Vi Khi Nao, Fish in Exile, Coffee House Press, 2016.
"Here I was allowed to forget for a while that that is what books aspire to tell, so taken was I by more enthralling and mysterious pleasures." Carole Maso
How do you bear the death of a child? With fishtanks and jellyfish burials, Persephone's pomegranate seeds, and affairs with the neighbors. Fish in Exile spins unimaginable loss through classical and magical tumblers, distorting our view so that we can see the contours of a parent's grief all the more clearly.
Nao’s (The Old Philosopher) probing, wrenching novel follows a married couple after the deaths of their two children. Two years following the deaths, husband Ethos and wife Catholic have drifted apart: Catholic is sleeping with the couple’s neighbor, Callisto; Ethos has left his job as a school principal and spends his days wandering around their seaside New England home and trying to mend their marriage. The couple’s searching and sometimes troubled psychological states manifest themselves in strange ways: Ethos builds small coffins and buries dead jellyfish; Catholic fashions outfits for their two fish (“I am behaving so strangely. I know I can’t turn a dress or a fish into a little girl, but my heart itches”). Midway through, Ethos’s mother, Charleen, visits them with her own troubled baggage. The novel’s language can become too abstract, but Nao skillfully grounds the story through mundane objects (Ethos methodically constructs aquariums for their fish, while Catholic at one point imagines deconstructing a bike into its individual parts), and direct, often funny dialogue: one particularly memorable exchange occurs when a boy asks Catholic why all their pictures are hung backward, and she replies they’re in time-out for capturing too much. The result is a novel that forges a new vocabulary for the routine of grief, as well as the process of healing. —Publishers Weekly
"The impressions that last, however, will be entirely Nao’s own: all the wondrous forms she has revealed to us, the image of them luminescent, flourishing, in the seemingly dark and empty waters of grief." —The Harvard Crimson
“This journey across the boundaries of form and genre, to write about what is un-write-aboutable, is a smart maneuver — it permits the reader to experience what has been written about over and over in a way that is fresh and absorbing in its difference.” —NPR
"Vi Khi Nao has created a meditation that splits open the numbing and disorienting problems of loss and mourning with language that breathes new life into an old suffering." —The Millions
"Nao, who was born in Vietnam, blends prose and poetry in her heart-wrenching novel about a couple grieving for their two dead children." —BBC
"An off-kilter but effective tone poem on loss and recovery." —Kirkus
"A magical and fresh perspective on grief, this beautiful book is like nothing you've ever read before." —Bustle
“Through mythic tangents and arrest, Nao pulls us through dismemberment, dissociation, and devotion with colossal sentences.”—The Fanzine
"The language ranges from frank gallows humor to unexpectedly devastating, as if you’re at a party exchanging sarcastic witticisms with a stranger and then she suddenly hits you over the head with a brick…" —The Rejectionist
“[F]or all the weightiness of its subject matter, Fish in Exile is also surprisingly light on its feet: eccentric, absurd, and delightfully wry. This book wriggles with so much originality and life, it'll have you hooked from the very start.”—BuzzFeed Books Newsletter
"Smartly innovative, lushly poetic, compellingly told, and truly moving, Fish in Exile is a remarkable, sui generis novel. Vi Khi Nao is a strikingly talented writer whose artistic vision takes many literary forms. I ardently hope she does more long form fiction; she does it splendidly." —Robert Olen Butler
"In this jagged and unforgettable work, Vi Khi Nao takes on a domestic story of losing one’s children and elevates it to Greek tragedy. Refusing sentimentality and realism, she shows how personal devastation can feel, to the sufferer, as powerful and enduring as myth."—Viet Thanh Nguyen
"Vi Khi Nao’s language isn’t made of words like everyone else’s. This can’t be true, so it must be that Vi Khi Nao has found a way to sensitize words into a phase change, into a state of semantic overflow. Nao’s sentences proceed via floral, clitoral, littoral surges. Fish in Exile is what leaks from the forms literary grief has taken, and what floats away, an amalgam of jellyfish and clouds. I love this book for its texture, its granular absurdities, its aqueous erotics, its garlic paper longing. I’ve never felt anything like it." —Joanna Ruocco
"Vi Khi Nao’s Fish in Exile resonates with the unconscious fecundity of myth. A modern allegory of children who give birth to their mother, minnows that push a whale’s shopping cart around Walmart, and hospitals that exude an odor of insane asylums and Windex: Demeter, Callisto, Catholic, and Ethos live again in Nao’s world, and make new the most fundamental contradictions of life—separation, desire, bondage, freedom, loyalty, birth." —Steve Tomasula
Nao’s (The Old Philosopher) probing, wrenching novel follows a married couple after the deaths of their two children. Two years following the deaths, husband Ethos and wife Catholic have drifted apart: Catholic is sleeping with the couple’s neighbor, Callisto; Ethos has left his job as a school principal and spends his days wandering around their seaside New England home and trying to mend their marriage. The couple’s searching and sometimes troubled psychological states manifest themselves in strange ways: Ethos builds small coffins and buries dead jellyfish; Catholic fashions outfits for their two fish (“I am behaving so strangely. I know I can’t turn a dress or a fish into a little girl, but my heart itches”). Midway through, Ethos’s mother, Charleen, visits them with her own troubled baggage. The novel’s language can become too abstract, but Nao skillfully grounds the story through mundane objects (Ethos methodically constructs aquariums for their fish, while Catholic at one point imagines deconstructing a bike into its individual parts), and direct, often funny dialogue: one particularly memorable exchange occurs when a boy asks Catholic why all their pictures are hung backward, and she replies they’re in time-out for capturing too much. The result is a novel that forges a new vocabulary for the routine of grief, as well as the process of healing. - Publishers Weekly
Grieving is such a basic aspect of human narrative that one might think, after a millennia, that there would be little new to say on the subject. That doesn’t stop new narratives from being recorded and published and read on every platform imaginable; poetry, memoir, and novels serving as the specific and personal record of some individual mourning.
What causes me to appreciate this continual outpouring of writing about loss is how purely against articulation grief makes itself. What grows within you after you experience a deeply felt loss robs you of your ability to address it; the loss of the self that accompanies grieving serves only to create distance between you and those closest to you. Death not only silences the body of those it takes, but often leaves the witnesses mute as well.
Vi Khi Nao may sense this as well, based on the route her debut novel, Fish in Exile, takes through language to illuminate loss and its multiform sorrows. It turns the world inside out, blowing up a suburban tragedy into tale that unselfconsciously aligns itself with the mythic without once utilizing it for melodramatic flair. As Padgett Powell once said, possibly misquoting his old teacher Donald Barthelme: “the more wacky the mode…the more heartbreak there better be or you’re not going to get away with it.” Though strangeness or uncanniness may be better terms to describe the language employed here than “wackiness,” heartbreak is certainly abundant.
The book opens in medias res, in the first person narrative of Ethos, who moves through the world detached and fumbling (In one fragment, Ethos wakes in the morning and walks “the frozen plate of [his] memory to the microwave.”) He and his wife, Catholic, have lost their children in an oceanside accident and are struggling to maintain the world they built as a family. Ethos responds by quitting his job, wandering around his own house like someone lost, barely capable of making his way through the day. Catholic responds with resentment towards Ethos, keeping him at arm’s length after sleeping with the neighbor, Callisto, who, along with his wife, Lidia, seem to be the only friends the two have.
The journey this couple takes through this novel rarely takes them physically to any location but their own gloomy home and the ocean, the scene of their tragedy. Their house is dark and swollen with shadows. Ethos makes inarticulate gestures to reach out to Catholic, but she in turn is bound up in her own pain and resentment. The loss of their children has decimated them both, but grief doesn’t have a rote path. Every book that doesn’t try to shoehorn complex, personal experiences of loss into the five steps of grieving is a mercy.
Nao does little to push a cohesive narrative or propel her characters forward with plot structure, and the book is better for it. Instead, Ethos and Catholic feel their way along the darkened walls as their life, without consent, continues onward. Interruptions from their neighbors, a visit from Ethos’s mother. A planting of garlic bulbs leads to full-on dramatization of the Classical origin of seasons myth, complete with fully realized conversations between Demeter, Persephone, and Hades. Ethos erects wall-to-wall aquariums to house the dogfish that he buys, obvious attempts at replacing the lost children coiling of glass, fitting in the way they almost resemble their damp and shadowy owners.
Death and profound loss are bleak subjects, but what is bleak is not always without humor. At one point, Ethos attempts to approach Catholic with a bouquet of flowers in his pants to replace the erection he cannot conjure. The entire section narrated by Ethos’s mother, Charlene, is dramatic and exasperating in the way only a mother’s visit cane be. Ethos and Catholic struggle to cover their fish with sweaters. At one point Ethos thinks that the “thing about suicide is, it’s a very selfish act. This is why only one should be done once in a lifetime.” The absurdity of the way that grief pushes the couple to their emotional and psychological limits isn’t just devastating, it’s often very funny.
Everything in this book is framed in turns of life, death, and desire. Donald Hall once wrote in one of his many poems commemorating his grief over the loss of Jane Kenyon, his wife: “Lust is grief/ that has turned over in bed/ to look the other way.” The desire that mitigates the world between life and death is also what propels everything in this book. Ethos thinks, “my wife lies like a wound. The breeze lifts the curtain so it appears pregnant with air.” His grief is one of longing, where he sees his wife as a “window” into which he views the “shimmering undulating sea,” though he admits that it is not an insight, only “a literature” he stuffs “into her flesh.” Catholic attempts to root out her desires and end them. Though Ethos attempts to obstruct her, Catholic ties her tubes: “now that I can’t give birth anymore, I’m truly receding.” She finds herself disgusted by Callisto, with whom she had an affair in the aftermath of her children’s deaths, and his entreaties to want to “fuck everything.” By refuting all desire, she can disarm the life that has wounded her.
There is a reckoning towards the end of the book. There is something like healing that happens as a result of forgiveness and acceptance, but, as with so many things, time is the only effective salve. The lives of these parents do not remain shattered, but they do remain broken.
Fish In Exile is a book that never once attempts to explain itself, that immerses the reader in an aquatic underworld of pain and loss. Vi Khi Nao has created a meditation that splits open the numbing and disorienting problems of loss and mourning with language that breathes new life into an old suffering. This in turn brings about the kind of bewilderment one faces when the deeply familiar is made uncanny. In that, there is a kind of solace. - Aaron Calvin
Grief is such a common subject in fiction, it’s difficult to make it new. To be fair, it’s a theme fertile for exploration and an experience that is universal. Vi Khi Nao’s newest book, Fish in Exile, fits perfectly into this tradition while also expanding it.
To summarize it simply: Fish in Exile is a story of a couple—Ethos and Catholic—who, on a family trip to a New England beach, meet unexpected tragedy. Ethos, the husband, is swept into the sea. To save him, Catholic rushes into the water. They return ashore to find their children, Colin and Abby, missing, most likely drowned. What follows is two years of searching and coping.
For Ethos this means quitting his job at an elementary school and “walk[ing] eight miles to the sea. To the cemetery,” where he collects “desiccated jellyfish.” He thinks, perhaps hopelessly, maybe filled with delusion, most definitely touched by grief: “It’s inevitable, then: my children must return home.” Eventually, he decides, “I will take their aquatic, nomadic abode into our home,” and begins to build a massive aquarium, one that surrounds the walls of his house. He fills it with water from the sea.
Meanwhile, Catholic has flipped all the pictures in the house backward (“They’re in time-out,” she says, “They captured too much.”). Soon, she’s sewing dresses for Pistachio and Dogfish, an angelfish and an oriental sweetlips, their pets and stand-in children in the wake of the deaths. She is conscious that what she does is useless. “I am behaving so strangely. I know this,” she says. “I know I can’t turn a dress or a fish into a little girl, but my heart itches.”
Busy with their strange newfound hobbies—coping mechanisms—the couple grows apart in every way possible. And though Ethos tries to mend their relationship, Catholic is haunted by what she sees as her decision to save her husband over staying with her children. Present in the aftermath of tragedy is Ethos’s mother Charleen, a classics professor secretly in competition with Anne Carson, and the couple’s neighbors, Callisto and Lidia.
There is no good way to summarize this wholly unique book. The summary here is out of order; the narrative is fragmented and polyphonic with most of the characters having his or her own section. The structure is a good choice on the author’s part as the story unfolds with tension and suspense. This, however, is sometimes lost in the characters’ meandering thoughts and abstract language. But to be lost in Nao’s language is quite a treat!
In The Old Philosopher (which was also published this year), Nao has already proven herself a skillful poet who can be both playful and deadly serious. She brings the same qualities to this novel. For example, after contemplating suicide, Ethos thinks: “The thing about suicide is, it’s a very selfish act. This is why one should only be done once in a lifetime.” In another section, an eleven-year-old hired to walk the couple’s fish observes, “Rocks are amazing. There’s so much going on in their heads. You can’t tell by looking at them. They’re so quiet.”
But unlike in her poetry, in her fiction, Nao writes thoroughly rendered characters aching with vulnerability, and she handles them tenderly. Recalling an affair with a woman, Charleen says, “She made my body feel like literature, a place for the endless gaze.” The memory contrasts with the desire sadly missing in Ethos and Catholic’s relationship: “She walks toward me awkwardly as if she were walking through me,” says Ethos, “Each walk is a cut…She cuts through me.”
Interestingly, though it’s a story of mere mortals, the story of Ethos and Catholic works in the space between domestic fiction and mythology. We see this in Nao’s allusions to Greek mythology (in particular, the story Demeter and Persephone) as well as her choice in character names, which cast them, at least at the onset, as abstract beings. It makes for a story of loss and turmoil that is at once, strangely, foreign and relatable. “I don’t believe the mind can distinguish between the literal world and the conceptual world,” says one of the characters early in the book. The novel follows this idea to the very end, melding the real with the language of the conceptual to tell a story that is startlingly affecting.
All of this, of course, works in service to Nao’s portrayal of grief in its all complexities. From the outrage of loss (“Why did God steal the children from us? Why didn’t he ask us if it was okay before he shoplifted them?” asks Catholic) to the struggle of keeping a loved one’s memory alive (again, Catholic: “…they’re disappearing from my memory, Ethos. I can’t locate their faces”) to the way grief can be intensely personal (“Everyone wants a part of it. That sorrow. You think it’s too much. Everyone wants a piece. Everyone wants to take you away from it. And you learn to resent them for the invasion,” observes Catholic).
Fish in Exile is a stunning novel that examines how easily we can fall apart after a disaster. “We must be made of sand,” Nao writes, “it’s the only way to rationalize how quickly our realities disintegrate.” Indeed, the traditional narrative of loss disappears in the capable hands of Vi Khi Nao and we are left with a powerful and devastating story that is surprising in the best ways. With such a unique book, the most justice a reviewer can do is to simply tell readers to take a chance on it. Fish in Exile does not disappoint. - Eric Nguyen
Before reading Fish in Exile, I had never read a book that reminded me of Anne Carson, a writer many people have deemed inimitable. Like Carson, Vi Khi Nao has a history of mixing poetry and prose, realism and unrealism. And in this book, her first novel, she also draws on the ancient Greek stories and concepts that Carson makes such frequent use of.
For the length of the first chapter I relished this connection as though I were the only one to have drawn it. Then I reached page 71, on which a new character announces that “Anne Carson and I are secretly in competition. You know, she and I are both classics professors.”
The character in question is Charleen, the mother and mother-in-law, respectively, of the story’s protagonists, Ethos and Catholic. In Greek, as Charleen might tell us, ethos means something like character. Catholic means something like “throughout-the-whole,” in the words of the scholar Walter Ong, who uses the metaphor of yeast — which acts on all the dough but “does not convert all the dough into yeast” — to demonstrate what he means.
By marrying these names, Nao sets up an exploration of the interplay between that which distinguishes people from one another and that which acts upon all, suffusing but not subsuming. As her metaphors — which are more than metaphors — she uses not dough and yeast but bodies and water. Water makes up approximately 73 percent of our brains and hearts and 31 percent of our bones, but does not convert us into it.
The book begins in the wateriest room of the house, with Ethos staring into the toilet bowl, grieving over a tragedy about which details emerge slowly. Ethos and Catholic’s two children, Abby and Colin, have disappeared into the ocean on a family trip to the beach, leaving the adults to deal with the aftermath. In addition to the children’s grandmother and bereft parents, the survivors include the neighbors, Lidia and Callisto, who were there that day.
Like the fish out of water the title calls to mind, they suddenly find themselves outside the flow of life as it seems life should be. But unlike a flapping animal who might reach water again, they can never return to the way things were. And yet they don’t die. “My death must be inevitably delayed (yet again!),” Ethos thinks one morning. Hence the exile. How does one live in these unlivable conditions? How does one bear a separation that is both unbearable and permanent? are the questions they, and Nao, face.
Of course the answers are different for different people, a problem for which Nao’s formal solution is to write from multiple characters’ perspectives. Catholic, Charleen, and Ethos each narrate sections named after them and, in the case of the latter two, one additional chapter each (“Garlic” and “Aquarium”). Removed from the action, Lidia and Callisto don’t speak to the reader directly in their chapter, but through a journalist who interviews them about the children’s disappearance.
The book opens in the voice of Ethos, who used to be a middle school principal but now wanders around the house and sometimes the neighborhood, cooking, cleaning, and building an aquarium out of materials he buys from a local window supplier. The school calls, asking him to come back, but for a long time he ignores them.
Catholic continues working but behaves erratically, making cryptic comments and sewing outfits for the pet fish they keep buying, which keep dying, perhaps because she dresses them and leashes them and takes them on “walks” to the ocean. There, she and Ethos sift water with large containers in a futile attempt to find their children. “You can’t yank the sea up like a bedsheet,” Ethos tells her. To which she responds, “Watch me.”
“I am behaving so strangely,” she says in the book’s final section, the one written in her voice. “I know this. I know I can’t turn a dress or a fish into a little girl, but my heart itches.”
The strangeness of feeling trapped inside yourself while also being able to look at yourself from the outside while also remaining somewhat inaccessible to yourself — you can’t scratch your heart, let alone understand it — is heightened by Nao’s narrative technique. She alternates first-person narration with theatrical dialogue, flicking the reader back and forth between inhabiting the narrator’s mind and looking at them from the outside. (Reminiscent of movies, these shifts give the book a cinematic feel.) For example:
ETHOS: Catholic. Where do you want to be? In bed? I can take you there.
CATHOLIC. No. No. No. (She mumbles.)
With my arms underneath her legs and torso and her right hand around my neck, I lift Catholic into the bathroom.
Once she is in the tub, “pellets of water step on Catholic’s face.” And a footnote to this description explains that “showerheads bear a certain similarity to Box jellyfish, which have twenty-four eyes, like the showerhead. And the Box jellyfish, like the showerhead, has four parallel brains that allow it a 360-degree panoramic view of my wife’s naked body.”
The transformation of objects into sentient beings (and vice versa) is a hallmark of Nao’s work. In her last book, the poetry collection The Old Philosopher, cigarettes lying side by side in a carton are figured as a family. (“God pulls my grandmother / Out of her cigarette bed. / … Lights my grandmother’s head up.”) And her prose collection Oh God, Your Babies Are So Delicious! contains a story that imagines a woman’s face as real estate in which others might invest. “Buyers take pride in showcasing their new home or architectural space to others,” the story goes. “It is like adopting an African boy from Zimbabwe. Look at my new exotic accumulation of expensive stuffs.”
If these lines are straightforwardly critical of the ways people objectify others, the subject-object conflation in Fish in Exile is more complicated, and often enacted by characters upon themselves. In the opening toilet bowl scene, for example, Ethos notices that the water “hasn’t completely dissolved the macerated toilet paper. At the bottom, a puff of cloud suspended. . . . I keep staring at it as if it were my life: suspended between the ether of this world and sewage . . . Oh, I wish she had the courage to flush me down.” The quick, quiet shift from gazing-at to completely-identifying-with mirrors Nao’s swerves between a bird’s-eye view of her characters and those characters’ own perspectives.
Even more than the classical allusions, these shifts recall Carson’s work to the extent that they are propelled by changes in form. In collections like Plainwater and Decreation, Carson’s mini-lectures stand side by side with her poems, and poem-like screenplays rub up against essays. More formally consistent, her novel-in-verse Autobiography of Red is nonetheless bookended by an introductory essay and closing interview. Fish in Exile combines these approaches: It shapeshifts as frequently as the collections do but makes its varied forms into a single book-length whole (which also happens to include an interview).
This structure reflects, and deepens the reader’s understanding of, the characters’ predicament. They are confined to the separate physical forms that are necessary to their existence, but together they create a larger social arrangement. And it is this proximity that lends so much meaning to the gaps between their bodies and perspectives.
Ethos repeatedly asks whether it is better to be in exile at home or at home in exile. Fish in Exile implies that this formulation is perhaps beside the point, that as long as he remains intact he will be in exile — suspended from everything else, and most painfully from the people he is closest to.
His grief over losing his children, and to some extent his now-distant wife, is in Nao’s hands a more intense, more tragic version of the pain that comes with the “corporeal bondage” of individuation; with having a body — and giving birth to children with bodies — that can never be fully dissolved into others. Just as Ethos eats Catholic’s placenta one night, “trying to stuff Colin back into my mouth,” Charleen reflects (thinking of incest) that “it must be an ancient maternal yearning: to create something that will reenter you again, even if it’s just a temporary arrangement.”
She solves her longing for Ethos, to the extent that she can, not by sleeping with him but turning her attention toward Cain and Abel. (They “both had to fuck their mother . . . They didn’t have a choice.”) Old stories, she thinks, have been her salvation. “You know, the classics have saved me,” she says to Ethos. “Reading them, you feel that your soul divides less and less . . . It’s really beautiful, what the ancients left us. A container. Filled with remedies.”
But if “language is what eases the pain of living with other people,” as Carson writes in Plainwater, her own water-filled book, “language is what makes the wounds come open again.” Catholic at one point asks Ethos, “Must you stand there and bifurcate me with your words?”
So Nao gives her characters other means of catharsis. One is water, whose power Ethos and Catholic finally stop trying to deny and contain. In the end, the homemade aquarium breaks down, pouring out its contents. A hallucinatory scene unfolds in the flooded basement and, for Catholic, “The great certainty comes: My children are no longer with me. They are gone. . . I must let go.”
The other is sex, in which they find an attainable release, one that does not dissolve their difference but passes directly through it. On the damp basement floor, they end their book-length dry spell. And despite having had her tubes tied, Catholic immediately senses that “some life-form is birthing within me.” Unlivable conditions, Nao suggests, do not extinguish life but certify that it exists. - Megan Marz
Before the opening of Vi Khi Nao's Fish in Exile, a married couple, Ethos and Catholic, lose their twin children in a terrible accident at the seashore. By the time the reader opens to the first page, they — and the book itself — have been fragmented by the event, and are trying and failing to hold themselves together.
True to her name, Catholic embraces everything. She copes with action: going to work, having her tubes tied to prevent future pregnancies. Even her affair with the neighbor, Callisto, has an air of industry; she is doing what she must do to survive. Ethos, on the other hand, is pure mood, obscure, melancholy and mercurial. He pedals his feet uselessly in the slickness of grief, eats strange meals at odd intervals, carries around a deflated haversack, tosses letters into the ocean. He has exiled himself from his job, his marriage, his entire life.
Together, and separately, the couple wades through a gelatinous fog of grief. They attempt to have sex, fight, look past each other. They purchase, make tiny outfits for, "walk," and accidentally kill a rotating procession of tropical fish, stand-ins for the children whose bodies have never been located. "They're fish," Catholic tells her husband as she attempts to get a dress on one of them. "Their natural impulse is to slip away." For Ethos and Catholic, the gods and the ocean are one and the same — impersonal, capricious, unknowable. "The sea is Ethos' cemetery," Catholic says. "It's mine too. This burial ground will eat anything you feed it, even flowers. I toss in a bouquet of morning glories, daisies, hyacinths, and roses. Gone. It eats them all. Pulverizing them under heavy blankets of breath."
That Nao is a poet is on full display — the prose here is expressive, muscular, and strange; almost exasperatingly precise. The story manifests as verse, blocks of text, scripted dialogue, loaded metaphor, storytelling. Mythology of every type — Roman, Greek, Christian — is used as a lens to process their suffering, and as a tool for healing. (Ethos's mother tells him, "You know, the classics saved me. They are the most ancient form of psychotherapy.")
This journey across the boundaries of form and genre, to write about what is un-write-aboutable, is a smart maneuver — it permits the reader to experience what has been written about over and over in a way that is fresh and absorbing in its difference. It is not dissimilar from the techniques adopted by Max Porter in Grief Is the Thing with Feathers and Matt Bell in In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods, which use surreal, myth-tinged narratives to attack similarly loaded topics — the loss of a spouse and miscarriage, respectively.
As with so many of my favorite novels, Fish in Exile is less about plot (though there is one, loosely speaking) and more about its immersive experience. It asks a lot from the reader, but rightfully so. Yes, you must pursue meaning through chaos, wring beauty from brutality, grasp for solace among the slow-motion turmoil, but then again, isn't that also how you survive grief? - Carmen Maria Machado
interview by Tobias Carroll
Vi Khi Nao, The Old Philosopher, Nightboat, 2016.
"The poems of The Old Philosopher are keen and bright; sharp like ice in winter, these seemingly fractured lines perform the strangest roles. I believe in all the wicked wisdom contained here. Vi Khi Nao risks much she weights each line with deep spiritual and emotional resonance, yet the voice of the poems never fails to surprise. The opening section of quirky, lacerating lyrics give way to a deceptively quiet series of narrative poems that only serve to show how fully language can come to inhabit lived experience without compromising one stitch of poetry s power to de-center and disturb. The collection closes with a masterful prose sequence that fuses the various approaches of the poems that came before. Political, prayerful, peripatetic, the work of Vi Khi Nao feels so necessary, so intense, so immediately now." - Kazim Ali, Judge's Citation
"Even if you think you are hallucinating, you are not, the lights actually are bouncing / Off a panther s undulating / Back. The pain is real, the dreams are real, and so is the sewing machine. People are just no longer used to a glass mountain that doesn t shatter. We have grown more accustomed to the mountain having simply been removed. We may have already forgotten that god is a child / who pretends to pray / because in the midst of his holy make-believe childhood / he is a beautiful version of daffodil twirling in dew. We are no longer used to the heart s engine revving with such quiet, lonely, insistent, anatomical intensity. Not so many people have traveled in Vi Khi Nao's language mind before. Here is your ticket, a vagrant fragrance." - C. D. Wright
Fiction writer Nao (Swans in Half-Mourning), winner of the 2014 Nightboat Poetry Prize, makes her poetry debut with a sexually raw collection that sparkles with unexpected imagery, as if “a conflicting/ Mixture of lavender and walleye.” The book is replete with experiments in narrative lyric, and aside from a handful of shorter pieces, most of the poems tend to be longer and discursive. In “My Socialist Saliva,” Nao wanders through memories of her birthplace in Vietnam, one filled with both violence and staggering beauty. “My mother rode me on land coated with rambutans/ Rambutans were like little ball hearts glowing red hair/ The earth of Long Khanh was swollen with such cardiovascular beauties/ My little heart was a little engine/ Of red earth.” Elsewhere, she pulls deeply from the realm of lust and love, as well as the tension between pain and pleasure in sex: “you knew i/ knew that love was made of dust & light & maybe nails/ where the hammer walked away & then returned.” But it is when Nao moves beyond the erotic and explores the sophisticated landscape of memory, family, and poetic form that her work feels most alive, honest and energetic; in these pieces, it seems, breath “skips a step on the stairs of breathing.” - Publishers Weekly
At its worst, experimental poetry can be unartful and careless, obfuscating whatever meaning and pleasure that might dwell in the text. At its best, it can call into question language, form, power—anything it pleases, really, through the act of making what we know of poetry new. Vi Khi Nao’s The Old Philosopher comfortably belongs in the latter category. And her subject? Many—Vietnam, violence, sexuality, love, art. But perhaps the most prominent subject is god. Indeed, there are many allusions to biblical and religious texts and stories in this debut collection. Despite this, however, Nao’s god is neither religious nor spiritual. Instead, her god is an idea, and it is this idea of god and how it could exist in our contemporary moment that she explores.
The title poem situates the readers to Nao’s ontological project. In thirteen lines, Nao paints a scene of birds—“approximately four thousand/two-hundred and forty five” of them—released from the trunks of three cars. As they are freed, one “like an old philosopher/Socrates perhaps” stays behind, “walking back and forth on the gray carpet.” The speakers in this collection’s poems are like this old philosopher, this odd bird, observing this new world, a newly-birded world.
If that’s a strange image, it’s because the book is populated with such strange, surreal imagery, analogies, metaphors, and personifications that navigate between the playful to the sinister, all of which are equally startling. In “AA Meeting for a Limestone,” a rock sits in on a solitary “preventative AA meeting” so it “can talk shit about [its] pain, delirium, [and] lack of total control.” Two poems later, in “How Can Something So Unmoving Move Everything Around It,” the image of a rock is deployed differently to describe the human heart, like “Mount Hood…which lies/in Oregon like an alligator.” In the first poem, the rock has sassy voice and attitude mocking human folly (the poem’s last line is “See ya around, pancake faces”); in the second, the image of the rock stands for not only the stoic coldness of humanity, but—with the final word, “alligator,”—its danger as well.
Nao’s imagery works best when they are situated within the familiar. This is especially the case in poems that are seemingly autobiographical. In “My Socialist Saliva,” the speaker is riding with her mother on a motorcycle in Long Khanh:
My mother rode me on land coated with rambutans
Rambutans were like little ball hearts growing red hair
The earth of Long Khanh was swollen with such cardiovascular beauties[.]
The associative leaps in images move from the natural (“rambutans”) to the grotesque (“little ball hearts growing red hair”) and back to something not quite natural, surely unexpected, but beautiful nonetheless (“cardiovascular beauties”). It’s far from the literal world we live in, but the juxtaposition of the ugly and the beautiful—or perhaps seeing the ugly in the beautiful—speaks of our own messy world. Such handling of imagery suggests one of either two ideas of god: its very nonexistence or its malevolent nature.
The idea of the nonexistent god appears in the first poem, “dear god I am god.” Halfway through this short poem, this line is repeated, followed by “i am am washing myself in dew.” This “god” is seen in the next poem (“Fog”) as “a child/who pretends to pray” who is “a beautiful version of daffodil twirling in dew[.]” Placing these two poems in this order, with their continuation of theme and diction, Nao portrays god as a playful identity, something one can put on and perform. Tellingly, “dead god i am god” ends with “performance art as identity” and “Fog” includes the phrase “make-believe childhood.”
In contrast, Nao also presents the idea of a cruel god in poems like “The Day God Smokes My Grandmother.” Here, the poet ups the surrealism and imagines the speaker’s family members as cigarettes, “made of human tobacco & Long Khanh’s red earth &/ Bed sheets as long/as a rubber tree.” When an uncle steps outs for a smoke of his own, the speaker observes wryly, it’s “a cigarette smoking a cigarette.” The poem continues with god smoking each of the speaker’s family members, stopping at her at the end, where she concludes self-deprecatingly: “God doesn’t like to smoke me. /I smell too much like a conflicting/Mixture of lavender and walleye.” “The Day God Smokes My Grandmother”—a meditation on death—is exemplary of Nao’s unique ability observe the human condition with nuanced astuteness; to Nao, existence is very terrible but it is also very funny.
Appropriately, in “Biblical Flesh,” Nao asks: is it you who gets fucked or is it God?” That is, are we playing god (the word “play” heavy with all the connotations of both theatre and deceit) or is god playing with us? That these two ideas are present in equal parts in The Old Philosopher suggests that the answer doesn’t matter. Nao’s speakers are resilient. One gets an inkling that despite what happens or has happened to them in these poems, their lives continue. Notably, Nao has the tendency to deflate the worst of human experience. In “Today I Lost My Hat,” Nao writes a timeline of the day the speaker’s grandmother dies. Keenly, she writes, “the sun did not show up for work…there was much dying to do.” This is followed by a mundane observation: “Lunch: Rice tasted like raw goat milk.” The horror of death and the banality of life collapse at the end in a one-line stanza, where the speaker exclaims sardonically, “How death makes one suffer!”
The Old Philosopher is a playful celebration of life, following the adage, “Don’t take life seriously; no one gets out of here alive.” While those inexperienced with nontraditional forms of poetry might balk at Nao’s use of space, her leaps of thought, and her, at times, dense maximalism, Nao is a skillful writer—a literary offspring of M.C. Escher and Salvador Dali yet something uniquely her own—whose wisdom and ability to continually surprise, poem after poem, makes the reading worth the effort. - Eric Nguyen
Body and elemental earth exist in a liminal space in these poems, demanding that we consider what else is similar, what else transcends potentially imagined boundaries. As recurrence of theme, image, and language carries from piece to piece, a sense of continuity develops, earning the reader’s trust. And this trust is absolutely necessary by the time we get to “Pastoral Threshold,” where we are thrust into a supernatural political short-short story narrated by a leader of the United Arab Emirates in a modern take on the biblical story of Uriah the Hittite. The casual, patriarchal malevolence in this poem is stirring; after the narrator explains how he sent Uriah to Syria as a UN Inspector to die and to take his wife, the ruler tells us, “Days after his death or rather his assassination, she was squirming in my arms, under the opulent bed sheets of the Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi where I housed my lust.” While this prose poem (or short-short) could easily stand on its own, as with the other disparate works in this book readers must trust Nao’s sure hand and take the time to reorient with each piece or be lost to confusion. - Leslie Caton Link to the Full Review
Reading experimental poetry can feel like driving in a traffic jam: you read one line over and over, trying to “get” it, tentatively proceed to the next line, feel even more like you are drowning in blank confusion, flee back to the previous line, read the two lines together a few times to see if their meaning can perhaps be “unlocked” that way, then go back to reading the first line alone because maybe you got it all wrong the first time; eventually, feeling none the wiser, you look up at the clock and realize a half-hour has passed and you haven’t even reached the third line yet.
Fortunately, Vi Khi Nao’s debut poetry collection The Old Philosopher, though ravishingly experimental, is not like that. Nao’s poems are eminently readable, having a brisk, breezy, informal voice (“See ya around, pancake faces,” the speaker of one poem says slangily) and being widely spaced on the page in a way that invites the eye to partake. Reading her words, you find yourself turning pages at a rapid clip.
There is a worldly, cosmopolitan sensibility at work here: in their use of line, image, and irony, Nao’s poems are reminiscent of modernist French poets like Laforgue and Apollinaire. At times, they also evoke Eastern European surrealists like Novica Tadic, as in the case of the claustrophobic and terrifying dramatic monologue “A Cuban Bay of Pigs,” which begins, “When I first met her, her face was hollowed out, like // a soggy tree carved from the center with a metal // spoon….” The poem goes on to describe how a despot turns a woman’s head into a pinata because “she had the face of history and to me, it seemed, to // get rid of her face was to get rid of history.” - Jenna Le Link to the Full Review
Vi Khi Nao, The Vanishing Point of Desire, Fugue State Press, 2011."How does this writer, Vi Khi Nao, even exist?
She puts herself on a wood stove. Stretches her fingers. Stretches her back. Stretches her toes. She reaches out to the cutting board. She places herself on the cutting board. She slants herself on the cutting board. She lifts the hammer. She lifts it high. As high as her eyebrows. She lifts her skirt up. She lifts her skirt with the unused hand. She lifts it up for the view. She lifts the skirt. She lifts the hammer. The hammer falls...
With a hatchet.
She takes herself apart with a hatchet.
She puts herself on the wood stove.... "
"Vi Khi Nao will probably be labeled as an “experimental writer.” But she’s also a typewriter enthusiast, an artist (one of her pieces accompanies this post), and, surprisingly, a lover of sangria that can cut you like a knife. Her stories and poetry have appeared in Noon and elimae. Her first book, The Vanishing Point of Desire, came out this month on Fugue State Press.
I caught up with her recently.
Is this your first interview?- Yes, Tony, this is my first interview.
This is only my third interview, so I’m not very good at this. How interested are you in talking animals? Please give your answer as a percentage.- Not very interested at all. -2%. Their silence makes their reputation. As mute creatures they are more lively and interesting.
Since you have minus interest in talking animals, I will skip the question where I ask you to comment on poetry the otters in my otter preserve (Tender Meadows, LLC.) have been working on. Instead, I will ask you about your own work: How would you describe it to an office manager?- My work is officeless, devoid of office supplies, mechanical goods, and sterling. My work is flamboyant, transcending, and at times inaccessible, like a password, but decodable. If you read it, you must read it in the morning or in daylight, not necessarily from eight to five. To take advantage of its content fully. My work is selfish. It demands much absolute focus and can’t not be left alone in the dark for long hours. My work is an albino, and will most likely hop from one systolic hut to the next, and rarely remains tenderly on the page of a room. My work is an empty basement, much is stored there and won’t survive a flood. Someday my work will arrive to work with me and I hope you, Office Manager, that you will not mistake it for a butterknife. My work is sharp, like paper, and most certainly won’t cut anything. Perhaps I am wrong to state that so frankly. My work may have the potential to cut your thighs into four seasons, and only the Spring and Winter survive the ordeal of the cut. My work may raise eyebrows, but not necessarily your pay raise. Alas, my work may not have a place in your office, like a plant, but certainly it is not an endless task that occupies your soul the moment you enter the office and the moment you depart it.
Google Translate responds with “you when” after being given “Vi Khi Nao” to translate. So: You when?- I win. I know. Thank you, Tony.
What is it that you’d most like to ask me?- I have many most. How is your house? In Vietnamese, wife translates to house. How many bedrooms are there in your house? Do the windows open? Is there a wine opener? How is your roof? Will you let me climb on top of it to see the birdfeeder? How is the cellar? Is it like the one in The Road. Have you slept in the garrett recently? Will you move to your house? Soon? I will miss you very much. Please don’t be confused. These questions address your wife. Not your house." - Interview by Anthony LuebbertOh God, Your Babies Are So Delicious by Vi Khi Nao
Vi Khi Nao, Oh God, Your Babies Are So Delicious. Lulu.com, 2014.
In this first anthology of Vi Khi Nao's stories, the intelligence of cutting-edge fiction playfully twists around fruit, suburban disorders, grim butterflies, and intimate glimpses into the author's dark and fantastic imagination.
Prepare to be devoured by Vi Khi Nao’s prose. Her words are a hypnotizing mix of melancholy and visceral repulsion at the urbanity of every day existence that also, strangely, feels joyous. Whether it’s an avocado about to have an abortion, or a reduction architect who is erasing his own body, there’s an imaginative horror that vivifies, and in some case, mummifies the uncanny. Nao’s stories are conversations with fungus, light, and the spores that bind the senses, sensuality dissected in a bloody bath of beauty:
“My brother is like a wife to me. He’s the head and I’m the tail of a photographic process. We knew each other’s innocence before he evaporated into light. He taught me how to absorb a man with grotesque fingernails and where to dispose of men when their faces do not show up. Love through the blood pipe has the most color spectrum, but I only want black and white.”
The spectrum of the stories are both poetic and haunting, and the kaleidoscope is startling for the way it illuminates the scratches and scars in the light. Her prose is playful, transmuting the context that encases every word and suiting them up for a versatility that feels like a menage a trois with poetry and rap. I’ve never had a brother who was like a wife, but I’ve drowned in the malodorous stink of the fingernails of faceless people. Nao sticks pipes into our flesh, our brain, and our very understanding of narrative, percolating truth into fiction and vice versa. It’s a symbiosis spurred by a harsh sundering, a conjunction forced by murderous separation. I feel like I’m being eaten with each page, then reborn through the ingestion of every sentence, an altrical weaning edited by bacterial digestion.
“Let’s pretend to be grammatically hysterical for a moment. Let’s pretend that there are no rules to how we are born or how a sentence comes into the world.”
She doesn’t just pretend there are no rules, but helps us imagine all new ones. Sentences become the gastrointestinal hormones that confuse our brain with regrets, and the Reduction Architect tries to wipe himself from the monotony of time:
“Midway through erasing his well-hidden, nonetheless erasable heart, Tom begins to form lines of regret. Regret is the price you pay for over-thinking, he thinks. This over-thinking usually emerges from being hung on a sheet of paper extensively and over-extending one’s contemplation on self-annihilation.”
Vi Khi Nao contemplates self-annihilation, a famine of emotional sustenance, a drought induced by longing. In Oh God, Your Babies Are So Delicious, Nao plays rain maker, pirouetting through showers of despair and hunger, hoping to feed, hoping to sate, revealing that the belly is insatiable, our needs, infinitely unquenchable.
Author’s Note: I met Vi online where we became interested in each other’s work and swapped PDFs. If we end up reviewing each other’s books, it wasn’t planned, and just more an indication we were excited about what we read.- Peter Tieryas Liu
BRANDON HOBSON: In terms of style, some of the stories in Oh, God, Your Babies are So Delicious are very different from others. More specifically, some are much more experimental. “Colon” and “The Lesbian of Dry Cement,” for example, are numbered, terse, much different than “Cucumber” or “The Divorce”. Then there are the stories that balance between poetry and prose: the one sentence ”The Problem with Literature Today” or “The Kiss.” Were these stories written over a period of time when you were experimenting with different styles, or is this change specific to this book?
VI KHI NAO: These stories, exactly thirty-four stories (to match the age of my existence), were written over the course of nine years. The story “Cucumber” was written a year ago. What do you mean by traditional?
BH: I guess in terms of storytelling, less experimental.
VKN: I think the only story that comes close to being traditional is “Tom is Handsome.” The rest float up like a distant cloud of pleasure and latexed-humor (you can only laugh if you are wearing sanitary gloves). “Colon” is numbered because the narrative is defined through the architecture of dictionary and the rhetoric of its etymology. “The Lesbian of Dry Cement” rests its spine on the sexuality of arithmetic, which controls the education of the children in the story. For some reason, I have always linked numbers to documentation and numbers to children because in the past, you had to line the children up like stairs to count them. This is a non sequitur: in Vietnamese, if you are the third child in the family, you are named Child Three. Sometimes children have to behave like calendars to mark the years for their aging parents.