I always tell the story of my first birthday when people ask me why I write, the way my parents laid out twelve objects in front of me as part of the traditional ceremony, the way my one year old consciousness couldn’t have known a pen from a comb or a stethoscope, but the way I, sealing my fate, was finally drawn to the pen. My parents kept this story from me until I was much older, so I did not always know that I was going to be a writer. Growing up, writing was not what the cool kids did, it didn’t help me make any friends, and my parents were never a fan of the idea. At night my father used to turn out the light as I was writing to discourage me from it, and I would move my pen and notebook to the sliver of light coming from the streetlamp through my bedroom window to write in secret. Even when it was hard to, I never lost the urge to write. When I was hurting, I wrote about it. When I didn’t have friends, I wrote them into existence.
But I didn’t always want to be a writer. I still don’t. I had a close friend who was amazing at math, and I wanted to love math just as much. I had friends who were wonderful ballet dancers, accomplished athletes, natural academics, and I felt less accomplished as a writer. It wasn’t until much agony after struggling to resist my love of writing that my mom finally told me what I’d picked at my first birthday. The first birthday ceremony is now just a Vietnamese tradition, obsolete in modern times when there is less faith in the supernatural. But there is so much poetry in this ceremony. If I get an origin story, this is it.
đi đêm có ngày gặp ma
In the eyes of my mother, to be Vietnamese is to be fiercely loyal to South Vietnam. I was told a very anti-communist narrative from a young age, about how the North Vietnamese had swooped in and stolen democracy from South Vietnam and then rebranded it as a liberation in a widespread propaganda campaign. My mother supported America’s involvement in the war, viewing it as a righteous campaign against a tyrannical regime. My mother’s version of the story is part truth, part all the good makings of political thriller, but part of coming to terms with all the facets of my identity is understanding that there are no winners here.
A goal of my poetry is to explore each complicated avenue of my identity as it manifests and conflicts with another avenue, to acknowledge all the problems and joys of being Vietnamese-American. I can mourn for the loss of a homeland and empathize with my mother’s loss of country at the same time I can keep in mind the South Vietnamese persecution of Buddhists. I can be a proud American and criticize the American atrocities against the Vietnamese during the war. There will be no easy answers the more I dig towards the root of who I am, but I don’t think there are supposed to be. To be alive is to always be in state of change, constantly transforming and rethinking the way I see things, and my poetry is going to reflect that change.
“ghosts in the stalks”
My book is a project that started when I studied abroad. All of a sudden, I was in a new environment with different people than I had gotten accustomed to at my home college, and this gave me a newfound appreciation for my roots. I was also introduced to the Oxford English Dictionary, which gives you alternate definitions for words as their usages change during different points in the history of the English language, and this really jumpstarted my curiosity for Vietnamese etymology. Vietnamese etymology is definitely a prevalent theme all throughout the book, as I explore how colonization can haunt a people through their language. The collection also revisits how my parents came to the United States, the stories they told me, and my difficult relationship with them. Overall, it’s an incredibly ambitious but dynamic collection that I hope resonates with the larger diaspora Vietnamese community.
Kimberly Nguyen is a poet originally from Omaha, Nebraska but current living and working in New York City. She is a recent graduate of Vassar College, where she studied English and Russian Studies. She is a recipient of a Beatrice Daw Brown Prize and has appeared in the Vassar Student Review, Project Yellow Dress, Vietnamese Boat People, and Teen Vogue. kimberlynguyenwrites.com