David Palumbo-Liu talks with Dao Strom about the mythologies of Vietnam, folk music’s political history, and making space for empathy in writing.
November 8, 2018
I first met Dao Strom in San Francisco, in 2015. The city has a literary tradition called “LitQuake.” All manner of businesses—cafes, bookstores, clothing stores, barber shops, appliance dealers, nail salons, public schools—transform at least part of their space into places where creative writers read from their works. Amateurs and professionals give readings, and the public can wander about casually, dipping in and out of readings as they wish. They can follow a map that is provided online, or just follow their ears and eyes to whatever venue seems interesting.
Through mutual friends I found myself at a café, listening to members of the Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network (DVAN) read from their latest works. There was humor and pathos, epic and lyric; short bursts of fiction, a scene from a play. Each voice was distinct, and yet one could trace certain shared motifs and concerns. Among the more distinct voices was that of Dao Strom. It was distinct in the sense that it blended many of the registers and genres just mentioned. It struck me as having a kind of kinetic energy, that at once shot out fragments of lines, images, plot elements, and often left them dangling there, only to slowly weave them back together again by the end of the reading.
Fortunately, after the reading, Dao happened to sit down at my table, and I noticed that she had several books and CDs spread out. I took that as an opening to ask her about the cultural media she employed. The conversation we started then has continued since, in starts and stops, as our respective work schedules allowed. We corresponded off and on—one day in 2016 we had a chance to sit down over lunch, this time just the two of us, and mull over a large Google document that at the time served as our canvas.
After only a very short time we decided to abandon any notion of editing the document, and I pulled out my iPhone and set it to record a long, enjoyable, free-ranging conversation that lasted through appetizers, main course, dessert, and coffee. I later had that recording transcribed.What followed was another period of online collaboration.
Why is this background important to have? Besides showing the evolution of a friendship and a working relationship, it seems to replicate the spirit of Dao’s art itself. She uses different media, has different interlocutors (textual, visual, musical, photographic). The production of art takes on its own temporality, its own rhythm. It leans on traditional forms and language, and recombines them with others. This is decidedly not aimless or haphazard. Dao has something very specific in mind.
What follows is an interview that focuses on her efforts to produce and sustain ambiguity, aimed at letting an emotional and ethical register emerge. Central to this endeavor is empathy with vulnerable and/or silenced peoples.
David Palumbo-Liu: Dao, so much of your work has to do with reshaping language in a very specific way, for a very specific reason. You often talk about mythologies and your distrust of them, and your distrust of how people can become too enamored of and habituated to the ways language, rhetoric, mythologies, partition the world and create almost unassailable realities. Can you tell us about this?
Dao Strom: There is a lot I can ruminate on about distrust—of language, of dominant narratives, of the “mythologies” that come to inform our stories about ourselves or where we come from—especially in regards to the “mythologies” about Vietnam through the lens of America. Maybe as a natural response to this distrust, and to the seeking or undermining that it wants, my creative process has tended toward ambiguity and the middle-spaces. Maybe also toward deflection, evasion, and the tangential, de-stabilization and disparate connections, vs. what seems apparent. And, for me at least, these tendencies connect to the conundrum of “Vietnam” at large—a “story” with too many angles, much polarization and much digression, evasiveness, coded facets. But that being said I’ve always worked rather organically, hence structure and “architecture” have tended to be very discovery-oriented processes for me.
Let’s talk about the particular case of Vietnam more. For many years, decades even, to write about Vietnam usually called on writers to use the most commonly accepted narrative structures (i.e. “western” and “conventional” formulations). While this might make those stories legible to a US-based audience, it feels like sticking to these conventional forms denies something crucial about the whole dynamic inherent in the topic.
Yes; I think this has to do with power and whose narrative style or “way of seeing” (and, hence, way of constructing history and memory) has dominated. If we are not conscious of the forms, we may run the risk of accepting—or making art that inhabits—a potential hypocrisy: one that reasserts an American, male, militarized, and polarized viewpoint on the whole subject of what/who/why “Vietnam” is or was. To me, this feels dangerous. To give “voice” to Vietnam in a manner that more authentically (to the extent that this is possible) acknowledges and alters these dynamics, I believe, must involve challenging the dominant shapes and patterns with which we think, read, receive stories, art, etc. Hybrid forms, the decentralization of events and voices, honoring multiplicities and contradictions, indirectness, all of these techniques are means by which I believe—or at least imagine—”other” perspectives may be allowed to surface.
In a way I think that my movement toward hybrid art is a response and maybe also an attempt to defy (or unify?) the separatism and divisiveness—and the notion that these are “necessary” states of human existence—that have been a big part of my inheritance (as a person from a “forced-to-flee” war-refugee family). But, while this new form and its tensions may reflect a state of being multiple and fragmented, for me it also endeavors toward suggesting the potential of synergy between the separate pieces within myself.
You work with many media besides fiction and poetry. Tell us a bit about what your other artistic interests are, and how you see them as complementary and related to your overall project.
I’m interested in the ways that both music and image can hopefully elevate us beyond the rhetoric of polarized arguments and common, historical depictions of violence.
I studied film as an undergraduate (at SFSU in fact, in the 90s), and I made a short film that played in a few film festivals at that time; but then my film ambitions went underground. I went to the Iowa graduate writing program soon after, and that became my path. My photography is informed by whatever I learned about cameras in film school—I learned to shoot and edit on 16mm. For the visual concepts I had for We Were Meant To Be a Gentle People (i.e. the wings, the triangles), I had to have a photographer/videographer help me implement as I am the subject of the photos. (I’m still exploring what it means, to place oneself as subject—or object—in an image that I myself am the one staging.) Landscape and textures and shapes are elements I also seek out in the visual domain, but a lot of this is done organically—traveling around, searching, trying out the concepts.
I also do a lot of the visual work in editing and in gathering, assembling, and manipulating both original and found or archival photos. For me, a lot is discovered about the imagery—the relationships and resonances possible in and through them—in the image-editing process. In a sense, my writing process, which is also an assemblage and sifting process, involves periods of thinking about, living with, playing with, juxtaposing, and responding to images, using both words (written) and music.
I started practicing music in earnest not until my early twenties. At the time it came to me, or called me to it, music was an activity that connected me to my emotional self in a way that was much needed, after growing up in an environment (my family years) that had favored logic and intellect and devalued emotions. I might add that this tactic of pushing past trauma using stoicism and pragmatism, was, I understand now, survival methods for my parents as immigrants in the time our family was taking root. Language and story-making had given me, already, one kind of refuge and tool for reordering the world around me. But music taught me better how to listen, how to hear, how to feel and inhabit my body, trusting in energetic elements you can’t see.
I’m largely self-taught and my musical learning has been a very absorptive, intuitive process. It has taken me years to embrace these as potential positive qualities, to be honest, rather than try to fix them. But in a way I think this approach was also necessary for me.
You really incorporate a lot of diverse and somewhat unexpected materials—for example, very traditional American folk music. Why? What are you trying to do with them?
Although I began with American folk music, I think of folk music as being very universal. Folk music is a form of record-keeping, or maybe ethos-keeping, for the experiences of real people, from whatever their region or time period. American folk music (the very early and raw kind) spoke to my Vietnamese soul, I might say. These songs, old rural gospel ballads, are essentially songs of exile and longing, and the voices relied on a very earnest, unfiltered expression of emotion. They are religious songs (Christian), but the sentiment in them has resonance with any human experience of displacement. You can project that theme of yearning onto a lot of scenarios.
I first discovered these songs in my early 20s, which was most definitely a lost-soul time for me, although I was not (am not) religious. Oddly, I did not then see the thematic resonances with my cultural un-rootedness. I simply identified with the themes of longing, of not belonging, of feeling like a traveler in the world; feelings I experienced in relation to landscapes, people sometimes, my ‘ideas’ of places. I was also in that period drawn to Sufism and the poetry of Rumi, which (as far as I understood those poems) build an entire spiritual practice on that ethos of longing—and also speak to that longing as a condition that cannot, in fact, be cured by life in the earthly world: the longing—on a grander scale—is a spiritual bereftness; all these songs and poems are renditions, once again, of separation mythologies. It seems natural to me, now, though I wasn’t conscious of it then, that my displacement from Vietnam—how it lived in the very ethos of my being—would draw me to that kind of art, which expressed themes of irreconcilable longing and exile, even if in the guise of religious and westernized spiritual contexts.
My choosing to sing and record this genre of music—as a Vietnamese American person—I initially saw as somewhat of a joke and also as an act of transposing: my context onto the landscape of “traditional” American folk music. (But this of course can beg an even deeper investigation, as the elements that make up American folk music traveled to America from other places initially, such as Africa, and potentially from medieval European troubadours). However, I didn’t come to songs like the gospel tune “I Am A Poor Wayfaring Stranger” making all of these associations; I was simply following instinct and what compelled me. I felt drawn to singing it.
I might also add: the dominion of “traditional” folk music is, in the music communities I’ve experienced in America, one that is largely perpetuated and occupied by white people, the majority undoubtedly being men. There are certain ways to play those songs and types of arrangements that will be deemed more “true” and “authentic” and worthy to the material. But a song like “I Am A Poor Wayfaring Stranger”—which I came to as a person of color, as a Vietnamese woman—still spoke to me. I would like to think that those songs, as pieces of art and storytelling in the public domain, that have no known particular authorship, should belong to everyone, and can be interpreted using whatever instruments and voices befit the times or circumstances.
And then also, when I started looking toward Vietnam, there is a whole tradition of folk sung stories—sung-poems, essentially, unique to Vietnamese oral storytelling traditions. So the question of folk music, what it is and where it comes from, resonates from many angles for me.
So in music of this sort, you have words and sounds and rhythm and narrative pace all working together, drawing historical forms into the present—a lot is going on. You sometimes talk of this combination as being a kind of embodiment. What do you mean by that?
Making hybrid work for me involves thinking about an equality in the engagement of the senses—trying to use them all, in effect—to avoid a hierarchy in modes of perception. I believe writers and readers can sometimes over-favor, perhaps over-trust, the authority of narrative language. I like to think that the cultivation of hybrid art, how it engages different modes of perception and expression, bringing into play image and sound too, may shake up the way we experience or determine “what is story,” and in this challenge also help to refine our sensitivities, or at least reawaken them, to degrees.
This idea of “equality” has an ethical, as well as material basis: I’m interested in engaging body and ethos, as well as mind/thinking/thinking we know things, and the music and visual aspects are most definitely a part of this experiment. Sometimes I describe this as trying to subvert, or at least challenge and un-balance, the presumed authority of written narrative.
It seems to me that this combination of intent and form accounts for one of the elements I find in much of your fiction—you seem to create the space for empathy, even for the most unlikely characters, and for unlikely reasons. What is the specific focus of this ethics and equality?
I would say in general that I’ve mostly always written from an intuitive place, absorbing and feeling my way into characters and situations (more so than researching or interviewing), and I write from a personal place, often. So I’m usually not starting with a clear intention, so much as with a feeling, or personal question.
To try to answer the question about focus, though: I think there are disconnects—in myself and in the culture at large—between realms: of body/mind; mind/heart; inner/outer selves, etc. On a very simple level, I like to think I’m simply trying to become a better person, in cultivating multiple disciplines as vessels through which to make sense of this world, and perceive and receive it, and then perform some presence in it.
Let me dare to quote you to yourself. One passage I love in particular: “Sometimes I stand amid the trees and think I can feel something enter me, the light and colors of the foliage and the temper in the air mingling just so as to infuse one with the sense that can only be described as well being, also as a sort of humility. I will not use the word healing.” (from We Were Meant to Be a Gentle People)
Can you say a bit more about this passage, in relation to some of the things we have been discussing?
The sentimentality of “healing”—in the most generic sense that people in the mainstream seem to want and respond to—just doesn’t work for me. I think there is a humility, and simple honesty, in recognizing that some trauma—even inherited—is buried so deep in the collective consciousness, and has been for so long, that it takes more than a single cathartic action to release it. Maybe. (Some people do believe they are “healed” by big, cathartic actions, so I can’t speak for everyone of course.) I can only speak from my own personal struggles with it and perhaps I am of a darker, heavier nature than some. The concept of the bodhisattva also resonates with me—that, not until all of us are healed, can even the one who is enlightened make that transition him/herself. For me this concept suggests that individual enlightenment, or individual escape of suffering, is not really the goal. As a Vietnamese person who left (escaped) much of the suffering that occurred in the war and post-war years, this can be a very instructive tale: we may’ve left and gotten free, but we are still to some degree connected to the collective suffering, traumas, etc. that still exist. And I think, pertaining to Vietnam, there is a very palpable sense of collective sorrow (the “not healing” part) that I’ve felt for a long time—despite my own desire to avoid, remove myself, move on from it, move forward, etc. This is just a very personal sense I’ve had in my own life.
The heart of this may be simply to say: war and history have long aftermaths. They affect people, families, communities, in invisible and ongoing ways. I don’t believe these wounds are easy to heal, or entirely healable at all, perhaps. And the best we can do is try to accept and understand this, and of course work toward the possibility of a future that doesn’t repeat those types of actions.