For this installment of our interview series with contemporary poets, Peter Mishler corresponded with Diana Khoi Nguyen. A poet and multimedia artist, Diana Khoi Nguyen’s debut collection, Ghost Of (Omnidawn, 2018), was selected by Terrance Hayes for the Omnidawn Open Contest. In addition to winning the 92Y “Discovery” / Boston Review Poetry Contest, 2019 Kate Tufts Discovery Award and Colorado Book Award, she was also a finalist for the National Book Award and L.A. Times Book Prize. A Kundiman fellow, she is currently a writer-in-residence at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, and teaches in the Randolph College MFA and Lighthouse Writers Workshop. This conversation began as a live recording at BookBar in Denver, Colorado.
Peter Mishler: I wanted to start by asking you about the book’s triptychs which are made of both visual and written texts. Could you talk about your experience of making these?
Diana Khoi Nguyen: The triptychs emerged as a response to the silence surrounding an action of my brother’s two years before his suicide. In 2012, in the middle of the night, Oliver took every hanging portrait of the family down from the walls of our childhood home, and carefully sliced his visage out of each photograph before returning the framed pictures back in their places. My parents didn’t notice right away, and when they did, they were alarmed, but couldn’t address it directly with Oliver. They asked me what to do, and I recommended that we talk to Oliver about it. I tried to, and that was the last time I communicated with my brother.
Two years later, Oliver removed himself from the family via suicide; the pictures still hanging in our childhood home like awful portends, and then, memorials. And still, my family wouldn’t talk about these cutout photographs. Around the first anniversary of his death, I wanted to address this silence surrounding the images and what resulted were these triptychs.
There was something about working with what my brother left behind, in finally allowing myself language; this act opened up all the emotions that had been dammed up.
The first part is the photograph, the second part is a word-text which fills in the body that has been cut out, and the third part is my attempt to use poetry as a frame to support the white space, the person who is no longer here. In the photographs, my parents are in their late 20s, early 30s, myself at seven or whatever age I was then. The text of the triptychs is also a way of thinking about time—about who we were then.
I didn’t have the pictures prior to writing the triptychs, so I asked my sister to scan them, which meant she’d have to take them down from the walls of our family home. I said to her, “This is something we are not talking about, that haunts us. And I’m not trying re-traumatize you in doing this but I’m hoping to do something that is reparative or restorative with them.”
So there I was, in the middle of the night, staring at the zoomed in scans. I could see where the X-Acto knife blade cut—all these minute details, like where he missed part of his foot. Did you mean to miss part of your foot there? I had all these mundane questions .
The first impulse was to fill in the white space of the cutout—which is so small. It was a new form which dictated how many words and characters I could use, which was another form of editing which I found really liberating. I didn’t have to think about line breaks—and I also couldn’t finish my sentence since the form would abruptly end. I appreciated the constraint.
The restraint liberated sentiments in me that I had previously been unable to express. Once I started to write within the framework of the photograph it unleashed all these sentiments that I hadn’t been able to admit to myself consciously or say out loud to anyone. And I cried for the first time. I didn’t cry at the funeral and I didn’t cry that whole first year until then. There was something about working with what my brother left behind, in finally allowing myself language, in thinking about my family, our pasts—this act opened up all the emotions that had been dammed up.
PM: I wondered, while reading this collection, about your experience of grief in relation to other members of your family’s experiences.
DKN: Let me share something else about my family. My parents went to work the day after they found his body. They took days off, I mean, for the funeral on Christmas Eve, but they are practical. I think they must’ve thought, “What else are we going to do? Sit around and feel terrible?” As industrious workers who rarely used up their vacation days, my pragmatic parents did not cultivate a family space where we talked about our feelings; we definitely did not cry in front of each other.
There was something in this act that was healing for me, in terms of the process. Once I finished working on one photograph-cutout, I realized that there was a lot of unresolved emotions and histories left in the other remnants. Of course, I couldn’t work on each photograph all at once—I had to take some time in between, because it was also deeply depressing. Each time I sat to write, I had to stare at our past faces, at the void of my brother—I had to return to a place of terrible grief. But it was also vital work—because of the floodgates that opened—I hadn’t known what was trapped, that I had felt numb for so long.
It was my desire to make public what I had not had as company in grief.
So working with the photographs was a cathartic, therapeutic process, so why share this work, why make the private so public (via publication in a book)? To do so renders us vulnerable and naked in our most vulnerable moment as a family. I asked myself this question over and over just before sending it off for consideration. Why include this in a collection?
I will say this: what came out in the filling of those frames and spaces were sentiments that I had not heard other people express whether in the aftermath of death or suicide or any kind of other absence or loss. It was my desire to make public what I had not had as company in grief—to offer this work to others who may have experienced loss as a kind of support system. I wish someone had told me, “You are going to have, or you might have, unseemly, unkind thoughts about the deceased. It’s okay, because I have them too.”
So much decorum is expected at a funeral or wake. But life and death and grief are complicated. My brother was a violent person. There’s a story I don’t tell people: in the years leading up to his death, my parents wouldn’t eat the food in the fridge because they were concerned that my brother might be poisoning them. At the funeral, everyone was talking about Oliver as if he had been a saint. I remember thinking, “No, he was a violent person, he was troubled, why don’t we talk about it frankly?” But no one ever wanted to talk about it frankly. I had complicated feelings—I was angry and I was relieved, I was relieved that my parents didn’t have to live in fear anymore. But that’s a not-nice feeling; I wanted to offer all the feelings—longing, mourning, and not-nice feelings for the sake of transparency.
PM: Could you talk a little bit about your experience with sharing your work with your family, and their thoughts about it?
DKN: Absolutely. It’s important to be transparent about this difficult process when writing directly about people who exist in real life, whether they are family or friends, regardless of whether we change identity markers, such as names.
Some writers wait until the family member written about is deceased, but my family is very much alive, and I include photographs of us together, real identifying information.
Before I continue, I’ll preface this by sharing that my relationship with my mother was fraught for a long time. It has transformed since my brother’s passing, as my parents became aware of the mortality of our family as a unit, so we’ve all adjustments and changes in how we engage with each other.
Several years before my brother’s death, my mother would Google my name on the internet and read anything I had published—a symptom of our non-communication and nearly non-existent relationship. When I finally saw her, things were tense, per usual, and she shared, “I read what you wrote about me.” She was embarrassed, upset with me. She had taken any mother figure in my work to be a direct negative portrayal of her as my mother. When I tried to explain that the figures in the poem weren’t necessarily, and most often were not representations of her, she called bullshit. She said, “If you ever write about me, or our family, I will sue you for slander.”
In typical bratty form, I responded that I wouldn’t agree to what she was asking, knowing the difficult burden of proof slander cases require to hold up in a court of law. I felt at first irked by her request for censorship, but later recognized that my mother felt estranged from me and ultimately wanted a healthier mother-daughter relationship, but didn’t know how to ask for one (can such a thing even be requested?)
DKN: And then my brother died, and I wrote a whole book about our family and suicide’s aftermath. When I was writing, I didn’t worry about my mother’s threat because I didn’t have plans to publish the work, and even if I did, I figured the book would take a long time (years) to get picked up, if it ever did. But I was wrong—the book got picked up immediately.
I have chosen to honor my family but also to honor my own experience as well—reconciling our differences and needs.
Which is to say, I knew I had to speak with my mother and family before the book’s publication. I called my parents and said, “Okay, one, I have a book coming out.” “That’s great!” they replied. Then, I shared, “I know you asked me never to write about family, but I have to tell you what the book is about: I wrote about my personal grief process after Oliver’s death. It’s not directly about either of you, but I did work with the photographs Oliver cut himself out of. Each of you may appear in it in various ways, but my intent was not to say anything negative about anybody. You appear in it because we all are part of this family, but the book is primarily about my grief experience.” My mother paused, then asked when I would become a bestseller like J.K. Rowling. It was as if she hadn’t heard me, but I know she had; she’s very business oriented at times, which I appreciated in that moment.
Later she would ask, “Why does anybody care about your grief?” and she meant it earnestly. It baffled her that anyone outside our family would care about what happened to us, what we went through. When they came to my book launch, I was nervous and very strategic about what I read aloud. To this day, I don’t think my mother has read the book. She doesn’t really read books, and I don’t think she ever will.
There are parts in Ghost Of that refer to a mother-figure. It’s a risk. My mother asked me to write about nature. And, well, I wrote about human nature, knowing well that she probably wanted me to write about flowers. I have chosen to honor my family but also to honor my own experience as well—reconciling our differences and needs. The last thing I wanted was permission to write, permission to publish. Each family operates differently, and I’ve had to tread carefully in sharing my work with my own family.
PM: Throughout the book there are instances that feel like acts of communication on your part with your brother. You are talking about how your relationship with your mother has expanded as a result of your work. Could you talk about the furthering of your relationship with your brother through these poems?
DKN: At the University of Denver (during my PhD), I took a hermeneutics class and one of the assignments was to write a radical eulogy. And the light bulb moment happened, complete with audio: “Bing!”
Even though those two words activated a lot of neural activity, I had to ask myself what they actually meant: “radical eulogy.” At the time, I had been following the Boston Review forum on radical empathy, initiated by Yale psychologist Paul Bloom. He had kicked off the forum with a divisive piece titled “Against Empathy.” Ultimately, Bloom argued for a different kind of empathy, not the one where you put yourself in someone else’s shoes, because in so doing, you put yourselves through the trauma of others, and the cost of doing so is high (emotionally, physically, etc.) Bloom advocated for something akin to sympathy, being with someone who has gone through something traumatic or difficult. Of course, this sparked a lively debate from writers, scientists, and so forth.
I wanted to go in the direction of danger, of discomfort. I asked myself, “What’s the most uncomfortable empathetic thing I can do. Oh, I could try to recreate and retrace my brother’s steps leading up to his suicide, and then build a coffin and then burn that coffin.”
PM: Would you share what you did?
DKN: My brother was cremated in a Buddhist-monk-facilitated ceremony; he was in a cardboard box which was placed inside a coffin. When the time came, we slid the cardboard box into the crematorium chamber; I could see the fire of the oven. It was a terrifying, disturbing moment in the ceremony for me.
Rather than avoid that which terrified me, I wanted to revisit the scary thing and hopefully reduce its negative power over me.
We know my brother ate McDonald’s the night of his death because there were McDonald’s wrappers in the trashcan. Oliver never ate McDonald’s during his life. Isn’t that the rub: you think you know somebody then you find proof otherwise. And then they’re dead and you can’t ask them why. “Why did you eat McDonald’s? Was it to help the medication you took to kill yourself?” I had all these mundane thoughts—not, “Why did you kill yourself,” but “What did you order from McDonald’s?”
In my radical eulogy, I went to McDonald’s and I tried to imagine what Oliver ordered. I don’t eat McDonald’s, either—and made some guesses, brought the food home and ate it. I think I cried while eating all of it—there’s something about trying to imagine someone’s last supper and then replicating it.
After eating, I built a cardboard box, I built the combustible coffin and laid in it every day for 20 minutes. I thought it was going to be terrifying, but it was actually wonderful. And I don’t recommend this for everybody, but I will say this: it is relaxing to lie in a box that’s open on the top. It has tall walls, so you can’t see anything around you—you can only see the sky or the ceiling of your room. Eventually, I took my coffin out into the Colorado mountains. There was something liberating about having blinders on your periphery and being forced to look up. It became this meditative space where I could speak to my brother. In it, I asked him so many questions, mundane and also profane. I don’t think I could have done that normally, while cooking spaghetti or brushing my teeth. There was something about this empathetic act where I felt closer to him because I was attempting not only to retrace what happened to his physical body after he died, but also what happened just before.
The day after Oliver died, my father picked me up at LAX and he was wearing a Carhartt beanie, so I said, “Oh I really like your beanie, Dad, it’s so hip.” He replied, “It was your brother’s.” And I thought, Oh fuck. He went on, “Your brother bought two of everything. Do you want the other one?” And I responded with something along the lines of, “Hell no, get that beanie away from me.” My father wanted to remember and be close to his son, and I wanted to be as far as possible from anything associated with the dead person. And that’s how I felt all that first year.
Doing the radical empathy project allowed me to get closer to Oliver and not be scared; I’m not sure what I was afraid of, maybe that his suicide could be contagious for me as a sibling. With radical empathy, radical eulogy, I could more safely approach communing with him. Of course, all this isn’t literally in the book, but that’s what I was doing while writing the book, and I feel like that energy is present in it.
PM: You mentioned that your brother was cremated in a ceremony conducted by a Buddhist monk, and that made me wonder if you grew up in a family that practiced Buddhism, firstly, and then I wondered about the possible connection between the radical empathy project and Buddhism—are any other relationships between your work as an artist and writer, and Buddhism?
DKN: Honestly, I had thought my family to be Buddhist only culturally—its only manifestations in my life prior to Oliver’s death were the deceased ancestor altars and occasional “blessing” of fruits brought home from the market. I’m not sure if “blessing” is the right word—we would place fruit in front of our Buddha altar for a bit (no more than a day) and could only eat it after it had been at the altar, but not before.
In a way, I was conduit/mediator for the experience to be captured, and now the experience moves elsewhere.
I’m not well-versed in Buddhism or how it handles death and mourning practices, but this is what I recall from Oliver’s funeral: Vietnamese Buddhist monks releasing his spirit from the garage where he killed himself, and the white robes we had to wear during the cremation service. There was a lot of chanting, some wooden percussion instrument. Oliver’s ashes had to remain at the temple for 49 days before my parents retrieved them. They later scattered the ashes from a boat in the Pacific.
As a writer, I don’t think much can be traced between myself and Buddhism, but the idea of feeding the dead does appear in my work. In Vietnamese culture, there is a feast and memorial on the anniversary of each ancestor’s death. It’s like a birthday, but with no birth. A lot of food is prepared, blessed, and eaten—a way for families to come together to remember and honor those who are no longer here.
With my brother, my parents took this a little further: they prepare meals for Oliver’s altar every day, three times a day. I don’t think you’re supposed to eat the food that’s been left out for the dead (it’s their meal), and my parents don’t eat it, but also don’t throw it out since throwing out food is wasteful. So they have my sister or me (when I’m visiting) eat it. Which is funny to me—I’m not superstitious nor am I religious, but every now and then I think: I’m eating the pre-eaten meal of the dead. Does that mean the oatmeal is soulless?
PM: What kind of life or presence does the book have for you now that it has been out in the world for over a year? Could you talk a little about your understanding of the relationship between a poet and her collection after gaining some distance from its inception and completion?
DKN: Thank you for asking this—I wish I had thought about this prior to the book’s publication, or at least that someone could have prepared me. Absolutely the book has its own life once it’s published and available for others—strangers, people I might never meet.
I believe my role was to introduce it as an offering, to help others read and hear it the way that it reads to me—the way that I hear it in my head. But then, it’s a beautiful thing for the book to continue on without my mediation—and necessary, too.
Now, I find myself wanting to move past the book. That is, to stop reading from it, as doing so not only brings me back to a very difficult moment in my life, but also to focus on my current projects which extend beyond poetry on the page.
A friend once said it’s like a parent-child relationship: you produce it, and it’ll always be a part of you, but it’s off traveling, living simultaneously in other worlds, with other people. In a physical sense, it won’t die in the same way that a parent will, but it can go unnoticed or live a lot longer in others’ consciousnesses than you, the parent, will. And I’m grateful for this—all the possibilities. The book-child was like a door, re-entry into life, out of a terrible moment in my life. It was painful, but it helped me renew faith in life, in the future. And now the book lives on elsewhere with others (maybe). From the few strangers I’ve met at readings—it appears the book has helped them with their grief and traumas similarly. The credit is with the book, not really with me.
In a way, I was conduit/mediator for the experience to be captured, and now the experience moves elsewhere. The experience being Ghost Of, that is.
It doesn’t mean that the grief or traumas of my life are resolved, that I’m all healed, but that time has passed, I have done the work of Ghost Of, and now I’m doing other work. I may return to concepts of grief, but I’m not the same now as I was before Ghost Of, if that makes sense. As if I’ve traversed along the non-linear, endless journey of mourning, which is survival and living.
PM: What’s the strangest thing you know to be true about the art of poetry?
DKN: The first thing that comes to mind is Snow White. Not Snow White herself, but the queen who consults the mirror which acts as a kind of oracle. Am I full of shit today, poem? I think I’m like the queen: I do do that.
Sometimes I think I know what’s going to happen in a poem because I have some awareness of what’s going on in my own mind at the moment. But when I start to work on a poem, the poem shows me otherwise—I didn’t and don’t know anything at all. I didn’t realize I was going to write about that, or I realize, Oh no, I am obsessed with this. Somehow the latent topics emerge. Of course, it’s not precisely like this, 1:1, but the poem-mirror-oracle offers me information in augury form.
I realized this during undergraduate and graduate creative writing workshops when I offered my work to the room, and the other writers would begin talking about my work and immediately I would feel very naked, very seen—a panic: How could these relative strangers know these inner thoughts I’ve never shared? That I didn’t think the poem was sharing? But they didn’t know, they were just talking about the poem, as close readers. But in their discussion, I saw myself bare on the table and felt terrified.
I can’t hide from myself. In poetry, the latent, existential ineffable can be transformed via my imagination. Since coming to this realization, I try to call myself out when I’m exhibiting avoidant behavior, or trying to obscure something. I write to confront myself on the page; this might not be how it is for others, but it continues to be true for me.