Jack Straw Productions
[JSP Home] [Writers Forum Home] [2005 Forum] [Topical Index] [Discussion Board] [Contact Forum]

2005 Writers Forum
Nhien Nguyen ~ with curator John Mifsud

Nhien Nguyen was born in Vietnam and grew up in Portland, Oregon. She is currently editor-in-chief of the International Examiner, a news journal for the Northwest region’s Asian American communities. Prior to her editorship position, Nhien was a freelance writer for the Examiner and other publications such as A. Magazine and Colors Northwest. As former interim development director at the Wing Luke Asian Museum, Nhien has skills in fundraising and community development. Attending Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, she participated in the Asian American Renaissance programs, including mentoring high school students in creative writing. In 2003, she led high school students in Jack Straw Foundation’s Vietnamese writers program. Her short film "Hamburgers & Salsa" premiered at the Vietnamese International Film Festival, and she is now producing her first feature film. Nhien is currently a recipient of the City of Seattle CityArtists literary project award and received a 2002 Seattle Arts Commission Literary Award. She has also completed her first fiction novel based on her experiences as a Vietnamese American. Nhien Nguyen photo
photo credit:
dean wong
Click on the ears below to listen to excerpts from this conversation. (Real Audio)
Read and listen to writings by Nhien Nguyen
Jump to excerpts from this conversation:
Personal Background Influences Outcomes Creative Process
Future Work Writing Habits Cross-culture Current project
Impetus Inspiration Family/Relationships
JM


Nhien, welcome, it's nice to have you here. Maybe you'll tell our audience a little bit about yourself, your background, how you came to writing?
NN























My full time job right now is as Editor of the International Examiner newspaper, which is an Asian-American news journal in the Pacific Northwest, so that keeps me pretty busy. I came from Vietnam when I was only 6 months old. We left the day of the fall of Saigon, which was April 30th, and we landed in Camp Pendleton and moved on to Spokane, Washington. So we had our roots in Washington for a while. And then we moved on to Portland, Oregon after I was about four years old. Writing wise…I wrote a little bit for classroom assignments and, in high school I remember my sister, who never ever reads anything that I do homework-wise, she happened to read a story I did for an English class, and she's like "Wow, this is really good!" And she even described some of the imagery I had written, and I was really shocked. I just never thought it would have any impact on anybody, especially my family member. So then I moved on to college, where I still didn't do much creative writing, I did more journalism. And in college I took an English creative writing class, just for the easy "A," and lo and behold I found one of my biggest inspirations, which is my English writing teacher. His name is Alex Pate, he's an African-American author. So, he really inspired me to keep writing and he pulled me out of class to talk to me about it and I was really shocked. So from then I really have to say it has a lot to do with him and his encouragement of my writing.
JM




Like you, I came to North America from another country. I was born in Malta, and was about a year old when my family immigrated. And I know that for me up until now, that experience has informed quite a bit of my writing. Has that been true for you?
NN







Yes, definitely. I have to say that I really didn't start exploring my cultural roots until I started writing. Growing up in Portland I was in a predominately white school, didn't think much about being Vietnamese at all, other than people had a hard time with my name. But it really wasn't until I started writing that I discovered I had a lot of issues related to being Asian, related to being Vietnamese, being a Vietnamese woman. So that's when it really came out, was through my writing.
Cross-culture

Listen to excerpt



JM



And the work that you submitted for the Jack Straw Writers Program, and the work that you've continued to write while you've been with the program is all from one body of work, is that right? Tell us a little bit about that.
NN














What I've been working on for the past couple of years now is looking at the difference between being Americanized Vietnamese and being someone who is Vietnamese living in America. I guess that's the best way to put it. It's really that there is a shared understanding, I think, of being Vietnamese and being raised in a Vietnamese household, but something happens when you're surrounded by American friends and you don't speak the language very well, that creates this different type of space between you and, say, someone that's been able to really stick to their roots and they can speak Vietnamese very well, they have Vietnamese friends. That kind of difference is subtle but very, very different. So a lot of my work recently has been about what happens when those two types of people come together and try to form some kind of relationship together, some sort of understanding. So it's a lot about something that is shared, but not shared.
JM So I assume that you identify as bicultural. Are you also bilingual?
NN



I don't call myself bilingual, mostly because I'm very self-conscious about speaking Vietnamese. Although I can understand it pretty well when it's spoken to me, I very very seldom speak the language unless I'm really forced to.
JM

I am fascinated by the creative process, and I'm wondering, is there anything you can tell our audience about yours.
NN













My creative process is very fluctuating. Right now, because my day job is to be a journalist and to be a writer, I find it much more difficult to get into that creative space. So what I do to start off and get myself motivated is to read other people's work. That's generally the way that I can get focused into my own work-that tidbit of maybe two paragraphs of how one of my favorite writers started-and that is extremely helpful for me to getting into the mode and getting inspired. But I have to say I'm still trying to find ways to get more creative. It's a constant challenge, and I envy writers who write everyday. I get into more "bursts" of creativity, and then it's a long drought before I can start up again. I've tried those exercises where I'm trying to write every day-and I'll do it for a couple of weeks, but after that it's a long couple of months before I can start up again.
JM So who are some of your favorite writers?
NN













I like Sean Wong's work. And he is here at the University of Washington, teaching, which is really cool. I went to college in Minnesota and then came back to the Northwest, lived in Seattle and I found out that one of my favorite books is by an author living here in Seattle, and teaching. What I really like about his work, is [that] he's able to talk about cultural differences, cultural nuances, but in a very funny and entertaining, yet moving way. And for me, I'm all about access. I want my work to be read by the average person and not somebody who's forced to in some ethnic studies class. So I really value work that is able to be funny and witty, but at the same time extremely poignant and can teach people about what it's like to be a minority in this country, or what it's like to deal with people in other races.
JM So crossover is important to you.
NN Crossover, that's a good word.
JM So, which is Mr. Wong's book that is your favorite?
NN









American Knees. In fact, I hear it's going to be made into a movie, which I think is wonderful. But, it's funny because I just did a reading where I was on a panel with him and we were supposed to read works by Asian American writers, and of course I had to choose his work, even though I knew he was going to be on the panel. And the crowd was just laughing, just the first few paragraphs of his novel, American Knees. And he had said to me later, "Wow, I hadn't heard my work read in so long, it was really fun to hear somebody else read it, and to hear the audience reaction." It's a really funny, entertaining piece.
JM So humor informs his work, it sounds like.
NN Yes, definitely. He is a great storyteller, even in person.
JM And what informs your work?
NN

















Oh, that's a tough question. I think it has a lot to do with my family, I would say. I think a lot about my family, each as individual members, like my father, my mother, my brothers, my sisters. They all have such a very different experience and worldview than I do, and it just always fascinates me because we're from the same family, grew up in Portland, Oregon, and yet people have told me they can't believe that's my sister or my brother, because we're all so different. So actually, a lot of my characters are based on my family, although I probably won't tell them that. But I appreciate their nuances and how different they are from me, and I want to try to understand them. And that's part of the fun for me. Especially my mother, she's so crazy to me-I just want to know what it's like to be her, and why she acts the way she does. When I delve into, say, my father's psyche, I've been able to understand myself so much better, because I look at him as a role model, and then I look at myself, and the decisions I've made in my life are a lot based on the influences he has made on me.
JM




Are there particular circumstances with these episodic bursts of inspiration that you have where you try to carve out some time for creative writing, as compared to the writing that you do for work on a daily basis? Are there circumstances that make you feel comfortable or encourage you to write more?
NN













I make myself apply for these programs and these projects because, it's that extra push for me-because I work on deadlines to get things done, of course. But also, I struggle with the idea that I'm not a good writer, constantly. So I always make myself apply for these programs thinking that I'm not going to get in, they're going to laugh at my work, they're going to think I'm awful. And every now and then I do get picked for these things and, it's just like, "Wow! Maybe somebody does want me to create work and they're interested in reading it, and they want to see it continue." So I have to say that's the inspiration for me, the encouragement of other people and other organizations who are really my cheerleaders, and without them I think I would've quit a long time ago. I'm really the type of person who needs that kind of encouragement.
JM

Would you be so kind as to share some of your writing with our audience this afternoon?
NN

Sure, I'd love to. This is part of a body of work called "Transitions."
<reading>
JM

How do passion and inspiration connect with you in order for you to produce?
NN








I think again it has a lot to do with my family. When I was working on this Transition story it was actually based on some family members, so it's a combination of what's happening in their lives and in mine. So when there's a similar issue that myself and other members are working on, that perhaps we're not even really conscious of, when I see a connection between that, that just really lights the fire under my writing, and makes me want to explore what they're going through and how it relates to what I'm going through.
JM





So, when you get that sort of resonance, based on what you're experiencing and what you see of other people, it sounds like then you have a cast of characters from which to draw on. And what is the hope for the writing then, or what is the outcome that you would intend. What are you wanting your reader to take away from your work?
NN

















When I'm writing I try not to think too much about the reader. I know that sounds silly in a way, 'cause that is the point of writing, I think. But when I first started writing, I had this attitude that I had an answer to something about society that I wanted people to learn. So I'd write according to what kind of moral stance I wanted to get out there and have people understand. But I have since changed that, and I have decided that I don't have the answers. And what I try and do first in my writing is to not start off with an answer, and that hopefully my writing, during that process, I perhaps get closer to an answer. But I'm not going to kid myself that I finally have the answer after all of that. So, what I hope for readers is that they will go through that process with me, of exploration, and perhaps things that they thought they knew, after reading my work, maybe they can question now, and not so much have another conclusion, but something that makes them keep asking the same question that my characters ask themselves, and ask it perhaps in their own lives, in their own situations.
Outcomes

Listen to excerpt









JM






You've said that currently this body of work is inspired by this conversation between first generation and second generation Vietnamese Americans, and I'm wondering if you are aware now of a body of work that's up ahead. Are there glimmers of inspiration, of writing, that don't have to do with what you're writing today, that you know will sometime require your attention?
NN












I feel like I almost don't want to think about that, and have sort of an endpoint, or some sort of vision I see in the future, because I feel like I'm still exploring these issues, and I don't know actually where it's going to take me. What I do know is, where I'd like for my work to go-if it were to go in any direction-is to perhaps make culture more of a backdrop, and not such a direct, in your face, "Oh, this character's dealing with this racial comment." You know, much more subtle nuances, and how you can no longer separate what is American and what is non- American, where a character is a person, and after reading it you can perhaps see where their cultural background is, but it's not at the forefront of what the story is about. But it's still very much a part of who the character is.
Read and listen to writings by Nhien Nguyen
[JSP Home] [Writers Forum Home] [2005 Forum] [Topical Index] [Discussion Board] [Contact Forum]

Jack Straw Productions: The Audio Arts Center for the Pacific Northwest