Pacific Rim Review of Books

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The Personal Becomes Political:
The Powerful Intensity of Linh Dinh

Interview by Marianne Villanueva

Linh and I first met at the 2005 Berlin Festival on Southeast Asian Art and Literature, “Sending Signals.” The conference sought to bring together Southeast Asian artists and writers whose work evoked powerful political realities. These artists included such emerging talents as Thai director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang and poet Nguyen Quoc Chanh, whose poetry is banned within Vietnam.

Linh was at the time finishing up a two-year stint in Certaldo, Italy, as a guest of the International Parliament of Writers, and was about to begin a stint as the 2005 David K. Wong Fellow at the University of East Anglia.

These are the essential facts: He was born in Saigon in 1963 and now lives in the United States. He publishes poems in both Vietnamese and English. Among his books in English are two collections of stories: Fake House (2000) and Blood and Soap (2004), both published by Seven Stories Press, and the poetry collections All Around What Empties Out (Tinfish Press, 2003), American Tatts (Chax, 2005), and Borderless Bodies (Factory School, 2006). His latest poetry collection, Jam Alerts, was published last year by Chax. His first novel, Love Like Hate, was published this month by Seven Stories Press, is described by the publisher as “a dysfunctional family saga that doubles as a portrait of Vietnam in the last half century.”

MV: You left Vietnam in March 1975, just a month before the fall of Saigon. And your official biography lists you as having a “fake name”: Ly Ky Kiet. What was its purpose?

LD: In March of 1975, as the shit was about to hit the fan, my father arranged for his secretary, me and my brother to evacuate with a Chinese family. This family had a daughter working for the Americans. In order to safeguard their properties, some of this family chose to stay behind. And they ended up selling my father three spots.

We all took fake names. My brother’s was Ly Ky Vinh. My father hired the secretary to take care of my brother and I. She was 22, Chinese, with a very short temper, and a face that was round and puffy like a dumpling, liberally sprinkled with meaty pimples. I wrote about this episode in “April 30th of Ly Ky Kiet.”

MV: The word “fake” seems to be an important one for you, since I saw it in Blood and Soap, your second story collection, and again in your bio. Does it have special meaning for you? Or am I just reading too much into it?

LD: The two cultures I’m most familiar with, the U.S. and Vietnam, are tremendously fake, but in different ways. During the Vietnam War, the Hanoi government also called the South Vietnamese “nguy,” or “fake” (This term “nguy” is frequently translated into English as “puppet,” but it actually means “fake.”) One of my favorite lines of all time is Elias Canetti’s “She saw behind everything. Behind that, she saw nothing.” So my motto is, “You’ve got to see behind what’s behind,” you’ve got to see beyond the so-called authenticity behind the fakeness.

MV: You write experimentally in both fiction and poetry, and your work seems to consistently break accepted norms in an overt attempt to play with form. What attracts you to this?

LD: I started out as a painter. Working with oil, I strived to improvise, to think, as I was painting. Play was a central concept in my work. I was also a critic. In 1994, I curated a show at Moore College of Art called “Toys and Incense,” a reference to Rimbaud’s “pourquoi pas déja les joujoux et l’encens?” Why not toys and incense already? To play is to experiment, to make things up as you go along. Oil is an endlessly malleable substance, though hardly cooperative, much less so than words, which have the quickness of thoughts. To paint well, one needs tremendous dexterity, to play a musical instrument requires training and skill, but to write well, one merely has to think beautifully and viciously, something countless people are capable of, at least on occasion, I would think.

MV: Where does your attitude – or maybe an “aversion” — to narrative come from?

LD: I actually don’t have an aversion to narrative. There are many relatively straightforward stories in Fake House, and even a few in Blood and Soap. But you’re right, I often employ a collage aesthetics. There are so many ways to create fiction.

MV: Do you have a fear of alienating readers with your experimentation?

LD: Not at all. Like other writers, I want to have as many readers as possible, but I must be true to myself, to my vision, if you will. My interest in writing, my respect and passion for it, takes precedence over my whorish concern for seducing sexy, intelligent readers. Where are they, anyway?

MV: What about your family? Do they read what you write, and what do they think of your art (your painting, poetry, and fiction)? Do they react more strongly to one field than another? And has your family ever tried to influence what you do and/ or write or paint?

LD: My parents hated the fact that I became an artist, then a writer. My father insisted that I become a lawyer, a profession I despise above all others. My parents have been divorced since I was nine years old, by the way. My mother abandoned her two children to be with her new husband, but took me in years later when I had to escape from my deranged, constantly screaming stepmother. My mother’s third husband, a literate guy, encourages her to read me, I think, although her responses range from indifference, to befuddlement, to disgust. She told me that my Fake House disgusted her. Pointing out a minor mistake in one of my translations, she told me to stop translating. My mother has a knack for belittling men. She castrates all the men in her life. My father, on the other hand, is a raving megalomaniac. His solipsism is bathetic. He thought my involvement with art and literature were completely frivolous. When I started to publish in Vietnamese journals, however — when his friends and acquaintances started mentioning my name — his attitude toward me changed. He reads some of my stories in Vietnamese, and when I have a new book out, he buys them by the box-load (at my 50% author’s discount), to give to friends. For the last 10 years, he has actually been supportive of what I do.

MV: I find your stories very chilling, because of the narrator or protagonist’s dispassionate tone when describing the most horrific events. That said, I like your stories precisely because of this tone. Is this a tone you strived consciously to achieve, or did it just come naturally as you contemplated writing about the events that you did?

LD: My tone varies, I think, although the dispassionate voice is probably predominant. In any case, I don’t think about tone as I write, because my preferences for what works (where and how) have been internalized, which is another way of saying that I adjust my tone intuitively.

MV: Which writer positively inspired you and made you think a writing life was possible?

LD: The young Rimbaud for his passion, and Kafka for how he used literature as a tool for survival. He needed to write to understand his predicament.

MV: Which authors influenced you the most when you were just starting to write, and which authors influence you NOW?

LD: When I first started writing, I was very influenced by Kafka, Borges, Céline, Carver, Thomas Bernhard and Nguyen Huy Thiep. Now: Borges, Houellebecq and many of the essayists on the web, writers who comment on the political, social and economic predicaments of America, people like James Howard Kunstler, Joe Bageant and John Zerzan. I also translate constantly, mostly from the Vietnamese, but also from Italian and Spanish, so I’m probably influenced by the writers I translate. Actually, I’m not influenced by anybody. I’m completely original! For poetry, I’ve been influenced by Rimbaud, Vallejo, Michaux, Stevens, Ashberry and maybe Michael Palmer. I’m also a devourer of trash writing, a scuba diver in the ocean of bad English.

MV: So what is your writing process? Do you proceed “line by line”? With the narrative carried by voice rather than by plot?

LD: My writing is “line by line” in the sense that I will improvise from one line to the next, with one sequence of images or ideas suggesting subsequent ones, but I usually start out with a concept, an image seen or imagined, a phrase read or heard, or an ecounter from real life. The genesis of the story “Prisoner with a Dictionary” (in Blood and Soap) was my experience studying an Italian-Italian dictionary. Kafka’s and Borges’ stories are always conceptual. Celine’s prose relies on raw emotions and a vast repertoire of stylistic tricks, anchored with hard-earned, often nearly-lethal experiences. I’ve learnt from all three.

MV: How do you come up with such great titles for your books?

LD: “Fake House” was the nickname of a communal house for artists in Philadelphia, so I just stole that one. “Blood and Soap,” “All Around What Empties Out,” “Borderless Bodies” and “Jam Alerts” are all titles of pieces in the books themselves. I don’t sweat my titles too much.

MV: You seem fearless to me. Were you always this way?

LD: I don’t have anything to lose as a writer or as a person, so what’s to be afraid of? My only fear is wasting the reader’s time. If you want to talk about real courage, then consider the case of poet Nguyen Quoc Chanh, who was with us in Berlin. Chanh lives under a totalitarian government in Vietnam, and yet he writes without the least regard for his personal well-being or safety. His integrity as a writer is unimpeachable. Several times, I’d read a new poem by Chanh and think, “Oh, shit, now they’ll get him,” but his reputation is growing internationally, so maybe the Vietnamese government won’t risk a scandal by messing with Chanh. Knock on wood.

MV: What is most important for you and your writing? Do playing with form and structure sometimes preclude writing with heart?

LD: Never!

Marianne Villanueva is the author of Ginseng and Other Tales from Manila and the collection Mayor of the Roses. She still considers herself a Filipina writer.