Proust Questionnaire: 17 questions with Nhă Thuyên
By Yong Shu Hoong
A featured author at Singapore Writers Festival 2017, Vietnamese poet Nhă Thuyên recently made news in the regional literary scene when her poem, 'which orientation with sea', took first place in the inaugural 2018 edition of the Hawker Prize for Southeast Asian Poetry organised by Singapore-based Sing Lit Station. Translated from Vietnamese by Kaitlin Rees, the poem was published by the Asian American Writers' Workshop's magazine, The Margins, for the Transpacific Literary Project.
Her poetry collection, words breathe, creatures of elsewhere, was published in Vietnamese in 2015, before its English version (also translated by Rees) was published in 2016 by Vagabond Press. Together with Rees, she founded AJAR, a Vietnamese-English bilingual literary journal. Her chapbook of poetry and essay, entitled moon fevers, is forthcoming in 2018 under Tilted Axis Press.
1. What are you reading right now?
My friends often ask, "How many books are you with at the moment?" Books are often scattered around me, and right now in my hands: Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror by John Ashbery. I want soon to be with some novels, some abandoned books, and to revisit Vietnamese folktales and The Tale of Kiều.
2. If you were a famous literary character in a novel, play, or poem, who would you be, and why?
I am too ordinary to be one famous character, but I've seen numerous fragments of myself in things. At the moment, a random page from Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror seems so-much-me: "I want to stay with it out of fear… But the breeze has dropped, and silence is the last word." Because in a grey day of the Hanoi autumnal episode, everything could become impossible and I just wish to be silent.
3. What is the greatest misconception about you?
Perhaps the guessing that I am Westernised. In fact, I was/am bad at geography and often blind when it comes to directions. I am never sure where the west or the east is.
4. Name one living author and one dead author you identify with most, and tell us why.
I have many writers I love and/or curious about – to name a few, Jorge Luis Borges (is he dead?) and László Krasznahorkai (the writer I want to read now – and want to visit his birthplace because of his name). But I can't think of any writers whom I can identify with. I think I only can identify with some fragments on their pages.
5. Do you believe in writer's block? If so, how do you overcome it?
During some period of writing, I think it's necessary for me to intentionally slow down my speed and experience more fully the words in my head and body until they gain their physical form on the page. I don't feel rushed for appearance anymore, though I know it's bad that the most recent poem I wrote was written exactly one year five months ago, and I haven't officially sat down to quietly write since then. There're always so many other emergencies of life to deal with, so many odds and ends, and idleness is a real luxury. I just hope this isn't a writer's block at all for me, and I am conscious of not making any excuses to block myself.
6. What qualities do you admire most in a writer?
Resiliency, the writers' ability of bearing their own silence, a sense of humour, and the lightness and courage of being sincere.
7. What is one trait you deplore most in writing or writers?
I easily get impatient when reading the writings where words and punctuations are treated carelessly. Perhaps I also can't bear the oh-so-optimistic writings.
8. Can you recite your favourite line from a literary work or a piece of advice from a writer?
This year, my mantra is a line from Beckett: "I can't go on I will go on." I murmur it all the time.
9. Complete this sentence: Few people know this, but I…
am embarrassed to admit that, for 20 years so far, I seldom finish reading a novel.
10. At the movies, if you have to pick a comedy, a tragedy, or an action thriller to watch, which will you go for, and why?
Action thriller. I am tired of tragedy and not patient enough to watch a long comedy. The post-laughter at myself for being scared in the action-thriller movie and the easy-forgotten fear entertain me a bit.
11. What is your favourite word, and what is your least favourite one?
I like "and" and favour "but" less. And the least favourite one is perhaps "I" as the first person. When writing and speaking in Vietnamese, I can omit "I" as the first person in many cases. I like third person better.
12. Write a rhyming couplet that includes the following three words: will, grain, monument.
It always feels so fake to my ears when rhymes are done on purpose. For example, this arrangement:
a grain of rice lies alone at the base of a monument
the rain will hide the sparrows' eyes to prevent an accident
13. What object is indispensable to you when you write?
Laptop. I am sure I couldn't become a writer without (knowing) a laptop. A pen and a notebook could erratically – and romantically – work, but I rather write only in my head until I can sit with a laptop to pour down words.
14. What is the best time of the day for writing?
In my memory, it should be the owl's time. But more and more, as long as I feel carefree, neither being quiet alone nor in a noisy cafe, I can actually sit and/to write.
15. If you had a last supper, which three literary figures, real or fictional, would you invite to the soiree, and why?
Josef K., Alice and the nightingale of Oscar Wilde. I am curious if Alice could play something with K., and what song the bird wants to sing.
16. What is the creative process like for you, working with your translator, in navigating between the Vietnamese and English languages, and ensuring that as little as possible is lost in translation?
I said somewhere and I repeat here: Working on the translations between Vietnamese and English with my translators commands me to shamelessly look at what I wrote from a fearful distance/closeness, and somehow it processes a physical self-alienation. Sometimes I feel I become so critical of my Vietnamese language that I start to question every tiny linguistic item when I write. There's so much to learn about resistance and acceptance, the possibilities and limits in both languages that I love and am curious about – to be lost and found and multiplied and given and saved.
17. What would you write on your own tombstone?
QLRS Vol. 17 No. 4 Oct 2018
I hope I will not have a tombstone. I want to be watered/winded/fired out.