Diana Khoi Nguyen, in conversation
INTERVIEWED BY SOPHIA LIU
A poet and multimedia artist, Diana Khoi Nguyen is the author of Ghost Of (Omnidawn 2018) and recipient of a 2021 fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. In addition to winning the 92Y Discovery 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 core faculty in the Randolph College Low-Residency MFA and an Assistant Professor at the University of Pittsburgh. In Spring 2022, she was an artist-in-residence at Brown University.
Thank you so much for your work. You’ve probably heard this many times before but Ghost Of is so brave, so human, so reassuring. Especially as a young poet, it was very transformative to see that you can really do anything you want with your work and not conform to what you’re being taught or to tradition. I’m wondering what the conversation was like with your family to publish Ghost Of and their reaction after it received so much praise.
I have an estranged relationship with my family, especially my mother. One time when I visited my family, my mother said that she had been googling my name and had read my work that existed on the Internet because we weren't really talking for various reasons. She took all the mother figures in poems that she encountered to be commentary on her. I think she felt really embarrassed and exposed by them. And so she said, “I read what you wrote about me,” and I responded, “I wasn't writing about you.” But she thought “Bullshit” and forbid from ever writing about family. She said she would sue me if I did. Then I went to write Ghost Of.
I tell that story not to say that I defied her. I wasn't trying to write a book about family. I was working through my feelings of grief after my brother died and at a certain point, I decided I wanted to make that work public, which meant I had to reconcile with what my mother had demanded. I was not trying to anger her, but I wanted the work to be public, to enter into a larger conversation about suicide in the family, mental health, depression, and intergenerational trauma.
A month before the book was going to be published, I finally talked to my parents and explained my intentions for the book. My mother seemed pretty chill about it because I think she was mostly excited that I was going to be published. I didn’t think she really understood or actually read it. When the book came out, she came to the launch. And when the book began to be nominated for awards, she was really excited.
When I knew she was going to be in attendance, I only read certain poems. Then, with all the attention I received, I talked about in interviews how I didn't think my mother read the book. But she was still googling me and read the interview and then decided to read the book. Two years ago, she called me and she was really upset about what I had written and we stopped talking.
I stand by my intent, which was to never harm anybody in the family, but I can respect her request for privacy. Some people wait until like family members or whoever is dead to publish their work, but I didn't want to wait until then.
Initially, I didn't think that anybody would care about my family because it felt so hyper-specific. I felt like I went to school to write certain kinds of poems, so I avoided talking about anything overly ethnic because at the time when I went to school, my peers were predominantly white and all my mentors were white. I didn't give myself permission and no one asked me what my story was. I feel immense gratitude for the attention Ghost Of received because it opened many doors for me.
Have you worked with photographs outside of Ghost Of?
I do now. I've been doing multimedia work mostly with my family archives in site-specific spaces. Last year, I did multimedia work in a residency at Willapa Bay. I was working with pictures of my grandmother, aunts, and uncles when they were kids in Vietnam. All of this work was prompted because I started working with the family pictures my brother cut himself out of. I hadn’t done anything with multimedia before then, so it opened the door for me.
I was at your reading with Bianca Stone at Smith College last year and I remember that you shared videos where you recreated scenes of your mother when she was your age. Why did you decide to create this?
Thanks for being there. I wanted to really think about my parents and where they came from and not just view them as problematic parental figures. In our home video archive, I encountered my parents' wedding and honeymoon videos. I was struck by so many things—how young they were, how they didn't know what was going to happen in the future, how they didn’t know they would have children and that their son would kill himself. I felt profound empathy, which is very complicated because my mother was also the primary abuser in our family growing up. It was weird to have empathy for a younger version of that figure. My mother is not a monster, she’s a product of war. She’s a product of so many pressures and anxieties. I’m not excusing her for what she did, but it helped me understand her. My mother and I can’t talk about many things for various reasons, so I thought—what if I could non-verbally communicate with her by replacing her steps as a way to understand where she's been? The project allowed me to be with her, even if we were not talking.
Where do you intend to take your multimedia work?
I think some of it has been shared on some art or journal websites and I’ve shared it at conferences or readings or had conversations about it, but that’s really it.
Mostly I like to create for the sake of creating. Sometimes, people will solicit my work to post on their website, but that’s more incidental.
That’s wonderful–creating just for yourself.
It feels more special that way. And I feel like I can give myself the freedom to do whatever I want. I don’t have to show my work to anyone and it can just be silly. I totally have work like that. I feel really lucky when people ask for my work because I remember what it was like before people knew who I was, when I had to submit and get rejected.
Writing is often helpful to overcome grief, but I don’t think writing can ever be a cure-all. Was there anything else you did to remedy the grief after your brother’s death?
The first stage was nonverbal. I was living in Colorado at the time and I printed the photographs and took them on a hike with me. I would allow the natural landscape to fill them in. I put them up to flowers, held them up to the sky, or held it up to a stream. In a way, that was a precursor to my eventual filling in the spaces with words. That was very healing because it was the second spring after my brother’s death and spring is a time of renewal. When I sat down to write later that year, I could begin to put words into the space, which felt really special.
Are you still dealing with the grief now?
Yes, but not in the same way. The fact is he is not with us anymore and each year, it feels different. We have an ancestor altar and I think about his death anniversary every December. My relationship with it changes—it’s like being in a long-term relationship that will go on until I die. We’re now approaching the eighth year of grief after his death, which is very different from years one and two. I feel less pain but I’m still thinking. When I gave birth, I thought about my child’s uncle and how he loved kids. I think about what he would have thought of the kid. In years one and two, it was just immense pain of thinking about the rupture of his excision from the world.
Another way I think about it is if when a person dies, they become a newborn ghost. So when they die they are like a newborn, but in the afterlife. So now, in 2022, my dead brother is an eight-year-old newborn in the afterlife.
I love Richard Siken’s work and I immediately felt his influence on the poem “Ghost Of” and then saw that you acknowledged him in the Notes section. How do you go about taking inspiration from other writers?
It's very different when I was writing Ghost Of and now. When I was writing Ghost Of, there were poems that I sat with. When I read that Richard Siken poem, it really made me want to write, to use that kind of repetition, to use the leaps of logic. It was like fertilizer for my brain if I was a plant and the poem helped me to grow. There were a select number of writers and poems I would carry around as I wrote that helped.
Now I do that less. I separate myself from reading poetry with the act of writing poetry. I don't really look at poems anymore. I actually mostly look at nonfiction or even fiction because the impulse is that when I read a really good poem, I want to write one just like it. But of course, you can’t write the same exact thing. Prose helps me write poetry because I’m not going to copy the prose, and vice versa.
I love being in conversation with writers whose work I love, rather than trying to hide where it comes from. I want to let them know that their work has meant so much to me and helped me manifest how I felt. Inspiration is like a family tree, or a lineage of sorts.
What are some of your sources of inspiration now?
I really love the German novelist Jenny Erpenbeck and the novelist Julie Otsuka who wrote The Buddha in the Attic and has a new book called The Swimmers. Those are my two major major influences at the moment. More loosely, I'm deeply affected and influenced by Anne Carson's work. I’m also reading Pachinko now, which I'm really obsessed with, mostly because I was watching the show. The author Min Jin Lee is amazing and I think of her as a contemporary of Charles Dickens.
Are you writing more prose currently?
I just finished my second manuscript, which is prose poetry. Now I'm actually writing just straight-up prose at the intersection of nonfiction and fiction. I don't even know what it is yet and I try not to think about it too much. Lee Isaac Chung, who directed Minari, inspired me because he talked about his process, which is to brainstorm and write out a hundred memories. When he looked back at the hundred memories, it helped him see a common thread, from which emerged the screenplay.
I followed that process and wrote out my memories. Now, as I’m writing this prose, I’m inspired by Jane Wong’s work, especially her newest book, and Anthony Cody, especially his documentary poetics. I also love Victoria Chang’s Dear Memory.
You’ve said that you only write in 15-day intervals twice a year, and that Ghost Of was written in 30 days, which is so extraordinary to me. Is that still your writing routine today?
Not this year because I have a newborn. I'm trying to write something once a week. This summer has been hard, but I think I should be able to resume writing in the 15-day intervals in December because I was able to do it last December while I was pregnant.
Do you edit or revise outside that window?
I write very meticulously each of those days, so revision and editing are built in. Which is to say I don’t revise too much. However, usually after each interval, I usually wait three months before I go back to look at what I wrote. It's less like revising at the line level and more like deciding what to keep or not. From there, I’ll continue to build. When I’m putting together a manuscript, I might revise for cohesion.
What is your revision process like for your prose poems?
Honestly, I don't actually revise them because I write so slowly. I tweak each sentence like a line of poetry. I’ll spend hours on a line and never want to look at it again.
Do you have any advice, especially to children of immigrants or people of color, on healing or coping with cultural silence?
First, listen to the silence. Pay attention and notice when it is happening. For how long has it existed? Perhaps don’t immediately try to uncover that silence, but think about what might be the least damaging way to do so. Begin to investigate that silence, but sometimes, you can't just directly ask a question to right break the silence.
I did a conversation with Ocean Vuong about his new book and he talks about how he could never ask any of his relatives because that would open up many wounds and trauma. He chose to address those silences through a meditative process within his own life. Another friend, Jane Wong, can’t get answers because many of her relatives are deceased. She does research about their experiences and was able to uncover a lot about the Great Chinese Famine, the Great Leap Forward, and so on.
Each approach is different, so be careful and find the safest way to engage because we don’t want to perpetuate or recreate trauma. For me, before I asked my parents directly, I approached the silence by working with archival material and research. I’ve had conversations with others in the Vietnamese diaspora, which have helped me approximate my parents’ experience.
An analogy is to imagine yourself in a garden and you discover a dinosaur skull. You have to be really careful while excavating it—you realize it takes up so much space and requires a lifetime of work. Be careful and be patient.
And lastly, what are you working on now?
Two things: I’m finishing up the ordering of a poetry manuscript that looks at the Vietnamese diasporic experience as it intersects with my family, displacement, and the legacy of war. I’m writing another manuscript—which is neither fiction or nonfiction—based on personal memories and it’s also a ghost story. I’m having fun when I have the time to write.