The Georgia Review’s associate poetry editor Soham Patel spoke with Thao Nguyen over Zoom in April 2022. Here is an edited transcript from their exchange and a video of Nguyen reading a portion of her essay “Song and Dance,” which she wrote for the special Spring 2022 SoPoCo issue. “SoPoCo” stands for “Southern Post-Colonial” and the issue celebrates voices from and about diasporic communities in the U.S. Southeast. Special thanks to UGA Experiential Learning Program Interns Henry Tollett and Margaret Carlton for their transcribing labors.
Soham Patel (SP): You write about a community you grew up with in Virginia, and the essay tenderly renders a group of folx that care for and have a lot of fun with each other. I was wondering if we could start with you saying a bit more about what you remember growing up as part of that diasporic community?
Thao Nguyen (TN): I remember lot of joy, more joy than seemed possible given our collective conditions. But I also remember duress and distress, and they informed each other. I think that kind of free-wheeling joy was in response to all that duress. I remember food in remarkable, copious, delicious amounts, just bounty, you know, and that’s one of the things I appreciate so much about that community and my family: just that sense of providing. Somehow, they always could secure the bounty, and you never had to worry about that element. And I loved the melee of everyone running around. There were a lot of kids. I have just one older brother, but everybody had kids that matched different ages. And there was a ton of drinking. The men would gamble, the women would be cooking but also still participated. There’d be a few women who would drink and gamble and they had my heart. I was always trying to be one of them.
SP: I think you are one of them, Thao.
TN: (Laughter) I’m trying to cut back on the smoking, because it’s not good for the singing.
SP: Yeah, it’s bad for your vocal cords. Thank you for that. I’m thinking about the ways the South is represented in this essay. It’s very much a construction of a sense of a past self for you. But also you come back; for example, you recently just toured through with your band, you were here in Georgia. How do you see the South as a presence in your contemporary life and sense of selfhood?
TN: My first reaction to that question errs on the side of cordoning myself off and separating myself out because of elements of alienation I had growing up, but with a deeper assessment I can say that the South has a huge presence in my artistic life. My musical influences are rooted in Southern music. As I started to play guitar as kid, I was listening to country and blues and trying to figure out those picking patterns. As I got older, I started listening to Appalachian and old-time music, and those influences combined with some of the hip-hop coming out of Georgia, out of Atlanta. I am a huge Outkast fan, and I think their production and writing and cadence are a really big influence in my music in varying degrees of subtlety. And after picking up the guitar, the first instruments I picked up were the banjo and the mandolin. The first concert that I went to, my mom brought me to a county fair, and it was a square-dance, so bluegrass was the first thing I saw played live. I want to make sure that I honor and acknowledge the South and allow myself a little bit of pride and sense of home there, even though a lot of my upbringing felt separate, felt insulated from it.
I do miss the warmth and that easy congenial way that people have when interacting. People in the South are so . . . (laughter) . . . there is a sweetness and there is a real sincere presence. There’s a more pronounced suspension of time where you can interact with one another. And I love it and I miss it. But growing up there was always a tinged hesitation. When I say that, I mean either if I was interacting with someone who is white or Black, that’s who I interacted with growing up in Virginia outside of the Vietnamese community. A part of me would be thinking, is this even for me? And because of that there’s a sadness in my memory as well, this little hiccup, and again it’s that feeling of a separation, of being like an outsider, that informed even my reception of the sweet hospitality and generosity.
I can’t say enough about how much the South informs my musical life, which informs my entire sense of self. My endeavors for my contemporary life are to receive and embrace the South as it actually is now, as opposed to my dominant ideas of it that are rooted in fear and discomfort and unease. Unfortunately, my first reaction to your question, as I mentioned before, has those elements casting a really long shadow, which is not necessarily the way things are, and I’m not even saying it’s necessarily the way things were. But there was enough of it to inform my feelings of protectiveness over my family, especially my mother. So the smaller interactions that stand out in my memory to some extent have ballooned to more of an unfair representation. I haven’t thought about the South a lot since I left, because growing up in Northern Virginia, everybody is quite clear that that is not the South. It’s funny to write about diaspora and the ideas of not really belonging, because even in that very geographical sense of where I grew up, I was in the suburbs of Northern Virginia. It’s not really D.C., because if you say you’re from D.C. then people will be upset and rightly so, because you’re not. But you’re also not necessarily from Virginia. I felt more of an affinity for the South when I went to school at William and Mary, in Williamsburg. There I felt more like I could claim some kind of citizenship to the South. But given the actual coordinates of where I grew up, in addition to those feelings of alienation that I felt, and these moments that I witnessed of disrespect or the dehumanizing of my family, it made me cordon myself off. I always had a sense of wishing that I belonged as well. You know when I drink, I have a Southern accent. I say y’all. There are things about the way I grew up that are Southern, but I never felt a part of the South, and I don’t know how much of that has just been an internalized barrier.
SP: Yeah, it’s interesting thinking about this community you were just talking about that are dancing together and gambling together, and there’s a way in which—I don’t know what I’m trying to say—but there’s that joy and duress and that protective rejection along with the embracing. I guess I’m thinking about how a binary can be productive. I mean there’s the South, and there’s this diasporic community within it, and the only way to be fully present is to be in a constant push and pull.
TN: Totally—there’s this dissonance that you just become very comfortable with, with wanting to be a part of this greater culture, presence, or institution that makes you feel very separate. The dancing scenes you mentioned are so vivid to me because they were the only moments where I could see my parents and their friends be so free and fully alive, and not in service, and not in deference to anyone. We would be either in somebody’s basement that they cleared out or would rent out a place like I write about, the Harvest Moon Restaurant and Lounge. Once you turn down the lights and you throw a disco ball up, and you have this music that’s so—it was all just so beautiful and rhythmic. And it was so freeing to not worry. Many people have written about and talk about it: the job of a kid who is first or second generation and has to be the conduit, the liaison between the family and the rest of the world. There’s a lot of responsibility there and from very young you can’t be as carefree, because you’re always worried about your parents in a way that a kid shouldn’t be, in a way that the parents don’t want that kid to be, but the scenario is such that the kid is the point person. These moments in the dance halls were the only times I’ve ever experienced that carefree element. I was very young but still knew we were in an enclosed space, a bubble where my parents and their friends were fully in control and didn’t have to interact with the outside world. The only other time I remember seeing something like this is when I was in Vietnam with my mom, and I could see her in her home country.
SP: You write about that so wonderfully, and the essay parallels a similar kind of dissonance you speak of now that becomes, with the distance and time, something that folds over on itself with the way you’re remembering your mom’s experience going back there with you. Your essay is narrative and reflective and full of inquiries into memory. You call memory a safe harbor at one point. The whole thing begins with you re-creating a recent phone conversation you had with your mom in which you’re both trying to construct the memory of your family and family friends one evening in the 1990s. I wanted to move towards the idea of memory and how you process it through writing. In the essay your brother is actively trying to forget things, and there’s also this moment where you are wanting to know in the questionnaire you write for your father if he is remembering the same things you are. How do you reconcile the different qualities of memory that you and the people around you possess?
TN: Yes. I think as I get older, I can audit it differently and have a lot more understanding and compassion for what each person needs memory to be. I realize, and I have reached this point very recently, and you know I’ve paid my dues and all tolls along the way, but I realize I have to release myself and everyone else from the idea that memory should be accurate. Growing up, interaction and engagement with my parents’ memories was so fascinating, because they couldn’t talk about the most painful parts of the war. They didn’t necessarily talk about who they left behind or who they lost or what they lost. But also, with my mom we felt every present loss so acutely, and she wouldn’t talk about what she lost in the past, and that’s a matter of survival. Looking back, I just know that things were so hard and that subsistence was so hard that there had to be a really precise accounting of everything. There would be an incredibly precise and brutal accounting of any loss that you were responsible for. I think it takes a lot to get out from under that level of scarcity and what it does, how it narrows your vision. I see how it can make a low ceiling on what you think is possible in life. I don’t blame anyone for it. I think that’s part of how you just have to absorb all of those things happening when you lose everything. I don’t know how you can’t, and I thankfully I haven’t had to know, and I don’t believe I will have to know, because of the life she was able to give me. And she’s different now I think she has relaxed a lot, knowing finally that her youngest kid is okay. But I don’t know if I’ve properly answered your question about memory. The problem is there were never any good memories growing up. Either you didn’t talk about it, or because it’s hard to relive anything good, anything that really was relived became bad, an admonishment, or a cautionary tale. I think it brought a lot of grief for my parents to remember sweeter moments, because those were so gone and destroyed in a definitive manner. And again, it’s something that I don’t think I’ll ever need to know, hopefully, thankfully. Now when I consider who remembers what or who’s willing to remember what, I think a lot of people in my life—and this took me a minute to understand, but now I’m grateful for it as well—I think they’re just moving forward thinking, what is the use of going back there? It’s more useful to me to go back, clearly, but they don’t, because they just don’t need it. I think the most we can do for each other is they accept that I need to revisit, and I accept that they don’t.
SP: That’s beautiful, thank you. What you’re saying is making me remember the end of your movie, NOBODY DIES. It ends with your mom talking about poetry. And in terms of what to do with that sorrow, you talk about, you know, now I see she is someone who moves to art. She moves to song. Poetry is so much like song. And I love how she just doesn’t answer the interviewer’s last question!
TN: She’s so coy (laughter). Yeah, she’s such a firecracker. Her love for poetry and for Vietnamese poetry is really strong, and it’s not necessarily something she’s shared with me. She’s always saying, you know, you gotta learn how to read Vietnamese better, because you have to read this poetry and these classics, there’s so many treasures within our culture that you don’t have access to. And I’m always like, well, I wish you had put me in Vietnamese school when I was kid, ’cause it’s a little bit harder, you know, as we go on. It’s this ongoing life goal of mine, too, to become a better reader and more literate in Vietnamese.
SP: Yeah, it’s wild up against that same thing, the loss of mother tongue, that we reject to fit in as we try to protect our parents. But now as you work towards this new life goal, Thao Nguyen: singer, songwriter, producer, touring musician, artist, essayist, and you can soon add translator to your docket! (Laughter)
TN: Translator?! Pitiful translator! (Laughter)
SP: Perhaps so, maybe not. I did want to ask you about genre, about songwriting towards essay. Like I said, they are akin, songwriting and poetry, there’s sound and there’s rhythm, obviously, but there’s also this, this kind of lyric license that persona gives, for example, a distance afforded like when you cover a song that someone else has written, right? It’s a completely different “I” that you take on very fully in such an instance. As a songwriter leaning into the essay form, what are some surprising formal intersections that you notice when writing in these two genres?
TN: I’ll start with something that wasn’t surprising, which is my abject fear to delve into this form, because there is so much to cover. In writing a song, you can take so many liberties. You don’t even have to use words, and I’ve definitely sought shelter in that. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a writer before I got into music, and my entire life I’ve wanted to be writer, but have never quite done it. Mostly because it is really intimidating for there to be just one very clear way to communicate in this medium, and if you can’t do it that way, you’re not doing it. It’s easy for me to just stop and go work on a song instead, so that was not surprising. It was as scary as I thought it would be, and many times throughout I was like, this is why I don’t do it, but also, this is why I’ve always wanted to do this and try to start trying. There are consistent parallels in both genres, too. I think there’s a lot to be said for cadence and consonance, because no matter what form you take, you want it to sound good. You want to have rhythm that is not predictable, but resolves in a satisfying way. The same things I like in a good song, I like in good writing. There are a few things that I think fall in that category for me. Like, you don’t know exactly where it’s going, but you’re with it the whole time, and you’re willing to let it carry you. You trust it to carry you. The ideas that are communicated are not necessarily things you’ve never thought before, but they’re presented in such a way where the angle is a little bit different. Or the illumination that happens when you encounter the work and think, God, this thought is kindred to a thought I’ve had, or you can recognize yourself in it, but you also see yourself differently, or I hope you see your thoughts differently. Knowing when to stop an essay is hard. I think what I appreciate in songwriting and poetry is that the absence of language is just as important, and the danger of prose is there’s less structure. You can just keep going, but just because you can doesn’t mean you should. You need to have a certain discipline to be able to stop in this form. I haven’t read my essay since I last sent it to y’all, because I was like, I probably said too much! It’s so dangerous.
SP: I appreciate so many things about this essay; it has this sort of haptic quality like that of the zuihitsu form, where you follow the brush and you’re letting yourself make leaps, but the leaps move towards seeing and intellect and return this same kind of question you’ve been asking over your whole career. It’s such a gift to get to see it in this form now. And when you stopped the essay for our pages, I think the whole team of editors here would agree that you stuck the landing, Thao! Thanks for taking the time to talk with me today to help celebrate our new SoPoCo issue. I was wondering if you would lead us out by reading an excerpt from your essay “Song and Dance” as it appears in this Spring 2022 issue of The Georgia Review?
TN: Thank you for saying that. I would love to.