by Jessie Jing
Nước is Water - Fall 2020 p.58
Truyện is Story, Chuyện is Story - Fall 2020 p. 78
Jessie: Hi, Agnes. Welcome to the interview for VISIONS. Do you want to start off by just briefly introducing yourself?
Agnes: Yeah, so my name is Agnes. I'm a junior at Brown studying Economics, and maybe English Nonfiction. Large maybe on that part, and I like storytelling.
J: Cool. Storytelling. What type of stories do you like to tell?
A: I think growing up, my mom told me a lot of Vietnamese folk tales and the folk religion stories that kind of blend in with Buddhism, and also some Chinese influence because we were imperialized by China for a thousand years. So I think a lot of the stories I end up telling are related to the ones I grew up hearing. And also, I'm just a big fan of creative nonfiction overall. So, I try and blend those folktale narratives with my own experience growing up.
J: I guess along that vein, and thinking about how you like to weave these experiences together, do you have any literary inspirations?
A: I remember being really shook when I first read Maxine Hong Kingston's works because she did a lot of similar "weaving in." She has one where she weaves in a tale of Mulan, into her own life, where she's projecting her life as Mulan. And, I really like Ocean Vuong. I think that's a given.
J: You submitted to VISIONS last semester, two pieces with the same type of "weaving in" that arguably Maxine Hong Kingston has: Nước is Water and Truyện is Story, Chuyện is Story. Just thinking about what you said earlier about weaving in folklore with your own experiences and with your family's experiences, what was the inspiration for the pieces that you decided to submit?
A: Yes, so for Nước is Water that was started off as a family history piece from my mom's side. It was postwar, and how first my family settled in Rạch Giá, which is a specific part of Vietnam in the south, and then from there, how they moved on towards America. So I think what I'm mainly interested in, or what mainly inspires me to write these pieces is trying to find ways to combine a lot of family ghost stories that I grew up hearing with the immigration story of how they got here, because those have kind of been tied together.
J: Yeah, I could definitely feel that from reading your piece. I thought some of the themes that really stood out were ghosts, spirituality, resiliency, families, storytelling, all of these things. And what struck me the most was like your use of homonyms in both pieces. But I wanted to know more about your choice of using language as a vehicle to tell the story, and if you see that being used in all of your pieces, or if that's specific to these two instances.
A: I think it comes from me being really bad at Vietnamese. So sometimes when I say a word, it'll sound like another word, because Vietnamese is very tonal. So the same word, the same kind of spelling without the accents could be like five different words. My brother and I were like, quite a lot of these words sound really similar? So we would make puns together all the time. And I was like, Okay, well, no, because nước is water and nước is country, and those are two pretty epic words. Then, the more I wrote about it, the more words came out that connected together. So yes, I do is something that comes throughout my pieces, and probably future pieces.
J: Okay, and thinking about the word play that you used, you said that you came up with a lot of these puns or not the specific puns, but you came up with a lot of puns with your brother using Vietnamese. And, from my experience doing that, as someone who's also terrible at their mother tongue, a lot of the times my mom didn't find these very entertaining, or, she didn't understand because she did have a better understanding of the language than I did. And I was just wondering is that the same for Vietnamese?
A: Yeah, my mom was like, What are you talking about? She doesn't g et it and then we have to explain it to her and then it clicks and she'll laugh, but it takes her a while to get there. But I guess, because my brother and I had the same childhood where we both spoke Vietnamese, and then we both lost it. I don't know, I guess like our hearing is different. But also my pronunciation is always really bad, so that just might be the case of why she doesn't get it. But for the second piece, Truyện is Story, Chuyện is Story, I can't even pronounce the difference, but I was like, I was just sitting there, and I was like, wait, are these the same words? And then my parents also didn't know because their Vietnamese also got muddled when they came to America, so we called my aunt who's living in Vietnam, and she had to explain us explain, like the two different words to us.
J: I think this adds a further layer, or a depth to your pieces, because I feel like it is so quintessentially a part of losing a little bit of that language that you could have had if you were in Vietnam, or if you were in your motherland. But I think it's really cool that you added these because it is so specific to your experiences.
A: I feel like I always get like a little bit of imposter syndrome, writing in Vietnamese, because one of my close friends is from Vietnam and he was one who taught me how to read and write a little bit. But whenever I'm wri ting, I'm like, if he read this, what would he say? I don't know.
J: That's very interesting, because I think I think that you did it in a way where it seems like...
A: I just think for me, I'm like, is this corny? I can't tell.
J: Oh, I see. I don't think it's corny. I feel like you shouldn't need to have imposter syndrome because this is the way in which you understand your language, or the way in which you have a relationship with Vietnamese. And yeah, I guess it makes me think about, as also a child of immigrants, my relationship with language.
A: Yeah. It's weird. Yeah. It's like you don't speak it fluently, but you can still understand.
J: I think it's incredibly well done. I really, really enjoyed it because I think that, I don't know if this just happened to be the case, or if you purposefully chose these homonyms, that had related meanings or could be related in some way, but I think that it was done pretty well.
A: Thanks! I feel like whenever I realize there's a word in Vietnamese that sounds similar to another word, I just drop it in my Notes app. And then when I'm writing, I'll look through my Notes app, and be like, huh, this kind of fits. I wonder if I can flush a story from these words.
J: There are some words you choose to tell us the meaning of and some that you leave just in the body of the story, or I guess they're not really ever translated. I wanted to know more about that choice.
A: Viet Thanh Nguyen is a really famous Vietnamese American writer. He wrote, The Refugee and I think The Sympathizer, but he had a tweet, and it was basically saying as a writer of color, you don't have to cater to a white audience. And why do that labor for the reader if you're writing kind of for yourself? I expect the reader to invest some kind of energy into it in trying to figure out what the pieces are. Otherwise I'm the one who's doing all the work and that's not the point of writing for me.
J: Right, that makes a lot of sense. Because I think, in creating our we always struggle with whether it is for ourselves or for other people and most of the time, the other people or the audience doesn't have the same nuanced view of your experience or of your identity and I, I do agree with the choice of letting the audience work for it.
A: Yeah. So much of the world is catered for a white audience, and why do I also have to do that?
J: Right. Yeah, that makes sense. In thinking about your writing in a world dominated by white writers and white audiences, you choose to talk about your experience, even though, as you say, a lot of people may not understand the same experience. Why do you feel like it's important to write about the Asian or Asian American experience?
A: I think I'm just selfish because for me, writing is not, I'm not trying to get people to relate to me, or very rarely I'm writing for other people. But it's more like I'm writing for my family because I also know that if I don't talk about this now, my brother definitely won't document it. It will kind of get lost because being first generation is just a weird space because you're kind of getting both the immigrant parents, but then also like, "Being American," you know the stereotypical Asian American experience. I don't know, if I don't document it. No one, no one is kind of a weird word. But, I don't really care about having kids, but it feels like it's a shame to have what my family went through just be lost.
J: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. I feel the same way in which I know, a lot of older people don't really talk about their experiences, especially the hardships that they've been through and everything that we get usually comes from their offhand comments and we never really have a full picture of their experience, so I think it's a good choice to talk about.
A: Yeah, my family's kind of weird, because I feel like they're pretty open about talking about it. So I feel like because they are compared to other Vietnamese American families, I don't know, maybe me writing it will help some other Vietnamese Americans understand the gap between us and their parents and what they had to go through.
J: Makes a lot of sense. You tend to write more about your own experiences, and your family's experiences, which you could categorize that as more selfish, and not that I think you will, but do you think that you'll ever run out of stories to tell? Or do you ever expect to expand past this genre of content?
A: Yeah. So right, now I'm in a writer's block, or I've been in a writer's block where I can't really find the motivation to write at all, but those two pieces, along with two or three others I haven't published are part of part of this collection where my main purpose is to weave these ghost stories in with my family immigration story. And hopefully, something will come out of that, but I don't know. I feel like writing during COVID feels very futile. Yeah. As for running out of stories, I don't know, my mom has a lot of stories. She just kind of collects them. But I tried to write about myself, and it just feels awkward. So hopefully, I don't run out of stories, because I don't want to have to start writing about myself.
J: I feel that; it's weird to be perceived. Well, you may have answered this before, but just expanding on the storytelling of the Asian American experience, what does writing about the Asian American experience mean to you? And why do you think it may or may not be necessary?
A: I guess to start off with, I've never really been able to relate to whatever the stereotype of like the pan Asian American experiences, not that these experiences aren't valid, but I didn't have experience of going to school and being embarrassed about what was in my lunchbox or anything, just because I didn't grow up in an area with Asians, but it also wasn't predominantly white people, which I think are like kind of two main experiences, Asian Americans might have. So my area was also pretty much full of other immigrants, and my family wasn't particularly wealthy. So it was really hard coming to Brown to try to connect with other Asian Americans. So for me writing about being Asian American was trying to add a different experience to whatever the general collective identity was at the time, I feel like that's a really bad, like, almost problematic answer. But this is, I don't know,
J: Showing a different view of what might be? I can see that. But I definitely feel that East Asians are more typically represented a lot. Yeah. And also, I guess the Pan Asian identity that exists is mostly centered around East Asians.
A: Yeah, I also feel like a lot of the stories we're getting right now are super valid, but like a lot of them I don't connect with because it's mostly like, I was Asian, and I grew up in like a very white city or something. But I don't particularly connect with that identity. So I think me writing about different side of being Asian American is just trying to add more to a conversation, I think. But everyone's experiences as an Asian American is very valid.
J: Right. And I guess this really ties into the next question that I was going to ask, which is, what are your thoughts on the current representation of Asian American creators in the media?
A: Oh, that's interesting. All I can think about is The Last Dragon, and that was weird, because they label it as inspired by Southeast Asia, but so much of it is drawing from Vietnam. But then most of the voice artists aren't even Southeast Asian and it's like the supporting voice actors or supporting actors aren't Southeast Asian. My view of it in Hollywood is not great. But I feel like online and on Facebook or other creative outlets, it's really cool to see what everyone's doing and how they're collaborating with each other and trying to actively make spaces for Asian American artists.
J: So mainstream media media isn't really doing a good job.
A: No, I don't think so. The whole idea with that movie is that the countries are always at war. I don't know if there's some kind of connection between that and like Southeast Asian countries being at war, but it's just a weird thing to have in a movie coming from Southeast Asia. Like, I don't know what they're trying to say.
J: Yeah, war is kind of a colonizer thing.
A: Yeah. It's not really the countries are at war against each other. It's more like someone else, some white man is coming in.
J: In talking about, like, mainstream media representation of Asian or Asian American experiences, what do you think is the final form or do you think there is a final form of representing Asian American voices? And does this have to do with mainstream media or the creation and giving opportunities to these people.
A: I don't know how to answer. I think the term Asian American is too big, like too many people and too many cultures that sometimes just don't overlap. And within that there's so many different experiences across different diasporas. So I don't think there is a final form because you won't be able to please everyone, just because there's too diverse of an experience. When Crazy Rich Asians came out, some people loved it and some people are like, this isn't representative of my experience. I think a film trying to be for Asian Americans just isn't impossible, because you can't get everyone's experience in it.
J: So we could almost say that the final form is a broader representation at least getting it to the same level of representation that we see for like white people.
A: Yeah. Is that possible? I'm not sure. Is that possible in America? I don't know.
J: That's true. Yeah. I guess we’ll leave that to the audience! Thanks, Agnes.
A: Thanks for having me, VISIONS and Jessie!