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Between the Covers Nam Le Interview

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David Naimon: Today’s episode of Between the Covers is brought to you by the Summer Writing Program at Naropa University. Since 1974, the Summer Writing Program has been a wild and inspiring combination of writing school, counterculture event, and literary festival. This summer marks 50 years of that collective study of writing as an art, spiritual practice, and agitating force for social change. This year’s program runs June 9th to 29th. Faculty and guests include Anne Waldman, Eileen Myles, C. A. Conrad, Carolina Ebeid, Tongo Eisen-Martin, Cedar Sigo, Laird Hunt, Lisa Jarnot, Dawn Lundy Martin, Eleni Sikelianos, and others. As part of a contemplative education project and an experiment in community, the Summer Writing Program does not engage in gatekeeping and nearly all writers, artists, and interested or curious students are welcome to register and there’s no application fee. Scholarship application is open until April 1st. For information, please visit the online catalog at naropa.edu/swp. Today’s episode is also brought to you by Myriam J. A. Chancy’s Village Weavers, a novel that confronts the silences around race, class, and nationality, charting the moment when two girls’ lives are irrevocably forced apart. Says Ayanna Lloyd Banwo, “Spanning Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Paris, Florida, Arizona and back again, this is a true Diaspora story—frankly told and sharply contemporary.” Adds Xavier Navarro Aquino, “Chancy teaches us that it is never too late to reconnect with those we care about, to remember the power of love.” Village Weavers is out on April 4th from Tin House and available for pre-order now. Up until 2020, Between the Covers was recorded at a community radio station and one of the things they required was that the conversations be in person, not by phone, and being in a small city, that meant the vast majority. I’m guessing 95% of the guests on the show up until 2020 were probably American, so one giant upside of the pandemic forcing me to create a home studio was all of a sudden, I could interview anyone in the world who spoke English. What you soon discover in having these conversations is that the discourse you think of as the literary discourse is actually entirely different place to place, both on the level of form and representation but also down to the level of the sentence in the line. I think of a recent tweet by the poet Aria Aber where she talked about how her professors in Europe encouraged a long, windy, and complex sentence that was brimming over with Latinate phrases and how her American professors hated exactly that. This stepping out of our strong-held biases of how a sentence should be or a story structured or about the politics of representation and identity, and entering an entirely different conversation has been the most welcome breath of fresh air for me and the show. I think of Eliot Weinberger when he was on the show saying that almost every major American poet before the 1950s also translated as a way to keep the language in the poetry community vital by importing these different sounds and sensibilities and contending with them. All that’s said, even though the show has changed dramatically in terms of its representation across nationality over the last four years, today’s guest Nam Le is the first Australian to be on the show though not the last this year. While a lot of what we engage with today is around questions of identity, representation, and sovereignty as a writer when it comes to one’s art and art making, things that I think translate quite well from there to here, we also do touch a little bit on some Australian-specific questions in relationship to land, race, identity, and place. For the bonus audio archive, Nam inadvertently contributes something that has become a sort of recent mini-trend. Most people record readings or sometimes mini craft talks. But last year, Johanna Hedva created an epic soundscape for us of both sounds from space and their own sounds that they made on tour. Then this year, Canisia Lubrin contributed two things that we mentioned before her episode, a reading of Dionne Brand and of Christina Sharpe respectively, each from forthcoming books, books that haven’t yet been published. But after these two readings, at the end of the audio, she also created a soundscape montage from her various travels. Today, Nam adds a snippet of his own world in sound for us too. The bonus audio is only one possible thing to choose from when you join the Between the Covers Community as a listener-supporter. There are rare collectibles from everyone from Karen Joy Fowler to Victoria Chang to Rae Armantrout. There’s the Tin House Early Readers subscription getting 12 books over the course of a year months before the general public and much more. Every supporter gets the resource email with each episode with all that I discovered while preparing and places to explore once you’re done listening. You can check it all out at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Now, for today’s conversation with none other than Nam Le.

[Music]

David Naimon: Good morning and welcome to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. Today’s guest, fiction writer, essayist, and now poet Nam Le studied Arts and Law at the University of Melbourne, was admitted to the Supreme Court of Victoria as a lawyer but ultimately turned to writing, attending the Iowa Writers’ Workshop for his MFA, becoming the fiction editor at the Harvard Review and ultimately in 2008, publishing his critically acclaimed first book, the story collection The Boat, a book that has been translated into 15 languages and which won the Dylan Thomas Prize, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, the PEN/Malamud Award, the Australian Prime Minister’s Literary Award, and the Melbourne Prize, just to name a few. The Boat was listed as a book of the year in over 30 venues, has been republished as a modern classic in Australia and in the UK, adapted into a graphic novel, and has been widely anthologized and taught in high schools and universities. In Charles D’Ambrosio’s words, “The Boat is tremendous, challenging and ambitious, worthy of the same shelf that holds Dubliners and The Things They Carried — like those works, it asks to be read as a whole and taken seriously as a book. In it, storms gather but no one seems able to respond; violence leads to confusion instead of clarity; love provokes rather than answers old questions. The book journeys across time and space, history and continents, finding a nightmare of isolation, fear, upheaval and violence. Nam Le looks into our present, and we seem to hear a prophetic voice coming to us from the future, but really this book nails our collective now, our kairos, with an urgency and relevance that feels visionary.” In 2019, Nam Le had his nonfiction debut as part of the Writers on Writers series that asks leading Australian writers to reflect on another Australian writer that has inspired or fascinated them. Le’s edition On David Malouf is a hybrid work that is both an examination of Malouf’s work in relation to identity, selfhood, culture, and nation but also autobiographical as Le reflects and refracts Malouf’s work against his own lived experiences, and the questions that animate Le’s own writing, a book Lit Hub described by saying, “On David Malouf feels like a way in to a better conversation about race, representation, otherness, and belonging in the literary world.” Nam Le’s prose can be found in Best Australian Stories, the Pushcart Prize Anthologies, Conjunctions, One Story, and NPR Selected Shorts. He has written for film/television and for the stage. He’s here today to talk about his third book and his third debut, this time his debut poetry collection 36 Ways of Writing a Vietnamese Poem. Nobel Prize laureate J.M. Coetzee says of Nam’s latest, “With a cool outsider’s eye, Nam Le takes the English language to pieces and reassembles it with a virtuoso ease not seen since Finnegans Wake. There is wit aplenty, of a dancing, ironic kind, but the fury and the bitterness that underlie 36 Ways come without disguise, as do its moments of aching love and loss. Nam Le is a poet working at the height of his powers. Each of the poems comes with its own explosive charge; taken together, they are capable of shaking Western self-regard to its foundations.” Poet and filmmaker Barbara Tran adds, “From the opening lines, I knew this book would gut me. I wasn’t wrong. 36 Ways of Writing a Vietnamese Poem is an exhaustive examination of the complex stew of emotions every displaced person experiences. In Nam Le’s deft hands, deep scholarship is transformed into a nimble, nuanced romp, replete with devastating wit, sonic acrobatics, and superb mouth feel. I’ve been waiting for this book all my diasporic life.” Nick Cave calls the poems, “Exquisitely crafted fire bombs of incandescent rage.” Finally, poet and writer Cathy Park Hong says, “Each poem in 36 Ways of Writing a Vietnamese Poem stings as if Nam Le burned syllables onto the page with a pyrographic pen. These poems seethe and sing; they restlessly shapeshift as Nam Le tries to find a mode of speech or form that could capture the violent history of war and the experience of deracination. But the English language stops short and he captures that gap—and the unspeakable realms of racialized consciousness—with virtuousic and ineffable beauty.” Welcome to Between the Covers, Nam Le. 

Nam Le: Wow. Thanks so much for having me, David. Thank you for that introduction. You really dug deep and I appreciate it.

DN: Well, even as you have impressively completed the triple crown of genres now, [laughter] a debut in each, in fiction, nonfiction, and now poetry, poetry is a first love of yours and your first writerly aspiration prior to any of these books. Even the opening sentences of the opening story of your very first book The Boat, a story that is both metafictional and autofictional, the protagonist with your same name who is studying fiction at Iowa, even for him, poetry comes first. Here’s the opening lines, “My father arrived on a rainy morning. I was dreaming about a poem, the dull thluck thluck of a typewriter’s keys punching out the letters. It was a good poem — perhaps the best I’d ever written.” Then you’re writing about David Malouf, it is what you call the poetry within his prose that is one of the captivating elements for you in his work. With your latest book, you’ve said, “36 Ways of Writing a Vietnamese Poem is referencing Wallace Stevens’s Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” Talk to us about what it was about poetry that you most identified with as you started writing. What about your sensibility or your personality lent itself to imagine “becoming a poet” when you were young and why, on top of that, do you think in contrast, poetry is the third genre you’ve tackled, not the first?

NL: Thanks for the question, David. I should just apologize to your listeners for my croaky voice. I’ve just caught whatever the kids have given. I don’t know is the deep answer to the question. I think it was an enthrallment that went deeper than reason. When I first encountered poetry and felt it in my body, felt it limbically, felt it through all of them, the apertures of whatever was there to intake was an enchantment of language and epiphany that language could do this thing that felt like it moved on the level of blood and breath but at the same time, it had all of the magic of language as well with all of its associations, its references, and its referentiality. It was music and it cut as deep as music can but it also felt combinatoric in a way that was infinite, in the way that language is. I went through years where I was only reading and writing poetry. I was ripping off every poet that moved me, imitating left, right, and center. Of course, the stuff that I originally encountered was the stock, the basic stock of the Western canon, like Palgrave’s Golden Treasury and the Norton Antology, and going through its earlier iterations and all of the mainly English poets. Then I remember when I branched out into the symbolists, I felt very cosmopolitan. So that was always not the intention, I don’t want to say, but it was always the only thing. Then to put it mercenarily, I’d gone into corporate law very briefly, then I managed to take a loan to go traveling around the world. As I was traveling around the world, I had confirmed to me that I wasn’t cut out for the law and I needed to find a way to stay out of it. At the time, I was reading novels as well and I thought, “Ah, let’s give this a go. How hard could it possibly be?” [laughs] Long, long, long story short, I did write a novel and it was very bad. One of the great blessings of my career has been that I never actually published that thing. But it was a strange felicity in a way that that was what got me into Iowa in fiction. Then the stories in The Boat were also a felicity or a fluke in many ways too because they were never intended to be a book. Then I guess, as I was writing post The Boat, as I was meant to be writing and writing the novel that I’m working on at the moment, I understood that I have a very distractible, capricious, and obsessive mind. It’s not a great combination for a writer, so I thought that I knew that if I allowed myself to dart off and write essays, poems, and short stories, I wouldn’t be able to bear down with requisite seriousness on the novel, so I imposed a moratorium on poetry for quite some time. I never stopped reading it. All my friends at Iowa, my closest friends were all poets. I seemed to just vibe on that frequency a little more naturally. It wasn’t until I had my first kid [Tess] in 2016 that I found I couldn’t actually sustain the sustained focus required for the long form. This would have been just like a year after we hung out in Portland, so then I just let myself off the hook and was like, “You know what, I’m going to return to poetry,” and it did, I don’t mind saying that I think in some ways, it sort of restored, revivified of the integrity of my connection with writing.

DN: Well, just to give a little subtext to your reference to us hanging out in Portland, for listeners, I was in the MFA program at Portland and Charles D’Ambrosio brought Nam to teach for a semester, and I was a student of his. This idea of like you’re returning to poetry revivifying or resetting you in a relationship to language, in the Poetry Foundation Podcast interview from last year, you called this new book an ars poetica. I have something I want to propose about this but before I put it forth, I’d like to hear, in your own words, you describe how and why this book is an ars poetica. If we think of the original Ars Poetica, the poem written 2,000 years ago by Horace that gives advice to poets on writing poetry, I think most people still think of an ars poetica as poetry that reflects on one’s own relationship to the act of writing it. But I wonder if you mean something different or at least something less poetry-specific when you call it that. What do you mean when you say that this book feels like it’s your Ars Poetica?

NL: It’s interesting when you read Charlie’s blurb from 15, 16 years ago. I actually hadn’t read that in probably 15, 16 years. In some ways, it was the shock of recognition that everything I’ve written has been an ars poetica. I feel as though on one level, and maybe this is self-serving, I believe that all serious art is or has an ars poetica aspect because it contends with and is honest about the conditions of its making and the madeness of its articulation. I guess there are various prisms through which I would refract the ways in which this particular book is an ars poetica. But I think one of the reasons why perhaps I’ve been bouncing around the different genres as I have is because I’m still looking for the form or a form that can articulate or approximate let’s say how it is for me to be in the world and to write about it, to be in my mind. Of course, dancing around that quest is futile and that’s part of the exercise, and the imperative is despite its futility, like finding and wrestling with the necessity within and behind the futility. To me, one of the prisms that I would mention would be the sense that I felt the need to make space for what I’m trying to do and the inflections of that are numerous, and some of them come back to writing in your not first language writing as an outsider or someone on the periphery in many predications, whether it’s through race, nationality, or through diasporic lens or all the various iterations in which one can be outside of the main vein of things. I don’t know that I’ve come any closer to an answer but I do think that this book deals with it more directly, more personally, and more conspectively I guess than my other work has done. I think that’s one of the reasons why I had to fight for this book to come now into the world because it wasn’t what it was expected. Part of the reason why I had to consider sit with, absorb the risk, then move forward with this book was because it really felt to me that it was a sense-making, a legend, a calibration of all of my work from the get-go, including work that’s not been published or is in progress or part of the body, the corpus, the uber of work that a writer has. I had to know whether I’ve answered your question but it feels to me like it’s inescapable. If I want to tell my truth, which is inescapably self-conscious, self-reflective, and heightenedly aware of the infrastructure and the ecosystem into which the work proposes to go, then it needs to be dealing with the first principle, questions of what is your relationship with writing.

DN: Well, you didn’t just answer my question. You answered the question I haven’t yet asked or at least you’ve answered the theory I was going to propose and test against you, which was that all of your three books were ars poeticas because there was something really gratifying about reading the three books and three genres back to back to back in the sense that I feel like like there was something illuminating about watching you create three different ars poeticas and seeing the way you bumping up against the forms or engaging with the forms, what that revealed, how it looked, and what the impact was for the reader. It felt like it had this omnidirectional influence on each of the books that the addition of the new poetry collection changes The Boat and enriches The Boat, and vice versa.

NL: Oh, good.

DN: But I’d like to walk forward towards the poetry collection from The Boat, so walk forward in the 16 years. But before I bring The Boat into conversation with the latest book, let’s hear the first two opening poems, and Invocative/Apostrophic.

[Nam Le reads a poem called 1. Diasporic from 36 Ways of Writing a Vietnamese Poem]

[Nam Le reads a poem called 2. Invocative / Apostrophic from 36 Ways of Writing a Vietnamese Poem]

DN: We’ve been listening to Nam Le read from 36 Ways of Writing a Vietnamese Poem. There’s a line in each of these poems that each expresses a truth independent of each other but together they express a double bind. In Diasporic you say, “What’s Vietnamese in me/Could fit in a poem,” and in the following poem, “Whatever I write is Vietnamese. I can never not — You won’t let me not —.” When you were in conversation at BOMB Magazine in 2009 with Charles D’Ambrosio, he begins his interview with you by talking about Hemingway’s first book called In Our Time and how Hemingway cut 3,000 words out of the culminating story The Big Two-Hearted River. That although we read that story today in two parts, originally, it was a triptych, the third part where Nick Adams reflects and elaborates on his thoughts on writing. He does this in a way that gives the reader, according to D’Ambrosio, a set of instructions on how to read the book, ultimately recasting the book. He suggests that you take a similar approach in The Boat but that unlike Hemingway, you’ve put the meta-story at the beginning, creating an effect that D’Ambrosio describes as framing questions that cast forward and complicate the book as a whole. In answering his subsequent question about the boldness of this, you say, “Looking back, I reckon maybe I wanted to reserve all my rights. I wanted to pull out the sharp elbows and carve out as much space for myself as I could.” This is the gesture which you’ve already mentioned today. This is the gesture that I recognize in all three of your books, this elbowing to create space or to break free all the way to today where we read these two lines from these two poems that create a double bind. It feels like the rest of the book both deepens this impossible position and explodes it ultimately. But I wanted to start with The Boat, both in its own right but also perhaps as a way to understand the poetry collection. We’re with a fiction writer with your name at the Iowa Writers Workshop who has writer’s block and one of his peers says, “How can you have writer’s block? Just write a story about Vietnam.” Then a teacher tells our main protagonist at a bar that ethnic literature is hot and appear in his workshop but Chinese woman trying to immigrate to America has just written a book of short stories about various Chinese characters in different stages of immigration, stories that he sees as subtle and good but is also noticing that she’s been offered a six-figure contract in a two-book deal, then our protagonist says, “Fuck it, I thought. […] I would write the ethnic story of my Vietnamese father. It was a good story. It was a fucking great story. I fed in a sheet of blank paper. At the top of the page, I typed ‘ETHNIC STORY’ in capital letters. I pushed the carriage return. The sound of helicopters in a dark sky. The keys hammered the page.” It’s such a bravado opening to this collection but what’s so interesting is that after the story, we don’t get an “ethnic story” but five stories where the demographics of the protagonists and their situations, each to the next couldn’t have been more different than your own subject position. We get all of this as if to say, or at least this is how I imagine it in my mind, “Fuck you, I can and I will write whatever I want.” But at the end of these five stories that are denying us the ethnic story, the book ends with the story The Boat that, while fictional in its broadest details, captures your own family’s flight from Saigon as refugees with the fall of South Vietnam. On the one hand, it feels like as D’Ambrosio suggests, the six stories you give us before the boat prepares us for how to read it or how not to read it. But on the other hand, when we get to this ethnic story, we also remember that the character with your name at the beginning who is now writing a story about his father’s experience, an ethnic story, that his father, when he visits, reads the story, then walks down to the river and burns it. I guess this is my long way to suggest that the lines in the poem you just read, “What’s Vietnamese in me could fit in a poem?” then the following poem, “Whatever I write is Vietnamese. I can never not — You won’t let me not —,” that it feels to me like the strategies you’ve developed to escape the double bind go back to your very first book. I guess you’ve already spoken a little bit into this space-making. But I would love to have you elaborate on it or push back against my characterization of it about this maybe throughline around creating elbow room in all three of these genres so far.

NL: That line, “What’s Vietnamese in me/Could fit in a poem,” is so, for me, tonally complex and multi-vectored. It speaks, as you mentioned, to the accusatory line in the next poem that because of these other ideologies and systems of taxonomy, and industry in play, that I will always be a Vietnamese writer and whatever I write will always be Vietnamese. There’s an enormous gravity and inertia that ensures that that is the case and that gravity is something that I think needs to be more transparently communicated and understood between writers, readers, and the industry as well. But to say something could fit in a poem to me also is a pay-in to the possibilities of poetry. It’s a truism that what’s out there in the world and what’s in there in your consciousness is way too vast to ever be captured in language, and is way too itself to be properly communicated in language. I think this goes to what we were talking about at the very start in so far as language is contingent. It’s imperfect. It’s incomplete. It’s capacious. It contains all of the biases, contingencies, and histories full of really nasty stuff, yet it’s what we have. Any writer who is treating respectfully I guess with the possibilities of language will always be dealing with these exact provisionalities. The world can’t be caught in language, our minds can’t be caught in language but yet language itself can say an infinite number of things as well. It’s the tension between those fields and it’s the tension of the attitude which is trying to reconcile or at least trying to create some rapport or commerce between those two very, very different things. That is interesting to me. In a way, and this is maybe a bit reductive, in a way, when I was writing The Boat, there is a sense of, “Don’t fence me and don’t pigeonhole me,” because it felt to me like the industry was maybe more simple in its strategies back then in regards to ethnic writers, writers of color, or writers from elsewhere writing about typically elsewhere or otherness. If The Boat was about not being pigeonholed as a Vietnamese “writer,” maybe what’s changed with this book of poems is that the notion of what Vietnamese is for me has exploded and splintered into a really interesting [ontology] of articulations. So again, to say what Vietnamese could fit in the poem is to give a cosmic proportion in my view to both the idea of what Vietnamese signifies it is and also what a poem can do, which is both everything and, in some ways, nothing. 

DN: We have a question for you from another and it’s a question that references the third and fourth poems in the book, a question that looks at what is passed down from generations like these two poems do. But these poems look not just at inheritance but also reproduction. The poem Ekphrastic, even though it is subtitled Self Portrait, begins with a much-photocopied picture of your mother. That with each reproduction has less details is more flat. That also feels like a throughline I think is this question around flatness and working against flatness. Again, in the opening story of The Boat, while some people say ethnic literature is hot and a cure for writer’s block or a pathway to a two-book deal, other friends are saying things like, “I’m sick of ethnic lit. It’s full of descriptions of exotic food,” or “The characters are always flat, generic. As long as a Chinese writer writes about Chinese people, or a Peruvian writer about Peruvians, or a Russian writer about Russians,” etc. Finally, “You could totally exploit the Vietnamese thing,” says one person to our protagonist. “But instead, you choose to write about lesbian vampires and Colombian assassins, and Hiroshima orphans–and New York painters with hemorrhoids,” which is a great line because that is exactly what you do in the five stories that follow this before the final story The Boat. But before we hear this question from our guest questioner, maybe you could say a little bit about Ekphrastic and the poem that follows it, and we could hear poems three and four.

NL: Yeah, for sure. I’m so curious as to who this mysterious questioner is. Two points of fact. One is the photo is of my mother’s mother, my grandmother, and the second is, for those listeners who are rushing out to buy the book on the basis of the lesbian vampires, that story sadly didn’t make the cut in The Boat. The other thing I would say potentially relevant to what we’re talking about is that there was obviously, in the editing stage of The Boat when it was a manuscript for a book, I was obviously doing things to connect the stories or agitate them via an axis. But when I was writing the stories, the only imperative that I was following, and this was during the MFA, was it was kind of a self-education in writing stories because I hadn’t really read that much short fiction. As I was saying, I was mainly reading poetry, then fiction in the form of novels. So when I rocked up at Iowa, I felt like, “Ah, geez, I need to do a recon of what there is in a sense.” I was probably more scattershot in my approach than I might otherwise be just out of temperament. But it was an interesting exercise too insofar as it cannot help but reveal who you are and what you’re fixed on no matter where you are and what you’re writing about.

[Nam Le reads a poem called 3. Ekphrastic (Self Portrait) from 36 Ways of Writing a Vietnamese Poem]

[Nam Le reads a poem called 4. Aegic / All – encompassing from 36 Ways of Writing a Vietnamese Poem]

DN: We’ve been listening to Nam Le read from 36 Ways of Writing a Vietnamese Poem. Recently, I had the poet Canisia Lubrin on whose book Code Noir has 59 stories, each one prefaced by one of King Louis XIV’s black codes, the rules of conduct for slaves and slavery in the French colonies. But the stories themselves, even though they’re prefaced by the codes, don’t directly engage with the codes. Instead, they unmake them or work against reproduction of them. They look I think to sound a different future outside of them. I feel like the question we have for you from recent Between the Covers guest Diana Khoi Nguyen, the author of Ghost Of and Root Fractures, is also thinking along these lines, so here’s a question for you from Diana. 

Diana Khoi Nguyen: Hi, Nam, this is Diana. Thank you for this book. If only I’d had a collection like this when I was taking poetry workshops as an undergrad or even in graduate school. In the book, I keep coming back to the poem titled 3. Ekphrastic, not because there is a facsimile two-tone photograph but because of the way in which the speaker maps the layers of lineage, a maternal grandmother in the mother and in the speaker, as if genetic material and historic events were “repeatedly photocopied from photocopies.” In the following poem, 4. Aegic / All – encompassing, the speaker says reflexively via the second person about trauma that “Your blood contains it. What happened to them – Your parents, theirs, all their kin – who don’t talk about it because of what happened to them is yours to take and tell. Their harm / your hurt. You may write it. For it is written in the very walls of your cells.” This is all a long ramp to approach my question which is given the nesting dolls of what blood contains, whether that’s trauma, DNA, etc., what do you think the next generation will “take and tell?” Thank you again. I can’t wait to hear your answer.

NL: My goodness, it’s so lovely to hear your voice, Diana. I’ve never actually met Diana but she was kind enough to read the book and with enormous generosity, and care and that’s obviously reflected in this question as well. It’s interesting, this notion of, I haven’t really thought about this before, but this notion of photocopies repeatedly photocopied from photocopies, it’s a technology that has, as intrinsic to it, a degradation, a degeneration of whatever it is that was the original. I think too of the figure, and the materiality of cliches, which is something that this book points to as well. The notion that there is a plate that is imposed in one form in molten metal and can be reproduced as it clicks, hence the word. I think also of the replication of DNA through mitosis and through the recombinants of the various chromosomal strands, and how mutation, i.e. error, is what allows for trial and error, and difference, evolution, and life. There is to me an enormous turbulence at the heart of this notion of transmission or inheritance. The final line in the fourth poem “In the very walls of your cells” does speak in part I guess to those studies in epigenetics that have shown that trauma can actually be traced through the genetic expression of people, generations moved from the trauma sufferer, the survivors. Of course, this notion of trauma as being something claimed is at the root of a lot of angst and agitation in our current moment. But of course, the souls are also the very things that constrict us and that hold us back. I think it’s more documented now than it was 15, 16 years ago, a notion that the so-called trauma plot in letters is an easy go-to and a shorthand for profundity. It’s also one of the distorting elements in an ecosystem that then has ripple effects of distortion beyond it. What do I mean by that? I guess one thing I’ve been thinking about is courage, right? It’s a word that we often use to describe when someone writes about trauma, their inheritance of trauma, or their family trauma, etc. It’s such a reflexive attribution, yet there is no acknowledgment or recognition in that attribution that in fact, in many respects, it’s the most expected and most lubricated path to publication, to writing, or recognition for certain writers writing about certain traumas. It’s an easy and lubricated self-congratulation by those who read it and by the critics who lord its courage and its transgression. So what is seen as this path of courage is actually a feedback loop that both enriches and exonerates everyone in it while investing them with a label that loses meaning because obviously, that word is now slightly denuded with every misuse like that. There is, as I said, a deep irresolution, I guess a deep insolubility in me about the move to writing about one’s family or one’s people’s traumas. I don’t think there is an answer to that. But to answer your question, Diana, I think I hope the next generation will continue to uncover the conditions and to bring them to the surface in which these productions occur so that there can be a restoration of the ecosystem, a straightening out of the distortion.

DN: Well, your parents came to Australia when you were an infant, and part of what you engage with in your nonfiction book is identity and relation to nations, specifically to Australia. One way you’ve described your most recent collection, the poetry collection is as a long poem that consists of many standalone poems but where each individual poem affects changes and deforms the other poems, and also the longer poem as a whole. That meaning depends upon where you’re standing within the collection. That not only is nothing flat but nothing is fixed. I noticed that within the Australian press with a couple of critics who were less enamored with your David Malouf book, it was being critiqued for not having a fixed position I think, for the way it moves and undercuts itself, even sometimes undercutting something it’s asserted elsewhere, which I felt like was happening by design, especially if we take your description of the poetry collection as a subsequent example of this approach. I just have to say I loved the David Malouf book. Unlike those critics, I saw no contradiction that you’re paying homage to a writer whose work is incredibly meaningful to you.  That that same book could also be a look at how the two of you diverge and even in doing so, a critique of Malouf in certain aspects, while I also think never losing sight of his powers and the importance of what he’s achieved, Malouf, an Australian whose ancestry is both Lebanese on one side and Sephardic Jewish on the other, and it feels like the way he speaks about or into Australianness or how he orients himself in relation to national myth-making seems to be one way the two of you diverge, even as you both are grappling with being refugees arriving on the same shores. But even here, you admire and are inspired by his declaration, “I totally reject the idea of being representative in any way,” and you admire how he preserves his sovereignty, how he has alighted his Lebanese identity to little fuss. You’ve marveled at his ability to evade being pinned by this label. Similarly, with his gay identity, he hasn’t, in your words, become a grist for the queer studies mill. You say, “A former academic himself, he must understand that such openings are enticements to academic spits: once stuck, writers can end up turned eternally on the same skewer, basted in the same sauce.” You express a kinship to the unapologetic nature of Malouf’s learning, his chosen literary kinship, which is mainly from Europe and Western classicism. I say all of this because in your book On David Malouf, you recount your own childhood experiences in school of being an outsider, often one of the only or sometimes the only Asian student, and finding a home in reading, embracing the white canon ink and the classics put before you, which was all non-Australian until you encountered Malouf’s Remembering Babylon, which was an Australian book about Australian settlements by an Australian author. But I guess I was hoping maybe you could talk to us a little bit, you’ve talked to us already a little bit but maybe a little more about your formative years of encountering books that moved you pre-Malouf, what writers or books you consider influences since then but also perhaps your relationship to the canonical for you than a now. How do you go about positioning yourself in this fraught relationship with what you’ve discovered through what is put before you?

NL: Can I just first say how much it means to me that you had that response to that book? It hasn’t been a book that has given me a lot of joy in this country and you’re right, there were reflexive puddings in place by the esteemed white dudes basically, of the establishment, the very small establishment here. Many of whom had nice things to say but in the mix, I just felt that there was always a “how dare he” sense and a tamping of uppityness or something, and to me that was never the intent. It’s shocking to me to be honest that in these works that are dealing with these issues of identity and representation, that if anything, I feel like I’m erring on the side of heavy-handedness. That in the first story in The Boat, for example, I feel that when that guy says, when the character says, “It’s full of descriptions of exotic food,” then I go into a lavish description of exotic food later on that it’s really clear what I’m doing. [laughter] There’s a multiplicity and an undercutting, a destabilization and hopefully a new unsettledness arising from this, and that’s the dialectic I hope that is present throughout the book as a whole as well. In the Malouf book, I felt so overt in expressly talking about how antinomy, contradiction, and changeability is the condition of how I move through the world and through letters. It is the condition of how I feel my identity. It’s not fixed and it’s not describable in a way that captures anything because it’s always multi-prismic, and it always changes depending on its position, its positionality, the attitude that it’s dealing with, and in. That multiplicity seemed to me to be really clear in exactly how you described it so movingly, that it didn’t seem ludicrous that you could have something that was honoring and esteeming someone’s work. At the same time, interrogating some of its etiologies, that just seems like 101 to me. [laughter] Sorry, that’s a very long-winded way around your answer. I guess part of my own project of peace is a continual blessing of what there is, a continuing and continual sense of seeing that there is such cornucopia, such abundance, such beauty in what there is, even though what there is obviously is really problematic in many, many, many senses. Part of my discovery of, as you say, like the white canon, the classicist canon, the Western canon, when I was growing up, because that was all there was, I don’t think that that sits at odds with a deeper interrogation of the problems and aporias of that canon. I don’t think that it detracts from the immense specificity and complexity that is contained within the works in that canon, in themselves but also as they have related through tradition with the rest of the so-called canon or the larger body of work. To me, that’s an incredible thing. It’s an incredible gift to have these iterations and structures of thought that are a record of a different time and context, a record of a differently conditioned mind that is still very generously connected with and to other minds in books and pages. It feels like a no-brainer that there would be things to learn and take and feel all sorts of things from the past, from any tradition. To me, it’s not as problematic for me to read. At the moment, I’m reading the Emily Wilson translation of The Iliad. That doesn’t feel problematic to me for a lot of reasons because I think it’s freaking good. It’s really interesting. It speaks to eternal concerns. It’s in some ways seminal to so many of our experiences and so much of what has been thought and talked about. Its provenance is also an interesting exercise in consideration and speculation. The rhythms and resonances of things past seem to speak to me of a generosity that we extend to writers in the canon. That they are in a way themselves, that they’re not interchangeable. That even though they may form schools, alliances, and allegiances, that, like you say, done is done, Herbert is Herbert, and Wordsworth and Coleridge, even though they joined forces, are very separate dudes. I guess what I would love is for that assumption and respect of autonomy of individuation, of you are your own thing, an autonomous independent outlier. You’re not a voice for the masses, you are not a representative of what we deem to be a group experience, whether that’s bundled in nation, in race, or whatever. You’re not the main consumer to which we’re going or from which we’re going to draw our instruction or explanation because to me that’s the language of political messaging or advertising. The other meaning of cell, which I’ve got before in the fourth poem is that the Viet Cong would deliberately form these small cells of usually three people to observe and report on each other, to keep each other in line, to always have each person feel watched and unsettled by what other people might be saying or thinking, of what other alliances might be forming. That’s the language of instrumentalization, which I think is the deep enemy, in a sense, of what we’re trying to do as artists. I’m cognizant of the deep-rooted biases, violences, imperialisms, and erasures that form the canon. I think they should be read in that light and with that in mind but I also think that it’s the height of arrogance to assume that they offer anything to writers now. 

DN: As a preface to hearing some more poems, I wonder if you could expound for a minute on one line from the Malouf book where you say, and you’re talking here about both of you together, “I’m a student of Western philosophy. I honor the Western approaches of intrinsic skepticism, self-critical inquiry, uncertainty. I hew, as hard as I can, to epistemic humility.” What do you mean by epistemic humility?

NL: I guess it’s just a fancy way of always being first and foremost grounded in not knowing in the Socratic questioning, is one archetypal form of understanding the truth is contextual, is contingent, and varies according to context. 

DN: Well, could we hear Eastern – epistemological and Standpoint – epistemological?

NL: Yeah, for sure.

[Nam Le reads a poem called 13. Eastern – epistemological from 36 Ways of Writing a Vietnamese Poem]

[Nam Le reads a poem called 14. Standpoint – epistemological from 36 Ways of Writing a Vietnamese Poem]

DN: We’ve been listening to Nam Le read from 36 Ways of Writing a Vietnamese  Poem. Let’s spend a minute with sincerity. I have a curiosity about sincerity, not just from these two poems, though sincerity obviously is a big part of both of them, but we also have a short poem called Violence: Autologous or close enough that goes, “According to Mishima (per Hass, per Scott Stokes) sincerity dwells in our entrails. Seppuku, the cutting open of our bellies, is merely a physical demonstration of it.” Then there’s a very different meeting of sincerity in the poem Violence: Translative where you’re addressing a translator who doesn’t know Vietnamese, “So take it all, whatever. Make your status out of their sincerity.” But I also think of, again, your long-ago conversation with D’Ambrosio where he says, “Sincerity is always problematic, but I side with the genuine, as I do with hope, if only because both are so vastly superior to the alternatives of deceit and despair.” That interview has a second life that came out more recently where you have returned to that conversation from 2009 and annotated it. You have a sincerity footnote that goes, “Been thinking about this, about Oppen’s ‘test of sincerity, being the lit thing in poetry: as slow living with “entire sincerity” (what’s that even mean?) ‘— weirdness of public, communal construct,’ of art being founded on completely private self-reckoning.” Here in this poem you just read, you reference Oppen in this way. It seems like there’s some open question for you and I’m curious what the question is, and why sincerity is one of the things you circle or return to in different contradictory ways or from different vantage points in these 36 poems.

NL: It’s the beautiful quest that is impossible to achieve of conveying any of those cheesy things, whether it’s truth, reality, or even true mimesis or whatever is genuine into language. As with what we’ve said before, I think that there is a hierarchy of interiority. I think writers like Oppen, like Zhukovsky, and even as the plumbing Eastern philosophy and Eastern writing, I recorded a full scope of interiority, whereby they can speak in multi-layered, polysemous ways about sincerity and be accorded that full-spectrumed complexity of they are these people with these appurtenances of time and place and tradition, and their whole body of work speaks to itself, which as a side note, is exactly what you’re giving me and my work, I’m even digging through the notes with that sincerity. For that, I sincerely thank you.

DN: My pleasure.

NL: I guess in a really reductive way, and this is not the way that I would primarily feel it, but it’s what is coming to mind right now, I think that writers from the outside or the other have to fight and kick and scream to be accorded this interiority, to be accorded like the full bandwidth, the full spectrum, the full constellatory vista of what there is in order to countenance these questions. So for a writer such as that from the outside or the other to be sincere, I think is almost a different thing in kind and not degree from a writer like Oppen, Yates, or Heaney are speaking about sincerity. But I guess for me, it’s almost never about the answer, it’s only ever about the attitude toward which one turns one mind to the question, and also the attitude with which one treats all those inputs that complicate or undercut one’s assumptions about that. I have enormous admiration for each of those nine white masters that I facetiously stick into the meter of the monkeys in a tree as the subtitle because I believe that there’s a heuristic-ness in their work that does quest towards something genuine, as Charlie said, and they have different strategies and have different salience toward doing that, but I think that there is something to be, for me, anyway, drawn and learned from that. The question of sincerity to me now is one that I wonder whether it’s too destabilized by the moment of self-consciousness and my own bent towards self-consciousness. I think that’s something that I’ve been working around and within for some time is trying to preserve a space that is as real, as true, and potentially as sublime, transcendent, or whatever romantic term you want to use, while, according with self-reflexivity, meta-ness breaking the fourth wall, concerned with all of the iniquities of how these things are constructed in a world of, as we said, advertising and political messaging. I want to reserve the right of my mind and hopefully, others as well, which feel as atomized, distracted, and dispersed to yet have a complete experience of things.

DN: Well, I wanted to take sincerity outside of poetry and into the public sphere of being in the world with your poems and how to be in the world with your poems. But before I ask my question, or maybe as a first step towards asking it, I wanted to spend a minute with your visit to Wyoming. Before I had read On David Malouf, I had actually watched your appearances on Wyoming PBS.

NL: Oh, no way.

DN: Yeah, and engaged with some of your other Wyoming-specific things you were involved in, not knowing the context of how that had all unfolded for you. It was really interesting to see you revisiting this in detail in the Malouf book, the way you were sort of ambushed, thinking you were going for a writer-in-residence gig, which you were, but just as you were about to leave being informed, you would be part of a series of statewide events advocating refugee resettlement, being flown in a single-engine plane to various conservative towns, one town where a person was arrested for putting out a podcast calling for violence regarding this series of events. You were brought to a social justice book club and more, and none of the terms were open to you. But you point to this appearance specifically on Wyoming PBS as the low point of this sequence of events. You not only write into the pain and dread of this memory, but you actually reproduce what you said in that interview, what you hate that you said in that interview within the Malouf book as a launching off point to the chapter. I was hoping we could hear not what you said in PBS, but some of the meaning-making you did in the aftermath of this experience as a preface to a question I have for you about it. I was hoping if you have the book nearby, we could hear 32 to the middle of 34.

NL: You know what? If you don’t mind, I’ll read from 29 and you can cherry-pick and take and pick. Are there copyright issues for you to replay the actual PBS bit?

DN: I would think I would have to ask them.

NL: Okay, I feel like if I read it now, what Gertrude Stein said about repetition is there’s no such thing, it won’t be the same as how I was saying it at the time, even though I hate it.

DN: I wasn’t going to ask you because it felt cruel to ask you, but if you wanted to read it now, I would not stop you from reading it now.

NL: Okay.

[Reading]

The worst of it was a PBS TV bit. I could’ve said no but I didn’t, I said this:

I was a refugee. My family was involved in the Vietnam War and . . . when things went downhill, we, like millions of other Vietnamese, fled the country . . . When we were in trouble, Australia let us in and took us in and looked after us. They had no reason, really, to do it; they had a lot of reasons not to. They didn’t know us. They didn’t owe us anything . . . It still does boggle me when I think about that, and it’s not really something that gratitude can cover. It’s too big for that. But what it does bring home to me is [that] beyond the politics and the policies and the very legitimate notions of sovereignty, border protection, of cultural preservation, there’s still this project of very simple grace – of just helping people who need help even though you don’t owe them any help. And that, to me, meant everything when we needed it.

Predictable stuff, right? Most people, I reckon, from left and right alike, would find these sentiments unobjectionable, even agreeable. Most people would be confused by my own reaction to them – for any time I see this clip, I come away with a wretched feeling – a mixture of unease and ire and self-directed scorn. That I did it to myself – let myself do it to myself – makes it harder to bear.

What exactly did I do?

I allowed myself to be used. I became a mouthpiece. I took in vain my plural self to spruik a singular, flat, facile politics. In part, I did it because I agreed with the politics – pinned down, of course I thought/think the US should be resettling Syrian refugees – but my problem was with being pinned down, coerced into answering that question without being free to question the question’s underpinnings, its mess of historical, political and ethical consensions. None of the terms were open to me. How could I in all conscience argue for the stateless, for example, when, to me, the very consensus of the Westphalian nation-state feels unconscionable – a spur to hate and horror? How could I make a case for immigration when I hold the very concept of territorial sovereignty responsible for encoding the world’s deadliest asymmetries? A state is a priori an exclusionary mechanism. It ransoms the human need for belonging against the human wont to tribalism and xenophobia. It justifies the self-interest that justifies its statehood – ouroboros, ad infinitum. A state sets limits and conditions – that is its deal.

All politics is border politics. Sovereignty doesn’t mean much without someone else to shove it to.

On top of that, I loathed the whole set-up – I couldn’t help feeling a familiar vein of bad faith running through all these good intentions. Social justice is easy when it’s low-cost, high-return. Wasn’t this just another way we could all broadcast our progressivism without forfeiting our exceptionalism? (No pro-refugee activist there was proposing open borders.) Wasn’t this just another neo-liberal application of virtue, whereby we could accrue socio-cultural capital through the Having of Opinions without having, ourselves, to forgo any economic capital or comfort? Guilt as vehicle for vanity?

And all done via the amiable, earnest Asian-Australian guest (an ‘Eminent Writer-in-Residence’, no less) who had been there, and even written about it!

This, of course, was the other thing. I had taken in vain my writing self. I had used language in a way that was antithetical to what I ask of my writing: that it come from me, and carry some of my life, and convey my truth (including its uncertainties, ambiguities and antinomies) in as true a form as I can find, wherever it might lead me. What I delivered instead was a maudlin Hallmark ad for my ‘sponsors’, pitched intuitively at the level of coddling and congratulation. I took an issue about which I have insoluble feelings and – having no opportunity to think it down through writing – instead boiled it down to literal propaganda. What candour might have been in it (and of course, in a way, I meant every word) was made performative by camera and context – I felt myself false even while saying what I meant.

At bottom, the failure that wounded me most, I think, was my deference. To the brazen assumption that because I had been a refugee, I would be willing to be identified as a refugee, I would be willing to be defined as a refugee, I would be in support of refugees (whatever that meant), I would be willing to speak in support of refugees. I did what was expected of me. In doing so, I essentialised not only myself but all refugees (who, I know, are as variable, irrational and prejudicial as any other people, including on refugee-related topics). I spoke for others when I wasn’t even truly speaking for myself. We refugees are already trapped in a condescending narrative that promotes asylum as destiny; I failed to resist the denouement that ascribes destiny to character.

[End of reading]

Haven’t read that for ages.

DN: It’s amazing. I bring this up thinking about how you any day now are just about to embark on your first large North American tour, probably since The Boat, your highest profile sequence of public events since then. In On David Malouf, you talk about how reviews of The Boat were mostly complicit in their common reference to your hyphenated ethno-nationality as Vietnamese-Australian. You ask, “How has life been so unquestionably shorthanded and shortchanged into ‘identity’?” It’s interesting that some of these critics pushed back against these comments, saying that your book invites us from the first story to identify the author this way, even as it is critiquing the very same thing it’s inviting us to do. A sort of double-bind not just for you but for the critic and the interviewer. But thinking on the one hand of your desire to elbow your way to have space, to preserve ambiguity, to assert artistic sovereignty, and on the other hand, this Wyoming PBS experience, I wondered how you prepare yourself, if you do, or how you position yourself, or what ways do you try to disarm what you may or may not encounter as you open yourself up this way to what will surely include some, hopefully not many, but some publicly reductive moments ahead as you travel in the world with your poetry collection?

NL: Yeah, thank you for even turning your mind to that and acknowledging it. They’re completely different registers of being, aren’t they? Even at its best—and I would say that this conversation with you is as open and generous and attentive as any that I’ve had—even at its best, it’s not art. Obviously, interviewing, nonfiction writing, and criticism is art. But when I talk about my work, to me, it’s anti-art in a way. It’s a [inaudible] register of thing and it doesn’t come without its value and its interest. But as you say, it also comes with the prerogatives of the market and the marketplace of attention, which is a pretty degraded place in many ways. I’ve done a little bit of press in Australia on this book already and I got to say my general attitude towards it has been one of just being braced, to be honest. What you described as that pushback I feel is rife and rampant through receptions of work about identity or touching on issues of identity or representation, especially when they don’t conform to the usual strategies, as we said before, of coddling and congratulation. It’s weird, David, because I know every writer says this, but I think I feel it more with this book than any other book or the many books that I’ve written, is that I feel really conflicted talking about this book because the book itself feels to me like a hard-earned and somewhat arduous enactment of all of the things that I think and feel about it. They’re not articulable in a way that is satisfactory to me. That’s why I had to create this ridiculous structure where everything is unbalancing and destabilizing everything else and everything changes everything else. Now that I look back on it, it’s funny, isn’t it? I look back and The Boat was doing the same thing in a way having a thing made of smaller things, each of which was changing or at least affecting the things around it. In my long poems which aren’t in this book, I’ve taken to writing poems in parts because I feel this is the strategy at the moment that feels that it comes closest to expressing the uncertainty, the ambiguity, and the changeability, I think, of what I’m saying. I don’t know how I’m going to do this. I would love for the work to be simultaneously inviting and accepting, but also unsettling, discomforting, and provoking. I hope, as you pointed out, that the gaze, which at times can be skeptical or acerbic, is swung around very much towards myself and to other diasporic writers or to the diasporic writing in general. On one level, it’s about having your cake and eating it too. It’s about saying, “Look, this is the ways in which this is problematic, I guess, or at least not what you think.” Then in the actual enactment of that thing, of that form, of that formula, trying to imbue it with all of the stuff that it can do, all of the deep-felt meaning, profundity, truth, and beauty that it can hold at the same time. To me, that doesn’t take away from the truth and beauty, etc, of it, it actually just complexions it in a more human skin. I wish I could, I mean, friends have said, enjoy it, embrace it, enjoy it, have fun, you know. I don’t know whether it’s my natural bent towards not invoking the evil eye, which is part personal and part cultural, which was completely activated when the publisher sent across the cover for the first time which, as you’ve seen, has Nam, my name in enormous letters like taking up 80% of the cover. [laughter] I wrote back and I said, “Okay, haha, nice one. Okay, but seriously.” [laughter] But then I thought, “No, you know what, at the same time I do have to try to own it because what am I doing in this book if not excavating all of semiotics and semantics and histories of that very word? That name that means something in my native language and culture and that means something in how I think about what I’m doing in this book and how I move through English as a writer.” I don’t know, if you have any tips, I’d love you to pass them along to me.

DN: [Laughs] I wish I did. Well, let’s spend another beat with sincerity. I suspect you know way more than me about George Oppen, but I do know he was a Marxist and that his two periods of poetry bookended a decades-long period of silence when he was focusing on activism and organizing, but also that he was continually having to disavow actual manifestations of communism in the world as they fell short of the philosophy itself, disavowing Stalinism and for a while having hopes in Maoism before distancing himself from Maoism. I believe he ultimately moved from communism to socialism because of a feeling that the various leftist movements were not being sincere, that they weren’t being honest when they made their nods towards tolerance and open-mindedness. I think most, at least I think of, most infamously Mao’s Hundred Flowers Campaign, the policy of letting 100 flowers bloom and 100 schools of thought contend, which was an effort to promote the flourishing of the arts and sciences and to address the demoralization of the intellectuals who were feeling estranged from the Communist Party, where they encouraged people to publicly express their opinions of the Communist Party, and today people debate whether it was a trap from the start or whether they were simply and utterly alarmed by the results, but after two years, they end up rounding up hundreds of thousands of people who were then either condemned to prison camps for reeducation through labor or sometimes for execution. I bring this up because most of your meditation on identity in this book is within a capitalist context of commodification. For instance, in your Poetry Foundation Podcast interview, you’re talking about how as a child you, had different groups of friends in school that you would always be moving between, that the fear of being clumped or fixed felt like death, and the opposite of growth, and that you find fixity a vexed thing in writing in specific because it’s so closely tied to voice, which is so often commercialized and/or weaponized in some way where one gets locked into performing it in a way that is easy to brand or to get branded by. But you also in your latest collection engage with a different fixity and flatness, and that is the flatness of communism in relation to language around what you call the impulse to herd, corral, and be correct. You talk in the Malouf book about your father being sent to a reeducation camp, being tortured and enslaved there, and your grandparents having their homes and possessions confiscated and two of them committing suicide. You also talk about the communist declaration of personal background, which traps one within a system of labels where labels become identity and identity destiny, but also that it coerced you into producing the words that would ultimately be the words to sentence you. I guess I would like to hear the poems Violence : Anglo-linguistic, and Communist. The first is largely about English, but it nevertheless ends in an unattributed quote by Ho Chi Minh. But before we do, is there anything more you could say about this declaration of personal background and how these declarations of identity worked and functioned?

NL: I think I’m just going to step it back to something you were saying earlier in that question about Oppen, which would apply to so many writers, including Zhukovsky, with him, he was much tied about the failure of the Western left in so much of its activity at assertion for so long, unconscionably long, to reckon with the human realities of what was being done in the name of the abstractions that it extolled. One thinks of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago being a bit of a watershed moment for a lot of Western Marxists whereby this encyclopedia of documented systemic atrocity was deemed to be the evidence that was required for some people to partially walk back or recant some with their support for a lot of these regimes, including that one, including the Stalinist regime. It speaks, I think, to me of a bunch of things. One is the dream of literature as wielding a real influence in the world, in politics, in revolution, in arrangements of society. There was a time during that moment when writers would become leaders of states, and would also be led by writers, leaders of states. I think it also speaks to impulses towards instrumentalization and towards totalitarianism and not necessarily in the political sense, but the notion that there could be a totalizing of thought, talk, or people in a way that was utopic and for the good, but that needed to break some eggs in order to achieve that omelet news idea. It seems really clear to me in this moment because I have the privilege of looking back on those moments and also having a more personal connection with communism, it seems really clear that as a writer, those two things—totalitarianism and instrumentalization—aren’t really the friends of good writing and have deformed and degraded both letters and lives. That’s not at all to diminish the sincerity and the urgency of those writers and intellectuals to look for another way. But I have so much respect for Oppen’s silence. I have so much respect for silence in general as potentially the most polysemous strategy, the greatest and most multifarious resistance. I would say, to go back to the Malouf bit where you were sort of saying, you were reading out the bit where I was saying I was dipped in those same waters of Western philosophy, European philosophy, European skepticism, doubt, epistemic humility, I do think that potentially in the West, we don’t value the hard oneness of that attitude and that stance anywhere near enough because we don’t have the historical experiences of how thought and speech were so compromised and corrupted under totalitarian regimes. That declaration of personal background you allude to, it always stunned me, especially Asian, in my research anyway, but especially in Asian communist societies, this notion of pathologically insistent self-confessions of struggle sessions where denunciations and confessions were set down and again and again and repeated. Of course, you had to list every instance of anything that might be deemed to be objectionable or incorrect about everyone else that you’d been in touch with, then that would be cross-referenced against everyone else’s references. Your references would be cross-referenced against your confessions from two years ago, six months ago, or ten years ago, and then any difference between them would be interrogated, basically. You were trapped, literally, in your own words, and you had to learn to use words as an instrument to purge your words of ambiguity or complexity, to keep yourself as much out of the words as possible, and to write towards someone else’s pleasure. Again, it seems unremarkable to me that this is not where we want our writers or our writing to be headed. They seem to me the first principles in play that are pretty self-apparent, but maybe I’m wrong about that, and maybe I am more tainted by my family history than I thought.

DN: Could we hear Violence: Anglo-linguistic, and Communist?

NL: One thing I’ll say about this first poem is it’s been interesting in two different podcasts in relation to this book where I’ve read this poem. I’ve been asked to read the poem with more emotion, anger, or velocity, which I’ve thought, given it’s happened twice, is really interesting. I’ll do it at my natural speed. You can give me notes afterwards. [laughter]

[Nam Le reads a poem called 11. Violence: Anglo-linguistic from 36 Ways of Writing a Vietnamese Poem]

[Nam Le reads a poem called 12. Communist from 36 Ways of Writing a Vietnamese Poem]

DN: We’ve been listening to Nam Le read from 36 Ways of Writing a Vietnamese Poem. There’s a suggestion of a certain totalitarianism within English here, it seems, with the repeated phrase English demands, English demands. When I was talking with Diana Khoi Nguyen for the show, we talked about a TED Talk by a Vietnamese American classicist and tattoo artist called Grammar, Identity, and the Dark Side of the Subjunctive. [laughter] It’s something that she brought up and the notion that Vietnamese didn’t have a subjunctive mood. She didn’t know whether or not this was true, but for her, it rang true in her own family. That seemed to operate largely in a declarative mode. But here and in other places in the collection, you compare and contrast English and Vietnamese around this question, I think, of flatness and fixity versus complexity and possibility where English seems more directional and predetermined syntactically and Vietnamese more omnidirectional where everything is multiple and everything means something else. In the Malouf book, you talk about how Vietnam has a “whatever works” attitude as well, that it’s a country whose national icons were either brought in from elsewhere or co-opted by colonizers, even the Romanized script with the diacritical marks. I guess I wondered if the “whatever works” defining of authenticity within a history that is as much other as self and this multiplicity of meaning within the language felt related to you. I’d love to hear any thoughts you have about any of this or about your own relationship to the Vietnamese language. But I’m also curious, and I think this is a probably impossible question to answer or at least to verify, how delimited or how free do you feel within English? In other words, how much or how little do you feel adversarial to the language that you’re speaking or writing?

NL: I wouldn’t characterize it as an adversarial relationship, even though it feels that way sometimes. I would relate it as resistance and it’s a healthy resistance. If it gives too easily, then you’ve likely entered the realm of cliche or familiarity. Speaking to what I was saying before about the tone of this poem, to me, the polyvocality of this poem and the multiple registers of tone seem, again, pretty signposted to me. Like I’ve literally got a [ha ha!] in a bracket with an exclamation mark. It feels like, “Hey guys, this is not totally earnest and serious, maybe there’s like a carpet that’s being tugged here.” Again, as you pointed out, the syllogistic culmination of a particular reading of the poem as just English is the language of violence and it’s bad and it’s demanding, whereas Vietnamese is open. I would imagine that that was well and truly undercut by the fact that it’s the Ho Chi Minh quote that comes at the end. But I don’t know. I do think that what’s been really interesting to me is seeing the spots, I would call them gray spots, I guess, where certain readers and writers have either felt attacked or defensive about a particular tonality of a poem, or have not felt—whether consciously or not—permission to take in the full bandwidth of possible tones. I think that speaks a little bit to the moment and the moment of impunity and piety when it comes to identity and what you’re allowed to feel, say, or think, depending on who you are and what you look like, etc. I think that’s really interesting. I found it endlessly fertile. It also speaks as a side note to that sense of there are certain writers to whom no interpretation is off limits, people have just plundered and trawled every single cosmic scintilla of any connection to these writers and taking them on wild excursions and it’s all okay, but there are other certain writers in the moment where even someone who was really, really well-attuned and across it will not go down certain paths of interpretation or semiotics and I think that that’s interesting. I mean I would say that first of all, I’m writing in English, I read in English, I work in English. I don’t write in Vietnamese, I don’t read Vietnamese. I speak Vietnamese at a, I’ve been told grade-one level of accomplishment. So a lot of this stuff is performing and enacting a very easy drawing of a line in the sand that I think can actually disable any deeper consideration of what is the difference between English and Vietnamese or other languages and what does it mean that there are no cases, tenses, or moods that are immediately perceptible in different languages. And it’s not just Vietnamese. What does it mean that there’s a gendered pronoun in English and there’s not in other languages? I think those are really interesting questions. But I think that there is a mysticism that can descend when it comes to writers from elsewhere speaking about the sanctity or whatever of their thing and knowing that there’s an unimpeachability to what they say and it’s something that I’m hoping that I’m simultaneously puncturing in others, in myself, but also in people who talk and think and write about these things. But also as a way of allowing the question to be put honestly, what are the differences? What does natality mean? What does mother tongueness mean to a mind and what does the indisputable hegemony of the English language mean to how the thought and talk are shaped in these minds and [wider] as well? I don’t have an answer to any of this. The second-last bit where it says, “The way that can be said to be the way is not the way” is one of the points of confluence, I think, where it can merge. It merges Taoist thought with even when Jesus is saying, “I am the way,” the via negativa mode of thought as well where you don’t know where you’re going, but you know where you’re not going, in a sense. I think Pound, even in one of The Pisan Cantos, says something like, “What you leave is not the way.” I think there is a confluence in divergence here, which I’m trying to arrive at by the end of the poem where it should be, I would hope, clear that in undercutting, undermining, accusing, and attacking English, there’s also like a deeper consideration of what violence actually means, what difference means, and in some ways, there’s an encomium to English as well.

DN: Well, we have a question for you from another again that is partly about landscape, but before I play it, I wanted to mention perhaps the most memorable part of the David Malouf book, it’s the part of the book where you most diverge from his project. You’ve established innumerable affinities with him and perhaps most fundamentally that you both started in poetry and that neither of you really left poetry when you wrote your fiction. That poetry, in your words, is the weather of the previous prevailing condition, and also that you both use scansion notation to meter out your prose. In first discovering him, you say, “Here was language that drew meaning out of music, of echo, silence. That communicated before it meant.” But when it came to questions of Australian-ness and how much one’s writing was part of making the place, you talk about how Australian-ness is alien to you because you are still alien to Australia. How white Australia policy was built on a platform of yellow peril when Arthur Calwell, the first immigration minister, said, “We have 25 years at most to populate this country before the yellow races are down on us.” And who also said, “Two wrongs do not make a right.” And most evocatively, you say that unlike much white writing about the Australian landscape, for you, the land is many things but not monstrous or malevolent, it actually poses nothing but itself that for non-anglos, whiteness is the bush, not the bush itself. When you were in conversation with Stan Grant, the Aboriginal writer and journalist, that’s the first thing he remarks upon too about that book, your notion of whiteness as the bush, whiteness as the all-pervasive and little commented-upon bush. Before I play the question, I just wondered if—and it’s a question that’s not about Australia specifically—but does this spark any thoughts for you?

NL: Yeah. I mean, I’m sparkling so, [laughter] in every direction, I’m sparkled out. I guess I would just by way of context, I don’t know whether I’ve come across the same notion of the bush in early American writing. There’s very much a preoccupation for the non-Australian listeners of Australian writing all the way through, to be honest, not just early Australian writing that posits the landscape, the land, the vastness of it, the seeming emptiness of it as something that is malevolent, that civilization is thin steak and veneer, which can be stripped away at any time by everything that’s around it. Like it’s a horror movie trope really. Wiser minds than mine have gone into some detail about how this might speak to a deeper psychology that is steeped in guilt, I guess, and fear because of the colonial circumstances of the occupation of that land. So it was interesting to read something again and again, to come across it again and again, and to be inculcated on one level into believing that that was the case. Then arriving somehow some time at my own mind, and realizing, “Hang on, I don’t see or feel that. Certainly not in the way that was described in all of the myth-making narratives about this country written by people trying to build a Republic of Letters.” That really big moment for me, where I took issue and understood that so much of the assumptive calibration of so-called national literature didn’t apply at all. That one would need to, that I would need to go back and unpick all of the assumptions and all of the givens about what we were doing in this project of writing Australia, and what Australia even was, what Australian lit was, and what it could do. I had to go back and reassess and rethink all of that and I think it’s been important in how that intersects with my investigations into identity, belonging, and affiliation in general.

DN: Well, it feels like the untranslated quote in Latin at the beginning of the poem Matri – immigral is related to these questions, which translated as “what place is this, what region, what shores of the world,” which brings us back full circle to the white canon, a quotation from T.S. Eliot, that itself is a quotation from Seneca’s The Mad Hercules, describing a hero returning to a world that he’s deeply estranged from. This question, which is not about Australia, but I think is related to questions of place and one’s place, here’s past between the cover’s guest, poet, memoirist, novelist, and musician, Dao Strom.

Dao Strom: Hi, Nam, it’s Dao. I’m so thrilled that you’re having this conversation with David, and I really look forward to hearing it when it’s complete. Thank you, David, for having me again to ask a question on this show. Nam, congratulations on your book. I really love this book, and I’m thrilled that it is out in the world. The question I want to ask is perhaps a little bit esoteric but it’s about the elements of nature and how they figure in these poems. As you know, there is a lot of Vietnamese diasporic writing that dwells in water as a thematic current, as a metaphor, as a play on the double meaning of the word water in Vietnamese, “nước,” which translates as both water and country. This metaphor, this quandary of water has carried our literature for a long time now for good reason, evoking loss and sorrow and so many conditions of memory. But I’m wondering now also about how other elements might play as forces in our collective imagination. Your poems I think dwell in language as a kind of water or let’s say language as a substance that is fluid, amorphous, and unstable, and you also reference fire which has at times itself been another form of voicing, you could say, in our Vietnamese lexicon. But I’m even more fascinated in these poems, something in me is stirred, something resonates in your references to rock, especially to karst, which on one hand, maybe an allusion to deep time I think, but also brings to mind for me in relation to Vietnam, the environment of limestone caves that exist in central Vietnam that is a defining but also a somewhat hidden underground aspect of the geography of that region. I believe we’ve had some conversations and shared some ideas in the past about those caves and I guess what I want to ask is perhaps an extension in a way of that conversation. I’m thinking of how the natural elements figure vividly in Vietnamese imagination and mythology, especially in folklorists about mountains and seas and such. I wonder if you might be willing to speak to how those elements are working if they are in your poems. I’m wondering in particular about the elementalness of rock, the references to geology, also about the nature of ice, which is a much slower-moving state of water. Would you be willing to talk about the language of the elements or about elements as another vein of language that perhaps might underlie or might also erode the question of identity that lives in these poems? Thank you for fielding this question and congratulations again on the release of this book.

NL: Oh man. Can I say that when I listened to your extraordinary interview with Diana Khoi Nguyen and heard Dao being brought in to ask a question, I was already anticipatorily jealous and resentful that she got Dao, [laughter] like, “Ah, man.” I have so much respect for, I just love Dao’s mind and her work and how she comes at her material with such integrity and how you used, Dao, form as process, which I think is the deepest truth that we can bring to any laying over of the world or experience or consciousness over to art. I had a weird sensation as I was listening to that question of having so many thoughts and extrapolations from it and then by the end of it, I was so hypnotized by the movement of Dao’s mind that I fear I’ve let go of those fugitive associations, but I’ll give it a go. It’s really interesting, I think, when we talk about the points of confluence between East and West in terms of culture and letters especially. This notion of returning to the elements is one that springs from the same germ, the same bedrock. All metaphor springs from these elements arguably. It’s the source of generation, of imagination. When I think about the caustic landscape, I think about Auden’s In Praise Of Limestone and I think about the caves in Vietnam as well and I think about deep time and I think about stratification and how time is positional as well and how so much of what we inscribe as significant in our lives assumes a very different significance or perspective when seen from the lens of deep time or from geological time. I’m reminded of, you might have read this, the Liu Cixin The Three-Body Problem, the science fiction trilogy. There was a really cool bit where, I’m going to get this totally wrong, but they knew that the world would end and they wanted to preserve an archive of “we were here once and this is what we were and this is what we thought and did.” They go through the various possibilities of archive and they realize that all of the technological forms of preservation are enormously porous to the elements and that books won’t survive, hard drives won’t survive anything electronic won’t survive, and that in the end what they come up with is carving on rock as the form of technology and inscription that might survive a certain number of years. I think it was millions of years. That really spoke to me, that really resonated with me in the sense that rock is something that accepts and withstands pretty much everything else. I love that figure probably for self-serving reasons. But it also assumes, takes, and absorbs, and what dies upon it and is absorbed by it and is fossilized within it becomes part of it. Then time and the action of water and rock and other elements changes it as well, compresses it, changes its molecular structure. From some of that comes the moment that we’re in now in terms of the extractive technology of the fire. All of these as figures, as metaphors, speak really strongly to something that perhaps goes a bit deeper than questions of nation or questions of human tribality. It speaks to a sense of process and change, I think, and I think this is where Dao and I meet in water that is never the same, the Heraclitus line, or in air, which is only itself, and evinced and felt as wind when it moves in fire, which is plasma, and is only change, and is only ephemera. To speak of the elements is to speak of the action of the elements and the elements in action, and to speak of the elements in action is to speak of them in action against things, whether it’s the landscape or whether it’s against us. I think that having that kind of a priori openness to elemental action is, in some ways, the first task of art.

DN: Well, a lot of the imagery Dao is alluding to here is in the final long 37th poem, which I’m hoping, if you’re willing, we can end with. Before we hear it, I feel like we should spend a moment and talk about a 37th poem in a book called 36 Ways of Writing a Vietnamese Poem. It feels to me similar to The Boat, it feels like all the book before prepares us to read the final piece. But in a way here, this feels like an inverse of the experience of The Boat. Because when we read the final story, The Boat, reading it after all that you’ve demonstrated your ability to do that isn’t from your subject position, all of your capacity to imagine into otherness, we’re still sort of left uneasy being delivered the ethnic story, the story that most parallels your own family’s history, haunted by whether this writer should have written it and by the verdict of his father who has burned it. But here, the 36 poems that precede the 37th poem are all grappling with identity in a way that, at least in my reading, seems to liberate you to write a poem liberated from identity, and yet somehow mysteriously more you at the same time. Perhaps what you would write in a very different world. But I have no idea if my reading in any way connects with what you’re thinking about when you write a 37th poem of a different length, of a different tenor in a 36-poem collection. I wondered if you could just share some thoughts about this poem.

NL: Thanks, David, and maybe in no small part, it was just a trap to reviewers and interviewers to see whether they’d actually read the damn thing. [laughter] Well done, you hopped across that.

DN: Thank you.

NL: You’re right, it is a thing apart and it’s typeset that way too. There’s a blank page before that 37th poem. There’s a space of space, breath, and silence that precedes it. Then the way it’s set out is deliberately caustic, I guess, the blocks of text, like rock or ice that have been creviced out, really deliberate way as well. I’m so glad that poem resonated with you in the way that you described. I think I said this in the Poetry podcast, but to me, Tennyson had a poem Crossing the Bar that he once wrote, I believe, said he wanted every collection of his from that time on to finish with that poem. To me, this poem is almost, as you say, the expenditure of all of the energy that’s been tensioned into existence by the preceding 36 poems. It’s as though it’s an enactment of the larger project of the book, which is, let’s be transparent about the conditions of the making of the art of a Vietnamese poem. Let’s have it out there and let’s feel all the things that we feel that are various and contradictory and at odds. Let us be unfolded and refolded and unfolded again as we move through and let us see how precarious and provisional our position is at any given moment through that gap and through that space. Then let’s come to this thing which on the one hand, it’s a description of an outwash plain and it’s to first instance, completely stark and barren. All it is, is elemental. There are no humans in it. There are human echoes in its figures and its linguistic state of being, but it’s a place where other things and other actions pass over and leave traces of their processes behind. Yet on closer look, it is a tremendous space of beauty and activity as well and it is all accepting, all capacious. It contains every process and it feels to me cleansing, bracing in a way, and hopeful too. That hope is even figured temporally in the poem where in unspecified time compression by the end, they were the first stirrings of life so that this barren expanse is in a way the precondition for life and for generation. So to me, it’s the uber metaphor, but it’s also not a metaphor at all. It’s a hope and dream. I think the poem would be a very different thing were it to exist on its own or outside of the construct of this book. I would hope that when a reader reads it, they would ask themselves why that might be the case and what it might portend in terms of where this work might move, where this project, this line of inquiry might move going forward as well.

DN: Well, my favorite line from your book of nonfiction is, “For me, the question of a writer’s ‘identity’ – if it must matter – is answered, of course, by words. The true pedigree is linguistic. The true passport is imaginative. Writers should get some say in it. What matters is not what tribe or place the person was born to but what community the writer has made for themselves through reading, thinking, writing.” On that note, let’s hear poem 37.

NL: Thanks, David. Before I read it, I just want to thank you for the seriousness, the care, the attention, and the generosity with which you’ve read my work, thought about it, and shared your thoughts with me. It’s a real gift and I really appreciate it.

DN: I’m so glad we did it.

NL: Yeah, me too. It was never a sure thing, was it?

DN: No, but it’s been great to bring this full circle after our 10 weeks together so long ago now.

NL: Yeah. No, absolutely. All right. Here it goes.

[Nam Le reads a poem called 37. Post-racial/ glacial from 36 Ways of Writing a Vietnamese Poem]

DN: We’ve been talking today to Nam Le about his poetry collection 36 Ways of Writing a Vietnamese Poem. 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. For the bonus audio archive, Nam contributes a flash soundscape from his world, joining readings, mini-craft talks, long-form interviews with translators, and more. Readings by everyone from Viet Thanh Nguyen, on Maxine Hong Kingston, to Dionne Brand reading Christina Sharpe and Canisia Lubrin. 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 the supplementary resources with every conversation, of things I discovered while preparing, things referenced during it, and places to explore once you’re done listening. Additionally, there are a variety of other potential gifts and rewards from the Tin House Early Readership subscription, where you get 12 books over the course of a year, months before they are available to the general public to 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.