INTERVIEWED BY SOPHIA LIU
Noor Hindi (she/her/hers) is a Palestinian-American poet and reporter. Her book, Dear God. Dear Bones. Dear Yellow is out with Haymarket Books. She is a 2021 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellow. Follow her on Twitter @MyNrhindi.
Hi Noor! Congrats on Dear God. Dear Bones. Dear Yellow.! It’s so propulsive and unflinching. I pause at lines and wow. I want start by asking you about “Fuck Your Lecture on Craft, My People Are Dying” which so well-deservingly blew up last year. What was your reaction to the attention the piece received?
First of all, thank you so much for reading the collection and spending time with the poems.
I think the biggest motivator for me in writing the book was seeking community and connection. I felt so connected to the authors of the collections that I read when I was studying and exploring poetry, so I'm really glad to hear that the book resonated with you so much.
“Fuck Your Lecture on Craft, My People Are Dying” was a wild experience. I didn't expect the poem to blow up the way it did. But I think because of the pandemic, the George Floyd protests, and Israel threatening to and evicting families living in Sheikh Jarrah, there was a lot of anger and tiredness in our country and worldwide and the poem resonated with many people. And the coolest thing was just to be able to reach so many people and respond to them and say thank you and hear about their personal reading of it and how it connected to them.
You end ““Fuck Your Lecture on Craft, My People Are Dying” with the line “One day, I’ll write about the flowers like we own them.” Those words are shattering. They’re especially shattering because that day may never come, or when it does, we’ll be long gone. How do you assess poetry's capability as activism and advocacy when so much feels out of our control?
A protest poem is not a protest. It's not a burning of a police building. It's not a change of legislation. But what poetry does is give voice to the people who are most impacted by violence, by colonialism, by climate disaster. For example, rather than somebody reporting on an event that impacts people, a poet is able to just write their own story, document their own history, and be a voice that connects to other people like them. For me, emerging into the literary scene reading queer Palestinian and Arab poets, I knew that I wasn't the only one and felt less lonely and alienated. I hope that by writing my own poems, I’m reaching audiences that need to be reached to empower them.
There’s humor blended into the poems in Dear God. Dear Bones. Dear Yellow. I loved the lines “I assimilated so much / I drink Diet Coke / at the rate of a middle-aged / white woman” in “Broken Light Bulb Flickering Away” and the sarcasm in “Self Portrait as Arab/Muslim Teenager in an All-White High School.” But I felt something bitter about the humor—it becomes a coping mechanism against the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, against America. Can you speak more about the humor in the book?
I really believe in humor's ability to access hurt and make a point without feeling too heavy. It’s a useful mechanism. People don't expect when you're writing about immigration, sexuality or sexual violence, for there to be an element of humor. But I think in our human existence, there are varying emotions and ways of coping that I often don't see represented in poems that are tackling these tougher subjects. Personally, I think entering the poems with a certain level of light-heartedness allows me to access my own voice to be able to talk about difficult topics without coming to the page with this sense of heaviness and dread.
Another topic you navigate is your difficult relationship with journalism. Does observing the violence, voyeurism, and dehumanization of journalism prompt you to approach your journalism differently?
I was on this crusade for years when I was doing journalism to convert more reporters to poets, and or at least get them to read poetry. Because so often reporters are interviewing subjects—people who are experiencing violence or racism—but we are still the gatekeepers of their voice. We’re choosing which quotes to pick. Sometimes we're using their narrative, their story, and their voice to explain a larger phenomena. Poetry, on the other hand, is a person’s unfiltered voice and experience. It’s documentary.
Solmaz Sharif’s work, for example, incorporates family, history, and photography. Poetry is so empathetic and attuned to the heart, but reporting doesn't always feel that way. In reporting, there's a structure and an argument that’s presented through statistics or a study. I think it's worth reading a person's perspective for the sake of reading it and experiencing that story first-hand and sitting with their art. I also think that poetry taught me to be in touch with feelings and sit through the pain. When you're reporting, you're not always able, or you don't have the time to process everything that you're seeing, which ultimately does a disservice to what you publish.
Despite your critique of journalism, you still pursue journalism. Can you describe that dissonance?
I actually published my last story in August of 2021, so we're nearing roughly a year since I’ve stopped reporting. I’m working in communications and marketing now and I haven't returned to reporting. I burnt out. But it's something that I continue to use in my poetry. What journalism taught me is how to connect to communities, how to find information, and how to interact with documents. I still use the skills even though I'm not currently practicing it.
Many of the poems Dear God, Dear Bones, Dear Yellow respond to or incorporate journalism. The use of headlines in “Good Muslims Are All Around Us” is so powerful. How does your work in poetry and journalism overlap and carry over to one another?
As a child growing up in the United States, and as somebody who was six years old during 9/11, growing up in the supercharged anti-Muslim rhetoric, it's always been fascinating to me the ways in which headlines report articles and how the language that we use creates violence that can be targeted to a specific group of people consciously or not consciously. When somebody hasn't taken the time to think about language and its impact, there are implications to the words they put on a page. I was very aware of the consequences of reporting. Reports about Palestine, for example, often say Palestinian children have been shot dead by Israeli officers. They’re referred to as shot dead and not murdered, which implies that there isn't this connection between the perpetrator and the victim. You also see this a lot with the way that we talk about the killing of Black men in this country by police officers in the use of the active versus passive voice. Growing up in that atmosphere taught me to be more critical.
One of the most poignant moments in the book is the USCIS Trip poems, where you detail your grandmother’s relentless and excruciating journey to become an American citizen. How do you go about having conversations with people who hold such contrasting, and often heavily idealized, images of America?
America often creates wars, meddles into other countries. create chaos, and wreaks havoc on generations. Then we become refugees or have a need to immigrate to this country as a direct result of America being a colonial nation and American interests always being put above all else in the world. When you are somebody who is white and or has grown up in this country and hasn't been to other countries, you believe that the world revolves around the United States, that it is the center of the universe. With my grandma, she was happy to receive her citizenship and felt a sense of safety and stability in having her citizenship. But I continually ask: at what cost?
I ask that question with the knowledge that it's a question I'm asking from a place of privilege as somebody who did not grow up in Palestine. I was born in Amman, Jordan and I didn't grow up there either, so there's a lot that I didn't experience. There is still this image of America being the land of opportunity. In a lot of ways, some of the poorest people in this country are perhaps richer than people in other countries around the world. We know this to be true in some ways, but I just continually question the consequences.
I’m wondering with relatives, like your grandmother, who still blissfully believe in America, are these conversations even worth happening?
Family and politics are really difficult to navigate. It's really hard for me to come to her and tell her to be critical of this country when she is limited in the amount of water that she can use every week in Amman. She’s limited in the amount of gas she can use and parts of her home are not heated in the winter. For me to come and tell her to be critical of America, as I'm sitting in an air conditioned and heated home, and have this ability to use as much water as I please, is a privilege.
I haven't navigated that conversation. And I, throughout the process of her receiving her citizenship, helped her with it. I wasn’t going to break her bubble of joy with whatever criticism I had. She deserves to be happy.
In “I Buried My Father Last Winter,” you write “The first time I met my father, I was interviewing a Bhutanese refugee.” When I spoke to Diana Khoi Nguyen, she discussed that she spoke with members of the Vietnamese diaspora due to the silence sustained by her parents. Do you share a similar experience?
My dad was somewhat open about talking about his experiences. I was working on a story at the time for a magazine about a community that was living in Akron, Ohio, which is where I grew up. The community consisted of predominantly Bhutanese and Nepali refugees. I was fascinated by their experience of coming to this country because it mirrored my grandparents’ experience of having to navigate language barriers and watching this generational divide with their kids. In the poem, I quoted the words from a refugee I interviewed.
It mimicked a lot of what my parents often said to us or accused us of growing up because of the strangeness and distance we felt from not growing up in the same place, not speaking the same language, and not having an affinity for the same food. White people, for example, often go to the same high school as their parents, or share similar experiences, and I think there’s a closeness and intimacy in that. But children of immigrants don't experience that. When I was interviewing this refugee, I was at this place of empathy and understood the sense of betrayal and loneliness with one’s children and new country.
You open with an epigraph “Let this book be an invitation, as prayer, as love.” Moments of love are dispersed through the book. In “USCIS Trip #2,” you write “I want my rage to elicit love and more love. I want people to stop asking if I love this country.” In the last piece, “Pledging Allegiance,” you question, “What does it mean to love? A country? A book? A people?” How do you intend the book to serve as love? What does it mean to proffer this book as love when you question its definition?
In a way, I wrote the book from a place of isolation and loneliness and a desire to connect. My sense of safety, community and belonging and feeling loved came from reading other writers like Tarfia Faizullah, Randa Jarrar. Safia Elhillo, and Kaveh Akbar. All of these people made a huge impact not only on my work, but also on my mental health and ability to navigate the world. I see the book as an act of love and vulnerability. I think that often your first book as a poet tends to be autobiographical because you have all these experiences you’re going through. I wanted that first page to welcome people in and to make them feel safe and to establish a connection.
INTERVIEWED BY SOPHIA LIU
Jireh (they/them) is a queer Taiwanese/Hong Konger American poet and multimedia journalist born and raised in the San Gabriel Valley. Their poetry and prose appear in The Rumpus, Asian American Writers’ Workshop, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and more. As an artist, they’ve collaborated with filmmakers at Level Ground and the Human Rights Campaign to bring their poetry to screens. They are a screenwriter in training with Get Lit, Words Ignite and a current documentary fellow with the Asian American Journalist Association Voices program. As an intern, they worked at The Los Angeles Times and NPR. Most recently they were an associate producer with CapRadio on a new podcast “Mid Pacific” on Asian American identity. They volunteer as the student representative for the Los Angeles chapter of the Asian American Journalist Association. You can follow their work on Instagram and Twitter at @bokchoy_baobei or at jirehdeng.com.
One of my favorite poems of yours is “Where I prove by induction, humanity,” where you so brilliantly incorporate math. I loved how you mapped out a math problem and presented scratchwork at the bottom. How did you navigate the collaboration between poetry and mathematics?
I was inspired by taking a proof-based math class. I was a math major for two years and actually only needed to take one more class to be a math minor, but I’m done with school and don’t want to think about it anymore. Although I am no longer taking math classes, math still affects how I think. I was thinking, what if I wrote a poem as a math proof?
I was also taking a class with this professor who was insightful about not only math, but also the humanities. She explained many concepts in an interesting way and encouraged us to include our scratch work on the side.
What was uncomfortable about the proof-based math class was the ambiguity because I was always wondering if I was answering the problems correctly. I was struggling a lot because I’m better at plugging in numbers and working with very concrete rules. There’s a certain math logic, which is why math majors actually score very high on the LSAT. This class opened up space for me to think about how poetry is structured and how the world works at a macro and micro level.
I’m also really fascinated by your poem “Thanks, but the role of white girl is already taken,” where it’s first a contrapuntal and then you employ erasure on the initial poem to create a new understanding. Can you walk me through the development of this poem?
For the first eighteen years of my life, I lived in the San Gabriel Valley, which is mostly Asian American and Latinx. Going to college was a culture shock because I went from being one of many Asian Americans in a room to suddenly being the only Asian American.
During the pandemic, many white women were making my life very difficult in a myriad of ways because they were racist. I was shocked by the audacity because growing up, I didn’t experience white people acting like they owned things, owned time, or owned a space they walked into. The Asian American culture I grew up in, especially my church community, had an emphasis on being deferential, polite, and going out of your way to be considerate towards other people.
When I moved out during the pandemic, I had a racist roommate and I was shocked by her audacity to say such racist things. It was compounded by the fact that I was working at my student newspaper at the time, which was really problematic. I was constantly being gaslit by the white women that were in that journalism program. I remember countless frankly ridiculous things people told me that almost made me quit journalism. Someone, who I considered to be a mentor at that time, said I was too focused on racism and that I was distracted from getting the right work done.
That’s true in some regards. There’s a quote from Toni Morrison where she says “racism is a distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.”
As a person of color, you have to constantly prove that you’re human before people read or consider your work seriously. I think this not only applies to journalism, but also to poetry and any type of literature. You’re a hyphenated American. The white woman who was ignoring what I was saying about racism was essentially saying I was the distraction.
When my poem, “Thanks, but the role of white girl is already taken,” was first published, I was worried that someone might find it and nail me on the cross for my journalism because in journalism, you’re required to remain unbiased.
I don’t think I ever have had the choice to be unbiased. Especially as a queer Asian American, my identity is always up for debate. My humanity is up for debate.
This poem really came from a place of frustration. I realized that whiteness isn’t about the color of your skin, it’s also about the way you behave in the world. That’s why people of color also act like white people and in structures of whiteness. What shocks me about American culture is how individualistic and how selfish many people are because everyone is trying to make it for themselves and as a result don’t show up for one another.
A piece of unsolicited advice is to please never take a workshop if it’s not led by an anti-racist. During workshops, I’ve felt that my work was put into a category of “other'' and I’ve been told my work is too specific and not relevant to the white gaze.
In the second part of the poem, which is erasure, I thought of it not as a blacking out, but as a disappearance. I grew up in a bilingual household but then lost the ability to speak Chinese. I felt the loss of language. Instead of a word being covered up, words simply did not exist for me.
Erasure through the blank page, rather than erasure through blackening out lines, feels more appropriate to how I've been experiencing language throughout my entire life. I almost think that words are almost like dust particles, floating around in the second half of the poem.
Thank you for sharing that and thank you for your advice. You venture into many different art and writing mediums—poetry, prose, journalism, photography, mixed media—that it’s impossible to define you into a singular craft. What does being an artist mean to you? How does each artistic field you pursue interact with one another?
Poetry was the way I entered the art and writing world and I’ve always been interested in the intersection of poetry and journalism. I’m deeply afraid that I won't get to tell the stories that I want to tell. Life is short and I want to make things that outlast me. As an artist, my mission is to always humanize.
I’m very disinterested in representation politics, which is thinking appointing a queer person or person of color as the head of an organization will magically cure 200 years of racism and homophobia. If racism and homophobia existed for 200 years, it’s going to take another 200, if not more, years to truly fix it.
My work is an extension of my identity. The main thing I want to move into is directing and producing films now. I always loved visual stories and I want to take an active part in storytelling.
Film and journalism are very much about the act of witnessing. Right now, I want to move away from realism and more into fictional work. But it’s very difficult to be a filmmaker without having gone to film school. I’ve never taken a single class in film or documentary. I’ve had to learn things along the way and teach myself how to use different software.
How do you balance creating multiple types of art and writing, especially while also attending school?
Honestly, it was very hard. I spent a whole year working full time while also being in school full time. This summer, I was supposed to go to Kansas to work full time, but I didn’t because I was burnt out. I’m also broke because I decided I needed to be financially independent from my parents for mental health reasons.
I don’t hold anything against my parents, but sometimes it takes them five years to figure out things it takes the rest of us five seconds to because they’re from a different generation. I’m not excusing how they’ve behaved, but for my personal safety, I had to move out. But I’ve never taken a job that doesn’t move me emotionally or doesn’t align with my beliefs. I wake up every morning excited to be doing what I’m doing.
I was depressed and suicidal as a kid. The loneliness of queer youth was very difficult and compounded by the fact that I’m Asian. When your family doesn’t talk about where they came from, your history is obliterated. At the same time, your future is obliterated because your parents are unsupportive. My parents are deeply religious and were concerned that I was going to hell.
Now, being grounded in a community where I am able to produce beautiful art and storytelling feels so revolutionary. The world feels more infinite and boundless. I feel so lucky now that I’m doing what I dreamed about two, three years ago.
I have this sense of urgency to be working out of financial need but also out of the desire to be closer to people because the nature of being a journalist and storyteller is to be close to people.
You wrote in The Washington Post “learning to protect myself is also a political act of defiance: I refuse to play the role of a victim, or to rely on the police for my personal safety.” Does pursuing art and writing create the same defiance for you?
Yes. I've never felt like there was a moment where I had to look to an institution to give me validation for my artwork. Art to me is a living, breaking thing that interacts with people in open and mysterious ways. I have such fondness for the local art galleries and museums that are embedded in neighborhoods.
I’m also proud to have a nexus of connections in the art world. I can point people who have connected me to others to other folks. There's something very serendipitous about that. Connections are made because genuinely, we want to see each other all succeed. Of course there are barriers in the art world, but I’ve never felt that people haven’t been rooting me on.
As a journalist, my job is to always be like a cultural frontline worker who is always recording history. I want to recognize spaces that have historically been lost. If you don’t write about a topic or event, it’s almost like it never existed. So much of my family history has been obliterated because we don’t know or talk about it. My obsession as a journalist is to record history so that it doesn’t get lost.
As a queer person, the future feels ambiguous, which is why I’m very rooted in the documentation aspect of my work. Sometimes I wish that I could write about anything and not care about reality at all. I was reading K-Ming Chang’s Gods of Want and I thought it was so badass how she can just write about the fantastical and the craziest inventive things. I struggle to make up lies, so maybe that’s why my work is so grounded in reality. I want to tell real stories and capture people’s experiences so that I can incorporate them into my work.
K-Ming Chang is a visionary. Another poet and journalist I really love is Noor Hindi, who wrote in “Breaking [News]” that “Reporting is an act of violence–poetry one of
warmth.” Do you feel similarly about the difference between creative writing and journalism?
Yes, I know Noor! Noor’s a beast when it comes to the page. She’s such a powerful poet. I'm always grappling with power dynamics as a journalist. There’s an inherent extractive nature of journalism, in which you’re entering a community, taking a story, and leaving them behind. That really bothers me about the profession and why I don’t conduct myself in a typical journalist way that is distant and separate. Journalists can’t be robots and always objective. We’re real, living humans and we interact and shape the world. The way that we see the world informs how others see the world. It is inherently violent because journalism historically hasn’t been inclusive. Look at who’s owned large newspapers, whose perspective is being told, who has power over how the media is told.
There are a lot of journalists with that urgency to be fair and accurate, but there are a lot of us that don’t have the understanding of what it’s like to live in precarity, in the margins.
I grew up in a middle-class community and had privileges like food security, but my family did not have an excess of money and were very frugal. My parents did not think I could make a career as a writer. The fact of the matter is that in journalism, it’s very difficult for low-income people to break in because it’s so hard to get an internship and most are unpaid.
Being a journalist can also be violent towards yourself. I purposely try to stay away from trauma-porn-type stories. Instead, I’m invested in stories of queer joy. The representation we need is not of queer people dying and suffering–I know that exists–but I don’t want to be defined by constant suffering. I’m not a victim, I’m powerful. As an artist, I believe the future is now. We have the choice today to decide how we want to be liberated in the future. Joy is resistance.
Noor and I have talked about how it’s difficult to balance poetry and journalism. But I constantly turn to both. When journalism is breaking my heart, I turn to poetry. And when poetry can’t reveal what I want it to, I turn to journalism. Although they’re different fields, both of them do the same work of recording history and telling stories, which I want to do.
As a young writer, have you felt overwhelmed or pressured to write a certain way by the professional literary scene?
No, but I do feel a lot of pressure to be financially stable while doing something I'm passionate about.
Certain jobs would really crush my soul, such as reporting on breaking news. Breaking news is another way journalism is inherently violent—you’re not sitting with the stories, you're turning them out. Breaking news is often reported in a way that dehumanizes its subjects without context and without care for the person(s) harmed and their community.
Asian American Pacific Islander hate crimes have been reported very problematically because they tend to pit Black perpetrators against the Asian American community without contextualizing and people assume an easy narrative. These narratives are not neutral but shape our realities and how we treat people.
Anything else you’d like to share?
Being an artist is hard and exhausting, but I believe I have the endurance to keep doing projects to completion. And I will bring other people along with me because it's never a solo race. The beautiful part of growing as an artist is realizing that so many of us are on similar journeys and so many of us want to support one another. It’s my goal to amplify my peers and make the most noise possible.
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.
INTERVIEWED BY SOPHIA LIU
First of all, congrats on Imagine Us, the Swarm. It’s a stunning collection. The first piece of yours that I read was “This Is To Live Several Lives” in Nat. Brut, and it absolutely enthralled me, so I was delighted that you opened your book with it. The form perfectly complements the poem and taught me that language can appear however you want it to. How did you decide and develop the form for “This Is To Live Several Lives”? And when and how did you learn that language can exist out of established, and often Western, structures?
I wrote "This Is To Live Several Lives" shortly after the publication of Bone Confetti (Noemi Press), an attempt to write an essay about writing the book. I remember showing it to my friend, the poet Vanessa Angelica Villarreal, who told me that while the essay was well-written, it felt compressed, as if there was no space between the paragraphs when the words were dying to make room. I took her critique to heart, and in revising the essay, saw that it needed to be populated with the silences that comprised so much of the life (my life, my father's, my mother's) that I was writing about. These were not chosen silences but ones we were forced to endure at the hands of U.S. racial assimilation politics. What kind of grammar or form could draw our attention to this? I wondered. The ellipses, brackets, and white spaces that populated the pages were the beginning of a response, indicating a silence that was not self-selected, but which permeated through our lives with such distinct violence. I don't think any of this is easily learned, certainly not as a young child growing up and not speaking English at first. In a sense, not speaking the dominant language means that the acquisition of it requires close attention to its order and structure, such that I'm aware of English grammar and its prescribed social norms to such a high degree. It also means I'm aware of its limitations too, and in recognizing these constraints, I saw something else that could be possible.
That’s wonderful how Vanessa Angelica Villarreal played a part in that poem. I also love her work so much. You offer great empathy to your parents in Imagine Us, The Swarm. So many children of immigrants feel withdrawn from their parents because of the silence, the vacuum of open discussion. How did you find compassion within the silence? And how do you translate that compassion into writing?
As I get older, I'm also coming to terms too with the difficult decisions my parents have had to make in order to survive. There's a way to honor the complexity of these choices without condoning the harm that sometimes results from some of the more ill-informed actions. Which is to say that none of it is ever easy. And which is to say that silence is not always a willful negligence to provide history and context for one's children, but that sometimes it's become such an internalized way of surviving that you may not know anything but. As I get older, I realize this more and more, that I too have found myself making choices under certain social and economic constraints though with privileges not afforded to my parents. True compassion, I think, is about locating the parts of yourself in what you're critiquing. When we can see things for what they are, we begin to see more clearly the wound within us that cries out to be heard through this silence. As for locating compassion in my writing, that comes with age—as I matured and began to see the world more expansively, so it came to be reflected in my writing.
Thank you for sharing that, Muriel. When I was going through Imagine Us, the Swarm, I kept underlining because there were so many good lines. I remember stopping at: “The white woman who said, ‘I am jealous of your culture; you will never run out of things to write about’” because such similar lines have been rehearsed to me. Is there a correct response to such a saying? How do we counteract or educate against this ignorance?
Some offenses are too bold in their assertions to try to mask with any other phrasing. In this passage, I recount a time in my MFA when a white woman, after hearing me talk about my struggles with my family, suggested that I was very fortunate for the content I could mine for my writing. Can you imagine? A lifetime of racial and gender suffering, reduced to literary fodder? I don't know if such assertions require any response. Why explain yourself further to someone whose limited imagination forbids them from seeing the richness of their own experiences? White writers oftentimes find themselves stuck in their whiteness, it seems, especially against the friction of writers of color increasingly pronouncing themselves in the literary world. These days, I want to say in response, "I can't hold that for you," and "that" being whatever anxieties they may be experiencing about the changing terms of racial and social awareness in the world, and which I too am grappling with my own hard stuff. We, writers of color, do this hard labor of asking ourselves where we belong all the time, and so it's due time that white writers do the same.
Right, I think that’s the only appropriate response. Imagine Us, the Swarm isn’t the traditional collection–it’s seven hybrid essays that all play with space and form. It's also physically more horizontal than the standard book size. Why did you lean towards hybridity? Can you talk more about your visual processes in creating this book?
Truthfully, I wanted a book that takes up space. Imagine Us, The Swarm is a collection that mostly utilizes white space, so it feels fitting that the dimensions of the book would allow it that experience in reading. I want someone to hold the book in their hands and feel like they can spread their fingers across the page. I want a reader to feel as if the text and space on the page have texture. My guiding value when it comes to experimenting with the visual aspects of the book: Make sure it's purposeful. Whatever moves you from within to inhabit this space. Hybridity, for me, represents a crossing of social and aesthetic boundaries, the designated constraints by which we are told to live our lives and the rules of art. I think there's all types of crossings that marginalized writers and artists perform daily, and so blending multiple forms and genres make sense for the questions about identity, (un)belonging, racial and gender strife, pain, and more that traverse through the book.
I’m fascinated by your multimedia work. In “Obsessed Unbound,” you say, “I was full of desire but convinced no one desired me. We often joke that being queer is like living a second adolescence, which means that we endure these aches and pains two-fold and always, there are the letters.” Can you expand on your relationship with desire?
I believe that desire is the driving force for so much of my writing and life—the desire to live immensely, the desire to run so far away from pain that you would be willing to do anything to quell the noise within you. I'd like to think that even as cerebral as I know my writing can be, it's this texture of deep desire that runs through my work that truly showcases what is at the heart of what I'm trying to express. I want to de-stigmatize sentimentality, extreme emotionality, and anything that feels like the body's undulating roar. That it should be okay to heave your body to the ground, weeping, out of desperation or joy. To feel so deeply that all social mores of what's appropriate to express in the moment get thrown out the window. I believe that under all this intensity is something so pure, light, and worthy of protecting.
I love that, thank you. In “Dear Suzie,” you wrote over the footage from The World of Suzie Wong. I found that so clever and necessary, as Asian representation today remains so heavily flawed. Where did the idea for this project come from?
Wow, you're going deep into the archives now! "Dear Suzie" was a video project for a class I took with the poet and scholar Lan Duong, actually. I wanted to create a visual and voice narrative where the character of Suzie Wong got to speak in such a way that the collapsing of her story into an exoticized sex worker-with-a-heart-of-gold narrative denied her life of any nuance. Suzie Wong is an Orientalist creation, sure, but brought to life by Nancy Kwan and set in Hong Kong, which served as a British port for their militaristic and economic uses, the subject of her life is an extension of white imperialist negotiation with coming into contact with difference. Imperial and colonial violence doesn't have to be just about brute force, but a recalibrating of intimacies, especially through close relationships with Asian women. Suzie's plight is that she does not know where she belongs but has a hell of a lot more know-how than her white suitor, who despite his own lack of resources still gets to play hero in the end. It's the ultimate white fantasy, a projection that plays out in so many mainstream flattening of Asian women's lives. "Dear Suzie" isn't a project about resuscitating this notion that we can ever replace good representation with the bad, but rather that this older media can show us how the world has seen us and continues to see us, and how we can still emerge intact despite these limited ideas about who we are.