Haunted by Survival
Hieu Minh Nguyen’s work is defiant in its tenderness. Ever since his debut, This Way to the Sugar (2014), his poetry has mined memory to reveal the hard truths of trauma, childhood abuse, desire, and the body. As a queer Vietnamese American raised by a single mother, Nguyen writes from a place of occasional estrangement and dislocation but tempers this with a wry sense of humor. All of his literary moods are on display in his new collection, Not Here. Nguyen’s latest poems are about staying versus leaving, whether the places under consideration are memory, the Asian American diaspora, or the Midwest, where Nguyen lives and performs. He is a Kundiman fellow, the recipient of a 2017 NEA fellowship for poetry, and a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award. I spoke to Nguyen about the strengths in vulnerability, navigating whiteness, and life in Minneapolis. This interview was edited for length and clarity.
I've seen you read and spent time with you at Kundiman, and one of the reasons I enjoy watching you is because, in your work, there's confidence and vulnerability at the same time. In your new book, Not Here, those two coexist. How do you balance them in your work?
Hearing that I come off as confident sometimes is new to me. For a while, confidence was something that was very performative for me. I don't know how to describe what "being confident" means. It can be allowing myself to say what I need to say.
Your vulnerability isn't presented in a fragile way. It’s more like a heavy marble that you place in our hands so we can feel it and know it's not a soft, mushy wound. How do you construct vulnerability that also feels powerful?
I was always afraid to be vulnerable. Like physically, in my body, there's always a fear: of being afraid in the world, of being looked at, of being noticed. Being afraid of being something that's inconvenient to look at or navigate around.
For a long time, I felt like an ugly presence in the world. And my feelings were something I treated as an ugly presence. Being confidently vulnerable, like you said, is still kind of performative for me. I'm still trying to not shrink myself when I enter the world, and my poems are little worlds where I can be big or small or whatever size I want to be.
There are many moments in the collection when you write about arrival, departure, or staying in the same place, either emotionally or metaphorically. Can you talk more about staying and leaving, especially in a collection titled Not Here?
Staying and leaving are both choices. When writing the collection, I thought a lot about the outcome of staying or leaving or the world I would miss out on if I chose to stay or the world that could happen if I left. There's the quantum theory of it, of being haunted by the choice of both.
My whole life has been built around the choice of whether to stay or leave, and that traces back to my mother and my grandmother and my father even. I didn’t want to talk only about the outcome of that choice. I'm saying choice, but sometimes it's not actually a choice, because the choice is survival or not survival.
In the collection, there are moments when you explore this, such as the idea of leaving your mother or your mother’s leaving you. Or there's the poem “Cockfight,” set in Vietnam, in which you write about meeting your half brother. I'm really interested in how you think about where you stay and where you leave, specifically as an Asian person in the Midwest.
I feel like you just want to talk shit about the Midwest. [laughs]
But you have this poem called “Monica West Is Moving to Omaha, Nebraska” in which you explicitly say, "She's coming here. Why the fuck is she coming here? Wait, am I here? Why do I stay here?"
I was wondering why she was moving.
I got the feeling that you’re wondering why you're there too. Maybe I’m biased against the Midwest. I see it in your work, but I wonder if I see it because I'm rude?
I love the Midwest. It would be a lie that I haven't had the urge to leave. Everybody has the urge to leave where they came from. I'm realizing now that I love Minneapolis. I've been lucky to travel a lot and get to see a lot of different spaces. When I leave Minnesota, I love it more here. The urge to leave, or the urge to try to escape being lonely, is not something you can do. It's a feeling that will follow you. The times when I've wanted to leave the Midwest the most were when I felt alone, but that feeling will happen anywhere I live.
Especially seeing the fuckery of whiteness and knowing that it's always been like this. This time isn't anything new, but I'm realizing now how important it is for me to know how to navigate a space physically and socially. I know how to navigate Minneapolis. I have an understanding of the people in this city.
What do you mean by the “fuckery of whiteness” in this context?
A lot of folks are seeing America for the way it is for the first time. I'm not going to claim that I've always seen it this way. I haven't. One of my favorite lectures I ever heard was from Dean Bakopoulos. He talked about the difference between being shocked and being baffled. Shock comes with paralysis because of the unknown; being baffled comes with clarity, where you see things the way they are. There are a lot of people who are baffled by seeing the world, and there are people who have seen the world for the way it is for a long time.
If you mean that regardless of where you live in this country, the fuckery of whiteness is inescapable, then the notion that one place is better is false.
Yeah. In every new space I enter, I always have to gauge the white people. [laughs]
In Minneapolis, and the Midwest, do you know what kind of white people they are?
It's not that I know. Because I don't think I could ever know. But being in spaces that I know how to navigate, I can leave. I know how to leave.
I think a lot about my experiences with Uber or Lyft drivers and how sometimes you get picked up by a white person and you kind of have to gauge who they are. If they allow you to sit in silence, then cool. But if they're talking to you and somehow politics comes up, you have to figure out how to navigate that situation, and you're just trying to go to the airport or the museum or the laundromat.
It’s interesting that you used the word haunted earlier. How does the feeling of being haunted by survival influence your work?
It's not just my work. I'm the product of that kind of haunting, with my mother leaving Vietnam and the "choice" of being in America versus being in Vietnam. She didn't ever want to be in America. My mother tells me, she brags, that in her village everybody called her beautiful. All the boys fawned after her. Then she comes to America, and she's considered ugly or undesirable. When my mother left Vietnam, she also left the love of her life behind. And so she "chose" to come to America and "chose" to marry my father. Which I don't think for her felt like a choice. I think it was her want to feel desired. I was a product of that, and my father left.
My mother considers America a very lonely place. I don't think that me being queer, and our relationship, has helped her feel less lonely. I'm saying this because she's the person I understand most in the world.
That makes me think that as children of the diaspora, we inherit a lineage of loneliness.
As children of refugees, in particular, we inherit things that aren’t tangible. Your inheriting your mother’s loneliness has given you your art, although I don't want to say that you have to suffer to make art.
I'm going to try to explain this in a story. In one of my many childhood apartments, my mother kept a stack of books next to the telephone. I remember looking through it, and I found this book. My mother has attempted to learn English multiple times in her life but has never been able to retain the language. But there was this book of poems written by everyone in her English learning class. I was probably around 17 and flipping through this book to find her poem.
Her poem wasn't really a poem. Maybe it was a poem. Yes, it was most definitely a poem. I didn't interpret it as a poem when I first read it. "My name is Thuan Nguyen. My son's name is Hieu Minh Nguyen. I am married to..." And she wrote this name that I did not recognize. And she's just talking about her life, and I realized that the man she listed as my father was not actually my father. It was terrifying to uncover when I was 17 and wondering, "Had I been lied to my whole life?" But then I realized that this was the name of the love of her life back in Vietnam. In this way, she was building a world in this poem where she stayed and married this man, and they had me.
When did you realize that this was a poem?
It didn't come until much later. By the time I found that poem, my father had left us for 14 years, and he wasn't around. I just thought for a while that it wasn't a poem but a lie. It was her trying to present herself to her classmates as this person that she wrote down. I didn't consider it a poem until now. Until talking to you.
What changed? Why in this moment is it a poem?
I totally understand wanting to make yourself something you're not. When I first started writing poems at 15, I was just writing love poems to girls. I was closeted. I was a really funny poet, or at least that's what I wanted to be. If I could make an audience laugh, that was my way of connecting to an audience, through laughter. Often, I made fun of myself for being fat or being Asian in order to protect myself.
In the new collection, there's a lot about the violence of childhood and the trauma that continues to swallow us long after we've grown up. When I read your work, it feels healing and defiant. Do you feel this while writing it?
Trauma, especially my childhood trauma, where a teacher molested me … even now I'm afraid of saying it out loud because I'm afraid of getting things wrong or saying it wrong. I didn't know how to talk about it for a long time. I didn't know how to prove it. Or I was afraid that someone would tell me that I'm a liar. So I just didn't talk about it for a while, because I convinced myself that I'm also a liar, that maybe what happened to me didn't actually happen to me.
But the feeling doesn't go away. I can convince myself that it didn't happen, but there's always something there that says it did. What do you do with that? I don't know what to do with that.
Maybe it comes off as healing when I write it. I think it's also a sense of control that I get to have. I can control what I say and how I say it. I get to make something from something that I'm really not sure how to talk about. I don't have to explain myself if I don't want to. With poetry, there's this thing you learn: never assume that the speaker of the poem is the author. I've never written like that. I've always considered poems to be personal, about the author. I've never thought of separating the speaker from the author, which I'm learning about now.
I'm afraid of someone approaching me and asking me to prove something I cannot prove, other than with my body. I can just use the separation of author and speaker as a way out, but that's also not true.
The proof is in your work. Especially in this cultural moment and this climate, we're recognizing that this notion of "proof" has been inflexible for a long time. But we are the proof. You, not even your poetry, but you are the proof—and it's enough.
But I also understand the fear. I think those two things can, and do, happen at the same time.
People always want to know more than you give them. And I'm learning how to say no and learning how to say, "What I'm giving you is enough. You're not entitled to know."
Amy Lam is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon, and Oxford, Mississippi. She is the editorial lead at On She Goes, contributing editor and cohost of Backtalk podcast at Bitch Media, a Kundiman fellow, and the John and Renee Grisham fellow at the University of Mississippi, where she is an MFA candidate.