Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
I’m lucky: I’ve known Larissa Pham IRL for several years. Before that, she was one of the people who I admired from afar; for her novella Fantasian, for her art writing and her essays. When I met her in person and realized that instead of the intimidating enfant terrible I’d imagined, she was warm, generous, and loved to laugh. I got even more excited about seeing the type of writing she’d produce as time went on. Watching your friends and artistic peers bring a book into the world is a special thing: it comprises their personality and it doesn’t, the voice on the page goes beyond the person you see at parties or at the gym (we both love hot yoga), and yet it also represents the deepest part of them.
Her latest collection of essays, Pop Song (Catapult), Pham is an acute chronicler of her own feelings as well as the everyday mundanities that we suffer through as humans. She is also something of a historian: of art, the internet, and the Vietnamese-American experience. If that sounds like too much for one book, don’t worry: in Pham’s deft hands, it’s exactly the right amount. Together, we discuss various threads drawn from the book, including the necessity and challenges of human movement, what it’s like to write on the internet today, how we consume the arts, and what love has to do with it all.
Rebecca Schuh How did the idea for Pop Song germinate?
Larissa Pham I wanted to stop writing filler. Not that I consider anything I wrote filler, but it arrived in a filler economy. There’s filler surrounding it. Filler informs the discourse around it. It’s hard to write those posts day-to-day.
RS And no wonder people end up publishing stuff that gets them canceled. What do we expect? If you go and socialize, and you say something dumb, people get it because you’re just talking at a party. But when you put it on the internet, well…
LP You’re publishing this. It has your name on it. For me, it’s also a quality thing. Because I do think that the quality goes down. And the quality has been going down. There are times when an essay will go viral and I’m like… this? Are you for real? Do you think this is good? It’s always some really long abstractly written thing by a white or white-passing person, usually a woman.
RS It’s gesturing at being artsy but not actually.
LP Gesturing at being argumentative but also not really. It’s always too long. It always comes down to the quality of the work for me. We owe it to ourselves and to other people to try and put good things out into the world. We don’t always manage that. Deadlines, money, whatever. There’s a lot of subpar stuff, and some of it is my own. But we owe it to ourselves when we put our names on something.
RS You turned in your book mid-pandemic. How was that?
LP Hell. Absolute hell [It actually wasn’t hell and Larissa sees it as one of the best moments of her life]. From January to April, the first draft came together, then I was editing back and forth until June. It was really fast. I basically wrote this book in six months. It was really lonely for the first couple of months. The mood in the city was so grim. But it was good to do a lot of reading. If I’m not reading, I can’t write. I know some people aren’t like that. I know some people can’t do both at the same time. But my brain gets so empty.
RS I think it is universally good advice, even if people don’t like following it. It’s not my business to be like, Oh you shouldn’t be reading that. You should be reading this weird thing that I like even though my taste is so specific and ridiculous.
LP It’s not really my place to tell someone they shouldn’t read something, unless it’s harmful, racist, etc. If it’s a taste issue, you know what? People should enjoy what they want. I don’t have to like it and I don’t have to pretend to like it, that’s the tradeoff. And I also think it’s important to stay true to both of those things. Not be a judgmental bitch but not sell out your own taste. Taste is one of the only things about ourselves that we can really count on to know ourselves. It’s funny because in this culture now there is such an emphasis on one’s own taste, curating things, lifestyle, Instagram, Pinterest, all those platforms, even back on Tumblr, the reblog function, that’s all curating taste. It feels a lot more important now than it ever did when I was younger.
RS I’ve found a lot of comfort and pleasure and freedom in leaning into the bad parts of my taste, and not doing it ironically. Having a moment where a lot of people are having that realization has been so freeing.
LP It is liberating.
RS In terms of consumption, that’s why the library is such an amazing institution. You can get whatever book you want, you’re not giving the rich person a billion more dollars, you’re just borrowing it. And then you can go to the bookstore and buy the work of people who need to be supported.
LP I got so much use out of Libby, the New York Public Library app, when the pandemic hit. I actually had to pull back my intake, I was reading a lot of trash. I had to be like, Okay, one more serious read, then one more fun thing that I’m experimenting with. But I do consider reading commercial fiction a kind of experimentation because I want to learn from it.
RS Let’s talk about how your personal writing and art writing intersect. You’re a culture writer and you have both of these in this book.
LP It was important to me that the art writing didn’t feel dropped in. There are some dense sections of biography, but I wanted it to be approachable. I didn’t want it to be a turn-off for someone who isn’t expecting a ten-page biography of Agnes Martin, but I wanted it to be rigorous enough that it would hold up.
RS I think it absolutely accomplished that. Reading your stuff is always very helpful to me—a lot of art writing is pretty impenetrable.
LP When I think about how I got into art, or the artists that I gravitated toward, I found out about them by reading. I write a lot for my younger self, which is an admittedly schmaltzy thing to say. But I think that’s the only person worth writing for. You of ten or fifteen years ago.
I’ve been waxing lyrical about bookstores a lot lately, in part because people have just been so freaking nice. People have been really nice. That feels so good. I care about reviews obviously, but I also really care about who’s buying books, who’s reading them, who’s sitting on the floor of Barnes and Noble trying to finish a book so they can buy more than their allowance allows. That’s the kind of kid I was.
There were so many types of lives that I didn’t know were possible until I read about them. I think a lot of those narratives for me when I was younger were from white voices, which was… fine, you make do with what you can. We’ve all read Sylvia Plath and The Secret History, which is one of the first things that you and I bonded over! But I want to show young people like me that it is possible to live a life surrounded by art and have these really deep meaningful experiences with things that are visual and things that are auditory and literary. If I can bring my own perspective as an Asian woman to that and show that to someone who is maybe me but ten or fifteen years ago, that feels really important. I became aware in college that there weren’t really narratives for people like me. There aren’t a ton of narratives in Asian America for young people, especially young women. The Vietnamese American experience is still relatively recent. Just because of how migration works and American imperialism. When I read Ocean Vuong’s book, I was like, I want to read a lot more writing from this diaspora. Why don’t we have more of it? It’s because we’re this age, we are coming of age right now.
RS You getting to be foundational in creating that is so inspiring to me, and knowing you can help shape and make a canon—that’s one of the craziest things about art, and why it’s actually meaningful. I think about it a lot, you know, if art and writing really matter? But when I think about what you’re saying, they really do, especially for young people and for minorities and people from different perspectives.
LP This is a very sentimental anecdote, but let’s keep it in. In high school my friends, Dzana and Simon, and I, restarted our school’s gay straight alliance. It had fallen away but we took the old name, Spectrum, and restarted it, and it still exists to this day. During that time, I would order or buy clandestine gay and lesbian and bisexual literature and I think I did track down a book with a nonbinary protagonist, and I would stash them in my locker. I had a sign on my locker that was like, This is the LGBTQ lit locker. And if anyone ever wanted to borrow a book, no questions asked, it was always unlocked.
RS You invented the little free library.
LP When I was fifteen, a sophomore in high school, I invented the little free library. But I just felt like it was a resource that I wished I had access to at the time. We didn’t have a lot of queer books in the library at the time which is incredible to think about, because now there are so many. But no one was out when I was in high school. If it weren’t for those books for me, the fact that I acquired them, and that I felt the need to provide them, that was a whole world, you don’t know things exist until someone tells you they can.
RS I think you’re such an interesting traveler, every time you go someplace and I see your Instagram posts, you just have a great perspective. Seeing it in Pop Song, fully formed, is incredible. Was that always going to be a part of your book?
LP I always wanted it to incorporate place. It’s strange to talk about it now since I’ve been inside for a whole year. I haven’t gone anywhere. The casualness and carefree spirit with which I used to travel internationally is gone.
RS It’s wild to think about.
LP I think that there were already some really important conversations being raised about ethical tourism and what it means to travel, what it means to go to a place that you don’t live. And I’m not really a puritan or scolder who believes you need to stay within a five mile radius of where you were born. I don’t see it for myself, I’m already a child of displacement, I have no home. New York is my home because I forced it to be. And New York has embraced me in its own way. But I have no home, I am of no place.
Thinking back on the book, I didn’t write about every trip I took. There’s a whole trip to Japan that took place during that chronological span of time that I left out because I frankly had a great time there. I went with my friend Anna, it was amazing, nothing essay-worthy to say about it. I found myself wanting to write about these places where I was having these fraught feelings. I feel so close to Taos, I want to go back really bad, I love New Mexico. I also love that it made me really consider my place in America and my complicity in being here. There’s no good way to do it but I was trying.
RS I love that, “there’s no good way to do it but I was trying.” That’s so true. Travel is such a fraught thing. I see this on Twitter—not all the time but also not infrequently—where someone’s making the weird “nobody should move to New York I grew up here” type of thing and I think back to how I grew up in a nice town, but I was so miserable and people were really, really mean to me. I would be friends with people for a few weeks and then they’d just ignore me, and I would never want to live in a world where I or any other off-kilter person was condemned to that for the rest of their life.
LP If you really want to get mad about New York and gentrification and real estate, take it up with the developers who are making cheap shitty buildings that are so expensive and pricing people out.
RS Take it up with the people who bought outbuildings in Manhattan and don’t live in them.
LP Seriously. There are so many really bad things about how the world works that are framed in terms of consumer choice. It’s not really about consumer choice. Yes, there are no ethical decisions under capitalism, but that doesn’t mean you should do the least ethical thing you possibly can. But it also doesn’t mean you should feel bad for every water bottle that you somehow acquire. Try to be the best person you can in a place. Try not to be the asshole who leaves trash somewhere, try not to be a jerk. Shop local, and spiritually, it’s better for your soul to know more about the things that you buy or the food that you eat. Borders are fake! People will always move and people are forced to move. I am a product of forced displacement.
If someone came up to me and was like, your parents changed Portland by being there, and I’m like, fuck you? My parents are war refugees! Where were you expecting us to go? When I apply that argument to other forms of human movement, it just feels silly. This wouldn’t be a problem if everyone had a place to live, food to eat, a basic income that wasn’t humiliating, and free time. Everything would be better. I have become radicalized by that. All the problems in art would be solved if everyone had a place to live and money. And not even that much money.
RS You wrote a memoiristic book and integrated art shows and travel in it. How did you formulate essays about past exhibitions, or about artists who didn’t have a show up?
LP I did a lot of trolling around on the MoMA archives. That’s how I found the Louise Bourgeois piece that I write about at the end. I had taken pictures of it but the way that it was hung wasn’t clear enough to read everything, so I actually found it again on the MoMA website in their collections of prints and drawings, and I could see everything. It allowed me to really get into the text.
RS Digital museum archives are one of the best net goods of the internet.
LP Archive.org! It’s important. What I love about the internet too, in regards to art, is that it allows you to really wormhole. It allows you to learn so much and see so much. I wanted people reading the book to have a lot of doors that they could go through when it comes to looking things up.
RS In Pop Song, you also write about physically running (I love your description of running as egalitarian punishment) but also about running away from things. I know that’s been a theme for you for a long time. After the completion of the book and your current place in life, do you still feel like running away?
LP Yes and no. I think the hardest thing for me—this is such an emotional answer—the thing that I’ve had to really control in myself is the urge to run away from stability. The urge to run away from being fine. I am so much more well-adjusted than I ever was at twenty-four. This book ends when I’m like twenty-five or twenty-six. It’s been a couple of years, which is funny to think about. But I was so used to my work being fueled by some kind of pain. Something that would push me away. Something that would push me forward. Now I don’t have that. I’m not happy all the time, but I’m generally okay. I go to therapy. I have a supportive social circle. My relationship with my parents is the best it’s ever been in my life. So all of that being said, now I just have to fight the urge to not completely self-sabotage because I feel okay. That’s the running, I think.
Pop Song is available for purchase here.
Rebecca Schuh is a writer living in Brooklyn and one of the cofounders of the Triangle House Review. She is working on a novel about young artists and alternative education.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.