Q&A conducted by Bix Gabriel, Editor, Fiction
Bix Gabriel: I’m really interested in the origins of stories, perhaps because where stories come from feels so mysterious. How did Trespassing come to be? Where did it begin for you?
Nghiem Tran: A lot of my work, especially recently, pushes back against the toxic values that I internalized when I was growing up and assimilating in Kansas. Even now I find myself desiring things that might make me feel more white and american, like just last week I thought about applying to business school and becoming an accountant! No offense to accountants though, really! But it was obvious to me that the desire was motivated solely by capitalism and wanting to achieve the american dream. Writing teaches me how to reject those unhealthy desires and to value my Vietnamese identity and my family’s experiences. And so when I pick stories to write, I try to find moments in my family’s past that reveal how complicated, painful, and beautiful the lives of immigrants are. Sometimes the seed for a story can be my parents doing their laundry. But other times it can be something really bizarre, like buying 80 chickens impulsively. Which leads me to the next question.
BG: I need to ask about those chickens. Why chickens? And how do you feel about them in the “real world”?
NT: Chickens are really big symbols of the disconnect between first and second generation immigrants for me. I grew up eating chicken bought from Wal-Mart. My parents grew up eating very little meat in their mountain village, and any meat they had, their families raised the chickens and killed them. My parents are quick to point out that meat tastes sweeter and more tender that way, but since in America, store packaged meat is so cheap my parents have reluctantly gotten used to it. Whenever they have the money though, they’ll drive to a chicken farm and buy them in huge quantities. I chose not to include any of this history in the story because I wanted to dramatize how foreign and odd the parents seem to the narrator, the son. It might seem like an irrational decision to him to buy 80 lived chickens, but the parents feel like it’s very logical to do something that reminds them of their lives in Vietnam, of home.
BG: One of my favorite aspects of this story is the contrasts: the normalcy of a Craiglist ad (though perhaps Craiglist ads aren’t necessarily “normal”?) against the impulse purchase of eighty chickens, the bloodiness of the chickens’ slaughter and the aunties and uncles’ joking, the son’s resentment and his envy. Tell us about how you work with/create juxtapositions.
NT: I wanted the contrasts to convey how confusing being a child of immigrants is! The narrator has already assimilated by the time the story starts. He understands that other Americans would find what his parents are doing very horrific, and his internal dialogue reflects the biases and discomfort that an American might have towards foreigners. Especially considering that so many chickens are being slaughtered, he is aware that his parents can be seen as cruel and “savage”. At the same time, he is still their son, he is Vietnamese, and his discomfort at his own family troubles him. He sees his parents not struggling with the same anxieties as he does, in fact they’re having a great communal moment over the slaughter, and he feels as if he is missing something very important about his own identity. Goodness, I don’t mean to spell out everything that is going on in the story! But it does feel really great to be able to express all of this since with fiction, I try my best to let the work speak for itself, and sometimes it’s nice to just be as explicit with my intentions as possible.
BG: Everything I’ve read of your work is flash. Is that your preferred form and why?
NT: So when I first started writing, I wanted to train myself to write long narratives, basically a novel one day because that seemed so glamorous. But as I kept writing, I found the demands of structuring and sustaining a long narrative to be counterintuitive to my natural instincts. I kept trying to force the story to be grand and moving and profound, and it just sounded so false. With flash, and I’ve been writing poetry too, I can just focus on a moment in my past that has stuck with me and discover what makes the memory so meaningful. Without the pressure of plot and all the traditional craft elements, I don’t feel the need to make a story something that it just isn’t.
BG: I read this story and had a mental picture of the landscape of Wichita, which isn’t ever described in the story. But you grew up in Kansas. What image/s (or even people) from popular culture come to mind when you think about Kansas?
NT: Oddly enough, even though I was raised in Wichita, I don’t have a very clear picture of it in my head. Maybe because it’s kind of plain? There are no mountains or oceans or dramatic physical features. To me, it’s just stretches of empty fields and subpar housing. I mean there are wonderful sites in the city, like the Keeper of the Plains and the Old Town area. But since my family felt so estranged there, I don’t have much fondness for it, just as it doesn’t have much fondness for me. And yet it’s where I spent my formative years! And who I am now is because of my time there, and so I feel this need to make it the setting for many of my stories, but as you mentioned, Bix, I don’t describe it at all. And I think that’s because I’ve already spent too many years of my childhood fixated on how I can fit into the place. And now I want to focus on how my family is carving their own space into this place, instead of it carving us into its ideal shape.
BG: You were a Kundiman fellow. What was that experience like?
NT: Woo! Kundiman shoutout! Kundiman is essentially the reason why I write almost every day, why I feel like my writing is important. I was very lucky to be exposed to Kundiman early in my writing journey. At that stage, I was desperate for someone to tell me I had talent, to give me permission to pursue this crazy passion. And then all of a sudden, I had all these talented, warm-hearted, wildly successful Asian-American writers tell me, You are important, your writing is necessary, and oh my goodness, my face was so red and warm with their love. Even now when I doubt myself, I think, But I have all these people who believe in me! Am I really going to let them down? And my answer is always no, and I sleep and wake up and keep writing.
Read it now: “Trespassing” by Nghiem Tran