Kill Your Darlings, in partnership with the Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network (DVAN), recently presented its first ever showcase of Vietnamese writing. It was a rare opportunity to amplify the idea of Vietnamese writers and writing in Australia literary publishing.
I felt immensely privileged to be co-editor of the Vietnam Showcase, given my own preoccupation with what it means to be Vietnamese—and how this aspect of my identity is a wellspring for my own literary impulses. My involvement with diaCRITICS is driven by this same impulse as well as my desire to contribute an Australian perspective to a global conversation which we’re all a part of.
Reading through the wide range of submissions we received, I felt both moved and humbled by what was shared with us from writers at all stages of their careers. We received over 50 submissions from Australia, Vietnam, the United States and beyond, from which we chose two works of fiction and a feature essay incorporating memoir, history and culture.
Considered together, the submissions revealed something of the complicated nature of what it means to be Vietnamese, and the restlessness of diasporic existence. Indicating something of the geographic spread of writing we received, we chose one piece from Melbourne and one from Sydney, the two largest centres of Việt Kiều life in Australia. The third story comes from Việt Nam itself. We were limited to choosing works in English rather than tiếng Việt, so we were pleased to be able to publish a short story by a writer who has lived in and experienced Hà Nội, whose literary translator is based in Sài Gòn/TP.HCM. The story is published in both languages.
‘Hai, Ba’ by Casey Nguyen is an open-hearted exploration of second-generation adult life, how our relationships with our parents evolve over time, and how we learn to live with our adult bodies. Meanwhile, Lucia Tường Vy Nguyễn‘s playful and insightful essay, ‘Dear Dairy’ also examines the body, diving into dairy and in doing so brings in complex meditations on race, gender and culture. Finally, Nguyễn Thúy Hằng’s ‘In A Grossly Boring Town’ (‘Ở Thành Phố Chán Ốm’) has been translated by Dương Mạnh Hùng of Bar de Force Press. It’s a surreal and unsettling tale from the Old World which shows how bodily questions of existence are universal preoccupations, pondered upon in the centre, a topic of concern as it often is for those of us living in the margins.
You may have noticed that all three selected pieces are by writers who share the same surname, Nguyễn. (In Anglophone countries, we put the surname last, but in tiếng Việt surnames always appear first.) To use the American English pronunciation of Nguyen, we’ve come up with a win-win-win situation for this Vietnam Showcase. Personally, I’ve long been surprised by how little Vietnam’s most common surname has appeared among the ranks of Australian writers, but maybe this showcase suggests that that’s about to change.
Huge thanks to artists Kim Lam for her illustration on ‘Hai, Ba’ as well as Jill Trần and Nhung Đinh for their illustrations of ‘In a Grossly Boring Town’. Finally, thanks to KYD editor Alan Vaarwerk for leading the development of the Vietnam Showcase and being such an excellent collaborator on this milestone project.
– Sheila Ngọc Phạm, Contributing Editor (Australia)
Aromatic lemongrass licked my nostrils when I arrived between the noon and evening sittings at the restaurant. The golden lucky cat beckoned me from the counter where it sat next to various paraphernalia: a small flip calendar, silk yellow marigolds in a vase, and a framed photo of Trinh and I with Mum and Ba on opening day many years ago. Envelopes with unpaid bills sat jagged behind the counter next to a plastic plate containing nectarine cuttings. The familiar sound of clanging metal called out to me from the kitchen.
Cậu Bảy—Uncle Seven—wandered out wielding a soup ladle, as though bursting onto the set of a sitcom.
‘Phương! Trời ơi! Eight months no visit? We need your help around here!’
I chuckled and gave him a half hug to avoid getting broth on my clothes.
‘Chào Cậu Bảy. How’s business going?’
‘Business is okay, not bad but not great either.’ He shrugged, before walking back into his chef’s lair.
Cậu Bảy wasn’t the type to dwell. Ever since the new Asian fusion joint opened across the road, Mum and Cậu Bảy’s restaurant had seen dwindling numbers, but their long term customers sustained their salaries. Not bad, but not great either. On the weekends Trinh helped wait tables during the evening rush.
Mum came out carrying two steaming bowls of bún bò huế on a tray.
‘Con ơi, how are you?’
‘I’m good, Mum, let me help.’ I took the tray from her hands and carried it to a clean table.
Sitting across from her was always unsettling, like seeing a portrait whose pigments have desaturated through time. It scared me to visit them and see melanin escaping their bodies and wrinkles sinking into pock-marked skin. Their ageing vessels carrying too-heavy trays.
I wiped both of our chopsticks with a napkin then garnished our bowls with fresh bean sprouts. I cleaned the fog steaming up my glasses last.
‘How is uni? You’re still studying environmental-something?’
‘Yes, environmental science and urban design.’
‘Good girl. Make us proud.’ She blew on the noodles before slurping up a bunch in one go.
‘How is Trinh?’ I asked between bites, feeling the hot broth move rapidly down my throat, sour sweet on my tongue.
‘Your sister is okay. She’s studying at the library. Doing physio every fortnight. She says she doesn’t need it, but she doesn’t complain about a sore back anymore,’ she said between chews, waving her hand in the air.
Before Trinh was diagnosed, when we were still kids, she’d follow me around the restaurant incessantly, chanting ‘I love you, chị hai!’ over and over.
‘Stop following me!’ I’d shout, pushing chairs and slamming doors until Cậu Bảy got tired of us disrupting customers and dragged us upstairs. I was mimicking what I’d seen the main characters do on the Disney Channel sitcoms Ba would bring back on bootleg DVDs for us from his trips to Vietnam.
‘I love you so much I’m gonna die!’ she’d retort.
Growing up, we shared everything. Not out of sibling endearment, but from necessity. Clothing, books and beds were all communal. When mum dropped us home before her evening shifts, she’d tell us to look after each other before locking the front door. In our double bed at night, we’d take turns fabricating stories, building off the other’s foundation. On days when we’d fight, a long bolster pillow would demarcate the battlefield, defining the space between us. Our favourite game was writing on each other’s back and guessing what the phrases were.
Over time, my relationship with Trinh shifted. Our bodies became too bulbous for shared baths. We hid ourselves from one another, refusing to expose parts of our skin we once laid bare. Mum told me to be gentle on her; the doctor explained that Trinh suffered a congenital anomaly called sacralisation and Mum took this diagnosis as a directive. Some parts of Trinh’s spine had fused to others on the bottom, which meant we were no longer allowed to tumble or hug or play.
Her ailments absolved her of all responsibility: on weekends, I mopped and helped Cậu Bảy package leftovers into reusable containers while Trinh sat in the corner playing Nintendo. I resented having to be responsible for her, and she became volatile, vicious. A smile proffered would be met with a sneer, while lighthearted questions received sharp one-worded replies. In bed at night, we slept facing opposite directions. The doctor blamed it on hormones, but it felt personal. There was a sense that being granted a functioning body meant I wasn’t allowed to be close to hers.
‘What’s this called again?’ I poked holes in the pork crescents inside my bowl.
‘That’s chả lụa.’
‘Oh, it’s nice.’
Even though I was surrounded by these dishes, it took me years to acquaint myself with food like phở, bún bò huế and bánh xèo. My ability to discern and enjoy flavours came later. But in finally acquiring the tastes, I lost the Vietnamese words. When I waited tables, customers would ask for my recommendations: what is the difference between the hủ tiếu and the bún riêu? It was easy to recommend the most popular items but my distance to the food left me lacking in the vocabulary of ingredients, confused about how to describe a certain meat, vegetable or herb.
‘Are you well, Mum?’
‘Mmm, of course. I have a business and I have my children—what more could I want?’ She stared distantly through the restaurant’s cloudy windows.
When Cậu Bảy sponsored Mum’s emigration, he advised her to write ‘Smith’ as her last name—for increased job opportunities, he said. Of course, visitors to the restaurant loved that her name was Mai Smith: equal parts endearing and intriguing, it fit better in peoples’ mouths. Ba was not a fan. Knowing that the country would engulf his daughters eventually, he demanded a stake in our identities in its most constituent form. Our first names still echoed our motherland.
Despite Mum’s charisma on show, it rarely ever made its way home. Growing up, she was unreadable. At times, I’d find her scrubbing furiously at the sink, damp face and gloved hands. We seldom had people over for dinner, as the exhaustion of running a restaurant made eating at home a listless activity. But Ba still enforced its importance, like a daily prayer. Weekly shopping catalogues were used in lieu of placemats. The sound of SBS Vietnamese Radio padded our meals. We didn’t talk about our days, triumphs or failures—we just ate.
‘Jack and I broke up.’ I stirred the remaining cubes of tofu and pig blood curd.
Snapping back from her reverie, she looked at me, almost expressionless. If you didn’t know her, you’d miss the nuance between her brows that revealed her true feelings. One vertical crease meant concern; two conveyed anger.
‘Oh, con ơi.’ Two creases.
When I told her I broke up with my first boyfriend, it was one furrow, followed by a muffled sob. Not from the loss of a future suitor, but from the realisation she could not protect her daughter from everything.
‘I’m sorry,’ I began. ‘I haven’t been around to help the last few months, I know Trinh’s physio is getting expensive and I—’
‘Phương, it’s okay. I know you, con,’ she raised her hand and closed her eyes. ‘You’re always itching to be somewhere else; never want to stay still. That’s why you have that freckle on your ankle, the traveller’s freckle. Your Ba has one too.’
Soupy scraps fell from my chopsticks, slipping from grasp. It felt clumsy eating at the restaurant again, like we were playing pretend.
‘I know, but—’ I trailed off, unsure of how to express how beholden I felt to her, the weight of filial debt.
‘I’ll drive you back to Carlton,’ she said as she stacked the empty bowls onto the tray.
‘You don’t have to do that, it’s getting late and you have the evening shift.’
‘Why do both my daughters not want to spend time with me?’
I rolled my eyes out of habit and leaned over the table to give her a peck on the cheek.
‘Make sure you call Ba,’ she said, gripping my arm tightly.
Moving her clasp to my hands, she rubbed the space between my thumb and forefinger.
‘Đừng để bụng. Your Ba is not a bad man.’
‘I know, Mum.’
Though the bus ride back into the city wasn’t long, its familiarity was calming. My childhood striped the streets: the site of my granddad’s ophthalmologist, an old family friend’s hot-pot buffet, our frequented pharmacy. The sites made up an important epoch that I could feel inside my stomach but could no longer reach.
The blue bus lights had automatically switched on at 6pm, setting the interior aglow. It seemed to get darker earlier in the suburbs. My phone flashed white with one new message. Jack’s dad.
Mr Stevens (1)
hey Phi. jack just told us what happened. hope u are okay. we are very sad and think the world of u. reach out if u need anything. sending love, hugh & mel.
I stared at the screen for a while feeling numb. Hobbling close to the door towards my stop, my fingers swiped deftly, as though possessed, deleting the message and clicking the phone shut.
I arrived home to sounds of my roommates whispering in the kitchen. Cutlery clanking under running water washed down the hallway. Not wanting to disturb a conversation that was likely about me and Jack, I crept to the bedroom we shared. His mug sat half empty with a tea label peeking out the side, the string stained brown from protracted immersion.
The dial tone hung stale in the air, abnormally long. When Ba finally picked up, there were rustles and echoes from the bustling streets of Saigon. It was early evening there and I guessed he’d be out on his scooter collecting his pre-dinner snack. He had come across a bargain on motorcycles the day he landed and instantly bought a red xe máy Honda, which he tended to regularly. His sojourn to Vietnam had instigated a return to his youth, a relapse of sorts.
Those words when said together sounded like the numbers two and three in Vietnamese: hai, ba. In my family, we were forever counting. In primary school, I was allowed one tuckshop lunch order per week. We’d pull out the rusted Milo tin that housed spare change, the sum of what was left. Ba would garnish the brown paper lunch bag with an order for dim-sims or two sausage rolls, letters swaying, finding their place. His English was worse than Mum’s. Writing my lunch orders was the bare minimum way of maintaining his skills. Counting cents to make ends meet.
‘Wait, Ba, I’m losing you.’
‘Can you hear me?’ He asked, staticky from our faltering connection.
I was taken aback by his accent which had progressively swelled since I had seen him last. His English had declined consistently, shedding syllables that felt unnatural in his mouth. Strangers mocked him for his broken English, while my family mocked me for my broken Vietnamese. Switching between the two was never an issue for me growing up. But the more I’d spent time around Jack and away from my family, speaking Vietnamese became increasingly fatiguing.
Sometimes I liked to quiz myself randomly, testing my recall on the words for knife (dao) and fork (nĩa) at a restaurant, or leaf (lá) and vacuum (máy hút bụi) when I was in Bunnings. But there were common words, phrases even, that I had no idea how to translate. Words like heartbreak, physiotherapy, feminism and gratitude: they encapsulate entire concepts that underpin my world, but I am unable to convert them fluently.
The final time I refused to attend Vietnamese school as a teen, my argument was that I wouldn’t be marrying a Vietnamese boy anyway. Childlike, I believed that my rudimentary grasp of the language would be enough. I had no idea that the permutations of speech would soon leave me behind. Ba’s eyes filled with rage. Speechless, he got up from his chair and punched the wall behind him. The next day when he got home from work, I found him silently patching the corner with plaster. They didn’t enforce my attendance after that, and unenrolled me the next term.
I had only started to FaceTime with Ba recently. We only ever discussed the same things: his meals that day (usually bánh cuốn for breakfast), bà nội’s faltering memory (she has frequent delusions about ông nội’s ghost), or Chú Kiệt’s new business venture (a co-working cafe popularised by expats). How the country feels familiar, yet changed in ways he cannot always describe. I’d mostly listen and nod, absorbing a familiar turn of phrase or laughing at a repeated joke.
‘Are you doing okay, con?’
‘Yes, I am. My studies are good. Mum and Cậu Bảy are well, too.’
I forced a smile through the screen. There was a lag, but he smiled back.
‘Okay, well, dinner time now. Bye, con.’ He raised his hand and waved. I hung up without saying goodbye, heart heavy.
I didn’t tell Ba about Jack, nor did he ask. I sensed the dichotomy between him and Mr Stevens, and I know he did too. Annexed to Jack and by default, the Stevens family, I was captivated by their casual ebullience and explicit affection that I didn’t even know I had been starved of growing up. I fielded their questions about Mum, Ba, where I grew up and went to school; I was desperate to acquiesce so I erased answers, offering only fragments of myself.
Before I had a chance to plug my phone into the charger, Trinh’s contact photo sprang onto the screen, a scanned film photo of us standing side by side at a Vietnamese school awards ceremony.
‘Trinh? What’s up?’
‘Hi, Phương.’ Her voice fractured.
‘Mum said you were studying this evening.’
I looked at the uni readings stacked on my corner of the desk. Highlighters sprinkled the space with unwanted fluorescence. I was half-way through annotating a report about urban forest management. The author opined that though an abundance of forestry may sound enticing, trees planted too close together end up suffering. When reaching maturation, one tree may take root faster and steal soil nutrients, leaving the other more susceptible to disease and stunted in growth. On rare occasions, both trees may merge to reach the sun quicker, but only when the outer layers of their bark are still soft, unhardened.
‘I mean, I did study for a bit. Then Lena and I snuck into Asian Beer Cafe with these older guys we met outside the State Library and they bought us free drinks.’
‘Okay…That’s pretty irresponsible, Trinh.’ I steadied my voice and took a few shallow breaths. ‘Does Mum know where you are?’
‘Please, save the lecture for another time when I haven’t just thrown up my insides, okay?’ A hand dryer was audible in the background, along with the sound of girls giggling.
‘Alright. I can come and pick you up. You can sleep here tonight.’
‘Oh that’s generous,’ she slurred. ‘Have you asked for Sir Jack’s approval?’ Trinh always used a posh accent when referring to Jack and his family, though it no longer pushed the buttons it used to.
‘We broke up. Just meet me outside in 10 minutes and I’ll come get you.’
I hung up before she could ask any questions and slipped out past my roommates to the kerb, hands shaking.
I rolled down the windows of the Uber, a long standing habit from growing up in an odorous restaurant. Despite my ample attempts to avoid the smell of broth lingering on my clothes and hair, it was unavoidable. My pores absorbed the familiar odours like a dried sponge.
The driver pulled up to the taxi cab rank where Trinh stood, her hair tied back and Year 12 jumper in hand. Musty and too-short, her hand-me-down summer uniform was on its last legs. Looseleaf notes poked out from her backpack as she reached forward to open the back door.
Trinh hugged me hard from the back seat, collarbones rough against my cheek. The Uber driver looked at us curiously in the rearview mirror. Trinh sniffed me before buckling her seatbelt.
‘You smell like the restaurant.’
‘I knew you’d say that.’ I smiled slightly, comforted.
‘Don’t say anything else, Phương,’ she wagged her finger at me and hiccuped, then turned to face the front.
While Trinh brushed her teeth, I changed the sheets and texted Mum to say she’d be sleeping over. No texts from Jack.
‘My side,’ she said as she walked into the room, pointing to the left side of the bed. I chuckled.
The fresh cotton felt cool against my skin. It was nice not being able to smell Jack’s scent on the sheets. Everything was still. I wondered if Trinh was counting the years it had been since we shared a bed last.
‘If one day my back just blows out and it hurts so bad to even walk, will you still pick me up from the club?’
I turned slightly in the darkness to see tears moving in erratic lines down her face, creating wells inside the nooks of her ear cartilage.
‘You’re being morbid, ‘ I said, blinking rapidly to avoid the same teary fate. ‘Your physio says you’re doing really well, and there are injections you can take if it gets debilitating.’
We laid silently for a while. The streetlights outside glowed steadily, fusing with the half-closed curtains. Trinh shifted and turned the other way.
‘I just wish you could see yourself the way I see you,’ I said finally.
She didn’t like having her lower back touched where the spine irregularity was. Too afraid and unsure of how to write all the words I couldn’t say, my fingers traced arbitrary lines in the space between her shoulder blades. Eventually her breathing slowed and the push and pull of her back became rhythmic. Comfortable with the quietude and doused by the closeness, I shut my eyes as well.
This piece was originally published in Kill Your Darlings.
Casey Nguyen is a Naarm-based writer of short and long fiction, writing from her mid-twenties, where everything feels slightly hyperreal. Her short stories interrogate divides between home and travel, longing and heartbreak, family and friendships.