Diana Khoi Nguyen

“I’m no shaman; I don’t know how to exorcise ghosts or unhaunt myself or others. But I can be patient with life and its processes—I can be witness to what I notice, and not give power to harmful forces with my silence.”

– From a conversation with Diana Khoi Nguyen

Fish by Lilly Lam

“Fish,” illustration by Lilly Lam.

“Would That” (Attribution: Diana Khoi Nguyen, Creative Commons)

DIANA KHOI NGUYEN: A CONVERSATION

How can we move across time/history, space, and distance to reach our loved ones, our ancestors, even strangers?

Through attention. Whether that be in the form of writing poems (or other collected words), or composed music, through dance—any of the arts, really. Even by the evocation in our minds of a loved one (living or deceased), ancestors, strangers—thinking of them brings them immediately to us, though not necessarily vice versa. But isn’t reaching at its minimalist just a unidirectional movement? Yearning. Remembrance. Imagination is a conjuring of what we know, miss, recall. As a non-scientist, that’s time/space travel to me. I do it every day. It is how I am able to be with the people of my life—perhaps in that sense, when I think of them, am I not a ghost to them? Does my attention not render me a haunting?

I’m struck by how we want to be seen and how we want to see, even when we can’t do so physically. You write of your bother: “He stole garnishes off my plate/waiting for me to notice.” Can you speak a bit about this need, this desire to be noticed? And the desire to notice, even after loss?

There’s this petty instinct within me that I’m on/off abashed about. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it, and my laywoman’s thinking goes like this: I was an only child for two years, less if you count my sister’s time in the womb and the attention pregnancy garners. I can’t say I recall being jealous, nor are there any familial accounts of jealousy, but I do remember feeling shame at my gender and sex when my parents rejoiced so vocally after birthing my brother. I was five at the time, and I (perhaps selectively) remember my parents talking about the significance and fortune having a son brought to the family. There was all this emphasis on having sons (not atypical of course in an Asian household), so much so that I also remember my mother swearing by some foolproof method to conceive a boy, which sounded absurd even to a five year-old.

It wasn’t that I was jealous once my brother was born, but I was deeply angry—angry at how all the rules and discipline applied to my sister and me were disregarded because my brother was a cherished son—a boy. I felt like I was constantly warning my parents: “You’re spoiling him and you’ll regret giving in to all his whims!” I had dreams in which he was king, and I was cast out of the kingdom, ignored. This is all a very boring and bratty way for me to say that I didn’t believe my parents noticed me or my sister in the same way that they noticed (and revered) my young brother.

I think I was right. They did spoil him, and when he came of age for schooling, my parents tried to apply the same rigorous academic standards that they held for my sister and me. Unaccustomed to rules and discipline, my brother did not respond well.

The poem from which you quote—speaks to the ways in which I saw my brother retreat from our family and ultimately from life. My siblings and I faced so much scrutiny as young children—by our parents, our many aunts, uncles, and grandparents. There was a fierce sense of competition between my mother and her siblings, and this competition applied their children; I responded with a “don’t-give-a-fuck” black sheep attitude, but the scrutiny really ate at my brother. He didn’t want to be noticed. He wanted to be loved and cherished for who he was. I understood that; I sought and still seek that kind of love.

After my brother’s suicide, I can’t help but remember and notice seemingly mundane details of his life, of our overlapped time together. Of course, there’s the searching for clues, a mythical trail that answers the question Why? But it’s not a grand mystery to me. It very easily could have been me in that cardboard cremation box inside the decorative casket.

There’s a second part to the pettiness inside of me. Even in his absence, my parents continue to dedicate even more resources and care to the remembrance of my brother. Which is to say, I continue to go unrecognized in their eyes, and I’ve grown accustomed to this type of familial love. It would be a lie to say that it does not hurt me, nor would have I previously admitted that it does pain me, but of course it does; I no longer struggle against it.

Since this loss, I now pay acute attention (I notice!) so much around me—as if I had brushed close to death—well, didn’t I? I’m not sure I could explain to anyone why he died and I didn’t. I see my parents now, not as titans, but as aging refugees who tried to build in America what they had learned from their motherland. They live with deep loss now, but see the mistakes and joys of their lives, and persevere with a resilience I continue to admire.

I’m not sure I am even answering the question here. I think it’s essential to notice and be noticed by those we love and care about—family, friends, loved ones. To pay attention to the world from which we take resources, to notice before there is absence, deep loss. And it’s equally important to see ourselves, as much as our capacities will allow. I think such attention and attunement enable us to minimize harm.

In your poems, violence is a constant undercurrent, running through the deeply personal, but also collective (the violence of the larger world). In your poems, I feel like the darkness — which should be buried beneath — comes up. And thinking about the power of haunting, how does this “coming up” of darkness and violence give you a sense of control, agency (if it does)?

I think you’re spot on: when I allow violence and darkness to emerge in a poem, I have given myself agency to shed light on what would otherwise go unspoken. I don’t think I am ever in full control of anything, certainly not in any of my poems—but yes, I have a sense of control insofar as I have captured fragments of these things in words.

But let me put it in a different way. I’ve always been averse to the power we inadvertently give to particular topics, and have taken a very egalitarian approach to taboo words and subjects; I’m not going to go out of my way to say unsavory or inappropriate things, nor will I actively try to offend, but I’m not going to shy away from anything (if I deem it relevant), either.

So many things haunt us—collectively and individually. The only way to reduce the negative effects of these hauntings—to reduce their power, is to increase the power we have within us. A good friend recently told me to sit and allow for all my feelings (good and bad) to naturally occur. And to identify them, one by one, but not to struggle with or against them, or even try to resolve them. But to notice them, name them, and let them be. I’d like to apply this approach to the things which haunt us. I’m no shaman; I don’t know how to exorcise ghosts or unhaunt myself or others. But I can be patient with life and its processes—I can be witness to what I notice, and not give power to harmful forces with my silence.

How can haunting be productive — moving toward the ghost (not a burden)?

I think haunting (moving toward the ghost) can be productive when it is an active form of wrestling with oneself. My rational self understands that all hauntings, all ghosts that I’ve experienced are of my mind’s own making. Then to move toward these persistent figures who demand to be seen, felt, remembered—is a movement toward those drawers in the attic of my mind. It is productive to confront oneself, whether through the ghosts we’ve conjured (knowingly or not) or via a therapist (someone trained to see all of me, my ghosts, who seeks to guide me to keep myself from harm).

Of course, it can feel burdensome—confrontation of anything is heavy work. I cannot do it in any other way than through poetry; the page seems a safe place for me to capture these presences, to construct the maze, house, field in which to engage with them—though I do not necessarily seek to resolve their existence. I want to learn all that I can from them about them, about myself, about this world and any others. The poem is a checkpoint at the border of the mind. Never do I bear arms. We must minimize harm.

GHOST OF

1

The night before their youngest child is born, a man and woman watch Oliver Twist (1948), name their only son Oliver. The family rejoices and for several years indulge their newest member, even though they are industrious refugees who previously celebrated nothing, even though they also have two daughters.

The eldest daughter resembles her brother until she wakes up one morning from a dream in which he was a tyrant. Soon after, her hips widen, one lone hair grows in her armpit. Sometimes the daughter feels like a son and sometimes the son feels like a shadow—like hosiery, alienable—he says to his first grade teacher: “You can’t draw inside the body. So why try to draw what’s inside the body at all?”

2

If one has no brother, then one used to have a brother. There is, you see, no shortage of gain and loss.

Let’s admit without embellishment what we do with each other. When the daughter begins to walk, it is apparent that she ambles pigeon-toed. A doctor tells her alarmed parents that no surgery is needed, just some rollerskating. Each day after work, the father helps his daughter stay upright on her skates.

If you have a father, then you also have a son.

A child has difficulty weaning from nursing bottle to glass of milk. Concise in her expression of impatience, the mother pours a gallon of milk over the girl’s head.

A tiger came across a donkey and having never seen a donkey before, mistook it for a god.

After everyone has gone to bed, an eldest child hoists her younger brother over her shoulders, then a sheet over his shoulders, and they sway as one into the middle sister’s room.

Who is weak and who is weaker and what does relativity have to do with it?

3

Let me tell you a story about refugees. A mother and her dead son sit in the back seat of his car. It’s intact, in their garage, and he is buckled in; she brushes the hair behind his ear. This is the old country and this is the new country and the air in the car is the checkpoint between them.

Let me tell you a story about seat belts. While driving her children to the local pool, a mother enumerates to her children their failures.There was a mother, she says, who put her children in a car, sewing their seat belts so they couldn’t unbuckle them, who drove them off a seaside cliff.

A boy on a unicycle goes round and round a lighthouse, dodging tourists, ridicule, and awe. He doesn’t go up, he doesn’t fall down.

Son, says the mother, meaning child not her husband. Son, says the father, whose name is Son. Sister, says the son, lying in a coffin. To hell with family, says the rest of the family.

4

A brother is a brother when he has at least one sibling. The brother believes he is not a brother but one in name only.

When the brother meets a couple his parents’ age, he takes the time to tell them he’s an only child and an orphan. The three of them agree that one must not be without family, that there must be at least two in a family, that three is even better. They embrace and the couple encourages the brother, the brother waiting for the other shoe to drop. Whose shoe? His or the couple’s?

Five pairs of shoes dangle from the pole of a traffic light. Over time, birds make a nest in each hollow, each separate space.

Put yourself in someone else’s bird nest.

5

“Your hat is Mexican … ?” asks a sailor in Côte d’Azur.

“No, it’s Moroccan.”

“Are you from Japan?” asks a Moroccan shopkeeper in Marseille.

“No, I’m American.”

Is belonging and fulfillment possible without family? No. Is it possible with family? No.

You cannot connect if you keep answering no.
 You cannot keep your brother alive if you keep your mouth shut. You cannot keep your brother alive.

At camp, some counselors take the kids on an excursion into the woods, leading them in a game of hide-and-seek. One boy, a deaf child who was also going blind, hid so well that they couldn’t find him and he didn’t find his way back. He had done everything right—

Nabokov says, “The lost glove is happy.”

Is the lost brother happy?

6

A man lies in an open grave after a body is taken out of it. This practice is said to lengthen life expectancy. The brother imagines his bed is a nest in which his body is removed.

There’s a story about a man galloping by another man who asks, “Where are you going?”

“Ask my hearse,” says the man.

“I was never lost in the jungle,” says a father, “just looking for a way out.”

“Ghost Of” appeared in The American Poetry Review. Reprinted with permission of the author.