Vi Khi Nao by Louis Elliott

BOMB 151 Spring 2020
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After reading The Vanishing Point of Desire by Vi Khi Nao for the first time, I stayed in a dark room alone with the book for hours. Set in a conference room in the Charles de Gaulle Airport, the story is a romance that never takes off. Fragmented and precise, the book reads like a mind posessed by a singular moment of desire. Nao’s language is startling and inventive. “I should walk in. Be mystical and religious and burn votives,” the narrator says of her longing for the woman sitting across from her at the conference table, reviewing her art.

Nao’s writing is sensual, metaphysical, painterly. She writes scathing portraits of a world alive with emotion and intellect as well as the grotesque. She manages to make art out of heinous behavior, as in The Brief Alphabet of Torture (2017). She has the ability to pause time: Sheep Machine (2018) is a second-by-second account of a short film about a sheep grazing in the Alps. While Nao’s stories and poems may seem out of this world because of their experimental forms and ideas, her characters deal with classic concerns: identity, sexuality, love, the politics of gender.

Born in Long Khánh, Vietnam, Nao at once refuses the refugee narrative and delves into it. In poems such as “My Socialist Saliva,” Nao writes of the red earth and the aroma of rambutan and coffee beans in Long Khánh: “I emerged from under, after tucking myself away on the tongue of a banana leaf.” Her rapid pivots on the page from intense beauty to horror to humor remind one of the novels of Herta Müller. Nao has produced more than thirty manuscripts and still considers herself young in her writing career. The world of Nao’s books—of Tinder and Seamless, of suicide bombers and wealthy sex traffickers, of #MeToo and Black Lives Matter—reflects this time of Pax Americana as it begins to fade. It is a moment in which to explore alienation, intimacy, and disparities in power and wealth.

Human Tetris (11:11 Press, 2019), her most recent publication, cowritten with Ali Raz, is a series of personal ads that bend the very idea of human connection. They are humorous, desolate, and healing in their audacity.

LE Vi, which fragmented pieces of our human form—legs, esophagus, heart, mind—is Human Tetris concerned with Tetris-ing together?

VKN It’s one writer’s imagination in conversation with another’s. The fact that my collaborator, Ali Raz, and I are having that conversation is more important than the product itself. Originally, I was asked to write a real personal ad to be posted online. I thought I’d turn it into a literary project as a way to write many personals without sending them. I was getting tired of reading the personals on the Personals Instagram account. They weren’t very playful, or they catered more to white daters, and there weren’t many designed for folks of color. When I wrote the personals for the book, I was indirectly making fun, which you can’t do if you’re submitting yourself.

LE Reading them is a cosmic delight. What state of mind did you get into when writing these pieces?

VKN Each day, I woke up, and I had to produce one. The series was written over a month-long period, and during that time I read a lot of books. Once you develop a ritual of reading and producing things, you just wake up and write. The habit teaches you how to ritualize your emotions and your erotic intentions.

The words arrived because I built a makeshift inherent ritualistic structure. If you know you have to write something by the end of the day, your consciousness prepares you. The machine of production has already started percolating into your system and moves slowly across the day until you produce that particular energy, and it blasts onto the page—the instance of procreation, linguistically speaking.

LE Can a piece of writing alter your way of being?

VKN Depends, right? It depends on how many husbands you have. If you’ve been out in the sun lately. If you’re still a vegetable.

LE How do you want readers to engage with this work?

VKN I want them to not take romance so seriously. To have freedom to express their laughter.

LE Is there something in the process of collaboration that releases dead ends?

VKN You tend to keep each other accountable. It’s like handing an assignment to another person and asking them to safekeep your process. Having an arbitrary deadline through a cowriter reinforces that writing doesn’t have to be solitary, lonely. Living with something in draft form with a person you are collaborating with inspires a lot of intimacy and reinforces vulnerability.

I don’t think you can collaborate with just anyone though. When you find your ideal collaborator, you can really produce. It takes a very precise energy of synchronicity to make that happen. You know Einstein’s theory of relativity—addressing another person in correspondence alters the shape, form, body, content, and particular energy of Human Tetris. If I had done it in my own room alone, the work would be completely different. The impact is subtle and profound and oftentimes understated. For instance, if you know you’re writing a letter to your son—your son who hasn’t been born yet—it’s very different than if you’re just writing to yourself. The epistolary components shift greatly.

LE Is that shift in some way what experimental fiction is?

VKN I don’t think there’s anything necessarily experimental about a conversation that is in conversation with a conversation. Unless you view it meta-ly, but that’s based on perspective and not the realism of that particular energy or conversation.

LE Do you view it that way? Meta-ly?

VKN I don’t think everyday intimacy is a profound experimental condition. It’s the human condition. I don’t think intimacy is born thinking, Oh, I better be meta now. I’ll leave that to historians and theorists.

LE Did writing Human Tetris create some new place of humor and joy within you?

VKN I think it’s just another aspect of my creative consciousness. I’ve always been the person I’ve always been. When a work of art emerges from me, oftentimes that emergence isn’t a result of transformation but more a result of living longer. Is transformation a product of having no time? When I produce a work, I don’t view it as transformative. I see it more as an extension—an extension cord. You plug it into the wall, and it can get you only so far, and then you find another cord and add it to it, and you can listen to music a few miles down the road instead of where the outlet is. But is that transformation—being able to extend yourself as far as you can?

LE Do you think writing Human Tetris, in creating and entering into thirty-five different personalities, generates a new ontological space that transforms the limited physical space one exists in?

VKN Oh, no. It was just a fun project to engage in on a nonacademic, unserious level. I make a chess move, then Ali makes a chess move. By the end of the game, maybe two kings or two queens will lay their heads down and get folded into a box and stored on the shelf.

LE You do very little editing. Is that connected to your visual art background?

VKN Possibly. I don’t usually rework my visual pieces; they come out the way they come out. What’s your favorite piece in the manuscript?

LE I’ll just choose one that fits me in this particular instant. “Dyslexic Sex To Replace Exquisite Love.” I don’t know why I like that title. What’s your favorite?

VKN I really don’t enjoy rereading my work. I like reading it in the moment I’m producing it, but once the project is done, it takes so much energy to reread.

LE Do you find it cathartic in the moment, and then you have to write again?

VKN I think it really doesn’t matter. As a writer, you sort of produce and then you don’t, and then you produce, and then you read.

LE But if it doesn’t matter, then why do you keep doing it?

VKN I don’t know. With Human Tetris, it just so happened I had an idea manifest itself, and there it is. I care about the friendship more than I care about the book itself. I wanted this book to be born because it expresses my friendship with Ali, whom I’ve known for about six years.

LE Do you consider yourself more a fiction writer or a poet?

VKN I think I’m everything.

LE Do you lean more toward poetry or fiction?

VKN Whatever project I’m currently working on, that’s what I produce. Sometimes all at once. I just translated a poem by Chinh Ba from Vietnamese to English. It’s called “Pipe Logic.” I didn’t realize how much I love it.

LE What do you love?

VKN The nuance. There’s a literal translation, and there’s an intuitive translation. My favorite is somewhere between, a liminal translation, where you bend the world of language so the emotion matches the intelligence. Not necessarily emotion with emotion. Sometimes more than listening to the heart of the poem, you have to understand the cerebral conversation. People say, “Translate so you understand the poem’s poetic core.” But sometimes emotions get in the way of true translation.

LE What’s it like for you writing in English compared to Vietnamese?

VKN When I write, I write Vietnamese in English.

LE Is that a clue to the innovativeness of your images and sentence structure?

VKN It comes out emotionally; the language follows. I felt the atmospheric condition of my images especially in The Vanishing Point of Desire (2011). It’s an emotional translation of images with an aesthetic quality. I had to completely isolate myself emotionally from all my friends, and geographically isolate myself from all my family. I went to Montana to write.

LE How did you begin that book?

VKN In Vanishing, there’s this image of women who are trees that lose their leaves. These defoliating women in their vast skirts arrived to me first.

LE How true were you to the initial image in your revision?

VKNThe Vanishing Point of Desire went through a lot of revision. It’s one of the few exceptions in my work.

LE The pacing is determined by each vignette’s length. Longer, shorter, longer, shorter. And in the repetition of the airport, the skirts, the culottes. When did you begin to bring in the image of peeling garlic?

VKN I was in Montana, planting garlic into the earth. It was my first introduction to the plethora of garlic-kind. It was fall. The ground was in its post-mulch state.

LE In your work, how do you navigate the close proximity between tenderness and violence, as you do in Sheep Machine?

VKN I think this juxtaposition comes out of being completely present, aware of the moment, which creates that level of vulnerability. It’s easy to move from violence to tenderness if one is present.

LE In Sheep Machine you write: “When it’s peaceful, it’s difficult to see the Twin Towers of terrorism collapse on the New York City skyline of sheep. We don’t expect beauty to ruin us, but beauty in the form of landscape will ruin us.”

VKN In terms of violence, it only takes one second to transform ugliness to beauty or beauty to ugliness. It’s just one frame away. That’s a literal translation of my observation in that quote. It’s not purely ontological or philosophical. Being a witness to that has the ability to dismantle us.

LE Is this what you mean when in Sheep Machine you write: “When the observer stops time, miracles happen?” 

VKN Yes. The Vanishing Point of Desire is another example. This image of a leaf-tree woman defoliating on the landscape of my imagination—I had to pause time in order to capture her descension.

LE What is the power of capturing that descension?

VKN I don’t know if there’s a power to it. There’s this urgency that I need to get this out of me or it’s going to drive me insane. I felt compelled to capture the three-month moment in which I wrote the book, which seems to spread as this one image in my consciousness. But it’s not stagnant. The image is not like a painting or a photograph you capture for that moment and it remains forever. That photograph, that image, in my consciousness unravels across time. The manuscript was like 130 pages, and then in one sitting I edited it down to thirty-six.

LE What did you cut?

VKN Everything unfaithful to the landscape. Imagine taking a razorblade to a painting and scraping away all the nonsense to get to the essential, so that the image retains its original purity.

LE In Vanishing you write: “What does it mean to be authentic?” Do you fear losing that language of authenticity through revision?

VKN The revision process can seem arbitrary if one doesn’t know one’s goal. I knew what I wanted to do with The Vanishing Point of Desire. Even though writing’s not a time-based medium, this book felt very time based. My revision was necessary to capture that. I couldn’t have done what I did if I didn’t precisely edit at the time I edited. People say literature’s not a film, but I think if you treat the revision process like film editing, you can retain its cinematic effect. In Sheep Machine, I went from film to language. Vanishing went from language to film.

LE Where did you get the idea to apply the narrative logic of film to writing?

VKN I think if I were to search deep it’s because at times I have this tremendous tenderness for existence and that tenderness vocalizes in this way. Sheep Machine came from a class I took with the filmmaker Leslie Thornton. I said I would screenshot each frame of her 2011 video Sheep Machine and then study all of them. I was just a translator, you know? I translated what I saw that was obvious. Leslie thought I was insane. Every day I devoted a segment of my life to it, sometimes just five to ten minutes.

LE What did she say after?

VKN She still said, “You’re insane.” She wanted me to study one of her binocular series called Ants. I wasn’t fascinated with her ants. They just moved in vicious circles. There was no narrative construct. Sheep Machine had a plot, even though it was just a sheep grazing.

LE Why is it urgent to capture the portrait of perversity? Like in A Brief Alphabet, where one learns one method for torture: “Pour hot boiling water on the eyes.”

VKN I didn’t intend to write about torture. After graduating from Brown, I was involved in this Sapphic relationship, and she assigned us a project where we both wrote about torture. I fulfilled my part; she didn’t fulfill hers. I gave birth to a book. We gave birth to the end of a relationship.

LE Do you wish you had the book or the relationship?

VKN I want to think about that because it’s a potent question.

LE Did specific events inform the stories in Brief Alphabet

VKN The woman I was seeing then was very interested in protests. She wanted to create a blog or social forum in which people could post their protests to see there’s solidarity and to make transformative and revolutionary gestures toward the current political climate. I wasn’t interested in protests or torture. But I loved her, and sometimes when we love, we are willing to emerge from our comfort zone to embrace a new part of ourselves, the self that we hope we can love.

LE Were you scared by your imagination?

VKN I was not. I think there are ways to protest that are more valuable to me than going out in the street and doing public demonstrations. One way we can protest is just to be kind to one another. I know I’m stating the obvious.

LE If it’s so obvious, why is it so absent?

VKN People don’t like the obvious.

LE Is there anything obvious about your work?

VKN It’s cryptic, tender, erotic.

LE Have you ever shied away from writing the erotic?

VKN A large part of Sheep Machine wasn’t erotic. Initially, I didn’t understand how many frames there are in a second. Only when I did, did I see the prodigious nature of the project. You think it’s doable in your mind but when you actually put legwork in—some days a single second dominated my whole consciousness. How do I capture that one second?

LE Where do you go to go into your soul or your mind and get away from work and things?

VKN I watch tennis, football, and soccer.

LE Is there a game you feel is close to your visual intelligence?

VKN Wimbledon, 2008: Nadal beat Federer for the first time on grass.

LE Is there something about approaching the net to score that’s like writing?

VKN You know how a player curves the ball around the net? That’s what experimental writing is like. When you’re able to use language, you make words bend around a paragraph. The paragraph is a net, and it stretches across court. It turns reality, and it bends perfectly on the page. The motion and velocity with which the words go at it and the elements of uncertainty and surprise create enormous beauty. Experimental writing has that capacity to generate that level of excitement in the game.

LE Do you think some fiction lacks that excitement?

VKN I feel like mainstream fiction at times is just watching the ball bounce from one side of the court to the other.

LE Who’s your favorite tennis player-writer?

VKN Right now my favorite writer is a combination of many players in one. [Novak] Djokovic’s mental game is off the roof. I’ll give you an example. He was playing in New York. The crowd was pro–Federer. Whenever Federer made a point, there was a loud roar. Whenever Djokovic made an error the whole stadium just wasn’t on his side. And yet in an interview, he said, “They would scream, ‘Roger!’ and I would imagine they were screaming, ‘Novak!’” That takes tremendous mental strength.

Nadal brings so much passion. He makes things less boring. I think Djokovic is more technically efficient. Federer, at thirty-seven years old, is one of the oldest Grand Slam winners on tour. He’s the GOAT, still defending his kingdom that is slowly being dismantled. I think Djokovic is going to surpass that record of 20 Grand Slams. He’s going to top them all. Even Nadal, my favorite. 

LE What’s the first question you’d ask Nadal?

VKN I don’t think he’d be a good interview; he’s too predictable. Reporters ask players tricky questions that if you answer wrong you reveal your game plan. He doesn’t want to give away his strategy. 

LE You’re really involved with interviewing people. What do you like about it?

VKN The people I interview are incredibly smart. I love reading their work. And I conduct the interviews in real time over Google Doc to see the way they think.

LE Last year you went on a retreat with She Who Has No Master(s), a project of the Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network. What do you think is the significance of this collective of women and gender-nonconforming writers of the Vietnamese diaspora?

VKN It was my first exposure to a lot of Vietnamese writers. Part of my childhood was in Vietnam, but the other part was in Iowa. It was just corn, cows, and a lot of white people. I didn’t think Vietnamese writers in the United States existed because I was so isolated from the community. It was hard. So it was nice to now meet these Vietnamese women writers.

These are very complex women with private concerns; their journeys may not be similar to mine, but some of them can speak Vietnamese, so we had that linguistic core. It’s hard to explain the feeling when you connect with a community of writers that can understand some of your Vietnamese phrases. The kind of jokes you can produce because there’s a literary, lexical bridge there. It brings a new layer of emotional depth to your everyday experience.

LE What was it like when you came to the US as a child?

VKN The first few days in class after my family’s arrival in Iowa City, I shared a locker with this white girl, with maybe red hair and freckles, and I was having a hard time understanding the locker combination. One day, her umbrella went missing, and she accused me of stealing it. I didn’t steal it. I don’t know where it went. I still don’t know where it is. I don’t know how it could have gone missing. I imagine one day she found it and realized I didn’t steal it, but I never got an apology. I always associate my earliest memory of being in the United States with that locker. And that moment of accusation.

LE Your work is very physical. In one story in A Brief Alphabet of Torture, a woman keeps dogs for sexual purposes, as sort of prostitutes, who lick her whenever she wants.

VKN I was on the phone with my friend Tania, and she was telling me about her bedroom being right next to a neighbor who had dogs that would bark, constantly waking her up in the middle of the night. The owner didn’t know how to train them, and I was thinking about all the people who just lock their dogs away. Then I had this vivid image of a very affluent woman standing in the middle of a penthouse in New York, completely naked with a dog. The story just came all at once. What you see is what you get. I didn’t edit it at all.

LE Do you find yourself dealing directly with Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, or is it more implicit?

VKN “The Bald Sparrow” does address sexual harassment and assault. I do respond. I wrote that before the height of the Me Too movement, in 2013, at the same time as A Brief Alphabet of Torture. It wasn’t published until 2017. The stories get published so many years later they don’t always seem as immediate or timely. But I don’t think the Me Too movement is going to become obsolete any time soon. Nor other concerns like racism.

LE Do you think you will continue to work with independent presses?

VKN Some of my books are made for independent presses. They need that space, in terms of artistic license, design, and so on. But others require broader economic and advertising powers. Each book needs a particular home.

LE Is there one book you want most to find a broader audience?

VKNWar Is Not My Mother is my poetry manuscript that I want a bigger publishing house to disseminate. Each poem in the collection remixes the work of another poet—from Lorca to C.D. Wright, Ho Xuân Huong to Sappho, Agha Shahid Ali to Ishrat Afreen—altering its DNA and infusing it with another idiolect. It’s an idiolect of pleasure (the wordplay, puns, and cadence of the Vietnamese language) and of pain (the long shadow of the Vietnam War in the lives of those who survived, barely survived, and became refugees). Like any possessing spirit, the manuscript speaks in tongues: using others’ words to articulate a personal pain. Shorn of their original context and content, the poems—mutant-hybrids that retain a trace of their skeleton while dressed in entirely other clothes—become a play of voices that call into question notions of authenticity and self in poetic production, a postmodern twist for the classical craft.

I wrote this manuscript over two months in late fall of 2018. I finished writing it in Iowa City after I saw a cardiologist who informed me that I needed open heart surgery. She also informed me that it was impossible to fix my microvalve and I was doomed to have a mechanical valve. I just wanted to die after writing this manuscript, and I fled to the East Coast to do so. But I didn’t die. And the cardiologist was wrong about the mechanical valve. I felt like I’d have permission to die if I finished writing this beast. How wrong I was.

LE How often do you work?

VKN Not very often. Most people think I write all the time.

LE Would you rather watch [Lionel] Messi or [Cristiano] Ronaldo?

VKN I really love the headbutting…

LE …Oh, like Zidane.

VKN Can you imagine being violent with someone with your head?

LE I played football, and rugby.

VKN They can’t even throw a punch with their hands if they want to. They just go with the body. So he used his head to fight. It’s one of my favorite moments of soccer.

I also like Patrick Mahomes, quarterback for the Chiefs. I like how awkwardly he throws. He doesn’t throw the way Tom Brady throws. I like unexpected talent.

LE When did you start writing?

VKN 2005. That’s when I wrote The Vanishing Point of Desire, as well as the story “Winter Rose” and the essay “Washing Dishes.” 

LE What hurdles do you face?

VKN I think my work is too experimental. People want easy, accessible things.

LE What’s less accessible than desire?

VKN I don’t know. I tried to write Fish in Exile as a harlequin romance and failed miserably.

LE What do you think experimental fiction offers that visual art, your undergrad major, cannot?

VKN At one point in my life I thought that visual art was dead. You can’t add anything new to the visual component. In literature there seems to me to be depths that haven’t been explored, like one of those expanding universes, or the ocean floor. With visual art there are a lot of dead ends. I don’t think beauty has to be a dead end.

I believe my work is very different from my male contemporaries.

LE What do you see the difference as being?

VKN I think I’m a lot more experimental. Viet Thanh Nguyen writes about the Vietnam War and taps into the ethos and consciousness of the American presence there. I don’t think Vietnamese female contemporary writers are as appreciated or deeply valued in America’s modern culture. I’ve read some really strong Vietnamese female writers, stronger than their male contemporaries, and they have been slighted.

LE Are you thinking about this when you’re writing?

VKN I think I’m very lucky. But that luck comes with pain. I’m given all this time to produce thirty-plus manuscripts. If The Vanishing Point of Desire garnered 100,000 readers, I think I’d become complacent; I’m not sure I would produce as much. But prolific output through small presses comes with enormous difficulty. I don’t know how long I can sustain it.

LE You’ve been able to create for this long. How do you sustain your livelihood?

VKN Pain.

LE What pays the bills?

VKN Pain.

LE Can that estrangement from self that pain makes into art be fruitful for healing?

VKN Some pain is good and some is not. Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish one from the other. Look at Djokovic. For the longest time, he would get to the semifinal but could never hold up the trophy. The opponent would know that if they took the game to three or four hours, he would just run out. I think the moment that altered his fate was when he once just whacked his racket against his head in the middle of the game. He won. I think he has sixteen Grand Slams now. So he’s third. If Djokovic can sustain, he’s going to flatten all of them.

Another thing I like about Djokovic is his sense of humor. They call him “The Joker.”

LE At one point in Sheep Machine, you talk about the terror of beauty, and then the next moment, you say the sheep is fat. It’s hilarious and releases so much tension. There’s this proximity of horror to humor—do you think that is a pattern in life?

VKN I mean, aren’t comedians very suicidal?

LE What about a book is the opposite of that—an antidote, perhaps, to the self-destructive impulse?

VKN I don’t know if literature’s an antidote based on the historical data. You just create. That has nothing to do with extending one’s life. It’s not like one of the fairytales from One Thousand and One Nights.

LE What’s the happiest moment when you’re writing?

VKN I experienced it recently when I finished writing this play at the airport in Las Vegas. I don’t want to reveal the title yet.

LE What do you recommend?

VKN Pistachio ice cream. And fresh salmon.

LE When? For breakfast?

VKN Yes, definitely.

LE Cold? Or sautéed?

VKN Fried very fast. But still tender and raw and moist on the inside.

Vi Khi Nao and Frederic Tuten will read as a part of the virtual Artists Space x Segue Reading Series on April 18 at 5:00PM ET.

Louis A. Elliott is a writer and professor. His work has appeared in BOMB, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere.

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Our spring issue features interviews with Chitra Ganesh, Tania Cypriano, Charles Atlas, Netta Yerushalmy, Vi Khi Nao, Amani Al-Thuwaini, Andrea Hasler, and Bruce Boone, as well as fiction from Verónica Gerber Bicecci, Justin Taylor, Rebecca Dinerstein Knight, and Lee Relvas, and poetry from Shuzo Takiguchi and Bruce Boone.

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