The rarity of it all.

with author and illustrator Thi Bui.

A reflection from the 4.13.19 event Seattle Reads: 2019 featuring Thi Bui. 

I arrive at the downtown Seattle public library with my Viet gfs, Hong and Thao (sisters) with Thao’s baby Youna in tow. We catch Thanh on the way in and Trang is still on her way. We are all excited to be supporting a female Vietnamese author and illustrator, and of course to get our books signed (I had yet to purchase mine). We walk into the auditorium and it is entirely full, which is my first surprise because we arrived at least 20 minutes early. My second surprise was the audience comprised mainly of older white people. Don’t get me wrong, it is fantastic that there is this type of support for a Viet author but what I envisioned, before coming to this event, was a sea of Viet folks all banding together to show how much they appreciate Thi’s work. I mean, how many Viet authors can we actually celebrate out there? I think this is a huge fantasy of mine when I showcase my own work. It is an expectation I suppose that my own people will be there to root me on. Perhaps it is a level of acceptance within the Viet community that I yearn for? I do not speak Viet fluently but understand most of it, and grew up in a very white Canadian neighbourhood. It was not until I moved to Seattle in 2008 that I became involved with Vietnamese organizations. Admittedly, I was not initially welcome with open arms with a particular set of people, which is just sad entirely on all fronts. Of course, you learn and you move on, maybe forgive a little, but I suppose some PTSD sets in. Basically, I was hoping to see more of my Viet sisters in the crowd, and because I didn’t I was ultimately disappointed with the lack of community support by local Viets. Was this really the best we could do?

Anyhow, back to the pertinent, soul-searching, poignant event, which was a live interview with Thi Bui, moderated by Julie Pham (also an author), along with the world premiere live reading of The Best We Could Do directed by Kathy Hsieh, adapted by Susan Lieu, and played by: Hing Lam, Susan Lieu, Henry Vu, Grace Ai Nguyen, and Tammy Nguyen.

Before the program began, I perused the table of books for purchase by about a handful of Viet authors. I kind of wanted to buy them all but I can only read so much on the Vietnam war. I bought the book of the evening (okay, I admit I haven’t read it yet but so what, who cares) and a children’s book Thi illustrated entitled A Different Pond.

During the live Q&A, I was caught by a couple of answers by Thi. The first one was the fact that she had multiple offers to create a film for her book. She declined all of them because she was adamant that the story not be portrayed incorrectly nor, I assume, directed/produced by non-Vietnamese people. Essentially, she didn’t sell out, which speaks volumes to the control of her own work. My gf Trang mentioned that Crazy, Rich Asians author Kevin Kwan had similar experiences where Hollywood wanted to cast a white Rachel Chu. I mean I am not shocked but get the eff out of here Hollywood with your modern “yellow facing”. Btw I did vlog on this like 3.5 yrs ago, which can be seen here.

So there is another issue to the history of the diaspora of our boat people, which is we need more Vietnamese filmmakers to properly portray Vietnamese stories.

The second item that stuck with me was during one of Thi’s answers she mentions that there are no happy endings. Unfortunately, I do not remember the exact question that was asked by Julie but I think it was in regards to all of the generations involved in her book and how their stories were unfolded. Is this sentiment entirely true? I ponder Thi’s words for the rest of the event and reflect on my mother’s death anniversary, which is this very day. She died very suddenly via brain aneurysm 5 years ago. Within 24 hrs of arriving at the hospital, there was no coming back from the incredible damage to her brain, and we took her off life support. The shock to the system is hard to forget. The swiftness to which your rock can be pulled out from under you is terrifying and I do not scare easily. Thi’s pessimistic, cup half empty view is difficult to internalize but I do think in essence it holds true to those who have been directly and indirectly affected by the Vietnam War. I suppose another perspective is that even though life can be good overall there is usually at least one thing that makes it bitter. I am naturally a jubilant person, quite cup half full but the thorn in my side, the ache that will never fade is the death of my mother. Directly from that tragic moment, the domino effect of dysfunctional family dynamics creates an even plumper unhappy ending.

The live reading was the cherry on top, especially for Thi who was experiencing it for the first time along with the audience. Let’s just say she needed some tissues. Susan Lieu’s adaptation of the book had each actor jump in one after the other in a myriad of dialogue and family drama. So Viet, so reminiscent, so perfect.

As I end this blog post, I ask why are events that celebrate female, Vietnamese writers so important? It is because they are rare gems that need to be unearthed for all to see and experience. And, we need to continue to foster and support them with all our might so that we can indeed do the best we can do.

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140 LBS of emotion.

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The original article was initially published on Feb. 14, 2019 here on diaCRITICS.

As I was following the wall of memorabilia dedicated to Susan’s mother, a rush of nostalgia flooded in, reminding me of the family photo albums I perused not too long ago. I hadn’t even stepped into the theatre yet and I already had that tingling nose sensation right before you are about to cry. I had been anticipating the world premiere of 140 LBS and due to Seattle Snowpocalypse and work travel, had to reschedule my tickets twice. I was bloody adamant on not missing this important play created by a Viet woman who was of my generation!

The one-woman show started with Susan Lieu switching back and forth from an American accent to a Vietnamese accent depending on which character she was playing. The ability to act in this manner for a whole 75 minutes borders on multiple personality disorder (I say this with humour entirely) but is quite brilliant and impressive. The play is about the pressures of societal ideals of beauty, and about the negligent practices of the plastic surgeon which led to Susan’s mother’s death, along with the dynamics of dealing with this tragedy personally and within the family as a whole. Or, if you will, pushing it aside “Asian-style” and not speaking about it ever.

There were so many themes and occurrences that hit home directly in the bull’s eye. Refugee parents, education as a priority, Paris by Night VHS tapes, fathers singing karaoke on Sunday, family secrets, resilient mother figures who were a force to be reckoned with, aunties with their odd comments, to even making the decision of taking your mom off of life support.

Susan’s play was exactly what I needed and what I have been waiting for my whole life. To have Vietnamese representation on stage is imperative, inspiring, moving, and bloody outstanding. I cackled like a maniac whilst keeping myself from a full on effin’ sob fest. In fact, I am still processing these waves of emotion.

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I was lucky enough to attend the show where Thanh Tan, from Second Wave podcast, conducted an interview immediately after the play. The audience experienced a deeper dive into the intricacies of how this play came to be along with extra side stories and learning more about how cool Susan is. By the way, she has a Yale MBA and will put it directly to use for getting her work out there within different venues. *snaps fingers*

140 lbs is a performance to not be missed, period. The world premiere begins in Seattle and runs until February 17th. BTW, there is will be an encore showing this July 2019.

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Me with Susan.

 

She who has no master.

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On couch (L-R) – Vi, Stacey, Dao.

Near the end of last February, I saw an event floating in my fb newsfeed entitled Soap for the dogs x She who has no master(s). It caught my eye because I noticed the names of three Viet women – Vi Khi Nao, Dao Strom, and Stacey Tran. I must go, I must support, were the words running through my head. So I did, and I even brought some of my friends.

The event was intimate, warm, a stirring of lovely energies bouncing from the strings of dangling lights. I noticed the community that came to support was not super diverse. What I truly wanted to see were more people from the Viet community. I mean, there was like a handful of us, minus the writers of course, but that is entirely not enough. From my own personal experience, the ones who show up at my events are usually from the non-Viet community unfortunately. I have hella black and white people at my events, which is bloody bomb and fantastic, but it would be nice to see more Viets in the crowd.

Anyhow, back to the event. I felt nothing but magic for these female writers I watched intently. I listened carefully to their personal excerpts telling stories of hunger and being. I was entranced, inspired, and wanted everyone to know that there are local Viet women within our community expressing themselves, their art. Which is why I decided to do an interview with Vi, Dao, and Stacey.

Cheeky, witty, candid, humourous, raw, bold, fish saucy, is how I would sum up this interview. My support and adoration for these women is immense.

Interview:

How long have you been professionally writing for?

Vi: Since 2005, about 13 years.

Stacey: I’m not sure I would consider myself a professional. I’ve been writing since I was 11.

Dao: For a long time I was always more comfortable just saying “I write” than calling myself a writer. I’ve written ever since I was a child, and I published my first short story when I was 22, my first novel the year I turned 30. So, 20+ years of endeavoring to write and feeling “professional” about it some years more than others.

Was your family supportive of your career decision?

Vi: No, my mom wants me to be a plastic surgeon and my dad wants me to be not green, facewise, and healthy.

Stacey: My parents wanted me to devote my life to something I’m passionate about. I feel very fortunate for that, because I didn’t experience pressures from them to study a certain subject and pursue a certain career track. I meant to pursue journalism in college, but that changed quickly to poetry when I realized community is so important, and I recognized myself in a community among poets.

Dao: My mother was a journalist in her early years, so to some degree yes my family was supportive. But they also still would’ve liked to see my life be more stable, practical, etc. Writing is not a stable or lucrative vocation. I think my tolerance for uncertainty and risk-taking – career-wise (i.e. all those years of quiet working and little outwardly visible success or achievements) – could at times be a source of worry for my parents.

What obstacles have you faced specifically as a female, Vietnamese writer?

Vi: It’s really hard to date Vietnamese men. I haven’t been able to date one successfully and write about it! I think this failure is born from my exposure to watching too much tennis. Like the French Open. The French Open has been a huge obstacle for me. But like any obstacle, it has helped me more than hurt me. I want Dao and Stacey to win something big. The sooner the better. Preferably in 2020. Like the National Book Award in Experimental Poetry (oh, they don’t have one? Well, they better!). I think Dao and Stacey are amazing poets and the only thing preventing them from fainting is disruptive tea ceremonies.

What lessons have you learned that you would like to share to other Vietnamese writers new in their careers?

Vi: Don’t become a writer. And, if you must write, eat fish sauce in front of and behind white people.

Stacey: I like Vi’s advice. I have somehow followed this advice intuitively accidentally. My advice is to always take Vi’s advice.

Dao: I think this is another way of saying: be strong culturally and personally, if you want to be a writer, and have moxie about not conforming the white and racist structures you’ll surely somehow or another encounter.

What are the main themes within your pieces?

Vi: Sex, death, orgies, immigration, fish sauce.

Stacey: Food, family history, romantic love, childhood memories, ancient futures.

Dao: Displacement, ethos, longing, perception, esoteric and feminine perceptions.

How did you all connect and how did your event come to be?

Stacey: Dao and I both live in Portland, OR, and we connected after I saw her read at Literary Arts a couple years ago. I told her it was the first time I’d seen a Vietnamese woman writer read. It broke something open for me, a clarity, a wellspring of confidence for me to continue writing as a Vietnamese woman writer.

I’m not sure how Vi found me, but I received a friend request from her on Facebook one day. Weeks went by, I let the friend request sit there, and then Dao gave me a copy of Vi Khi Nao’s book, Fish in Exile, which I imagine as a film quite vividly in my mind.

Vi and I have had a long distance relationship. She was the primary editor of my book, Soap for the Dogs, and I’m so indebted to her for her care and curiosity about my work.

Both Dao and Vi have been amazing mentors/friends/spirits around me, that it was without a doubt I would ask them to read with me for the release of my book. We decided to write a collaborative piece together on the themes of hunger and memory, which we read from at the Seattle launch party for Soap for the Dogs.

Dao: Both Stacey and Vi are inspirations to me, and I’m so glad to have found them–or them to have found me. Back in 2015 I became part of a collective of Vietnamese women writers, with a few other women writers mainly based in the Bay Area, and after meeting Stacey I asked her to join our collective when we did an event in Portland in 2016. A part of joining this collective involves participating in collaborative writing projects together, so now Vi is part of this group too. The collective is called She Who Has No Master(s) and we formed it as a space for creative collaboration and putting our voices together, sometimes to voice experiences that may be difficult, as a woman, to stand up and talk about alone. The multi-voice poem/writing format is also a way of reimagining the structure of a piece of writing or art, that it can consist of multiple – many individual – voices and perspectives, while also representing a collective. There is an interesting process in coming together as Vietnamese writers, where our common ground, essentially, whether it is our own or our families’ experience, is the seed of having at some point left Vietnam–so, we each have this story of separation in our memories or in our cells, it is something we all know or have inherited. In coming together now and sharing, making art together, I like to think we engage in some form of healing. It is also just powerful to witness how much strength and intelligence and depth there is in any gathering of Vietnamese women.

Vi: I don’t quite remember how I met Stacey, but with Dao – I think she wrote me to solicit a piece for diaCRITICS or Eric Nguyen was going to write a review for The Old Philosopher or something like that and I responded like how I usually respond to things: by not spilling a bowl of hot water while carrying it to a nearby table to make instant, fresh gỏi cuốn with my family. Her email connected me immediately to the broader network of Vietnamese writers in the United States and around the world. She is like a Vietnamese ambassador for Vietnamese writers.  I think I met Stacey in the same way that I met Katrina Dodson, the Clarice Lispector translator. One day, feeling utterly disconnected from my Asian heritage (I was living in South Bend at that time), I noticed randomly on Katrina’s FB an image of her sitting in front of a large plate of bánh xèo and I said to myself, I must become friends with this girl. Now I think I choose my friendships based on that person’s ability to eat Viet foods. If I foresee their potentiality to dismiss this exquisite aspect of my existence, I drop that friendship like hot lava. There have been exceptions, of course, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Barbara Walters might be watching 20/20.

Anything else we should know about you?

Vi: I am in Mexico City right now and because I ate pasta at my friend’s favorite restaurant, my face has become a blowfish. I can’t wait to dip my blowfish face in fish sauce.

Dao: In the spirit of fish themes… another Vietnamese woman poet when I first met her (another poet in our She Who Has No Master/s collective) told me that she thought I reminded her of a jellyfish. We looked up some facts about jellyfish and one said that they communicate by making their bodies flash colored lights. Maybe poetry is a form of flashing colored lights at each other or, at least, into our shared spaces, whatever that may be trying to say.

Stacey: I just finished translating a poem by Huy Cận.