A Conversation Among One: Reading Nhã Thuyên’s un\ \martyred

Last week, we published a conversation with diaCRITICS very own Dao Strom and the cofounders of AJAR Press, Nhã Thuyên and Kaitlin Rees, about what it’s like to run an experimental poetry press, independent publishing in Vietnam, and finding home in places and within languages. We’re excited to feature this essay from Kaitlin as she reflects on Nhã Thuyên’s collection.


There is something psychedelic about the experience: beholding a dear friend’s work that roams only so far from a corner of their soul and through this beholding come to feel a flickering of the essential strangeness that can wash clean all traces of recognition by adding just that bit of distance or certain angle to let you see you’ve just scratched the surface of what there is to really see about a person or a thing no matter how close and how familiar. 

In the many years of reading and translating Nhã Thuyên’s poetry and prose, this recent collection of essays is my first time reading Nhã Thuyên, the reader.

The essay collection, un\ \martyred: [self-]vanishing presences in Vietnamese poetry is composed of Nhã Thuyên’s readings, criticisms, lovings, and (de)contextualizations of the various individuals and groups who have been writing and (sometimes not) surviving on the edges of contemporary Vietnamese poetry. 

The English translation of this book in the United States precedes the publication of its Vietnamese original in Vietnam. This backwards timing is not by chance but due to the nature of the poets whose work is gathered in the essays, including that of the painter Trần Trung Tín whose work illustrates the cover, and including the writer herself. All share the choiceless choice of writing from the relative shadows of society after veering from a Party’s singular vision of literature into the realms of the banned/abandoned.

Who are these writers? Who is the reader of these writers? In what spirit am I reading them? What does it mean to read with both more and less awareness of a political context at the same time? How to encounter a (self)banished corner and listen to a voice and its silence at the same time? How to observe “a privacy performed in the middle of a public space,” as Nhã Thuyên envisions a poetics of evolving feminisms? How to meet the so-called reactionary and dissident poets without stuffing them into those labels? Where is poetry really?

I exercise within myself a dialogue with the book, to join and continue its self-described “attempt at conversation,” and to “unceasingly face misunderstandings” of my own reading.

Book, you call yourself a conversation but you know you are a monologue. You are one reader talking to mostly silenced poetry, waiting for another reader, for a me, an us, a them to come and breathe back into the space to make and keep the conversation alive, and perhaps to keep a poetry alive.

“If I don’t look back, all those illusions in which I believed will also evanesce, and how will I know how fragmented I have become?”

Book, I think about what it means to situate yourself in fragmentation and failure. You, like so many of the writers in your pages, bearing witness to while refusing you own destruction.

“A still life of teeth, an exhibit of the whole mouth. Me alone in the corner smiling. Not breaking the silence, or knowing if it is the top or the bottom of the well. To see the comes-to-naught filling up the eternal.”
—”Local Exhibition” by Nguyễn Quốc Chánh / David Payne trans.

The poets you read, whose poetry remains today as vague relics of a forgotten dream, or been lulled into the long sleep of an ideology-induced exhaustion, or been more violently shredded into submission, exist in a voided field, in pockets of silence. What does it mean to you to speak of those who have ceased speaking?

“I look into the tragic and phlegmatic face of poetry: why don’t those voices continue?”

I think one special ingredient must be Desire. You desire to touch the very quiet and private of voices huddling in the dark corners of Vietnamese Literature,

“This tiny hot breath. I am also tiny.”
—“Tiny, Tiny” by Miên Đáng/ Kaitlin Rees trans.

voices who have refused or been refused the status of ‘official’ poetry,

“I stand at a crossroads/ Halted by the red light”
—”Red Light” by Búi Chát/ Ngân Nguyễn trans

who resist the “invisible chain” that binds a society ignorant of its own chaos.

“the slaves line up in/ rows/ pointing to themselves they count “one”/ pointing to their lover they count “two”…/ an invisible chain, now taut now slack, and always so very long”
—We Stand on the Sidewalk and Count by Trần Tiến Dũng/ Ngân Nguyễn trans.

Whether it is by choosing to whisper only into one’s own palm, or by breaking the chains and stepping out of line, these voices of which you speak are speaking away from the central organizing structure of hegemony and into disparate directions. And you desire to bring them closer, to be in community, gathered around a Vietnamese language unburdened by ideology and its hot reactions, one that cherishes the poetic life above the comfortable life.

“A Vietnamese that is light, playful, and full of osmotic potential. A Vietnamese that doesn’t shirk collisions and alterations as it attempts to protect its beauty and to nurture its potential. A Vietnamese that doesn’t accept to be silenced.”

“The corpse is a plate of party snacks/ With a small bottle of white rice wine, a red bottle/ The white flag—planted in the center of the beak”
—”Socialist Realism” by Lý Đợi/ David Payne trans.

When thinking about your fragmentation, situated in a more or less willful acceptance of failure and bearing the asymmetrical desire to touch through language—I think about being in pursuit of the poetics of translation. Rather than finding the right vocabulary (though this is a concern) or expanding readership (though this may be an outcome), at its root, the poetics of translation is a quest for understanding that recognizes the endless and potentially futile nature of what it means to attempt understanding. The poetics of translation is a between space, where the constant desire to arrive persists in equal measure to the inevitability of failure to leave. It is a positioning of betweenness that cannot stay ‘here’ for very long because ‘there’ is fundamental to its being.

There is a poetics of translation in the way you deal with context. When evoking the social and political upheavals of Vietnam and the Eastern Bloc of the late 1980’s, framing how an ideological clamping down on Literature sparked new aesthetic forms and forums of expression, you warn us not to be swallowed by this framing.

“I want to emphasize that the analysis I provide on the context of this movement is not intended to advocate for an explanation of underground poetry according to ‘special’ local circumstances…evidence of a dark side, representing the voice of helpless victims.”

You are well aware of the slippery misreadings that often attach “such wretched terms to the body of Vietnamese literature as post-war, post-colonial, or post-totalitarian”—readings that provide an easy framework to hold up Vietnam as a special case, a Communist case, a suffering case, where the only good writing must be a subversive kind of “dissident” writing (according to some international gazes), which you make clear is just as narrow an understanding as that which declares the only good writing must be in the “correct direction, serving our People” (according to some national gazes of the 7th Party Congress).

You offer details of Vietnam’s Renovation period, a time when the country was deciding what kind of self-image it would take into the future, when big questions of literature and art were openly debated, before the cement dried around determinations of what would get a State’s stamp of approval and what would not, before the hard line that (con)temporarily divides Vietnamese poetry into ‘orthodox’ and ‘unorthodox’, ‘underground’ and ‘official’ was drawn. The details of this time period are useful: to revisit the moment just before a binary was born creates a vantage point from which to glimpse how it could have been otherwise, and from here, perceive the wider grounds that encompass this divide today.

Contextualizing in a way that provides a path to decontextualizing, you teach your readers to identify the “here” of Vietnam without getting stuck in “Vietnam” as its mythologized socio-political circumstances. What you say is simultaneously an unsaying, about Vietnam’s Renovation period, or the self-representations of womxn writers, or the participatory poetics of the Open Mouth writers, or the nihilistic treatment of history. A context pirouettes outside of its own frames, with all terms carrying whispered reminders of their own provisional status.

I read you and must ask myself: What do I actually mean by “political” when attaching the term to poetry, here/there in Vietnam and there/here wherever I am reading this from? What kind of demands do I subconsciously make on poetry “in order to comfort a concept in Việt Nam [and elsewhere] of a writer’s ethical responsibility”? And when exercising words like “marginal” or “censored”, what are the implicit values undergirding their orientations: marginal compared to what, censored by who?

Is to (un)contextualize (Vietnamese) poetry to suggest the meaning of writing—the language of origin, its consciousness, its space, time, mood, limitations, clarity, abstraction, syntax—is constantly under its own reconstruction?

“At the creative and critical foundation of institutions, what must be demolished is the coordinate system that projects what qualifies or fails as poetry onto empty abstract metaphysics. Only then would open possibilities of reading and writing unsettle the lives of poetry and its participants who might otherwise be stuck in blocks or live with their creative delusions.”

With a desire for the re-valuation, re-definition, and de-centralization of reading, you caress with deep attention until finally erased those borders that line outdated categories for experiencing poetry in Vietnam and anywhere, which often default into simple and convenient binaries. You ask me to imagine a poetry in Vietnamese without the binary classifiers: orthodox vs. unorthodox, Northern vs. Southern, domestic vs. overseas, new vs. old, censored vs. uncensored, political vs. experimental, underground vs. official, public vs. private.

The refusal of all binaries makes it tricky to write essays. To analyze something so enmeshed in certain terms for analysis while rejecting those terms is a delicate act. How to write about women poets while refusing the categorizational meaning behind the act of dividing poetry into male and female writers?

I’m not sure I know, and I’m not sure you know either. “Women” is a subject that cannot be ignored because it is a subject steeped in inequality. By evoking the category and discussing women poets all in one essay together, even while acknowledging the burden of the frame, there is a contradictory and unsatisfying reduction.

There is a contradictory and unsatisfying reduction in the terms you are living in and I am living in. How can the classifier of “women’s writing” not feel like letting women into the room of men? How can the female writers in this book be “[self-]vanishing presences” when they are almost wholly absent from the book outside of the one essay in which they all appear together? It is something that feels like an unacknowledged limitation, which cannot be separated from a self-limitation in me, the translator of this essay, and perhaps represents the unresolved relationships between you and feminism and perhaps parallels the unresolvable questions I have about how I can/not translate feminism from one context to another.

Your vision of feminism:

“A lengthy and persistent process of transformation in how womxn reflect themselves: from the awareness of a suppressive situation to the awareness of a value, from criticizing a marginalized condition, debunking the current state of social and literary norms, attacking the oppressive messages of patriarchal social structures and masculine discourses that shape womxn with mythologized notions of femininity, beauty, love, sexuality, marriage, and so on, to a private self-reflection through the very structure of one’s own body, thus opening the capacity to elevate the body’s language, and from the act of referencing oneself inside a masculine framework to the effort of extricating oneself from that framework and becoming independent bodies.”

My vision of your feminism: a path to self-emancipation that involves the recognition of oneself as other and as equal, a path that is not different from that of the freedom-seeking male poets whose work appears in essays engaging with politics and history.

I would love to see an essay on women’s writing that dissolves from its enclosed, separate space and rematerializes alongside the self-emancipatory work of men poets. I would love to see how, as a self-presenting and self-vanishing presence, the blind spot of gender can be made more visible. How to dissolve and rematerialize, as the (de)contextualization of (womxn’s) writing requires?

“I would like to hypothesize that the wall that seems to divide these two separate worlds is only temporary.”

You look seriously at nihilism. You look at the Vietnamese poetry and poets who have flung themselves into the “massive parade” where the rejection of self, rejection of nation, rejection of history, and the rejection of poetry itself, all step in continuous procession toward an abyss.

I see you standing there at the edge of the abyss, refusing to fling yourself into it and refusing to back away from it. There are very few who could stand there, who could stand it.


Image 6.3 Front cover Xin lỗi chịu hổng nổi (Sorry Can’t Stand It) by Bùi Chát (2007).”

Cannot stand, must under stand. You ask me to think of something that doesn’t yet exist. You ask me to know more about the marginalized voices in Vietnamese poetry while interrogating the very thinking that continues to distinguish between the margin and the center (in Vietnam and everywhere). You ask me to know and unknow you at the same time. You wait for me to speak back. You listen to the silences. You transform a silence into history. You dissolve history into its empty terms. The empty terms form shells where soil, water, light, and time gather to sprout poetry. The poetry is what you are listening to.

un\ \martyred, English translation (Roof Books, 2019); bất\ \tuẫn (Vietnamese version self-published by Nhã Thuyên, 2020)

Author Bio 

Kaitlin Rees is between Hanoi and New York City. With Nhã Thuyên she founded AJAR, a small bilingual journal and press that has hosted two intimate-international poetry A-festivals. Her translations of Nhã Thuyên’s poetry recently live in the Tilted Axis chapbook Moon Fevers as well as the full-length collection, words breathe, creatures of elsewhere (Vagabond Press, 2016). She is currently translating Nhã Thuyên’s self-described ‘nonsense’, a book of poeticized prose that embraces marginalized subjectivities and relationalities, and works at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop to edit the Transpacific Literary Project, a series of portfolios focused on translations from East and Southeast Asia.


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