In January 2019, The Djerassi Resident Artists Program, in partnership with the Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network (DVAN), hosted 12 women and gender-nonconforming writers of the Vietnamese diaspora, to take part in a hybrid literary/art collective project, She Who Has No Master(s). The writers presented a Tender Table event, a storytelling & discussion forum around themes of food, inheritance and memory, generously hosted by the San Jose Museum of Art, and then spent a week at Djerassi writing and collaborating. As a collective art project, She Who Has No Master(s) seeks to create multi-voiced collaborative poetry and hybrid literary-multimedia art, while fostering community, connection, and dialogues between women writers of the Vietnamese diaspora. She Who Has No Master(s) is a project created under the aegis of DVAN.
On the last morning, Vi Khi Nao asked each writer a unique question reflecting on their time at Djerassi and Tender Table. Each writer also chose a photo to represent their time and/or themselves. The results are captured here.
One-Line Interviews w/ She Who Has No Master(s)
VI KHI NAO: What is your favorite part of the day here: morning, afternoon, evening?
THAO P. NGUYEN: Waking up to the lingering smell of dim embers in a wood burning stove. Watching the sun chase deer across mountaintop fields as my pen chases my thoughts across the paper. Sharing stories and laughter with my co-conspirators over hot soup and sweet crab. You can’t make me choose, Vi. You can’t make me choose.
VI KHI NAO: If a mountain lion approaches you and you want to collaborate on an artistic project with him/her, what kind of collaboration would you like to pursue?
STACEY TRAN: What is the mountain lion’s favorite chè? We would forage for the ingredients together to cook it over a bonfire. We would offer it to the redwoods.
VI KHI NAO: If there are three words to describe your experience in the last seven days, what three words would you use?
ISABELLE THUY PELAUD: Creative, spirited, productive.
VI KHI NAO: What is your relationship to an umbrella? Would you use it? Or do you believe it is the most impractical product ever created? Useless in the wind and easy to break?
ANGIE CHAU: That’s so funny because I had this exact conversation with my husband a day before we left for Djerassi and we almost got into a fight about it. My husband wanted to buy an umbrella and he called it an umbrella “for the house.” And I said, “I don’t use umbrellas. It doesn’t need to be ‘for the house.’ It can be your own umbrella. Buy what you’d like.” He then debated the merits of an umbrella. I put my foot down. I said that I always lose umbrellas. It’s pointless for me. I haven’t owned an umbrella since college. I prefer raincoats. He painted a scenario of a terrible rainstorm and having to park far away and having to take our one-year-old daughter from the car to whatever destination we had to get to. This of course tugged at my heart strings and my instinct to protect her. I said, “OK, get an umbrella for the house.” Even though in truth, I like the rain. I secretly like getting wet.
VI KHI NAO: What is your favorite place at the residency? And, where have you been most productive?
THI BUI: On the Ridge trail, looking out at the skyline of clouds and coyote brush, interacting with the sculptures on the trail. I say hello to Orpheus and his friends, look for blackberries, listen to the valley through the ear funnel. I’m most productive in my studio behind the kitchen with no view after I’ve had a walk, in the morning after I’ve slept and had coffee, or late at night after our dinner conversations.
VI KHI NAO: Are you a quiet person? Do you snore?
LAN DUONG: Quiet is a strength, and so I am quiet most times, snoring at night when my quietude slips away.
VI KHI NAO: Would you walk Thi or Isabelle to the glass boat if at 3 in the morning they woke you up and beg you to? Using only a flashlight? And, would you forgive her for making you grouchy all day?
JULIE THI UNDERHILL: Of course. I am largely nocturnal so I might already be awake. I like unique adventures with my friends. And I would not be grouchy even if I lost sleep.
VI KHI NAO: What kind of clothes hanger appeals the most to you? The plastic one, the wooden one, or do you hate hanging?
AIMEE PHAN: None of the above! I do hate hanging because I don’t have much closet space in my house in Berkeley. I like to stuff, roll, and fold things into drawers and baskets. But there are these velvet hangers that take up very little space. People have been making over their closets with them, replacing all their hangers with these soft velvet compact hangers that have a strong grip. Clothes don’t slip off. I have some mixed in with my plastic hangers. You can buy them anywhere now. And of course, I hate those wire hangers because they were the free ones that populated our closets in my parents’ house. I would really like to replace my mother’s hangers too. I like their softness. They feel like deer.
VI KHI NAO: What is the shape and style and color of a napkin holder you ended up with to distinguish yours from the other residents?
DAO STROM: A gently hammered, slightly beveled silver circle.
VI KHI NAO: If you were to write one sentence to Carl Djerassi’s daughter, Pamela, what would you say?
ANDREW NGUYEN*: I probably would like to say “Thank you for your continued presence on this land that you clearly loved, and how your spirit helps others love it too.”
* (although Andrew was not a part of the She Who Has No Master(s) project, we still wanted to include him in this interview/s post because he was such a source of inspiration and information for the writers through his stories about the ecosystem and landscape surrounding Djerassi.)
VI KHI NAO: If you were to lose an underwear during a laundry day here, which person you would feel most comfortable allowing that underwear to wander to?
ANH-HOA THI NGUYEN: I would choose Dao because she would probably make art out of it or a write an exquisite poem from it’s tattered fragments…
VI KHI NAO: If we were to play hide & seek here, where would you hide so that no one could find you?
BETH NGUYEN: I would run away and keep running and hiding until I thought the game was over and then I’d return and have a cup of tea, all the while feeling a low-grade sense of panic.
Vi Khi Nao is the author of Sheep Machine (Black Sun Lit, 2018), Umbilical Hospital (Press 1913, 2017), the short story collection A Brief Alphabet of Torture, which won FC2’s Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Prize in 2016, the novel, Fish in Exile (Coffee House Press, 2016), and the poetry collection, The Old Philosopher, which won the Nightboat Books Prize for Poetry in 2014. Her work includes poetry, fiction, film and cross-genre collaboration. Her stories, poems, and drawings have appeared in NOON, Ploughshares, Black Warrior Review and BOMB, among others; her interviews with writers have appeared in many publications as well. She holds an MFA in fiction from Brown University, where she received the John Hawkes and Feldman Prizes in fiction and the Kim Ann Arstark Memorial Award in poetry. www.vikhinao.com
Aimee Phan is the author of two books of fiction, The Reeducation of Cherry Truong and We Should Never Meet. She lives in Berkeley. www.aimeephan.com
Dao Strom is the author of You Will Always Be Someone From Somewhere Else, We Were Meant To Be a Gentle People + music album East/West, The Gentle Order of Girls and Boys and Grass Roof, Tin Roof. She is the editor of diaCRITICS and co-founder of the arts collective She Who Has No Master(s). www.daostrom.com
Isabelle Thuy Pelaud is Professor in Asian American Studies at SF State University. She is the author of this is all i choose to tell: History and Hybridity in Vietnamese American Literature and co-editor of Troubling Borders: An Anthology of Art and Literature by Southeast Asian Women in the Diaspora . She is the founder and co-director of the Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network (DVAN).
Angie Chau’s debut collection is titled Quiet As They Come. She serves on the Board of Litquake and is a member of The San Francisco Writers’ Grotto and DVAN. She is at work on a novel. www.angiechau.com
Anh-Hoa Thi Nguyen’s publications include poems in AS IS: A Collection of Visual and Literary Works by Vietnamese American Artists and Troubling Borders, An Anthology of Art and Literature by Southeast Asian Women in the Diaspora. She is currently the artist-in-residence for The Floating Library and is a Lecturer at St. Catherine University.
Beth (Bich Minh) Nguyen is the author of Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, Short Girls, and Pioneer Girl. She is a professor in and director of the MFA in Writing Program at the University of San Francisco, where she teaches fiction and creative nonfiction.
Lan Duong is Associate Professor in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Southern California. She is the author of Treacherous Subjects: Gender, Culture, and Trans-Vietnamese Feminism. Dr. Duong’s second book project, Transnational Vietnamese Cinemas and the Archives of Memory, examines Vietnamese cinema from its inception to the present day. Duong is a Founding Member of the Critical Refugee Studies Collective and serves as co-editor for the website. www.criticalrefugeestudies.com
Julie Thi Underhill is an interdisciplinary artist, scholar, and activist based in Berkeley, California. She currently lectures in Writing+Literature and Diversity Studies at California College of the Arts. www.jthiunderhill.com
Thi Bui’s debut graphic memoir is entitled The Best We Could Do and she is the illustrator of A Different Pond, a children’s book by Bao Phi. Thi teaches in the MFA in Comics program at the California College of the Arts. www.thibui.com
Thao P. Nguyen is currently a doctoral student at Stanford University’s Theater & Performance Studies program, writing a dissertation on sexual violence, queer migration, and performance. www.thaosolo.com
Andrew Nguyen is the Environmental Stewardship Coordinator at the Djerassi Resident Artists Program. www.djerassi.org