By Brian Haman
In August 2018 TSLR’s Brian Haman spoke with award-winning writer Vi Khi Nao about her “textual inscape” Sheep Machine (Black Sun Lit, 2018), ontological isolation, writing in Vietnamese, and boring books.
Brian Haman: By way of beginning, could you say a bit about your background and how you came to writing?
Vi Khi Nao: Well, I didn’t plan on becoming a writer. I was a visual artist before I was a writer. I thought visual art was dead when I was in my early- to mid-twenties. I didn’t think anyone could push it beyond what had already been expressed and I didn’t know why I was pursuing art. It seems like a very impractical and ridiculous pursuit, and so I dropped it as soon as I realized it was dead.
BH: Were you interested in a particular form or forms of art such as painting or sculpture or mixed media, or just art in general?
Nao: I wasn’t interested in any of those. I did it because it fell into my lap. My professor said I was good at it, but being good at something doesn’t mean longevity or vitality. I am passionate about art in general, but not the constrictive or isolated way of viewing art. The media in which I was trained were lithography, calligraphy, painting, drawing, and design. In retrospect, I think this was very boring. I do like visual art and I appreciate it now because I am not involved in it and I am not creating it as consistently. I view it now more as a language that you accumulate like Spanish or German or Portuguese. It’s just nice to have that language and vocabulary should I ever need it or if I’m ever in that country. I’m also a much harsher critic with visual arts than I am with all of the other art forms, in part because I think dead things require more accountability (and here I mean aesthetic accountability, not moral or political accountability).
Later I started reading a lot of books. I was working for a company in which I was reading for eight hours each day and I thought, why not read for twelve hours a day. Also, literature fell into my lap. Some friends told me about experimental literature and I thought that this might be for me. At the time, I viewed postmodern writing – fiction and poetry – as a kind of intuitive senselessness. I don’t think that everything should make sense in this world, and it [writing] gives me license to practice a particular form that transcends what is perceived as magical or expected or even mainstream. I feel connected to it but not too deeply.
BH: Is there a freedom with words that you didn’t feel with visual art?
Nao: No, it’s just another language.
BH: You dropped visual arts but you continue to write. Why does writing continue to interest you?
Nao: I kept on doing it. I had projects that needed to be manifested and ideas that are born from reading a lot and they form another kind of language for me – a language within language – and I blindly pursued it like I did art. I am incredibly passionate about the way in which words are born on the page. Sometimes the way words are born on the page is more important than the words being born. But I also think that I could live without literature. There are so many languages in the world and it [literature] can die just as easily.
BH: Do you ever mix these languages either purposely or inadvertently?
Nao: Yes, I do. I couldn’t write about some of the drawings I did for Noon [a literary annual] and instead I turned them into charcoal pieces. I have visual ideas for projects that cannot be manifested in language, and so I would use the language of art to communicate. These [different languages] are just tools that are fairly flexible and transformative. I think computer programming is another language that may even be more effective than visual arts or fiction or poetry. I think programming is actually a very beautiful language. So my views on art and literature are not limited to their forms alone.
BH: Languages seem to be significant to you. Are you interested in exploring the hidden grammar of the self through these various languages?
Nao: I don’t know if the hidden grammar of the self is what I am seeking. Maybe it’s more the grammar of the soul – the human soul, the collective soul. Why are we here? Why is it stupid sometimes to be here and others times it’s not stupid to be here? I question the stupidity of existence a lot. I think a lot about the human soul and our view of God’s role in it. And so if I use different forms of grammar or different types of languages then it would be an attempt to find a language of the unknown. There are certain things that can’t be expressed in images or words, and I think sometimes language and art and cinema come together to extract purpose or meaning from existence, maybe enhance it, make it worthwhile. But I think that they can also destroy us, annihilate us.
BH: In what sense?
Nao: The more I write, the farther away I am from purpose. I used to think that if I kept on writing and writing, the pure gesture, the aesthetic condition of being, would be enough. One wouldn’t need to extend oneself more than the cosmic entity would ask of us. But I think the human soul is a very lonely place to be.
BH: And is art in its many manifestations a gesture towards sociability in order to stave off that loneliness and isolation?
Nao: I think that at this moment in my life art is delusion – the delusion that you’re not lonely. But ultimately without the illusion, when we take away the facade of creation, we’re just very lonely beings and I don’t think any art form can transform that loneliness.
BH: Is art, then, a necessary illusion?
Nao: Yes, I think we move towards it because it’s the only capable mirror that we know. I think technology breaks that illusion. That’s why I am an advocate of computer programming.
BH: A lot of these points that you raise touch on many of the things that are suggested or stated or implied in your work. As we turn to your new book Sheep Machine, the very first page indicates that the book is an ekphrasis. You draw on Leslie Thornton’s film as your starting point. Could you talk a bit about why you chose this particular rhetorical approach and why you chose her film specifically?
Nao: My bachelor’s degree and training are in visual art. When Leslie Thornton said that her films are like paintings, I immediately felt the way that she used the language of the visual arts to describe film was original. I used to analyze visual pieces a lot and so it made sense to use language to depict them. I felt like language allowed me to dive deeper into these art pieces. I told Leslie that I was going to study her work frame-by-frame, but I didn’t realize how much work it was. Some films have thirty frames per second and there sixty seconds in a minute, and so to study one minute of her films – or paintings, that’s what she called them – was a lot of work. I agree with her – her films are more like paintings – partly because in cinematography there are thirty seconds of light and thirty seconds of darkness in a minute of film. And I think a lot about visual art and how I have to use light and darkness to create form.
BH: Is it necessary to have seen her film in order to understand your book or can your book stand on its own without reference to her film?
Nao: I think so. I do feel that because of how meditatively I dug into the work, it sort of demolished my present and demolished Leslie as well. It created something else. I lost my voice and I lost myself and I think that she lost her artistic self when I was giving birth to these literary things.
BH: Can you talk about the mechanics of your writing and your process of creation?
Nao: Because the project was so massive, I decided to screenshot many of them. It would take me something like ten days to go through a hundred screenshots and every day I would make a chronological selection of each frame to study. I would study one frame and then move to the next one. On some days I would be able to study ten frames – some days more, some days less. I would just wake up in the morning and think to myself, this is my task – to meditate on these pieces. As soon as I was done, I’d upload them to Tumblr, where I could see an archive view of all of the images that I had done over the previous six months, which allowed me to see my work visually across time. I wouldn’t read them or review them (my posts). I’d move onto the next frame. I tried to not let them influence me.
But over time, as I was editing 90,000+ words down to 9,000-10,000 words and then down even more, I realized that there were a lot of repetitive patterns. And I turned that manuscript into three different manuscripts. One became Umbilical Hospital , which I edited from a different mode. Then I did an edit for Sheep Machine, which was a different mode. And then God Expects you To Collaborate With Infinity  was in a different mode. The processes of writing and editing are the most exciting parts of the project. In terms of the outside view of it, they are very boring (if you’re an outsider looking in and seeing someone studying digital sheep – that would put anyone to sleep, including me). But, it’s actually those minutes that I devoted to studying the images each day that were the highlights of my existence then. I would remember where I was in each instance, maybe not accurately, but I would remember my state of mind. And when I was doing this I felt like everything was united, like everything in the universe – every cosmic condition or ontological fibre or metaphysical condition of existence – became one. I wish that I could go back to that state again, but it’s nearly impossible.
BH: Is this cosmic awareness something that you experienced when creating your previous works?
Nao: Well, I have thirty manuscripts. Ten of them are out in the world. Twenty of them need to come out into the world. I have to say that Sheep Machine was the most ontologically invested project that I have done. With those other projects, I knew I was creating a literary piece, but I wasn’t in it. With Sheep Machine, my existence and my creation – the time I devoted to creating – obliterated. They became one. They weren’t separate entities. There was no distinction. I didn’t stand outside myself with an awareness of creating something. Not having that meta-awareness is the best form of “meta” there is. Too much meta[-awareness] is like looking in a mirror of a mirror of a mirror of oneself – it’s dizzying. But Sheep Machine didn’t make me feel dizzy.
BH: You just mentioned the word “ontology.” The word also pops up in Sheep Machine as does, for example, Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. Philosophy and philosophical concerns seem to be important for your work. How do these things factor into your art and your awareness of yourself?
Nao: Well, I’m hoping to create my own philosophical thoughts about the nature of existence and I think my work is slowly getting there. My recent work – The Old Philosopher , Fish in Exile , Sheep Machine – are just examples of throat clearing. I haven’t completely immersed myself into what I view as the ultimate meaning of existence, which is an ongoing exploration in my current work. It will take me a while to get there because I am very young (I haven’t read enough; I have experienced enough; I don’t know enough languages). I think reading helps a lot, but not necessarily reading particular philosophers such as Nietzsche or Kierkegaard. It seems to me that their lives are more interesting (for me anyway) than their philosophies. But I have always been interested in philosophy, especially philosophy of existence and its relationship to suicide. A lot of great thinkers and writers straddle that line between life and death – some successfully, some unsuccessfully. I think there’s a correlation between thoughts and death, one that is even deeper than the correlation between sex and death, and that’s something that I want to explore in my own work.
BH: In Thornton’s work and in your book, there’s quite a lot of emphasis on the image. Different things seem to be happening within the text: there’s an opposition between appearances and reality, the issue of the unreliability of perception, and even notions of distantiation and mediation. Would you care to say a bit about the status of the image in Sheep Machine?
Nao: Well, originally, the screenshots were supposed to accompany the text, but I think it’s really expensive to reproduce them as photographs. I think it’s much more visually compelling to include them. The manuscript is much more beautiful with the images and, when I submitted it, I had included both, but the document was so large that it became impractical to print. But I eventually realized that it didn’t matter if the images were included for my work to be independent. It only matters aesthetically. A work can be born, re-born, and even born again.
BH: Is your book about being looked at or is it about looking at something?
Nao: It doesn’t really matter. Whatever the reader takes away from the experience of reading the book is what their experience is going to be. I wasn’t thinking too much about the readers when I was creating Sheep Machine. In fact, I don’t even know if I was thinking much about Leslie Thornton other than about some of her ideas that she had suggested to me. When I told her that I wanted to study her [film] Sheep Machine, she told me that I should study her ants as well. She has another binocular project that she did with ants and snakes and other animals. But in my eyes the sheep were the most interesting because nothing happened for a while and then suddenly everything happens. And there was just so much more subtlety in her Sheep Machine project than in her other film projects. There was a lot going on beneath the surface of her creations. Her images are incredible and what I depicted is stating the obvious. I’m not letting my imagination do much work. My book is basically a verbal translation of her work. I’m not doing anything other than stating the obvious and I think stating the obvious is the most difficult thing in art.
The process has also taught me to look at an image from a very truthful standpoint, e.g. how to elaborate when you don’t need to elaborate. And because stating the obvious is so fantastical, people think that I’m using my imagination more than I need to. And I think that is what’s so interesting about excluding the images – this sense of enigma and mystery. Once you look at the image and see my writing, they are so similar. It’s almost as if you don’t need the image or you don’t need my writing. One or the other – you choose. I doubt you need both.
BH: Do you ever write in Vietnamese or in Latin, which I understand is your second language?
Nao: I have written and translated into Vietnamese. My favourite book in Vietnamese is actually Wuthering Heights. The translation from English into Vietnamese is even better than the English original. I love it in Vietnamese and think that everyone should read it in Vietnamese. The atmosphere is maximized a thousand times. Heathcliff’s conditions, his mental state, his vengeance – these things are so compelling in Vietnamese. Vietnamese is a very poetic language and the novel is elevated to poetry in translation. I also feel tremendous sadness when I read it in Vietnamese.
BH: Is there something intrinsic to the language itself?
Nao: Part of it is the fact that the Vietnamese language is so poetic. But it reminds me of an interview in which the person said to me, “You know, you’re writing a lot of Western, Caucasian writing. It doesn’t have a lot of Vietnamese references.” And I say that I am writing in Vietnamese but in English translation, and I think Sheep Machine and Fish in Exile are good examples. I know for certain that Fish in Exile feels very Vietnamese to me. Other people have said to me, “Vi, why don’t you write more ethnic writing?” I feel that the ethnic writing that I do feels less ethnic, but the writing that doesn’t feel like ethnic writing is actually more ethnic.
BH: At one point in Sheep Machine you ask, “What is it like to endure the bifurcation?” and then write a few lines later “Environment can shape character despite differences in roots” [p. 46]. As a Vietnamese American author, how do you relate to this bifurcated notion of identity?
Nao: It’s the same question that Ethos asks his mother Charleen in Fish in Exile: Is it better to be at home in exile or in exile at home? I feel that when you are bifurcated you are more homeless. You have roots in both places, but at the same time you are rootless. I think the world is headed more towards bifurcation. Contemporary culture, technology, social media – we as a species moving towards bifurcation.
BH: As an author, do you feel like you’re in exile, either linguistically or culturally?
Nao: I think that ontologically I am.
BH: And what does it mean to be in exile ontologically?
Nao: I know that I am connected to other people in this world. I am connected in this conversation with you, and that something is born from this moment. I travel a lot and do a lot readings and meet a lot of people, and these things should suppress my sense of isolation. But as time passes, I just feel very lonely. And you would think that connection helps, but I haven’t been able to feel that deep connection with my own species. It’s not a loneliness that is born from not having enough friends and family and company. Ontological isolation is feeling utterly alone, like you have a soul and it could never be linked to any other soul due to the economy of existence.
BH: Can you assuage that ontological loneliness through a connection with nature? Is there any other way that you can connect with existence ontologically, if not with other people?
Nao: No, not nature, not technology, not when I’m alone, not when I’m not alone. I try in my writing to tap into that deep, deep loneliness. It’s not the kind of loneliness that you experience when you’re sleeping next to someone and you feel utterly alone. That kind of loneliness is very bearable. At least you feel some sort of sadness or grief. The kind of loneliness I feel is very deep and I try to address this a little bit in Fish in Exile, where I dance around it and tap into it at times. Despite the pain or pleasure that we experience, we can never get closer to the deeper essence of existence, which is the obliteration of non-existence. And so a lot of my work is moving in that direction. I hope that I am mature enough linguistically to be able to create a world ekphrastically in which I explore my recent ontological dilemmas and experiences.
BH: Would you care to say anything about time? Thornton’s film has a certain cinematic notion of time. Your book speeds up or slows down time depending on the number of pages that you choose to devote to each filmic interval. Do you play with temporality and duration?
Nao: I think each word can be infinity itself. I felt that whatever I’d capture in any given sentence could go on forever. One word can have one timestamp, but there could be millions of timestamps within that one word. Meanwhile, film is limited by its own timestamp. And so sometimes I think words, because they don’t have that time movement, are actually infinite.
It reminds [me] of the time when I was teaching a course at Brown. One of the assignments was for the students to write a novel in two weeks. I gave the assignment a week before Thanksgiving and they were very angry with me. I had seventeen students at the time and one of them came up to me after class and told me that this was really unfair. In their eyes it was a form of cruelty.
BH: Right, but they fundamentally misunderstood the nature of the assignment.
Nao: Well, they asked me what constitutes a novel, and I told them anything over 40,000 words. They had been writing 1,000 words each week and by that point we were eight weeks into the semester, so they had 8,000 words maximum, if that. So they would need to produce 32,000 words in two weeks and I told them to try their best. And during our brainstorming session the next week, I told them that they didn’t have to write the novel alone [individually]. Each person could contribute a certain amount of words, for example, and they’d have a completed manuscript. And that morning there was a truck that passed by the bus stop with the words, “A flower is worth a thousand words.” And I told them that if they would have given me forty roses then I would have accepted that as a novel. In fact, I would have accepted forty photographs, and so they started thinking outside of the box, which was the point of the assignment.
My book Sheep Machine is not designed to measure time based on traditional notions of time, but perhaps metaphysical notions of time. The book’s language can be a form of time. I believe in conversions. I like to think that different forms can have a certain conversional methodology that shapes how we create art. A lot of my art relies heavily on screwed up conversion systems. Sometimes they are fabricated in the moment that I create them, while at other times they are more thought out. That’s what a lot of my recent work has been – a language of conversion. I’m teaching my students how to wrongly convert things in order to create better art.
BH: Is this sense of conversion relevant for Sheep Machine?
Nao: The project was very interesting in the sense of when I was doing it, but in retrospect it’s boring. If you had to document me and watch me, it’s just boring. And in many ways, I think Sheep Machine is a very boring manuscript. No one really wants to read about clouds that look like Yodas [a frequent image in the book]. My favourite aspect of it was the fact that it was one of the most lucid times of my existence. When I was creating the work, time and physicality were obliterated, almost as if I was not a biological entity anymore. Words and language itself sort of had this very non-biological existence to them. And there are only very few times in my life when I can say that I’ve actually experienced that. I knew how beautiful it was when I was writing it. When I re-read my manuscript, the beauty vanishes. It’s only in retrospect that I think about Sheep Machine and feel that it’s beautiful. Other people have been able to experience its beauty, but I cannot relate to their experiences at all. I think Sheep Machine is a boring book, but I think you should read a boring book once in a while.
BH: And, finally, are there any boring books that you’re reading at the moment?
Nao: I just finished this book called On Suicide Bombing by Talal Asad. I read it at the Santa Monica beach – I know, light-hearted beach reading. I think it’s one of the more interesting books that I’ve read lately. He writes clearly and succinctly and deeply and his book raises more questions than it answers. I think any book that does that tends to generate more communication. And I just recently read Kingdom Animalia by Aracelis Girmay. I love her work. In one of my favourite poems by her she addresses kindness. Compassion and sexiness are two of the things that excite me. For example, how can we explore the postmodern concepts of compassion and sexiness? What is the best way to treat another human being? I believe in a particular form of postmodern kindness – not the mainstream understanding in which kindness is very predictable. I like the type of kindness that is born from a conflict between ethics and politics. That kind of kindness, I think, is less superficial and deeper.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Vi Khi Nao is the author of Sheep Machine (Black Sun Lit, 2018) and Umbilical Hospital (Press 1913, 2017), and of the short stories collection, A Brief Alphabet of Torture, which won FC2’s Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Prize in 2016, the novel, Fish in Exile (Coffee House Press, 2016), and the poetry collection, The Old Philosopher, which won the Nightboat Books Prize for Poetry in 2014. Her work includes poetry, fiction, film and cross-genre collaboration. Her stories, poems, and drawings have appeared in NOON, Ploughshares, Black Warrior Review and BOMB, among others. She holds an MFA in fiction from Brown University.