Nhà Home

A collective poem

Photo by Valerie Katz.

This poem was collectively written by the first cohort for DVAN Writers’ Residency, held in September 2023 and funded by the Luce Foundation. The 2023 DVAN Writers’ Retreat in Southern France was designed to create a relaxing environment and rejuvenating experience, allowing our writers to connect and exchange ideas.

The residency’s cohort were: Doan Bui, Thi Bui, Anna Moï, Hoai Huong Aubert-Nguyen, Vaan Nguyen, Bao Phi, Paul Tran, and Vu Tran.


Nhà is in my lost name. The name I relinquished.
I am the snake, I change my skin.
I put my white skin on, my name vanished.
I dug into the earth, covered my nhà with soil.
It is a dark cave with all things lost.
My mother tongue and lullabies
Bà ngoại’s voice chanting kinh.


My mom asked me what I want and I said I just want a safe place to raise my child.
My mom scoffed and said, in Vietnamese, no place is safe.
She says it like I am the idiot for believing such a thing,
That I forgot how many times I, she, we were nearly killed.
The stores burned down, the extinguishers still spouting water,
Running in rivulets out the broken glass door and into the parking lot.
Different time, different place.
A few days ago, she told me I wasn’t welcome in her home anymore.
I wondered if she would take down the pictures of me with her grandchild
At different stages of life, the pictures she put up but forgets to dust.


The nhà was in our red lands, said, the lands that we lost.
The earth was red as ruby, said, red as blood.
I don’t have any nhà not anymore, she says. My only nhà is you, my children with no skin.
I tried to give the lost nhà. But I could not.
I am the snake, I change my skin.
I searched the nhà in blank pages. Could only find the void.


Home—as a place or as a feeling—has always been elusive to me.
I arrived in the new homeland as a refugee at the age of five,
and of course, growing up there as a displaced immigrant
in a homogeneous environment, diminished and distorted my sense of home,
Which started more, I must say, with us: the isolated, protective, and restrictive
ways my parents raised me and my two siblings, the fractured nature of so many relationships
in my life growing up, often modeled for me by the people who had the most power
in my immediate and extended family.


Come closer. The Vietnamese word for “house,” at a distance,
not unlike the Pacific separating
my mother from hers, looks
to be the Vietnamese word for “memory.”


Memory is a house where nothing can be
touched, even the mind covered in plastic. Memory contains “me”
in it. As a child, I pronounced
the English word for “oneself” as the Vietnamese word for “mother.”
Let’s go home. Such a simple thing to say.
“Go” + “home.”
Many oldies in Orange County have been heard claiming:


I yearn for a dying spot where the Blue Dragon reigns.
I want to go home and lie my bones in the motherland soil
Under a mound of earth, away from a hilltop—where my body 
might slide to the bottom
Away from a stream that might sweep me to the ocean—
Home to some of us, those who have fled on dinghies or larger ships,
Ocean, their last home. 


And then the oldies never went home. Forever disorientated.
Not knowing whether home is a city or a country
Or a place of memory.


“There is no music in your writing,” she says. “Where is your skin? “
My words are too plain, she’s right, I am the snake without a skin.
I dream to give her the red lands, red as ruby, red as blood.
But my hands are bare. I have no skin.
The nhà is hidden in my words. Words are black spiders.
I am a nhà văn, not a nhà khoa, I broke her dreams.
Spiderwebs heal the wounds they say.
Home is where the spider is.
Remembrance of things past.
Where is my Nhà, where is my skin.


In these 3 letters
echoing in silence,
Dream of a boat, a leaf, a feather,
Sliding on water.
For our home is a floating world
The stream is made of scent and blood like Sông Hương,
Of ink and wine as the Seine.
It leads–who knows where,


But in its depth,
I can see colours which are burning to be seen,
hear voices which are yelling to be heard
and unknown faces—radiant seeds which will grow in sparkling waves
gushing to the sky.


Again, it can begin there. (How can it not?)
But for me—and perhaps more for me than most people—
it can’t only be that. For me, home can only be sustained from within.
From within and, only then, from without.


From the platonic, professional, and romantic bonds I choose to make and keep.
From the house I choose to live in and share with others.
From the places I choose to work in and frequent.
From the art and the culture and the ideas and the sounds
and the colors and the weather I surround myself with.


From everything and (most importantly) everyone who gives me stability
but can also challenge and expand me for the better,
whatever that might mean.


A bird
Still needs to sleep.
Cut through sky,
Razor wire and free,
Where does it hide
From the too wide open?


How does it calm
The beating of its fierce and tiny chest
Except sheltered
At least
At peace.


I wonder if someone who grew up an orphan or adoptee,
born into little that was naturally theirs, would say this.
I wonder if they’d think I was asking for too much.


“Home” requires some stable level of familiarity,
knowability, affirmation, hope, and possibility.
Without any of that, even the aspects of a life that feel like home
can only feel that way at a distance, with conditions.
But perhaps I’m asking for too much.


I gave up this house
Everyone left.
Later I will ask my mom if she
Remembers your name,
But she’ll only say:
I wish I could remember
The wave deleted
(She only remembers they
Were left with no water to
A home,
Is where my mom starts all
Over again, daily.


More and more, I believe what most affected me
was the absence of community and openness within
and around my own family.


In such an environment, one’s family can still provide love,
protection, intimacy, and familiarity, but again
only at a distance, conditionally and partially.
That might be why the larger world beyond my family life
—like the neighborhood I grew up in, my hometown, my home state, in some ways America itself—
has never quite given me that enduring sense of home I need.
But again, maybe I ask for too much.


I’ve come to think of “home”
as something that begins but cannot end with family
—that is, anything that we were born into.


I live with my mother in that house called Memory.
We trapped ourselves inside
trying to keep ourselves
safe from the future pounding the front door


like a father whose name I no longer say, hiding
what was left of ourselves
from the present hiding from us in the shadows of shadows.
Was that the purpose for being alive, to go on


for as long as we can? Only now
do I see the “or” in memory and not the Latin for “death.”  Perhaps
It’s possible to let distance, like the Pacific, shrink.
If memory were a house, we built it. With these hands.


Tell me we can tear it down to make room
for ourselves, the present and the future: twin buds that bloom
only in mud, pines rising as if swords,


striking the sunless sky, blades made by an ancient fire.


Doan Bui is a French writer and journalist born in Le Mans. She received the Prix Albert-Londres 2013 for her report “Les Fantômes du Fleuve” on migrants trying to penetrate Europe in Greece through Turkey, published by Nouvel Observateur. In 2016, she was awarded the Prix Amerigo Vespucci and Prix de la Porte Dorée for her memoir Le Silence de mon père (Éditions L’Iconoclaste, 2016). Her first novel La Tour (éditions Grasset, 2022) was shortlisted for the Goncourt 1er Roman and Orange prize and was awarded with Prix Asie 2022, Prix “Littérature de L’exil” and Prix Jean Cocteau/Maisons Laffitte. She is also a screenwriter for two graphic novels with illustrator Leslie Plée.

Thi Bui was born in Vietnam and came to the United States in 1978 as part of the “boat people” wave of refugees fleeing Southeast Asia at the end of the Vietnam War. Her debut graphic memoir, The Best We Could Do (Abrams ComicArts, 2017) has been selected for an American Book Award, a Common Book for UCLA and other colleges and universities, an all-city read by Seattle and San Francisco public libraries, a National Book Critics Circle finalist in autobiography, and an Eisner Award finalist in reality-based comics. It made over thirty “Best Of” 2017 book lists, including Bill Gates’ top five picks. She illustrated the picture book, A Different Pond (Capstone, 2017), written by the poet Bao Phi, for which she won a Caldecott Honor. With her son, Hien, she co-illustrated the children’s book, Chicken of the Sea (McSweeney’s, 2019), written by Pulitzer winner Viet Thanh Nguyen and his son, Ellison. Her short comics can be found online at The Nib, PEN America, and BOOM California. She is currently researching and drawing a work of graphic nonfiction about immigrant detention and deportation, to be published by One World, Random House.

Anna Moï was born in Vietnam in 1955, she left for Paris, France in the 1970s but returned to live in Saigon from 1992 to 2011. A fashion designer before devoting herself to writing, she is the author of a dozen books written in French (short stories, novels, poetic essay, travel book, journal). Her first novel published by Gallimard in 2004, Riz Noir, placed her on the international literary scene. The Littérature-Monde prize crowned her novel The Butterfly’s Venom (Gallimard, 2017), and her latest novel Twelve Palaces of Memory (Gallimard, 2021) has received the Renaissance-française Prize. In 2022, the French Academy awarded her the Grand Prix Hervé Deluen for her oeuvre.

Hoai Huong Nguyen is a French-speaking Vietnamese novelist and poet. She teaches communications at the University of Versailles. She has published four novels and three collections of poetry, and has received literary prizes in France (Prix de la Renaissance française, Prix Marguerite Audoux, Prix littéraire Asie de l’Adelf, Belgium (Prix Première-RTBF) and in Switzerland (Prix du salon du livre de Genève) for her novels.

Vaan Nguyen was born in 1982 in Ashkelon, Israel, and raised in Jaffa, near Tel Aviv. Her debut collection The Truffle Eye (Hebrew: Ma’ayan, 2008; English: trans. by Adriana X. Jacobs, Zephyr Press, 2021) received an enthusiastic reception when it appeared as a print and digital chapbook in 2008. In a review titled “The Critic in Love” in Ma’ariv, Menachem Ben, a prominent literary and cultural critic, situated Nguyen’s work among the luminaries of Israeli literature. “Not since Yona Wallach in the sixties, seventies, and eighties have we witnessed such a phenomenon—a poet whose first book positions her at the center of Israeli poetry.” The Truffle Eye won the 2022 Harold Morton Landon Translation Award.

A two-time Minnesota Grand Slam champion and a National Poetry Slam finalist, Bao Phi has appeared on HBO Presents Russell Simmons Def Poetry, featured in the live performances and taping of the blockbuster diasporic Vietnamese variety show Paris By Night 114: Tôi Là Người Việt Nam, and a poem of his appeared in the 2006 Best American Poetry anthology. His poems and essays are widely published in numerous publications including Screaming Monkeys and Spoken Word Revolution Redux. A short story of his, “Revolution Shuffle,” appeared in the anthology Octavia’s Brood: Stories from Social Justice Movements (AK Press, 2015) and an essay of his was included in the anthology A Good Time for the Truth, edited by Sun Yung Shin (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2016).

Paul Tran is the author of the debut poetry collection, All the Flowers Kneeling (Penguin, 2022). Their work appears in New York Times, New Yorker, Best American Poetry, and elsewhere. They earned their BA in History from Brown University and MFA in Poetry from Washington University in St. Louis. Winner of the Discovery/Boston Review Poetry Prize, as well as fellowships from the Poetry Foundation, Stanford University, and the National Endowment for the Arts, Paul is an Assistant Professor of English and Asian American Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Vu Tran is the author of Dragonfish (W.W. Norton, 2015)—a New York Times Notable Book and an SF Chronicle Best Books of the Year—and a forthcoming novel, Your Origins. His writing has also appeared in the O. Henry Prize Stories, the Best American Mystery Stories, Ploughshares, Virginia Quarterly, and New York Times. Born in Vietnam and raised in Oklahoma, Vu received his MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and his PhD from the Black Mountain Institute in Las Vegas, and is also the recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award and fellowships from the NEA, MacDowell, Yaddo, and Bread Loaf. He teaches English and Creative Writing at the University of Chicago, where he is an Associate Professor of Practice in the Arts.


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