Death Is a Costume We Wear to War: a Conversation with Vi Khi Nao

Talking with the author of the new novel, Fish in Exile

Vi Khi Nao is an artist who transcends medium — one of those rare writers who proves that the acts of making a painting and writing a novel are much closer kin than most people of letters would have you believe. The first of Nao’s works that I fell in love with were her drawings that appeared in the 2013 NOON. They were images of teapots shape-shifting into women, or women shape-shifting into porcelain — a spout-clad kettle with shapely legs. After pouring over her pictures I went back and read everything she had ever written. She’s published widely, in every genre someone has been fool enough to confine her in. One gets the sense from all of her works that Nao could be given any set of materials, any language, any confines or paints or stone and she would still be able to figure out a way to break your heart, or make you laugh, or, very possibly, accomplish both at once. In her newest work, Fish in Exile, a novel out this week from Coffee House Press, Nao articulates a narrative of all consuming grief through an impressively large cast of characters that circle around the tragedy of two children drowned at sea. Since May Nao and I have been writing each other, first by email, then by paper, her from South Bend, IN, then Providence, RI, me from Taos, New Mexico, then San Francisco. In her last letter she wished me the very best wish that anyone could wish another — she wrote “I hope the muse comes to visit you.” May Nao’s remarkable muses come and visit us all.

Rita Bullwinkel: In Fish in Exile the sea is an unrelenting, evil god that devours everything that is fed to it. What is your personal relationship to the ocean?

Vi Khi Nao: My family crossed the sea by boat to escape from Vietnam. Our exit from it was dark, scandalous, and private — very much like husband Ethos and wife Catholic’s relationship to the ocean. Its unrelenting darkness and its strength pull us like weeds from the ground up. My family spent three days and three nights inside of a tiny boat with thirty other people. Feces and vomit and seawater were up to my waist. Inside that boat, I smelled everything primal. Having shared my young human body with the sea this way, inside of a vessel — I feel closest to the sea — to what is very atomically very mortal — these seemingly immortal liquid magnets ask me to return to Rhode Island frequently — to Providence — in particular because the space is so close to the Atlantic. My intense feelings for the ocean are like big gigantic clouds that hover over my heart and any potential attraction for the earth. The more I try to erase the sea from my existence, the more I miss her. The more I try to relax and let it be, the more water in my consciousness opens the space to want her more. With the ocean, I feel like I exist inside of a paradox and all I want to do is to be inside her embrace.

RB: The two most powerful parts of the narrative for me were when Charleen gives a chapter long re-telling of the myth of Persephone, and when an unknown, never before referenced, interviewer (police detective?) interviews Callisto and Lidia about the day that the children disappeared. Both of these portions of the novel are 100% dialogue and written in a play-like format. How and when did you write these two sections? What about the content of these two sections called for the use of a different narrative form?

VKN: I wrote these sections in 2012, during my time at Brown University. Like a musical score, the structure of Fish in Exile demands polytonality and insists on having many perspectives to address the complexity of the human psyche during grief. I had to find a form that could polychromatically meet the charged, protean appetites of my characters’s emotional needs. The play, an extreme focused genre of writing, accelerates these demands and accelerates the way different perspectives interact with each other on the page. When I finally settled down in my open kitchen in Providence to write these sections, they came to me all at once. These voices were voices that had already lived through a mouthful of censured, thwarted experiences. These sections had come from a place of pre-mediated silence and they were ready to exit the void and enter the literary consciousness of the page. In life and in relationships, when one has been replete of all other forms of indirect, ancillary communication, a direct dialogue is inspired to take place in order to settle on a resolution. Sometimes that direct conversation shows itself in the form of a war. Change is a nuptial result of insanity, circularity, and repetition. Moving out of orbit, transformation is created. Not from change, these play-like sections were both born from transformation.

RB: One of the things that Catholic and Ethos do to cope with the loss of their children is build a gigantic aquarium in their home. They buy two fish to put in the aquarium, and name them Pistachio and Dogfish, and Catholic sews the fish children’s outfits (a little dress, a little vest), which she slips on the fish at different intervals, and almost immediately, each time, this clothing causes the fish to die. Countless times throughout the book, Pistachio and Dogfish die, and are then resurrected by new fish, with the same name, that either Ethos or Catholic has bought at the store. The fishes’ continual death at the hands of their parents seems to be an overt visual display of the trauma that Catholic and Ethos are continually reliving in their own minds. How do you understand Catholic and Ethos’s desire to continually buy new fish and to continually kill them? What is Catholic after when she forces Dogfish into her carefully constructed little dress?

VKN: When Catholic drowns the fish over and over again, she isn’t learning the language of forgiveness or surrender. She is learning and relearning the language of control. Control gives her certainty. She can control how the fish enters the body of the dress. How the dress is created. The dress is precisely sewn. Calculated to the fin. The sewn dresses like death is so assured — while life, for her, is filled with uncertainty and doubt. She is afraid and is afraid to surrender. Afraid to experience life and birth again. In her fear of experiencing pain, she endures more pain. Her fear is understandable and relatable — we all go through it. We humans do insane, personal things to keep the status quo of our trauma going, yes? But death is a costume we wear to war, to dinner parties, to bathing rituals, to breakfasts. We cope with our demise by creating a larger container of demise. What Catholic and Ethos do with the fish is very human and very predictable. We should be able to relate to them and we do this all the time. We drown ourselves in our grief. Not only metaphorically, but substantially. Each time, we die and we are given another opportunity to live and instead of living, we relive our pain again. It seems like our pain is circular. Our learning is circular. And, it seems like we are incapable of orbiting out of trauma. When we do orbit out of it, are we more human or less human? Or have we become another window into ennui? Into another dream we can’t get out of?

We humans do insane, personal things to keep the status quo of our trauma going, yes? But death is a costume we wear to war, to dinner parties, to bathing rituals, to breakfasts.

RB: The emotional hue of Fish in Exile is overwhelmingly heavy and dark blue and seeped in grief in a kind of way that even the sentences feel weighted down by the depression of unjust lost life. What was it like to sit in the extreme sadness of this narrative for so long? How did you instill such a singular feeling of grief in the prose line by line?

VKN: I have been sitting with these sentences for so long. They have become anchors to the drifting boats of my heartaches. The extreme sadness? The emotional hue you mentioned — how? I tried to sustain an abusive relationship with a woman that could not be. This is how some of the heavy and dark blue was born. Physical bruises, black and blue, on my skin became nocturnal witnesses and diurnal eyes to the tumulus years living inside of me. To instill a singular feeling of grief line-by-line is to endure an abuse of 1.5 years second-by-second, day-by-day. However long it takes the body to grieve when nothing else works. I used to tell others that being in the violent relationship with that beautiful woman was like having ten children. I had to will myself to abandon ten children in order to release that pain. Would you abandon ten children if you knew it was better for you? Would you? If you were a mother? A father?

RB: All of your characters have the most miraculous names (Catholic, Ethos, Callisto, Lidia, Helio and Charleen). How do you name your characters? How do you feel each of your characters are in conversation with their names?

VKN: After visiting the Dali museum in St. Petersburg (Florida), my protagonist Catholic appeared out of the blue and told me she must be in my novel. Naturally, when a ghost commands you in such a fashion, you must listen & I made a point to insert her in. Ethos came from acquiring a two-month job as a barista in Lakeland, Florida, where Frank Lloyd Wright houses some of his beautiful chapels and architectural designs. If Ethos were a chapel, he would be Wright’s Annie Pfeiffer Chapel. Because I was indigent and carless and busless, I used to walk 4 hours each day, 2 hours each way to work at Starbucks. When I entered work, the plastic manufactured water bottle labeled “Ethos” eyed me with such thirst inducing mania that he had to be in my novel. Much of his existence at Starbucks satiated my dehydration after a long fatigued walk. I would come to work and be already tired and he would be there, sitting patiently in a basket. Probably sitting in the same basket that Moses rode down the Nile River. I gulped & swallowed so much of him. I stole Lidia from Michelangelo Antonioni’s La Notte. I like the idea of a character not walking out of screen — that would be too cliché, no? Instead, it would be nice if she didn’t walk off screen. Instead she could be a protagonist’s neighbor? With hair that you could eat like squid? At Brown, I had a classmate named Helia and I masculinized her so she could become a boy I could adore. Like Helio, she asked really good, astute questions. And, Charleen! I have no idea how she came about. She walked right into my manuscript without introducing herself or providing herself a history. She is very rude!

RB: So much of your prose is steeped in sound. When you are writing, what does the sound of a sentence mean to you? Below are some of my favorites sentences, and strings of sentences, that I had to stop reading for so I could say them out loud.

— “I do not like the way my wife smells when she’s tearing me apart.”

— “My soul is a cul-de-sac.”

— “My son. I glance at my son. At his handsome face. Such a beautiful man my mammary gland once nourished. I breastfed him daily, spoon-fed him my nipples. And now just look at him, milky and white.”

— “The image stays with me as I leave him to be with the sofa. Furniture is comforting. It doesn’t try to make love to me or ignite my fear. It’s just there, slutless and lovely.”

VKN: My first language is Vietnamese. My second language is Latin. When you speak in Vietnamese — whatever comes off your lips should sound very musical. Sound drives the meaning of the Vietnamese language. So if you love those sonic sentences, please know they were influenced and born from my mother tongue.

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