Two years before his suicide, Diana Khoi Nguyen’s brother cut his image from family photographs. It’s these photographs—each with a scissored void—that served as the starting point for the complex, visually-driven elegies in Nguyen’s debut book of poetry Ghost Of.
The voids of her brother’s cutouts riddle Nguyen’s texts. They have a specific shape, and they function as images—images of absence, of violence, of silence. In some poems, the cutout is an obdurate white space against which the poet flings herself in mourning, encircling the hole as if a loved one. In other poems, the shape of the cutout serves as a container into which the poet pours words. And in still others, the cutout appears in motion, multiplying, scattering words like ashes.
The brother’s cutouts not only have specific shapes that reappear in Ghost Of, but the marred photographs are also reproduced: the family squeezed together on the couch; a mother standing with her children on a doorstep; the family in Sunday best posing in the yard. To “cut out” is to cut out of something. That something out of which the poet’s brother has excised himself is explored even further when Nguyen considers the traumas experienced by her parents as refugees from Vietnam. In “The Exodus,” she imagines her father fleeing after the fall of Saigon:
As my grandfather and his sons were ushered through the droves,
remorse rose up in him,
tear gas bowling over and over and over
everyone became equals,
each one disappearing in the shadow of another
In this interview, conducted over Skype, Nguyen discusses her creative process, and how the visual work in Ghost Of has led her to experiment with new media and other ways of using found materials, including footage from family home videos, to examine intergenerational storytelling within the Vietnam diaspora.
For the poems in Ghost Of, you worked with family photographs from which your brother, a couple of years before his suicide, had cut out his own image. Did you start with text and then cut into it, or did you compose around the empty space created by your brother?
The image came first. I rendered the image transparent and put a text box over it. I wrote into the space, and then around the white space, around the part where my brother had cut himself out. I used the image as a constraint for the poem, to give the poem a shape.
I read Ghost Of long before I heard you read from it. I was so surprised, when I heard you read, that you broke right at the cut created by the shape of your brother’s absence, whether that cut occurred in the middle of a word or immediately after an initial consonant. Can you say more about how you are working with the line break?
In using the image and the absence of image—the white space also as an image, with the intentional white space that my brother created—I created the frame, or the walls around which the text would have to run up against.
When I was writing the poem, for each of the spaces—whether it was the poem shard, or the text as frame around the shard—I’d have to cut off the word wherever the white space was, and then start across. I would have to leap over that white space. It’s jarring to do that. You have the momentum of a sentence, or the line, or the thought, or the image, and then, because of this violence within the visual image, it cuts you off—and then you start again. For me, that enacts the process of grief. Loss, the sudden death of somebody, is a jarring stump within your life, but you must continue. Life moves on, and then there’s a sudden jolt of absence, and then continuation.
I had never done anything like that previously with line breaks, or even the line. When I did that, it felt right. That’s how I was feeling at the time, and in many ways doing that allowed me access to a lot of stuff that I hadn’t been able to access during the funeral, and previously in my grieving process. Personally, it was useful for my own understanding of grief, history, familial trauma, and just having to revisit memory and my own personal history.
My reading of the work is also inspired by hearing Susan Howe read. When she reads her own grief text in That This, which surrounds her husband’s death, I was also so shocked to hear her read the shards of language. It sounds like a kind of choking when she reads; it sounds like the actual sound of grief, the jarring, the rubbing, the tension of her own lines. She’s an inspiration in thinking about reading and visual-text work.
Susan Howe has a background in the visual arts. You do, too, don’t you? In your video Would That—A Hermeneutics of Grief, you are seen making collages.
The collage work happened while writing the book. I’ve always been interested in the arts, but I never pursued it formally. I am primarily trained as a poet, but something happened after my brother’s death: words just weren’t enough; a poem just wasn’t enough to embody that experience, and also that journey that I was going on in terms of investigating what happened when we were younger, and also what happened to my parents before they met each other and had children.
So, no formal training in the arts, but a lot of experimentation and play. A lot of my work right now is video. I’m in a Ph.D. program in creative writing at the University of Denver, and I have taken sound and multimedia courses in the emergent digital practices department. My dissertation includes plays, videos, and sound work.
In the video Would That, are the collages that we see you making stand-alone pieces, or were they only enacted for the video?
They are stand-alone pieces. That collage work opened me to other ways of using found materials. I am working in video in terms of the body, materiality, and paper. Part of it, too, is a radical exercise in empathy, thinking about what that means to cut yourself out, which is what my brother did.
I am thinking more broadly now, after the book, of the larger experiences that produced my parents. I’m interested in intergenerational storytelling in trauma within the Vietnam diaspora. My creative dissertation is, in part, an examination of the refugee experience forty-plus years later, after the end of the Vietnam War, with the hope of understanding assimilation, adaptation, and resilience within a very specific former refugee community within the United States.
Did your family speak Vietnamese at home? Did you grow up with the sounds of the language?
Yes, I was fluent in Vietnamese until about seven. Around that time, my parents only wanted me to speak English for schooling purposes. This past December, I was in Vietnam and I spent the month taking extensive language lessons. I am continuing that process over Skype each week, but it’s not the same as being immersed in the country. I want to eventually do translation work. I have a long way to go, but I may as well start somewhere.
Have you experimented with multilingual poems?
In December, when I was in Vietnam, I was writing poems and, because I was only speaking Vietnamese, it was quite natural that the language emerged in my writing. A lot of the work I’m doing right now uses footage from home videos, and when I watch myself as a young child speaking only Vietnamese, it is so foreign. I don’t remember what was captured. I am watching myself as an object, and I am wrestling now with this lost language.
Several poems in Ghost Of are titled “Gyotaku.” You’re referencing this traditional method of printing from fish because you’re “printing” from the absent body of your brother?
Essentially, there’s the absent body which I fill in with text, so the absence is rendered into a visual text. Gyotaku is a practice using dead fish to create an impression of what had been captured, an old practice before photography existed. It still goes on today. I liked the idea that gyotaku creates just the impression. You can’t capture the whole of the fish, just wherever the ink or the paint was able to touch the body, the scales, and you get an idea of the thing. Thinking about the act of writing and printing—bookmaking is also inked fabric—it makes sense to also begin to claim, to manipulate, to capture this image-text in a visual way.
Bees come up a lot in the book!
The bees are very specifically linked. Since my brother passed, every now and then my mother will call, trying to reconcile what my brother has done. One time she called me and said, “Your brother died because we didn’t believe him.”
I asked, “What do you mean?”
She said, “He was an insomniac for a really long time. One time he told us that he could hear humming in the walls of the house, and that’s why he couldn’t sleep; it kept him up all night. Your father and I looked, and we couldn’t find anything, so we just told him to go to sleep.”
And then she said, referring to the present, “Your father and I were just cleaning the attic, and we found thousands of dead bees.” She said, “We didn’t look hard enough. We didn’t believe him. Maybe he thought he was crazy. He couldn’t sleep so maybe he had to kill himself so he could sleep.” She said this matter-of-factly, but she was just trying to fathom why somebody would kill himself. She feels such guilt.
What I didn’t tell my mother, but I’ve been able to tell strangers (because it’s easier to tell strangers), is that, during one of the years when my brother was still alive, I came home and, in the bathroom I shared with him, I found a dead bee on the windowsill. I threw it away. (This was around the time we’re just learning the colonies were dying off.) Next morning, I went back to the bathroom and there was a dead bee on the windowsill. I looked in the trash, and the first bee was still there. There was no tear in the window, no crack. I didn’t know where these dead bees were trickling out from. Totally weird. I didn’t tell anybody, though. What if I had told somebody?
The bees encapsulate the loneliness, the solitude, the silence in how we fail to communicate in our family. The bees represent all of that, and the guilt. They also represent the failure of our larger ecosystem, and how we as humans are doing so much damage that the colonies are dying off, which will have reverberating effects on other species, and ultimately on our food chain.
The bees appear in the book because of what my mother said, because of what my brother heard, because of what I saw, and because of what’s actually going on with the bees. The bees are an accidental but real metaphor for the larger world.
At some readings—I can’t emotionally do this all the time—I ask the audience to stand, and I tell them the story about my mother and my brother and the bees. I then ask that—as an act against being alone, as an act against suicide—that we all hum for a moment, together, in that space. Everyone can stop humming whenever they want, and I ask for the audience members to trace how sound moves in the room. I think a lot about sound now. And I record each of those sessions. I have a whole catalogue of these humming archives. Each hum session is quite different.
Several poems are called “Triptych.” Were you at all making references to art historical traditions?
No, not specifically, but within the Vietnamese Buddhist tradition, we always have an altar to the dead. There’s a picture of the person and, after every meal of the day, you offer a meal to the dead. The concept of the altar and the images of the dead, and the feeding of the dead, is ingrained into my cultural/ethnic experience.
“Triptych” is not an art historical reference, but the book is divided into three parts, and I think a lot about three in reference to the three siblings, and the rupture out of that unity.
Can you talk some about the new work you are doing, about how you are exploring new media to make poems in other ways?
Most of my video work surrounds radical empathy. For example, I found footage of my parents’ wedding and their honeymoon. Watching these old videos, I see my mother as a young woman, as the same age as I am now, and it’s surreal. I did a project where I took my parents’ honeymoon video, and I sourced all the outfits my mother wore. I then went to Hawaii and I recreated the honeymoon scenes, but with me. It’s a retracing of her steps, in part maybe to further empathize with her, to understand her, because in many ways I don’t understand her.
My mother has been the single node of violence in the family. Things have been quite fraught over the years. After my brother’s death, we’ve come back together. My mother recognizes that she’s made a lot of mistakes, but she isn’t able to fully acknowledge a lot of the things she’s done. What’s been troubling for me is that I find aspects of herself in me.
In that video, it was my mother’s first time away from home. She went from living with her parents to being married to my father. In that video, she doesn’t yet have children; she hasn’t yet committed a lot of terrible acts to her husband and to her children, and her son hasn’t yet died. I retraced those steps that I had access to, and I filmed that process. It’s part of the process of tracing her journey as a refugee in the years afterwards.
When I was in Vietnam, my father took me to the house where he grew up. In another video piece, I’ve combined footage of my father talking about the house he grew up in, which looks very different now, and footage of my father and mother building the house in America that I grew up in (and the house in which my brother killed himself). My father had to flee his home just as the Vietnam War was ending, during the fall of Saigon, so the video piece is a way of thinking about home, and sites of trauma, memory, and history.
It’s interesting how your poems in Ghost Of have led you into other art forms.
Previously I wouldn’t have dared attempt to venture into other media, but I am not trying to be an artist and get showings of my work. I’m just training [in new media] because it makes sense for the kind of topics and themes I’m examining, and it gives me joy, and it feels right. I’m thinking a lot about silence. In poetry, it’s hard to capture silence or tension in the same way that I can do in a play through action, or in video with history.
I’m working a lot with home videos. That family footage is where my brother exists; that’s where he’s alive now. We don’t have him in photographs so much anymore. I can revisit the videos to see him again, or to see one moment in his life. It’s a nice way to be with him.