Meditations on Green, Grief, and Girlhood: Talking with Susan Nguyen

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Susan Nguyen’s Prairie Schooner Book Prize-Winning debut poetry collection, Dear Diaspora, is an unapologetic reckoning with history, identity, and memory. The collection asks very early, “Do you feel safe wrecking language?” and continues to decipher girlhood, familial trauma, and otherness through that lens. Through the epistolary title poems, the poet builds kinship with other members of the diaspora in the background of an engulfing whiteness. She asks what it means to live with the inheritance of grief and trauma while the past continues to haunt the present. And the abrasions of the present, in the form of racial violence, speak directly to the Vietnamese-American experience. The child-like voice of the central character, Suzi, and her contemplations around belonging lend the poems a tone of innocent questioning. Nguyen, through her adept use of repetition and parsing prose poems in intervals, allows her poems to call to each other.

Nguyen, who hails from Virginia, earned her MFA in Poetry from Arizona State University. She won the Aleida Rodriguez Memorial Prize and fellowships from the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing. In 2018, PBS NewsHour named her one of “Three Women Poets to Watch.” Her work appears in Diagram, Tin House, and elsewhere. She currently works as university staff at ASU in student retention.

I spoke to Nguyen while she was virtually touring the country and sending out zines that she loves making.

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The Rumpus: The poems in Dear Diaspora all evoke a sense of green. It’s on the cover as well. At one point a speaker asks, “When did you lose the color green?” What is the significance of the color green in the book to you?

Susan Nguyen: I’m so happy that green is on my cover! My obsession with the color green has been growing and evolving for a long time, and when I was writing many of the poems in this collection it was one of the words that kept reappearing. So many images were linked to green in part because I write a lot of nature imagery. The green hills and mountains of Virginia, trees, fireflies—all are a part of my memory-scape so they show up in Suzi’s coming of age too. Then in researching the Vietnam War and its aftermath, the color green [and] its absence was another access point to interrogating war and diaspora.

Green also holds an emotional pull for me. During my last year of my MFA, I was in Natalie Diaz’s class on grief and ecstasy, so those notions appear in the manuscript quite a bit even though I think only one or two poems from the collection were written for that class. In exploring what grief and ecstasy might mean to me and the potentially tenuous line between the two, the color green shows up as a connective tissue.

Rumpus: I am amazed by the structure of the book, specifically the recurrence of the titular poem, “Dear Diaspora,” with multiple renditions and revisions that keep becoming more and more personal. One of the first ones is called the “american dream” and it subverts all expectations. What pushed this sectioning and the progression?

Nguyen: Thank you! All of the “Letter to the Diaspora” poems started as different sections of one longer serial poem. It was at the advice of a mentor that I tried breaking that poem apart to see what sections could stand alone. Considering each epistolary as its own poem allowed me to focus on making each one stronger on its own terms. I knew I wanted these poems dispersed throughout the collection, although I had no idea that my manuscript would eventually be titled Dear Diaspora. Each rendition is a new way to grapple with the diaspora, and it felt very empowering to be able to write directly to and about something that has always felt so abstract, even while being a part of it.

Rumpus: I felt that “Suzi’s Mother Does Nails” was in direct conversation with the murders of Asian-American women in Atlanta in 2021. What led you there?

Nguyen: I actually wrote this poem years before the Atlanta shootings, and I see this poem as documenting history, although perhaps not in an explicit way.

After the Vietnam War ended, many Vietnamese refugees—the ones who survived the journey—stayed at refugee camps in the United States. The actress Tippi Hedren during this time was doing humanitarian aid, helping Vietnamese refugees find a way to make a living in a new country after potentially losing everything. At one refugee camp in California, she brought out her personal manicurist to teach a small number of Vietnamese women how to do nails as a part of vocational training and the rest is history. Now, Vietnamese Americans make up a large portion of the nail salon industry, and I have family members who have been a part of that industry over the years. I wrote this poem with this history in mind and also because I’ve seen the notion of Vietnamese nail techs become a trope or a joke before. I’m not sure how many people know the context for how Viet folk got into the industry, but I didn’t want to ignore this reality.

Rumpus: In your work you contemplate language and Vietnamese-American identity deeply. What did it mean to write this collection in English? How do you deal with that as a poet?

Nguyen: Even though the English language can be, and is, alienating, I’ve come to realize that I feel more at home in it than in Vietnamese. Which is to say that English is what comes easier. I’d say my Vietnamese language skills are conversationally very basic. I took Vietnamese language courses all three years of my MFA, and that opened up a lot of doors for me. It allowed me to share language and vulnerability with my parents in new ways, and it also created more room for play.

I did write a decent amount of poems that code switched between English and Vietnamese, but many of those did not make their way into Dear Diaspora mostly because they just weren’t that good. I still write about language a lot, and the connection between language and identity formation and the tension between feeling more at home in a language that isn’t the language of my “homeland” is something that I’m still navigating in my work and in my day-to-day life. For me, there’s definitely a sense of loss. I spent so much time assimilating growing up that I didn’t realize how many Vietnamese I didn’t know or was losing in the process.

The writer R.O. Kwon recently tweeted “a small big thing in THE CHAIR that made me emotional: seeing Sandra Oh’s character talk in English to her father as he replies in Korean, do you know how often I’ve seen this extremely common dynamic onscreen, almost never.” I think a lot of diaspora kids like me can probably relate to that. I write about language—losing it, learning it, the vulnerability in all of that—but I think I’m still learning to forgive myself for not being fluent in Vietnamese and losing this integral part of understanding my parents, my culture.

Rumpus: When a poem mentions Suzi, the voice of the child speaker becomes primary. As a reader, I felt most seen by Suzi: “eating too much ketchup might turn you / pink” and “God can hear her / thinking of sex” evoke both innocence and fear. How did you achieve a speaker that can transition between these voices?

Nguyen: Writing the third-person Suzi poems gave me, in a sense, permission to access and write about a different part of myself and my experiences. I mostly write in first-person but switching to writing about a character that wasn’t me gave me some much-needed (at the time) distance. I could step out of myself even though Suzi is a version of me. It unblocked whatever part of my brain was blocked. I don’t know if I could have held my past self with as much tenderness as I do in this collection if it weren’t for the Suzi poems.

Rumpus: You use a lot of different forms. I am specifically intrigued by the prose poems that comfortably sit between others. What is your perception of a prose poem in the world of poetry?

Nguyen: I think it goes back to the previous question: I was struggling to write about my childhood and adolescence but I wanted to convey growing-up-Vietnamese-in-the-90s-and-early-2000s-in-Virginia, which is how I arrived at Suzi as a character in the first place. When writing the Suzi poems, they all came out as prose poems. In the end, I kept them that way because I wanted them to be consistent in form especially as the manuscript came together and I saw that my other poems were all so visually different from one another.

Rumpus: The influence of the church and whiteness is apparent in the speaker’s life in your poems. How did your lived experiences shape this aspect of your work?

Nguyen: It’s cringe-y saying this now but I grew up wanting to be white, or at least to stay within the perimeter of whiteness that I thought meant acceptance. For a while I avoided things that were too overtly “Asian.” I remember in middle school everyone was reading manga, even my white friends, but I refused to for the longest time because I didn’t need another thing to highlight my Asian-ness. When friends said I was “pretty white for an Asian person,” I took that as a compliment.

I remember Lucy Liu being one of the few big-name Asian-American celebrities that I actually knew, and I had a few “Letter to Lucy Liu” poems in an earlier version of Dear Diaspora that didn’t make it into the book. In “Charlies Angels,” Suzi wants to emulate Lucy Liu because she’s a famous Asian-American actress but more specifically, it’s Lucy Liu’s freckles that she envies. Freckles always felt like a white person thing growing up.

Rumpus: I am amazed by the sense of repetition in the language and structure. Can you tell us more about your ideas about repetition in poetry?

Nguyen: To be honest, I think when I am highly interested or invested or obsessed with something, it keeps reappearing in my work, and I’ve been trying to lean into that to see what might come out of it.

I mentioned earlier that I was in Natalie’s Grief and Ecstasy class during the last year of my MFA when I was working on the foundations of this manuscript, which is a big reason why both those concepts appear throughout. As I slowly began compiling some poems together into what felt like it could be a manuscript, I decided not to feel too self-conscious about recurring imagery or language, and to instead see what kind of thread or arc the repetition was creating. When ordering my manuscript though, Natalie encouraged me to layer these threads—to not necessarily present each thread back-to-back in the book or even chronologically. Ordering was a huge pain, to be honest. I struggled. But I’m happy that I centered myself and the complexity of the diaspora. Hopefully Dear Diaspora reflects this.

I’ve been reminded a lot recently to question who typically gets centered in our texts and in prevalent narratives, and who I am writing for.

Rumpus: I really like the notion that actively thinking of who you are writing for and toward is important. Can you talk a bit more about that? Was this something that came to you after you completed the manuscript?

Nguyen: When I’m writing, I’m not thinking much of the audience. But now that my collection is out, I’ve become increasingly aware of what readers I hope Dear Diaspora will find its way to. I hope my book will make its way into the hands of other diaspora folk, both those specifically in the Vietnamese diaspora and beyond. I’ve seen and been tagged in some folks’ posts about the book that have mentioned feeling “seen,” which absolutely floors me. I’ve also seen comments that say they’re not into the book or not getting it, which brought back all sorts of imposter syndrome, like was my book worthy of publication? To win an award? To be out in the world and read by others?

The answer, I’m reminding myself, is yes.

I was lucky enough to be able to attend the Tin House Summer Workshop earlier this year and in listening to the wonderful talks that week, I was reminded again how important it is to center yourself in your work and not others’ expectations or desires. So I’ve been returning to that idea now that my collection is out, and remembering that my book does not have to be linear or straightforward or any specific way. For my collection, I actually spent a lot of time trying to weave in different threads to further complicate the narrative and reading experience.

I wrote this book because I wanted to see myself, and I’m so happy that Dear Diaspora is beginning to make its way to others who might also find themselves in my work and know they are not alone.

Rumpus: The central section of the book holds the long poem, “The Boat People” which speaks to documentation and working with archives. How different were the responsibilities with that work as opposed to crafting a poem like “Suzi?”

Nguyen: The Suzi poems largely pull from my own experiences and memories as inspiration points. Once I started writing in third person, that gave me more freedom to invent and imagine through Suzi’s eyes, and I felt like my responsibility to depict my particular truth became easier because I found truth not just through lived experiences but imagined ones.

“The Boat People” was inspired by my research into the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Part of that research involved reading a lot of old newspaper articles. During my MFA, I also interviewed some of my family members and learned details about their lives that I’d never heard before and that I don’t think I would have found out if I hadn’t asked so directly for my oral history project—details that would not just come up in conversation and certainly not with me. I didn’t intend to write this poem when I was doing my research. I was doing this research primarily for myself and to better understand some of the tragedies and atrocities that happened after the war, which had a direct impact on my own family and how I came to be in the States. I craved to understand my history and my family, their survival, so that I could better imagine our futurity.

Speaking of futurity: Remembering holds so much power. I would never say I am giving voices to the voiceless, but I do know that some voices get lost, or are purposefully forgotten. I wanted to make space for some of them in my collection both for myself and for my readers. I wanted my readers to face the realities of war, of being a refugee, to know that these realities existed.

Rumpus: You have mentioned Natalie Diaz’s class as crucial to your manuscript. Are there any books or poets that you were actively thinking about or reading that aided the writing?

Nguyen: Yes! At some point during my MFA, I took an undergraduate Asian Pacific American literature course and also had weekly one-on-one meetings with my professor. From what I remember, I think we mostly read fiction, but I absolutely loved that class. I had never taken a class that focused on AAPI experiences before, and I can’t believe it took me until grad school. It also made me realize that before my MFA, I don’t know if I’d ever read a Vietnamese-American author before. We read Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer in that class, and later I read his Nothing Ever Dies, which has been influential in my thinking on war and memory. Some of the poets I was thinking about or reading while working on Dear Diaspora include: Ocean Vuong, Cathy Linh Che, Don Mee Choi, Sun Yung Shin, Victoria Chang. Also Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Philip Metres, and Anne Carson!

Rumpus: What suggestions do you have for other writers working on a first book?

Nguyen: Please don’t give up! But also, have grace with yourself. Especially right now. Personally, I haven’t written in months and in general during the pandemic, I have been turning to art I can make with my hands, whether it’s zines, bookmarks, candles, pressed flowers—more so than writing. But don’t give up. Trust yourself. Know that even if you’re going through a more fallow period in your writing, you will always have another poem in you. If it helps, find some trusted folks to hold you accountable.

I still meet every few weeks with some folks from my Winter 2020 Tin House Workshop and it’s pretty low-key. We check in on how we’re doing in regards to life, art, and writing and we also do writing sprints where we’ll put a timer on for ten to fifteen minutes to write or do something writing-adjacent before checking back in and then doing another sprint. We might leave our cameras on or turn them off while we’re writing, but it feels nice to know you’re not writing alone. Even though I haven’t been writing much, these check-ins never make me feel guilty. They remind me that I’m a part of a community.

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Photograph of Susan Nguyen courtesy of Susan Nguyen.


Gauri Awasthi is an Indian poet and sustainability activist. An MFA graduate from McNeese State University, she has won awards from Sundress Academy For The Arts, Bread Loaf Writers Conference, Louisiana Office of Cultural Development, and Kundiman. Her writing has been published or is forthcoming in Aurora Poetry Journal, Notre Dame Review, The Wire, Buzzfeed, and others. She is currently teaching the Decolonizing Poetry Workshop with Catapult and revising Bharatanatyam. More from this author →