Support for on being with Krista Tippett comes from the Fetzer Institute, helping build the spiritual foundation for a loving world. Fatso's new study. What does spirituality mean to us? Reveals how spirituality informs our understanding of ourselves and each other and inspires us to take action for the common good. Explore these findings and more at spirituality study, Doug. I'm Krista Tippett. Up next, my conversation with the writer Ocean Bong. This happened on March 8th, 2020, in a crowded room full of podcasters in Brooklyn and has become kind of my last memory before the world shifted on its axis.
A state of emergency had been declared in New York that day, but none of us knew that. And none of us could have imagined that this would be the last live audience we would be in for some time. None of us knew what was coming. And yet what's so stunning about revisiting this conversation a year later is how prescient Ocean was about what is before us now. The heartbreak and the possibilities of destroying and saving that we have been handed, so I hope you enjoy this full version.
And as always, you can find a shorter produced version wherever you got this podcast. Hi. Hello. Wow, that is a weird noise to to rise up on stage to welcome Happy Sun on air fast stands for creativity, pushing the boundaries of the audio medium and something else, elevating podcasting and storytelling as an art form. I'm Dan Tversky. Who did that? My fever, I make a long form narrative audio documentaries, you may know me from last year I had a series called Running from Cops before that had a series called Surviving Y2K.
And then there we go. And then before that, I had my first and my favorite and the Hill. I know I will die on defending missing Richard Simmons. I'm here for it to the end. I was part of the festival last year, I was in conversation with Nick as Nick here today.
Oh, if you ever want to have some fun, just go online.
And like anything that Nick says on Twitter, just follow it up. Just reply boo and watch him get upset. He's amazing and lovely. So but I'm really happy to be part of it again. It was kind of a revelation for me last year to be part of a festival that treats audio is art form. And sometimes as somebody who makes audio, that's a hard thing to say, that you're trying to make art even if you're not always getting there.
But but for me, it's about it's been about making trying to make art in the final product. But also it's really helped me live a more artful life along the way. You you only hear if you listen to my work, you hear a tiny, tiny fraction of the conversations I get to have with people. And and those people open up their hearts and their minds to you. And and it's they help me live more artfully every day. And as I continue to do it, it changes the way I think and look at the world.
And so I'm really happy to be here part of this. So thanks for having me. And the restrooms are outside if that made you nauseous. There's also coffee and water in the back if you're thirsty or getting sleepy, which you won't.
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Oh, just so you know, I'm a sweater. Don't be afraid. Can you see it? Right. It's getting. Is it getting weird? No. I go into meetings. When I go into meetings, I literally say I'm a sweater. I did not just do cocaine because it just starts when I start thinking it just starts and then it makes it worse when you anyway. Yes. Anyway, some business on Air Force would not be possible without support of our sponsors who are such a big part of making this weekend possible.
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You guys ready to get started with me to come on. All right. Each week on Being With Krista Tippett is broadcast in over 400 public radio stations, including nine of the top 11 markets. The podcast averages nearly four million listeners monthly, which is annoying but deserved.
So well-deserved. Krista Tippett was awarded the 2013 National Humanities Medal by President Obama for thoughtfully delving into the mysteries of human existence. On Being is the only program in American media dedicated to the large questions at the center of human existence and how these questions of meaning find practical resonance in our lives. I've spent many Sunday mornings with Krista Tippett in my years and I'm really excited to introduce her today. Please welcome to the stage Krista Tippett. And with my people, oh, good, it's working, it's such an honor to be part to be invited, to be part of the honor fest and to do a show here.
I'm really excited. I love this room and I love the energy in it that you all are bringing. And, yeah, what an honor and a delight to be up here with Ocean Vung.
Who I want to describe as a writer and a wise person who at a young age has made a singular contribution to American letters, as a writer of poetry and essays in this novel that you may have heard of, the word gorgeous that occurs in the title on Earth were briefly gorgeous is a word that's also often used to describe your writing and your voice, your literary voice and also, you know, ocean. I want to say I am aware that when people write about you and introduce you and describe you, they are they often speak about how your work is shaped by themes of violence and survival in the context of the immigrant experience, in the context of life and displacement, in the aftermath of war, in the context of growing up Asian-American and queer in the society.
And and that is true. And we're going to talk about violence. But but I'd also say that the sweep of your work is about bearing witness to the other side of violence and the possibility of joy while taking nothing away and continuing to bear witness to the fullness of what has been carried and and what has been survived. So we have 90 minutes, which I think they've given us an incredible luxury, which is what I like to have. So we really get to delve into who you are and how you move through the world and what you make in and of our world.
A little bit of housekeeping. We're going to have a conversation up here for 50, 60 Minutes. Then we will have a bit of we'll open the conversation up to the room. I think there will be a mic somewhere. I know there will be. And we'll do that for about 20 minutes. And then we will come back and close the conversation out here since we are recording it for broadcast. So let's start. I didn't mention that you're a MacArthur genius, but I have no proof you were born in Saigon and when you were two years old in 1990, your family came to the US.
You know, I have this question that I ask at the beginning of most of my conversations, an inquiry about the religious or spiritual background of someone's childhood. However, they would define that. Now, I just I wonder how you, um, if if if there are there are aspects of your childhood to which you would attach that language of spiritual. Religious. Yeah, my my my family is traditionally Buddhist, but they were also illiterate. And so they the extent of their Buddhism were rooted in rituals and care.
And so, you know, every day before school my mother would get me to the altar and we would start to name this sort of roll call the people in our family and try to bless them and and think about them and tend to them and to to ourselves. And so spirituality began with care rooted in physical bodies, and it didn't extend beyond the household. There was no mythical presence to it. It was very it was almost like this abracadabra that we did before we stepped out of the house into the rest of the world and thereby the rest of America.
And I think for me, that held true after I I grew up and I started to read I studied literature, literature, and I studied Buddhism in that order. And I said, what were we doing back there? You know, I think it's very common for a lot of folks to to look back to having more language in order to understand childhood and in this case, Buddhism. Yeah. And I think for me, it's to whatever my mother presented to me those early mornings in front of the altar is still true.
And I think I embrace that in everything I do writing sitting with you now, how do I do it with care. And even in the temples, in many Asian-American households, when you enter the house, you take off your shoes. Now, we're not obsessed with cleanliness any more than anyone else, but the act is an act of respect. I'm going to take off my shoes to enter something important. I'm going to give you my best self.
And I think even cautiously, when I read or give lectures or when I teach, I lower my voice. I want to make my words deliberate. I want to enter. I want to take off the shoes of my voice so that I can enter a place with care so that I can do the work that I need to do. Hmm. Um, in a number of places, you tell the story also about a Baptist church in your neighborhood that you would visit on Sundays, um, up partly because they had ice cream, but also that you became really taken with the story of Noah's Ark in a way that that is really, um, that says a lot about what it says, a lot about how you approach your your heart and your life.
Yeah, I think that MIF, you know, I would go to sleep over a friend's house. I grew up in Hartford, a predominantly black and brown neighborhood. And the next morning my friends would give me their clothes, their church clothes, and we would just go. It was just easier to go there rather than drive me back to my mother's house. So I would end up, you know, attending, you know, throughout my childhood, hundreds of church services in the Baptist Church.
And the the preacher kept talking about Noah's Ark. And I was so infatuated. I think it embedded into my psyche in really everything that I do even to this day. You know what? What an incredible mythos to work and live by, which is that when the apocalypse comes, what were you put into the vessel for the future, the demand on an assessment of human good in value and then also the abandonment of what's not useful. Right.
I mean, that that confrontation with filtering for gold for the future is incredibly prescient, I think, in all American life, because American life begins with systemic violence, the death of bodies and forced slavery, the genocide of Native American life. And so our very birth as a nation is grounded in this flaw. Of death, and I think for me, the more I live in this country, the more n responsibility in the Bible becomes truer to me as a person, even on the most granular level, what am I going to do with my day so that I can put all the good things and then build an architecture to hold those things so it outlasts the storm?
It's also such an image of, well, it's it's it's preparing for the apocalypse and getting beyond it, which is which is also an experience that that many people have even in our world right now. It's an immigrant experience, a migrant experience, as we've started to call it. Getting ready to interview. You made me ponder also the. Particular strangeness and singularity of the what it is to be Vietnamese American, your family. And in your case, you know, your family was not just fleeing a war and in the aftermath of war.
And surviving that, but you it was it was our war, right? You are Vietnamese American and both sides of that equation were at war and you were literally born because of that war. Yeah. I think it's a one hand it's incredibly surreal. Mm hmm. Another hand, it felt inevitable. And just to say that you're your mother was the daughter of a an American an American soldier who fell in love with a Vietnamese girl. And then the whole family was blasted apart just as the country was blasted apart.
Yeah, it's a strange epic, you know. And you wrote somewhere, no bombs equals no family equals no me. Yikes. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Do you know what do we do about. I think it's also a question integral to our species. Every every country has a great epic Gilgamesh, The Iliad, The Odyssey, you know, the Infernus. And it's all about war and violence.
And I think one of the central questions in my work is, you know, as much destruction as there always has been in human history, there was love and beauty simultaneously. Now, that doesn't they don't cancel each other out. They exist as independent truths interlocked. And you know this this is Michigan farm boy.
My grandfather went to Vietnam to play the the trumpet. You know, he was trying to escape his domineering father, who didn't allow him to go to music school. So a 19 year old kid thinking as teenagers do, well, I'll go to war, play a trumpet, you know?
And so, um, when he met my grandmother, they married and he was going to stay there. Yeah. And he was going to stay in Vietnam and have a new life. And then Saigon fell. Um, so I'm a product of war. But I think so much of American life is a product of war. Yeah, you know, we're standing on stolen ground. It's just very literal or literal in your story.
Yeah, yeah. I concentrated well on the first generation. You know, I think this is why the work of Toni Morrison's beloved was so important to me, because I saw in Beloved a first generation testimony in the in the character said leaving the South and creating beloved her daughter it you know, to save her daughter. And never before have I seen a parallel close enough to the story of my own mother who comes out of her own epicenter.
And I'm being her son, also my own beloved, to see American literature hold the testimony of first generation survival to live on both sides of death and life in one, you know, short period of time. Half of one's life felt so powerful to me and I learned so much from that book. And I also realized that so much of American citizenship does not begin for the immigrant when he arrives on American shores. It begins when the first bombs fell in Vietnam.
American citizenship in this sense begins with American foreign policy. How you see or miss see the world will result in who arrives on your shoulders. And I think when we start to recalibrate this deeper, you know, deeply felt and deeply memorize history, we can arrive at a more holistic understanding of what fabricates American citizenship in this country. And I think that's the great floor of this make America great again thing because it performs memory, but it is, in fact, amnesia.
When we pressure it to say where is again, the conversation falls apart. And I think that that horror of looking back is incredibly detrimental because in order to understand who we are, we have to know what we've done to each other. Mm hmm. I I wanted to maybe have you read a poem from your your book of poetry, Night Sky with Exit Wounds? So this is poem. The scene is set with the fall of Saigon. Yeah, this is not ancient history, but I don't think it's history and this is also history, the history of the Vietnam War, the 60s, that's all shaping us now.
But it's there's a lot of amnesia about it. As I as I read it, your grandfather, you're this Michigan farm boy soldier, had gone home to visit his family in Saigon, fell after he left, and then everybody was separated for a very long time. Right? Yeah, but you wrote this poem. About a body with burning city. Maybe the. Sure, the opening as well. South Vietnam, April 29, 1975. Armed Forces Radio played Irving Berlin's White Christmas as a code to begin Operation Frequent Wind.
The ultimate evacuation of American civilians and Vietnamese refugees by helicopter during the fall of Saigon. Milk, flower petals in the street like pieces of a girl's dress. May your days be merry and bright, he fills a teacup with champagne, brings it to her lips open, he says she opens. Outside, a soldier spits out his cigarette as footsteps fill the square like stones fallen from the sky. May all your Christmases be white as the traffic guard and straps his holster, his fingers running the him for a white dress, a single candle, their shadows to Wick's.
A military truck speeds through the intersection, children shrieking inside a bicycle hurled through a store window. When the dust rises, a black dog lies panting in the road, its hind legs crushed into the shine of a white Christmas. On the bed stand, a sprig of magnolia expands like a secret heard for the first time. The treetops glisten and children listen. The chief of police face down in a pool of Coca-Cola, a palm sized photo of his father smoking beside his left ear.
The song Moving to the city like a widow, a white, a white. I'm dreaming of a curtain of snow falling from her shoulders. Snow scraping against the window, snow shredded with gunfire, red sky, snow on the tanks rolling over the city walls, a helicopter lifting the living just out of reach. The city so white it is ready for the radio saying, run, run, run. Milk, flower petals on a black dog like pieces of a girl's dress.
May your days be merry and right. She is saying something neither of them can hear. The whole tell rocks beneath the bed, a field of ice. Don't worry, he says as the first show flashes their faces. My brothers have won the war. And tomorrow. The lights go out. I'm dreaming, I'm. To hear sleigh bells in the snow. In the square below, a nun on fire runs silently toward her God. Open, he says.
She opens. OK, that's. I just I didn't realize it's so powerful to read and to have it in the room like that is. It's hard to move on from. You want to say anything just is hard to it's hard for you to read, um. It's it's strange, you write something and it's almost like you send it down river, you put on the raft and you send the book down river. And if you know, it's tempting to jump on the raft and be with it, but you can't make another raft on the raft without destroying it.
And so so I just you know, I think I'm just on I'm right now in my head, I'm on the shore trying to figure out what to build next. Yeah. So it's so far from me, but everything I think worthwhile is hard to do. Even reading it back and reading it back again. I realize, you know, so much of that moment is just the grotesque, the grotesque created from. But this sort of easy, cheesy beauty of Berlin's white Christmas and the surreal nature of that song, which is a song about like Dreaming a White Christmas in L.A., right.
With palm trees where there's no snow to begin with. Right. For the American radios to use that song as a code.
Also, it was April. Yeah.
Yeah, I read that. Really? Yeah. And it's interesting because it's it's a it's interesting that that moment, that emblematic American moment where there's a cheery holiday song in the midst of horror, but also it's coded because it's exclusive. If you don't know what the song means, your life cannot be rescued. And I felt that so much of what happened in Saigon in that moment was also happening throughout American history, simultaneously with the civil rights movement, the Martin Luther King.
Is that so? Who if you don't if this song is not for you, then we're not thinking about you that your rescue is cut off from the beginning of the song's play, even though it's something as Democratic sound. If you're not in the code, then you're not in the program. I want to talk about. About the power of words and language, um, which which, you know, given the beginnings of your life, as you said, your your family was illiterate.
Your mother did not never spoke English. And and really only I think you said it was kind of could read and write Vietnamese that are about a fifth grade level. There's a lot of dyslexia in your family. You also struggled with that. Um. I wonder, and how old were you when you actually learned to read a lot of the the magazines, you say 11.
I mean, you don't wake up at all. Look at the sorry state. You don't wake up one morning and start reading books. You know, it's a slow, arduous task. So I started you know, I went to ESL. I went through the American educational system for better, for worse. And I was I was able to read but my fluid, you know, chapter book reading where I could just sit down and read a book didn't happen until I was 11, but I was able to pick out words here and there.
It was much delayed. Yeah, it was there. Was there a moment where where you where you can look back and where you started to feel in your body, the power of words which you now work with right away. I mean, I, I was surrounded by storytellers. Right. And I think I think somewhere you said you don't. After all, you don't have to be able to not be able to read is not mean. You have stories to tell.
Yeah. Yeah. It's I was surrounded by survivors and storytellers and so my grandmother and my grandmother and my mother and my aunts would tell stories to, you know, recalibrate their past to make sense of their past and that my route in. In the narrative and literary techniques and embodiment begins way before I entered a classroom, and when you think about how people tell stories, stories are carried in the body and it's edited each time the person tells it.
And so what you have, by the time someone tells the story, is a master class of form technique, concision, imagery, even how to pause, which you don't really get on the page. Right. Arguably, you do in poetry with the line break. And this is what these women were giving me. I didn't know how valuable that gift was. You know, the German critic Walter Benjamin says that the novel is actually a break from storytelling.
It comes with the printing press and immediately takes storytelling from the work of peasants and tradespeople in the market to the middle class, so controls it right now. So now stories are an independent, isolated experience. But for me, I think my experience as a writer can, in a way, traces the path of human storytelling in the span of 20 years, because I began in the oral tradition surrounded by that and then now being a writer entering the world of books.
But my imagination was in a way. Given to me, handed to me by these women through their stories, you know, we had nothing in Hartford, the walls were blank, but as soon as they start telling the stories, I saw this canvas open up. Yeah. And I realized that a listener is not passive. A listener doesn't just sit back right the way we sit back in the movie theater, a listener has to participate in the making alongside with the storyteller.
And so for me, writing is always this communal exchange, this dialogue between two people. It's also very moving and interesting to me the way you and your staff started talking about this. You write about how Vietnamese culture that you were that you were immersed in, how language is so embodied. I mean, some things you said in The New Yorker, you wrote, a lot of love is communicated in Vietnamese culture through service. You know, you we cook, we Messias, we scratch each other's back.
There's not a lot of saying I love you, but it's communicated in those ways. Yeah, the body is the ultimate witness to love. And I learned that right away. You know, we don't say I love you. We do. We say it in English as sort of, you know, really. That's so interesting. Yeah. Yeah. It's almost like a cultural thing, you know, just kind of we almost say in lieu of goodbye, we don't know how to say goodbye either.
Right. It's just we don't we say bye bye. Right. And I think because what what happens is that. Through the body and through service, you articulated through paying attention. So when you tend to the body and you articulate care, nothing can say I love you more than feeling it from somebody. And I think this relationship is how I start to see words. You know, I look at them as if they were things I couldn't move and care for.
And I thought, yeah, you and the language of energy, you use a lot of energy, metaphors and imagery for how you work with words and how words work in us. You know, you've said that prose and poetry are different conductors of energy. Yeah, yeah.
I think it's you know, we can as a species, as life on Earth, we've been dying for millennia, but I don't think energy dies. It's transformed. And when you're using language, you know, it's you can create it, use it to to divide people and build walls, or you can turn it into something where we can see each other more clearly as a bridge. And that that notion that you are a participant in the future of language is something I think our American education failed us.
Say some more about that.
You are a participant in the future of language, what we're taught you, particularly elementary school, to learn a standardized language and you realize right away that's standard English is incredibly politicized. And when you ask why is it this way? Why is this the standard, you arrive at a very arbitrary answer and an answer which actually excludes, you know, often people of color. Your English is wrong. This English is right. Right. And you realize that that that trap, that forcing a student to learn standard English traps them into thinking that they just it's fixed.
I got to learn the rules so I can write an email in. A few appear respectable to the world and then I go out of my life. But in fact, language is always changing. And I think it's the poets, the writers and even the youth. They're using language to cast new meaning in the same way Chaucer just winged English spelling. There was no standardized spelling, right? He was like a spring s p r y euge. Sure, let's try it out.
And and I think the way language exists is similar to, you know, when I was in Harvard, we were strong about these abandoned buildings, these old factories. The Colt gun factory was in Hartford. It was the first industrial machine in America in a sold weapons to both sides during the Civil War. And we would go into these abandoned warehouses and just to play and explore. And I remember seeing these old warped windows, the glass just melting and looking through at my city.
The city I thought I knew so well through this glass was so surreal. Everything changed, everything was warped. And to me, that's what language is the glass. You think it's fixed, you think it's clear pane of glass, but in fact, through years it starts to drip and melt and change. Right. And I think that's kind of how what's really exciting about technology and paying attention to American life, because we're always actually changing it. Even the phrase, you know, throwing shade, right.
Netflix and chill, these things are full of metaphor and meaning and context. And they actually are the sum total of the innovations and evolutions of our species. In order to have Netflix and chill as a phrase, we must have high speed Internet. We must have a moviegoing culture, cinema, everything is there. Right. And then also the subversiveness towards pleasure around systems of power, i.e. adults or what have you. So language is always shifting. And if we surrender agency, we say I'm not a participant in it.
Then we get played. You know, if you look at the history of this country and how the media works, you realize you come to a certain point where you say, either I better get on top of this or I will get played. And when you get played, you lose, you know, yourself, you lose your freedoms, your civil liberties. And one could argue that we've been getting played for decades. Yeah, even even that that notion that that language is clear, even the this presumption that we walk around making that that what we mean when we use any word, yeah, it transmits perfectly to another.
Right. That it's always imperfect, which is also. Yeah. What makes art so exciting and right of right would tell. We often tell our students the future's in your hands. Yeah. But I think the future is actually in your mouth. You have to, you have to articulate the world you want to live in first. Yeah. And the truth is we the living are a minority. The dead outnumber us. And in this moment of the present, you know, you look at stratified rock, you know, we're just one line, you know, and we're going to be we're going to be one line after.
And here we are. This is our chance as little little strip. To to really activate. A better linguistic and therefore bodily future for ourselves. What are you going to say into the world? And I think we pride ourselves as a country that's very technologically advanced. We have strong, good science and good schools, very advanced weaponry for sure. But I think we're still very primitive in the way we use language and speak. Particularly in how we celebrate ourselves, you know, you're killing it right there, so you're so acute about how the violence of the American lexicon we have to ask.
I'm not saying it's wrong for saying I use it to being a product of this country, but one has to wonder, what is it about a culture that can only value itself through the lexicon of death?
Mm hmm. You know, I grew up in New England and I heard boys talk about pleasure as conquests. I bagged her, she's in the bag. I left her brains out, right? Did you? I owned it, I owned that place, I knocked it out of the park, I went in there guns blazing, go knock em dead, drop dead gorgeous clé. I laid them. I slowed them. Yeah. What happens to our imagination, right, when we can only celebrate ourselves through?
Are very vanishing. It feels so antithetical to. What we can do, especially when you look at something like an iPhone, a culture in a country that produced the iPhone, you know, IBM, the laptop, the computer sending people into space.
And I think that the great myth is that, yes, technology never regressive, it goes forward, we will never as a populace use the T model Ford again. Right. It's done the same way. We probably won't use the rotary phone technology. You know, when Steve Jobs passed away the next day, the iPhone innervates, he doesn't have to be there. The blueprint is set and you build on it. There might be some setbacks, but eventually technology grows.
And I think we've fallen into this capitalistic myth that human knowledge and wisdom and ethics and morals are also exponentially growing. But it can't and it can't simply because of the fact that we die. We all now we're saying, you know, James Baldwin is so relevant again, what his words were never gone. They're always there. Right. But the people who read them, people engaged with them, passed away. People die and they lose the things that they know, you know.
Next year, the child born this year will have to experience, you know, a grapefruit for the first time, experience, love, go on to experience loss or lose their pet, lose their mother. That part of human life, we need to tend to and I think it's through the humanities and through reading and through literature that we tend to this to say that this is something that has been going on and carried. And it's hard because we each have a responsibility.
There is no Steve Jobs for that work. There's nobody to hand us the blueprint. Yeah, we have tools. You reread a book and you're kind of wading through it, but it's not a perfect, definite growth. And I think it's not surprising to me in the sense that we have a president that we do in the country so advanced and yet through a critical thinking to a moral and ethical thinking, that is in crap. Absolutely so. Bankrupt in the way he thinks ethics is incredibly primitive in that sense, it's not surprising because we let that wing of our thinking atrophy for so long.
And I yeah, I can take them back to how you point out that that that very crude coarse. Well, you know, lack of ethical thinking is embedded in ordinary language, we we all use yeah, we all use in the course of ordinary days. I mean, even you as a poet have said people say to you, you're killing it. Yeah, right. Yeah. What does it do to the brain? We know that what we're doing to us.
Yeah, we know language matters. They did a control where they. You know, they were trying to get these lab mice to move through a maze and they labeled one mouse the smart, intelligent mouse and the other mouse with the control just on normal mouse. The reality was that they were both normal mice. There was nothing special about them. But the one labeled the superior mouse always achieved, went through the maze faster. And that phenomenon is actually something that still studied.
But one theory is that it was the human beings who attended them. The ones that had the the the good labor, the promising labor were tended to have more care embouchure, and I suppose a lot of that was Onnes was subconscious. Yeah. Like that that that the people dealing with them didn't write more, not intending to treat them differently. Right. But it's in a way in which even the words we are thinking. Yeah. Is shaping the way we're interacting.
Yeah, absolutely. On a subconscious level. And so I think what happens if we we alter our language. Wellwood Yeah. Our our future be where will we grow towards it? We start to think differently about how the world is. You know, this is a battleground state, right? Oh, it goes on and on. I thought the civil war was over. Yeah. Yeah. But we're in battleground states, right. Target audience. Something I started to notice after 9/11 was this language of hunting down.
Hunting down terrorists. That's language you use for animals. Yeah. And that corson's us. Yeah, I grew up right in the shadow of 9/11. It was it created something very interesting because we were essentially the last generation to play outside thoroughly. Yeah, right. Things like Tag and Man Hunt. You know, those things were gone overnight. I saw it with my own eyes. Our nation became a nation that dictated fear through colors. Today's red tamales, orange, yellow alert.
And then right after that, the opioid epidemic hit New England and it hit New England in a very interesting way.
And now it's all over the country. But it started with a Purdue Pharma making OxyContin in Stamford, Connecticut. And that, too, I think began with language when the marketers were selling, pushing the drug to doctors. The doctors said, is this abuse resistant? Right. You sure it's abuse resistant? And if they said yes, they would lie and they can't lie.
So instead of saying yes to the question, they said, oh, is this abuse resistant, this drug? I'm. So the obesity epidemic, as we know it went all the way up I-95 to Maine, down to Virginia, and now moved west again with the word oh, and I call it a word, because everything, even though it does exist in the dictionary, anything with that kind of concussive and deadly power has meaning and it deserves its own definition because it's wiped out so many of the of my generation.
Yeah. So you mentioned. You mentioned the the Buddhist practice that was part of your childhood, that you then kind of rediscover and make your own as an adult feels to me like. You this space you inhabit, what you see so clearly and insisting on holding the complexity of that seems to me that you do have ways. And I think also the implications of what you're saying is what you're saying is that these are. This is a Riggo of how we use her words and how we understand the power we have to move through time and through ordinary experiences of our day, that we all have it in ourselves to claim right now.
But you have ways of making that more possible in yourself. I mean, I read. Is it true? Do you still do you live across from a cemetery? Yes, I do. And bet you that you perform this in Buddhist death meditation. Yeah, yeah, I, I go out and I walk along the cemetery and even without it I sit down and I do a duck meditation and it sounds very morbid, but the practice is actually supposed to bring yourself into the inevitable.
The conditions of our lives will be vanquished through death. And then and then all the pettiness, you know, to the little angers, you know, that you have with those you love, those you don't love and your neighbor, the little things, you know falls away. It's so small when the ultimate lasting reality is, is death. And I think it goes back to Noah's Ark, too. Okay. Noah was also doing tough meditation. You know, he was a Zen Buddhist without knowing it, I think, as though he didn't know he was Jewish.
Yeah, yeah, I think so. But I think this all religions have this, you know, outside of all of the the orthodoxy or in the rigor of ceremonies at the center of it is trying to remind us that we will die. And how do we live a life worth while of our breath? And I think it gets harder and harder in this modern age to do that because we are appalled, you know, constantly. I mean, Heidegger God got to this to he says this is the dynan is this idea of we are we are being you know, being with is such an important part of human life.
But we are often thrown, he calls it proneness the, you know, society gossip, you know, magazines, culture throws us out of ourselves. And we can the great. The great misstep, the great loss is that we can go through our whole lives being thrown into these rivers of power and ultimately leave ourselves behind leaves herself without a place to hold on to. And I think thinking about death and thinking about what we do towards it around it helps me center myself in this such such a chaotic space.
And I do think it's part of my own nurturing of my own mental health. Mm hmm. There's so much I want to talk to you about it, it's so it's beautiful, actually what's emerging here and it does feels like, you know, you've described how your your method of of creating is that you walk a lot. Right. Again, it's embodied practice and you walk and you walk in and things build up in you. And there's there's there's a way in which I feel like words and meaning kind of flow out of you, which is also an experience one has in in reading your work.
And as we're hearing, it's consonant with the way you understand reality, help other people understand reality. It's it's not always that smooth.
No, I'm sure there's a lot of I'm sure it's not just kind of like, you know, a lot of things flow, but not all of them are good, you know. So sometimes I got a rant about, yeah, OK. Yeah, I didn't want to suggest that. I you know, there was I just wanted to note this, there's the picture. On the cover of Night Sky with exit wounds. It looks like such a happy picture of a little boy and two women who love them, you imagine one of them is his mother and yeah, in fact, you guys were in a refugee camp in the Philippines and you had to someone took that picture and you paid them for that picture.
Yeah. Three cups of rice for that photo when we were in a refugee camp and we got rations and each day each family got three cups of rice. And there was a photographer who went around, you know, even in a refugee camp, you know, it's a microcosm of the world. Everybody is going to try to, course make a business. And, you know, I was thinking about the cover for my first book.
That was my first book. And, yeah, we had some ideas. But I think part of my education with the history of Vietnam and America's involvement in it became something very different from what was given to me in the textbooks. The textbook says, well, here's first of all, here's five chapters on George Washington, what he ate, what kind of teeth he had, what kind of tree he chopped down. Yeah. And by the way, you know, somebody chopped down a fruit tree as a red flag from the.
Nobody has why chop down a fruit trees? And so the myth I realized the myth of America was so strong. Yeah. And one could argue that these textbooks.
Is one form of propaganda in Roland Park would talk about these competing myths that there's no real reality within a society except myths that overpower one another and is very interesting because when we got to the Vietnam War, it was like two pages. The photo of Kennedy then is a photo of Nixon. Right, right, something bad happened over there. Anyway, it's over. Then we went on to the Gulf War when we were heroes. Yeah, right. So I thought but when I the time I was in college, as I got to figure this out, so I started to do my own research and I realized right away that one's research with the Vietnam War, something I was not prepared for, was to see upwards of hundreds of dead bodies, Asian bodies, bodies that look like me.
So when you are most recognizable in your research as a corpse, it does something to you, right? Sometimes the bodies were so mangled you didn't know where it one began and ended. Yeah. And so I wanted for my first book to have Vietnamese bodies on the cover that were living. Mm hmm. And so that photo, you know, was a was a moment of salvaging and preserving bodies in transit. Yeah. What was it about these women?
I thought that would surrender their very sustenance in order to preserve their image.
Right. Yeah, and and. Even when you came here, I mean, somewhere that you said that, you know, you had to pay for that picture, you had to pay to be seen and. Even what you're saying, everything of that about how even in that moment in and I was a child, but you know the fact. Of those the of being able to see those bodies was what became is actually what ended the war. Yeah, and then after that, we never saw bodies come home from war again.
Yeah, I learned.
Yeah, they learned that you even when you came here and this is about this is about the immigrant experience and but it's also about being Vietnamese. Your mother would say to you, uh, remember, child, don't get noticed. You're already Vietnamese. Yeah, I think it's very common for many immigrants, many families of color. It's interesting that wisdom often arrives as a warning. You know, I think it's often something that those in the center, those in power, never know that before you leave the house in order to achieve yourself.
Right. One sends one's children to school in order to fulfill their dreams. And in order to do that, you had to be warned that there is a strike against you, by the way. So sinkin fade away. Right. And I think that's the great crisis of the first and second generation. The first generation made it here, and to live at all is such a privilege that they're happy and even encouraged you to put your head down, work, fade away, get your meals and live a quiet life.
I think the second generation, the great conundrum there, the great paradox is that they want to be seen. They want to make something right and what a better way to make something and fill yourself with agency than to be an artist. You know, so, so many of us immigrant children end up betraying our parents. In order to subversively achieve our parents dreams, right? Right. Won't open this up in a minute. I thought I might ask you to read.
I thought I might ask you to read so many other things, but it's so amazing to sit around and be in conversation with you. There's this poem about your mother headfirst. Mm hmm. Um. Page 20. This poem is in the voice of the mother. Begins with a Vietnamese proverb first. Conconi Buncombe began, come Bungoma, work on. Don't you know? A mother's love neglects pride. The way fire neglects the cries of what it burns.
My son. Even tomorrow, you will have today. Don't you know there are men who touch breasts as they would the tops of skulls? Men who carry dreams over mountains, the dead on their backs. But only a mother can walk with the weight of a second beating heart. Stupid boy. You can get lost in every book, but you'll never forget yourself the way God forgets his hands. When they ask you where you're from. Tell them your name was flushed from the toothless mouth of a war woman.
That you were not born, but crawled headfirst into the hunger of dogs, my son. Told them the body is a blade that sharpens. Um, your mother was worked in a nail salon all of your life and her life and you worked there and members of your family worked there, and I love it that you were able to you were eventually able to buy her house. And she always wanted a garden. Yeah, because you you are now seen.
Yeah. She watched you. There's a story. I love the story one one of you could tell it about. The experience she had when she came when she first came to hear you read and of course, she couldn't understand the English, but her reaction to. You know, the first time I was reading at the Mark Twain house, of all places in Hartford and it was nearby, so I asked her to come in first time she saw me read.
And of course, she doesn't understand the English, but she was so proud to just see her son up there, you know, in a spotlight. Yeah, a small spotlight. And I went back to her after I read people clap and they stood and it was lovely. And I went back to her and she was sobbing and being the the dutiful son. And I said, well, I. What do I do? What happened? You OK?
And she said, No, I just never thought I'd live to see all these old white people clapping for my son.
And and, you know, I thought it was it was interesting because I said I am trying to understand what that means. Yeah. What it means or what kind of validation is that? You know, it's not necessarily one that I share myself, you know? So I almost had this this arrogant gaze to it. And I said. I don't that doesn't seem like victory to me just because a bunch of white folks, you know, clear victory is something else to me, something more.
And then until the next day, I was at the salon again with her her makeup off and she put a nice dress away. She wore the readings, took her earrings off and right out of the gate in the early morning. I saw her right out the gate in the early morning, I saw her and watched her kneel at the pedicure chair before one old white woman after another. It was so because I thought right.
Finally, finally, you know, she was below their eye level for so many years and for one brief moment in Mark Twain's house, that they saw her face to face as an equal.
And that's what I understood. That is victory. Let's let's open this up for a few minutes. There's a microphone roving around, yeah, there it is. First, thanks so much. Have you spoken a lot today about the immigrant experience and we really appreciate it. Language is also changing for the queer community. I love that. Like, I can call myself a dyke, which is so derogatory for so many years. Can you talk a little bit about maybe like the reclamation of language as a queer person and why that's so important?
You know, it's not a coincidence that I put the word gorgeous on my book. You know, it's a it's a word that's so important to the queer community. And it's a little, you know, wink. And I think it's that very community and also communities of color. And they often intermingle queer and communities of color as language labs. And this is what you know to the cultural critic and scholar Fred Moten says about the slave ship is that the slave ship, amongst many other things, was a language lab.
Folks were trying to figure out what to do down there. And I think that that notion of innovation on the margins is actually incredibly freeing and true to how literature innovated. If we look at hybrid texts that we now see in the works of Claudia Renkin, Maggie Nelson, Monica Pier, Margarita Ra, it was women who spearheaded that mood because nothing else was available. The great American novel wasn't available to them. It wasn't there for them to participate in.
And so they made a better alternative route through language. And so I think the pressures and the social restraints lead us naturally to find new ways of ordering ourselves into existence. And I think, you know, one anecdote that we've already had in the queer community to the lexicon of death is I'm living for it. I live for that dress because it's true. And so I think that's a great moment where we're tracing the actual reclamation of language as a treatise towards the future.
Don't you want to live for the address to right? And I think that that's where I'm really excited when I'm in these communities, when I'm with my community. I pay attention to what they're saying, how they're using language and how we use language, because it makes life so much more pleasurable to know that we can say no. To the systems of delivery, because I think every generation faces this wave, this large wave of the past, this almost tsunami like wave, and we we have to be have the courage to see it coming and then.
Find our roots and say I'm going to use and alter things that fit me better because it's very easy to just surrender and say it's too much. History is so large, the momentum of it so strong that I better just hunker down and close my eyes until it's over. But the great excitement is that we can change it as soon as we start talking to each other. And living for that is is one of those ways. Hi, my name's Amanda.
I'm a producer and professor from Toronto, thank you so much for this awesome conversation. This question is actually for Krista. I'm talking about how you put up the raw interviews of all of your. Yeah, yeah. All your interviews. It's great. And especially like this conversation was so good. And how do you choose what to cut? I used it as a teaching tool in my classrooms and workshops a lot. So I was just wondering if you could talk about what inspired you to have that idea and what's the Lissa's listenership like with the raw interviews and how you use it as a teaching tool showing that I can be like, how do we decide what to cut from this?
And let's listen to the before and. Oh, that's interesting. Yeah, well, so so, you know, sometimes people who are younger asked me, how did you start your podcast? And I say, well, we started a public radio show and they look at me like, you know, what am I talking about? So, you know, podcast didn't exist when we started this. So interestingly, I mean, even I had to fight so hard, you know, all those years ago even to say we're going to do one conversation for the whole hour that felt way too long for him.
People were very uncomfortable with it. And as a result, we're I'm not primetime. I want to be quick on your back to you.
But at some point before podcasting, maybe right as podcasting came along, lillie's here. Actually, it wasn't my idea. One of my producers tranquilise at the time said that if we really believe in the value of virtue of transparency that we talk about, that the digital world is calling us all to, that we need to walk the talk. And it felt really counterintuitive, having been in media before this digital world. And I think we have this impassioned discussion for a year I was like, why do we do all this work to get it down to 51 minutes if we're going to give people the mess?
And it is messy. I mean, it's this is less messy. But if I'm in the studio with somebody. And I have 90 minutes, I can let them go down some road that I really don't know if there's going to be anything there, but it's OK because there might be. And if not, we can come back. We found with younger people and we found that it gets it gets used in like high school classes. And because we have they we give the raw they trust the rest of the media project more so that it's been and it's huge.
It's hundreds of thousands. I mean, I don't know what the numbers are now, but it's a very large percentage of very large numbers of people in every show who listen to the unedited. Thank you. I have a question about language, because I come from the Latin community and we now are trying to use all of these words to make sure that we include everyone. And yet I'm noticing how so many people feel left out. To me, it makes total sense to use the word Latin.
My uncle doesn't understand it. And there's so much shaming and like, again, exclusion and violence in in another way, I'm not justifying the fact that they don't understand it yet, but I wonder if you have any the both of you. Any thoughts on that and how do we deal with making sure that the language that we're now using to make sure that we include everyone doesn't go backwards? And yeah, you know, we just interviewed Sandra Cisneros and we had long discussions about how we were going to what language we were going to use in the script.
And it was really is complicated. And we went back and forth. I don't know. I'd love to know what you think about that. I think one of the things about the language lab as a metaphor is that it's an experiment.
And, you know, the agency that allows us to make new words and to allow things to what those words hold, you know, the same thing, the same way we were the word queer. It's still up. There's a lot of older folks in the community who still feel triggered by that word, you know, and they're still very uneasy about it in many sense. It's a it's a word it's a useful word because it holds so many of us.
And so we're still debating amongst each other. And I think that dialogue is actually a good thing, you know, because we use words can be just as oppressive if we just deliver like a newsletter one day, a metaphorical one or a real one to people in our community. So this is what it is. Liebovitz This is progress. And so we end up creating our own, you know, the sort of authoritarian regime around policing language. And I think the open ended question, the open nature of it and looking at the history of Adam ologies.
So we actually don't have much control. We have some in the present, but once we die, when that little line of sedimentary rock is eclipsed by another and another, we've surrendered our time in the next generation will have to decide what to do with that. Right. I keep thinking about this beautiful interview with James Baldwin where a student asked him, you know, why did he referred to himself as a Negro? And he says, because my grandmother called herself the N-word.
This is where I'm at, and I understand that we're moving, but you have to understand where I'm coming from, that I'm in the line of progress here and this is a huge arrival for me. So in that moment with Baldwin, there's this beautiful there's a student who's kind of like, why are you saying this in Barbara saying that we're still moving, that you can change it. But you have to understand that I'm coming from a space where my elders called themselves that and this is progress for me.
So we now we can have that. You can. It's up to you now. And you can see in that rare moment where two generations are handing off the baton to each other. But Baldwin's kind of staying firm and saying that this is a we took forever to get to what I'm saying now, what I'm using now. And that is up to. So now from from Baldwin. And now we've already advanced.
Right. And so I think that the idea of forgiving ourselves, being more tender and compassionate for the language lab, because it's so messy, a lab is messy. It's an experiment. There's there's stains on the wall. Things are being broken. We've got to clean things up. And if we just allow ourselves the missteps, allow ourselves to update each other when language is growing and gives ourself that room, we can finally move together without, you know, cutting each other out.
But it's very hard because you need to be vigilant. And it depends on people in the community, because in the next town, over the next community, over the next forum or group chat, it could be something else completely and something very regressive and damaging, which is why, again, there's no exponential growth to this. Each person is responsible for themselves and each community is responsible to each other. And if we drop the ball, we can we can drop ourselves out of the conversation very quickly.
You know, the the old founders of this country knew this, right? They knew it took only one generation when they took Native American children away from their families, put them in boarding schools. They knew they only had to do it with one generation for that language to be lost. One link and you can recalibrate and infuse the propaganda. So I think in the universe, we can take that knowledge for the better and and be vigilant with ourselves in saying that it can only it takes only one link for us to lose this, you know, for us to lose what we're holding in this space.
I think there are a lot of exciting things that has been in response to this administration is that we're talking about it now. You know, I don't know about you all, but when I was growing up in the Clinton and the Bush eras, people really believed we were post-racial. Like I talk to a lot of folks who felt that way, you know, and a lot of this, you know, this ridiculous notion, quote unquote, that Clinton was the first black president because he played the saxophone.
It was crazy. Right. And it didn't make any sense for the people around me, but we weren't in the conversation. But now with Trump administration, now others, we're having these conversations. More people have access to it. And the question is, will what will be discovered in the sedimentary moment radiate upwards or will it be lost and buried so that some archives 100 years from now we'll go back and say, wow, what a revolution that was right in the way we now look at the Greek and Roman.
Wow, what a sexual revolution they had, where they all go. How do we regret so much. Right. That can always have. Maybe one more question. Hi. Hi there. I have to say that. Probably I've been listening to Krista for as long as I can remember, and this has to be one of the most moving tender. Beyond words, conversations I've heard and so and I'm so glad that I got to see this the embodiment of your language.
So along those lines, I was interested to know about some of the body practices that you do. I I completely hear what you're saying about the potential for language and the care that each word uttered, the responsibility that one can reflect on that and the mess and the chaos and all of this. And I know that Christopher years, you know, has been been been talking about the importance of language. There also is some preparatory practices that come with that responsibility.
And I was wondering if you could share any any thoughts on that. It's you know, I do think it does begin and end in the body that that we. Your language is something we carry around for a long time in our species, we have been carrying it. Reading is very fairly new. Even the Library of Alexandria people read aloud in it. So you go in that library is just a hum of voices. And I think being able to articulate and talk to each other face to face like this, having the sonic reality to see how your words land in somebody's body, it's so important, you know, and ironically, I learned this through having a pet, a dog.
I could be saying anything, but in my tone changes my little dog, tofu. He knows.
You know, he knows he's he's listening to the pressures and the sonics of my voice, even more so, of course, than the words themselves. I could be saying, you know, Merry Christmas or Merry Christmas. And all of a sudden he knows the difference. And so I think I always bring this back to my students as well. I said, you're working on a poem or story. You know, when you're hitting a dead end, when it's not going, take it with you.
Get away from the desk, turn away from it means something is not happening. It doesn't mean you're blocked. I don't think writer's block is real. I think it's the mythos of capitalism, right. That you're always supposed to be producing just the anxiety of being productive in quantifying your self-worth through page counts and word counts. So I said, you're working, but you have to work differently now. And I had to work with your body. Maybe there's questions you're not asking me.
We had to recite this poem and walk with it. And so to me, this is actually more available to us as a species. This is what we've always been doing. We've we've been telling stories as we walked. We've been telling stories as we work side by side that that this this idea, that language is a private, isolated act is so new that I think we still haven't figured out if it's useful or not. And so I think it's valuable to open up that debate again and not to say that it has to be like this or like that for anybody, but to say if it's not working, we can do something different, an alternative route.
And in this sense, having the words in the air, I feel like the voice in the air is like a second page. You know, the way you can articulate the pauses, the cadences I learned mostly from watching Whitney Houston. If you listen to what they use in songs, they start like a whisper. Yeah, and then how do we get to the pinnacle's, right, the bright lit room of her, you know, peaks, but but the power and the mastery in her performance is the oscillation and the respect of how a word which is static on the page can be lifted and amplified through using the whole range of human emotion in the voice.
So I'm an apprentice of that. You know, I I would not have traded the experience of being with you physically, but. I think I I really love most of my interviews are remote and I'm in a studio and people somebody is coming in through my headphones kind of basically. But I what I there's there's often an assumption in people who don't work in this medium that that makes it less intimate. But to to have the human voice to work with that and to get everything, everything that the human voice carries.
I mean, it is the body is really magical to really be able to completely focus on that. Speaking of. The body and walking and movement, I want to close you, you wrote this beautiful essay in The Rumpus in 2014 called The Weight of Our Living on Hope Fire Escapes and Visible Desperation. It was part of the context of that piece. Was your uncle's death by suicide? He was three years older than you and you'd grown up together and that wove into you reflecting on these walks you do through New York City on fire escapes.
Yeah, I want to read a little bit of just and then I want you to say where, you know, all that richness and drama is sealed away in a fortress whose walls echoed with communication of elemental and exquisite language. You're looking at all the buildings and yet only the fire escape. A clinging extremity, inanimate and often rusting, spoke in its hardened exile's silence with the most visible human honesty. We are capable of disaster and we are scared.
Yeah, yeah, I it was such a blow, anyone who has lost anybody to suicide, um, I lost my uncle, I lost a few friends, you know, um, and it's the great mystery in the great violence of taking oneself out of the picture. You know, I've been grappling with that for so long. And I think one of the things that lead us to that is that we you start to feel that you are always out of the picture.
This loneliness, that language does not allow us to access, you know, the way we say hello to each other, you know? Hi, how are you? Oh, good, good, good, good, good. So how are you now defunct. It doesn't access it, it's filth, it's fluff, right? And so what happens to our language is great advanced technology that we've had when it starts to fail at its function and it starts to obscure rather than open.
And I think the crisis that my uncle went through and a lot of my friends was the crisis of communication. They couldn't say, I'm hurt. And looking at, you know, I always go. I remember when I heard of his suicide, I was a student at Brooklyn College in New York and I went for the longest walk and I kept seeing these fires kept. And I said, what happens if we had that? What is the linguistic existence of a fire escape?
That we can allow give ourselves permission to say. Are you really OK? I know we're talking, but you want to step out on the fire escape. And you can tell me the truth. And I think we're so we built shame into vulnerability and we've sealed it off in our culture and not at the table, not a dinner table. Don't say this here. Don't say that. They don't talk about this. Right. This is not cocktail conversation.
What have we police access to ourselves? And the great loss is that we can move through our whole lives picking up phones and talking to our most beloved and yet still not know who they are. Or how are you? Has failed us. And we have to find something else and and I thought about that, what if literature, my participation in the and that's my field, if you will. What if the poem, the story, the novel at its best can serve as a fire escape?
Because on the page you don't have the awkward reality of a body bumping into someone in the supermarket. You know how to say, how about them patriots, right? You know how to talk about the weather. You can go right in there. And I really have been it changed the way I thought about writing and literature in that if we have the fire escape as a reality in our buildings, what does it look like in the reality of our communication?
Yeah, in our language. What does that look like? I'm still figuring that out. I'm still every book, every poem, I think is my attempt at articulating a fire escape. But I think it was a great reckoning for me because here I am supposedly a writer, you know, and then my uncle dies and I've lost so much. We talk all the time. We say all these things. And yet I never knew what was happening.
And if that's the case, languid this field that I chose, this thing that I feel so much hope for failed me. And it was a reckoning, I think, existentially with with myself as an artist. I wonder if to close this incredible time together, if you would read, just copy it out. A paragraph from the end of this essay from 2014, The Weight of Our Living.
The poem, like the fire escape, as feeble and then as it is, has become my most concentrated architecture of resistance, a place where I can be as honest as I need to because the fire has already begun in my home, swallowing my most valuable possessions and even my loved ones. My uncle is gone. I will never know exactly why, but I still have my body. And with these words hammered into a structure just wide enough to hold the weight of my living, I want to use it to talk about my obsessions and fears, my odd and idiosyncratic joys.
I want to leave the party through the window and find my uncle standing on a piece of iron shaped into visible desperation, which must also be how can it not the beginning of visible hope. I want to stay there until the building burns down. I want to love more than death can harm. And I want to tell you this often, that despite being so human and so terrified here, standing on this unfinished staircase to nowhere and everywhere, surrounded by the cold and starless night we can live.
And we will. Oshin Vong, thank you so much. Thank you.