana, whoa, look at her.” There was a disconnect there but I can’t deny the archive. Nobody made that up and I realized that’s in me. Sure, I can translate my parents but I have a hard time speaking because recall is so much more taxing on the brain than recognition in terms of a language. Something happened. My relationship to the language, just like my relationship to my parents, rather than running away from my family and running away from my parents, also wasn’t running away from my culture anymore. I think a great deal of that was because I had begun this connection and these collaborations with the Vietnamese artist collective She Who Has No Master(s), and for the first time in my life, I was amongst people like me in terms of their relatives look like my relatives and none of them were doctors or lawyers, and we were all artists, we all had stuff we were working through, and they were kind to me, David. They were really kind to me. I don’t know if I can recall prior to that moment, and maybe because a child only remembers, tends to remember the negative events more strongly than the positive ones, but I don’t really remember hearing Vietnamese in a way that’s playful or tender. It really transformed my relationship to Vietnamese culture, Vietnamese-American culture I’ll say. I actually enrolled in a Vietnamese language class in the pandemic as a result and that’s actually when I started my collaboration with She Who Has No Master(s). It was funny because I was the oldest student, it was all first and second-year undergrads but also how amazing that they had this class and immediately, I picked it up. I knew. I was like, “Oh.” The literacy was hard because I couldn’t read and write but I already knew all the sounds and tones. It was just like mapping it on the semiotics of the language. As I began to take this class and do the exercises, it was like a déjà vu, David. It was like, “Oh, I do want all this.” It’s like, “Finally, I’m accessing all these things that were really buried back in there.” Also, that same semester, I found out unexpectedly that I was pregnant, which was such a surprise, then also surprise that I was delighted by that because my whole life, I had been really not terrified of parenthood. I didn’t want to be a parent necessarily. It was really confusing, David. [laughter] Hormonally, linguistically, I found myself having Vietnamese thoughts. It was so strange. Then after the baby was born, I don’t know what to tell you, it was like I could start speaking to my parents in Vietnamese. Sure, I had taken that class but something about before when I tried to, I would get tongue-tied and stuck, and I couldn’t say it. I could just say it. Even though when I didn’t know words, I would just pause and be like, “What’s the word for that? Okay,” then I would continue as if before there was a kind of self-consciousness, shame, or baggage, then now it’s like I picked back up and I had like 5-year-old proficiency in language but with a 37 or 38-year-old’s knowledge too that my parent’s dialect is extremely xenophobic, which I discovered and taken a class. [laughs] I remember learning certain words for like, “Japanese people are called this. People from China are called this.” In my head, I was like, “Oh, but isn’t there also this word?” I would say that in class and you could see the teacher just try hard not to cringe, then just very gently say like, “No, that’s not the proper way to say it. We actually say this.” Immediately, I was like, “Oh, my parents are racist,” and those were the inappropriate non-PC terms that I thought was the norm and I just revealed myself.
DN: And you bring that into the collection. I love it.
DN: There are several places in the collection where that gets dramatized.
DKN: And let me be clear, I wrote most of these poems before I gave birth. But when I started to assemble them, I had already given birth and my relationship to the Vietnamese language was different, and that really transformed the way in which I allowed or shepherded the Vietnamese language to be on the page with the same equal consideration as an English word because that’s how my mind thinks now and it made sense for me to do that. At the time, that’s probably risky. Maybe people don’t want to see that. A publisher might not want to see that. It can feel so alienating, especially since I’m making the decision not to italicize, not to have translations in the glossary. But all that was purposeful because in my head, sometimes I don’t always know what the words mean either even though they emerge for me, so I’m actually okay if the reader doesn’t have access. Of course, in our current technological moment, we can look it up but what I mean when I say Đổi Mới is actually really different from what the internet says because my relationship to it is pretty feral one and this is where when you were asking your question, I was seeing it like a root growing through another root, the Vietnamese was like, “I was here all along. Make room for me, bitches,” which is like, “Sure. I’m sure.” [laughter] As a child, you approximate language based on how people use it around you and how you make sense. It’s all relational. That’s just language. Maybe I didn’t know about economic reforms in Vietnam which is what Đổi Mới usually refers to but for me, it sounded like words which meant like, “Alright, new stage,” just something like, “Alright, new phase, blank slate,” or whatever but that’s not what it means. There’s no dictionary that would say that it means that. But that definition for me is just as valid as all the others because that’s what that Vietnamese word means to me, like to Diana, circa whatever year.
DN: I wanted to ask you another Vietnamese language question too because in Victoria’s blurb that I read in the intro where she says, “Leaping imagistic declarative sentence becomes fractured and unreliable, as a way to parse and thread memories and feelings. Stacked to the sky, the declaratives become tenuous and subjunctive,” it makes me think of an interview you did at FourWay Books where you talk about how your dissertation was partly focused on verb tenses in Vietnamese and how there is no subjunctive tense or mood in Vietnamese. I guess I wondered what that absence of the subjunctive signifies for you in your own life and family life, and in your poetry, especially given that Victoria is pointing to how your poetry itself is becoming subjunctive by stacking up the declarative sentences, so in this case, declarative English sentences but I wonder if those are echoing the declarativeness of Vietnamese. Can you speak a little bit about the subjunctive in that regard?
DKN: Oh, yeah. I can’t speak to what Victoria was saying that I got really excited by what she was saying so I have to say this with a disclaimer. I am by no means fluent in Vietnamese. I don’t know Vietnamese very well but I know it as a person who’s lived in my family and has this feral relationship with it that’s ongoing. I remember years ago watching a TED Talk by a classicist, tattoo artist, a Vietnamese-American man living in Maine. The whole point of his talk was illuminating but he was basically saying that Vietnamese does not have a subjunctive language, and I have not verified that but I reflected, and I was like, “I don’t know if I know how to say the language of regret or possibility in Vietnamese or if I’ve heard it.” Actually, I’ve only ever heard imperatives, declaratives, and future-facing sentences from my family. That made so much sense to me when I was doing my PhD studies because I was like, “Well, what do we expect from refugees?” It’s really like how do we stay alive and how do we orient our bodies towards success in the future, and that also means the success of our children and so forth. It’s very future-oriented and never did they talk about the past, almost nearly never, even when I asked. Not only is it declarative but it was really like if we think about the temporal nature, it’s really skewed. It was only when I was thinking about it, I was like, “Wow, how do we even say possibility?” I was really struck in this TED Talk because he was an infant when his family was supposed to get on a bus in Vietnam to leave, and for some reason, they didn’t get on the bus, maybe because the baby cried, then the bus later blew up. This person grew up knowing this happened, this origin story, and of course, that’s fascinating for a person, so he would ask his relatives, “What do you think would have happened if we had been on that bus?” I love the responses that his relatives gave because it’s just so matter of fact, they’re like, “What?” That’s not even a possibility, right? They were like, “What do you mean we didn’t get on the bus? We’re here.” But having spent all of his life, like formative life except for birth in the United States with a different intimacy with the English language, has a different relationship to possibility, regret, and time, and access through that through English. I was thinking about that. I was like, “Me too. Actually, me too.” I have the subjunctive in my imagination but I don’t know how my parents do. Sorry, this is a long way of saying I still carry so much of the structures syntactically, grammatically that my parents indoctrinated and raised me in. In addition to that, I have all the other stuff that I’ve acquired through schooling and community along the way, and there is no reconciling all of them but really just making space for them to exist. Because I don’t know how to say the subjunctive in Vietnamese, sometimes when I’m looking back at past memories and thinking about my parents, it’s like an asymptote, like I’m trying to approach a subjunctive mood or place within memory but I have this unknown constraint where I’m only using declarative and I’m just constantly trying to get there if that makes any sense. That’s what I was thinking of when Victoria said that but I wasn’t conscious by any means. But I’m constantly thinking about alternative possibility and regret, and I don’t doubt for a fact that my parents don’t have regret but I’ve not heard them articulate it in the Vietnamese language, so how does it live within them, I can say it in English and it’s as if I’m using English to try to build a bridge to the Vietnamese that I don’t know.
DN: I love that. Thinking of your looking at yourself when you were seven on the video and the uncanniness of seeing your fluency in Vietnamese, I have so many questions for you about this book and in general about doubling, mirroring, repetitions, hauntings, and ghosts. But before I ask them, we have a question for you from your own double, the poet Cindy Juyoung Ok whose debut book Ward Toward was picked by Rae Armantrout for one of the most prestigious prizes in poetry in the US, the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize whose past winners include Muriel Rukeyser, John Ashbery, Jean Valentine, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Fady Joudah, and many others. You and Cindy have created a joint double Instagram account and a joint tour where instead of Cindy promoting Ward Toward, and you, Root Fractures, your Instagram account is @rootwards and there’s an image of you both, half of each other’s faces making one face. Before she asks you, before your double asks you her question about repetition and recursion, do you want to say anything about this gesture that you’ve chosen with her of doubling and twinning between the two of you?
DKN: Yeah. I hadn’t thought about it as doubling but for sure, I was thinking about that poster for a face-off from the 90s with Cage and Travolta. We decided to become a joint entity, in part, because it’s so exposing to have a book in the world, then to talk about it, promote it, “Yeah, I’m doing it here,” but that’s scary. I’m sweating up a storm.
DN: Right now, you’re sweating?
DKN: Yeah. I always sweat on Zoom. [laughter] I don’t know how to tell you. I think it’s a Zoom thing. [laughter]
DN: I hope it’s not me.
DKN: No, no, not because I’m nervous. It’s just my physiological response to doing this. It’s just inherently so exposing. It’s one thing for okay, somebody can pick up a book and read it but then to have your face right there and to be the instrument with which the poetry is delivered to people’s bodies is a whole nother thing. She and I had both shared various forms of anxieties about expectations of having to do right by the book or to do what the publisher wants and ultimately, you do have agency over what you want to do or not but I also understood in these conversations that Cindy did want to do these things for the book but also had a lot of reservations. Immediately, I was like, “Well, let’s do it together.” That’s usually my response to anything. I can offer myself. I don’t want to be alone too but I would never have thought to ask somebody else to do it with me. But when posed with this space where we overlapped, why not be in it together? So we did, then we had really excited conversations like, “What does that mean? What is our intention?” Really then, it’s like, “Oh, how can we offer a different example of how to be in the world with a book and how to care for the birthing of that book?” which is to say it’s like a joint birthday party. Of course, we do that, so why not with books? Sure, that may mean more logistics, like you go to an event and somebody’s going to have to buy maybe two books instead of one, and they might not and that’s okay. But it gave us both safety, shelter, community, and camaraderie. It is collaborative because then I’m already thinking about the conversations we’ve had and the projects, and we’re slated to do some panels. We’re going to do a panel, the association of Asian-American studies, like a workshop on mental health, which dovetails for both of our books. That’s what I wanted to say about my double.
DN: Let’s invite her into the space with us.
Cindy Juyoung Ok: Diana, congratulations on Root Fractures. The title makes me think about fractals, the different images of tapestries, garden seeds, mother’s braids, the fractures that come from a central root. There are all these repeated titles and forms in this book, and some of them reach back to Ghost Of and I wanted to ask about the poetic recursion which I think can reflect the realities of repetition. For example, anxiety recurs, grief is incredibly wavelike and ritualistic. I think about two mirrors pointed at each other presenting a kind of confusion about what’s the root, what’s the real, what’s the original, and the learning, translation, and the etymology you get into is also a kind of recursion, a touching back, returning. Maybe like a recursive function, generations present this opportunity for each next item to be defined by past ones but then also maybe have some break from the function or the pattern. In this practice of recursion, connected poems, and connected books, “How do memory and language participate for you actively? What ideas, words, or shapes run back into themselves, and which ghosts have recurred and returned in your writing or also reading life? Are there any that have maybe moved on that you feel have left you and shifted in terms of the recursions that were happening before?” I really love Root Fractures and I love you very much, Diana. Congrats again.
DKN: Oh, I love you too, Cindy. Thank you for this question. Recursion, it’s funny because in writing, I’m not consciously trying to dive into any particular thing but only in retrospect do I realize there are a lot of common themes, a lot of repetitions, and a lot of echoes. It’s as if I’ve been, forgive the verb, rooting in language and memory but also in my literal mother tongue, as if I’m trying to figure out like, “When did it happen? When did things go by?” or like, “Are there clues?” What was seeded and then bore fruit to happen in terms of disaster or tragedy like, “Are those seeds still in me?” These are questions that don’t really have answers but these are things that I wrestle with sometimes when I think about family and intergenerational trauma but also violences which recur throughout generations. But it’s something I think about all the time in elementary school, and it was in Southern California, so we had a big outdoor courtyard and whenever there was a school assembly, all the classes would exit their classrooms and assemble in these like [inaudible] to the main courtyard. I remember walking through the hallway in the line and there was a young boy, and he was counting. He would take three steps forward, then two steps back, then count three steps forward and I was like, “What an inefficient way of moving.” [laughter] But I never forgot that boy. I don’t even know who it was. I don’t know this person but I’ll never forget the, “One, two, three, one, two, one, two, three, one.” It’s like a skipping metronome, like it’s not skipping the right way. All these years later, that’s become a really critical guiding post in my thinking and poetics which is when I write, I put down a few words, then I go all the way back to the beginning and I move really slowly through those words before I can then offer a fourth, a third, and a fifth word and that’s how I write. It’s this recursive process that’s just literal. I’m revisiting the same memories, the same memories, the same memories. Yes, repetitious but it’s never the same because I see different things. I am different every time, then people have said, because I’ve read stuff, that every time you recall the memory, the memory is also transformed. The memory itself is also changing each time it’s handled so none of it is stable. I cannot help but pair recursion, repetition with permutation which is—I’m just going through all these weird metaphors now—sometimes we just keep asking the Magic 8 Ball the same question and sometimes it keeps giving us the same answer but sometimes it’s a little different. I feel like I’m doing that lyrically, I’m doing that in terms of the memory work, then of course, what manifests in the language are those repetitions and are those recursions but they’re each accumulating something different I think.
DN: One thing that’s interesting about all three of our questions from Cindy, Dao, and Victoria is that in a way, there are all different ways of asking about repetition and recursion. With Victoria, whether this new book is an extension of the first, with Dao, questions of family trauma, and how it reverberates down and up generations, and with Cindy, most explicitly about repetition and recursion in the form of the book and as a mode. I have many questions about repetition myself and I’m going to quote you on it before I begin exploring it more with you, so here is you on repetition again from the FourWay Review interview, “Having some kind of logic or algorithm helps one to do the work of living after a trauma. Repetition can be a kind of engine to help you continue. Then, in doing the living, there’s ultimately a deviation from the repetition, which makes me human as I figure out ways to go on after my brother. Grief is immobilizing, and repetition can help. But to repeat only, and not address what happened, is dangerous. Repetition can afford us a kind of safety.” Even here in your exploration of repetition, it becomes about a double nature of it, a way to grieve and endure but also a way to protect oneself from grieving and from enduring in a potentially harmful way, if there isn’t a deviation, a newness within the repetition itself. I feel like in the new book, like Cindy’s notion of the fractal, which is the repetition from the most micro to the most macro of a pattern, that the new book really goes to a new place with doubling. Maybe as a first step to look at the various ways this occurs, we could talk about ghosts and hauntings, which feel like a repetition and a doubling. I think of Jane Wong’s thesis Going Toward the Ghost: The Poetics of Haunting in Contemporary Asian American Poetry where she says in her abstract, “Rather than a psychoanalytic understanding of haunting, I define haunting in terms of invocation: a deliberate, powerful, and provocative move toward haunted places,” then she looks at the works of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Myung Mi Kim, Sawako Nakayasu, Bhanu Kapil, Cathy Park Hong, and Barbara Jane Reyes and Wong insists “That form and history cannot be occluded from our discussion of Asian American poetry and poetry as a larger whole; by highlighting ‘the ghost,’ I seek to create sites of transparency, intervention, and activism in this critical field.” Jumping ahead to your interview of Jane in BOMB, you begin with the Lucille Clifton epigraph that opened her collection, an epigraph by Clifton that goes, “I will keep the door unlocked until something human comes,” then you talk about it in relation to keeping portals open to the non-human and possibly latching the door in human cases, and you talk about how your mother once called you to say, “Make sure to keep the windows in your car cracked even a little bit so that your brother may enter while you were driving,” and that’s something that you then found yourself doing. I guess I wonder if you could talk about what ghosts mean to you in the world, how ghosts manifest in language or in your poetry, and if this notion or framing of Jane’s, which is a particularly Asian-American framing, if you feel like that is something that speaks to you.
DKN: Oh, it very much resonates for me, to think about how form and content are inseparable, and it’s actually like a site of, what’s the word I want to use here, like tremendous resonance for ancestors, for ghosts, for memories that doesn’t even have to be like a human or humanoid entity. My relationship to ghosts, it’s evolved for sure because in Ghost Of, I was trying to hold hands or capture to just make that ghost stay still so that I could be close enough-ish to my brother again. I feel like that was my impetus in that particular work but years have passed now where I’m no longer trying to chase the ghost and I’m no longer running away from what I’m haunted by within my family, and I’m also no longer scared. I think that’s the biggest thing. I’m no longer fearful. My relationship now is like grief, the deceased, it’s like its own family member. If the grief went away, I would be bereft. [laughs] I don’t even know how to say that. I learned to live with it. It brings me great company and it doesn’t cause me deep anguish. For sure, sometimes I’m overcome with emotion but I know to expect that. It’s so familiar and it’s so familial now. What we haven’t talked about yet too is how writing Ghost Of enabled the ending of silence about so many things between my family and I. We were never able to directly talk about the things that I wrote about perhaps but because at some point, my family did become aware of what I wrote about, it really changed the way we interacted. For instance, all of a sudden, one year, the pictures weren’t up anymore and different pictures were up. I could casually bring my brother up into Thanksgiving conversation and I wouldn’t be reprimanded. There’s a way in which the living changed but also because the living changed, it allowed for the one who was not here to move freely. What is that Solmaz Sharif Vulnerability Study? It’s like a wall cleared of nails so the ghosts can walk through. In my family, there are no more nails. There are no more nails. The ghosts could walk before but it was like they had to duck maybe or it just didn’t feel good to have a nail to walk through but there are no more nails. [laughter] I think because of that and maybe people will feel differently but now I’m like, “Oh, I need to scroll through my book to double-check what I am about to say,” I don’t feel like my brother is here in a pronounced way actually.
DN: It’s interesting because I’m going to have you read some poems but afterwards, that’s my next question for you.
DKN: Oh. [laughter]
DN: Is around my own sense, I agree with you. Let’s hold off on you talking about it because I want to hear more about it but what I was hoping is we could hear three from the Cape Disappointment series and if you want to say anything about the series, feel free. You don’t have to. You could just read the poems too.
DKN: Oh, I would love to, David. This is my favorite part. How can I give you the metadata? [laughter] I was on your coast actually, I flew into Portland, then took a bus, then a shuttle, then I was at Willapa Bay, I guess what they call it, the Artisan residency. For those who don’t know, it’s a long, thin peninsula. One side is the Pacific Ocean and the other side is the largest estuary in North America. I was there in the month of May which is really fortuitous for me. It’s my birth month. I usually really protect that month for myself emotionally and it also so happens that it’s a time of great migration for birds going north or birds going south at that particular estuary, so every day, I was constantly going on all these walks. I go for walks with the varying tides. But just at the southernmost part of the peninsula is a state park, Cape Disappointment, just over the border from Oregon. What a name, right? I had to visit. The series is called Cape Disappointment and what that name is referring to is there’s a slight cape right at the end of that peninsula where ships were constantly getting wrecked. They thought they could just pass through and make easy passage but the waters were deceptive, and it didn’t work out. I don’t know the full logistics nautical wise but I think that’s why it was called Cape Disappointment but I love that. Things aren’t what they appear and it’s actually a sh*t show. [laughter] That’s life actually. It’s actually we laugh and I use that language but it’s really what happens afterwards that I think is really rich in terms of what we learn about people, what it means to be human, and what it means to repair, build, stay alive. I’m really fascinated by that. Maybe something about walking the shoreline along the bay, being there when it was high tide and low tide, it really emerged in this new form for me where I wanted to convey a kind of horizontal space within a kind of portrait-oriented page which meant that the poem doesn’t really start until the end of the page, then we just get a few strands and they would write these periodically over the month, and we haven’t talked about ordering and sequencing but I wanted to scatter them throughout. Ultimately, I had so many serial poems in this project that I didn’t want them to be clusters. I wanted them to braid because I wanted them to reflect or refract each other. I love thinking about Cindy’s notion of a mirror. They’re all mirrors mirroring each other. That was my long-winded ramp-up to talk about reading some excerpts from Cape Disappointment.
[Diana Khoi Nguyen reads from Root Fractures]
DN: We’ve been listening to Diana Khoi Nguyen read from Root Fractures. So to pick up the thread from when I interrupted you before about whether this book is about your brother, you’ve shared a funny anecdote about the Vietnamese Buddhist ritual of leaving out a meal for the dead on the anniversary of their death and how your parents were leaving out many meals instead and food you weren’t supposed to eat and that they didn’t eat but because they didn’t want to be wasteful if you or your sister were visiting, they would have you eat it. You also share that you aren’t religious or superstitious. But thinking of you eating this meal meant for your brother much as you’ve also eaten the last meal your brother actually ate. In one poem, you make a twin or a double out of hunger and grief or mourning. You say both hunger and mourning are defined by what neither has. It’s interesting to think about hunger as a haunting. When I think about your two collections, the way they most seem to differ to me—and I say differ with an asterisk because the difference is also somehow an extension than a repetition—is that the first feels more fully centered around your brother and the second has moved more toward the haunting, hunger, or desire to understand your mother. I’m curious if that feels true to you because I also have trouble separating the various videos and interviews I’ve engaged with from the book itself. But when I think of you recreating in video home movies of your mother’s honeymoon, but you now as your mother, I also think of all the poems in this collection where you’re traveling to Vietnam with your mother where people in Vietnam become your alternate lives, your doubles in another country. You seeing a woman picking up noodles and thinking, “That would have been me,” and your mother seeing a woman on a motorbike and saying the same thing. Lastly, we have these poems from The Long Beach Peninsula, the Cape Disappointment series from which you just read where you say you were imagining the time your mother was hiding by a beach for a year when she was trying to get out of Vietnam. It feels as if to understand what your brother did to the photos, and by extension, to understand your brother and to understand your parent’s response to the photos and their response to your poems, it feels like you’ve moved up the ancestral line as part of that. I don’t know if you called it an ethnography or a self autoanthropology but does this feel right to you? Does this feel connected to hauntings and hunger to you that maybe the ghost has shifted in some way or the focus of the haunting is shifted in the new book?
DKN: Absolutely. But I think it wasn’t the haunting that shifted, it was how I saw the haunting if that makes sense. Because maybe before, I was just so myopic in the grief thinking about my brother and his body and that gaping hole in our family literally in the archive. Then over time, I realized, “No, actually, I mean, yes, but also at the ancestral altars, my brother and my grandfathers and then other faces I don’t know.” There’s a feast put out and you’re supposed to celebrate each person’s death anniversary. I don’t anymore because I don’t see family and I don’t know all the residences of those dates but I celebrate my brothers. So there are so many hauntings that I didn’t even have language or memory for but they were all there alongside my brother for sure. It is like moving up or moving through or following the thread and the roots, just tracing like, okay, so I’ve been thinking about my brother and I carry him with me and I had been thinking about my parents. But I had only just started to think about my parents in that first book. I began to think more about them quite specifically but also my complicated relationship with them. Perhaps, this is also where I share that I was also trying to think about all of these narratives I had been witnessing within the diaspora because concurrent with my PhD or actually even part of my PhD research, I did all these oral history interviews, or I call them dialogues with folks, whenever I encountered somebody who had some connection to Vietnam, it was really inspired by Bhanu Kapil’s The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers. When I came up with my list of questions that hopefully weren’t mine, I didn’t want to be leading, lest I navigate somebody into a traumatic space so they were open, one question was like, “How did you play as a child?” and stuff like that, then people could just begin at whatever point and I would just listen. But it never felt right to write into other people’s experiences or memories so I just really enjoyed embodying and listening and the intimacy of transcribing what they said. All of that is in me, David. I heard those stories. I’m not writing about their stories. But those listening to other people’s narratives really had me listen to my parents, my mother and thinking about versions of myself and possibilities for myself, my mother, and other members of the family. Now when I’m talking about my family members in this particular book, there’s a way in which those renderings are also reflecting off the other narratives that are contained in me. Nobody would detect that. Nobody would be like, “Oh, I see so and so’s story about their mom right here,” but I see it. I see that that seed existed. That’s something really different in this book because I had done literally all of this like this ethnographic project that I don’t really know yet what I’m going to do with other than to have a record of these narratives. Yes, not thinking about the brother because I was more interested in the living and what they reflect on those who aren’t here, and that includes all of us when we were younger, myself at seven, my sister at five, my mother at her 30s or 20s, my father. That’s also why I’ve been doing the video work. The four of us continue to be like what are those things? I guess crystals or gems that reflect light in different ways. I like to use each of us as a lens for how do I revisit this moment. Going back to the question about subjunctive too, it’s not only about what happened, it’s also like “What could have happened?” And If I’m allowed to. I know I mentioned my relationship to language and how that changed when I was pregnant and then when I gave birth, but also can I just say, I carried the unordered pages of this book but it was longer, it was like 200 pages, for a long time, for a year and a half because I knew I needed to do something with it but I couldn’t, all throughout the pregnancy, before the pregnancy, during the pregnancy. Only after I gave birth, maybe two months after I left the baby with my parents because I was back home in California, I drove up to the childhood library that raised me, took up a conference room, much grimier than I remember, and I ordered it and I shed a lot. I shed so much visual work actually. Yeah, I did all this visual work but it didn’t belong, only certain bits belonged. I love just thinking about like, “Oh, no, just this one. Just this whisper.” I don’t know why I brought that up. Oh, but it was something about now being a mother. This is it, the doubling. Now being a mother, this is so cliche but it’s also the truth, it really transforms how I view my mother and how I think about maternal lineage. It really changed all the mother-daughter parts in the manuscript and actually so, there were slight revisions that were made now that I was a mother, my real life having a child, having a daughter closed a loop in various ways in some of the poems where previously they ended with open, unresolved, which is fine too for it to be unresolved, but the act of becoming a mother really changed the manuscript. I don’t know. I don’t even know what I’m saying other than like this is like a living document which changed as my life changed and it’s also perhaps, I don’t know, an artifact of incorrect Vietnamese language from a person in the diaspora. [laughter]
DN: Well, the same impulse to invite Cindy in and invite this ethnographic work into your voice in a way, I wanted to talk about or talk more about the non-human in your work, which is prominent from the beginning in the first book, the first book with eels and bees in particular, bees where your brother had complained of hearing a buzzing in the walls, one that was never engaged with seriously on its own terms as something that could actually have existed outside of his head. That is until after he died and your parents discovered thousands of dead bees in the attic. I love the cover of the new book with the two bees on the flower, which I’ve always, or at least originally, I was thinking about them as you and your brother. But I suppose they could be you and your mother. I’m presuming they’re you and someone, which is a totally huge leap on my part. But either way, there’s a shift to a sense I think of presence and engagement to these creatures side by side collecting pollen together versus the cover of Ghost Of which has the striking image of the shadow cast by an absent body. But both books have this deep engagement with the non-human to great effect. Ghost Of opens with a declarative statement, “There is no ecologically safe way to mourn,” and then it mentions plants that continue to secrete pollen after the petals are gone. This book opens with an uncaptioned picture of what looks like a hedge. I’m still working from the galley so the reproduction isn’t great but it seems like if you look hard enough, there are silhouettes of people but the absences have been overgrown with the presence of plants. I wondered if there’s anything you want to say about this opening and this photo and also about the notion, the opening of the first book of there being no ecologically safe way to mourn.
DKN: Yeah. I’m so glad you asked this because I love talking about this and I had forgotten. The first line from Ghost Of really came from a dive into like funereal practices. There’s no good option. You’re cremated, like think about all the fumes from the crematorium, and then if you’re buried, there’s just like the wood, it’s just land. There’s really no ecologically sound way to die. I guess maybe if we had a very specific acid to dissolve our body, I don’t know, truly, I couldn’t figure it out. But that’s something you see in a movie or show. I was just thinking about the quandary of that, especially since we cannot ignore how climate has been shifting, even since in the years since we first corresponded. That theme is not necessarily forefront in my work but I think about it constantly and I think I am documenting it through the non-human. I’m paying attention to the non-human to reveal what might be aberrant within the family structure because I’m not really talking so much about nationally but I’m looking very microscopically at a family and the ways in which animals and a non-human reveal that to me. To then jump to Root Fractures, well, first, can I talk about the cover? It’s funny that you mentioned you thought of it as like you read the bees as my brother. I had never thought about that. Honestly, I was just like, “Two bees! Yes!” [laughter] In part, because I now no longer want any entity to be alone. Actually, even in my image text work within Root Fractures where previously I might have had a child’s body by itself in a page, I create a doubling of that body and I refuse to leave anybody alone actually because I don’t like that isolation feel on the page. Even I think the singular child with the ghost remnant of the brother, that’s even too lonely. So that was a very conscious decision on my part. I love, of course, that there were two bees but I also love that the bees are just like alongside with, they’re not doing anything with each other. They’re doing what they’re supposed to. I don’t know why but I love that they’re blue. The image that opens Root Fractures, this is from a ritualistic practice, which is for a long time, for several years, I don’t do this anymore, but for several years on my brother’s death anniversary during my 15 days of writing, I would always, at some point, begin a ritual like, “How do I return to the archive? What am I going to do with the archive or how am I going to witness, behold, or engage with the archive?” In this one particular year, I was like, “Well, radical empathy. What if I try to do what my brother did, but now actually, it’s less about self-erasure from the family but it’s more like well, we’re all going to die so we’re not going to be in this picture. We’re not going to be in this landscape anymore.” Actually, the picture is the yard of my paternal grandparents’ house, I think in Pasadena, Old Pasadena. Of course, I don’t know, they must have done this but they planted bamboo. For those who know anything about bamboo, if you plant bamboo, it’s quite noxious and it overtakes a yard, it overtakes the space, so there’s that. Even if we’re all gone and dead, bamboo was going to remain and thrive. Part of the radical empathy was like in Photoshop, which I don’t really have Photoshop skills but I knew how to use the Lasso Tool and I was tracing around my father, my mother, my sister, myself, and also even the cut out of my brother, like let’s remove the whole family because in certain number of years, nobody’s going to know that we ever existed. There was something calming in that like death equalizes us all regardless of how much we suffered and toiled. I don’t know why I’m laughing, it’s actually really sad. I thought that one side traced over our bodies, if I hit delete, it would just create a white space kind of like when my brother cut himself out, except I don’t know how Photoshop works. I guess it’s so smart that it just decided to fill in like wallpaper, decided to fill in with what would be there which is the bamboo and it was so uncanny actually because you kind of see the edges of where the bodies had been but it’s also like it’s a magical illusion and we disappeared on the page. Here’s this other thing that I’m constantly chasing when I’m writing is how do I create or make conditions for happy accidents to happen? I couldn’t have willed this image into existence. But I knew that I wanted to do something and intimately trace the bodies and remove them from time. I loved that bamboo remains. That felt like a metaphor that was really apt that I couldn’t have imagined. Thinking all the time about flora and fauna and how they thrive or don’t thrive and how they engage with other species and when it’s detrimental, of course, those are all perhaps less loaded or emotional ways of thinking about family systems if that makes sense, which is why that occurs throughout my work as well because I can’t always constantly look at family, it’s too depressing sometimes.
DN: Well, staying on this focus on the non-human, I wanted to also bring up the presence or the role of water. In the first book, we have the poetic series Gyotaku which is a Japanese tradition of fish prints that predates photography and it was used by Japanese fishermen to document their catches. But it’s a technique that both captures something from the fish but is also inherently partial. It’s a fragment suggesting the whole. I also think of the line in Ghost Of, “Uncontained, even water abandons itself,” which of course, makes me think of form and how form, finding a form, and writing with a form was essential for you in accessing your feelings. In that spirit, I wanted to juxtapose something that Toni Morrison says about rivers and something that you say or have said about rivers. This is Toni Morrison, “You know, they straightened out the Mississippi River in places, to make room for houses and livable acreage. Occasionally the river floods these places. ‘Floods’ is the word they use, but in fact it is not flooding; it is remembering. Remembering where it used to be. All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was. Writers are like that: remembering where we were, what valley we ran through, what the banks were like, the light that was there and the route back to our original place. It is emotional memory–what the nerves and the skin remember as well as how it appeared. And a rush of imagination is our ‘flooding.’” That made me think of something you wrote as part of a meditation on a poem by Mark Levine called I Keep Getting Things Wrong. Here are three little excerpts of that meditation by you, “The particulars of my grief manifested as uncertainty about the world: its facts, laws, seasons, and kindnesses. I did not trust my faculties because I felt too much and not at all, simultaneously. In poetry, I had been ushered (and now usher others) to ‘Tell the truth, even if it’s a lie.’ A poem could be fluid like the river which carries all of us, all of everything—my history, your memories, the traumas we share and don’t. In a river, the water will fill you in as you fill it with your own body. The legacy of war is like water. A manmade property of life. The cost of living. It took 27 years for my father to return to Saigon, and in that time, he built a home in California with tiles from his mother’s house, with French doors, with bamboo. We cannot escape what we know. What I know: the ritual to feed our dead. What I don’t know: why I eat the food left out for my dead brother. I do not know what my father ate on his flight (his first) out of Vietnam, but I do know how my father killed chickens for dinner.” Then about your mother, you say, “Now she calls me to tell me her dreams about my brother, about me. We are in danger, and she cannot find us. I do not tell her about my own dreams, or how I feel I am my brother, identical to him somehow. That I am dead and here and moving toward death, along with everyone else. I want to shake the legacy of dreams and history off of my life, but it isn’t mine, this life. It is ours, this river. So I let it in, and move in it.” It’s not really a question but I wondered if this prompted any thoughts on your part.
DKN: Thank you for reading that and sharing that. I don’t even remember writing that but it all feels true to how I feel about that work. I think really central to that poem that you mentioned, and also to my comments on it, was a kind of meditation on what I think I know about my family. I love, love that Toni Morrison quote, “All water is memory.” Of course, humans would call it flooding as if it’s where, this is an inconvenience to us, but we were the ones trying to defy nature, trying to tame nature, trying to make nature more convenient for us. She said it so well and it made me think about how the act of a writer, so for me, the act of writing, I can’t tame or corral anything, so the water has always been flowing. Dao writes about this, she writes about how the word nước in Vietnamese is water but also means country, which feels very different. Those are two very different things to me because it’s also like you can refer it as like the liquid of the ocean but also the water that you drink but it’s also your homeland? Which really equates land with water, like water being such an essential part of land inseparable from it. I think writing is like that, the terrain is also water, which means that it’s hard to distinguish and you can’t really parcel out what’s going on. I think just having that acknowledgment of just like, “Okay, I know some of the physical properties of water and memories. When I’m going to sit down to make something, how am I going to enter, at what part am I going to enter?” Of course, that entering is never the beginning of anything but just the beginning of that particular moment and then it’s part of my job as listener, sponge to the world, attentive to what I’m doing, to pay attention to what’s happening before, during, and where it’s going. I don’t know if this makes any sense. There’s this quote too, I forget who it is, I’ll look it up and then I’ll share it with you in a second but there’s this quote like a piece of ice on a hot stove, the poem arrives and it’s melting, which is also water related. I love that because it’s letting me know, this is how I read it, like you can’t force the poems [inaudible], you just have to be patient and watch and see where it’s going to melt unless you’re just so spatially intelligent and you know the angles of your stove and how hot the stove is that you could just map it all out. I’m sure they have like AI models to do that but just in like a low-tech world, I feel like being a writer and working through memories is like truly just navigating water that you don’t know. But one thing is for sure that I know now, it’s safe water, you can’t drown in that water. You can get emotionally overwhelmed but then you could just very easily extract yourself out. But I’m just really so taken with the Toni Morrison quote about how all water is memory.
DN: Well, could we hear two more short poems that are I think watery poems? The first Cape Disappointment and Selkie Weaning Young.
DKN: Oh, my gosh, yeah. Alright.
[Diana Khoi Nguyen reads from Root Fractures]
DN: We’ve been listening to Diana Khoi Nguyen read from Root Fractures. Thinking about form and your first book, you’ve talked about its tryptic structure, something you liked because it was a prime number, that it was uneven but also stable like a stool, that three is a number of stability, and now that your family no longer had three siblings, it was a stool with two legs. You also talked about being someone who worked in textiles and weaving and that you saw yourself weaving the strands of various poetic sequences in order to create the whole. When I read the new collection, it is less immediately obvious to me what the animating form is, if there is one. I do think of the repeated titles of so many of the poems, of repetition as form, that there are 15 poems all named Đổi Mới, which I know I’m saying wrong, 7 poems named Cape Disappointment, 8 named Misinformation, 4 named Root Fractures, 3 named Beside, and this echoes against the transgenerational doublings and the doublings between the US and Vietnam and the poems that echo doubling through the tug of war on two sides of a rope. But I wondered if you could speak to what you see as the former forms that shape the book as a book, if it does have a scaffolding or one that you imagine like Ghost Of did.
DKN: Yeah. It definitely doesn’t have a form in the way that Ghost Of did. That one felt very inevitable for me because I think I was working so strongly with thinking about what is present in the absence. Here, it’s funny because we only arrived at the cover after everything. But I really like that plant that the bees are on. There’s a kind of symmetry, geometry. It’s a sphere, globe kind of, and I feel like that really captures seemingly identical facets. But actually, upon closer examination, each plays a different part within that organism of the flower. I’m thinking of the form here then as less about what’s present despite absence but more of just like what is the interconnectedness of things that feel like one entity? That was a really huge impulse for my wanting to separate all the parts of long poems because they were part of this larger entanglement. That’s the form I think about. Also, I guess I haven’t said this word yet so now it’s time for me to say it, but the mycelium, the mycorrhiza network that really threads underneath forest floors, mushrooms are just only the fruiting bodies of that organism of the fungi but there’s so much we don’t see, there so much that’s happening through those threads underground. Just to say, I don’t think my book is like a mycelium by any means but that’s very much what I’m thinking about how I’m sequencing, weaving, and braiding. I’m forcing them to hold hands and they support each other in that way. I think they would have been fine in their own discreet, there would only be one Cape Disappointment, there would only be one Misinformation but I like thinking them too as like cuttings and they’re forming this new way of being. It’s diasporic actually, David. On a really basic level, I didn’t know if I could do it and then I did it and I was like, “Well, that’s how I want it.” [laughter]
DN: I love that.
DKN: That’s how I want it and nobody said no yet and I guess now it’s too late to say no. [laughs]
DN: I know you wrote some of the pieces after the syntax of Jenny Erpenbeck’s Visitation. I think of that book as a book of haunting and ghostliness in the sense that we’re following not a person but we’re following the history of a house over time. In a weird way, the living people who come and go in that house over a century are the ghosts even when they’re alive in a strange way. We’re outside of that. We even start for a brief moment in geological time but it seems like an interesting, surprising influence and I also just will say this, one of the big influences on my own writing is Eliot Weinberger, and you mentioned him too, who’s also been on the show but he’s such a big influence and I never hear people talk about him. But talk to us either about, particularly, I’m thinking of Erpenbeck, how the syntax is playing a role in your writing within Root Fractures.
DKN: Sure. Before I talk about Erpenbeck’s influence on the syntax, I do want to pick up the thread about Eliot Weinberger who remains so deeply influential to my poem logic. I love An Elemental Thing, just the piece on [inaudible].
DN: I love that book so much.
DKN: Talk about Wikipedia entry.
DN: That’s the book I give to everybody.
DKN: Me too.
DKN: It’s one of those books where it’s like I encountered it in a book, a used book story, it called to me. That book in Yōko Tawada’s book Where Europe Begins, nobody recommended it to me, and then I opened it, then I devoured it, and then I just lived it. But the way in which he’s working through anecdotal evidence, I think I’ve internalized or adopted that kind of logic and elliptical thinking into the infrastructure of my poems so I love him. I actually haven’t read his latest. I think I missed it.
DN: I haven’t read it yet either.
DN: But you’re maybe the first person, I know he has a devoted readership, but I haven’t been on the show with another writer where they’re like, “Oh, this is a big important influence for me,” and it’s such a big one for me. It’s hard for me to imagine writing into where I write without him having already created a space in that way.
DKN: Did you tell him that?
DN: No, that wasn’t true. At the time, I was encountering him for the first time. But I loved having him on.
DKN: Yeah, the gateway Eliot Weinberger was an elemental thing and then I went backwards, like Karmic Traces, Works On Paper, all of it. I just ate it all up and I reread them all because then I was just like champing at the bit waiting for each new one for sure. Yeah, and whenever I was stuck, I would just turn to a random page in one of his books and it would just get me going. I don’t know, his work was really inspiring in that way. If he gifted me or helped me along the journey in terms of lyric logic but also a different way of examining the non-human as a way to talk about the human, which I think he does really well and his time travel is insane, but Jenny Erpenbeck, I cannot ever get out of the clutches of how seductive her sentences are. I reread over and over the geologic epilog to Visitation and I never thought that I would care about geology or like a glacier moving and then forming a lake. Talk about another form of time travel the way in which she does time travel through geographic coordinates of place and decenters human activity including the Holocaust. I was so daft, by the time the Holocaust was happening, I was like, “What? Where are we?” Then I was like, “Oh, my God, the whole time?” Now when I go back, of course, you can see it coming, the anxiety but just on a sentence level, it’s so incantatory but also quite plain how long her sentences are and where they travel and where you get spit out on the other side.
DN: Yeah, exactly.
DKN: I don’t know how she does it so I was like, “How about I embark on that journey?” and that literally was when I started writing the very first [inaudible] poem of Đổi Mới and it was this thing, and actually, I’m going to bring in Ted Chiang, his short story, the Story of Your Life, which inspired the sci-fi film Arrival because when they talk about that alien language, they talk about that language as like as it unfolds, it foretells the future because the future is integral to the way in which the alien syntax, I’m not explaining it properly but it felt like that’s what Erpenbeck was doing for me like just trying to follow like if I took the scaffolding of her syntax and then mad libs would try to fill it in, in doing that, even though I didn’t have a topic, of course, I’m going to encounter my same topics but it put me in a different place in relation to my obsessions that I hadn’t gone before because of her syntax. So I kept going to random pages within Jenny’s work to find new ways of seeing the topics that I’ve been wrestling with all this time.
DN: Well, before we finish, I want to make sure we talk about the parts of the book that I think are harder to talk about. I want to talk about some of the more visually experimental poems. I’m going to preface it by quoting you from an interview at Asymptote when you say, “When I was writing the poem, for each of the spaces—whether it was the poem shard, or the text as frame around the shard—I’d have to cut off the word wherever the white space was, and then start across. I would have to leap over that white space. It’s jarring to do that. You have the momentum of a sentence, or the line, or the thought, or the image, and then, because of this violence within the visual image, it cuts you off—and then you start again. For me, that enacts the process of grief. Loss, the sudden death of somebody, is a jarring stump within your life, but you must continue. Life moves on, and then there’s a sudden jolt of absence, and then continuation.” There are many poems in Root Fractures that I think are particularly hard to talk about, not only because they’re so visual but because they themselves are hard to read. Hard to read sometimes because they are faint, or hard to read because the words are competing with an image in the same space, or hard to read because each part of the poem is cut off by the edge of the form of the person there within so we get fragments of words sometimes even because of a child standing in front of a parent, we get competing texts where the child’s body is filled with a text and then the parent behind them is filled with a text and they’re competing and overlapped. In these poems, it feels like the words are as important, or perhaps, more important as visual features as for their actual semantic meaning. But given how you’ve described the words being interrupted by the edges of the human forms that they encounter as being a way to emulate the process of grief, I wonder if you could choose one, among so many, that could be read out loud that you might read for us that might evoke this sense of interruption and restarting, fragmentation, or partialness.
DKN: Yeah. I just pulled one up. Honestly, I don’t really know how I read it. I know how I talked it over with the engineers for the audiobook, especially for the visual ones because they can do things where they’re just going to layer audio on top of each other which I can’t enact as one person live.
DN: But it’ll be great in the audiobook.
DKN: I don’t know. I’m excited and also they were doing this thing where they’re going to lower the volume for some of the grayscale, and you didn’t ask this but I wanted to say this too, I wasn’t trying to create text that was hard to read but it was more of like sometimes text is just barely discernable, almost in the periphery even though we’re looking straight at it, and that’s not dissimilar to encountering Vietnamese language and also not being able to access. I think also because of the nature of fragments, ghosts, memory, haunting, and all of that stuff, things aren’t always illuminated and easy to encounter and they weren’t always easy for me to consider to meditate and it made sense for me to then play with that too in the composition. I wanted to read, this makes sense because we’ve been talking about doubling, and also, David, this has been so tremendous, I would wait another, I don’t know how many years it’s been, six, eight years.
DN: Six years. This is the record, six years.
DKN: It is? Wow.
DN: Oh, yeah.
DKN: To be honest, I don’t even remember emailing you but of course, because I remember Diana Arterian told me to do all these things and I like to see her. [laughter] I didn’t know anything. She seemed to know things and I’m really grateful for her actually. Can I just say you’re one of my favorite people to email correspond with just like your whole spirit of being really shines through and that’s so hard to capture in an email, you are the rare person who does that and the only other person that I feel this way, well, aside from Lucie Brock-Broido but her emails were kind of epic, but the only other living person is the bookseller Rick Simonson.
DN: Oh, really?
DKN: At Elliott Bay Book, yeah. His emails also do that. It’s a gift. I study them to try to figure out, “How can I also be like David and Rick?”
DN: When you sent me the picture of the wasp’s nest, was it a MacDowell?
DKN: Yeah, it was a MacDowell.
DN: Yeah. We were exchanging our photos of the various insect architectures in our environments, I loved that.
DKN: Did I send you the nighttime and the daytime?
DN: I think you just sent me one but you’re going to send me the other one now.
DKN: Yeah, yeah, yeah, okay. Because initially, I took a night time and I was like, “That’s weird.” I didn’t send you both, I got to send you both because I think time does something different.
DN: And it’s a double.
DKN: Oh, yeah, for sure. Okay, speaking of doubles, I’m going to read from Beside and this is on page 56 and I’m just going to read the mother body.
DN: You’re saying you’re just going to read the mother body but maybe describe what everybody would see first.
DKN: Yes. So when you look at this page, you see some figures and it becomes clear that they’re like different size bodies. You have a taller figure and then overlapping with that figure is a smaller one so it’s like a parent-child. Then in the middle is a younger child. I’m moving from left to right. Then on the very right-hand side is a parent body and this is what I’m calling the mother body. I believe embedded in this is probably the residue of the brother and I think it’s actually captured and attached to the mother so that will be apparent when I read. But because I no longer have the photograph, I’m not looking at the photograph, I don’t remember but it doesn’t matter, I’m just relaying here what I’m seeing on the page. So now I’m reading the mother body. These are silhouettes, text to silhouette.
[Diana Khoi Nguyen reads from Root Fractures]
DN: Perhaps as a final thought/question, it actually has to do with Bhanu who I thought was nice that you brought up, I kept thinking of her in preparing for today, not that your work and hers isn’t an entirely different reading experience and distinct from each other, it is, but I felt like this connection between the two of you and how you orient yourself to the making of work or how you think of the page and text in relationship to all sorts of other things that aren’t text, and also thinking of what you just read about the mother, at another point in the book, you talk about schizophrenia and wondering about when in time it was triggered in certain family members in relationship to the war in Vietnam, it’s a question that runs through Bhanu’s work around the higher incidence of it in immigrant refugees and also the insistence I think more generally of a lack of separation between the body and its ailments and the geopolitical context that the body finds itself within, nor the body is separate from other non-human animals. I think of the lines in one of your poems in this regard and this is you speaking about how long your mother has been gone from Vietnam where you say, “I am nearly as old as she has been gone, and it has been that long since I left her body. How many eggs remain, eggs I still carry, eggs my mother carried in carrying me along.” I also think of Bhanu’s use of performance and ritual and ritualized spaces as part of the poem-making and part of the poems and the way you’ve used video, food, and coffins as ritual. But perhaps most notably, how she talks about performance as a reversal and then an elaboration, which feels like a kindred notion to your notion of repetition but with deviation. As a final question, I would ask you, now that you’ve created this repetition with a deviation with Root Fractures, the second book that both extends and extends from and away, and yet also somehow is returning and rooting deeper, where does the bringing of this to fruition place you now in your art-making practice? Do you have a sense of your next reversal, an elaboration of the next window that is also a mirror?
DKN: Oh, this question. I had no idea where you were going, but of course, we would end with this question, oh, David, I’m going to miss your questions but I get to listen to you ask other people questions so that’s the beauty of the podcast. I was going to say I have no idea but I do have some idea. I have like three percent idea because when I was at MacDowell in October, I was taking a break from this prose project I’ve been doing, which is another constellation. It’s not autofiction but it’s a ghost story and it’s autobiographical but it’s taking inspiration from the process of filmmaker Lee Isaac Chung who wrote Minari where he was just working through, he wrote out 100 memories, and then from there found a thread, and that’s how he composed the film which I love because it’s elliptically moving. I’ve been working on that prose project, perhaps no surprise, inspired by the prose work that began in Root Fractures. I just can’t get away from the sentence and I just wanted to see what would happen if I kept doing more sentences in prose form with a different way of looking at family. But the new poems that I started, which I didn’t realize I was going to write poems, I’ve been looking at fathers and daughters. If Root Fractures is looking mostly at mother and daughter, mother and child, mother and children, I’ve been thinking about fathers. I don’t know if I recommend this but I can’t help it, it already happened. I continued my therapy appointments during my time at MacDowell. I was only there for 15 days but I had two really powerful therapy sessions where I don’t know what happened but my body came time and it arrived at these understandings about my own father and I felt tremendous grief in making the realizations that I did. My father is still alive but I realized now, perhaps, I’ve been projecting a version of my father all this time. So it was really painful to acknowledge that. It’s still even painful for me now to say it because I’m like, “That’s not true.” There’s a denial about it. I’ve been working through the memories of my father and also my father, by the way, is the one who took all these photographs, who set up the tripod, who took all the home videos so he’s also been the documentary filmmaker, accidentally or not, cinematographer and so I’ve been thinking about fathers. I’m also observing my spouse with our child and how different that is, how I remember, but also how similar. That’s what I’ve been working on and so far, they’re longer, more like lyric essay type, so continuing that thread from Root Fractures. But we’ll see. I don’t know what else is going to emerge. It might take me another six years to unearth to figure out what that is going on. The prose project I’m working on might never see daylight and I’m okay with that too. I’m just trying to put it down on the page and I think maybe this year, I think it has to be this year, I need to figure out, I need to begin to sequence it to figure out what to cut and what else to introduce. But I hit a juicy part actually with a non-familial member but another Vietnamese-American person that I actually reconnected with in real life and so that made its way into the project and he has memories of my family and the house that I grew up in that I don’t, I barely remember him so like I’m folding all that which is to say like what is the American dream to children and Vietnamese refugees I think perhaps is another way. Wow, that was a weird way for me to describe two different projects but I guess now when I think about it, more recently, I’ve been working through the dreams, behaviors, and thoughts of Vietnamese men in America. Can I end on one thing? When Ghost Of came out, Ocean Vuong messaged me and mentioned to me, maybe as if in lament but acknowledged how we both had to turn to thinking about Vietnamese men because there’s a lot of thinking and talking through mothers. I didn’t remember that message that he wrote me all those years ago until right now. Perhaps it was just always there in the back of my mind. It is time for me to turn to the father. This is actually a new territory that’s scary for me because I didn’t think of him as a villain and maybe you don’t have to be a villain to have done harm, so that’s painful.
DN: Thank you, Diana.
DKN: Yeah, thank you, David. I’m just really floored by this conversation.
DN: It’s better than I could even, in all of the six years of anticipation, it exceeded my capacity for imagination.
DKN: It’s funny when it became apparent to me how much you have watched and read in preparation, I was like, “Oh, everything I was about to say, David has heard already.” [laughter] “Oh, David, doesn’t even need me here. I better come up with new answers.” [laughter]
DN: We’ve been talking today to Diana Khoi Nguyen, the author most recently of Root Fractures. You’ve been listening to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host.
Today’s program was recorded at the volunteer-powered, non-commercial, listener-sponsored, full-strength, makeshift home office of me, David Naimon. You can find more of Diana Khoi Nguyen’s work at dianakhoinguyen.com. For the bonus audio archive, Diana contributes a reading from the body-shaped poems that didn’t make the final book, poems that now haunt the book from an elsewhere. These join supplemental readings by so many of our past guests, long-form interviews with translators, some craft talks, and more. The bonus audio is only one possible benefit of joining the Between the Covers Community as a listener-supporter. Every supporter can join our brainstorm of future guests and every listener-supporter receives supplementary resources with each conversation: of the things I discovered while preparing for it, things referenced during it, and the places to explore once you’re done listening. Additionally, there are a variety of other potential gifts and rewards including the Tin House Early Readership Subscription, getting 12 books over the course of a year months before they’re available to the general public, or a bundle of books selected by me and sent to you. You can find out more at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Or if you prefer a one-time donation, you can do so via PayPal at tinhouse.com/support. I’d like to thank the Tin House team: Elizabeth Demeo and Alyssa Ogie in the Book Division, Beth Steidle in the Art Department, Becky Kraemer and Jae Nichelle in Publicity, and Lance Cleland, the Director of the summer and winter Tin House Writers Workshops. Finally, I’d like to thank past Between the Covers guest, poet, musician, composer, performer, and much more, Alicia Jo Rabins, for making the intro and outro for the show. You can find out more about her work, her writing, her music, her film at aliciajo.com.