Remembering Kimarlee Nguyen

This tribute to Kimarlee Nguyen was originally published by Kundiman, an organization dedicated to nurturing generations of writers and readers of Asian American literature particularly through support of emerging Asian and Asian American writers. We wanted to share this tribute as a way to celebrate the life and work of Kimarlee, a Cambodian American writer and teacher. Her impact has touched many, even those who did not have a chance to meet her, like diaCRITICS contributor Kimberly Nguyen who shares her own memory at Kimarlee’s alma mater, Vassar. And for those who are able, a memorial fund has been created to help Kimarlee’s family.

Kimarlee reading at the Mentorship Lab Final Reading at Books Are Magic on December 11, 2019. Photo courtesy of Kundiman.

It is with great sadness that we share the loss of Kimarlee Nguyen, a dear member of our community & an inaugural Mentorship Fellow, who passed away on April 5, 2020 at age 33 due to complications from COVID-19. Kimarlee was a brilliant, unforgettable writer we are devastated to lose. She was one of three fiction writers in Kundiman’s first Mentorship Lab, which brought together nine emerging writers for an intensive six-month program. In her application letter, she spoke about the importance of community, and we count ourselves as lucky to have communed and shared space alongside her this past year. At the end of the program, we asked each writer to send in a testimonial about their time in the program. Kimarlee’s was especially representative of her generous, warm spirit and her devotion to community:

“I’m really bad at stuff like this — explaining in just a few sentences how a six-month fellowship has changed me. I can go on and on about things like community and confidence and representation, all things that Kundiman gave me in spades. But perhaps the most important thing this mentorship has given me is the belief that things can be different.

I came from an MFA program where the majority of my classmates either ignored my work or spent time ‘othering’ my narrative. I have only recently come to terms with how damaging that environment was to not only my writing but also to my own self-confidence.

People out there can be so cruel. But people can also be so kind, so loving and that’s what this mentorship has taught me. We writers do not need to be at each other’s throats, trying to one up the other in order to be some crazy version of ‘the best’ or ‘the most accomplished’. The Mentorship Lab is a space where all of us are fully ourselves, doing the hard work of creating and revising in a space that is safe, where all of us is seen, in all our genius and with all our flaws.” —Kimarlee Nguyen, December 2019

Please join us in reading and remembering Kimarlee’s crucial voice and beautiful storytelling.

The Ear of the Sky’ in Hyphen Magazine:

“Underneath the blanket, bouncing off the window, her words crawl up my arm and circle his bowed head. She speaks in Pali, the old language. I can’t follow along, but the words bring with them the heat of summer, the smell of incense and the saffron robes the monks wore, all gathered in a line.”

We Gather Here’ in Adroit Journal:

I put in to my nose and I take a deep, long smell. The panties still smell like her – I flick out my tongue and taste the inside triangle of silk. Just a taste of salt and something deeper too. I move quietly, taking off my shorts and slipping into the panties one leg at a time.

And In Your Eyes, It Looks Like…” in Cha: An Asian Literary Journal:

You are thinking to yourself that once this is all over, you will never wear beige again. For fourteen years of your life, the same colour, all the time, except for those six months where you were free and the world was technicoloured, and you wore every colour you could think of.

If You Cut Me Open, Right Now, This Is What You’ll Find’ in Drunken Boat:

“Where life gets real hard and the winters here get so cold that I feel my bones breaking and everyone in the house is screaming about stupid things that won’t matter tomorrow, I tip my head back like this, right and remember me, all bruises and anger, leaning back, just holding the mango to my nose, smelling, smelling all the good that is yet to come.”

A Short Reminder of How History Works’ in Matador Review

“When they came for her, she was busy packing a suitcase, something Ma told her to do, but like all girls who were straddling the line between teenager and adult, she didn’t think her Ma knew anything and waited until the square of light from the window was shadowed by the approaching iron-toed boots and hunched shoulders.”

Love Story’ in Cha: An Asian Literary Journal:

“You and I, on the edge of the seawall and I wanted to tremble in the radiance of the sun at its highest point in the sky. I would have said nothing and basked in the glory but you turned to me and told me to tell. So I did and I gave you the words for you to carry.”

This is a Story We All Know’ in Kartika Review:

“At school, our teachers would ask us if we were scared living where we lived, and we could only say, it’s home. Back then, we didn’t know a lot, but we knew what was and what wasn’t a secret.”

Read the entire tribute, including memories of Kimarlee from her community, at Kundiman.


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