Catching Fire: Vivian Pham in Conversation with Vi Khi Nao

It’s always a pleasure to share Vi Khi Nao’s conversations with artists. Vi chats with debut author Vivian Pham, about her novel The Coconut Children, which was reviewed here and has been written about in context of diaspora who grew up in Australia’s Cabramatta. Vi and Vivian talk about her novel, feeling like a fragment, the enduring legacy of James Baldwin’s work, and the loneliness of a writer’s life.

Author Vivian Pham.

VI KHI NAO: Why are you fasting, Vivian? What are the health benefits? Are you secretly Muslim? Every time I fast, my Muslim friends think I am converting.

VIVIAN PHAM: Because I woke up late today. But usually I fast because my family agreed that there might be some health benefits! I don’t do it for any religious reasons, but every time my best friend fasts during Ramadan I say I want to do it with her. Because that requires not eating or drinking water from sunrise to sunset, I haven’t been able to follow through yet. I’ve only ever fasted intermittently, which I feel is the lite version of real fasting.

VKN: Your bachelor degree is in Philosophy, yes? I know you are not ready to impart to us the meaning of life, but what is your current working philosophy on life?

VP: I’m currently majoring in both Philosophy and Creative Writing, yes! That’s a great question. My outlook in life is almost always influenced by the things I am reading and watching. Right now I happen to be rewatching Avatar: The Last Airbender with my family, so my philosophical reflections are heavily impacted by shifting ideas of balance. Someone close to me is going through a difficult time, so I made a chatterbox (or paper fortune teller) for them—but in a way also for myself—entirely comprised of quotes from Avatar. One of my favourites is: “Understanding others (…) will help you become whole.”

VKN: Are we fragments merely as a result of misunderstanding? Can we be whole without understanding? And, why is it one of your favorites? What do you think the quote means? If you could be any avatar, what would you be?

VP: I think it’s easy to feel like you’re only a fragment, especially when you are misunderstood by the people who are closest to you; or equally perilous, when you realise you don’t understand the people you thought you did. Recently I have been learning things about myself and my family members that I never knew before as a result of being at home every hour of the day together (no long-buried family secrets, just a lot of feelings). But in another way, the idea of being misunderstood and feeling your own identity coming apart as a result has always been a concern.

The reason I began writing in the first place was because I was amazed by the spoken word poetry of a New York based poet named Miles Hodges, and he was my introduction to James Baldwin. I think a lot of Baldwin’s writing differed from anyone else I’d ever read because when I was reading his books, I had a sense of the man that had written the sentences, and even though he had been dead for over thirty years by then, I felt as though the ink hadn’t even had time to dry. It was like he was still out there, describing the world and demanding justice from the people in it. There was profound anger in his writing, and disappointment in the white Americans who, despite all appearances, he could not help but see as his brothers and sisters. This is a long-winded way of saying I think the quote implies that we need to see ourselves reflected in others, and others reflected in ourselves, if we are ever to become whole.

I’d aspire to be an avatar like Kyoshi but I think I’m more of a Roku.

VKN: Roku? Will you expound?

VP: Roku was the avatar preceding Aang, from the Fire Nation. Aang basically inherited a hundred-year war because Roku was unable to stop it. But I feel an affinity with Roku because his animal guide is a dragon, and I’m a dragon (zodiacally). I also empathise with his poor decision-making skills.

VKN: Being the dragon that you are, if you were able to exhale fires onto things, what would you like to effuse? Onto what material or immaterial things? And, having lit them on fire, what would you hope to achieve with your breath?

VP: I want my writing to catch on fire, predictably, but I want to be a folklorist one day too. There are many stories around the world that haven’t been written down, that draw life from the breath of those who tell them. That thought excites and terrifies me. I know that I’m biased, having always lived in a culture that privileges the written word, but the thought of knowledge disappearing from one generation to the next really scares me. I’d like to do what people like Herb Kawainui Kāne did for Hawaiian culture, what people like Epeli Hauʻofa did for the South Pacific, and what people like Kunio Yanagita did for Japan. Along with this, I’d like to do what the creators of Avatar: The Last Airbender were able to do: create a fictional world full of folklore that people all over the world can lay claim to.

Author Vivian Pham as a child.

VKN: Of all the protagonists you created for your novel, The Coconut Children, which protagonist, in your eyes, resembles a fragment of Baldwin’s greatness the most? Is it erudite Sonny? Is it drunken, wild bà ngoại? Is it Sonny’s green-thumbed father? Is it Sonny’s fragile little brother, Oscar? Or even Vince? On page 146 of your novel, bà ngoại advises, “Girls are like flowers. There’s no need for you to bloom right now. Take your time, con gái.” If girls are flowers, what would you tell bà ngoại boys are?

VP: I think Vince is the character that reflects the things I thought about most when reading Baldwin. For example, in a piece called Geraldine Page: Bird of Light where Baldwin observed a stage actress transform completely and, I feared, almost irreversibly into the character she was playing, he wrote: “Gerry is all that most of us, wandering in our grisly isolation through this world, ever see of any other person. Whoever forces this terrible truth once more on our attention has also helped us to bear it.” I think this is why Vince is so important to me as a character. I wanted readers to see him from a distance at first, through the eyes of Sonny, and Oscar, and the whole neighbourhood, this almost-mythic being floating across the page. Then I wanted the reader to meet him, to feel the force of his loneliness and frustration. Vince is true to himself, but everywhere he goes he carries the beliefs that others have about him. They are his shadow.

The flower metaphor might be a dated one, although that is in character for bà ngoại. But if girls are like flowers, maybe boys are like bushfires. Both are fragile in different ways.

VKN: One of my favorite lines from your novel is from page 120, from the voice of bushfired Vince, “He knew his happiness was coin-operated.” If Vince’s happiness is coin-operated, what does your current happiness operate on? And, did you put a lot of thought into Vince’s name? After all, he was named after a hospital. Can you walk us through how you choose your character’s name? Was it agonizing? Especially since most of the protagonists had Western names (Alex, Emma, Vince, Sonny, Oscar) and Vietnamese last names to express their bilingual identity.

What do you think is the source of Vince’s loneliness? Is it from having a mother who had been raped by pirates or a perpetually inebriated father whose masculinity has been robbed because the pirates stole his innate ability to protect the woman he loves so dearly? Do you think Vince’s over-chivalrous gestures are a direct response to his parents’ suffering or do you think he is compensating for something that can never be compensated?

VP: Thank you—I like that line too! Do you ever write a novel and barf at the bulk of it, but a few lines make it worth the trouble? My current happiness depends on the happiness of everyone in my family and trying to get through a slippery slope of deadlines waiting for me at the end of this month.

Choosing each of the characters’ names was a process of deliberation for me—I don’t remember choosing Vince’s as being particularly difficult, but as with a lot of decisions you make when you’re writing, I might’ve simply forgotten. What I do remember is really liking the way ‘Vince’ sounds, and thinking its simplicity and strength contrasted nicely with the more refined ‘Vincent.’ This was after I’d already named him, but I also remember liking how Vince rhymes with ‘innocence’ and is part of ‘unconvinced’.

My uncle in Vietnam is a jazz pianist and owned a mountain of albums I liked looking at and never listening to (I didn’t want to mess with his stuff). I noticed a lot of jazz musicians have musical names, like Sonny Rollins and Oscar Peterson. Art Tatum, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk were standouts, too.

In my mind, a lot of Vince’s loneliness comes from both his parent’s inability to treat him like a child while he was still one. I think that’s the reason it’s difficult for him to trust and be vulnerable with others—because as grown-up as he tries to appear, he is also protective of that part of himself that’s still a child.

VKN: What are those deadlines?

VP: I have to write an essay for my favourite class, Literature and Philosophy, as well as a few short stories.

VKN: If your imagination has already bloomed by writing The Coconut Children, what do you think of the field of wilted flowers ahead of you? Which part of you feels most perennial? Your intellectual imagination? Your sexual imagination? Your philosophical imagination?

VP: I hope there are many fields ahead with much honey to collect. No part of me feels perennial. I feel my passions are forever pulling me in different directions, each tying and severing themselves from me of their own free will. Writing fiction is the only way I’ve been able to track these flippant passions and preserve them in some way. The Coconut Children was a way for me to research not only my own family history, but my shallow interests in bodice rippers, heroin, arcade games, and perfumery. I wrote a short story called Crush recently about a primary school romance, and I really enjoyed it because it led me to research different varieties of apples and the distinctions between them. What actually ended up on the page are simply the words ‘granny smith’ and ‘pink lady’, the two most common apple varieties in Australia. You could say I didn’t even need to do the research, but reading what other people write passionately about, even if it’s apples, helps me with my own writing.

I don’t give too much thought to the boundaries between intellect, sex, and philosophy in my imagination. All I know is that I’d like to become a new person with every novel.

The Coconut Children, Vivian Pham. Melbourne: Vintage Australia, 2020.

VKN: One of the things I loved most about your novel is your sense of humor. What are your sources of inspiration for these comedic moments? Especially the double entendres.

VP: I watched a lot of comedy growing up! On our own, my sister and I would watch romantic comedies like She’s the Man and Two Weeks Notice. With my dad, we’d watch movies like Land of the Lost, Mr. Deeds, Tropic Thunder, See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventures. With my mum, we’d watch a lot of Vietnamese-dubbed films from Hong Kong like Stephen Chow’s films, God of Cookery, Kung Fu Hustle, Shaolin Soccer and Sixty Million Dollar Man. One thing I’ve always found really special about each of these films is their ability to make us laugh at a character in a tragic situation. I think this is one of Stephen Chow’s talents, bringing us closer to his characters by turning the world against them and pulling down their pants. I didn’t really understand Flirting Scholar because, unlike the physical comedy of his other films, many of the jokes rely on references to Chinese poetry of the Ming Dynasty. But it gave me a sense in which literature and comedy can work alongside one another.

VKN: On page 143 of The Coconut Children, you write, “No matter how Sonny tried to dispute her hair’s ability to absorb misfortune, she could not change her fate.” What is the best way for a young novelist to absorb misfortune if misfortune arrives her way? What is the best way for a writer to endure/cope with hardship? What were some of the hardships you endured on your way to producing this novel?

VP: Lately, I have been thinking a lot about how lonesome the profession can feel. Because you spend so much time in your own head, it can alienate you not only from the outside world (which I’m not too concerned about, as a lot of my writing relies on describing what’s happening outside) but from the people you care about most (which I view as a curse, potentially fatal). I’ve been finding it difficult to wrap my head around the fact that everyone I love has an inner world of their own, as complex, as menacing, as easily misunderstood. I’ve had to reflect on this because I haven’t been able to write for the novel I’ve been meaning to write since last year, and the stress has been avalanching inside me. My sister is a screenwriter, with an alarming number of inner realities wrapped up inside her, and I’ve found that the best (perhaps the only) way for me to escape my own disaster is to help her overcome hers. If you are a writer and you find yourself stuck, ask another writer how their story is going. Listen to what they’re having trouble with, try coming up with solutions, and do all that you can to encourage them. I still really struggle with this, but I try to remember what Uncle Iroh said: “Sometimes the best way to solve your own problems is to help someone else.”

VKN: On page 123 of The Coconut Children, you write, “You can tell how much you mean to someone by the amount of ginger they make you eat when you’re sick.” At the end of your book, in your author bio, you write, “When Vivian is not writing or trying to do a handstand, she is reading and replying to emails. You can write to her at [email protected]. (Please do—I hear writing can be quite a lonely profession.)” In the profession of writing, what do you think is the ginger equivalent for how much an author is appreciated for their work? In other words, what is one way for readers to appreciate you, Vivian? Do you wish someone to engage with your work? Directly? Indirectly? And, what is the best way to do so? What kind of fan mail do you desire?

VP: Everyone responds to praise differently, at different times in their lives. At the moment, because I feel as uncertain as I’ve ever been about the quality of my work, it is a little difficult for me to truly appreciate the very kind e-mails I’ve received about how talented I am, or how much I’ve been able to achieve at such a young age. The voice of self-doubt sometimes reads these e-mails sarcastically, or ominously. The best e-mails are from people who tell me that I’ve been able to help them the way I’ve been helped by many other writers. Also, I imagine a handwritten letter (even hate mail) would be quite special. Points for sincerity.

VKN: How have other writers helped you?

VP: A writer might make you feel less alone, or remind you you’re capable of empathy. A writer might be someone that introduces you to an interesting idea or makes you imagine your life differently. I think these are the ways I’ve been helped by writers of books, films, TV shows and even tweets. A good writer makes you wonder what is possible, what has always been possible.

VKN: I love how your dialogue in Vietnamese is intentionally not translated for non-speakers of said language. At times, overt translation in tandem with the written work in the text itself can be a type of infantilism or turning the book into a United Nations meeting; I love, in contrast to this, how at home and seamless your Vietnamese dialogue is in the literary canon of refugee writing. Vince’s tattoo was written in Japanese and I tried to do a Google Translate to understand what his tattoo meant it and Google Translate was unable to fulfill my curiosity (an understatement)—and I became really happy when I discovered what his tattoo meant many, many pages later—I really love this foreshadowing gesture because it’s one way for the writer to meet the reader halfway and to suggest that sometimes one has to finish a book in order to understand the writer’s full intention.

Have you read books where they were so bad that you couldn’t finish them? What is one advice you can give a reader who doesn’t enjoy reading something?

VP: Because I can’t write Vietnamese, and can very barely read, I’d constantly be asking my parents for clarification about specific words while I was writing. This is to say that through writing the book, the physical act of getting the sentence onto a page, I felt I was getting closer to my parents. Having them sound out words to me reminded me of the oral tradition of storytelling that has always been in our family. I really hope that other Vietnamese kids who might not be able to read Vietnamese have a similar experience.

If I’ve attempted reading a thousand books so far, I’ve probably abandoned 600 of them. I don’t think having trouble with commitment is necessarily a bad thing for readers. Trying to avoid your own boredom can force you to be creative. For example in the case of Lolita, I admire Nabokov’s writing style a lot but the characters and events of the novel didn’t really interest me, so I disregarded the plot altogether and chose to flip to random pages whenever I opened the book. It is thanks to this method that I’m able to read a book from front to back—only not in that order— and still not really know what happened in it. Quite an achievement.

VKN: Influenced by your parents, proverbs, parables, and myths seem to be an important aspect of your novel. There is one proverb in Vietnamese that I kept thinking about while reading your work and it’s this: “Gần mực thì đen, gần đèn thì rạng.” I kept thinking about it because while Vince (and possibly Alex) were exposed to negative light, to mực—Alex’s father’s death and his overdose, their constant exposure to drugs and to violence, Vince’s father’s violent towards his mother—they don’t become “đen” from exposure to such darkness, especially Vince after his juvenile detention. What prevents someone from being “đen” if they are constantly being exposed to it? In your mind, why is Vince an exception to this proverb? Sonny attempted to address this by reassuring him that he won’t be like his father. Where do you think Sonny draws this reassurance?

VP: In my mind, Vince never goes so far as proving himself an exception to this proverb. He grew up around violence and continues getting into fights throughout the novel; he grew up around addicts and gets his first job at a drug house. I’ve said this elsewhere, but when I first started writing The Coconut Children, I saw Vince. He was vivid, and the rest of the book became a matter of what would happen to him, and a question of whether or not he’d be destroyed by it. Though I’m not sure of his being an exception, I do think his ability to struggle with himself is exceptional. He embraces emotions that are traditionally seen as dark and self-destructive—resentment, indignation, sorrow, regret—and they yield to light inside him. His honesty and anger with himself makes him possible of great change.

I think Sonny believes Vince could never end up like his father because she knew who he was as a child, and can’t imagine him betraying that innocence. This is why it was important to me to begin the novel with Sonny’s prayer as a child, and end it with the poem Vince wrote when he was young. But Sonny forgets that Vince’s father was once a child too.

VKN: How did your parents/family respond to the birth of your Coconut Children? Have they read it? What did they think? Have they suggested/solicited what you should write next? And, what are you working on now?

VP: My family is really proud. Whenever we find it at a bookstore, my sister and brother-in-law shout “I just can’t stop thinking about The Coconut Children by Vivian Pham. It’s my favourite book ever.” Right now I’m working on a screenplay with my sister Kim called Bird Hands Beaver a Fishmint Bouquet.

VKN: Can you talk about your writing ritual? Do you write everyday? What is your ideal literary goal? Twenty years from now, when you open your debut book, The Coconut Children, and talk to it, what would you like to say to it that you couldn’t when you were 18 writing it?

Vivian Pham’s copy of ‘Just Above My Head’ by James Baldwin.

VP: When I was working on The Coconut Children, I was writing every day; early in the morning, late at night, during class, free period and lunch time. During the first draft phase, I would listen to Duke Ellington and John Coltrane’s recording of In a Sentimental Mood on repeat. I read many old newspaper articles, interviews and first-hand accounts of Vietnamese refugees. I cried often.

It wasn’t until the editing/rewriting stage that reading fiction became really important to me. I remember feeling inspired by the new Arctic Monkeys album at the time, specifically the lyrics of “Star Treatment.” It made me want to imbue the sentimental tone of the first draft with a self-conscious, or at least semi-self-conscious moodiness. I was first introduced to Arctic Monkeys in 2012 by my brother-in-law and one of my best friends, Daniel, and while I was rewriting The Coconut Children, I relied on the wordplay in songs like “Black Treacle,” “Piledriver Waltz,” “Fire and the Thud,” and “Arabella” for inspiration. It was also during the rewriting process that I kept a stack of books beside my laptop to refer to whenever I was stuck with a sentence. These included my most heavily highlighted Baldwin novel, Just Above My Head, my most treasured collection of poems, Turning Into Dwelling by Christopher Gilbert, Maurice by E.M. Forster, Wait Until Spring, Bandini by John Fante, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston and Omeros by Derek Walcott. I might go on writing and rewriting for hours without consulting my predecessors, but having them there always felt significant.

Contributor Bios

Vivian Pham is a Vietnamese-Australian fiction writer, closet poet, amateur screenwriter, university student and hopeful dropout if any of the aforementioned ventures take flight. Her father was a Vietnamese boat refugee, and she grew up loving stories because she knew there was one inside of him. In 2018 and 2019, Vivian attended the International Congress of Youth Voices and shared a stage with incongruously successful writers and activists like Dave Eggers, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Rep. John Lewis and Khaled Hosseini. It is her greatest hope to have an impact on political issues through her creative work. Vivian is a fervent reader, watcher and listener. Her literary influences include James Baldwin, Monty Python, Wu Tang Clan and early 90s Hong Kong cinema. She is currently completing a Bachelor of Arts with a major in Philosophy, but she will not be able to tell you the meaning of life until the relevant unit learning outcome is achieved in Semester 2.

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 NOONPloughsharesBlack 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.


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