Our editor in chief Lauren Bender recently had this exchange with Vi Khi Nao, our Issue #26 featured fiction author. Here’s what she had to say about authenticity in literature, her philosophy of revision, and her love of writing in different forms and genres.
What inspired you to write this piece?
When I was young, I read a lot of mainstream lesbian romantic stories and erotica. I was bored to death with most of them. Perhaps they were so predictable. I also noticed that during these erotic moments between women, menstruation was never mentioned, as if these protagonists in these erotic stories were men with vaginas. I questioned the authenticity of the narrator and the authenticity of the protagonists. If I don’t trust what I read, how could I grow erotically with the text before me? Although my protagonists, language-wise, move un-pragmatically and possibly un-atomically and unrealistically, there exists veracity to the core of their Sapphic fervor. I also wanted to authenticate, to celebrate, and to put women’s sexuality on the throne. I think, for most women, their desire is often attached to pain and more painful when they are forced to shred their iron. I also wanted to open a dialogue of beauty. At the nucleus of pleasure is originality. I believe the initial step to altering the perception on how women love and treat their own body is not with their own body, but through thoughts, which is primarily made of language. Transformation takes place in thoughts before moving outwardly.
What do you hope readers will take away from it?
I hope readers walk away from it knowing that there is no great distinction between the fabric of language and existence. And that you can experience beautiful sex on your period, if not empirically, at least semantically. If you were going to preserve jars of your menses, try not to drop them?
You are a well-established poet too; you’ve been published in many lit mags, including Poetry, and your poetry collection The Old Philosopher was the winner of the 2014 Nightboat Poetry Prize. Have you always written both poetry and fiction? How does being a poet influence your fiction and vice versa?
I have always taken to my literary bed both mistresses of erudite edifices: poetry & fiction. I have also acquired a new lover: nonfiction. All of this is to say that these triumvirated concubines are born from one: my love for language. When you have love for something this great, it has no choice but to bloom into form a genreless, genderless, formless literary being capable of assassinating canon, distinction, and tradition.
What are you working on now, and what form does it take?
My new lover, nonfiction, is quite shy, though not modest. And she is resisting form, or she is afraid to be born into form, or she has taken form but is afraid to share her content. I am slowly seducing her into being. For the sake of my livelihood. Perhaps readers of modern texts find her most appealing and are more ready to receive her because she is not wearing any clothes and she has no place to hide.
You recently published a new novel called Fish in Exile which has been very well received. One review from NPR states “’Fish in Exile’ is less about plot (though there is one, loosely speaking) and more about its immersive experience.” The same could be said about “Winter Rose” – that, rather than a traditional plot structure, it is your imagery and the unique poetic way you use language that captures the reader. What drives you to write in this style? Are you interested in further pushing the boundaries of form and genre?
The desire to prevent boredom in myself compels me to push the boundaries of my writing. And, also, my sense of humor. I have lots of it. Humor thrives on unpredictability and misdirection – they are humor’s morphine and mine. I love challenging the direction of literature. I have a small factory of literary marijuana that I grow in the backyard of my mind. I am trying to manufacture a flawless opium. Every now and then, I would test drive this morphine on my protagonists. So, yes, I still continue to push the parameters of pleasure and consciousness. A lot of my time lately has been devoted to creating a ventilating system for my mind – a chimney – you could say to air out the toxin so I don’t self-annihilate myself in the process of creating something beautiful and hypnotic and potentially hallucinogenic.
Could you describe your writing process, and how you approach revisions and self-editing? Do you have a particular location where you like to write?
My writing process is predictably unpredictable and takes place ubiquitously. I stop my existence for writing. When the muse comes, I drop everything to hear and transcribe her voice onto a piece of paper, digital or otherwise. My writing process is very much like King Henry VII, ready to have six wives or six systems of operation, probably all operating at once. My writing process, like Catherine of Aragon, is so defiant of itself that it very much likes to divorce itself, as she did from her husband, King Henry VIII; even the Pope would oppose. I can’t keep track of all my wives and which ones I have married or divorced. Thus, my relationship with the Roman Catholic Church hasn’t been very good lately.
For short pieces, I don’t believe in revisions or self-editing – like having one-night stands. There is no point in revising your lover’s sexual or intellectual or aesthetical positions when you won’t see them again the following day. When I want to revise, I acquire a new lover. And a new piece is born from self-autocorrecting itself. For novels and pieces over 100 pages, I believe in staying in the marriage to make it work. I would overwrite and over-devise new sections and write more pages than necessary to allow myself enough pages for reduction. The novels demand macroevolution and macroresolution and the only way to do so is to stretch the taut skin of their horizon.
Some would say that writing so openly about the female body and queer female sexuality is a political act, especially in light of our current political climate. Do you consider “Winter Rose” to be a political piece? How do you feel in general about the idea of writing as activism?
Everything one does these days can be called political. Walking into the bathroom, for instance. So, why not a piece on menstruation? I wish napping were an act of activism. I would like to do more of it. The pen as a sword as an activity that inspires change. Yes! Why not?
What writers/filmmakers/thinkers inspire you? Who do you find yourself going back to again and again?
I wish tofu were a filmmaker, writer, and thinker. I go back to tofu every day to assert my certainty in the world. And, it’s low in carbs. Tofu inspires me so much lately. It’s so Asian and soybeany. Tofu is my Bela Tarr-Theresa Hak Kyung Cha-Rodin. It’s soft and can be super crunchy. It tastes so good with salt and pepper. When I eat this, James Joyce would be so jealous at the kind of writing I produce.
Do you have any advice for beginning writers on how to develop their own voice and style?
The best way to write well is to read. Lots. And lots while eating fried tofu? Man, tofu has only two grams of carbs per serving.
Because this publication grew out of a writer’s workshop, we always like to ask: what is your best or worst workshop experience?
The most ideal workshop experience is to have many diverse workshop experiences. You learn a bit from each instructor, even if you disagree with their styles, and from their accumulative wisdom, your best workshop experience is born and lived and soon to be narrated one day. But, to answer you, the best workshop experience was with my professor, Thalia Field, who led my first workshop experience during my first semester at Brown University when I was an MFA candidate. With the exception of a few individuals, everyone hated her pedagogical style. She made us write lots and overloaded our bodies and minds with assignments. She pushed us to create when creation was something we resisted. She had so much love for us – if the students could only see and perceive. But students wanted an instructor who would indulge their neuroticism either for slowness or laziness or certainty or familiar habits. I wanted an instructor who would challenge me, and Thalia Field did everything in her power to do so for me. I love her teaching style and would advocate for her in a heartbeat.