This post was updated Oct. 21 at 2 p.m.
T.K. Lê lay sprawled out on her Koreatown apartment floor, drawing arrows and connecting blocks of text on a huge piece of parchment paper.
The large paper was the beginning of the UCLA graduate’s most recent science fiction performance piece, which she said explores her own struggle with identification and heritage through the story of a Vietnamese grandmother trapped in a teleportation device.
Lê will read the piece out loud Tuesday as part of Tuesday Night Cafe, an open mic event at the Aratani Courtyard at the Union Center for the Arts in downtown Los Angeles. Lê’s work encompasses themes of identity and heritage, which were inspired by her own desire to get in touch with her Vietnamese roots, she said.
Tuesday Night Cafe, an 18-year-old program, is part of the Tuesday Night Project, an Asian American organization centered in downtown LA, which provides programs for Asian American and Pacific Islander communities to interact through artistic expression.
“I am very much interested in bridging the Asian American experience with other experiences,” Lê said. “Tuesday Night Project is a really great space for that kind of experimentation and to reach out to community members to hold a lifeline to each other.”
Lê began writing as a child but stopped due to the rigid focus on academic writing. However, during college, Lê rediscovered writing after accidentally taking a journalism class and began using it as a form of expression. Whenever she came up with an idea, Lê wrote it down in all capital letters to slow her mind down, using whatever surface she had around her, whether it was a notebook or the margins of a book she was reading.
Most of Lê’s writing took the form of poetry, which she previously self-published in two chapbooks, created by printing out and stapling together poems that focused on her Vietnamese mother and father. Outside of her apartment, Lê often works on her projects with friends, including Audrey Kuo who worked for the Daily Bruin and graduated from UCLA in 2008.
Kuo said the pair sometimes wrote together on Kuo’s front porch, taking bites of dinosaur chicken nuggets dipped in Sriracha and ketchup in between conversations about their writing. Seeing Lê write fiction was exciting, Kuo said, who only read Lê’s poetry in the past.
“It was interesting to see how (Lê) wove together history, trauma, war and intergenerational narratives into this work that she described in how it worked technically but also still seeing the emotional core of it,” Kuo said.
In her new piece for Tuesday, Lê said she wanted to express her feelings about her largely unknown Vietnamese family heritage, which her parents had avoided sharing with her for most of her life.
One unknown part of Lê’s heritage was her grandmother, who lived in Vietnam and never met Lê until briefly connecting with her for the first time during a two-hour meeting in central Vietnam in 2010. Her grandmother passed away in early 2016, and Lê said the complicated relationship had a profound effect on her life even though Lê only briefly knew her grandmother.
“She was kind of like this compass in my life,” Le said. “This invisible compass that dictated how I did things, even today.”
Lê saw her grandmother’s presence in the decisions her father made, specifically in the way he would or wouldn’t talk about his experiences with war in Vietnam. On the rare occasions when her father told a story about Lê’s grandmother, Lê appreciated every detail. Lê’s grandmother existed both in her life through her father’s stories and outside of it in Vietnam, leading to the exploration of the relationship in her latest performance piece.
The oscillating presence of her grandmother in her life inspired Le’s science fiction character, which will also be accompanied by special sound effects. Jeffer Giang, a performer at Tuesday Night Cafe, will accompany Lê during the performance with a guitar and futuristic sound effects. Giang said the science fiction and sound effect collaboration is different from anything Lê had performed before – typically reading poetry pieces out loud.
“I think that the audience will react to (Lê’s piece) very positively,” Giang said.
Lê said she hopes her performance sends a message out to the community to discover other people struggling with similar messages of heritage and identity.
“Writing has been the space for me where I can just process things on my own time,” Lê said. “I don’t necessarily have to share everything with everybody, and I can experiment with different things.”