diaCRITICS highlights writers & artists of the Vietnamese diaspora.
Here, Vi Khi Nao speaks to Vietnamese American poet & traveler, Jessica Nguyen.
VKN: As part of your nonprofit work, you have translated Vietnamese to English and vice versa. Do you ever feel that these translations are an extension of your poetry? Like an ice sculptor sculpting cultural, figurative, lyrical ice in the middle of spring, knowing full well that the work will not preserve and will melt in little time? Or do you think that poetry carves a different space in a writer’s consciousness, as in: there is a time for life and then there is a time for poetry?
JN: I have always found Vietnamese to be poetic but never considered using it as part of my poetry until recently. I speak Vietnamese often enough on a day-to-day basis to not see Vietnamese translations as an extension of my poetry. These translations are inherently necessary as they will most likely come up in my daily thoughts and conversations. I think and speak in both English and Vietnamese fluently.
When I write poetry, I use language that’s more direct and forward with the imagery that I’m trying to create, because I find that being practical with my word choice allows me to be honest with who I am.
VKN: What is it like working for three Vietnamese restaurants? What are the restaurants like? Do they serve tàu hủ nóng at all? Do you love to cook? Would you ever eat tàu hủ nóng while driving a moped in New York City? Near MOMA, possibly?
JN: I work from 11am to 11pm at two of the restaurants and these two are very traditional, Vietnamese establishments. Their menus have hundreds of the same food items and there’s not as much focus on decorating the interior, ha-ha. Chefs are known to work in the kitchen during open hours. These chefs are usually the ones who own and manage the restaurants as well if they’re not a franchise, so they have their own very particular ways of running the business. I’ve learned to appreciate the systems that have been established in the restaurant by generations of waiters and other workers who have come before me. There’s a lot of thought and carefulness that take place, not just in the cooking but in the prep and interaction with customers.
The third restaurant that I work at, which is a modern Vietnamese banh mi shop, founded by my Vietnamese-Australian millennial friend (shout out to Shop Bao Ngoc!), proves that this emphasis on being mindful in everything that we do can be passed down. We’ve had hours of discussion about how food has impacted us as the Vietnamese diaspora and how we as the younger generation are trying to translate our history with Vietnamese food with a more modern take for future generations to come.
Visiting Vietnamese restaurants outside Vietnam definitely brings me back to my childhood. On my weekends in Chicago, my parents would always take me to this one restaurant on Broadway Avenue for a bowl of phở bò viên as a reward for putting up with the hours of grocery shopping and laundry labor. I feel like Vietnamese restaurants in Australia are the same as the ones in the U.S., which is a very comforting feeling for me since I’m living thousands of miles away from everyone and every place I call home. I am starting to enjoy cooking more at my current base because of my being so close to food very often at work and my partner’s love for cooking.
Oh, and tàu hủ nóng is more seen as a behind-the-scenes treat for workers at my restaurant, ha-ha. I would eat tàu hủ nóng on a moped in NYC on a cold, wintery day (near MOMA if I was invited to a photo shoot that would be used to promote Vietnamese cuisine). I think we need more of these Vietnamese foodie life hacks to survive the bitter cold in the U.S—this is partially why I’m in Australia, ha-ha.
VKN: I was reading your Instagram posts in preparation for this interview. I noticed that you have traveled widely, all over the world actually. Of the places you have been (Korea, Iceland, Vietnam, of course, etc.), which feels the most Vietnamese (outside of Vietnam) or most “homoerotically” comfortable or accepting for you, if there is such a thing ? Or for any Vietnamese person in general? They say California is fairly progressive, but I feel it’s not that progressive and I do not feel at home, at times, sapphically, there.
JN: I feel like Australia, the country where I’m currently living, has made me feel the most Vietnamese since I left The States. I think it’s partially because Australia is geographically closer to Vietnam and, besides California, I’ve never seen so many Vietnamese businesses in different pockets of the area before! I also want to mention that I live in Melbourne, which is a much more culturally rich region than other cities in Oz.
In terms of spaces that are most homoerotically comfortable for me, I always gravitate towards those that host spoken word events. Funnily enough, in every country I’ve lived in, I’ve always felt the safest and the most myself in niche spaces that appeal to Asian artists and activists. It’s because of these spaces that have inspired me to get into writing more recently as well.
VKN: Of all the poems and aphorisms you have produced over the years, which piece of yours do you find yourself returning to the most? And, what is it about the piece that allows you to cope with the future (your younger, wise self guiding the future, anxious self, for instance)?
JN: I’ve read quiet to the public several times. This piece was a milestone for me as it was the one that pushed me to want to be seen and heard in front of a crowd. quiet spoke to my racial awakening and how it implicitly describes the relationship that I have with my identity as an Asian American. It serves as a reminder for myself to acknowledge and honor my journey as a Vietnamese hyphenated American.
VKN: Do you have a favorite Vietnamese word? (And what do you think of this “compound” literary combo “âu yếm”?) If you were to translate that word into English for instance, without resorting to memory or a dictionary, just based on the sound of it or what it provokes in you, how would you translate it?
JN: My favorite Vietnamese word is “thương,” which is actually the very word that I incorporated in queer lost love (even though it did not make a fitting word for what I was looking to express my feelings with). Meanings get lost in translation, and I find that the word “thương” is often misinterpreted. If I had to translate it in English, I would stick it between “love” and “care about”—though I’m not very satisfied how I’m categorizing it either…
“Thương” is like a love that can be romantic but more familial, and connotes a deeper, more genuine connection that’s emanating from the feeler. “Thương” is innocent, pure, raw, wholesome, honest love. But because it’s often used in a familial context, the romantic appeal of its use gets overshadowed and lost.
When I hear “âu yếm,” I automatically cringe—not in an, “ew, I don’t want that” (though I can understand how some would associate the word to have that overbearing effect) but just as a neutral physical reaction to it. Like, “okay, I’m cute; hold me” kind of way. To me, I feel like I’m reacting to how the saying of the word would expect me to react. I think it’s interesting to see how people like my sister and I would react to this word differently. I think our different reactions reflect our history with the users of this word (most likely our parents and other adults in the family) and our relationship with our body and the concept of intimacy.
VKN: The word “thương” also connotes “wound” as in vết thương and/or “pity”. This word has always appeared as agony or pain/painful for me, a love that is filled with aches and regrets. How do you remove the pain from that word when said in the context of love? Speaking of ache, have you always known that you were queer? What was that journey like, Jessica?
JN: Yeah! I wasn’t very conscious about how “thương” can appear to be a more painful kind of love until you brought it up. I grew up hearing “thương” from my parents and grandparents who have been through a lot of adversities to be able not just to survive, but to live as well. In my eyes, they survived war and tragedy to be able to love in life. They are able to say “ba mẹ thương con” or “ông bà thương con” because they fought for love. I could never be more grateful for what they’ve done for me. They suffered a lot, choosing to come out with battle wounds so that their children would be left unmarked.
I didn’t always know that I was queer. I still am closeted to my parents, but I am close enough to my parents to ask random hypothetical questions like, “What if your child was gay?” Interestingly enough, my mother and father had very different reactions to each other. They were basically on opposite ends of the spectrum—from “Oh, that’s fine as long as you can take of yourself after your college graduation,” to “I would cry endlessly; why are you asking this?”
I don’t think I would’ve been as open to the idea that I could be queer if I hadn’t gone to such a liberal women’s college like Smith College. There were so many attractive women there! It’s like, how can you not daydream about them as romantic partners?
My first crush at Smith was a close woman friend of mine. She’s also the inspiration behind queer lost love. We’re still good friends to this day, but I’m sure that she isn’t aware of my past feelings for her at all.
I haven’t fully come out to my parents yet and I don’t feel the need to either. The media hypes up coming out as if it’s a must-do coming-of-age chapter in life, but unless I’m marrying a woman, I don’t intend to come out to them anytime soon. I’m not ready open that Pandora’s box yet.
VKN: Do your parents/siblings/family know about your queerness? What have their responses been like? Do your parents have certain expectations for you?
JN: Only my sister knows about my queerness. It took her awhile to process because my coming out was also a surprise for her. We grew up fanning over our crushes on guys we knew in our life more.
My parents don’t know that I’m queer but like every traditional Vietnamese parent, my mom expects me to marry a cis-heterosexual man.
VKN: Did it make you feel closer to your sister when you came out? What do you think of sheep, Jessica? Have you ever ridden (written? possibly?) on a buffalo before? Would you ever have one in a backyard in Chicago?
JN: We’re already very close to begin with, so I wasn’t worried about my coming out to her. I trust that she will accept me regardless of who I choose to love.
Well, that’s a random question. Ha-ha! I would like to lay my head on one if it doesn’t kill me. Their fur is so seemingly soft and warm that it reminds me of this blanket that I constantly bring around the house because of how easily cold I can get. For some reason, it would be 70-degrees Fahrenheit outside and I would still find it chilly, so having a transportable sheep to âu yếm with would be nice. I guess that’s why wool products are so great, ha-ha.
I’ve never ridden or written on a buffalo but I would if someone dared me to do it for a bowl of bún bò Huế or cơm hến from Huế, the origin city of these two dishes. However, I would not have one in my backyard; it would be too sad for the buffalo. There are enough souls who are living far away from their home.
VKN: Your soul has and continues to traverse and dabble in different vectors of art (fashion and photography, for instance). Which discipline (one you haven’t yet acquired) do you think you would find appealing ten years down the road? For instance, would you ever pursue acting? Or ballet? Or something else entirely?
JN: I don’t let myself be tied to one project. Like you said, I’ve had the privilege of dabbling in many vectors of art in my past and will continue to do so until my last breath. Although I feel like I’m just getting started with writing and fashion—a chapbook and a clothing line are currently in the works—I do, however, would love to explore acting more in the future. Based on what a friend of mine has witnessed so far, she’s pointed out to me that I’ve been a performer for many of the projects that I’ve worked on – from modeling for my fashion blog to hosting on the Project Voice podcast to reading my poetry onstage in front of an audience. So, who knows? Maybe one day, I’ll act!
Read con an com chua? | have you eaten yet?, a poem by Jessica Nguyen that was selected as a 2019 Brain Mill Press National Poetry Month Contest Editors’ Pick.
Jessica Nguyen/Nguyễn Thị Mai Nhi is a world traveler, activist, and writer. Though having lived in the U.S. for most of her life, she hops from one country to the next in hopes of discovering pieces of home to fill her Asian American soul. Known to be a soft-spoken person in real life, she often channels her feelings through her writing as she finds written words to be just as powerful as when they’re spoken. Jessica plans to publish her own chapbook, “softly, I speak” in the near future. She’s tucked some of her Vietnamese roots in the piece you will be reading today. Jessica is also the founder and host of Project Voice, a podcast spearheaded by womxn and non-binary folx of the Asian diaspora. To learn more about her current projects, please visit her website at byjessicanguyen.com or follow her @byjessicanguyen on social media.
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