“Broken Rice Style”: A Conversation with Kimberly Nguyễn

Deputy editor Sydney Van To talks to Kimberly Nguyễn about fire, trauma, and croissants. Kimberly Nguyễn’s poetry collection Here I Am, Burn Me is out now by Write Bloody Publishing.

kimberly nguyen

Sydney Van To: Let’s talk about fire first, given the title of your book. In your poems, fire can mean self-destruction or a glorious spectacle; it can mean new possibilities but also the residue of history in the form of ashes; it can mean warmth and intimacy or violence; it can mean sacrifice and martyrdom or freedom. As you know, water has been a predominant symbol of Vietnamese diaspora literature (and water shows up in your poems, too), but I’m curious why you chose to shift toward the imagery of fire.

Kimberly Nguyễn: As much as water features in my poetry—water is so embedded in Vietnamese language and Vietnamese culture—I also went to Catholic school for ten years, and there’s always this idea of fire. You can be baptized by fire. On Pentecost, the apostles see flames over their head and then they suddenly can speak multiple tongues. Water and fire are two opposite things, but also not really. If you submerge something in water, it only becomes wetter but nothing has changed. In the Bible, water transforms by cleansing, but you can always become dirty again. But if you put something through fire, it comes out completely different. When you burn something to ashes, you cannot undo that. I am really fascinated by the transformative quality of fire.

SVT: Perhaps our culture of mourning is tied up with the symbol of water. We are carrying around soaked clothes. But it is only fire that can really cut things off, destroy things in a productive way, and free us from history.

KN: All of this mourning that I do is an attempt to put something back together. To take these ashes I have been given and make it what it was before it went through the fire. This is a futile practice. There is no way I would be able to do that, but I keep yearning for that.

SVT: Your poems are interested in the contradictions that come with the question of beginnings and endings. You write, “nothing is meant to live forever but not all things die,” as well as “just because something is there does not mean I have to find it,” as if to say that we can’t get away from history, but maybe we should bury these things anyway. Same with endings. You write, “we recreate our first wounds in order to change the ending,” suggesting that although things may be written in stone, we might still dream of things turning out differently. There is a thread throughout your poems of reaching toward new possibilities or of somehow refiguring the past, but falling short of these goals.

KN: I am thinking of this poem by Paul Tran in All the Flowers Kneeling, where there is this image of their mother tailoring. Telling and retelling history is just tailoring. You tell the story to fit the moment or the body at that time. My fascination with beginnings and endings is my full belief that there is no such thing as a beginning or ending. This entire time, what I thought was a beginning or ending is just me walking in a circle, re-encountering the same beginning and end. This poetry is an attempt to break out of that circle. How do we stop walking in a circle and envision a new possibility, a new future, a new circle?

SVT: Breaking out of one circle only to enter another circle is an interesting idea. If circularity is the cause of haunting, then perhaps we can find a different mode of haunting or circling back which is less violent than the one we have right now.

KN: I am working with the idea that time is not a linear thing. Any time that a trauma happens, it becomes this nail that snags the fabric of space and time. All of the timelines afterward wrap itself around the nail. That’s the circle that we’re going in. This trauma becomes embedded in not only the past and the present, but because the nail is still snagging, therefore also the future. The process of healing and of imagining a new future, a new nail, a new circle is to go back and unravel the fabric from this nail. Of straightening things out.

SVT: While you try to follow this thread or this fabric in your poetry, you always tie family dynamics back to larger historical events. Inherited trauma is grounded in the legacies of war and colonialism. Your poems ask: given all this, how do we heal anyway? How do we love our families still? What does guarded love look like?

KN: I’ve been in therapy for a long time. My vision of what was supposed to happen in therapy is that my therapist waves a magic wand, and then, somehow, I become closer with my parents. I heal all of this trauma without my parents having to do any work. I am the one who bridges this distance between me and my parents. I’ve since learned that this is not the objective. The objective is actually just accepting that distance and accepting that I can only control so much of my family dynamic. With that acceptance comes the ability to have gratitude. 

Earlier this year, my dad came to visit me. He was running an errand, so it wasn’t exclusively to visit me. My dad and I aren’t super close, and I was working, so he went out and bought me croissants. I didn’t think anything of these croissants. I thought my dad was bored, had nothing else to do, thought of me, bought croissants, and came back. But someone I was dating at the time told me that my dad shouldn’t have bought these croissants if he doesn’t have a retirement plan, that my parents should be focused on building generational wealth if they don’t already have it, rather than frivolously buying me croissants. Upon reflection, this statement made me recognize this act of buying croissants for what it really was. My dad acknowledges that there is a distance between us, but there is nothing he can do at this point to bridge that distance. He acknowledges his own inadequacy. That he loves me inadequately and he knows that. But these croissants are him trying his best. I’m trying to appreciate a parent’s love from a distance. That they are doing the best that they can from that distance, while themselves knowing that they cannot bridge the distance, but trying anyway.

SVT: I feel like parental love can be wrapped up with running errands and being a busybody. Not just because acts of service are the primary love language of immigrant parents, but because parents want to avoid putting themselves in your space and vaguely demanding something of you. So there’s this alibi of running errands to keep a comfortable distance so that you feel like you don’t have to entertain. 

KN: Right.

SVT: Let’s shift to the structure of your collection. The opening poem is titled, “let me begin by washing my hands.” You explain that these are stories you must tell and names that you must name in the process of cleansing yourself. (Throwback to your excellent review of Joshua Nguyen’s Come Clean!) But your final poem is titled, “satellite call: message failed.” If you could only heal by telling your story, the suggestion is that that this story never makes it all the way through, but is lost somewhere in the ether. In the end, what did writing this collection do for you?

KN: Both of these poems speak to capital-P Poetry. The writer writes because they are yearning to reach somebody. Or at least, that’s how I have always conceptualized my writing. I feel alone, so I’m writing into the void hoping to reach just anybody. Recently, I read this essay by Carl Phillips who likens writing poetry to having faith. You submit to this idea of a higher power, a.k.a. poetry, and you need to have belief that there is someone out there to receive the poem or the prayer. It is not necessarily that healing is achieved through the process of writing the poem. But there is still a desire to be seen, a desire for connection. There is a desire to have your narrative acknowledged. 

SVT: The prayer is not so much about asking for something to happen as just asking to have your prayer heard.

KN: Throughout the collection, you’ll notice satellite calls scattered throughout. It opens with an epigraph from a song by Sara Bareilles, which is where I get the idea of satellite calls. Essentially, I’m declaring that I’m somewhere out in the void, unable to be reached, so I’m screaming in the hopes that someone can hear me, reach me, find me. 

SVT: Considering the reception of your poems, has your message reached someone?

KN: Part of the deal of being a writer is you generally never know what anyone thinks of your writing. I’m a hot mess on my Instagram, and I’m okay with being a hot mess on Instagram. My personal brand is vulnerability. I allow my Instagram followers to take a peek into my life. I’m not going to glamorize the writing life or my life at all. If I’m crying on Instagram, I’m crying on Instagram, and it’s fine! Recently, I went through a break-up, and I was talking very candidly about it and how it impacted my mental health. So many of my Instagram followers reached out to say that this guy is a piece of trash, that he was demeaning my writing but there was no reason for that, because they love my writing and connect with my writing, saying they needed me to keep writing. It was so nice to get these messages to validate what I do. To see tangibly that I am reaching someone. 

Not through writing this collection, but through crying on Instagram have I found people validating my work. Sometimes I am just unhinged, and that is okay! Then I get on Instagram and let everyone know how unhinged I am.

SVT: Does language have anything to do with feeling unhinged? Your poems convey the sense that we are surrounded by language, that language is a living thing and perhaps the most intimate partner that we have. To me, this reads as a very Lacanian way of understanding the split within ourselves. This further maps onto the impossibility of demarcating oneself from one’s family. In a poem addressed to your dad, you write, “joy: when i find it will i get to keep it?” In the process of trying to discover the line between yourself and language, or between yourself and family, we find that this line is not external but internal. 

KN: In that poem, I’m struggling to draw a boundary, while not even knowing where the boundary is. My poem states that my dad brought me here for a purpose, to fulfill a specific role. He brought me here to live vicariously through me, to try to salvage his dreams by hijacking mine. And here I’m declaring that I don’t fill that role, that I cannot fill that role, and trying to break away from that role and from family and reclaim what I think should be mine. I am sifting through the contents of this family relationship to take what is mine and leave what is theirs and absolutely being unable to.

SVT: What’s your zodiac?

KN: I’m a Libra. I’m very indecisive. Absolutely never give me the task of making a decision, because the decision will not be made and float between the two options for all of eternity.

SVT: The Libra is the scale, so it’s concerned with justice and fairness. This is also an interesting way of understanding your collection: the impossibility of ever knowing how to act in accordance with justice. 

KN: I also think that’s why I’m a poet. I’m so agonized by this impossibility. I want everyone to get their cake and eat it too. My poems attempt to explore possibilities where this happens. I was also born in the year of the ox, which also makes me stubborn. So this is a terrible, terrible combination. Because I’m indecisive, committed to everyone getting to have their cake and eat it too, but stubbornly refusing to accept that this is not impossible.

SVT: Stubborn in your indecisiveness.

KN: It’s more that I’m stubborn in my idealism. My dad also calls me his water buffalo, jokingly. My dad grew up on a rice farm, and he had these two little water buffalos. They were his pets. They plowed his rice fields. He has this love-hate relation with them because the animal is so difficult to control. They are stubborn in their own right. He also said they were exceptionally lazy. 

SVT: This commitment to an impossible idealism is visible in the shape of your poems. There is a lot of internal spacing, slashes, footnotes, long lines with indentations. This is a way of representing lack and absence in a more visceral way; and keeping with our conversation, it’s also an attempt to enforce a boundary or a distance between you and those in your life. This is perhaps why most of your poems don’t have stanzas, because it breaks up the poem too conventionally. 

KN: The poem should mimic the interiority of the poet. What a poet brings to the table is this interiority. As a poet with ADHD, I’ve incorporated my thought process to show how these poems came to me. These poems have scattered lines. There are no real line breaks or stanzas. There are just lines and maybe two tabs and another line and another two tabs. This is how the poem came to me. I call it broken rice style. I call each individual line an island of thought. If you think about the blank page as an ocean, and these little things as islands of thought, they do not necessarily need to linearly connect to one another. Even though when I’m writing, they do connect with one another, that is not necessary. In the end, what binds them together is the fact that they exist on the same blank page, the ocean.

SVT: This archipelago would also align with the planetary model of your poems, particularly how your satellite poems are scattered throughout the collection, held together only by the fact of their distance from one another. 

KN: Also in the footnote poems. In the “on being chị hai” poems, the bulk of the poem is in the footnotes. The footnotes take up the most space, but it’s an afterthought. It’s hidden at the bottom. The labor of women is often asked to be hidden in that way, but it does take up the bulk of the space.

SVT: Returning to our discussion on circularity, your “on being chị hai” poems are very circular: “i am the eldest daughter of an eldest daughter of an eldest daughter.” But with each turn of the generational screw, things are both the same and different. This is an invisible circularity.

KN: I’m also thinking about time when I think about form. In my previous collection, ghost in the stalks, the use of the slash is heavy. I abused that slash. In those poems, I wanted the reader to get through the poem as fast as possible. I need you to know all of these ideas at once, and then after you’re finished with the poems, you can sit with all of them together. But with these poems, I’m thinking about pacing differently. I want the reader to meander through these poems, to spend time within the space of the poem, so that the reader can experience the weird acid trip that I’m having with time while I’m writing the poem and thinking about the poem.

SVT: Just like how your attitude towards healing has changed. Where there was once this desire to see everything all at once, that a higher perspective can show you where to move the pieces, you know resign yourself to the fact that there is no perspective outside of time. Healing is not getting outside of history, but is itself embedded in the experience of time. So your poems convey to readers that they have to go through this gradual and laborious process of healing with you. Hence, these encounters with white spaces and distance.

KN: I’m not going to give them all the answers at once anymore.

Here I Am, Burn Me
by Kimberly Nguyễn
Write Bloody Publishing, $17.00

Kimberly Nguyễn is a Vietnamese-American diaspora poet originally from Omaha, Nebraska now living in New York City. Her work can be found in Hobart, Muzzle Magazine, The Minnesota Review, and more. She was a recipient of a Beatrice Daw Brown Prize and a finalist for Frontier’s 2021 OPEN and New Poets Award as well as Palette Poetry’s 2021 Previously Published Poem Prize. She was a 2021 Emerging Voices Fellow at PEN America, and she has a forthcoming collection in Fall 2022.

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.


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