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Q&A: Poet and alumnus Diana Khoi Nguyen talks depicting Vietnamese American experiences

Diana Khoi Nguyen is pictured posing for her portrait. The poet speaks on her writing process for her latest book. (Courtesy of Karen Lue)

By Harbaksh Kaur

June 2, 2024 6:42 p.m.

Editor’s Note: This article contains references to suicide.

Diana Khoi Nguyen is dedicated to portraying Vietnamese American experiences.

Nguyen is an alumnus and visiting professor at UCLA where she teaches an upper-division poetry workshop. Her own poetry follows her experiences as a Vietnamese American and her navigation of complicated familial relationships. She touches on subjects of abuse and suicide, taking inspiration from her family’s history, photographs and the bilingual experience to help tell those stories.

Nguyen spoke with the Daily Bruin’s Harbaksh Kaur about her new book, “Root Fractures,” and the artistic process behind developing poetry.

[Related: Q&A: Author and poet Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo discusses verse as a Chicana]

Pictured is the cover of Diana Khoi Nguyen&squot;s latest poetry book "Root Fractures." Nguyen explores the Vietnamese American experience in the book. (Courtesy of Sarahmay Wilkinson)
Pictured is the cover of Diana Khoi Nguyen's latest poetry book "Root Fractures." Nguyen explores the Vietnamese American experience in the book. (Courtesy of Sarahmay Wilkinson)

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Daily Bruin: What was the inspiration behind your book “Root Fractures”?

Diana Khoi Nguyen: “Root Fractures” is a continuation of my exploration about my family. My parents are Vietnamese Americans and they were refugees after the fall of Saigon in 1975. It follows in the footsteps of my first book, which explores the suicide of my brother in 2014. He’s the youngest in our family, he killed himself when he was 24. So my work really grapples with the legacy of his death. It also kind of traces the roots to my parents’ traumatic upbringing in Vietnam and tracing the legacy of war, colonialism and how people don’t talk about mental health. Violence within the family and how the reverberations of various kinds of violences – emotional, physical, psychological – and the toll it takes on future generations.

DB: What was your process like writing this book and compiling this collection?

DKN: I’m never trying to write a book per se, I’m just working on separate poems, and my poems tend to be long sequences over years. Then after a certain point – a certain number of years – I kind of realize I’ve accumulated a lot around a certain topic, and then I just print everything out. I look to see, ‘Do these gather together?’ It’s kind of like making a playlist in a sort. With the novel you have a beginning and end and there’s a story. Sure, poems kind of tell fragments of a story. It’s like building a mosaic. How do you know which fragment to include and to exclude or what are the missing fragments?

I have one funny anecdotal tidbit about it, which was for about two years. I had all the pages, but I couldn’t get myself to sit down and order them. I found out that I was pregnant after being told I couldn’t get pregnant, and then I had the child and had parental leave, so I came back to LA about a year and a half ago because I thought I wanted to be closer to my family. I actually dropped off the baby at my parents’ house and drove to my childhood library and put together the book at my childhood library. It was as if I was carrying around these pages all this time and could never get myself to do it, and then only after I had given birth could I actually work on the book.

DB: What do you think makes this form of poetry important?

DKN: Growing up, pretty much all of my schooling from kindergarten through Ph.D., I only have had white teachers and professors, and the books that I read were also white, and they were great. But there’s so much missing in terms of not only the Asian American experience but also the Vietnamese American experience. I only came into reading that after my Ph.D. and meeting other Vietnamese American writers. After the death of my brother, I decided to write really bluntly about my family instead of codifying it into a version of a European folktale variant, like “Hansel and Gretel.” It’s very important to actually talk openly about the specifics of where one comes from and not to whitewash it.

DB: How has your writing evolved over the years? Were there any significant changes to your style or your approach?

DKN: The main change is that before, I think my work was very whitewashed, it didn’t have anything Asian in it, let alone Vietnamese. I definitely didn’t use any foreign words. Now, if I have a phrase that’s Vietnamese in my head that comes to mind rather than an English one, I’ll just put the Vietnamese one down, which is kind of wild because I never thought I could do that.

DB: What was some of the research you did for this collection?

DKN: Spending time with photographs, family photographs, looking at them, listening to them – that concept comes from scholar Tina Campt. She has a book called “Listening to Images” where she talks about paying attention to the vibrational hum that an image can emit, that we don’t hear – that we just feel in our bodies. Sound exists first and foremost as sound waves, so things that our bodies and structures and objects absorb, and we don’t always hear the frequency.

[Related: Poetry workshop on ‘Why I Write’ brings poets together to create and critique]

DB: What is the overall message you hope that readers will obtain after reading “Root Fractures”?

DKN: I think it’s that nothing exists as a one-off. It’s part of a much larger sequence and chain of events. That one earthquake is not just a random earthquake. It’s part of a larger fault line that exists across the continent in various ways. I do that by tracing what that fault line is for my family and family tree and the stuff that’s happened in our lives. I don’t know if that’s the message, but for me, that’s certainly a theme, a guiding principle in the questioning work that the poems do.

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