Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Q&A with writer and performance artist le thi diem thuy

le thi diem thuy, author of the acclaimed novel "The Gangster We Are All Looking For," is a writer and performance artist. She was born in Vietnam; she and her father left in 1978 and made their way to the United States.

Q: Your novel "The Gangster We Are All Looking For" depicts a Vietnamese father, mother, and daughter who become refugees and end up in San Diego. In what sense was this book based on your own family's experiences, and in what sense could it reflect the experiences of other Vietnamese-American families as well?

A: The question of how the past troubles or complicates the present is one that interests me.  I see The Gangster We Are All Looking For as a work that tells a story of aftermath and new beginnings, simultaneously.  The aftermath is of the Vietnam war, as experienced by a family of Vietnamese refugees in San Diego.  The new beginnings is how these Vietnamese refugees become Americans. The novel is autobiographical in part--the parents have my parents' names and jobs, the houses and neighborhoods are all places my family lived in--but I used facts from my own life only as points of departure, and have taken so many liberties a reader would be mistaken to look for me here.  Having said that, I will allow that every element in this book came from a personal passion, to wrest Vietnam the place (homeland) back from Vietnam the war, and to show Vietnamese people who carry entire worlds--of grief, of longing, of love-- within them, and have something to say about those worlds.  Who they are, what they have to say, and how they say it, is not incidental to the story, it is the story.

Q:  Could you explain the significance of the book's title?

A: The title comes from a moment in the book where, after her parents have had a spectacular fight--fish tank pitched out the front door, rice bowls sent sailing out the window--the narrator, a young girl, states, "When I grow up, I am going to be the gangster we are all looking for."  The statement is both matter-of-fact and touched with bravado.  Since the narrative doesn't allow us to see much of her as a grown up, we don't know if her proclamation comes true. People often ask, Who is the gangster of the title?  Is it the father (who was a gangster during his youth in Vietnam, but is no longer so in the U.S.), is it the mother (who is certainly willful), is it the girl, or is it a longed-for figure who never arrives?   I often say, I don't know.  It could be you.

Q: When were you last in Vietnam, and do you still have family members there? What is your sense of the relationship between the United States and Vietnam today?

A: I last visited Vietnam in the spring of 2010.  I do still have family there. Part of my visit was to meet with the editors of the Women's Publishing House in Hanoi.  They are working on a Vietnamese translation of the novel, something I hope can be seen to completion.  While the war between Vietnam and the US is part of the history books there, the civil war, between the north and the south Vietnamese, remains largely untouched.  I think this is the greater challenge, of course, to face what brothers have done to one another, and the very deep fractures that come out of that.  Without discussing the civil war, as well as the environmental and economic devastation that the American war left the country in, we can't appreciate the context of why so many Vietnamese would flee the only home they have ever known, and set out, in the open water, toward a multitude of unknowns.

Right now the relationship between the United States and Vietnam is one facilitated primarily by tourism.  Which, in one sense might be seen as a good thing, because it loosens the lens of how Vietnamese and Americans  approach each other, i.e. allowing for a sense of remove from the war itself, and in another sense might not be so great, as the living memory of the war, and the many questions it raised, are replaced with having a nice visit to a beautiful place.

Q:  You are a writer, but also a performance artist. Which of these art forms came first for you, and how do you blend them?

A: One of my favorite scenes from a film occurs at the end of Claire Denis' Beau Travail, when Denis Lavant dances through the closing credits.  I love how he throws his body around, falls, pulls back, sways.  I watch and hear the music, then don't hear the music at all, just see him.  Something about his body reminds me of when I saw Long Nguyen dance in Seattle, summer of 1991.  He was a dancer with the Mark Morris Dance Group.  He was doing a solo performance separate from the company, a piece about growing up in South Vietnam during the war.  I saw the poster somewhere, and decided to go, alone. 

I remember sitting in the theater at the university there, seeing this little man come on to the stage in a tank top and white swim trunks and the feeling of recognition was so strong, I sat utterly still.  Then leaving the theater immediately after his performance, not feeling able to stay and watch whatever followed (the program mentioned something about a piece to do with vampires).  I'm not sure how I got home that night.  That was the night I saw and understood that it was possible, to be a performer, to move and speak, to tell such stories.  His body reminded me of my father's body, and his voice of the voices of some of the men/uncles in my life, and the contrast/tension between the words and the movements opened up this other space for the truth, one that can't be clearly spoken, only shown, or rather, only shown to be borne within the body of the person moving across the stage.  It was as if the lesson was there, completely distilled, and I took it all in, in one sitting. 

Then I stumbled out of the theater and was on my way...  It took me three years to fully realize the momentum of that night in the development of my first performance piece, Mua He Do Lua/Red Fiery Summer.  I have moved back and forth between poetry, prose, and solo performance.   Poetry came first.  I don't blend the forms so much as engage with a question across different forms.  It's as if I follow the question from form to form, failing a little each time.  I don't think I'm trying to get anything 'right' so much as get closer, not to an answer, but to the question itself.  For instance, the first piece I ever wrote about Vietnam is a poem titled "shrapnel shards on blue water".  I wrote it for my younger sister, Trinh.  It ends with the line: let people know Vietnam is not a war.  So then the question became, What is Vietnam, if not a war?  Both the novel and the performance works are how I went on to engage with that question.

Q:  What project are you working on now?

A: I'm working on a novel that is related to The Gangster We Are All Looking For.  The less I say about it, the better or else we'll be here all day.  It writes in to the many silences of the first book, one of which is the war itself.  One of the main characters is based on the English photojournalist Larry Burrows, whose photo essays for Life Magazine provide a framework to look at the war from the point of view of someone who is neither Vietnamese nor American, yet whose job was to capture what was happening, from the ground up and the sky down.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I find it interesting that the title of your book has the word 'haunting' in it.  So much about the war in Vietnam seems to summon ghosts.

Interview with Deborah Kalb. This interview previously appeared on

"The Gangster We Are All Looking For," by le thi diem thuy

1 comment:

  1. I wish to cite a quote from your book: The Gangster We Are All Looking For" in an article related to multiculturalism and identity. The quote is the following: I had been rowing back and forth, in a relentless manner, between two banks of a wide river. "Increasingly, what I wanted was to be a burning boat in the middle of the water, visible to both shores yet indecipherable in my fury." Could you please provide a page number for that quote?