Deputy editor Sydney Van To talks to Luu Dieu Van about female sexuality, Vietnamese Communism, and the act of self-winding. Luu Dieu Van’s poetry collection She, Self-Winding is out now by Ugly Duckling Presse.
Sydney Van To: How did you get into writing poetry?
Luu Dieu Van: At age ten, I was cooking like a pro and sewing clothes for my whole family. That, I can explain because I was put into home economics school to learn these skills. Even younger than that, I was reading anything that was available to me, from magazines to graphic novels to classic fictional works that were too large for my little brain to understand. Now, at age 40, I have started to paint. I didn’t even know how to draw before.
All of this circumlocution is an excuse to evade this question. I don’t know when I started writing poetry. It just happened. I cannot recall a historic moment at which I said, “Oh, I read, therefore I write!”
I think perhaps I was overwhelmed with thinking and observing silently by myself. The world got too complicated and the words got too loud in my head. I write because, just like anyone else, I want to have a voice. Growing up, the women around me did not get to speak up. Because I’m not a charismatic speaker, writing allows me to reflect upon the injustice and awful silence that surrounds the women in my life. It’s a primary anchor of my life’s pursuits.
SVT: To say that the practice of writing is something that just happened sounds like self-winding, given the title of your collection. I understood your concept of self-winding in a two-sided way: automatic like a self-winding clock, but also agentive in the sense that I am the one who winds myself.
LDV: Your keen insight to the concept of self-winding just made me look wiser than I really am and I thank you for that fleeting illusion. There was nobody in my family who pushed me to write, so yes, I was me winding myself up, but with the startup energy radiated by the women in my family.
SVT: How does your translation intersect with your poetry writing?
LDV: The art of translation is like having two separate brains. When I’m translating or reading, there is always another brain running in the background. A temporary state of split personality disorder is extremely helpful in poetry. Vietnamese words don’t have genders, but certain words will still echo a kind of femininity or masculinity, and I also find that they have an opposite association in a different language, and from this chaos spurs creativity. Knowing two languages gives me an attitude of openness and acceptance of non-standards.
SVT: Language is just a construct like anything else, but it’s one of the most difficult constructs for us to come to terms with.
LDV: I was reading this essay about how concepts in language echo, for example, death. These researchers studied thousands of images of death through art and they can guess whether death is masculine or feminine in that particular language. Not just the major languages, but also aboriginal languages. This bilingual, sort of exposed mindset, is part of why I write poetry and not prose. Poetry is not rigid. There is not a grammar or plot structure that you are confined to. You’re free-flowing.
SVT: Vietnamese and English don’t have grammatical genders, so what does it mean to say that death is masculine or feminine?
LDV: In Vietnam, death is usually depicted as a woman (at least to my own interactions with it). The beautiful lady ghost in the white dress. Whereas in the Western world, death is perhaps more masculine. The hooded guy with the scythe. Now, I’ve merged the two genders of death in my mind, in the same way I have amalgamated many things that humans normally wouldn’t in my own writing.
SVT: Is this collection about death at all?
LDV: Not particularly, it just came up. Our mind wanders in anticipation for more than half of our waking life. Deviation is a natural instinct. This collection is more about time, though death is definitely the mood backdrop of my post war experience. I’m obsessed with the concept of time, but I do not fear it. I’m curious about how it works and affects our humanity. I keep a one-line per day, five-year diary. Very often, I find my life looping year-by-year, within the week or even the same exact day. I’ll cook the same food or go to the same place and hang out with the same people. Of course, this is largely because of one’s lifestyle, but it does make me feel like one year of my life is not so different from ten years of my life. Or perhaps, we have this pre-built algorithm, or what Buddhists call destiny. If we are predestined, or if we’re god’s chess pieces, then it is my wish that through my writing, I can be self-realizing or self-winding, that we can all be self-winding. That through the restrictions of destiny, something new and perpetual can be created out of us.
SVT: This makes me think of your penultimate poem, “the sundered stateleless,” where the first line is, “the city’s knee-deep in layers of steeped burgeoning played sets.” These are the chess pieces. History is only such a game. But you end the poem which is the opposite of a loop: a sundering. These refugees have been cut off, and those left behind have been equally cut off, because this opportunity to flee to safety might not return for the stateless.
LDV: I often contradict myself in my poetry, and that’s my real life manifestation. While I feel like things are predestined, I also believe I can make a difference. I am a Buddhist but also an anti-stoic. Always, there is always something that I should do and something that I want to do. My whole life is this constant push and pull of finding balance. My poems are not very technical, as I write raw from my heart. The feeling I start with conflicts with the feeling that I end with. I don’t want to edit out too much. I have a fluid mind. For one topic, I will consider ten possibilities. I’m okay with that. I don’t need to arrive at a conclusion. I don’t write to seek closure. I am okay with the decisions that I made yesterday. I will allow myself a different path tomorrow. I am not lost but often discombobulated, so I keep on writing. Writing is the exploration or rectification of that constant confusion.
SVT: When you talked about how your life is a loop, it originally sounded like a kind of horror. That’s one of my greatest fears: waking up to realize that you have been living in a loop without realizing it. But you also embrace the loop as productive to your thinking.
LDV: While I contribute to this year-to-year diary regularly, I don’t read its previous content often. I usually find out that I’ve been living a loop in the aftermath, and yes, it does freak me out, but it also prompts more contemplations that urge to be written down. We write to pursue the forms of freedom which are offered by art. But life is not as free as you think. In this little space of the poem, I get to play god and the words are my chess pieces. I am not the chess piece like I am in real life. I don’t want to run out of power or rely on any external energy to keep it going. So this concept of self-winding is recurrent in my writing.
SVT: So what does self-winding mean?
LDV: Like a self-running instrument. It doesn’t rely on anything or any external power source. But I’ve never thought of self-winding in terms of looping, as you had astutely pointed out. And if things are looping, then we are making the same mistakes every few years and never learning. We do go through the same choices, the same wars, the same fears.
SVT: You describe how your poems will loop back to the beginning, but not before considering something like ten possibilities. I notice a duality in your poems between sex and history. Some poems are macroscopic: it may narrate an entire life and all of the events in that single life, or it may be a social panorama filled with different character types. Other poems are microscopic, being about particular actions or the sensations of the body at any particular point in time. The grammar of your poems also reflects this duality. Some poems are predicate-heavy, in which case the series of verbs will make it action- or sensation-oriented. Other poems contain all of these subjects without predicates, which gives us the macroscopic view as if trying to see history all at once. You see time as something open, which is also your ethical view towards sex as this kind of openness. How do your poems think about sex and history together?
LDV: Sexuality is how people identify themselves through gender and sexual preferences. When I talk about sexuality in my work, I do not want people to think only of sex. I do not want private parts to be used only as degrading swear words, which is how it was for me growing up. I do not want to write about sex so much as sexuality, especially as it pertains to gender. In history, it was always about his-story and not her-story when it comes to equality. History dictates behavior and influences our expressions. The males in my family were ordinary if not subpar, but their voices were always louder and more influential. When they make mistakes, especially sexual ones, their mistakes are quickly forgiven. But the women in my family are upholding these domestic empires in silence, and will bleed when beaten for accusations, which are not even sexual accusations, but just rumors. My angle on history as it pertains to sexuality is very simple. I am outraged when a woman who is having a period sits on a chair, and when she leaves, people will grab a rag and clean the imaginary stain as if she is some dirty thing. I want sexuality to relate to justice and equality. Sexuality is so much a part of being human, because it dictates our decision on every stage of life.
SVT: Justice is a key term for you. Your poems about Vietnamese women feel like little memorials. These poems consider those who have been washed over by history. I like, for instance, how you take the three fates and transform them into “the three gossips.” History is more grounded and intimate when it is painted as this lengthy gossip. Even when you memorialize these women, the poems are still aware that memory is unreliable.
In your poem, “scent-free speed,” you write, “thinking rearview mirrors can forewarn the speed of compulsive disbelief.” The illusion is that you can get outside of ideology because you believe you understand history. In this case, what does it mean to look backwards?
LDV: The events of history or the past are like beads. Imagine each singular incident as packed with powerful forces from all angles which are then compressed into this bead. As I go through my life, I collect these beads and string them randomly rather than chronologically. Things in my childhood I did not understand until now, and perhaps still not yet. Therefore, I do not string my history by order, but by sensory memory, and incorrectly at times because my young perception was clearly limited. I was not privy to adult conversations. My memory is only of the expressions on their faces, because the adults themselves were not allowed to speak freely under the new regime. This memory shuffles. My memory is absolutely unreliable. I find myself re-stringing these beads depending on my mood or what I remember or what they are called. This string of beads is alive and constantly being re-adjusted. These beads might make a pretty necklace or a noose. Who knows. I look back to find a path forward.
SVT: Returning to our discussion of loops, perhaps you deconstruct memory into these beads so that it is more open for your own writing and for your own life.
LDV: When something is left open, it offers hope. I am obsessed with history because it offers hope. Even when something has already happened, we feel that we can do it differently this time around. We are faced with a future which becomes the past so quickly, like the snap of a finger. So really, we are more surrounded by hope than despair. I finish my sentence and the next sentence might sound better than the one I just wrote. I feel that history propagates hopeful people.
SVT: I had seen your collection as offering a more pessimistic than hopeful attitude toward history. It seemed like you were critiquing the concept of history in communist ideology—History with a capital-H, the interminable march towards utopia. Your poetry turns away from this by looking toward sex and sexuality. You write, “we find the red we’ve been looking for in the private pink flesh.” Is this what becomes of hope? That hope can no longer be political in the sense of our arrangements of government, but rather, only in the sense of interpersonal intimacy?
LDV: The hope that I am talking about is the hope for the self. What happened in history cannot be changed, but we can change how we view it. I strongly believe that each person could make a difference. I know it might be wishful thinking, but I hold dear to this belief. I work with charities, nonprofits, and mental health awareness organizations. I have chosen my work such that it reflects my own belief in my writing that we can be different. We don’t have to suffer the consequences that history has imposed upon our mothers, fathers, and our generation. We are the hope. I find the red not just as the communist red that our families ran away from, but the red in the sanguine spirit of our people and our generation, doing things now that are improving society for the better. That is the hope that I was going for.
SVT: Right, detaching the meaning of red from communism.
LDV: It is not so much that I hope it will be a better society, but that each of us will be a better person because we have suffered so much from history, and better people lead to more meaningful impacts.
SVT: So what does pink mean? It means feminism in your poems, but more broadly, sexuality.
LDV: Pink is feminine. Pink is raw. Pink is sexual. It is not yet red. It has not yet suffered the darkness. With white, you are still innocent, a blank page. With pink, now you are going through life yet it is still open. You have some pain, but you also have some joy. You don’t know what’s next. Yet you are no longer ignorant, innocent and unaffected anymore. You’ve been a little tainted with reality.
SVT: If pink is pre-red, you also have a notion of pre-pink. You write, “misunderstanding is pre-pink.” But this does fit with how you think about puberty as just a process of coming into better understanding. Innocence is just the lack of understanding.
LDV: Yes, I have reached political puberty having gained a better understanding of what had happened to my race. Red, as you know, has encompassed our entire lives from a political standpoint. In my community work, if people don’t like you, they will brand you red. Red is not just a symbol of what our country has gone through. So I have come up with my own rosy spectrum: pink, pre-pink—as a more indirect way of talking about this dominant color that has uprooted my entire life and drove millions of Vietnamese to disperse from their motherland.
SVT: Would you mind sharing a little bit about your journey as a refugee?
LDV: When I was a few months until a few years old, my mother had attempted many escape journeys. This was all told to me by her. I don’t remember any of it. She tried many times because back then, they did not imprison women with young children. If they catch you, they will let you go. You just lose the gold you have paid. I was constantly fed sleeping pills and other sedatives so that I wouldn’t cry and endanger other people’s lives if the night patrol police happened to come close to our boat. I was told these stories so many times with so much emotion that, even though I came here by plane when I was ten, I felt everything that my mother went through with me in her arms. It made me feel like I was a part of her. I was this boat person, even though I was not. I read a lot about my country’s history and do a lot of work with refugees, so I feel like their journey is very personal to me.
SVT: One of your poems, “Game of Exiled Bondage,” had seemed to operate on a lighter tone, but it’s actually very heavy. The poem re-describes the refugee experience in terms of BDSM. You adopt this kind of sacrilegious tone with other political subjects too, such as your poem which portrays Saigon’s economic development as sexual development and a midlife crisis. It’s tragicomic.
LDV: You’re absolutely right. I think what happened to our country is laughable, so laughable it makes you cry. When I think of the war, I feel pain but I find myself literally laughing at it. I am not laughing with it or making it lighter so that it is easier to digest. I do not know how to say this elegantly, this foolish theory of socialist shared-wealth and shared-status. I write from the standpoint of mockery. Whenever I think of the communist regime, it just comes out like that.
SVT: You’re not writing about the history of Vietnam, but also your own refugee experience. But when you sexualize this latter topic, it is not just to laugh at it.
LDV: Maybe this is not true for other people, but for me, what happened to my country is very intimate. Skin to skin. I am very political but from a social context, not from a power viewpoint, and when I talk about these things, I get very emotional. What is more intimate than the human sexual act? I want to highlight this intimacy. I don’t do it on purpose, but my poetry just comes out that way.
She, Self-Winding is an intimate and petite montage of a bigger calamity, that I hope, you and I, and all of us, can spark a continuous self-healing process that doesn’t require an external supply. I hope my history bead necklace will come together beautifully with time, and the looping won’t interweave into a noose. Thank you, Sydney, for this candid conversation that reflects the rawest portrait of my tainted-poetry.
by Luu Dieu Van
Ugly Duckling Presse, $12.00
Note: Luu Dieu Van also translated this interview into Vietnamese. Read at Da Màu.
Luu Dieu Van was born in Vietnam and migrated to the U.S. at a very young age. She is a prolific translator and is currently co-editor of Da Mau Magazine. She holds an M.B.A. from the University of Massachusetts and devotes time between working as a business consultant and event planner, doing arts, and volunteering for her charity organization that provides support for underprivileged children. She is an adjunct professor at Santa Ana College and a language instructor at the University of California – Fullerton. She is the author of 47 Minutes After 7 (Van Nghe), M of December (Vagabond Press), Century of Scapegoating (Van Hoc Press), She, Self-Winding (Ugly Duckling Presse), and co-author of The Transparent Greenness of Grass (Tre Publishing House), Poems of Lưu Diệu Vân, Lưu Mêlan, Nhã Thuyên (Vagabond Press).
Sydney Van To is the deputy editor of diaCRITICS. He is currently a PhD student at UC Berkeley, with research interests in Asian American literature, critical refugee studies, and genre.