Forgetting is a Luxury
Hieu Minh Nguyen interviewed by Jenna Peng
In Not Here, Hieu Minh Nguyen writes between the fraught convergences of history and here, exploring the compromises of whiteness with queerness, child with mother, and love with power, as, for example, in the collection’s first poem “White Boy Time Machine: Instruction Manual”:
a school of metal-clad boys.
my mother is just a girl.
a soldier hands her a flower
& my eyes flicker blue.
This haunting refrain of somewhere somewhere echoes throughout the collection, signifying a chant of possibility, the lure of not here, and the continuous hum of threat, a dread for somewhere other than this fragile place.
A fixture in the spoken word community for many years, Nguyen is known for his vulnerable contemplations of queer Vietnamese American identity and experiences of grief, trauma, and hope. Nguyen is a 2017 NEA poetry fellow, Kundiman fellow, poetry editor for Muzzle magazine, and MFA candidate at Warren Wilson College. His first poetry collection This Way to The Sugar, published in 2014, was a finalist for both the Lambda Literary Award and the Minnesota Book Award. Not Here, his second book, published in April 2018, time-travels through blond cornfields and flattened villages interrupted by digital glitch and filled with historical ash.
My conversation with Nguyen took place by phone in anticipation of his upcoming reading for the Asian American Literature Today Series, hosted at the Library of Congress on September 13th. In a conversation that spanned questions of memory and forgetting, leaving and staying, he spoke with care, moving between weighted pauses and flurries of thought, undeniably present and persistently wondering.
Jenna Peng: I first want to talk about the White Boy Time Machine series that runs throughout the collection. In particular, I was struck by the poems with the slashes, “Software,” “Safety Tips,” and “Error.” I’m wondering, how do you conceive of the role of time and your relationship to time in this series?
Hieu Minh Nguyen: In those poems, in particular, I think I tried to use the slashes as a way of showing a little more control over time. I’ve played around with those poems in many different ways, with and without slashes. Originally when I wrote them, they were just one solid chunk of text and all these words just flowed into each other. I was really interested in how I could try to show time travel in a poem. Not just speak about it, but visually show it and have the reader visually experience the movement of time clashing in on itself. I think the slashes are an attempt to control the uncontrollable. They try to guide the reader through the movement rather than just letting them navigate it themselves.
JP: Reading these poems, I definitely felt this sense of time clashing together. What is it about time travel that is so compelling to you?
HMN: One question I always ask, but never really answer, or I don’t know if I actually could answer, is: if I could go back, would I change anything? I don’t know how to answer that, but it’s always a question that lingers in my head. That’s why I think time travel is fascinating. It’s this fantasy of being able to rewrite or reimagine your life.
Also, when you think about that question, there are events that are significant in your head that come up, that bring you back. Memory is a kind of time travel. You ask yourself that question and you immediately think of events you would return to–whether or not you would change them is not important, but the events become significant because those are the memories that pop up. I think that’s why time travel is so interesting to me. Not because of the actual journey, but the way it illuminates what is significant.
JP: This has me thinking about how the collection is concerned with the question of leaving, whether leaving is possible or even desirable, and how, in the asking of these questions, what becomes most salient is memory, what the speaker is irrepressibly drawn back to. How do you view the place of memory in this larger question throughout your work of leaving or staying?
HMN: My grandmother towards the end of her life was losing a lot of her memory. And now that my mother is also getting older, I see the same thing happening to her. I’ve seen it happen to many people in my life, many elders. So memory for me is something that has always been very tangible, an object that you can hold, an object that you can also lose. So I find writing about memory as an object, as something that has a shape, helpful in a way. To try to give an outline to something that I’ve seen come and go throughout my life.
JP: One of the most significant relationships in the collection is between the speaker and the mother. In this relationship, there are so many dynamics, remembered and new, that seem so in excess of what the options of simply staying or leaving can provide. I’m wondering, how do you begin to imagine some ending that is neither the finality of leaving nor the full reconciliation of forgiveness or staying?
HMN: I think forgiveness, at least for me, is not an action that you just perform once. Forgiveness is often a reminder. It’s a reminder for yourself and also for the person you’re giving it to. Sometimes people need to be reminded that they are forgiven. Sometimes, that changes the way you act and the way you react to someone too. To remind myself that I have forgiven this person will change the way I receive the things they are saying to me.
JP: Forgiveness as an ongoing action, that you perform again and again–I’m reminded of the concept of the glitch, of something getting stuck in a repeating loop. I’m thinking in particular about “White Boy Time Machine: Error” and the way in which the queer body turns to technology, to digital images, to a body afflicted by police violence, and how these images culminate in a series of interruptions and intense affect. What do you feel that the digital, or the glitch, could embody in your work?
HMN: I think the glitch for me…I’m not a robot, or at least I don’t think I’m a robot. [laughs] It’s these moments that have so much to do with memory. When you are reminded of something. When you are not allowed to forget something. I think sometimes we want to forget in order to enjoy a moment, but forgetting is a luxury that we aren’t allowed. So I think that’s the glitch. When you can’t ignore your lived experience in order to be present in a moment.
JP: I’m wondering about this tension between memory and forgetting. I’m thinking, if forgetting is an act that would be irresponsible or self-denying, and if memory is something that is truthful, but also very painful at times, how do you see a way in which we can live with memory that feels more livable perhaps?
HMN: Forgetting is a privilege that some people have and some people don’t. Choosing to not remember something or remember history comes with privilege. There are plenty of white folks who forget history in order to enjoy their lives, in order to not take accountability for the way they walk through the world. I think a lot of people don’t have that luxury of forgetting what brought them there, to the present moment.
Sometimes your body forgets in order to protect itself. But then there are those moments when you realize that you didn’t actually forget, that your body still holds these memories. I feel like it can be overwhelming to feel too powerless to memory. But I am trying to think of it as something I wouldn’t say is amazing, but I’m in awe of how the body can try to preserve itself, in not getting the weight of something, but computing it.
JP: This idea of preservation reminds me of all of the different resonances of “leaving” that accumulate throughout the book. There’s leaving as moving away, as breaking up, as dying. Then, in “Notes on Staying,” you write, “let’s leave the / story there, let’s leave the body whole,” and leaving indicates a kind of tender preservation. I’m wondering, how do you end a collection like this, that is so attentive to the ambivalence around leaving?
HMN: It’s hard to think about how to end this collection because leaving was such a big question in the book. I think it’d be dishonest to try to show where you go after you leave, because that is oftentimes a place that you can’t really answer, a place that doesn’t have a shape. So I was hoping to find some kind of conclusion that didn’t actually answer anything. That didn’t answer the questions where do you go after you leave? Where are you now? I don’t know if those questions are of interest to me. I think this book is very obsessed with the questions of what does it mean to stay? and what does it mean to leave? And so the world afterwards, after leaving, of being somewhere else, I don’t know if I was interested in the landscape of somewhere else, but rather the feeling that made you want to go somewhere else or the feeling of trying to make that decision.
Jenna Peng is a writer, scholar, and activist interested in imagining a postcolonial ethnics of kinship and obligation. She is a recent Amherst College graduate and served as a Curatorial Research Intern for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.