Recently diaCRITIC Julie Thi Underhill met up with Natalia Duong, a performance artist, choreographer, and scholar who’s recently returned to the Bay Area after four years away. While in New York, Natalia received her MA in Performance Studies from New York University. She also founded a movement-based research collective, Project Agent Orange, which is how Julie first met Natalia. In 2013, Natalia adapted Julie’s memoir poem Banquet of Consequences to stage, for a performance at the Poetic License Festival in New York City. More recently, in May 2014, Natalia invited Julie to moderate a discussion in San Francisco, after Natalia’s appearance in Trở Về Nước, a collaborative performance with Patricia Nguyen that investigated the notion of home and the politics of memory and migration for women in the Vietnamese American diaspora.
Due to their creative and conceptual engagements, Julie’s recent in-depth conversation with Natalia continues a three-year dialogue about artistic practices, embodied memories, and the lingering proliferations of colonialism and warfare.
Natalia’s recent solo performance REFUSE occurred on October 4, 2014, in San Francisco, at the APAture Festival. The Performing Arts Showcase featured Natalia, who performed at The Garage (715 Bryant, SF).
Part One of the interview was recently published on diaCRITICS. As for chronology, part two continues (below) as Julie and Natalia discussed Trở Về Nước, previous to the performance of REFUSE. After the performance, Julie retroactively added to this interview some of her photos of Natalia’s performance of REFUSE at the APAture Festival.
Natalia’s bold and brilliant performances are highly recommended by diaCRITICS. Most strikingly, she is quite unafraid to negotiate even the most fraught of inheritances, those butchered on newspaper spread across the kitchen floor, or sapped of flavor by nostalgia.
[Julie] This idea of translation for the 1.5 and 2nd generation is very important because we don’t all have access to the mother language, or languages, anymore, and yet we’re trying to understand where we came from and who our family is, and there are cultural differences in having mostly growing up here, having not gone through the war directly, there are language gaps. I see for you performance is functioning in a way that, for me, photography did. Because I could skip the language and go to something that was understandable without language. To bring images of family from one continent to the other was an act of translation for me. And doing documentary work on my family in Việt Nam is an act of translation that transcends our difference in language. What I write will not necessarily be what my mom will remember. But the pictures will be remembered, right? So I really resonate with this idea of—We don’t have full access to each others’ repertoire, either of language or of memory, so how do we talk to each other as people with a shared history and with a shared blood?
[Natalia]. Yeah. And it’s interesting that you bring up photography, because my other grandfather, that is his main mode of expression. And he’s somebody who has lived specifically through a very violent relationship to Việt Nam after the war. And now he takes really really beautiful photographs of things that are classically thought of as beautiful, so landscapes and flowers. It’s also how we connect often, because language isn’t always available to us. But he has this one piece that has inspired a section of my work, called Khao Khát, which means—He said, “Do you know what that means?” And I said, “No, tell me.” And he said it meant thirst, but it also for Vietnamese people meant nostalgia. I have the exact email. He wrote me this really lovely email about this thirst, this craving, this hunger, this very embodied visceral response for access to the past. That really resonated with me, and also informs a lot of the work I am doing now in relation to using food and using ingestible items in order to evoke something else. And I think it’s interesting because I have a goal to actually study language more closely, because Vietnamese as a language stems from an ideographic language, and so in that way is so visual and material and palpable in the way that it describes things.
Do you see a connection with the idea of thirst—first, the double entendre, which is really rich in Vietnamese language, the puns and the double entendre. A tonal language lends itself to poetry, really, because of that. So the double entendre of thirst and nostalgia, is that somehow connected to nước being country and water?
Yeah. At the beginning of Trở Về Nước, we read an excerpt from Watermark: Vietnamese American Poetry and Prose that was delineating the multiple ways that water could be used, right. And so yêu nước, to love water, means to love your country, and to love your people and your community. And so there’s I think a lot of resonance in the ways in which the manipulation of water comes to stand for much larger geopolitical but also relational responses between the individual and the country. Absolutely.
Can you tell me a little bit about the work you have coming up?
So nostalgia is actually a great transition. So the work I have coming up is called [the noun] REFUSE or [the verb] REFUSE, depending on how you want to you read it. It’s a solo show, and it’s a set of vignettes in which I use different food sources to investigate different bodily responses that have resonance for me within my father’s experience of coming to the United States. And one of the things I look at is peaches, actually, because there is a writer, C. Nadia Seremetakis, who is actually Greek. And she talks about the difference between nostalgia in the Greek language, and nostalgia as it’s come to be used in English now. So if in English, nostalgia now is this kind of trivialized sentimentality, perhaps, in Greek nóstos means travel or journey, and álghos means pain. And so nostalgia is a lot about the pain and the yearning to journey home. And she theorizes it—she draws the etymological background of it through this notion of the peach. Because people who ventured from one part of Greece to another part of Greece didn’t have access to the same peaches that were grown in their homeland. And a peach that was in the new homeland was referred to as anóstos, which means without taste. And so how is it that these peaches, as this thing that was ingested, became a way of understanding what was not quite right about this new place, and this longing for, quite literally, the taste of home. And for me, after having moved to New York for the past four years and missing my mom’s phở, the taste of home is a way in which I understand nostalgia and looking back. And so, in this piece I look at peaches, I look at chickens, and I look at onions, as a way of figuring out how my sensory inputs might inform some of the ways in which I relate to issues of immigration, issues of hysteria and the notion of insanity and madness, as well as this nostalgic longing for something that is no longer there, which is something that is very personal to me, but also something that lot of the Vietnamese American community in the United States has talked about—or maybe not talked about, seems to drive a lot of the actions that the Vietnamese American community participates in.
Along those lines, what do you see of the relationship between being a refugee and being an exile?
What do you mean?
Well, refugees tend to leave because they feel like they’re forced to leave by the conditions of their homeland—instability, war, genocide, that sort of thing—they’re not economic migrants, the way that some immigrants immigrate for economic reasons only. Whereas those sent into exile are sent away, rather than take refuge somewhere else. It seems like some refugees feel like they are in exile of a home, that they can never return to, on any level. Even if they went back, it’s not the home they had. And technically South Việt Nam no longer exists as a country, the way that it did before 1975.
So the question was, how do I see refugees in relation to those—?
Or, the connection between being a refugee and being in exile from your home, right, and maybe this doesn’t go anywhere, but—
Some of my family immigrated for school, others came as refugees, so the question of being able to return is mixed. I think the notion of return, in general, is complicated. It’s something that, personally, it’s something I’ve always been invested in. I’ve always been a very nostalgic person. I’m always a person who wants to return to the past, even in my own existence, for whatever reason—either to do something differently or to do something again. But the inability to return is something very different, in my experience. Part of it is temporal as opposed to geographic. But I think it is something I am still trying to negotiate. One of the projects that I’m potentially working on in the spring, is to look at the Euridice and Orpheus myth, but through the lens of an immigrant experience. And so, quite literally, looking at what happens when you turn around, and the implications of, the ramifications of turning around, right. What is the narrative that keeps us always looking forward and pushing forward to new horizons. And what might we lose, by turning around. So that’s something that’s on the horizon, I think.
I like this idea of food being connected again to home. I’ve been thinking of it since you mentioned the peach, how there’s no taste. It reminds me of one of the stories in The Way to Rainy Mountain by N. Scott Momaday, who is Kiowa. And there’s an oral history that the Kiowa people went south for a while. And they got to a place where there were monkeys, and there were all these fantastic things they’d never seen before. But they missed the taste of buffalo meat, and they had to go back. They had so much longing for their own food, that they returned home. And the loss of home for the Kiowa was contingent upon the loss of the buffalo, as well. Because of how the US basically killed off their ability to survive on their own, as hunters. And the US also made it illegal to practice the Sun Dance using even the symbol of the buffalo, so that the Kiowas could no longer be able to give honor to a sacred symbol that long sustained them. Momaday describes it as deicide, the death of a god, to no longer be able to practice the Sun Dance with even the symbol of the buffalo. But the connection between what’s sacred, and what we ingest to keep us alive, is really interesting to me. Because we would all be dead without water, without food, the things you’re talking about as symbols—we would be dead without them. They constitute us, and what is life for us. And so even with the nostalgia of home. I had a really quite challenging upbringing. And one of the things I say—I’m not even being tongue-in-cheek—I’m being literal, is that there are many things my mom could not provide for me as a child, but I got fed so incredibly well. That when I went to foster care, I found that the canned food I was given seemed inedible to me.
Because I had been raised on fresh vegetables. I’d been raised on these banquets of foods every night. If our mother couldn’t give us her emotional care, she could at least feed us, right? And the connection between food and love, you know, and all of that. There’s a lot of rich terrain here, that you’re exploring, not only the last piece, but the piece you have coming up.
Yeah. It’s a new point of inquiry for me, but I also collaborated with a person who was located at the time in New York, but is back in Singapore, Shawn Ming Ren Chua. He’s also similarly interested in food studies, and food as a place of looking not only at performance, but politics. The way that I came to food was kind of this roundabout way, where I was creating this movement for Project Agent Orange, and a close friend at the time, said, “But Natalia, you’re not even using Vietnamese dance.” I’m paraphrasing. It wasn’t that pointed. He basically was questioning my gestural vocabulary, having been trained within a western canon, specifically [laughing] within French ballet, right, and looking at what it means to be telling this story through this embodiment that was so problematized. That’s what I took away from it. What I started looking at, then, was, OK, what is the repertoire that I’ve inherited? And what does a “Vietnamese dance” look like? And what is an embodied repeated practice that I had learned from my mom or my family? And I created a piece called Score for a Vietnamese Dance, and basically I cut an onion—a white onion—the way that my mother had taught me to cut an onion for phở, which was so excruciatingly thin that you could barely see it, but so that it barely cooks when you throw the boiling broth on it. And it was a practice I had often been reprimanded for. [Laughs]. A practice I’d painfully undertaken over time. I mean, I’m exaggerating [smiles.] But the point is that this is an embodied thing that I had learned. And so that brought me to the onion, and almost the cathartic process now, of cutting an onion, which has now come back in several of the pieces that I have created. But Shawn and I created a gathering—it was more of a salon—called the Care Banquet. And this is exactly it. Because he comes from a Singaporean background, and with my Vietnamese family, we both grew up with people around us who weren’t always able to communicate their care—and I’m not saying this within my personal family—but who communicated care through cooking. And that, I think, is a lot of the way in which I still communicate my care for people that I love. I’ll bake a cake, or I’ll bring food to an event, as a way of showing my investment in it. And so I think the way that a lot of food studies scholars are looking at food as a place that we imagine our cultural selves I think is really interesting and important. And then, as you said, they’re the things that compose our quite literal body, our cellular structures. And particularly now being back in the Bay Area, and having access to vegetables, and this drought potentially jeopardizing that access to vegetables, I’m hyper aware of the ways in which the food that I eat affects how I am in the world. And so, plus, it’s always fun. To have food [laughs] onstage.
I’ve thought many many times, that no matter where you go in the world, when someone wants you to feel welcome, they find a way to feed you, right, and even in the most impoverished of circumstances, they will provide something for you to show you that concern, that hospitality, out of gratitude that you are sharing space with them. And even how in some communities when you die, it’s really important, like in the Chăm community—at least in our community, and I’m sure it’s the same for the other Chăm—to have a feast of merit. The more you give away to the community the more important you are as a person. And when my grandmother died, it took us a really long time to have the money for her second burial ceremony, customary in our Hindu Chăm village. But part of the reason it takes so long to get the money to do a second burial is that you have to feed everyone who comes for three days. And so, for us, that meant a thousand meals a day. Because the entire village showed up every single day. And the hundreds of dollars it cost us to feed everyone is beyond the annual income of many people combined. So it was a huge deal, and for grandma, it was a really important thing, to give this feast of merit. And my mom explained it as a traditional way of redistributing wealth. Your wealth isn’t anything if you’re not giving it away. And I think of sharing food in a similar broader sense. You know, even if this is all I have, you come to me, and what is my value if I eat this entire piece and don’t give you any? I have failed to provide, you know, for someone I care about. Even if you’re just a guest and I have met you for the first time, there is the symbolism of the gift, the exchange, the reciprocity, of feeding somebody. I’ve thought about that quite a bit in my own life, because no matter where you go. “Can I get you tea?” And even one of the ways I was thanked for an interview with a Chăm village leader in Cambodia, with my friend Asiroh. We were given a bag of crickets, fried crickets, because that’s the protein the family had, you know. And Asiroh couldn’t really stomach them. And we were leaving and I was munching on them, and she said, “You’re such a good cover. You will literally eat anything.” And I said, “Oh, yeah. I also prefer crickets to the grasshoppers I had the other day. They were a little more mealy.”
And she’s just so grateful to have me as cover, because she’s full Chăm—she’s both Vietnamese and Cambodian Chăm—and I’m quite mixed race Chăm, and I’m like, “You want a cricket?” [Munching sound.] And she’s like, [shakes head]. And I was thinking, this is what they’re eating, right? When in Rome [do as the Romans do]. So this idea of reciprocity, hospitality, the composition of me, the composition of you, it’s really interesting and it’s complicated. It’s a global language, too. I mean, literally, we would be dead without food. So all the ways that it’s functioning symbolically and affectively, you know, is a really interesting exploration. So I’m glad you’re making it, and also connecting it to your dad having come—it seems like he came more as an immigrant rather than a refugee, which is the distinction I made earlier. But even when you immigrate, it doesn’t mean that you’ve stopped longing for the things that you could only get at home. Or the flavors, the fruits, the bowl of phở on the street. Because everybody’s cooking breakfast for everybody else, and you could easily fed with your own food, whereas here, it’s not the same.
Absolutely. It’s one of the things that still, when we go back to Việt Nam now—we went back recently as a family, for the first time in a while, and—I joke because every time I go anywhere, people are like, “What are you gonna see?” And I’m like, “I’m gonna eat this.” And they’re like, “No, no, but you’re going to Italy. What do you want to see?” “I want to eat the pasta and gelato!” [Laughs.] And they’re like, “Okay…” And I do! I end up planning my vacation around food. But I think it’s a way of understanding a community in a way that looking at a monument might not otherwise indicate. And the ways that food practices are changing, particularly as different foods are being imported and exported. It becomes an interesting conversation on a global scale.
Along those lines, it makes the think of the bánh mì sandwich, right, and the idea of you studying French ballet. There’s a hybridity because of colonization that exists in Vietnamese culture, that is very much—it’s something that when I’m teaching Southeast Asian American history to students, I put up a Powerpoint picture of the bánh mì sandwich, and I say, “What the phở is going on here?” And they’re like, “It’s a Vietnamese sandwich!” And I ask, “Why is it a Vietnamese sandwich? Look at that big hunk of bread!” I encourage them to recognize that’s part of the colonial imprint. The fact that there’s a Vietnamese sandwich on a French roll. And the fact that you studied French ballet, and someone’s like, “What is the authentic Vietnamese gestural form?” And after colonialism, what is the authentic Vietnamese sandwich? There’s something interesting about all of that. And the idea of what is authentic when people have been moving spices and fruits and things all over the world for centuries. Well, at one point it was the very obvious need of things like scurvy prevention, right, or that spices were often in demand to hide the taste of things going bad, before refrigeration. But we have the history of the Spice Islands, and the trade in spices having motivating trade routes. So the way food has been hybridizing culture, but also shaping it and redefining it for centuries, has been really interesting because the origins of a particular fruit or vegetable or spice is not where it’s necessarily not grown now—not exclusively, anyway. Food has traveled with people in order to redefine what becomes home. If you can grow the fruit that you grew in Việt Nam in your backyard here, in California, do you have a part of home still?
Yeah, and the ways in which, particularly, refugee communities have clumped around areas with climates that are able to sustain certain food practices, right, and how that becomes a really interesting redistribution of people and food. And you know, of course, the food truck craze has been specifically looking at hybridity. The Korean taco. Or, the other day my dad and I saw a bánh mì taco, and he goes, but then it’s not bánh mì because bánh mì means bread, and there’s no bread. So beyond the whole colonial aspect, just looking at contemporary ways in which food has been adopted.
Is there anything else you’d like to share about your upcoming performance?
I am part of the performing arts showcase for a festival called APAture that is being sponsored by Kearny Street Workshop. And the line-up of performance artists as well as artists across genre is really exciting. And it’s an organization that has been supporting emerging Asian American and Pacific Islander artists for a while now. So it’s exciting to be part of this lineage of people who have been supported by Kearny Street. I’m grateful for the opportunity to even have a space to address some of these ideas that I might not otherwise address if I was sponsored by another organization, or if I was presenting to a different audience.
Could you compare the performance scene here in San Francisco, with that of New York, in relation to support for and understanding of Asian American work?
I’m not sure I have the authority to speak to it. I will say this. Two organizations in San Francisco have now supported me, specifically because I was an Asian American artist. I was also affiliated with an organization called the Asian American Arts Alliance, in New York, that also supported me for that reason. But I don’t have enough of an idea of the landscape here, to really speak to that yet. I feel grateful to have these spaces specifically for asking some of these questions that are relevant to my community.
Do you see yourself as continuing the Project Agent Orange here, in the Bay Area?
I think that it’ll take a different shape. I was thinking earlier today about the dismantling of organizations, and I think Agent Orange and performance is really integral to my research, over the next several years. But I am trying to imagine a way in which the work that I did with my dance company in New York could be reimagined in the Bay Area. And a lot of what that has meant has been leading workshops with different communities at different universities, as well as at different community centers, and working with not-trained dancers. And that for me has been a really informative process. I think the topics are still there, and I still collaborate often with the dancers who are in the collective, but I am trying to reimagine the way in which it might be able to serve a different community or to serve a different purpose.
What currents do you see, regarding Agent Orange, and how it’s being discussed today?
In my opinion, I think the thing that has limited the discussion regarding Agent Orange, previous to 2010, honestly—which was arguably forty years worth of exposure—and also the reason why a lot of it wasn’t just cleaned up. Why the chemical still exists in the groundwater is simply unfathomable to me. But I think one of the reasons that is the case is that the issue of Agent Orange has been framed as this problem of retribution which also carries with it the narrative of reparations, which this country has a lot of battles with, constantly. And so understanding the limitations of that framework is something that’s crucial to how the topic gets addressed between the United States and Việt Nam as well as within veteran communities, within the Vietnamese American community in the United States, as well as within the community in Việt Nam. Because this question of repair has always been at the forefront of the discussion between the United States and Việt Nam, and I think that’s one of the things that’s been—the question of who owes who money—has been holding back a lot of the other conversations that could be had.
I remember you gave that TED talk at Stanford. What has been your experience sharing your ideas with a much wider audience, including one that circulates online, and is disseminated—
—without my permission [chuckles].
With or without?
The TED talk got labeled “Dance as Therapy,” which was not a title that I gave it. I’ve come up against a lot of feedback about that. Because I very specifically am not a trained dance therapist, and even though I have colleagues who are, and I’ve taken workshops in dance therapy, and I completely respect it as a profession, it’s not something that I have a degree in. So, to clarify, I don’t see dance as a form of therapy. That’s not how I am interested in using movement and performance. But that said, for the most part, I think the primary response has been, “I’ve never thought of it that way!” or “I’ve never thought of using movement in a way that’s not for pure entertainment.” Because on the one hand, it’s exciting that we have a lot of popular culture shows like Dancing With The Stars and So You Think You Can Dance—I mean, I am a huge So You Think You Can Dance fan—I think it offers a certain image, a certain ideal of dance, that limits how a lot of people think about movement and dance as this removed form that professionals do outside. I think that that’s definitely true, but I think there’s a way in which things like the TED talk have allowed me to bring concepts of using movement in different ways to a much larger audience. At the end of the day, I looked at the TED talk as a way of telling a story. I got to talk about Agent Orange on a pretty big platform. Which was really exciting considering a few years before that, I would Google “Agent Orange” and the only thing I would come up with was a 1970s rock band. So that, for me, has been a helpful way to bring awareness to the kind of work that can be done.
You recently entered the doctoral program at UC Berkeley in Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies. What are you hoping to do in the academy that you haven’t been able to do outside of it? And where do you see your work as an academic intersect with your work as a practitioner?
I think the reason why I chose the department of Performance Studies, specifically at Berkeley, was because it’s very interdisciplinary. I think that it will support a theoretical inquiry, as well as continue to support my practice as an artist. But I am interested now in doing the opposite of what I did as an undergrad. So if I was trying to somehow separate a space for dance and other academic rigorous research, before, my goal now is to bring so-called “theory” closer together with what we call “practice.” And begin to understand, personally for myself, what type of writing could I produce, and for which communities, with my position now in the academy, and what form might that take. For me the most exciting thing about Performance Studies is a lot of language that comes out of this field is a hybrid. It’s looking very rigorously and critically at ideas of performance and memory and subject formation and trauma, but it’s composing it in such a way that the language itself is asking some of the questions. That the language itself becomes an artistic practice. And that we also get to forefront the body as a place of understanding the world around us. And so, for me, being in a research environment allows me to think alongside people who are similarly grappling with those ideas, but to remind myself to continue to challenge myself, to push against that barrier of translation, not only between languages but between communities, inside academia and not. As well as to work, to bring some of the things that are integral to my own passions into my life practice as a researcher, as an artist, and as a person. I think right now this seems like the right venue to bring those questions closer together, and to have a community and a cohort with which to wrestle with these tough questions.
Natalia Duong is a performance artist, choreographer, and writer, native to the San Francisco Bay Area. Her work investigates the physical proliferation of war as embodied by people affected by Agent Orange in a movement-based research collective titled Project Agent Orange. Her work has been featured in Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, New Jersey, New York City, and San Francisco. She has collaborated with artists to perform internationally in Edinburgh, Paris, Vietnam, and Kampala, Uganda. She currently lives and works in the Bay Area, where she is a doctoral student in the Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies department at UC Berkeley.