This post is a different kind of profile than diaCRITICS usually presents, only in that Andrew Nguyen is not an artist but rather a scientist (environmental) who works with artists. Yet, his work encompasses intersections and perspectives still relevant and important to art-making, especially in our times and in consideration of the relationships between our own diasporic beings and land(ings).
We met Andrew in January at the Djerassi Resident Artists Program, during a DVAN-sponsored week-long residency for She Who Has No Master(s), a literary collective project of Vietnamese women and gender-nonconforming writers. As Djerassi’s Environmental Stewardship Coordinator, Andrew was our resident nature expert for the week. During a hike through the coastal redwood forest surrounding the residency grounds, I immediately warmed to Andrew when he assured us that, as our guide, he was less concerned with pointing out to us the names of plants and trees, as he was about helping us to better see the relationships between the elements—earth, air, fire, water—and their impacts on the environment.
To me this felt salient also for its coming from a Vietnamese person, as there are many ways I see the elements figure in our cultural and diasporic narratives. We have loved and lost soil/earth, our ancestors have mythologized mountains and rocks and rivers, and we have crossed seas, survived and not survived by passages of water. As we all know, even the word for “country” in our mother tongue shares a body with the word for “water” (nước).
Environment is a consideration of place, deeply and relationally. But what might this mean for people who have been dis-placed? I think of how, as refugees (and descendants of) we have by now landed or re-landed and made homes on other continents, in varying environmental geographies, often in stark contrast from the climate and flora and fauna of where our families originated—by now our bodies know well what it is like to be uprooted, un-rooted, and to put roots down again or anew.
My own first American harbor, or conscious sense of harbor, I recall did not come from American people or American material comforts; for myself the first sense of belonging I felt—a true, embodied instinct of connectivity igniting in me—came from the natural landscape I grew up in, in the Sierra Nevada foothills of northern California where I spent my early refugee years among pines and oaks and collecting burrs in my socks, and playing, most of my time, with animals, namely dogs and ponies. I learned a lot about people, I may say, from having this early foundation of spending a lot of time in nature. Everything in nature is both temporary and lasting. Art—the things that people make—is always only temporary, as are our abilities to create and receive it.
I remember another tidbit of conversation from our hike with Andrew. One of the poets in our group, Vi (who excels at asking the unexpected questions), asked would we see any Vietnamese trees on our hike and why not. Taking this in stride, Andrew replied that no trees from SE Asia had migrated over here and would not survive if they did because they need a different type of soil. Vi, perhaps being cheeky, said then, but we survive, Vietnamese people, we are doing okay, why would not the trees? To which Andrew replied that humans don’t depend on the soil in the same way that trees do.
So we are free, perhaps, in a way our đất nước’s trees cannot be. But is there not still need—especially now—for us to sense the soil beneath our feet, to contemplate not just the freedoms (and sorrows) from our past (dis)places, but also to consider the current places we abide in?
One-Line Interview with Vi Khi Nao & Andrew Nguyen Conducted on a Hike in the Redwoods of Djerassi Resident Artists Program
VI KHI NAO: How does Mother Nature express her positivity?
ANDREW NGUYEN: By existing.
Andrew Nguyen, Environmental Stewardship Coordinator at Djerassi Resident Artists Program
~Thoughts on my work:
I initially went into the environmental science field out of a desire to address climate change and how we can best adapt to its inevitable impacts on us. The more I learned about the complexity of the issue, the more I came to appreciate just how the root causes for climate change were things like selfishness, lack of empathy towards others, and a wide-spread misunderstanding of our relationship with the natural world. I realized more that a cultural shift needed to happen in order for society to make the necessary changes to best weather the coming implications of an altered climate. As a scientist, I have no idea how to address social or cultural issues. It’s not the language I was trained in, so to speak. I have yet to convince anyone to seriously consider their place in the larger ecosystem or to make lifestyle changes with a well researched chart.
Artists, of all stripes, seem better equipped to address the social values that really drive climate change. Our collective impact on this planet is the equivalent to a major extinction event, potentially on par with the K-T event that eliminated the dinosaurs. However, unlike most natural phenomena, we have the option of changing our minds, and reversing course. I hope to use my technical skills to help those who can maybe better convince others to do better as people. If art has the potential to change hearts, then perhaps that’s one of the best means to change a global culture.
~Thoughts on being Vietnamese-American in the Environmental Field:
I find that being a POC in the environmental field to be complicated (but what isn’t?). Outdoor recreation, as a whole, tends to be a white-dominated space. Whether it’s camping, hiking, fishing, or what have you, it’s hard to see these past-times as being attractive to anyone who isn’t white. I’m one of the few members of my own family who actually enjoys these activities, and when I’m out on the trails, I’m one of the few POC’s walking around.
As disappointing as that reality is, I get it. The Wilderness was never presented as a safe space for anyone who isn’t part of a legacy known for “conquering” things. For white people, venturing out into the forests and mountains can invoke images of brave explorers and adventurers. Swashbuckling men of adventure bushwhacking through the jungle like Theodore Roosevelt, Daniel Boone, Lewis & Clark, or any of the traditionally masculine, self-sufficient individuals often associated with the idea of freedom.
For everyone else though, the wilderness, and the outdoors more generally, are more tied to memories of danger or trauma. Lions, Tigers, and Bears, oh my! But also crazy people with guns preparing jungle ambushes, or the desperate escape from those chasing you through the woods or across a desert. For many POC, the larger natural environment is something one has to endure in order to finally reach a place of safety. As some in the Vietnamese community has said to me when I reveal my love of the outdoors, “Why would you want to back to that? It’s where we just crawled out of to get here.”
There’s a certain amount of surety that’s required to feel confident that you can enjoy yourself out in an area far removed from modern amenities. To be able to go out deep into a national park and think “Yeah, I’ve got this. Nothing I can’t handle.” is a lot easier if you didn’t live through an experience that left one thinking “Dang, I barely survived that.” Sticking around your own community, surrounded by people who understand you and your story, is a lot more comfortable than going out to a place where that doesn’t exist. “Nature just isn’t safe for people like us,” I have heard folx say.
It’s the difference between a legacy of interacting with the natural world through a series of violent acts with the purpose of domination over a space, versus interacting with the natural world as a means of avoiding acts of violence, and trying to reach a safer place.
For me, the outdoors is a place where I can find solace and peace. One I like to visit as often as I can. It’s my safe space precisely because there are fewer people present there. Out there, I can simply be, and nothing will have any problem with it. This helps ground me to wherever I happen to be, and I can be free from social idiosyncrasies. I can better figure out who I am.
“But what if you get hurt??” I can totally get hurt in an urban environment, too. I’ve run into enough glass doors to know that’s true. Even if violence were to befall me on the trails, say by a particularly desperate mountain lion, I take comfort in knowing that the attack isn’t personal. The only monsters that exist in the world are the human ones.
I want to see more Vietnamese-Americans and POC’s generally outside on a hike or camping.* Preferably without attempting to drag the comfort of modernity out with them, but whatever gets them out out into the woods is fine by me. Family outings, personal “me”-time, or just an excuse to check out something different are all perfectly good reasons for getting out there. There’s an opportunity for us to view the natural world not just as a means of getting somewhere better, but as a destination in itself to seek safety and comfort.
When I walk into an outdoor gear store and see a sale for camping meals with their own dedicated packets of nước mắm, then I’ll know we’ve made it, and that the great outdoors isn’t enjoyed by only white people. Let’s help make the trails just as multiculturally rich as our cities.
Andrew Nguyen joined Djerassi.org as their Environmental Stewarship Coordinator in 2018 after moving to the Bay Area from Northern Virginia. Trained as a scientist, Andrew received his Master of Environmental Science and Management degree from the Bren School at UC Santa Barbara in 2014. He brings his conservation experience to Djerassi to keep the ecosystem at the residency as healthy as possible. He is the person to answer any question regarding the natural beauty found at Djerassi, and is responsible for planning and implementing environmental restoration projects on the landscape.
Dao Strom is the Managing Editor of diaCRITICS and co-founder of She Who Has No Master(s), a collective project of women writers of the Vietnamese diaspora. She is an artist who works with image, text, and music. www.daostrom.com
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