rants & Raves
by: Zack Hanson
Next up out of our featured readers is Danny Thanh Nguyen! This interview was held over the phone, and was actually formatted more as a conversation. So this text is me trying to synthesize his brilliant answers into typed speech. Hopefully I did him justice! Enjoy!
DANNY THAHN NGUYEN is a Kundiman Fiction Fellow and a Lambda Literary Nonfiction Fellow. His short stories and personal essays have appeared in The Journal, South Dakota Review, Entropy, Foglifter, New Delta Review, Gulf Coast, and other magazines. He received his MFA from Indiana University and is the editor of AS IS, an anthology of Vietnamese American art and literature.
How have short fiction, creative non-fiction, and personal essays harmonized?
For me short stories are narrative based, and with creative non-fiction, because I write personal essays, they end up taking on a narrative. There are aspects of storytelling, though you know with essays I veer toward a certain level of literary criticism, in that you’re analyzing something. Or sometimes in my essays it’s straight memoir, but because of the certain level of self-implication and reflection, you have to either analyze yourself or the subject matter that you’re talking about. I have a piece that’s coming out in a journal soon and that’s about early years of my relationship with my ex-husband. So that itself, it is a story, it has a narrative arc. But I am analyzing things like our relationship with body image, and eating habits, and how they have a greater implication on male queer culture. Probably with a first person short story, a narrator probably wouldn’t talk like that.
What draws you to the form of short-stories?
When I first started writing I only wrote creative non-fiction. Short stories came to me a lot later in life. I read a lot, but I didn’t really get a sense that contemporary narrative fiction could look and sound weird, and then I discovered other writers that I really admire. Because I like brevity, I have a short attention span, so for myself I would never write anything that wouldn’t draw my own attention. While I can read longer fiction and I love it, I prefer the short form because I can get in and out really quick. I also like fiction period because non-fiction for me is about having to think about and analyze reality, versus my fiction being about making the impossible possible.
As you know, Love and Death are the themes for your reading. Do love and death naturally pop up in your writing, or do those topics occupy more of a conscious intent?
That an interesting question, I used to think that those weren’t common themes of mine, but I have to admit, as of late, especially as I get older, maybe I’m now becoming a cliché of a writer in that they do inherently somehow find their way into my writing. Let’s start with love, everything seems to be about love isn’t it? I think everything is about love for one’s self, for others, for life, for things. I think were all touched by love and death, so I think every writer to a certain degree will write about love and death. For me, my relationship with those things I have been focusing on more as I get older. I’m starting to notice parallels in my life. For example, my parents are refugees from South East Asia, so they came here in the 70’s from the Vietnam war. As a queer man also, you can’t talk about queerness in America, or at least queer male identity in America, without recognizing that just about a generation and a half ago we had a whole generation decimated by the HIV/AIDS crisis. So, I think there’s and interesting parallel, for me, where most cultures don’t experience a fallout generation. Unless of course it’s by genocide or a mass exodus. So, here are two major sides of my identity- being a child of South East Asian immigrants and being queer. In both these communities of mine, I am in the generation that comes right after the generation that had a huge chunk fall out from underneath us.
I mean Vietnamese people are fucking morbid as hell, we’re always talking about and cording death in some way. Next week is the lunar new year, and something that a lot of South East Asian cultures practice is this borderline Día de las Muertos thing. We invite the dead to come back and eat with us. Vietnamese people are so morbid, traditionally they used to not celebrate birthdays, and instead the family gets together on the anniversary on the day that someone died and idolizes them that way. I don’t know, I grew up like a punk goth kid too. Being Vietnamese just as much influenced my goth-ness as Marilyn Manson.
In terms of the love side of my writing, oh god everything I write about right now is about relationships. I actually just recently broke up with my partner of 5 years, which has actually been really rough. So right now, I’m processing through that, talk about death and love all in one.
How do you harness your identity in your writing?
That’s an interesting question because I think everyone has multiple identities that they exist within. Typically, I feel like when people get asked these kind of questions, it’s usually leading toward asking the person to talk about very specific identities. For example, ethnic identity or sexuality or gender. Those are major forms of identity that exist, but they’re not the only ones. For example, I grew up working class in a refugee family. So, class is also a big thing for me. Like I said earlier, growing up a punk goth kid is like a cultural identity right. You can also argue that punk, much like early hip hop culture, was rooted in art and political movements that centered around working-class values. It influenced not just music, but fashion, and the arts. Those are major parts of my identity as well, so it’s hard to say that I can ever divorce myself from them. I always find it funny when people say things like “oh I try not to let my identity influence my writing.” I’m like you’re a human being and you’re made up of multiple things. I think when most people say that, it’s because they’re scared of getting pigeon-holed. I think that you can only get pigeon-holed if you allow yourself to do that. Some of my stories are about queer characters, but I think they’re highly influenced by other things. Last year I had a story in New Delta Review. While the main character is gay, and he’s out on a date with a man, the crux of the story is about being so desperate that you hang on to every single word that a person says. So, in that regard, the identity of the character is also somebody who is so desperate for romance that they become codependent, or reliant on the affection of another person. That’s a part of their identity as far as I’m concerned.
Hello all! Hopefully as you know, The Escapery is hosting an Un-Valentines Day reading February 18. If you don't knowww, now ya knowww! I will be interviewing the readers in that event to let our audience get to know these brilliant writers! First up is Sumiko Saulson!
SUMIKO SAULSON is a science-fiction, fantasy and horror writer. Her works include 60 Black Women in Horror Fiction, Solitude, Warmth, The Moon Cried Blood, Happiness and Other Diseases, Somnalia, Insatiable, Ashes and Coffee, and Things That Go Bump In My Head. She writes for the SEARCH Magazine and horror blogs HorrorAddicts.net andSumikoSaulson.com.
The child of African American and Russian-Jewish American parents, she is a native Californian who grew up in Los Angeles and Hawaii. She is an Oakland resident who has spent most of her adult life in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Does love and death naturally pop up in your writing, or do those topics occupy more of a conscious intent?
As a horror author, death occupies a natural place in my writing. I didn't write anything with any real love connection until my fourth novel and fifth book, Happiness and Other Diseases. Love and death both figured heavily into it, as it was a horror-tinged paranormal romance centering on mental illness and the Greco-Roman pantheon.
What first attracted you to the genre of horror?
I've been a horror fan since childhood. When I first attempted to write a novel I couldn't get anywhere because I wouldn't accept the simple fact that it is easiest to write what I know: in my case, horror. My parents took me to see movies like Its Alive and The Omen when I was still young enough to need a booster seat to go to the drive-in movies. I started reading horror when I was in 5th Grade - Peter Straub's Ghost Story.
Could you speak a little bit about 60 black women in horror fiction. Is that a collaboration?
No, it is not. 60 Black Women in Horror is a reference guide, a sort of who's who of black women who write horror. I put it together myself from blogs I've done over the years. I am releasing an update to it, 100+ Black Women in Horror. It's released under the non-profit Iconoclast Productions, and I did it as an ambassador for Women in Horror Month. Black Magic Women, an anthology featuring 18 of the women in 100+ Black Women in Horror, is a companion piece being released on Mocha Memoirs Press. I have to say that's a collaboration since Nicole Givens Kurtz from MMP worked with me to screen the submissions, and MMP's professional staff was involved every step of the way.
Hello and Welcome to the second installment of the Rants and Raves blog!
I hope everybody’s first month of the new year was everything they hoped it’d be. I know mine has been hectic, but it has been so awesome to be a part of this community of writers, and we hope hope hope to see you soon in an Escapery workshop! Cheers to everybody!
Since it is still closer to the beginning of the year than the end, I wanted to continue this theme of New Beginnings. Our chaotic life as artists, writers, and creators are extremely hard to balance. Finding time to write or create art, while balancing work, and the various other demands of life is definitely a challenge.
Though this is true I hope our passion for art and writing continues to blossom into this new year. And for those of us that need another fresh start, whether it be you haven’t been writing as much as you wanted to, haven’t been sleeping enough, haven’t been having enough time to yourself, whatever it may be- February is here! And The Escapery is here to help you continue your passion for writing.
A new beginning that has inspired this blog post is that I am now going to be volunteering with an organization (when the paperwork settles) called The Beat Within. Which is an organization that not only holds creative writing workshops weekly in juvenile halls across the country, but publishes those writers work in their bi-monthly publication. I’m just going to share their mission statement because it is such an awesome mission:
“The Beat Within’s mission is to provide incarcerated youth with consistent opportunity to share their ideas and life experiences in a safe space that encourages literacy, self-expression, some critical thinking skills, and healthy, supportive relationships with adults and their community. Outside of the juvenile justice system, The Beat Within partners with community organizations and individuals to bring resources to youth both inside and outside of detention. We are committed to being an effective bridge between youth who are locked up and the community that aims to support their progress towards a healthy, non-violent, and productive life.”
This statement really resonates back to the point I made last week (in case you missed it) about keeping justice at the center, because teaching, writing, and education are inherently important based on the nature of community and communication. Writing and expression are truly a gift and we're lucky to have the privilege of being able to share this with others in our writing communities. These kids that are in juvenile halls are only able to write once a week during The Beat Within workshops, and if that doesn't inspire you or motivate you to write your ass off while you still can then I'm not sure what will. If volunteering for The Beat Within sounds like something you would look into, I definitely urge you to check it out because they really are working so hard for the community. And if you want to learn some awesome things to teach the kids, then come check out the next Escpaery Workshop! It’s so special that there are such awesome groups and people, such as our very own Nancy and Carson, that are so passionate about writing and teaching in a way that helps people find their voice. In closing, I just want to end with a poem from one of the kids from The Beat Within in Alameda County, who wishes to remain anonymous.
Fight to Write
I write because I am not who you think I am. My people are not who you think they are. Our cultures and traditions are unknown to you.
Hello and Welcome to the first installment of the Rants and Raves blog! The theme for the beginning of the year is New Beginnings. I just started the MFA program in creative writing at San Francisco State University, and wanted to share my experiences of my 'new beginning' with other writers and artists who might be thinking about applying to writing programs or other new arts/writing organizations/residencies. Below is an interview between me and one of The Escapery co-captains, Nancy Au. Hoping you have a great start to 2018 and hope to see you soon in an Escapery workshop! Cheers to everybody!
"Justice work is a struggle: bringing many voices together in harmony—vocal tuning—is hard work, but beautiful work. It is necessary work...[Our current issue of Lunch Ticket] is big and beautiful; it is our justice work."
This makes me think about how much teaching and writing and art can be our 'justice work'. What are your thoughts on that? Are there ways that you blend your 'justice work' with your writing and teaching?
ZACK HANSON: I love this idea and am glad you brought this up in terms of the necessity to work toward justice. Re-imagining the way that writing intersects with the context of our individual lives and identities is a huge tool. If you keep the fight for justice at the center, then teaching and education are already inherently important based on the nature of community and communication. Political education does not separate itself from all types of creative writing classrooms, literary works, and various other areas. A big way to keep literature relevant, is to bring it to the community and involve the community with writing and vice versa. That is why I am especially honored to have the chance to be on board with The Escapery, because it doesn’t put anything before the just and safe space that every individual deserves. As it says on our homepage “Playful, community-oriented, queer, re-centering women/NB, queer/ trans* artists, and artists of color.” If education is really to serve the community, then education must meet the community at their front door. The community is not a host of white men with large bank accounts. The community is individuals with all different backgrounds. I want to close with a final statement from Virginia Woolf:
“We can best help you to prevent war not by repeating your words and following your methods but by finding new words and creating new methods.”
This quote is subjective to the way you interpret the pronouns ‘we’ and ‘you.’
NA: What first inspired you to pursue an MFA in creative writing?
ZH: I was probably first inspired to pursue an MFA in my undergrad when I was taking creative writing classes that had both graduate students and undergraduate students in the same class. Working alongside graduate students really helped motivate me to see myself as a grad student one day. That motivation plus a little bit of competitiveness--not competitiveness in terms of putting others' work down--rather, receiving inspiration from others' work to propel my writing in a new and or better direction. That relationship to others' work is probably what caused me to want to teach creative writing as well, and I felt pursuing an MFA was the best way to do that. Also, teachers such as Nancy really helped me gain confidence to pursue an MFA, as well as my best friend Jasmine that reads every last poem that I still send her to this day. Lastly, my girlfriend Natalie never let me doubt myself, and having a support system to go to about writing, and life, really helped to get me to this point as well. Along with a lot of help from family.
NA: What were your expectations about the MFA program at SFSU? How did they match up or differ?
ZH: I attended undergrad at SFSU. I thought I had a pretty good idea of what the graduate program would be like since I had gotten the chance to talk to many graduate students about it. I also felt confident that I could keep up with the work, as I had already taken classes alongside grad students (though the grad students were given much more work). Most of my expectations came to fruition, but what I was not prepared for was the real relationship and communities I have formed in my first semester in the MFA program. Before I started, I had never pictured myself this involved in the literary scene so soon. I started writing only two and a half years ago in my junior year of undergrad, and now I’m working alongside so many brilliant people who seem to think I have some good ideas too, such as Carson Beker and Nancy, and my fellow students and teachers at San Francisco State University.