Category Archives: Interview

Andrew Cox Interviews Linh Dinh

Andrew Cox has a most thorough interview with Linh Dinh where the frank conversation covers topics from technology to poetry and takes us through Dinh’s perspective on the State of the Union.

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“I’ve always been interested in so-called losers, because that’s the general human condition, if not now, then soon enough.”

Why did you start State of the Union?

In 2005, I taught a writing course called State of the Union at Naropa University, in Boulder, CO. I’ve also taught this course at the University of Montana and University of Pennsylvania. I wanted the students to address the crises afflicting our nation. It’s certainly not easy to make sense out of what’s going, especially since there’s so much disinformation and propaganda out there.

State of the Union is my attempt to track, through images and words, what’s happening to this country. The project has also forced me to spend much more time in the physical world, as oppose to sitting in front of the computer.

Like most of us, I was living a mediated life, I was living mostly through the computer, but, with this project, I’ll walk for miles though the streets, looking and hearing, and sometimes asking questions. Before I started, I had become alienated from much of my home city. I had forgotten the names of the neighborhoods, places I had known as a housepainter.

I was also tired of being an inhabitant of the poetry ghetto. Poets are entirely invisible and irrelevant in this society. As America collapses, poets have nothing to contribute to the general conversation. Few have anything to say, and the ones who do are ignored in any case.

I was tired of being published in books and literary journals that no one reads. My political essays, then, are my attempt at reaching a bigger audience, a more general audience. I want to use all of my skills as a writer to address people who would not likely read my poems. I’m particularly happy that my latest piece, “Mare Mere,” is being run by both CounterPunch and Dissident Voice, since it has elements of the prose poem. It is 2/3 political essays and 1/3 poetry. I’ll try to write more in this vein.

Why do you think poets are ignored? Is it worldwide or just an American phenomenon?

Conditioned by the car and television, we value speed above all. We want everything to be fluid and accelerated. We don’t care about quality, just quantity. It doesn’t matter what we eat, we just want to stuff ourselves as fast as possible.

Poetry is too slow for this culture. The poets themselves are also to be blamed, however. Dodging life instead of confronting it, most of them are ridiculously feeble. They think the ideal life is to be on campus forever, with a break once a year to go to their much-anticipated convention. There, they can suck up and screw down.

Da Vinci said, “A man who looks forward to spring is looking forward to his own death.” To always look forward, then, is to be forever dissatisfied with the present, but that’s the culture we have, we’re always looking forward to next year, next week, next hour, we can’t stand this present second. Our culture doesn’t just anticipate death, it’s living it!

In short, a people who will not reflect and who can’t stand silence will not read a poem. Though this has become a worldwide phenomenon, it’s much more advanced in certain places, like the U.S., for example, where we’ve reached a psychotic state. We hate our own mind, frankly. We don’t want to hear it speak.

Notice how people must turn on an electronic device soon as they enter a room, be it TV, stereo or computer. Sometimes all three are turned on simultaneously. Without these surrogate voices, we’re lost. What I’m talking about goes way beyond poetry, obviously. What I’m trying to get at is the reverence and courage that allow you to hear yourself and other people not just more clearly, but at all.

A quick observation about Vietnam. I went back in 1995, 1998, then stayed for 2 ½ years starting in 1999. While there, I could observe it shift towards the American model, which is all distraction all the time, where serious thinking is drowned out by nonsense, titillation and trivia. Wearing T-shirts with weird or actual English, many people started to listen to loud, recorded music, watch mindless TV and lust after brand names, though few could afford them.

None of this is necessarily bad in itself. I mean, a stupid T-shirt is just a piece of underwear with some moronic writing on it, and I enjoy a good soccer match as much as the next guy, but this rising pop culture was helping to mask many, many serious problems.

There was prostitution on practically every street. In factories, workers were being abused. Likewise, the servants in middle class households. I’m not even against prostitution in itself, only the poverty that forced many young women to become whores.

Top Communist officials became obscenely rich, bought many properties and sent their kids to Western universities, while the poorest sold their bodies and begged. However, with this loud music, exciting soccer matches, constantly flickering TV and many sexy photos, intimate or blown up, it was no longer necessary to arrest serious writers and thinkers. As in America, the Vietnamese intellectual has become irrelevant.

When you first left the office and computer how did you feel getting out into the physical world?

The office sounds so grand! Well, I have a little room with a desk and a tiny bed. I didn’t snore ten years ago, but now I do, so my wife and I sleep in different beds, in different rooms.

In my so-called office, there’s some food stored in the corner: a case of tuna, one of instant noodles and several bags of rice. We don’t have much room, so every square foot must be stacked with something. Where I work, then, where I’m typing this, is more survival bunker than regular office.

If there’s a nuclear explosion or meltdown, my wife and I could lock ourselves in this rat hole of a room and survive until Jesus, Allah or Buddha, whoever’s truly biggest, meanest or asskickingest, knocks on the door to say, Hey, everything’s OK, you can come out now!

By definition, a writer or artist must work in isolation. He must be removed from the world as he writes, paints or whatever, but a writer must also be among other people so he can have something to write about.

My first book, Fake House, was populated mostly by losers, the types I was surrounded with, and with whom I worked and drank. Of course, some of the characters were more or less me. I was a total loser, financially, socially and erotically. I was an embarrassment. Still am. I couldn’t get any of anything.

You asked about the media. Well, the media is all about getting stuff. It’s about having all of your natural and unnatural appetites fulfilled. It’s about whooping it up, partying, fucking and spending, but real life is not anything like that. Well, you might have a few highlights here and there, fondly remembered, but most of the time, it’s incredibly hard just to get by. Just to maintain your basic dignity, you have to exert yourself like crazy; you have to be a physical and mental athlete just to get by.

My first book, Fake House, was dedicated to “The Unchosen.” I’ve always been interested in so-called losers, because that’s the general human condition, if not now, then soon enough. We will all lose, but there’s also dignity and strength in losing. I came from a losing society, South Vietnam, and I’m experiencing a collapsing culture right now.

Anyway, I’ve always been a wanderer, a walker. As a kid in Saigon, I walked all over. When I lived in Italy and England, I’d go to many strange cities, towns and villages and just walk. This project, then, is an intensification of an impulse I’ve always had.

The only time in my life when I didn’t walk was in high school. I lived in San Jose and Northern Virginia then. These two places are heavily car-dependent. I hate them, frankly.

The computer is very addictive. I have never been addicted to the TV, for many years I didn’t even have a TV, but with the computer, I became sort of a screen addict for the first time.

My site, State of the Union, gives me a clear reason to leave the house, so that’s a good thing. I can walk out without going to the bar. I don’t drink a fraction of what I used to.

When you’re among people, you’re always surprised. You think you already know how they look and talk, but you’d often be wrong. People are always inventive because they’re restless, bored and exhibitionistic. They also like to have fun. Packaging themselves, they’re always refining their acts. They’ll come up with the weirdest way of putting on a hat, for example, or of conveying the simplest message.

What surprised you the most when you first started documenting the homeless? What surprises you now?

I’ve lived in cities most of my life, so the homeless is nothing new. There is a lot destitution and squalor in Saigon, where I was born and spent my early childhood, and where I returned to live for 2 ½ years as an adult.

When I moved to Philly in 1982, I saw many homeless living in the subway concourse, and I remember seeing hundreds of homeless in Tompkins Square in New York in the mid 80’s.

Before I started my State of the Union project, I never talked to the homeless, however. It is enlightening to hear people’s stories. I don’t want to generalize too much about the homeless, but it is amazing to observe how tough and resilient these people are. On their faces and bodies are evidences of the very difficult lives they’ve endured, even before they became homeless. Many of these people look beaten up, because they have been. In Vietnam, too, you see these types of faces and bodies.

“Home” is such a physical and emotional necessity. While most of us still have roofs over our heads, I’d say that many of us are emotionally homeless. At best, we are dwelling in emotional halfway houses, or emotional bunkers, with many cans of expired tuna in a corner.

Now, I’d like to shoehorn an umbilical cord mooning monologue about home: I was born in Saigon and have lived there as an adult, but to call that home would be a stretch. I’m most familiar with Philadelphia and do identify with it, but I can’t deny feeling elated whenever I could leave it, if only temporarily.

I was calmest and happiest when I lived in Certaldo, Italy, population 16,000, but I could barely speak the language and didn’t have to make a living there. With the exception of San Jose and Northern Virginia, I’m fond of all the places I’ve lived in, including Norwich, England, and Missoula, MT, but, as Camus said, and I’m quoting from memory and probably butchering it, “He loves all women, which means he loves none of them.”

My mother is from Hanoi, so I can still fake a fairly convincing Hanoi accent, and several times I’ve caught myself thinking, while in Hanoi, “It’d be beautiful to die here,” but of course I’m not dying to live there, so that’s not really home either. I’m OK with being home/less. I’m happiest when I’m on a train, though of course, I’m also anxious to get off.

You said many homeless people have been beat up. Who is attacking these people?

Tyrone, a 45-ish black man who was on the streets for nearly a year, told me he was beaten up by three teens. He showed me stitches on his forehead. A thirty-ish white guy was almost stabbed with a box-cutter by a white, drunken girl, walking with a group of friends. She slashed his bag. The story sounded a bit outlandish, but everything else he said was plausible. He said black women treated him the best, and, sure enough, a young black woman gave him a bag of McDonald’s food while we were talking.

In Richmond, a white former nurse, Tony, also said that black women were the kindest to him. As if on cue, again, a black woman gave him an apple not even a minute later. Tony related how a Mexican homeless man was hit with a stick as he washed his clothes in the river. His attacker was some black guy, maybe another homeless dude. This Mexican guy had a big gash on his head but didn’t dare go to the emergency room because he was illegal. Knowing Tony had been a nurse, he asked Tony for help. Tony looked at it and said it would heal eventually, so that was that.

If you’re lying on the sidewalk, you’re going to be vulnerable, obviously. That’s why so many of them sleep during the daytime, because it’s safer that way, with many people walking around. Even when you’re not attacked, it’s impossible to get a good night’s sleep, obviously, because of the weather, the noise and because you’re lying on cardboard.

Some of your pictures feature images of advertising. What do you think about the relationship between marketing and the homeless?

Much of photography is used to seduce. It sells you on a fantasy so you will buy the product. The glamorous advertising images and catchy slogans serve as an obscene contrast to what’s actually on the streets.

The last time I was Vietnam, in 2001, I often saw the slogan, RICH PEOPLE, STRONG COUNTRY, on government billboards, but this was still old style Communist propaganda. With their heroic, broad shoulders and determined figures, always depicted from below, the Communists sought to inspire, but Capitalism is all about seduction.

On American TV, there’s an ad that shows a famous football player, first in uniform, then stripped down to near total nudity. These female hands then dressed him in slacks, shirt and tie. Only at the end would you discover that this is actually a car commercial!

In any case, photography plays a central role in this come-on economy. There’s photographic seduction everywhere you turn. The system will strip you and leave you with a very cool photo, and it won’t even be yours to own, son, you can only look at it! I’m trying to capture this swindle in my photos.

In your writing you are critical of the spread of casinos. Why?

Casinos are perfect emblems of our non-productive economy. A lot of money changes hand in a casino, but it produces absolutely nothing. Factories are being abandoned in cities and towns across America, but casinos are spreading all over. Fools and crooks who support casinos say they bring jobs, but casinos are net losses in every community.

Do you ask for permission before you photograph anyone? Do you explain what you are using the images for and if so, what is a typical reaction?

If I can get away with sneaking a photo, I’ll do that. Generally speaking, I don’t want my subjects to pose or even be aware of my presence, but since I carry a large camera, this is not always possible.

From each photo, you can generally tell whether I’ve engaged my subject. Sometimes I offer people a bit of money, usually just a buck or two, to take their photos. I gave $10 to a Camden woman, however, so she could buy cans of Sterno for her tent.

In Detroit, I also gave an old man 10 bucks because he was in such bad shape. He said he needed this money for a prescription. Whenever I visited the tent city in Camden, New Jersey, I’d bring 24 large cans of beer, though I’d end up drinking three or four myself. I’ve also bought food for the homeless.

When I talk to people on the streets, I do tell them I’m writing about the economy. Most know full well the economy is in horrible shape and will get even worse, and most of them don’t mind talking to me about their dire situations.

Once, I saw a young woman who was raving and extremely dirty, she even smelled of urine, but as soon as I talked to her, she became sane and radiant. Not to exaggerate but she became shockingly beautiful. I bought her something to drink and lent her my cell phone so she could call a friend in Baltimore to pick her up in Philadelphia.

As an artist, you’re always a kind of vulture when you’re around people, you’re always trying to make use of what they say, how they look or who they are, and since art is always subjective, a kind of distortion, you’re always deforming people to suit your purposes. Although art is always, in this sense, an exploitation, it is also a kind of tribute, and hence, of love. Sometimes I can barely stand how magnificent and beautiful people are.

You mentioned bringing beer or food with you sometimes. A common stereotype is the homeless asking for money or holding a sign by the freeway just want it to buy drugs and alcohol. How accurate is this stereotype?

Well, there are soup kitchens. In Camden, I went with a group of homeless to a very clean and dignified soup kitchen. People sat down at these long tables and were served by volunteers. When this homeless couple left a bit early, I asked them, “What happened? Didn’t you like the food?” The woman was a deaf mute, so only the man answered. He said, “Yeah, we liked it fine, but now we’re going to a second soup kitchen!” Another guy told me, “You have to be a moron to starve in Camden.” The problem is, many of the homeless are at least slightly crazy. Though some started out mentally ill or deficient, I’m sure many more became that way from having to live on the streets.

There’s a guy who wandered around the shopping mall in downtown Philadelphia. His pants were falling apart and sagging. You could literally see his crotch. My wife actually tried to give him a belt, but he wouldn’t take it. He wouldn’t even take cash. He never said a word, not one word, so maybe he couldn’t talk at all. Every now and then, you’ll run into a homeless person who won’t even take money.

In any case, I bring beer to the tent city in Camden because I figure, why shouldn’t these people have a beer? Also, I’d not be so welcome if I didn’t bring beer!

The tent city in Camden, New Jersey has made headlines in the past but I think many people would be shocked to hear tent cities exist in American. Some news reports said the type of people there would surprise you. What was it like when you went there?

It was orderly and safe. In the summer, you could smell the shit in the honey bucket, but it wasn’t terribly dismal. Sure it was bad, but people were making the best of it. They’d hang out in the center, talk and laugh. Sometimes people would fight, they’d scream at each other, but I was there maybe ten times and never saw any violence. I’d hear about violent episodes, however, but these were very rare.

In any case, the rest of Camden was much more dangerous. Jamaica, the head guy of the tent city, kept everything under control. Later, I’d hear from someone, living in another Camden tent city, that Jamaica would charge people a nominal fee to live in “his” tent city. I don’t know if this was true, but I did notice that Jamaica sometimes hoarded some of the beer I brought. Whatever. He was the “mayor” of that place, and a lot of the people I talked to seemed genuinely grateful to him. Rex, 76 years old, told me Jamaica carried him on his back to the hospital. Hardly anyone had a cell phone there, so it wasn’t like you could easily call 911 if there was an emergency.

One time I went there and it was, like, 5 degree out, and there was a huge snowstorm, and this kid, maybe 22, was freaking out. We were standing around the fire, trying to warm ourselves, and this kid was raving because he couldn’t take it anymore. I lent him my cell phone so he could call his mom. He started to beg her to let him come home. “I’ll do anything you want me to do, Mom! I can’t take this anymore.” Jamaica said he’d put the kid on the Greyhound, and he apparently did, because I never saw that kid again.

That tent city got too much publicity, so the city government finally shut it down. It didn’t do anything but chase the people out and put a chain link fence around that plot. As for all the newly displaced, a private organization did take them to a motel, where they could be cleaned up, groomed then assisted in finding a job or housing.

The official unemployment rate of Camden is 25%, however, so I’m sure many of these folks have ended up on the streets again. As for other tent cities, I’ve seen people living in tents or makeshift dwellings in a few other places besides Camden. There must be dozens across the country.

American cities are outlawing sleeping or camping in public. In many places, dumpster diving is also illegal. One should remember that during the 1929 Depression, much food was destroyed even as the nation starved!

In Hawaii, Santa Cruz and elsewhere, you can’t sleep in your own car, and in San Francisco, you can’t even sit on the sidewalk. These cosmetic measures are designed to mask our accelerating economic collapse. And yet, despite all the evidence, the mainstream media trumpet daily that the recovery is here.

To close, I want to quote Texas Congressman C. Wright Patman, as recorded by the great Studs Terkel in his 1970 oral history of the Great Depression, Hard Times, “A dictatorship could spring up here over night, if this country got so bad. If another Depression came, we’d have a revolution. People wouldn’t take it any more. They have more knowledge. The big ones, they’d be looking for somebody that’d have the power to just kill people, if they didn’t agree. When John Doe begins to get up, they’d just go down and shoot him.”

Well, that depression is here!

Linh Dinh is the author of two books of stories, five of poems, and a just released novel, Love Like Hate. He’s tracking our deteriorating socialscape through his frequently updated photo blog, State of the Union.

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A Sensory Life: Andrew Lam interviews Monique Truong

Andrew Lam interviews Monique Truong about her novel Bitter in the Mouth. Listen to the interview here!

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In earlier posts diaCRITICS has featured reviews of Monique Truong’s Bitter in the Mouth by guest authors, Thuy Dinh and Stephen Sohn. The novel is an interesting read about a Southern girl’s childhood and experiences with synethesia, a neurological condition that causes words to produce taste sensations. But here, writers and friends, Andrew Lam, author of Perfume Dreams and East Eats West, and Monique Truong, whose first novel was The Book of Salt, gives us an intimate look at Bitter in the Mouth.

In the New America Now interview, Truong gives us a glimpse into Bitter in the Mouth. She begins by reading a brief passage of the novel in a clear, calm voice.  Then, with questions from Lam, she opens up and converses about Bitter in the Mouth and its personal and creative background. From the intimacy between friends,Truong shares her experiences as a “Southern girl twice over,” being born in South Viet Nam and then relocated to Boiling Springs, North Carolina, as well as her career change from lawyer to novelist. Truong also gives insight into the development of the novel from an interest in synethesia and how she tries to weave in the sensory with the literary.  Moreover, Truong teases us and hints at an interesting turn of events, which diaCRITICS cannot not review.  So pick up Bitter in the Mouth and find out what it is!

Experience the interview and Truong’s reading excerpts of Bitter in the Mouth, here, at New America Media.

Please take the time to rate this post (above) and share it (below). Ratings for top posts are listed on the sidebar. Sharing (on email, Facebook, etc.) helps spread the word about diaCRITICS. And join the conversation and leave a comment! Have you read Bitter in the Mouth yet? Thoughts and impressions? What about the twist in the second part of the novel?

Isabelle Pelaud’s “This is All I Choose to Tell”: An Interview

On the radio program New America Now,  Andrew Lam recently interviewed Isabelle Thuy Pelaud about This is All I Choose to Tell: History and Hybridity in Vietnamese American Literature, the first book-length study of Vietnamese American literature. Here diaCRITICS managing editor Julie Thi Underhill describes and reviews their fourteen-minute radio conversation. “But it is even better to hear them talk together,” Julie prefaces, “so consider this foreshadowing.”

[Before we begin: have you heard about our subscriber drive? win an iPod and other prizes!]

Isabelle Thuy Pelaud

In this radio interview with Andrew Lam, featured on New America Now, Isabelle Thuy Pelaud discusses her first book, This is All I Choose to Tell: History and Hybridity in Vietnamese American Literature, while explaining how Vietnamese American writers have challenged the demand to tell a “war story” through their literature. Isabelle shows how this reluctance on the part of Vietnamese American writers articulates their need for both privacy and resistance succinctly captured by poet and artist Trường Trần’s declaration, this is all i choose to tell, the phrase that inspired the first half of Isabelle’s book title.

To explain the origins of this phenomenon of choosing to tell only so much, Isabelle overviews the evolution of Vietnamese American literature in the past 30 years, in this interview and in her book. Nostalgia for the past underscores the first generation’s writing, usually framed within military historical accounts that reveal the writers’ ultimate ambivalence about “rescue” by the United States war determines so much of the narrative and meaning of these texts. However, the next generations of Vietnamese American authors, schooled through Asian American literature and ethnic studies courses, write with less concern about war and with more attention to identity. These second and third generation authors are notably concerned about what it means to be Vietnamese American. Isabelle’s analysis of Vietnamese American writers reflects a nuanced awareness of intergenerational differences, as each generations are proximate to (or distant) from war.

In the beginning of the interview, Andrew first asks Isabelle about her own identity — her background as a Vietnamese-Eurasian born in France, and her immigration to the U.S. at age nineteen — before delving into her Vietnamese American literary criticism. Although it might seem like a natural opening, Andrew’s choice to begin this way foregrounds Isabelle’s later observations about contemporary Vietnamese American writers’ attentions to identity. As the interview continues, Andrew asks Isabelle about the notion of hybridity, as it applies to Vietnamese American identity. Isabelle explains how her critical attention to hybridity counters the standard notions of assimilation (to Anglo-Saxon culture) to which the North American “immigrant narrative” is so often bound. Going back even further, Vietnamese culture itself has been heavily influenced by outside forces — Chinese, French, Russian which complicates notions of “purity” by affirming the long presence of hybridity within Vietnamese history and culture. As I listened, I considered how hybridity also occurred from the other direction, as a result of the conquest and assimilation of the Cham and other indigenous communities. Indeed Isabelle’s observations resonate with others’ understandings of Vietnameseness. Inter-ethnic and transnational, the dynamic of cultural “mixing” has been around for thousands of years in Vietnamese society.

Together Andrew and Isabelle look ahead to the next ten years of Vietnamese American writing. In doing so, they must revisit what’s truly different for the second and third generations. Isabelle foresees the continued challenge to resist the “war story” narrative. “Viet Nam is such a strong presence in the U.S.,” Isabelle cautions. This hypervisibility of “Viet Nam” as a war (not a country) puts much pressure on Vietnamese American writers to perform and reenact war stories, even when they have no direct experience or memory of war. Understandably, Vietnamese American writers are frustrated by this bounded framework of performativity and reenactment. On the other hand, Vietnamese American authors have already chosen to tell complicated stories decentering war, while expanding notions of who and what’s appropriate to feature in their writings. Isabelle points out, “Lots of texts don’t fit expectations of Vietnamese American writing,” including the works of Monique Troung, Linh Đinh, and Trường Trần. She also anticipates that certain topics, such as sexuality, will become increasingly less taboo to portray, an evolution which will counter the “holding back” of past generations of Vietnamese American writers, and even the withholding of the newer generations, who have “layers of vulnerabilities, from being refugees and the children of refugees.”

The interview ran on  June 10, 2011, on New America Now, the radio program of New America Media, founded by Vietnamese American journalist and author Andrew Lam. He’s guest blogged for diaCRITICS before, and we’ve printed his other conversations, including his April 2011 interview with Angie Chau.

Andrew Lam

Julie Thi Underhill is managing editor of diaCRITICS. She’s previously written for diaCRITICS about her ‘authenticity’ as a Vietnamese-AmericanDemocratic Kampuchea’s Genocide of the ChamIsabelle Thuy Pelaud’s launch party for this is all i choose to tellUCLA’s VSA culture show tribute to Tam Tran, the first San Francisco Diasporic Vietnamese Film Festival, and an exclusive “intervu” with writer Vu Tran.

Please take the time to rate this post (above) and share it (below). Ratings for top posts are listed on the sidebar. Sharing (on email, Facebook, etc.) helps spread the word about diaCRITICS. And join the conversation and leave a comment! Who is your favorite author of Vietnamese descent? Do you perceive these “generational” shifts in the writings of Vietnamese Americans? What do you think about this idea of “holding back”?

The Art of Memory without Pyrotechnics: Vu Tran’s Intervu, Part 2

In December 2010, diaCRITICS managing editor Julie Thi Underhill wrote her first diaCRITICIZE about her dilemmas regarding ‘authentic’ belonging as Vietnamese American of Cham-French and Euro-American descent. She centered her bond with her childhood friend V., who she left anonymous to protect his privacy, lest their middle school conversations haunt him. Two months later, diaCRITICS editor Viet Nguyen sent Julie a note asking if V. was the writer Vu Tran who’d been selected as a 2011 finalist for the Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise, awarded to foreign-born individuals who have demonstrated outstanding achievement during the early stages of their careers. So Vu Tran is easily decoded from V. Not so clandestine after all. Busted!

Julie then requested the “intervu of all time,”  to continue their middle school tradition of puns, in honor of Vu’s recent accomplishments. Julie adds, “Since he is also the first Vietnamese American artist I ever knew, it also feels appropriate to give mad props to Vu for the inspiration he’s provided me during the twenty five (or so) years since he first awed me with his stories.”

This is part two of two. The first part was published, here on diaCRITICS, on June 6, 2011.

Vu in Marble Mountain, Đà Nẵng, Việt Nam, photographed by Julie, 2001

What do you think it means to have recognition as a Vietnamese-American writer, within this society? We do hear about the American war in Việt Nam as being a haunting of the American psyche. What does it mean to have recognition from within this society that’s still struggling over its ambivalence regarding the American war?

Oh god, that’s an interesting question. I don’t know if I’ve thought of it in those terms yet because for me, and this might be naïve, and it might be naïve or it might be this point in my career, but I’m only obsessed with the writing. I only focus on the work, and whether my sentences are good or not. And anytime I get recognition, I’m like, “Oh, you like it because you like the sentences.” I don’t always think about it in terms of, “Well, you’re liking it for political reasons.” I’m fully aware that that has a lot to do with it, but I am so obsessed with the writing of it, the art of it, that I don’t think about the identity politics involved in it, or the mistaken expectations. I don’t think about that. Maybe I should think about it more, I don’t know. But the recognition is good for me automatically, I mean, the thing that I automatically think when someone gives me something like this is, is that, “Oh, you like the way I write.” [Laughs]. I’m not so naïve that I don’t know that it doesn’t have something to do with, oh, he’s a Vietnamese American writer writing about that thing, you know.

Obviously, you wouldn’t be getting the awards and the recognition if you weren’t amazingly talented. So it’s definitely not tokenization, just to clarify. I was wondering, by that question, are you asked to perform acts of reconciliation by writing or being a certain way, as a Vietnamese American writer? Reconciliation for things that haven’t been sorted out yet in society. 

The honest truth of it is, I will only have a good answer for this once my book comes out and I start getting reviews. You know, I’ve done a lot of interviews in the last two or three years, and that stuff does come up. If you’re writing for a newspaper or you’re NPR, or whatever, it’s always nice to have a narrative to kind of apply to your guests. And that has been my narrative. They’ll ask me about how I came here. They’ll asked me how it’s been like growing up. And that’s also the narrative of this foundation [which just gave me the prize.] They’re all about recognizing the immigrant artist or scientist. And that narrative is a nice narrative in the United States, because we like to believe that we’re inclusive, and all those things. I guess there is a reconciliation aspect to it. I don’t know if I’ve experienced it enough yet to be really bothered by it, or to have a commentary. I know it’s there, though. If not for me, then for all the writers like me. It’s definitely there. I just don’t know how to answer that question because I haven’t experienced it directly yet. But in a mild way I have, in those interviews, those questions always come up. I know that it’s what’s most interesting, I think. I am more concerned with starting my career, and any recognition is good. That doesn’t mean I’ll just blindly accept it and not think about it, but all I’m saying is that it’s so hard to kind of like finish your book, and get your foot in the door of this industry, that I haven’t yet had time to really consider those things fully and articulate my own response to it yet.

Vu adding some Asia to Chicago, photographed by Julie in 2010

We can revisit this later after your book’s out, because I just think it would be an interesting thing to resist against, if we go back to the whole, “I’m not going to tell you.”

I never talk about my novel. But it’s apropro here. I have a scene in novel in the second chapter where there’s a Vietnamese character who says to the American character that you Americans like to think that we’re a melting pot and everything gets mixed up and everything. Yeah it gets mixed up, but it’s more like vinegar and water. Eventually different things will go back to the place and the people and the things like it. Which doesn’t mean that we don’t integrate, we obviously integrate. But at the end of the day, though, that melting pot idea is a bit of cliché. People want to belong. They just do, they want to belong. Whether its people who look like them, or think like them, of feel like them, or come from where they come from. People want to belong. And this notion that we can just wondrously and miraculously reconcile everything and to be this melting pot of goodness, just because there are a lot of biracial babies nowadays. That’s wonderful. But I feel the narrative is too tidy sometimes.

How do you think the critical reception of Vietnamese American lit has changed since you first began publishing stories? Do you see change or do you see a lot of the same?

It’s a lot more open in the sense that it’s open for everyone. More open, not completely. There are more diverse voices in contemporary American literature than there ever was. In terms of Vietnamese American writing, there are bigger names. Monique Truong, for example. There are other Vietnamese American writers, but even if you’re a reader that’s one of the only names that everyone knows. The others are still kind of not well known. I don’t know what to think of that. It has to be better now that there are more voices than there were. I’d like to see a Vietnamese American writer reach the status of [Kazuo] Ishiguro, who is not considered a Japanese English writer. He’s just considered one of the best writers out there. I’d like to see a Vietnamese American writer to reach the status of Haruki Murakami, you know, who’s very Japanese but also who’s not.

You’ve gotten a lot of recognition, including an O. Henry. What has really stood out for you along the way as being your true points of encouragement?

I think the O. Henry really opened a lot of doors for me. More than I’d ever thought it would, it really did. I was in Best American Mystery Stories. That helped a lot. I started getting published in a lot of different anthologies. The biggest thing has been the Whiting Writers’ Award. That helped me get a job here at the University of Chicago, which is another big accomplishment for me. I think those are the three or four major ones for me. I sold my book before the Whiting, but I think things like that helped me get my foot in the door in a lot of places. It helped me get job interviews. It definitely helped me get my job here. It put my name out there so people started asking me for stories, you know, things like that.

Vu, during his first semester teaching creative writing at the University of Chicago, photographed in Chicago by Julie, 2010

And the dream of all dreams would be the Pulitzer, I am guessing. 

I don’t know if that’s the dream of all dreams. We’re talking about the pinnacle, like what I would really want. I want the Pulitzer, of course I do. I definitely want the MacArthur Genius Grant. I want all that shit. Trust me, I do. But I would like to be at a certain point in my career where people like Thom Yorke are saying, “Yeah, I read Vu’s novel the other day.” When other artists that I hold up to that kind of esteem are engaging with me on that level, I think that would be what I would like. Because then that means you’ve already won the Pulitzer and the MacArthur. [Laughs]. You’ve reached that level where they can mention you in an interview with like Pitchfork or something, and the readers will know what they are talking about.

When you won the [$50,000] Whiting [Award], I remember thinking, “I’ll bet Vu’s parents are happy he’s a writer now.” I always think of you when I have Vietnamese American students whose parents don’t want them to do anything other than—well, for them, it’s often doctor or lawyer. For you, it was more like running the family business. Do you have any words of wisdom for those Vietnamese American students who are not pursuing art or cultural production when they really want to be, because they have a sense of familial obligation towards recovering whatever the losses were in trying to give the family a good life through immigration? Because you broke away from that expectation and said, “No, I’m actually gonna write.”

The way I would say it is that first of all, art will satisfy you in a way that a good job at a corporation might not always do. Art will satisfy you because you are engaging with something that comes out of you in the truest way. And number two, I think art will help you understand the world better than, I think, any other form. One of the things I always tell my students about why people who read books are always going to be smarter than other people—any book, novel, whatever—is that when you read a book, you are basically engaging with how someone else interprets the world. And when you engage with others interpretations of the world, you inevitably compare it with your own interpretation of the world. And that comparison is how you become smart and more importantly how you become wise. Because the hardest thing in the world is to articulate yourself, you know? The hardest thing in the world is to articulate how you feel. And art helps you do that because you see how other people articulate themselves, whether its through filmmaking, music, painting, or with words. And that is why art makes you wise and makes you smart. And that’s why you should pursue it in any way that you can. Whether it’s a hobby or something professional. And that’s something that making $100,000 working for Lehman Brothers will not necessarily give you. It might, but I don’t think in the same way that a good book, or writing a good book, can.

What are your own strongest motivations to write? What is continuing to motivate you to have this be what you want to do?

There are so many answers to that. One of the answers is, it’s all I’ve ever wanted to do and if I didn’t do it, I wouldn’t feel like myself. I feel like I would lose my definition of myself if I stopped writing. Because that’s literally—you know this—that’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. So that would be a part of it. The other part of it is ego. I want to feel special. I want to feel great. I want to think of myself as accomplishing something great. And for me, writing is the way to do that. And I think the third reason is that I love art in all senses. I love all kinds of art, right? And when I engage with something that is spectacular, the feeling that I get from it. You know what it’s like when you hear a great new song or a great new band, or if you see a great movie. It’s like this overwhelming sense that the world is great. Even if it’s something that was depressing. But if it’s beautiful, it’s just so wonderful, that feeling. And to be able to try to create that, so that someone else can feel that way. That’s as good a motivation if anything, because that takes care of the first two things, you know. It fulfills the ego thing.

Because you feel grateful that you could produce that for someone.

Yeah. But it also legitimizes my idea of myself, that I could do that. Here, I want to read you something real quick. It’s from a story called Carcassonne by William Faulkner. You really have to read it, but I’m just trying to remember this one sentence. It’s about a poet. It’s only about a five page story. But it’s about wanting to be an artist. The story is about being an artist, and wanting to “create something tragical and austere.” And something else. I can’t remember the exact quote, but when I get it I’ll send it to you. [Julie’s update: “I want to perform something bold and tragical and austere”.]

What do you think are the social or political responsibilities, if any, of a creative writer?

I have to agree with Faulkner. I think the artist’s only responsibility is to his art. If there are any other responsibilities that become more important than the art itself, then whatever they were trying to communicate will not come out the way it should. So politics doesn’t even matter if the art is not the most important thing. Hemingway’s leftist books, when people were expecting him to write from that point-of-view, that was when he was at his weakest. I think that’s true. Faulker’s quote is, “I would steal from my mother for my art. Ode on a Grecian Urn is worth more than any number of old ladies.” [Laughs.] “Ode on a Grecian Urn is worth more than any number of old ladies.” I don’t know if I would go that far. But I don’t think he would either. I think he’s trying to make a point. It’s that the art’s paramount.

What do you think the value is, in our society, of the creative writer?

Number one, I think that storytelling—and I know this is my bias with literature and with fiction—but I think storytelling will never die. Whatever form that it is, storytelling will never die. And you always need stories. If it’s just the story you tell to your loved one, at the end of the day, about the day you’ve had. We all need stories. That’s how we also hold onto our past. But the other value, I think, of art and of creative people is to expose people to new ways of seeing the world. And I think creative people are the best at doing that. Corporations aren’t going to do that. They’re not going to show you a new perspective that doesn’t make them money. If the old perspective keeps them making the money they’re making, they’re not going to change that perspective.

The world is always changing. As much as it stays the same, it changes. Contexts change. And creative writers, I think, or creative people, are some of the few people in society who can constantly bring those changes to light. Seeing things in a new way, I think that’s necessary. Otherwise everything would be boring. It wouldn’t just be wrong if you keep on making the same mistakes. It would just be fucking boring.

Vu and Julie, at the wedding of friends in Greenfield, Wisconsin, 2001

Julie and Vu, after brunch at the Thai Temple, Berkeley, California, 2009

Julie Thi Underhill has known Vu Tran since they were in sixth grade in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. After a twenty-five year friendship, Julie deeply appreciates Vu’s role in her life as friend and inspiration, since influencing and critiquing one another’s writing and visual art in middle school. Vu was the first and only peer reviewer of Julie’s poetry, which she began publishing in ninth grade. In 2001, they undertook a study and travel trip together to Việt Nam. They’ve remained close throughout middle school, high school, college, university, and beyond, despite a few moments of tension in middle school, including Vu’s infamous tripping of the airport security alarm in Dallas/Ft. Worth, on the way back from a gifted/talented field trip to NASA in the late 1980s.

Julie is a managing editor for diaCRITICS, and a writer, photographer, and filmmaker. She’s previously written for diaCRITICS about her ‘authenticity’ as a Vietnamese-American, Democratic Kampuchea’s Genocide of the Cham, Isabelle Thuy Pelaud’s launch party for this is all i choose to tell, a preview of UCLA’s VSA culture show tribute to Tam Tran, and a preview of the first San Francisco Diasporic Vietnamese Film Festival.

Vu Tran’s short stories have appeared in many magazines and anthologies, including The Best American Mystery Stories 2009, the 2007 O. Henry Prize StoriesA Best of FenceThe Southern Review, and Harvard Review.  He has also received honors from Glimmer Train Stories and the Michigan Quarterly Review, and is a recipient of a 2009 Whiting Writers’ Award and a 2011 Finalist Award for the Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise.  His first novel, This Or Any Desert, is forthcoming from WW Norton.  Born in Saigon, Vietnam and raised in Tulsa, Oklahoma, he received his MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he was a Teaching-Writing Fellow, and his PhD from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where he was the Glenn Schaeffer Fellow in Fiction.  He currently teaches creative writing at the University of Chicago.

Vu’s short story Vespertine appeared online last year at FiveChapters.

Please take the time to rate this post (above) and share it (below). Ratings for top posts are listed on the sidebar. Sharing (on email, Facebook, etc.) helps spread the word about diaCRITICS. And join the conversation and leave a comment! Who are your favorite Vietnamese American authors? Do you feel that Vietnamese American writers are asked to perform acts of reconciliation for the U.S.-reading-public? Why or why not?

The Art of Memory without Pyrotechnics: Vu Tran’s Intervu, Part 1

In December 2010, diaCRITICS managing editor Julie Thi Underhill wrote her first diaCRITICIZE about her dilemmas regarding ‘authentic’ belonging as Vietnamese American of Cham-French and Euro-American descent. She centered her bond with her childhood friend V., who she left anonymous to protect his privacy, lest their middle school conversations haunt him. Two months later, diaCRITICS editor Viet Nguyen sent Julie a note asking if V. was the writer Vu Tran who’d been selected as a 2011 finalist for the Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise, awarded to foreign-born individuals who have demonstrated outstanding achievement during the early stages of their careers. So Vu Tran is easily decoded from V. Not so clandestine after all. Busted!

Julie then requested the “intervu of all time,”  to continue their middle school tradition of puns, in honor of Vu’s recent accomplishments. Julie adds, “Since he is also the first Vietnamese American artist I ever knew, it also feels appropriate to give mad props to Vu for the inspiration he’s provided me during the twenty five (or so) years since he first awed me with his stories.”

This is part one of two. The second part will follow, here on diaCRITICS, on June 8, 2011.

Vu Tran

Vu Tran was born in 1975 in Saigon, Việt Nam. After emigrating by boat to the U.S. in 1980, he was raised near Tulsa, Oklahoma. He decided to become a writer in first grade, and his literary oeuvre has since included multiple genres. Since 1998, Vu’s short stories have appeared in The Best American Mystery Stories 2009, O. Henry Prize Stories 2007, A Best of Fence, The Southern Review, and Harvard Review.  He has received honors from Glimmer Train Stories and  Michigan Quarterly Review. He received the 2009 Whiting Writers’ Award and is a 2011 finalist for the Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise.

Vu received his MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he was a Teaching-Writing Fellow, and his PhD from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where he was the Glenn Schaeffer Fellow in Fiction. He currently teaches creative writing at the University of Chicago. His first novel, This Or Any Desert, is forthcoming from W.W. Norton. 

Recently I had the honor of speaking with my childhood friend Vu about his immigration, influences, distinctions, responsibilities, motivations, and the necessity for creative people in any given society.

diaCRITICS noticed that you’re a 2011 finalist for the Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Literature. One stipulation of the award is that you are foreign born. When and why did you immigrate to the US?

My dad was an officer in the South Vietnamese Air Force. So when Sài Gòn fell, everyone who’d worked with the Americans or the South Vietnamese Army had to leave. So my dad and his two brothers had to hightail it out of Việt Nam. And my mother was I believe four months pregnant with me, when my dad left. He left and finally made it to the United States, but it took us five more years.

Vu with his older sister Mai and their mom, Sài Gòn Zoo, 1977

I can’t imagine how hard it must have been for my mother. Basically at the time she thought, I may never see my husband ever again. And my father had never met me, you know. I was born after he left. So I didn’t meet him until I was five. My mother heard that there were boats leaving Việt Nam, and she, I think with gold, she bought passage for me, my sister, and her. And story goes we left early early in the morning when it was still dark outside. I remember hiding in somebody’s house, in a room, and I remember eating dried shrimp. I remember liking the dried shrimp. From there to the boat, you had to creep in the dark at night, and every time they said “Get down” you had to go into these trenches, you know, for farming. It was a farmland, I think, right by the coast. That’s what we must have done. We must have traveled all the way to the coast, from Biên Hòa, which is right outside of Sài Gòn, right. And so that must have been a long trip. I don’t remember the trip. But we stayed, we hid somewhere. And then that night there was this long trek from where we were to the boats. And it was across land, and we had to constantly duck down into trenches.

Anyway we got on the boat. So what happened is that as soon as the boat was full, they basically drew up the anchor and left. And there were some people who drowned, who tried to swim for the boat and couldn’t make it. We were headed for Singapore, but we were blown off course and ending up making it to Malaysia, and staying in Pulau Bidong for like six months. And from there my dad sponsored us and that’s why we came to the States. The day was September 12, 1980, is when we arrived in Tulsa. My dad picked us up from the airport. That’s when I came here and that’s why. Basically to reunite with my dad, otherwise we wouldn’t. There was no other way.

How did you end up in Oklahoma?

A Catholic priest sponsored my dad. Most Vietnamese go to California, you know, L.A., Orange County, or they go to Louisiana or Texas. We had a Catholic priest. When my dad came to the United States, a Catholic priest in Kansas City sponsored him and my uncle and they went and lived there for a while. I forget where, in Kansas. But then they moved to Tulsa, where they settled. But yeah, it would have been very different if I had grown up in California.

What was the transition like, to go from the refugee camp to Oklahoma?

I think the hardest adjustment was meeting my dad, who was essentially a stranger. I remember like the first night or two, we were all sleeping in the same bed, and I was really afraid of my dad. I mean, I was five days before turning five. I had no idea who this man was. And I must have gone through a frightening experience, or something. It was weird to suddenly be living with this man I didn’t know. And actually for like many many years—I forget this—for many years I still felt that my dad was an outsider in the family. Like I knew that he was my dad, and that we were a family. Rationally and intellectually I knew—I never thought I was not his son. But there was always this weird sense that he was not one of us. Weird, you know. I don’t know when that went away. I don’t know how old I was. But I remember for most of my young life, maybe even until nine or ten, every once in a while I’d think of my dad as an outsider. It was really weird. But I think that’s the only adjustment I remember having to make.

I remember not knowing English. I went to kindergarten and said, “What the…? I don’t understand anyone.” So I literally remember learning English. I gotta say how lucky I was to come here right as I was starting kindergarten. I had already been to kindergarten in Việt Nam. But here I was starting on time. It’s amazing that it aligned so neatly that I came here right in time to do that. Because I can’t imagine being like my cousins, you know, coming here, starting school in the 8th grade, at that age. Can you imagine how hard that could have been? And my uncle who came here when he was 17, oh my god. I was incredibly lucky. Now that I think about it.

Vu with his parents, his brother Joseph, and his sister Mai, celebrating Mai's First Communion, in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma

Have you ever speculated how life would have been different if you’d have grown up in a place like California?

Here’s the funny thing. Anytime I think about how my life would have been if I had grown up elsewhere, like California or even Việt Nam, I always think of it in terms of writing. Because that’s the only thing that fucking matters to me, you know? Like would I have been a writer if I’d grown up in Việt Nam. I don’t know. I don’t think I would have, honestly. I wouldn’t have been exposed to writing in the same way, or to books in the same way, I don’t think. Had I grown up in California, I think I would have eventually engaged with books. I think my sensibility would be a little different. Maybe I still would have felt like an outsider in California, I don’t know. But I definitely think feeling like an outsider in Tulsa definitely informed me as a young writer.

Did you know that a lot of my stories in eighth grade, ninth grade, and tenth grade, they were always about people who went into alternate worlds? It was really weird. I wrote a story about this man who traveled in a train, and when he would travel into the train he would move into this alternate world where his wife was still alive. And the only thing he would take back from that world was his wedding ring. I constantly wrote stories like this. A lot of it had to do with how much I loved the Narnia chronicles—The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe—and that idea of entering another world through a wardrobe. I love that idea of an alternate world. And I have to imagine that was, that had something to do with me feeling outside of things. But everyone feels like an outsider when they’re in high school, and middle school. So that was my outsidership.

When and how did you realize that you wanted to grow up to be a writer?

First grade. It was one of the prefab classrooms at Lynnwood Elementary [in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma.]  And I was in my reading group with, I think, like seven other kids. And our assignment was to write a story. And I remember writing a story where at the end the character wakes up and the whole story was a dream. You know one of those really awful cliché endings. I don’t remember anything else about the story but that, but that was when I knew I wanted to be a writer. I guess I must have been about six. And it’s strange—I’ve never for a second wanted to do anything else.

Vu in blue, age six, approximately when he decided to become a writer, Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, 1981

Who were your earliest literary influences, the people that kind of blew your mind?

Oh, you remember this. Jules Verne was my first favorite writer. I loved Jules Verne. Who else did I really love? I loved Greek mythology. In elementary school, there was this great collection of watercolored Greek mythology books, and I learned Greek mythology by reading those books. I checked out all of them and read it.

So what were the stories like that you were writing as a kid? How would you characterize the kind of writing you were doing by eighth or ninth grade?

I wouldn’t call it magic realism at all, I know that, because that’s something completely different. They were always grounded in real reality, but there would always be fantastic elements, like a man going into a train and going into an alternate world, or whatever. Honestly they were always kind of dark, they were always noir-ish. I think I’ve always loved that element, you know. It was usually a male protagonist who was confused. And they were always, I think, very sentimental in some way. I remember loving surprise endings—most kids do. I think I became a much better writer when I stopped writing surprise endings. I think that’s a mark of immaturity. There are people who can do it really well, and maturely, for the most part. But at that time, there was always some magical element.

When I got to college, I would always write these dark and violent stories, like badly violent. They were badly written, first of all, but they were overly violent. I don’t know, maybe I was watching really violent movies at that time. Or thought that I would sound more mature if I had violence and I had cursing, that I could sound more adult. More mature. But in high school, the stories were more sentimental and fantastic. In middle school, I wrote a lot of fairy tale retellings, that kind of fantasy.

Vu and Julie, front and center, with classmates at South Intermediate High School, Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, 1991

Some outsiders—Vu, Matt, Jesse, Julie—in Broken Arrow High School, 1993

"Excellence doesn't just happen!" Julie made this photo of Vu in 1993, in 11th grade AP English, but really in an alternate world, a vutopia of some kind

So what’s the first piece you ever published? 

My first published story was the story called Solomon’s Dream. It was in the Antioch Review in 1998. It was about a Catholic priest in Biên Hòa. I was 22, is that right? That was the first story I ever sent out to get published. The other story was an honorable mention in a magazine and they published it. So the first two stories that I ever sent out got published. And I didn’t get published again for another five years. [Laughs]. Even though I had sent, god, so many stories out. So I got lucky my first two times, then nothing for like five years.

Who are your influences now?

I love Peter Carey. Gabriel Garcia Marquez. John Fowles. Alice Munro. Tim O’Brien. [Vladimir] Nabokov. I love Raymond Chandler—great crime fiction. There’s more that I am forgetting.

Do you think that there is something particular about being a refugee that makes imagining home and being home very crucial? Does being a refugee call into question the idea of home?

I’m writing a bit of a crime novel right now. It’s a noir novel, right. The thing about noir fiction is that it’s usually about people who are always looking for something and knowing that they’re not going to find it. And to the degree that at some point they just are in that default mode, and obviously with noir fiction that’s like a dark worldview and a dark approach to living when you constantly feel like you are looking for something even though you don’t know what it is. I feel like in some ways being a refugee is kind of like that. Because home will never really be home. Because the home that you grew up in is not home in the sense that it is for everyone. Because you belong there only because you are physically there and you are raised there, but it really doesn’t belong to you in the same way it belongs to someone who white and American, and was born and raised there with white and American parents, right. And your other home, the home that you were taken from, will never be home to you in the real sense, either, because you didn’t grow up there. So it’s like, you know, when people say they are looking for something, if they’ve found it, then they have it—they possess it. But I think with us, as refugees, even if we find it, it’s not really ours in the same way as it is for other people. It’s not like finding a lost key—oh my god, I found my key, now I can open the door.

It sounds like there are continuities from your early work to now, in a way. But how do you think that your stories have evolved, conceptually and formally, since you first started writing, seriously?

This is really funny. I was really into the Harlem Renaissance, and into African American literature. Like I loved Toni Morrison. I loved John Edgar Wideman. And I read the Harlem Renaissance. Ralph Ellison—Invisible Man is still one of my favorite novels. But the earlier Harlem Renaissance like Jean Toomer—Cane, and shit like that, aw man, I loved that stuff. I wrote like that. I was trying to appropriate their lyricism. But I was also trying to appropriate their politics. Basically a lot of my characters were Asian American characters with African American themes of racism and shit like that. It was so bad. But I really aped Faulkner for a long time. I tried to write like Faulkner. And then I think, in Iowa, I realized that every sentence didn’t need to be like a fucking poem. I didn’t have to try so hard. And I really pared down my language a lot. I wrote with more subtlety, I think. I would say that college is when I really began writing seriously. From there and then into Iowa, I tried to write with more subtlety and I really pared down my language. It used to be, I tried so hard, I was so ambitious, I would do all these tricks and it didn’t work then, but it was adventurous. And I think in the last eight years I’ve been trying to reclaim that adventurousness, if that makes any sense. So it’s like learning the rules. I started off not following the rules very well, at all, because I didn’t know them. And then I learned all the rules. And in the last eight years I’ve been trying to distance—trying to kind of exploit the rules, and move beyond them. Does that make sense?

Yes, it does.

And also trying to write more genuinely. I feel for a long time I was writing about ideas that weren’t really my true ideas. Not that I stole them, but like, I don’t feel they came from a sincere and true place.

Do you think that’s age, and having more life under your belt? Or do you think it’s something else that’s allowed you to do more of that?

I think it’s a natural thing. I think that you become a better writer when you’re writing from a place that’s actually your own. I think most writers, unless they’re brilliant, they’re not writing well unless they’re writing from a true place. If they’re appropriating someone else’s ideas and their concerns, it just doesn’t work. The reader will know that. I think when I started writing from my own place, I think it showed, my writing was just better.

What did it look like to be writing from your own place?

I think for a long time I was writing stories about Việt Nam and thinking I had to write about a certain kind of displacement—I had to write from a certain point of view. But those were all ideas that I had gathered from other books I’d read, and other people I’d talked to. I felt like that wasn’t my own personal sense of displacement, you know. So for example I would write about a character who was coming back to Việt Nam and I would imagine that character from the point of view of someone else coming back to Việt Nam. It wasn’t my own point of view. For some reason, I always kind of stayed away from myself. And then I remember, I think the first story that I wrote that I felt was truly me was, like this, I feel embarrassed. It was a love story, a novella I wrote, for an ex-girlfriend. And I wrote it over Christmas in 2001. And I finally felt myself actually writing myself into the story. And it’s not about writing autobiographically so that it’s suddenly yours now, but like literally putting myself into the way that he would respond to things and into the way that he would see the world. Does that make sense? And it showed. I think it worked. That novella is the first story I wrote that I felt was truly mature, because I was writing from a place that was solely my own place. I know that it’s almost a generic way to describe it, but I think it’s the best way I can do it.

That absolutely makes sense. How do you think textures of memory inform and shape your writing? How does memory configure into the way that you write?

It probably figures into the way that everyone writes. Oh my god, Kazuo Ishiguro once explained memory in a really good way and I forgot how exactly he put it. That there’s a difference between nostalgia and a glorification of the past. I think the way memory ends up being a texture in my story is always in tone. I’ll explain it this way. You know Wong Kar-Wai, right? You watch a Wong Kar-Wai movie, and there is a tone of romanticism at its most lush, right. It’s about love, but really the thing that makes his style uniquely his own is that tone of memory in all of his work. It’s nostalgia but it’s also sadness for something that is gone forever, that is not retrievable. I think that’s the thing about memory, is that you can be nostalgic about it, but you’re inevitably sad about it because you know that you can never recreate the past. You can try to, but you can’t. And that tone comes through in a lot of my favorite books and movies and music. Music especially. I think that’s the texture of memory that I have. Sometimes it’s more literal. I have a lot of retrospective narrators who recount the past from the filter of their present point of view. But I think more than anything it’s just that tone. That tone of sadness that you really can’t reclaim the past.

Vu, fifth from left, in 1996 with family on his first trip to Việt Nam since fleeing as a child

It seems like war ends up being a predominant theme in the writings of Vietnamese Americans, sometimes even as an act of resisting that the entire sense of Vietnamese-ness not be reduced to the war. As some have said, Việt Nam is a country not a war. Do you feel that the war, as a topic, has been an important aspect of your own writing? And why or why not?

You asked about my evolution as a writer. That was one of the themes I felt that I had to write about. I’m glad you asked this, because that was the missing part of what I was trying to explain. I felt when I wrote about war, I was writing it from the perspective of what I thought people expected me to write, that war. At this point I feel that writing about the Việt Nam war is so difficult, not only for me, but for all writers, least of which Vietnamese American writers or any Asian—any immigrant writer coming from a war-torn country. I think the thing about war is that if you write about it from the sense that war is awful, that war is hell, and all those kinds of clichés—war being the defining feature of that character’s identity, makes it less interesting, at this point. If you can somewhat make the character in that narrative go beyond the context of war that’s when it becomes much more interesting. Because there are so many ways you can say that war is awful and it makes people suffer. Romantic relationships make people suffer. The IRS makes people suffer. You know what I mean? I don’t know how much you can say about that idea of war being awful, but whatever is communicated, I feel, needs to come from that individual character, not just from the idea of war itself. Does that makes sense?

It’s been interesting to watch Vietnamese American writing—the people who are taking it up—find their own way to write about or to not write about war. Which is one thing I like about The Gangster We Are All Looking For by lê thi diem thúy. There are traces of war, but that’s not what the main protagonist is struggling with, in particular. She’s struggling with the repercussions of the displacements and separations, and all that. 

Here’s the thing is that when you write about war—if you grow up in America, or grow up in the West, and you read war literature, especially Việt Nam War literature, you’re reading primarily white writers. And quite frankly, they’ve written the best literature on war, I think, the most interesting literature. But the perspective that they are imposing, the perspective that war is this outlandish, this unique experience. Whereas if you are writing from the Việt Nam perspective, you know, that we’ve had centuries of war. That we’ve always lived with this. That this is just a fact of life, right. And if you write from the western perspective, inevitably there will be something that is disingenuous about it. You’re treating it as if it’s some kind of alien creature. But it is the fabric of our culture that we’re always at war. So saying that war sucks is like saying that Việt Nam culture sucks. That’s not even an argument after a while. That’s not even remotely interesting. I don’t know yet how to write about it, to be honest with you. I just know the ways that I don’t want to write it. Or the ways that it’s been written that I don’t like to read. What it should actually be or how I should write it, I’m not sure I know yet.

You said that you think that a lot of the best war literature has been written by non-Vietnamese writers. Do you think that those same writers have that disingenuousness about the war? How could they manage to write it well if they are disingenuous?

I’ll take Tim O’Brien for example. I feel that The Things They Carried is not about the Việt Nam war after a while. In that chapter How to Tell A True War Story, the real title of that piece is How to Tell A True Story, you know. It’s really about the act of writing about one’s experience, and so it goes beyond the war in that sense. The war is kind of like a context for him to talk about these things. I feel like writers like him aren’t necessarily disingenuous at all. I think a writer like Robert Owen Butler, his story collection—I once loved that book a lot, and now I don’t, I really don’t like it. I’m not one to question someone’s motivations, or whatever, but I feel like reading his other work now, I realize that a lot of the voices in that story collection, it’s ventriloquism. It’s not writing from a brutal, raw, honest, and true place, it’s ventriloquism. It’s appropriating someone else’s rawness. And I kind of resent that collection now. But I feel like that’s what I was doing for a long time. The same thing that Robert Owen Butler was doing. Because I was on the outside of it as much as he is. Even though he was there and he was a translator. But I feel like I’m as much of an outsider as he is. And I felt like for a long time I was doing the same thing he was.

Do you think that the publishing industry attempts to pigeonhole the ‘ethnic American’ writer, and, if you’ve ever felt it, how has this affected you?

I think it does. And you know, I hate, I’ve never liked when people talk this way. They’re pigeonholing us. I don’t like feeling like a victim of anything, you know. But I do think it’s true. When I was trying to publish my book, when I first was looking for an agent, my first agent that I worked with extensively, he read a story of mine and he loved it. But it was the one that was most obviously about the war. He kept telling me—he literally said this, Julie—“Can you have more of the war stuff in your other stories?” Because I didn’t. You know, I was purposely not trying to write about the war. And he was telling me that you should. And in many ways, the story that he liked was my best story, I still think. So maybe he’s making a point here, you know, I shouldn’t just be so offended by it. I ended up still writing a collection of stories—there was only one story with anything directly about the war, and in the other stories any time war is mentioned it is only in passing. And my collection got rejected by fifteen different people, fifteen different houses in New York. And it could have been they just didn’t like them. But I really think a lot of it had to do with their expectations. This is a collection about Việt Nam, and there are no pyrotechnics here. Where are the pyrotechnics? There’s nothing here. It’s like, you know, lonely sensitive people, you know, having a hard time connecting with one another. Why the fuck would we want this collection?


We want some people dying and shit. You know. And that’s what my novel, in a sense, is about. My novel is about a white American police officer who marries a Vietnamese woman who immigrated from Việt Nam. And one of the reasons their marriage doesn’t work out is that she never tells him shit about Việt Nam. And he wants it, you know. He wants her to tell him all these things, but she doesn’t. In a sense, I want to fucking deny readers that, because it’s not what we are, you know.

So you do see or believe that this interest in the war has overdetermined how people want to read your writing, you think? Maybe even that Vietnamese character is you, saying, ‘I’m not going to tell you anything!’

Yeah, yeah, I think it is. Well the another thing is, I don’t know these things. I don’t. It’s like, you want to hear from me? I don’t know it. I grew up in fucking Broken Arrow, Oklahoma! I don’t know about people getting their brains blown out in war! I don’t know about that shit. I’m as ignorant as you are. Why should I be telling you this stuff just because I was born there? Or because my parents are from there? I’m not an expert on it. And I’m too lazy to do the research!

[Laughs]. Do you feel that even in the way your characters can still remember the place, if they are from Việt Nam, do you feel that your work is inherently transnational? I mean, do you think there is a transnational element to your writing, where you are able to be in multiple spaces at once, and keep the conversation going?

Yeah, I think that’s probably inevitable at this point, you know. I have this joke with my friends—every once in a while I’ll say, ‘You mean I’m not white?’ [Laughs]. Because, I mean, I feel as much as white American as I do a Vietnamese person. So I think in my novel right now, I think you are absolutely right. I have a character in there who is 28. And he came to the States with his father from a refugee camp when he was about six or seven. That’s me. But the white American police officer is me, too. So it’s very transnational. The plot of the novel is he’s going back to Las Vegas to find his ex-wife for her new Vietnamese husband, right. So he’s entering a Vietnamese community that he is unfamiliar with. That’s me. Every time I engage with the Vietnamese community, I’m as much a stranger as he is. I am privy to stuff that he isn’t, because I grew up in a Vietnamese family. But I am as much as stranger as he is. So yeah, it’s all those things. Those perspectives are inevitable at this point.

Do you think it might be a condition of a diaspora to be looking to interpret or revisit the past, in particular, in whatever form that it is? I’m thinking also of artists in exile from Europe, in their own diasporas, as well. I’m just wondering how much the past is part of that feeling of being dispersed or in exile from home.

I really do think that this is that way for everyone. I think everyone feels it. Diaspora obviously refers to those of us who are physically not in the country that we grew up in or were born in. But in a more metaphoric sense, I feel everyone goes through that, everyone experiences that. When you are an adult, you are no longer the child that you once were. That is a displacement. It is. The most vivid memories that you’ll always have will always be the memories that you have between the ages of four and twelve probably, between four and seventeen. And those memories will always be more vivid than the rest of your life, probably. But you will never be that child or teenager again. You are now forty or fifty years old. So you will feel displaced. That really in a metaphoric sense will be no different than someone who is physically removed from the country they were born in or grew up in. I think politically speaking it’s a little different, it’s more obvious that you’re displaced in that way. So if you are obviously like us, you are ethnic, our displacement is more heightened because there are immediate expectations for us from people that we meet, you know, that are different.

It's Not a Through Street, It's a Vu Street, photographed by Julie, Berkeley, California, 2009

Part two will continue on June 8, 2011, here at diaCRITICS.

Julie Thi Underhill has known Vu Tran since they were in sixth grade in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. After a twenty-five year friendship, Julie deeply appreciates Vu’s role in her life as friend and inspiration, since influencing and critiquing one another’s writing and visual art in middle school. Vu was the first and only peer reviewer of Julie’s poetry, which she began publishing in ninth grade. In 2001, they undertook a study and travel trip together to Việt Nam. They’ve remained close throughout middle school, high school, college, university, and beyond, despite a few moments of tension in middle school, including Vu’s infamous tripping of the airport security alarm in Dallas/Ft. Worth, on the way back from a gifted/talented field trip to NASA in the late 1980s.

Julie is a managing editor for diaCRITICS, and a writer, photographer, and filmmaker. She’s previously written for diaCRITICS about her ‘authenticity’ as a Vietnamese-American, Democratic Kampuchea’s Genocide of the Cham, Isabelle Thuy Pelaud’s launch party for this is all i choose to tell, a preview of UCLA’s VSA culture show tribute to Tam Tran, and a preview of the first San Francisco Diasporic Vietnamese Film Festival.

Vu Tran’s short stories have appeared in many magazines and anthologies, including The Best American Mystery Stories 2009, the 2007 O. Henry Prize StoriesA Best of FenceThe Southern Review, and Harvard Review.  He has also received honors from Glimmer Train Stories and the Michigan Quarterly Review, and is a recipient of a 2009 Whiting Writers’ Award and a 2011 Finalist Award for the Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise.  His first novel, This Or Any Desert, is forthcoming from WW Norton.  Born in Saigon, Vietnam and raised in Tulsa, Oklahoma, he received his MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he was a Teaching-Writing Fellow, and his PhD from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where he was the Glenn Schaeffer Fellow in Fiction.  He currently teaches creative writing at the University of Chicago.

Vu’s short story Vespertine appeared online last year at FiveChapters.

Please take the time to rate this post (above) and share it (below). Ratings for top posts are listed on the sidebar. Sharing (on email, Facebook, etc.) helps spread the word about diaCRITICS. And join the conversation and leave a comment! Who are your favorite Vietnamese American authors? Do you feel that Vietnamese American writers are asked to perform acts of reconciliation for the U.S.-reading-public? Why or why not?

Tofu, No Apologies: An Interview with Food Writer Andrea Nguyen

Ever wonder what goes into a good, yummy bowl of pho? What about how to make the ever-popular banh mi, or how to make your own tofu? Andrea Nguyen, author of three Vietnamese and Asian cook books, is definitely the expert. diaCRITIC Kim-An Lieberman speaks to Andrea about her inspiration and her approach to making Vietnamese cooking easy for everyone.

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If, like me, you grew up in a home where cooking meant adding various ingredients “until it tastes right”—only to find that, as an adult, your every attempt to recreate a beloved dish just tastes wrong—then you understand why Andrea Nguyen’s cookbook Into the Vietnamese Kitchen became an instant classic upon its publication in 2006. Detailed, well-researched recipes demystify the traditions of Vietnamese cuisine in an intelligent and accessible format. For the Vietnamese diaspora, Into the Vietnamese Kitchen offers a way to reconnect with a deeply meaningful heritage of flavors and techniques. For all readers, Nguyen’s book is an invitation to explore the delicious world of Vietnamese cooking, and to reflect on their own personal histories with food. Nguyen continues to serve up culinary and cultural wisdom in her second book, Asian Dumplings, a step-by-step guide to all things yummy and dough-wrapped. She is now finalizing the manuscript for Asian Tofu, another cookbook forthcoming from Ten Speed Press in 2012. She also maintains a rich archive of recipes and food insights on her blog, Viet World Kitchen.

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to chat with Andrea Nguyen about everything from her new tofu book to contraband nước mắm and Rachael Ray’s bungling of phở. Take a read of our conversation below. Or click on one of the recipe links, head straight into your own kitchen, and start cooking!

Andrea Nguyen

Your first book was extremely successful and won an impressive list of awards and kudos. Why do you think it resonated with such a large audience?

I wanted to write a book that was about Vietnamese people who came to America, and the question is how do they preserve their heritage? Through food. I wanted to share what had not been communicated in other cookbooks: Vietnamese home cooking, which is very simple. I wanted to frame Vietnamese food in a way that people could understand it and begin to talk about it. A lot of older books written about Vietnamese food would scare me because the ingredient list was too long. Instead, I would read cookbooks from Vietnam (which was good, because it also helped me to practice my Vietnamese). The ones from Vietnam are written in an austere way; the number of ingredients tends to be very small. This made much more sense to me. I wanted to present Vietnamese food in the way that I enjoy it, how I cook it and how I know that other people do. Also, some Vietnamese Americans want to make complicated dishes like phở or bún bò Huế, because we can’t easily get it today—you can’t just go outside to a street vendor. And the market was ready because Vietnamese food and travel are very popular right now. For instance, bánh mì is very popular, but one of the things never presented is the whole range of cold cuts that you can use, the charcuterie. Into the Vietnamese Kitchen was in my brain since I was 10 years old, and I finally found a publisher who was willing.

Phở Bò - Beef Noodle Soup

Do you actually use Into the Vietnamese Kitchen in your own kitchen?

I use it all the time! I have the very first copy: I call it Number One. All the pages are torn. My mother uses it, too. Last year, my mom cooked a menu for my dad’s 80th birthday, entirely from Into the Vietnamese Kitchen. She tells me, “I’m so proud of you. I haven’t written down all these details, but you did.” She’s always telling her Vietnamese friends to get the book for their children as a way to pass down that part of their culture.

You have cited several different influences in your development as both a cook and a writer—watching Julia Child and Martin Yan on PBS, working in the restaurant and catering industry, earning a graduate degree in business communications, inheriting family recipes. When did you realize that you wanted to focus professionally on food writing?

It was very simple. I’m a first-generation (1.5) immigrant, and I always had this interest in food, but I was supposed to be a banker. I was fairly good at math, but I hated accounting. I knew that all my debits and credits had to equal, but it was just not my thing! I always had this lingering desire to work in food, but it’s a non-traditional career for an immigrant, let alone an Asian person—it’s a luxury thing, you do that as a hobby. But I began focusing seriously on food because I couldn’t get a job! My husband and I moved away from Los Angeles to a small-town area in Santa Cruz, and I ended up having more time on my hands. I thought: I’ll build my own little website, at least I can get my ideas out there.

How did you go from a personal website to a published cookbook?

I had a manuscript, and people in the industry helped me shop it, but publishers would just say, “You’re not on the Food Network.” And then, in the little town where I moved, I ended up meeting the owner of Ten Speed Press. I couldn’t get a full-time job, but I was able to get a book contract! It took a lot of preparation. For people who are really working in the arts, and I imagine that’s a fair number, you just gotta keep plugging ahead. The most important thing is that you have something to say. What I wanted to say is that other cookbooks just don’t seem to reflect the kind of food that I eat or that I see. I don’t want to make Vietnamese food or Asian food seem exotic. That’s one of the worst things you can do with ethnic food—then nobody thinks they can make it, because it’s so far removed from their reality. And I don’t want to fetishize it—there’s plenty of that going on. Oftentimes we do it to ourselves. We think, “Why can’t I make that food? It’s too labor intensive.” But my mother was a plucky woman, and she would just go ahead and try making it, so I learned a lot from her. I hope that the work I do allows people to talk more. Families may prepare things differently, but if you have some kind of benchmark, some way to discuss it, then you can go back to your family and have a conversation and connect with your culture, develop your own personal traditions.

How long does it take for you to perfect a recipe for publication? What is the process?

For anything that goes into print, I normally go between an average of 3 to 5 times through a recipe. I’ll do my research and figure out what are the different ways of doing something, and how do I know how to do something. Then I get into the kitchen, I write up a recipe, and I test it out. I go over and over and over again. The instructions that people get at the end of the process are these strange little performances, with all these visual and tactile cues that I try to give people so that they can understand, all these signposts so they can more or less arrive at the same destination that I did. After a recipe is done, it always gets tested by someone else, either a test kitchen or a group of volunteer testers. I assign someone to each recipe, and then they do it, and they send me their feedback, which I incorporate back into the recipe.

Bánh Mì - Sandwich

What about details like food photography and page layout?

Nowadays, if a cookbook doesn’t have lots of photos, the perception is that it’s less marketable—but I like to not have a photo for every recipe because it takes up valuable space for text and instruction. I like to balance that. My editor and I come up with a shot list that paces things nicely throughout the book. I get a lot of input into the book’s trim size, how it will open up, how the photographs will coordinate. Ten Speed Press is really small, so it’s not a cookie-cutter process.

Tell me about your new cookbook project. What inspired you to write about tofu?

My mom called me one day and said, “My friend Mrs. Kieu wanted to know if you know how to make tofu. Mrs. Kieu has a friend who lives in Africa, a Vietnamese woman, who is living without tofu, and she asked me to ask you.” Why not try to make it? Then my publisher and I started talking about tofu. Tofu means a lot of things and can be a very polarizing ingredient. In America, a lot of people say, “I hate tofu!” But I didn’t grow up that way. If you look at American cookbooks, a lot of times there’s this conversion attitude—”It’s good for you, you should eat it”—and they’re full of all kinds of negative, awkward descriptors attached to tofu. No one has really provided an Asian perspective. So that’s what I’m trying to do with the new cookbook, which is pan-Asian in perspective. Tofu just the way it is, no apologies.

Pressed Tofu Stir-Fried with Chinese Celery

What distinguishes the Vietnamese use of tofu from other Asian tofus?

The Vietnamese use of tofu is closely aligned with the Chinese use of tofu, just because of the geographic and historic connections. What’s interesting is that there are these tofu powerhouses in East Asia like China and Japan and Korea, but in Vietnam you also get Southeast Asian culture reflected as well as some things that are totally Vietnamese. We borrow a lot of Chinese ideas on tofu, such as the way that tofu is stuffed with pork (a Southern Chinese tradition). Or when you go to get Vietnamese rice plates, you sometimes get tofu skin stuffed with shrimp, which is just like dim sum; even the Vietnamese word for that dish is transliterated from Chinese. Then there’s chè đậu hũ (đậu hũ đường gừng), soft tofu with sugar syrup and ginger, which is eaten throughout Southeast Asia. Into the Vietnamese Kitchen includes a recipe for fried tofu with fish sauce (đậu hũ chiên), which is a very, very Vietnamese dish. Now there’s even tofu in bánh mì, which is probably an Americanized thing, a vegetarian version. You actually used to see bánh mì stuffed with miến noodles, and you would wonder, where’s the meat? Vietnamese people do mock meat very well by using fried tofu as a meat substitute. It’s Buddhist temple food—ăn chay—and an important part of Vietnam’s particular cultural repertoire.

What key ingredients do you always have stocked in your pantry?

Definitely nước mắm! Sugar. And some rice. The rest of it can really come and go.

What brand of nước mắm do you use?

I use Việt Hương (Three Crabs), or crazy stuff people give me from Vietnam and Thailand, high-end sauces. Our parents are going to cook everyday with the cheaper stuff, but if you don’t use as much as often, then you should go ahead and use higher-end stuff if you can. People are splurging on olive oil, so why spend only $4 on a bottle of nước mắm? With the more expensive stuff, you can finesse. Nước mắm blended with the first pressing has more depth, and the less expensive stuff tends to be watered down and augmented with sugar or MSG. I’ve tasted fish sauce right out of the vat in Vietnam: it’s absolutely fabulous, but it crystallizes easily, and we can’t get it over here. In Vietnam you can buy different grades. People smuggle it back in water bottles. I carry it home in my luggage! A lot of the cheaper stuff available here, like Tiparos, is better formulated for Thai food. Vietnamese food depends on a more mellifluous seasoning to carry the flavors.

Cá Kho Cam - Trout Simmered in Orange Peel and Caramel Sauce

In your opinion, what is the easiest Vietnamese dish to cook at home?

One of the easiest things is to kho something. If you make your caramel sauce of out sugar and water, and you keep that in the cupboard, it’s like this little Vietnamese stealth ingredient. You whip it out, and you can use to it make fish kho, chicken kho, pork kho, beef kho. You can also use it in marinades to give a reddish color and a layered taste. For a summer barbecue, you can easily do something like chicken thighs marinated with lime juice, oil, pepper, and served with a simple dipping sauce of chile and lime juice. So simple, no fuss: that’s what I love about Vietnamese food.

What is the most difficult?

Most difficult, arguably, is moon cakes, bánh nướng. I think I made that every week for a month until I got the instructions down. I grew up with my mom making those at home, but she was a highly unusual woman. She gave me pointers and then handed over her molds and was like, “I’m done with this.” I tackled it, but not many people do. It’s a dish with a lot of Chinese influence. There’s also bánh chưng, sticky rice cakes with mung bean and pork, completely Vietnamese and the coolest thing to make. It is very complicated, but it only uses a handful of ingredients. I use a square mold made of wood that my friends made for me. You put the ingredients together, and then you cut up these bamboo and banana leaves to create a package, like a little gift. Every year I try to practice this in my home kitchen. It’s a cooking ritual for myself. It gets me ready for Tết.

Bánh Nướng - Moon Cakes

Last year on your blog, you called out Rachael Ray for her glaring misinterpretation of phở. How do you see Asian cuisine being represented (or misrepresented) in Western popular culture?

A few days ago I was reading a Fast Company article about food at ballparks. One of the new food things at Wrigley Field is a bánh mì hot dog. If only I could get that kind of job, to develop all this cool food! I looked at it and wondered: what is my value judgment here? They had a hot dog dressed with pickled daikon, onion, chiles. The person who developed it had traveled to Southeast Asia, and he could probably talk about the travel as his inspiration. I imagine I could have an intelligible conversation with that person about food. But the way that Rachael Ray handled things on her show was just bizarre. What if an Asian person went to produce an Italian dish and didn’t even use anything Italian? (Though in places like Hong Kong and Japan, there’s plenty of faux-Western food: I’ve had spaghetti with ketchup in Hong Kong, for instance, and it was kind of good.) But Rachael Ray seemed to do it without any investigation, without asking: what is this I’m trying to make? How can you, as a national American TV personality, present what is arguably the national dish of Vietnam in such a mishmashed and ill-informed manner? Especially when you have a whole staff helping you? It would be great if someone of Rachael Ray’s stature were able to say, “This is what phở is, and this is how I’ve changed it.” She just kind of threw together this barbecued pork thing and called it phở. It was so breezy. A lot of times people take free license with Asian food. There’s still a lot of feeling that Asian people won’t say anything, or it doesn’t matter, or it’s OK.

Spicy Umami Ketchup

What is your favorite non-Asian food?

That’s hard: I really love to eat Asian food! There’s so much—from China to Indonesia, down to India and even the Middle East. I do like Southern French food. And Mediterranean, Spanish. I make paella several times a year. But I guess I do cook Mexican food a lot—sometimes three times a week—so that’s probably my favorite.

All images in this post are reproduced with permission from Viet World Kitchen (

diaCRITIC Kim-An Lieberman hails mostly from Seattle and holds a Ph.D. in English, specializing in Vietnamese American literature, from the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of Breaking the Map: Poems

Please take the time to rate this post (above) and share it (below). Ratings for top posts are listed on the sidebar. Sharing (on email, Facebook, etc.) helps spread the word about diaCRITICS. And join the conversation and leave a comment! What’s your favorite Vietnamese dish? Ever tried cooking it with your own or your parent’s recipes? What about trying one of Andrea’s and seeing how it compares?

Stories from Beyond: A Recap of the “Beyond the War” Panel

What does it mean for Vietnamese Americans to be “beyond the war”? A featured writer on diaCRITICS for her new book, this is all i choose to tell, Isabelle Thuy Pelaud gives us a deeper look and insightful commentary on three Vietnamese Americans – Truong Tran, recently featured in Lieberman’s piece of diasporic poetry; Monique Truong, whose second novel was reviewed in diaCRITICS; and new filmmaker Mark Tran and how they creatively engage with being “Beyond the War.”

For a full recording of both the discussion and the Q&A as well as pictures take a look at Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program’s page.

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From left: Truong Tran, Mark Tran, Monique Truong, and moderator Isabelle Thuy Pelaud. Photo Courtesy of Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program.

On April 14, I had the honor of moderating a panel titled “Beyond the War: Vietnamese American Film and Literature Envision a New Homeland.” This panel explored Vietnamese American cultural production from those artists who might not have memories of Vietnam and others who wish to examine issues, and genres that are not centered on the refugee experience. “In doing so,” a blurb publicizing the event says, “they add compellingly new layers to what it means to be an American”.

According to the organizer, the event was unusually well attended, by about 100 people. Welcoming remarks were made by Gina Inocencio from the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program and Ban Tran from the Vietnamese American Heritage Project. Staying close to the panel theme, I followed by first discussing briefly the pressure Vietnamese American writers and filmmakers encounter to authenticate themselves through the Vietnam War then introducing the three artists as individuals who tend to resist or ignore such expectations.

Monique Truong, author of The Book of Salt (2003) and Bitter in the Mouth (2010), read a carefully crafted introduction to her latest book and an excerpt from the book. The story is told from the perspective of a young woman with a rare condition that makes her associate words with the taste of particular food items. Truong Tran, author of Placing the Accent (1999), dust and conscience (2002), within the margin (2004) and four letter words (2008), read a section from four letter words that addresses the politics of language, writing and society in general. He used pornography as a metaphor for society’s ills, pointing that there is more pornography in politics than in pornography itself. He showed images of his artwork that responds to four letter words. Although I had heard him speak numerous times in San Francisco, his work took on a different dimension in Washington DC. I thought he was brave. Finally, Mark Tran showed a trailer for his movie, All About Dad (2008), that is about issues between first and second generation Vietnamese Americans. He stated that he created stories that are meaningful to his life.

Truong Trans Presentation. Photo Courtesy of Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program.

Following their presentation, I asked the panelists questions that pertained to the theme of the event. Truong Tran said that for him good art resists expectations, and he purposefully works against mainstream pressure to deliver a certain kind of refugee story. He has hardly any memory of Vietnam and what interests him today is abstract art that, in part, contests such expectations and speaks of issues related to sexuality. He eloquently talked about the problems of claiming to represent an authentic identity and insisted upon the idea that a single story cannot possibly represent a group of people.

Monique Truong agreed with the poet and shared a “demoralizing” story with the audience to illustrate his point. After The Book of Salt was published and became a national bestseller and a recipient of numerous awards, she said she felt confident. Until one day she received an e-mail from the New York Times who asked her to write an Op-Ed piece in relation to a law proposed in Hawaii that severely criminalized the practice of eating dogs and cats. The editor of the New York Times asked her if she could write an essay that defends the practice of eating dogs! She was shocked that one of the very best newspapers in the country only saw her as a representative of a country where people eat dogs. One of her white colleague with similar interests and credentials was asked a few months later by the same paper to write a piece on the positive aspects of allowing dogs to be off leash in city parks. Because she is from Vietnam, she was asked to defend the value of hating dogs, and because he is white and recognizably American, he was asked to write about the value of loving dogs. In other words, a successful Vietnamese female writer with a law degree from Yale was called upon to represent the so-called “uncivilized” and the White male writer was called to represent the so-called “civilized.” The vivid reminder of her location as a minority in the national cultural terrain hurt her deeply.

Speaking about his movie All About Dad, young Mark Tran talked about the importance of believing in oneself and following one’s interest. His work focuses more on the immigrant experience than that of refugees, and the family tensions between first and second generation Vietnamese Americans. When I showed the movie to my Vietnamese American literature class last week at SFSU, Chinese and Filipino American students could relate to it. Vietnamese American students also loved it, as they rarely see themselves at the movies. They were also somewhat relieved that nobody died or was physically hurt. But my students were also concerned about his ability to make a living as a filmmaker because of the lack of mainstream interest for a story that neither speaks directly to the Vietnam War nor replicates Asian American stereotypes. As we shared a flight the next day, Mark said that four years after completing the film, he is still looking for funding to make his next movie, a follow-up to All About Dad. The story relates what happened after the parents pass away and the adult children return home and revisit memories of childhood and teenage years in the United States. He attributes the difficulty of finding financial support to the poor economic conditions at the moment.

Photo Courtesy of

The Q&A session was lively and people in the audience stayed until the end. A young woman insisted with passion that Vietnamese American experience and history were extremely important – Monique Truong and Truong Tran did not disagree but also stated that there are many other experiences associated with being Vietnamese American and they do not want to be restricted to only one. It should be all right for a Vietnamese American to be a fiction writer and write from the perspectives of people of different backgrounds. Another person addressed the future of Vietnamese Americans in regard to assimilation. I pointed to the difference between immigrants and refugees and noted that a large number of Vietnamese American texts turn to Vietnam as reference. The last question came from an older Vietnamese American man who said that he was glad that the artists on the panel were not preoccupied with survival and could talk about their feelings openly, but asked if they visited Vietnam and advised them not to forget their roots. All three reassured him that they had visited Vietnam, although they did not feel fully Vietnamese there. This is not something they can be blamed for.

After reading and discussion came the book-signing. Everyone seemed invigorated by the event. Toward the end of the evening a young white man came to Mark Tran (who was sitting next to me) and told him that his Asian American girlfriend shared similar issues with being bicultural (with her parents) and that he was trying hard to understand her struggles. Mark, who went to San Jose State University and grew up in the Bay area, did not answer that it was very nice of him to make this effort, but rather responded that his white friends were also feeling like a minority. This moment of miscommunication made me smile. Mark does not resist racism or the weight of the Vietnam War syndrome consciously in his work (although he does by virtue of the topic he explores) because he does not feel like a minority. At 26 and almost fresh out of college, he is not concerned with the forces he is working against. He does not seem to see them. This promising young filmmaker (he wrote the script of All About Dad when he was nineteen) needs the support of his community.

But I had other reasons to be smiling. Here I was at the Smithsonian, having spent all day at a museum with two artists whose works and ways of beings I respect highly, and having just moderated a panel framed around my book on Vietnamese American literature This Is All I Choose to Tell: History and Hybridity in Vietnamese American Literature (2011). The argument I made there about the relationship between Vietnamese American cultural production audience expectation was demonstrated by the artist stories and comments, and generated acute interest and debates. My work was relevant and I hope useful to the development of Vietnamese American cultural production on one’s own terms.

Touring with Monique Truong and Truong Tran. Photo Courtesy of Isabelle Thuy Pelaud.

Isabelle Thuy Pelaud is an Associate Professor of Asian American Studies at San Francisco State University, and founder of the Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network (DVAN). Her first monograph, this is all i choose to tell: Hybridity and History in Vietnamese American Literature,  was just published by Temple University Press. Her academic work can be found in Mixed Race Literature, The New Face of Asian Pacific America, Amerasia Journal, and the Michigan Quarterly Review. Her essays and short stories have been published in Making More Waves, Tilting the Continent, and Vietnam Dialogue Inside/Out.

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