INTERVIEW WITH Diana Khoi Nguyen
A poet and multimedia artist, Diana Khoi Nguyen’s debut collection, Ghost Of (Omnidawn, 2018), was selected by Terrance Hayes for the Omnidawn Open Contest. In addition to winning the 92Y “Discovery” / Boston Review Poetry Contest, 2019 Kate Tufts Discovery Award and Colorado Book Award, she was also a finalist for the National Book Award and L.A. Times Book Prize. A Kundiman fellow, she is currently a writer-in-residence at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, and teaches in the Randolph College MFA and Lighthouse Writers Workshop.
FWR: Ghost Of plays with ideas of erasure, whether through the transformed photographs included, or the way you manipulate text. Erasure also seems to speak to the way each of us forms identity — which parts of our parents, our culture, and our homes we carry forward or move beyond. Our identities can also be transformed forcibly by removal — through the death of a loved one or the loss of a homeland. The lines “If one has no brother, then one used to have a brother. / There is, you see, no shortage of gain or loss” (from “Ghost Of”) seem to speak to this. Would you mind speaking about what draws you towards erasure or this play with text?
DKN: I would say that prior to my brother’s death, I wasn’t really thinking too much about erasure — at least not actively. Two years before he committed suicide, in the middle of the night, he cut himself out of the family pictures. That’s an act of self-removal, which is unfortunately common in those who have suicidal ideation… But [it also] activated all of the silences that occur within our family. When that happened, my parents didn’t notice right away that the pictures were all missing a person. Everything kind of looked normal and then came the realization that everything is marred…
And then nothing happened. My family didn’t take the pictures down. Nobody talked to him. We just kind of continued on. And then two years later, he killed himself. And then the pictures still stayed up. Those pictures had a terrible weight to them. They kind of represented our failure to really communicate with him about his state — his emotional state, his physical state — and also our failure to really talk to each other about it. There was so much avoidance and I think buried in all of that is also my parents’ kind of willful silence about their own past and how they came to the States.
…I remember in the fifth grade we were supposed to learn the story of how our relatives or our ancestors came to this country. But my parents’ response was that there’s nothing to talk about; the war ended and we’re here. It was very evident to me that my parents had no interest in sharing with me their past and their story. I only learned about what the Vietnam War was like, and what it might have been like for my parents to try to escape after the war ended, through documentaries and through Hollywood films.
But this is all a way of saying those images of my brother really kind of activated thinking about erasure. And I feel like with my parents, it’s a silence, which is, I think, a real fear of not wanting to go back [into the past]. I can’t begin to speculate, but I can say that they are very forward thinking… Part of my dissertation project right now is interested in verb tenses within the Vietnamese language. The Vietnamese language has present, past, and future tenses, but what it doesn’t have is the subjunctive mood– the “should’ve, would’ve, could’ve” tense. So that’s interesting to me. It’s like within a nation, or at least within the mind, there’s not a possibility of entertaining alternate paths. It’s just like there’s the past, and then there’s the present, and then there’s the future. And my family, at least, is very focused on the future and they don’t, at least verbally, engage with each other about other possibilities.
This is all a way of saying that I’m drawn to countering that erasure– my brother’s, my family’s — because I think that what happened in my family isn’t unique to [us]. I think it happens in a lot of different families, Vietnamese and non-Vietnamese. I think there’s a lot of taboo around mental health and mental illness and wanting to move past traumas. But I think that if there’s so much silence around trauma, it also acts as a kind of ghost within a family that haunts.
When I started to write the book, I didn’t even think about the book as a book. It was the second anniversary of my brother’s death and I thought, I need to do something about these pictures. They still hang up on the walls. We don’t talk about them. They foreshadowed his death, and they represent our failure as a family and our lack of communication… So I had my sister scan them and send them to me. I wanted not to appropriate my brother’s voice or his experience, but to rather use his absence, or that void, as a kind of portal to reach him, I wanted to do something to fill in that space, a kind of reaching towards the dead or reaching towards the past, whether it’s his past or our shared past or my parents’ past, to bring it back into a conversation. I think the only way to end silence is to initiate a dialogue with whatever is being silenced. The artifact, the cut out pictures, enabled me to do that. If there had been no pictures, I don’t know if I would have engaged with it in the same way. I don’t think it would have been so urgent for me. So those pictures were crucial to thinking about erasure.
And then there’s that question about playing with the text. Once I had filled in the void, I felt as if I had unlocked something, a process that was really fruitful for my grief and enabled me to examine my family as an outsider… I thought, “well, the people in those pictures aren’t the same as now. What if I allow for the text to be the support system around that white space?” Thinking about all of us who survived the son, the brother, who is no longer there, what happened to us?
FWR: As you talk about your process, I’m reminded that I read that you write in compressed, marathon sessions. Could you speak a bit more about this?
DKN: Primarily I am an educator during the academic school year and when I’m teaching, I can’t write. I can’t split my brain — I’m kind of obsessive — I can only think about my students and my class. So I only write twice a year, in 15 day intervals, in the summer and the winter break that I have for myself. And that’s the time that I write. I dedicate my time to writing and making, because I’m doing more than just writing in those periods. That’s a process I’ve been doing now for almost eight years and it’s been fruitful. Ghost Of, for example, was really written in thirty days — August and December in 2016.
In the months leading up to, but then also during, those intervals I’m immersing myself intensely with various kinds of material. I structure it similarly to comp lists, like within a PhD in English… you might choose a time period, a major figure and a genre and you generate these long comprehensive reading lists around those topics. It’s so intense but you get to choose. You get to nerd out. I loved that process. I don’t want to repeat it but I’d love the idea of compiling comprehensive reading lists.
Each time I have this marathon, I compile an intense list around some kind of theme. For example, one year it was everything related to sand. And I don’t read much poetry during that time because I’m worried about other poetry forms and styles becoming embedded in my mind. I read a lot of non-fiction. I watch a lot of movies. It’s a way to expose myself to different kinds of styles, different texts, that I wouldn’t normally read. During one writing session, I was watching animal documentaries and I watched one about eels. I became really obsessed with eels and what we know and we don’t know. For example, scientists, at least up until 2016, don’t know how eels procreate. They have never been able to witness it. They know that eels spawn in the ocean deep and then they travel to freshwater. What’s really fascinating to me is when the eels are usually within their adolescent stages when they’re making this treacherous journey, because of the rise in dams and all the stuff that man has done to many rivers and freshwater spaces. When there’s a dam, some of the eels have adapted to travel on land, for a time. Some of them are even able to climb vertical walls because of this biologic imperative for them to overcome these obstacles.
The eels in the adolescent stages remind me of my brother. Adolescence was when everything turned from [him being] a really bright, kind of precocious, gifted child to this sullen, depressed teen. We all thought it was a phase, except he never got out of it. It persisted into his twenties and then he committed suicide. And so I think a lot about his loneliness and his struggle to overcome his depression, and something about the eels’ journey allowed for a sense of correlation, a metaphor to help me understand him.
This leads me to the gyotaku. It’s an old technique, predating photography, in which there’s an application of ink applied to one side of the creature or fish and then pressed onto muslin or paper. It only captures the essence of the thing, because it can’t capture the 3D nature of the thing… but it remains for posterity of that moment. Thinking about that process and thinking about impressions, this is all I have left of my brother at this point. I can’t conjure up new memories and I only have diminishing memories of him. I began to play around with the idea of the body/text, concrete poems, with the idea of gyotaku, and manipulating [the images and poetry, questioning]… what would this mean if the text was a stamp.
…Moving the text in so many different ways brought things alive for me. It’s an acknowledgement of decay in [the process of creating gyotaku], in that the ink isn’t the same strength when you use it a second or a fourth time, but there’s something new that’s generated out of the repetition of the image, no matter how diminishing or decaying. It creates a visual echo. And there are a lot of repetitions within the book. Ultimately, there was a lot of play visually within the book. It wasn’t enough to just write the pieces. There’s a vitality in working and moving with that body. There’s a movement inherent within visuals and that movement signifies vitality. I don’t think I could have done this within a traditional layout.
It also made sense to explore the gyotaku as a form of preservation. Simultaneously, while working on this text, I also began working with my family’s home video archives. That’s the only place now where my brother exists wholly. I’ve been doing a lot of video work in terms of examining the past and discovering that what’s on the video is very different from what I remember. There’s a reconciliation with memory with record, as curated by father and a camcorder.
FWR: Were there texts you turned to as possible models or possible influences? I thought of Gregory Orr or Matt Rasmussen, but I’d be interested to know if you looked elsewhere or if you decided that you wanted to consider this experience within your own context or the context of your family?
DKN: It was absolutely the latter. I’d read a lot of different poetry about grief and elegy, prior to this happening with my family, but during these intense sessions, I was not only not reading elegiac works but I wasn’t reading poetry. I have to say that I’m heavily influenced by Susan Howe’s work. But I would say that I was reading her more intensely after writing my own work.
I wanted to originate out of something else, not because I was trying to be inventive but because I wanted to find something organic within this personal instance. For example, I was given the prompt in one of my classes to do some kind of radical eulogy. It gave me a different way to construct around thinking about my brother… which I hadn’t been doing much with at that moment, creatively. I think I was afraid of mining my family trauma for the sake of art-making.
This idea of a radical eulogy, which was low stakes, made me think of the most traumatic moment within the process, which was his cremation ceremony when we pushed him from a cardboard box into the crematorium… I had also been thinking a lot about radical empathy, meaning, can you put yourself in someone else’s shoes but also, why do that? Is it helpful to imagine the kind of trauma that someone else has been through? Does someone need to put on the suit of someone else’s trauma in order to relate to what they have gone through? And what does radical empathy look like with a corpse? … So I built a cardboard coffin in my house and I would lie in it every day. It was scary but then when you’re in there, you can only look up. It becomes a meditative space and it allowed me to think in a different way. I ended up doing a video project to document it.
…I don’t know what was going on in his life, I only know these clues in terms of the moments leading up to his afterlife. But doing this ritual around his death and to retrace [his death] was a way to be with him. So this became my radical eulogy. I also printed out facsimiles of the cut out pictures and carried them around with me that spring. Everything was starting to bloom, and I would put the pictures out in the world. I wanted to fill in with the natural world this death and provide a larger context. On a grand scale, our death doesn’t really mean anything, we live, we die, and the ecosystem continues. But the emotional burden of grief remains.
FWR: This ties back into the way the natural imagery in Ghost Of normalizes death, which is a natural process, but the way the human body responds to death and process grief and mourning is different from other creatures. On one hand, this enables our empathetic connections but on the other, it forces us to experience pain that not everything else is feeling. What you’re describing, with taking these images out into the natural world, seems like an attempt to gain that guidance from the natural world, even as it’s an acknowledgment that this guidance is limited. I think of the lines from ‘A Bird in Chile, and Elsewhere’:
There is no ecologically safe way to mourn.
Some plants have nectaries
that keep secreting pollen even after the petals have gone.
You are being compelled by a loss, and that loss has changed you.
DKN: So much solace came for me in thinking about what flora and fauna do. Which is, [they go] on. It’s so much easier to say than do — how do I just go on? — and there’s the contradiction of not wanting to die, but wanting to be with my brother. So what to do with this grief so that I can still live a life? And what does it mean to bring my practice of grief into a daily living practice?
…What I’ve taken to doing now is to push through the moment of discomfort, to normalize it. I try to bring him into those moments because I think it’s nice to include him, as if he was here, rather than erasing him. He’s gone physically, but we knew him, he was part of the family. Let’s keep him in the conversation. How can we honor and remember someone without eulogizing him? Let’s keep him alive in the conversation. It’s a resistance against the silence that can enable trauma to occur.
Thinking about nature, things decompose and they’re recycled into the earth and atmosphere. We’re composed of dead things. It’s part of a larger framework of how life exists. And that helps me move on.
To tie this back to reading, I love to read about animal behavior but also what ancient cultures have done. I love reading about ethnography, anthropology, sociology — I find it helpful to learn patterns of behavior that make us human. One person whose work was really influential was Eliot Weinberger. A lot of his work blends myth with rumor and gossip with fact. He’s famous for this one piece, “The Dream of India”, which has all of these contradictory and physically impossible statements but you realize that he’s collaging all of the documents that he read. It’s a different take on nonfiction, in that it’s not necessarily true but it’s a collaging of historical documents and experiences. This influenced the poem “Grief Logic”.
FWR: Speaking of “Grief Logic”, the repetition there seems to speak to the nature of grief and how it transforms and distorts. And repetition appears in other ways throughout the text, whether the poet burning his life work in “The Exodus”, reminding the reader of your brother cutting himself out of family photos (“Family Ties”), or the revisiting of images in the gyotaku poems. I wonder if you might talk about what draws you towards repetition, and what you might resist?
DKN: Having some kind of logic or algorithm helps one to do the work of living after a trauma. Repetition can be a kind of engine to help you continue. Then, in doing the living, there’s ultimately a deviation from the repetition, which makes me human as I figure out ways to go on after my brother. Grief is immobilizing, and repetition can help. But to repeat only, and not address what happened, is dangerous. Repetition can afford us a kind of safety.
FWR: I think this goes along with the idea of a familial lineage, to say, “you have so-and-so’s laugh or their sense of humor”, or other non-physical characteristics that we associate with the past, because there is a comfort in the repetition. There is a sense of being able to identify where something came from, even if it’s a distortion of the original. I think, not to be morbid, that happens within death as well, because we all will have a variation on the same experience but we put a sense of individuality on the experience.
This made me think of you leaning into the uncomfortable experience of keeping your brother in the conversation, because that is a disruption of the repetition, or cycle, of silence. While he may not physically be with us, if we distort our tendencies slightly, then a presence of him can be maintained. I think it’s a universal experience to have to recreate ourselves or recreate our loved ones as our understanding of who they are, or were, changes. To go back to your project with the home videos, it’s the realization that your memory isn’t perhaps entirely correct — or the only memory of that event that might exist.
DKN: Absolutely. It’s funny, because in doing this work, it wasn’t initially intended to be shared with anyone. It was a way for me to reconcile my specific family’s past. But to think that this work has been able to reach so many people, it reiterates that we are all unified in that we all live and all die, and we wrestle with those states for ourselves and for others. It’s been really moving for me to experience. I’m so grateful. Never before in my life have I ever talked about death so much with so many strangers!
…I’ve been doing a lot of work that all originates with this terrible thing that happened to my family. While this does have utility in processing my own grief, I also want to engage the larger community in thinking about these kinds of issues. Suicide affects so many more individuals and families than we talk about on a day-to-day basis. It’s hard for me to talk about the book, but if I feel like it serves a larger service, then I think it’s okay.
FWR: Is there a poem or poet (or several!) that you love to teach or share?
DKN: One of my topics for my comp was Asian-American literature and exile. I’m interested in displacement and feeling outside of a community. So I’ve read a lot of work by people who left their homeland or people who grew up in America but felt unincluded or marginalized. Most of the institutions that I studied at, especially at a higher level, didn’t offer any classes that would teach me any Asian-American work. It’s important for me, as an Asian-American writer, to understand my context that I’m operating in. So I chose that comps list to educate myself, because nobody had ever shared work of Asian-Americans in my classes.
When I teach, I bring in a lot of different texts of these alternative experiences, which don’t always align with my aesthetic. But I’m not interested in propagating my aesthetic. I want my students to figure out what inspires and excites them. I’ve been writing plays and thus I’ve been reading a lot of plays and befriended female playwrights. They’ve given me reading lists of other female playwrights who were operating at the same time as their male luminaries but they didn’t get that kind of attention. I’ve been reading them and it’s been blowing my mind… I want a more holistic view of the voices that have been operating in genres and time periods.
So, works that have been formative for me include Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee and the work of Myung Mi Kim. For Myung Mi Kim, I feel like a lot of her work isn’t being taught because it’s thought to be too experimental or too avant-garde. I think some [writing] takes a lot of work to read, but there are a lot of people out there who don’t want to do the work to read it. I think that does it a disservice. What I want to do in the classroom is tackle hard-to-read stuff. How do we process it? It’s all in English, so let’s do that work. I want to train writers to be able to read difficult work, which is another way of asking, how do we read inclusively?
There isn’t enough cross-pollination. If we can venture into conversation with other disciplines, I think it’s fruitful. This is why I love hybrid work; I’ve been able to have conversations with documentary filmmakers, sculptors, playwrights — I learn so much and I can see similarities across them. It’s how ideas arise: why keep them isolated? This is my not-so-secret-goal: I want us all to be engaged with everybody because we’re humans. We make stuff. We should be able to talk in a way that we can communicate what we’re doing and appreciate what we’re seeing, even if we don’t always understand what we’re seeing.