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The Arabic version is here. Below is the unedited, English version:
Firstly, how do like to introduce yourself. Are you a Vietnamese or an American writer?
-Since I write in both English and Vietnamese, I can rightly claim to be an American writer, and a Vietnamese one. Having published ten books in English, however, I’m primarily an American author. As a racial minority, I must be careful to not be marginalized. My latest book, Postcards from the End of America, is an insider’s account of a collapsing United States. Here, I speak as an American, for all Americans.
Your art encompasses many different mediums–at one point you did paintings, you’ve done poetry, fiction, photography, and not to mention your political essays and translation work. How did you get involved with so many different art forms? Which art form is your favorite to work in?
-I wish I could have one more life, so I could have another chance at painting. As a young man, I was consumed by poetry, and though I still believe in it, it is with a much cooler, and perhaps sadder, emotion. I have a new book of poems, A Mere Rica, a wordplay that means, To the Rich Mother. I’m finishing a novel, Trace Vapour. Except when I’m home writing, I’m always photographing. I just returned from eight days in Mexico City, observing and photographing. Street photography makes me more socially adventurous, an antidote to the isolation of writing. I work from an inner compulsion, and my favorite art form is whatever I’m currently engaged with.
You have translated many works (for you and for others). How does the process differ between translating someone else’s work and translating your own?
-I’ve published one anthology of new Vietnamese fiction, and one on poetry. I have also translated international authors into Vietnamese. My one collection of poems in Vietnamese includes works written directly in Vietnamese, as well as variations from my English poems. Translating other people, I’m very strict, conscientious and a willing, self-effacing slave. As a translator also, surely you’re aware of its many pitfalls. Unlike a writer, a translator can flaunt his incompetence in two languages!
Could you talk us about Vietnamese literature and its main issues?
-Vietnamese literature is quite diverse, but if one must generalize, one can say that there’s a deep awareness of history and the more tragic aspects of life. Being born into a small country that’s nearly always threatened by outside forces shapes the collective psychology. The national epic poem, Tale of Kieu, is about a prostitute. Vietnamese know full well that life is a series of often bitter compromises. In Hanoi twenty years ago, I often heard, “Biết rồi, khổ lắm, nói mãi!” It’s from a 1936 novel by Vu Trong Phung. Loosely translated, it means, “I know already, I suffer much, you talk too much!” The Vietnamese ability to laugh in just about any situation can baffle foreigners.
You worked in many jobs and moved to many countries. Could you tell us about the impact of all that on your literary experience?
-As an adult, I’ve lived in the US, Vietnam, Italy, England and Germany, and I’ve visited many more countries. Every society has evolved from an utterly unique set of beliefs and experiences. In the West, the idea that borders don’t really matter has infected many minds, especially those that are relatively untouched by experiences, books or travels, but this madness shall soon pass. Crossing many borders, I know that they are sacred. Much blood has been spilled over every inch.
Is there an influence of the Vietnam War on your writing experience?
-The Vietnam War has taught me that history must be contested, geography is fate, courage is often wasted, cowardice and perfidy are often rewarded, giving birth to a child may be the ultimate cruelty and mass violence is a spectator sport.
By reminding the Vietnam War. Are you now fighting another war against American capitalism?
-The United States has a frightful record of sowing chaos and destruction in countless places, and though it has routinely failed to win wars, its military contractors always make tons of money, so all is well, according to the American ruling elite. War is America’s main business.
Could you tell us about your photography experience that you wandered through the streets of America to portray the displaced and the angry people, what were you aiming for?
-Starting my project in 2009, I already knew the US was in irrevocable decline economically, socially and politically, and this is confirmed with each visit to a new neighborhood, town or city. Everywhere, Americans tell me they’re making less money and struggling more, and this shouldn’t surprise, since most of American manufacturing has been moved overseas, for the cheaper labor. In any American home, there’s hardly anything that’s still made in the USA. With my political writing and photography, I’m documenting this societal unraveling with images and stories from actual people. Talking to them, I learn of their worries, frustrations and dependence on alcohol or drugs to get through a day. Last year, 900 people died of drug overdoses in Philadelphia, my home city of 1.5 million. That’s an insane number.
You are a political writer and you have many political essays. Do not you think that politics can spoil literature?
-Absolutely not. I fully believe that writers should be public intellectuals, and it’s unfortunate that they’ve become increasingly marginalized in all societies. Walt Whitman, George Orwell, Czeslaw Milosz, Milan Kundera, Mahmoud Darwish and Michel Houellebecq, etc., are great primarily because they’re political writers. Now, it’s not a question of being “correct” politically with every issue, but a writer should grapple with the gravest crises afflicting his society. If he doesn’t, who will?
You are a rebel writer and often uncommitted with the protocols that your fellow writers are keen on, why?
-Most American writers are employed by universities, so they have to watch what they say. Even as a student three decades ago, I learnt that American universities were very conformist, and the situation has gotten much, much worse. Since I’m not a professor, I can speak my mind without fear of reprisals or losing my job. I publish all of my articles for free, and am dependent on monetary contributions from ordinary readers. I don’t write for my fellow writers but taxi drivers, housewives, bartenders and plumbers.
The US media is controlled by just a handful of corporations, so opinions are actually very tightly controlled, despite the existence of many television stations, magazines and newspapers. The better I become as a writer and thinker, the fewer mainstream venues are available to me, but my readership has actually increased, thanks to the alternative media online.
In one of your stories, you used to point out that books protect their reader from the destruction of wars. How does that happen?
-In this story, I depict an illiterate who carries many books around as status symbols and talismans. At the end, his entire village is destroyed, but this fool is saved, literally, by “at least ten thousand books.” Beyond the joke is my acknowledgment that words can dignify, if not quite redeem, even the most horrific experiences. Though mostly impotent to alter events or even our own puny fate, we can at least convey, if only fleetingly, our struggles and horrors.
Do you know a lot about Arabic literature? How did you find it?
-I’ve only read Mahmoud Darwish, Adonis, Ashur Etwebi, Fawziyya Abu Khalid, Abdullah Al-Baradouni and a few others. These poets, I discovered in American literary journals and anthologies. It’s inexcusable that I know so little about Arabic literature. I certainly wish to know the Arab world much better. I have yet to visit an Arab country, unfortunately.
Finally, what would you like to your Arabian readers?
-I’m very grateful that there is any interest in me at all, so thank you. Saudi Arabia is often in the news in the US but, I’m certain, much of the reporting must be overly simplistic if not warped. Some day, I hope to experience the country and meet its people.
To Flee Conjugation
Lugging my exploded home
And trampling on my own name,
I trek to a yearned deformation.
Imperial chaos hacks flesh,
Sends the unmeshed towards a
Capsized horizon. They dream
Of clean graphic design, houses
That don’t collapse onto cribs.
Invaded, the invaded invade
The invaders’ kitchens and,
Soon enough, bedrooms. Look,
They’re invading each other.
Shut up, smug face, you know
Nothing of ugliness, even that
Which you’ve long bankrolled.