The nonfiction editors, Rappahannock Review: You used lines of Li-Young Lee’s “Persimmons” in your piece. How did you decide to let the ideas from this piece drive your own?
Kelly Morse: What a great question. I love Li-Young Lee’s work because language is never taken for granted in it; he instead explores its power and limitations throughout his oeuvre. Persimmons became symbolic of my otherness in Vietnam, became heavy with meaning in a way other fruit didn’t, in part because of my history with Li-Young Lee’s poem. It’s one of the few contemporary poems I was exposed to while in high school, along with his poem “Eating Alone”. Lee’s references to his family’s Chinese origins intrigued me, as they gave me a whole new world to imagine outside my own, while the poems themselves still felt approachable because of his descriptions of gardens and orchards, my childhood terrain. His book Rose was the first poetry book I ever bought. So it was with great disorientation that I found out at 29 that I didn’t actually know what a persimmon looked like, which called into question how well I knew anything I loved. This proved true for Vietnam in general, which drew me back to the poem. The confusion involved in learning a new language, another culture interpreting your own wrongly, a fragmenting of the self – it’s all there in Lee’s poem, and I felt all of it in Vietnam.
Although the impetus of our arrivals into foreign cultures were very different – I was a voluntary expat, while Lee’s family was forced to flee China – I thought it would be interesting to use his poem as a kind of reverse telescope view of my own experience. His painful introduction to English happened while he was a child, while I found myself a grown adult mixing up the words chồng, “husband” and trứng, “egg” (the ‘tr’ is pronounced like a hard ‘ch’ in English; essentially ‘chứng’) to the hilarity of others and the embarrassment of myself at the neighborhood market. I unconsciously used Lee’s poem as a kind of tool to understanding, but I ended up using it wrong – I didn’t know which end to look through. I also admire Lee’s generosity toward his work, the measured, deep way he engages with subjects he feels divided about, such as his father, and wanted that to inform my own work.
RR: You write both poetry and prose. This piece is partially a response to a poem, and in it you use very poetic language. How does your work in one genre influence the other?
KM: My time in Vietnam forced my poet self to become a prose writer. I found that I couldn’t do justice to the nuances of the gaps between the two cultures if I didn’t give myself the expanded latitude of prose. Which might seem funny to some, as my prose pieces are still flash – it’s not like I’m writing twenty page essays. However, lyrical creative nonfiction and poetry have at their core a shared vision, especially flash nonfiction. Both use a compressed, vivid language, and both often focus on one moment, or object, as a means of conveying a point about the larger world. I come to prose as a poet, so I’m very interested in creating rhythms within sentences, and looking at ways to tighten images. When I’m revising, I’ll break the sentences into lines, like I would a poem, so that I can look at their internal structure more closely.
I also think that perhaps, as a poet, my mode of creation is different than others who work in prose. My best friend is an essayist, and she generally starts with the ending of a piece, and then goes backward to create the essay. For me, when I sit down to write it is because I have an inchoate question or emotion, and I’m trying to see if an answer or clarification might show up in the act of writing. Since anything could be the answer, there will often be language that I don’t understand at first that shows up in a piece, chunks of image, but since I don’t have a particular destination I let them in without judgement. Oftentimes, those initially puzzling images turn out to be the ending, turn out to be the key that unlocks the entire piece for me. I’m a big fan of this Frost quote: “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” I notice that many poets come from this place of questioning, this willingness to be surprised, and I think it shows in my prose writing.
RR: Your appreciation of Vietnamese culture is very clear in this piece, even without any knowledge of your wider work as a writer and translator. When did you first become interested in the culture?
KM: My BA is in Spanish literature, and I trained and worked teaching English as a foreign language for many years, so I’ve always been interested in other cultures. However, my path to Vietnam was a bit haphazard. After 2008 I wanted to teach abroad again as a means to escape the despair of working in increasingly underfunded public schools. I hadn’t been to Asia, and a friend I trusted said that Vietnam was an interesting place. In some ways, my past experience served as a giant banana peel for my entrance into SE Asia. I had lived abroad before, but only in Western countries, so I overestimated my abilities to adapt to an Eastern culture. I also had a long interaction with Spanish before I lived in Spain and worked in Ecuador, learned over many years through the structured discipline of school. I didn’t know what it was like to learn a new language while an adult working 45 hours a week. I came to Vietnam knowing only the alphabet, and was completely unprepared for my time there.
My response to something I don’t understand, but in which I am enmeshed, is to learn as much as possible about it. This meant reading Vietnamese literature, reading texts on cultural anthropology, reading poetry, natural history books, reading about Confucianism. I read and read and read. Also, the language taught me so much about the culture. I feel a responsibility to accurately portray contemporary Vietnam in the face of so much misunderstanding from the West. The US in general has a myopic view of Vietnam due to the Vietnam-American War. It is stuck in the 70s in its perceptions of Vietnam, with a few random updates here and there via foodie culture. With my writing I push against this one-sided, outdated vision of the country, while at the same time trying not to exoticize it. This is not to say that I admire all aspects of Vietnamese culture. I don’t – just like any other culture, it has serious blind spots. But at the very least, it should be seen beyond the Western stereotype.
RR: The whole piece seems very concerned with language and the ways it can influence us. What are some ways you see this at work, either in yourself or in others?
KM: Connotation is so crucial for how we understand the world. It is the difference between “alien” and “undocumented.” It influences emotions, perceptions. There’s been studies that show speakers of gendered languages describe the same object differently, depending on if the object is considered masculine or feminine in their language. In Vietnam, I found myself often faced with situations where I didn’t know how to explain the gulfs between my understanding of the world and that of most Vietnamese. Understandably, this unnerved me. I often sensed that I was standing at the edge of a canyon, but because I didn’t have the language to describe it I was stuck helplessly at the lip, looking across the distance to a place where I might better be able to understand or explain my point of view. Even when I went hunting through cultural anthropology texts for vocabulary to explain these cultural differences, without context it doesn’t make sense to the average American, nor the average Vietnamese person, for that matter.
As an English-language speaker from a society that prizes the individual, the relationship-centered nature of Vietnamese language and culture required a completely new way of understanding how one interacted through language. For example, there are about 40 pronouns in Vietnamese. Not just ‘he,’ ‘she,’ ‘you,’ ‘we,’ but ‘you who are a woman a bit older than me but of lower or equal stature to me’ versus ‘you who are a woman a bit older than me and of higher stature,’ and so on. Knowing how to address someone became a source of anxiety – should the woman we bought vegetables from be addressed as “auntie” or “older sister”? Getting the relationship right, however, brought a connection into every conversation that you don’t experience in English. The hierarchy of relationships is unavoidable in Vietnamese – you literally can’t speak to a person without invoking a nuanced sense of relationship. Being in a language and cultural system so far outside of my own experience caused me to question how much I could rely on language to bridge the gap. This is not to say that Vietnamese people are inscrutable or any of that claptrap. Rather, there are fissures of understanding everywhere, which are often hidden by a common language, a common experience or understanding of the world. When they are exposed, it is often stressful or alarming.
RR: You mention that there are concepts in Vietnamese that have no direct English equivalent, but that the feelings they represent are still just as present in English speakers. Are there any concepts or feelings you wish English had words for, or do you feel that this would be unnecessary?
KM: I guess I’m less interested in English gaining new words or phrases as I am in learning new languages as a means to see the world outside of the confines of the English-speaking mind. Riffing on Einstein’s “problems cannot be solved with the same mindset that created them”, these moments of preciseness in another language were brought about by a whole different cultural apparatus that influences how people see the world. By learning how other languages describe an experience, my own understanding of it is enlarged. I can see what is valued in each culture, and what is not, by the richness of description of some subjects and the linguistic silences surrounding others. For example, Chinese and Vietnamese cultures have a much richer vocabulary around food than does English. There are more textures, more innuendoes and proverbs. In Vietnam, you greet someone by saying, “Have you eaten [rice] yet?” For its part, English maintains an obsession with parsing time, something it shares with other romance languages. We even speak of what we would have done “if we had had the time”, placing ourselves in hypothetical time dimensions. This used to drive my Vietnamese students crazy. I do believe that having precise words to understand a concept is both gratifying and healing; as therapists say, naming the problem is half the battle. So naming has great power, and I don’t want to understate it. However, I think being curious about other languages and cultures brings more rewards than funneling everything into English. We already have too much of that happening globally.
“Quả Hồng Vàng” appears in Rappahannock Review Issue 3.3
Kelly Morse is the author of the chapbook Heavy Light (Two of Cups Press, 2016); her creative work appears in Gulf Coast, Mid-American Review, The Cincinnati Review, Brevity, and elsewhere. Kelly’s translations of censored Vietnamese poet Lý Đợi have been published in Asymptote, and received Lunch Ticket’s Gabo Prize for Translation and Multi-Lingual Texts. She holds an MFA from Boston University, is a Robert Pinsky Global Fellow, and has been awarded residencies at the Vermont Studio Center, and the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts.