2019 Contest: Interview with Flash Judge Vi Khi Nao
Vi Khi Nao is the author of Sheep Machine (Black Sun Lit, 2018) and Umbilical Hospital (Press 1913, 2017), and of the short stories collection, A Brief Alphabet of Torture, which won FC2’s Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Prize in 2016, the novel, Fish in Exile (Coffee House Press, 2016), and the poetry collection, The Old Philosopher, which won the Nightboat Books Prize for Poetry in 2014. Her work includes poetry, fiction, film, and cross-genre collaboration. Her stories, poems, and drawings have appeared in NOON, Ploughshares, Black Warrior Review, and BOMB, among others. She holds an MFA in fiction from Brown University, where she received the John Hawkes and Feldman Prizes in fiction and the Kim Ann Arstark Memorial Award in poetry.
Interview by Jackson Saul
Black Warrior Review: You offer a great deal of craft insight within the presentation of your own craft. Your piece “The Bald Sparrow,” with its embedded critique of so-called narrative “logic,” is one of my favorites that does this. What’s the craft question you’ve always wanted to get? Or the thing about craft that you’ve always wanted to share that you haven’t yet?
Vi Khi Nao: It’s okay to pursue carpentry, if you think wood speaks more sensually and thoughtfully than words. Some martinets of discipline might suggest that one must learn the rules first before breaking them. I think sometimes it’s okay too to break the rules first and later learn them as you go without knowing what you have learned. It’s important to experience darkness and some kind of craft dyslexia as it teaches you that there is no right way to chase after & hone originality.
BWR: Submitters should know that our flash contest is genre agnostic. For a submission to qualify, it only matters that the submitter identifies it as “flash.” Given this aspect of the contest, you are a fitting judge. Within the short span of each of your own flash pieces in A Brief Alphabet of Torture, you often move fluidly—and fascinatingly!—through multiple formal modes (script to prose [those bracketed interludes that begin as stage directions in “The Boy and the Mountain” become so poetic!], the eponymous sequence in “A Brief Alphabet of Torture,” quotations from other texts, to-do lists, etc). Would you care to comment on your relationship to genre and form? Has it changed over time? Does it ever change over the course of your composition of a piece?
VKN: I think it’s important to plant asparagus one year and to plant tomato the next. Being agriculturally astute and flexible about crop rotation is an important aspect of managing pests and diseases in my work. I like pests in small quality, and I like diseases in even smaller value. Although repetition (as a textural impulse & rhetorical device) is celebrated in experimental writing and in poetry, not tilling my imagination has been detrimental to my writing pasture. And, so I learn to forgive myself a little by being bold. And, sometimes within the same genre, I am compelled by botany survival to till its meadow instead of waiting for the next prose/poetry piece to emerge. When you are agrarian and rustic, the form and the genre teach you how to alter the tuxedo of your botany. I am not a fan of cummerbunds, but I do insert a sash or two in my protean work from time to time and I discovered that the gesture is overwhelmingly sassy too.
BWR: I’m hoping you can tell us a little bit about your ideas regarding the “experimental,” a word that sees a lot of usage about and within the circles you and we at BWR run in. What does the word mean to you? How might your meaning differ from what you think other people mean when they use it? Can the word only be relative to contemporary norms, or does it have a stable meaning across time? Is it pejorative, dismissive, and pigeon-holing, or is it high praise for the kind of work that heralds a dawn no one else can see yet? Do you prefer other words? Do we need a new word entirely? (Respond to any of these you feel moved to respond to!)
VKN: If you ask someone to define an egg for you, most hyper-normative writers, aka dictionaries, will define an egg as an ovoid thing that emerges out of a female bird; also an embryo with or w/out a chalky shell. An experimentalist will try to not to be a dictionary. Or if she chooses to be a dictionary, that dictionary would have a large bullet in it and some leathery membrane that belongs to some reptile from the Mesocephalic period, if there is a thing. I like to cook organic eggs at exactly 8 minutes. A perfect egg. And, 7 minutes for an egg which has been incarcerated or caged because this reproductive Cain tried to murder its twin brother in the post-Edenic embryo. Contrary to what others may think, I believe my experimental art is a science of precision and exactness. Pseudo-experimentalists like to claim that word for themselves to garner coolness especially when they are careless and imprecise, but it ruins the genre for everyone who is genuine or sincere. Do I abandon my Asianness because of one uncool Asian? Probably not. One of my favorite words in the English language is tonic. If asked how tonic am I lately, I would be happy to tell you that. If the word ever becomes unstable, contemporary norms wouldn’t be able to take it. Syllable by syllable. Experimentalists or tonicists are masters of illusion. There is a time and a place for pigeonholing. It’s important to pigeonhole sometimes because an egg, from time to time, would like to sit in it without breathing because of its protective wood garment and it knows it wouldn’t break from impact. Wouldn’t you like that too? Not to break so easily?
BWR: Yes, I would very much like that—to be protected, not to break so easily. As a follow-up, with regard to how this concept of experimentalism applies to your own work: Does your understanding of experimentation have more to do with process or result? That is to ask: Do you know experimentation better when you are doing it or once you see it? When you work, do you know what you’re going to do before you do it, does it come to you after you’ve begun—or does it never occur to you, or perhaps only once others have absorbed and responded to the finished product?
VKN: It’s both and it’s neither. Sometimes I don’t care for process nor product or if it is going to walk down the runway. I just care about getting it out of or off me. Like having pneumonia or a virus or a bacterial infection or lint. Uncertainty dictates the majority of my creative inventions. Sometimes after sewing a literary blouse, I realize it should be a dress and so I take it apart to reshape it into an informal literary garment. Other times the entire three-piece suit appears before me with all the dimensions measured and each square inch of its fabric’s textures numbered by color and design – all I need to do is sit down and sew into a lexical garment. After a while, you realize you don’t want to be a literary seamstress anymore. And, you just want to be a perfusiologist, but you can’t because you don’t know anything about cardiopulmonary bypass machines.
BWR: Sorry about the long questions. Here’s a short one about something short: What excites you about flash? What might you be looking for in flash contest entries?
VKN: I love your long questions, Jack; questions inside of a question.
To answer you:
A: How short it is.
BWR: An anxiety I have in my own work is that when I try out formal games and/or fabulism I could be looking for an excuse not to address emotional realities head-on. You somehow manage to master formal subversion and not-completely-realist environments without forfeiting honest confrontation of real human truths. “The Boy and the Mountain” again pulls this off so well, and one of my favorite aspects of your I AM NOT A PHOTOGRAPHER excerpt in BWR 45.1 is that voice that emerges from the swirl of other matter to declare, “I just want to make love to you!” Please tell me: How do you do it?
VKN: I wrote I AM NOT A PHOTOGRAPHER when I was 33 years old in 2012 when I was a student and teaching a fiction course at Brown University. A week before their midterm, I had given my students a very difficult task: they were to write a novel in two weeks. I defined the novel as anything over 40K words. I usually test-drive the assignments/prompts I assign my students just so that I know what it is like to be in their shoes. And, so two weeks before assigning them this task, I executed the 40K+ prompt completely and gave birth to I AM NOT A PHOTOGRAPHER. The year 2012 was one of the most catastrophically cataclysmic years of my existence. And, the universe compensated my misfortunes and adversity by allowing me to cough out this elegant creature. I am grateful that you were able to see virtue in my pain. As you see, I loved my students very much. So, I highly suggest loving your students as a way to do it? Giving them difficult tasks by giving yourself difficult tasks?
BWR: Your narrator in I AM NOT A PHOTOGRAPHER notes, “my thoughts alphabetize themselves.” I was also so taken with the numerical system of organization in that same piece. I wondered, from a compositional perspective, whether the device was an organizing strategy for extant material or a generative constraint—that is, whether it was something you used to organize and control something that could have otherwise sprawled or an OULIPO-like structure within which you could produce more. Or maybe it’s something else entirely! Could you give us some insight into this kind of choice in your work?
VKN: The two-week constraint was quite challenging and to deal with this challenge, I decided not to procrastinate. It was wise not to. And, so whatever came came – I inserted them (numbers, letters, images, geometries, missives, perceptions, memories, underdeveloped protagonists, etc.) all into one form, without inhibition or limitation or defiance. The manuscript should move like an elegant evening gown, with lots of laces and silks and waterfalls. If you gaze carefully, you can even see in it three polar bears wearing no polar bikinis.
BWR: I come away from your work with an intense sense of possibility and excitement about creativity as an approach to living rather than merely to a medium. I also come away more finely attuned to the wide varieties of pain and desire in the world. Do you have any particular hopes or expectations for what readers take out of your writing?
VKN: I hope they walk away with their wallets/purses full of fake bills. I hope they walk to any restaurant and try to pay their favorite meals with them. Especially if they are on a Tinder date.
BWR: As you know, we all admire you here at BWR. Do you have any last advice to leave us and our submitters with? More about writing maybe. But also maybe about life.
VKN: By reading widely and wisely, you can shuffle the deck of your imagination thoroughly so that the same kind of cards or creative inventions do not show up too consistently and frequently. Some degree of diversity is necessary in the composition of an impressive piece. Too much diversity leads to arbitrary despair. As for life, you can clean the ears of a head of lettuce better if you use a new toothbrush instead of a cotton swab so they can listen to the other fruits and vegetables better. I think salad is tastier when the ears of a lettuce aren’t plugged by dirt.