Author Diana Khoi Nguyen. Photo by Karen Lue

The poetry of Diana Khoi Nguyen, celebrated for its innovative engagement with mixed media and visual elements, has earned her a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship among many honors. Her debut collection, Ghost Of, received critical acclaim for its evocative portrayal of family and the haunting traces of history. I’ve known Diana for many years now, first meeting her at the Breadloaf Writer’s Conference and being in community with her since. I had the pleasure of interviewing her about her creative process and the inspiration behind her latest work, Root Fractures

Michelle Peñaloza: Your first book, Ghost Of, means so much to many people, me included, for the unflinching and disarming way it engages with loss and grief. How did (or did) the afterlife of Ghost Of, the reception of the book, by a wide audience and/or individual readers affect or inform your creation of what would become Root Fractures

Diana Khoi Nguyen: It is deeply meaningful for me that the book connected with you and others —I did not anticipate its reception and feel tremendous gratitude to be seen, be held in mind, to be in community with many others—who may have experienced loss, who have difficult or complicated familial relationships. This reception didn’t have a noticeable effect on the book’s afterlife—any more than the usual dilemma of how to make a 2nd collection (what do they call it in arts and sports? Sophomore slump?). Besides, I’d already begun several of the Root Fractures series by the time Ghost Of started getting attention, and I’m able to separate from the literary community (esp. by having no social media) to try and focus on my work. And the work is so hard! For several years I wasn’t sure what the poems were building toward, and it felt like each discrete series kept wanting to be longer, and longer. 

MP: The grad students I work with at Antioch University’s low-residency program recently read Ghost Of. One of them had this question for you: “I’m curious about her process for writing Root Fractures compared to Ghost Of—which read like each poem propelled the next, making it feel like the collection was written over a short period of time. I know the poems were edited and crafted, but they felt very fresh and immediate, like they came quickly.” Can you talk about the difference in time and process between the two books? 

DKN: I’m so glad the Antioch writers get to work with you! My writing process is the same for both, but both projects have very different timelines. Each year, I write in two 15-day spurts of something like “a poem a day” kind of marathon, in conjunction with close writer friends. The pressure to produce a finished poem each day can be grueling, and leads to poetry-existential feelings, of “I have nothing left in me” and “I’ll never write again!” But that desperate, tapped-out feeling is incredible fuel for creativity—it forces my imagination to try things I normally wouldn’t. 

It’s funny, Ghost Of was written in mostly 30 days between 2015-2016. Root Fractures spans a longer period of time, multiple 15-day marathons during 2018-2022. But what makes RF different from the first book is that I began to work almost exclusively in long sequences; it was easier to add a new section to a poem during the marathon, than to try and start a new poem. 

The previous sections would prompt me toward a new direction, and so on. When I didn’t have words for one series, I’d start a new one, or continue threads in a different one. Like having different pots simmering on a stove! 

The other noteworthy aspect is that more time had passed since my brother’s 2014 death 2014, and my relationship to grief was evolving, changing, too—it wasn’t acute in the way I was feeling in Ghost Of. My thoughts felt more reflective, horizontal—hence my shift to long series and also long, winding sentences in prose poems and a braided lyric essay-like from. I was interested in what lingers, what remains, how each living person is a remnant, fragment of an impossible whole (family, diaspora, and so on). 

MP: One motif that emerges in Root Fractures is alternate timelines and the “what ifs” of familial history alongside the heft of “the past draped about us like a cloak.” What were some of your considerations of temporality, and intersections of history in writing the book? What was the initial impetus to explore these specific hypothetical scenarios? 

DKN: Concurrent with writing the RF poems, I was also diving into home video archives, and getting lost, experiencing many difficult emotions, but also feeling positive ones like wistfulness and nostalgia. These videos were taken in the early 90s and then tucked away, never watched, so as I watched in 2018, 2019, I was struck by the power of this archive on us as a family—as if the archive was lying in wait to disrupt our individual narratives about what happened in the past, about our subjective memories. If the video shows one thing, but you remember that moment very differently, how do you reconcile the two? I think both are true and also not true. In that between space, I wanted to create alternate histories as a way to try to fashion hope amid tension. It is so incredible that we can imagine things that didn’t happen and immerse ourselves in these speculative details. Our brains are the original VR! 

Another thing I was thinking of: who each person in the family (including the deceased member) is now, will be, and was—as well as how we saw/see and mis-saw, mis-see ourselves and each other. Writing into hypothetical scenarios gave me a space to try to connect with those I can’t connect in real time, in real life. 

MP: Can you talk about the experience of working with written and visual texts (specifically family photos) within this new collection? How did the creation of this latest work compare to your experiences with Ghost Of

DKN: I revisit the photographic archive in the days leading to my brother’s death anniversary in what now has become a familiar and comforting ritual of engaging with the archives my brother left behind. It was similar to my work in Ghost Of, in that it is emotional to write with and on the images in my word processor, but also different—I don’t feel scared or unsure about the process. Instead, it feels nourishing, like reconnecting with an old friend, one with whom you can share many vulnerable thoughts that you might not be able to say aloud even to yourself. The newer image-text engagements center around two main modes of thinking: (1) spending time with bits of my brother left in the cutout photographs—his three baby fingers, parts of a shoe, and (2) engaging in a kind of radical empathy—cutting out the rest of the family to mirror what my brother did—since eventually we will all die. So, thinking about what’s still here. And what won’t always be here. 

MP: Root Fractures uses a lot of Vietnamese language in it that isn’t “codeswitched” for the reader, i.e. the non-English words aren’t italicized or defined in a glossary—a choice I really appreciated. What was your thinking and feeling in making that choice? What was/is your hope for readers within that choice? 

DKN: I appreciate this in your own work with Tagalog, Michelle! First, I learned that I was fluent in Vietnamese as a young child from witnessing it in the home videos. What a shock! Because I thought I only spoke English. So, I started taking Vietnamese language lessons when I was writing the book—to get back to my earlier fluency, and along the way, Vietnamese began to be unearthed in me, arriving unbidden as I went about myself. Suddenly I could recall Vietnamese phrases for things I was doing or seeing, and it was wild! Like I’d had language amnesia, and the language memories were slowly coming back to me. As a result, when I was writing, I chose not to keep Vietnamese off the page, but to include it when it did appear in my mind—to compose using the language materials I had, even if non-fluent folks were going to read the poems. Because even I didn’t even fully know the Viet phrases or words that came to mind, and so it was okay that readers didn’t know, too. I bet we all used Google Translate for the Vietnamese phrases I wrote—which is really amusing to me! I wanted readers to see my brain working in the brackish water between English and Vietnamese, to mispronounce Vietnamese the way I do—it’s not unlike a baby or child hearing her parents’ native tongue and slowly, over time, arriving at individual meaning for some words. 

MP: Poem titles repeat throughout Root Fractures—in particular, “Đổi Mới,” “Misinformation,” and “Cape Disappointment.” I’m curious about the process of these. Which came first—the forms/modes/intents of the poems or their titles? What was your thinking in developing these repetitions across the collection?

DKN: I can’t write a poem without a title, even if I change the title later! Titles help guide and corral my racing mind. Honestly—these are three long poems I chose to chop up and interweave so that the interiors of the poems could have more surface area brush-ups with interiors of the other long poems—versus ordering one long poem after another. As a result, the titles keep reappearing, but the poems are not of the same moment or topic. In a way I wanted to offer some few constants, like a rope to hold onto while exploring the murky depths of familial and personal history and all the complicated emotions doing so conjures. 

MP: So, as you know April was National Poetry Month. If you’re game, here are a few questions the International Examiner has asked me as a poet: “What do you think makes poetry unique? What would you say to people who have a hard time appreciating poetry? If stranded on an island, what books of poetry would you take with you and why?” 

DKN: Poetry’s uniqueness is that it is a way of being and making—because I believe poems can be anything we encounter or assemble (not just non prose words on a page). A sculpture could be a poem! Or a praying mantis walking across the sidewalk. For those experiencing a hard time with poetry, Iris Dement says it best: let the mystery be! Poetry can resist a kind of Capitalist, normative logic common in Western thinking, and poems have their own laws of physics, and it’s best to be porous, open, to receive, listen, and notice what you feel in and outside your body, notice what arrives in your mind as you listen. If stranded, I’d take the books of Mei-mei Bersenbrugge, Arthur Sze, Layli Long Soldier, and Jake Skeets. I think some or most of them have ties to New Mexico and each other—how funny! Maybe my island will have the ethos and poetics of New Mexico. 

MP: Thank you so much, Diana, for taking the time for this interview. I was truly moved reading your latest book. Root Fractures is incredibly thoughtful, incisive, and beautiful. Congratulations! 

DKN: Thank you so much for your time, thinking, and offering these thoughtful questions. I’m grateful the new book connected with you and hope to see you in person one day soon for a hug and eats!  

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