I was first introduced to Vi Khi Nao’s writing through Fish in Exile, her 2016 novel about the breakdown of a marriage after the drowning of a couple’s two children. The book’s structuring question, “Is it better to be at home in exile or in exile at home?,” explores the capacity of grief to render some of the most essential forms of dwelling—love, language, body, and house—unlivable. Like much of Nao’s work, Fish in Exile finds in this unmooring the possibility for poetic sprawl, driven by a grief so restless it moves “between the ether of this world and sewage.”
Nao’s second novel, Swimming with Dead Stars, follows Maldon Interstellar, a writer of Vietnamese origin, who suffers from two pulmonary afflictions: one physiological (a bad heart) and the other emotional (suicidal ideations). Through the account of a cross-country journey that winds through the architectures of academia, health care, and Airbnb, Nao lays bare the entwined operations of these institutions and their physiological, emotional, and financial impoverishment of Maldon. Inhabiting a world in which “everything is costly,” Maldon faces the question of whether “the pain of existing is worth the cost.”
In Swimming with Dead Stars, Maldon tells a literary agent she would like to be “the Zaha Hadid of literature,” and I take this to be a clue to the architecture of Nao’s archive, which spans poetry, fiction, film, plays, drawings, and cross-genre collaborations. Like Hadid, Nao invites her readers to occupy the world through a masterful deconstruction and reconstruction of her medium. As in Sheep Machine, Nao’s book-length ekphrasis of Leslie Thornton’s film of the same name, Nao’s work consistently recalibrates what is capable of being perceived in the blank space between perceptual frames, “when more than half of the film’s viewing is dipped in darkness.”
We conducted our interview over Google Docs one afternoon in September 2020, at the end of a summer of protest and the first leg of the long pandemic. The intensity of our interaction, even over Google Docs’ antiseptic interface, punctured what at the time felt like my very small world. I recalled a definition of poetry Nao published in the description of an online workshop given in early 2020, which began: “And, what is poetry? The ability to have two faces at once: the face of an ephemeral candor + clamor of where you are in history, where you are in between the liminal door of ache + condensation & the face of ardent transient amnesia.” I hear this clamor while reading Swimming with Dead Stars and A Bell Curve Is a Pregnant Straight Line, published in the year-plus since we spoke, and again while revisiting this interview. I’m grateful she trusted me with her words on that day.
I. “THE REALITY OF MY SADNESS”
THE BELIEVER: Hi, Vi! How are you?
VI KHI NAO: It has been hard the last week or so, Kim. Thank you for asking… My tears haven’t stopped falling—I can’t tell if I am at the foot of the cave where all the water has fallen or if I am the waterfall itself. There is so much mist & miasma in the Niagara-ness, in being a container that is capable of consuming emotions but is forced to dispense emotions. I feel like a faucet— & have no control over who could turn my spigot on and off—it seems each day—someone is standing over me, hovering, treating me like a domestic entity—like a kitchen sink— & turning me on and off—not to wash their hands, mind you—that I could understand, using my tears to wash away the grime—the moisture—the dust—or even dusk imbued—but I feel they are just turning me on and off because they can— & that’s how life chooses to unfold itself.
BLVR: This feeling of being like the kitchen sink, of being turned off and on—has that been over the past week? Or longer?
VKN: I started crying on July 12. The week before my birthday, when I turned forty-one. I am not one to be lachrymal—though weeping is a language that I am familiar with and can converse in with fluency if I need to—it’s not my primary language of expression, but lately, since turning forty-one, it’s the only language I have been able to speak in.
BLVR: Do you think this is related to turning forty-one? It also is several months since shelter-in-place began—a fair time to start feeling at the end of one’s emotional bandwidth. I can never tell these days what is really generating the feelings I have.
VKN: Some people say age is a number, but if the meaning of life is forty-two, then forty-one is the last year of being in complete suspense about a life that has no meaning. Perhaps my body is celebrating sadly and melancholically the mortality of not knowing who I am, where I am, what I am. I think I cried because I know— & the circumstances of COVID are validating this—that all my dreams and hopes and aspirations will not manifest. It is the acceptance of this reverse still life, this abortion of opportunities and chances, and embracing [the fact] that my destiny and my existence is not only short-lived but also will cease to become of itself. If my life is a snowstorm or a tornado, and this bizarre me has blown into a city—havoc-ing inches of snowflakes and white water vapor—coating a city in meters and not inches of snow—then the snowstorm that is me—has never reached land—this realization that I do not wish to grow old—that I am OK with walking away from a dream or a nightmare—that I am capable of this has become the reality of my sadness. Tears are a symbol of taking off my shoes—a pair of sandals— & leaving them outside the door of my life as I enter into my life.
BLVR: If I may ask, why do you feel that “the meaning of life is forty-two”? And from your perspective, how have the circumstances of COVID validated that all your dreams and aspirations will not manifest?
VKN: From Wikipedia: “The number 42 is, in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, the ‘Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything,’ calculated by an enormous supercomputer named Deep Thought over a period of 7.5 million years. Unfortunately, no one knows what the question is.” The #MeToo movement, the Black Lives Matter movement, the looting movement, the face mask–wearing movement—all confirm to me that history repeats itself. And, in realizing that no change is possible—as my ex-lover once said, “When things change, they stay the same”—I stop fighting. In 1955—how many years ago was that?—Emmett Till was murdered for being himself: young, beautiful, and Black. In 2020: George Floyd—the same fate is inflicted on his existence. How many stories are there and have there been and are there still—of affirmation that when things change, they stay the same? I have no hopes for the #MeToo movement. A patriarchal system will still be a patriarchal system. I don’t expect a pineapple to be a rambutan or a porcupine anytime soon. I expect a pineapple to be a pineapple, and as a human, when you are able to [call] a table a table—what does it say about the nature of your representation? What does it say about the nature of our observation? About one’s ability to name something? Perhaps my tears are falling because I used to think that I am not God, but now I am one? What is God but the ability to say no to something?
BLVR: Do you feel that this moment has affected your writing, or your hopes for your writing, or your writing practice?
VKN: I continue to write. During COVID—I wrote five books. All in different genres. All of different impulses. I have written, ironically, forty-two books: the meaning of life. About one-third of those books are out in the world. COVID forces me to write more—2020 was a year I envisioned for myself as an investment in another impulse or compulsion—but COVID forces me back to the writing table—forces me to sit down at a desk—forces me to eat a pineapple core—my tongue is chafed—like it has been sanded down by the sandpaper of isolation. In late December of 2019, I fell ill—Do you know the meaning of life, Kim?—But falling ill for a month before COVID—truly makes you feel life is meaningless. For a month, I self-isolated—I didn’t want anyone to have what I had—whatever it was—it shut me down for a month. When I came out to celebrate my health—COVID happened—& I snuck my head back into a cave like a groundhog. Again.
II. SENSORY APOCALYPSE
BLVR: Did you write your five books [that you wrote since the beginning of COVID] consecutively, or all at once? Which five genres did you choose to write in? I have always admired how prolific your practice is.
VKN: All at once. One nonfiction (memoir), one poetry, one a short-story collection, and two books that I wrote in collaboration with a woman I have fallen in love with.
BLVR: What has worked best for you to manage your isolation? Does collaboration help?
VKN: I have no addictions: no addiction to drugs (never tried them before, not even once), no addiction to alcohol, to sugar, to sex, to coffee, to anything—my system is naturally, by default, clean— & a long time ago, I was addicted to Scrabble—in my early twenties, I was addicted to online Scrabble—I would play competitively for, like, sixteen hours a day for days, & because my addiction was so great, I asked my sister to block me from the website. During COVID—I returned—some days I played for eighteen hours—but now I can’t afford to play so much. Collaboration is digital human touch—a hug or a caress or an embrace made from the voltage or magnetic polarization of a sentence’s, a pause’s, a Google blinker’s heartbeats—it stops time by recording and de-recording itself. It’s a type of serotonin born not through the bloodstream but through the senses and the senses of the imagination. COVID is teaching the human form how to learn a new language of adaptation: how to give itself pleasure & bliss, despair & isolation, through the consumption of nonmaterial products: an image, a word, a sentence, a fragment. We are learning not how to be an efficient computer or a machine; we are learning how to live without the raw matter of human contact. An existential, ontological apocalypse is not the world burning, the market crashing, a nuclear war, the unbolted door of hell, or the things that science fiction is made of, but rather the extended, elongated ability to not be able to hold, to touch, to caress another human being—sensory apocalypse is the primary driving force of our generational mania—we can take a building burning down—how long can we take before we hallucinate ourselves into being touched or holding another person we love in our arms?
BLVR: When I was revisiting your work for this interview, I found myself wondering how your collaborative practices, through She Who Has No Master(s) [a collective of diasporic Vietnamese writers who produce collaborative works], and Human Tetris in particular, offered expansive openings in your own writing practice. Do they function as antidotes to the conventionally solitary practice of being a writer, or to the “sensory apocalypse” of our generation? What has collaboration taught you?
VKN: All writing is a type of collaboration—some are more intimate and more immediate, and others—like publishing—are more delayed. Publishing is quite collaborative—how a book gets born—from the publisher, marketer(s), booksellers, readers—each conveys its own fabric of isolation even when two souls meet to manifest a door. Or a doorway for another or for ourselves. Human Tetris was created because dating apps are a limited platform for most thinkers and creators who do not view romance in a linear fashion. She Who Has No Master(s) requires mastery from all Vietnamese female souls who seek polyvocal, nonpatriarchal destinations in the interstices. Collaboration taught me how to extend the language of loneliness—how to be better at being alone, at being desolate; how to be with another as intimate strangers. And it has taught me that even if two souls or more have to travel on a particular path—isolation can be a type of intimacy. When Dao [Strom] and I traveled into the desert—to Death Valley—together—we were not alone in our art—our artistic impulses were in conversation with each other & I did not feel alone when I collected her from the airport—when we went to retrieve our rental car—to capture the desolate landscape before us—yet even when our art meets and we are not alone and she did not make me feel lonely—I could not return to our creation to collapse the loneliness I feel during COVID—It has taught me that collaboration isn’t an intimacy bank account—when one needs, especially during COVID, to withdraw hundreds of dollar bills of the inverse of desolation—such resources, though replenishable, aren’t replenishable, but can be tapped into. When she asked me to translate her poetry from English into Vietnamese—I do feel less sensorily deprived. Through reciting her poems in Vietnamese, I no longer feel alone with my art. All the answers to life’s meaninglessness exist in the comprehensive condition of existence, meaning: we can’t run away from loneliness, but we can find a way into it through intimacy with another, and one way to do so is through collaboration. Collaborating with Ali Raz [on Human Tetris] helps me understand the language of loneliness more—she gave me a richer vocabulary of existence, one that can’t take away my loneliness but that gives me the subtle tonality of its language, which is, paradoxically, not anti-loneliness, but a dot that knows it could not ever compare itself to a black hole.
BLVR: I wonder if the interest of Human Tetris and She Who Has No Master(s) in the nonlinear, the polyvocal, and the interstitial, which are often aspects of experimental writing, is also informed by your experience as a Vietnamese American woman. My question is along the lines of the politics of the genres you write in: Would you describe yourself as an experimental writer? How do you find that your approach to language is shaped by your cultural experience?
VKN: All my work written in English is Vietnamese. I am not just a product of one thousand years of Chinese occupation, one hundred years of French occupation, and the unecological apocalypse of the Americans, nor only defined by my refugee’d experiences. My existence is not so well hyphenated, and I am more bifurcated: not just between Vietnamese and English, but between sound and image, between noise and silence, between depression and immortality—yes, I eat phở, not like an American eating phở, not like a Vietnamese poet eating phở, and what I produce could look like fresh ginger, cardamom pods, beef broth, beef shanks with bone marrow, fifteen pounds of leg bones, anise seed, sriracha, red onion—but it’s something else. I am not a lotus flower—I am not bowl-shaped to be eaten. My words are not like a Buddha waiting for nothingness or forgetfulness to arrive. And being a woman and a lesbian and Vietnamese—hasn’t given me the proper permission nor permutation to exist outside a ziplock bag—I am suffocating—I do not breathe so well— & I used to think my experimental writing is a type of immortality—its ability to give me license to exist without needing to exist, and now that I exist less—less experimental—I feel I suffocate more—under the suffocating plastic bags of contemporary US culture—which favors white men over Black, white men over women, heterosexuality over other intersexual impulses. What I produce, despite its fierce independence from the linear, is a type of suffocation, and each day it slowly dies from the same systems that allow it to live and exist: the closest metaphor I could think of is this for your question(s): If my art is a toddler or a fetus or a newborn child—and it takes more than nine months for its arrival—then when it comes out in the world—each facet of the American experience takes turns holding this baby’s nose and once in a while releases it—so it can breathe for a second before holding its nose again, until its face turns blue and eventually it dies from oxygen deprivation. Each of my experimental works is an example of this. I feel, as a Vietnamese American mother of this work—why should I continue to give birth so that the Saturn of the American publishing system can murder each child I give birth to? I don’t want to be Ops, Saturn’s wife, anymore. I have been trying to feed the American publishing rocks. Do you know what it is like to feed a system rocks, Kim? Just as painful as giving birth to a child, knowing that it will be eaten as soon as it enters the world.
III. “DRIVE ACROSS THE SEA”
BLVR: As someone who is also interested in creating work that resists easy categorization or definability, I have admired your writing for the ways in which it helps me to identify my own hybridities. And at the same time, I often feel that the American publishing system is hostile to this kind of work. Do you feel, as you mentioned in your response, that your writing has become less experimental, and do you attribute that to the American publishing system? Have you had negative experiences with it? I have always admired the ways that your work has been so successful at finding its home and readers.
VKN: I attribute it to all systems at work that have produced an esoteric product such as me. My desire to make my parents proud—could be attributed to me losing form. My original form. My parents suffered so much— & I want their sacrifice to have significant meanings. We all, Vietnamese that we are, want to buy our parents their homes. We want them to retire in luxury—in whatever material or nonmaterial forms it takes. We want to be able to open a jackfruit or durian here in the States without asking permission from the racist, smell (redolent) police. I struggle every day to exist— & have often prayed that when I fall asleep, I don’t ever wake again, but each day—I am here, fully aware—conscious of my existence—as there is no addiction that is impeding my lucid sense of awareness. I haven’t had the impulse to hide behind alcohol or cocaine. American publishing likes to champion a few Asian writers/poets/creators to alleviate their responsibility from everything. The problem with having representation for all representations is that it is not a type of representation. Its primary engine of existence is guilt and artificiality. I know I exist in this space of non-artificiality, though I am not guilt-free. I am like Nadal—I chase after balls—thinking every chance matters. And my knees are paying for it. My wrists. The muscularity of my writing and my existence are paying a hefty price for very little visibility. It is not the way to live in one’s art and I highly do not recommend it. I wish I could take away your admiration, Kim—suffering isn’t the way to go.
BLVR: I believe I can both admire your accomplishments and understand the realities of what these various system(s), publishing and others, require if you choose to refuse to create a product made for easy consumption. I’m sorry, though, to hear that you look back on your career and think that you traded a lot of suffering for very little visibility. I have had this same conversation with a lot of artists, especially this past year. Does this experience alter your practice or your relationship to publishing—whom you publish with, the choices you make in your career?
VKN: It alters my perception of ontology—each field has its own political and racial composition— & each field suffers just as equally. A brilliant Vietnamese female surgeon could easily be overlooked for her talent and un-promoted or demoted over her counterparts for being Asian and female, such as a white male surgeon or another male Asian surgeon. Despite minor differences in their paint strokes, everyone suffers under such prejudiced systems. My mother wanted me to be a plastic surgeon—she thinks I wouldn’t be where I am if I had taken another path—but I believe another path would still lead me here. I have no voice over who publishes me. Voice is a valuable asset and I am afraid such an asset belongs only to a few “championed” folks—the model ones already preselected by the system; meanwhile, everyone else is Anna Karenina—waiting for the train to run over her. If I had a choice, I wouldn’t exist. Not to exist is the most valuable asset—it’s actually very hard to die, because human consciousness is designed and is formed to self-preserve & it will invoke all of its will in order to persist. Even death isn’t a choice.
BLVR: I wanted to ask two more questions before closing. The first is about Sheep Machine and Umbilical Hospital. Both are poetic ekphrases of Leslie Thornton’s video Sheep Machine. As a way of giving insight into your process of creating a book, can you talk about how you wrote them and what distinguished the poems of one from the other?
VKN: My consciousness is a flower, in that once it blooms, it spends the remainder of its existence dying or decomposing. Once a seed of an idea for a product has pollinated and been planted in my subconsciousness, my existence finds the most direct and effective route for getting me there. It works better than Google Maps, which sometimes asks you to drive across the sea. My consciousness doesn’t operate like that: it’s practical and focused. I have extraordinary focus—I can shut down anything with my mind. Fish in Exile was born out of grief—my existence, then, needed a container for such grief and, like a bowl of rice, it holds my pain for the duration of writing it. Sheep Machine and Umbilical Hospital arrive from a large fabric of ritualistic writing where for months I perform extreme focused writing exercises each day that last between five and ten minutes. I edited the manuscript into different styles or movements of existence. Sheep Machine is one movement and Umbilical Hospital is another. Sheep Machine is artificially and numerically based, and Umbilical Hospital is title-driven.
BLVR: My last question is brief. Can you tell me a little bit more about what you mean when you say that all your work written in English is Vietnamese?
VKN: The best explanation I can give you is this: Imagine a petite Vietnamese woman with jet-black hair—long and long—and she wants to enter a club. And, on appearance, her face and yellow skin tone have been painted white or Caucasian or English (because they wouldn’t let her in without doing so) and her hair has been dyed white first and then blond second, and then on the operating table—with an eye surgeon—the surgeon superimposed thin, translucent lenses that turn her eyes blue. On the surface, because it is written in English, she appears Caucasian—linguistically speaking—but her heart and soul and tongue are completely Vietnamese. Occasionally, she wears these six-inch-high heels that make her look taller than she appears. Occasionally, she eats McDonald’s food just so she looks fat and oily. And maybe crispy.