The PEN Ten: An Interview with Truong Tran
1. How does your writing navigate truth? What is the relationship between truth and fiction?
I set out to write book of the other with the constraint of honesty. This sounds simple enough, but there are all sorts of trappings inside that constraint, especially if you are a person of color writing in the English language. There is an expectation that you will fulfill the work of being a truthsayer. Yet, there is also an expectation of that truth. It has to be the kind of truth that is desired and prescribed. It is the kind of truth that performs otherness. But if you write a book based on your truths, the truth, or even the facts for that matter, you reverse the gaze and hold that gaze to the ones who are seeing you as the other. If you write a book that says, “I am looking at you,” there is the chance your audience will look away, your reception will be one of silence, your presence erased. book of the other is that book.
It’s taken many years and several publishers to arrive at this moment. Truth is what I am trying to convey. I am preparing myself for the fiction that will likely be constructed as a response. Imagine telling your story to someone who just asked you to tell your story. Imagine being told by this same person that the story you told is not your story, that they have a version of your story that they consider to be the truth. I do not need to imagine this. It has happened and it will happen again. I am a brown body moving through white spaces. This is to be expected. Truth becomes a matter of perspective. I wrote a book about the facts.
“If you write a book based on your truths, the truth, or even the facts for that matter, you reverse the gaze and hold that gaze to the ones who are seeing you as the other. If you write a book that says, ‘I am looking at you,’ there is the chance your audience will look away, your reception will be one of silence, your presence erased. book of the other is that book.”
2. How does your identity shape your writing? Is there such a thing as “the writer’s identity?”
I am a gay man, an Asian man, a brown man. I am Vietnamese. I am an American. I am an artist and I am a writer. I am the sum of all parts. I move through life with this weight, burden, shame, pride, and privilege at all times. I am informed by these identities.
I came to this country as an immigrant. I inherited this country’s history as someone who now identifies as an American. The history of slavery in America is not just Black history. The history of gay struggle is not just gay history. The history of anti-Asian violence is not just Asian history. It is American history, and as such, I’ve inherited these histories. I have a responsibility to write about these histories as it informs the ways I move through the world. It is a shared responsibility. In this way, writing holds the consciousness of my complicated identity. I have to be present and conscious in my writing because if I am not, I am at risk of being written. I am at risk of being erased.
3. Why do you write?
I write because I have to write. I write out of necessity. I write to know that I still exist. I write because I am still breathing. I write because I teach. I cannot do one without the other.
Writing is a way of accessing my voice. If I don’t write, then I am silent. If I am silent, it is because I have been silenced. This has gone on for far too long. I have been silent. I have been silenced. These answers, like the book, are the breaking of silence.
4. What do you consider to be the biggest threat to free expression today? Have there been times when your right to free expression has been challenged?
There is a culture of fear that is so ingrained into my everyday existence. I am afraid of losing my job. I am afraid of this book. I am afraid that when this book finds its way into the world, it will say everything I wanted and needed to say and it will be met with silence and the silence will force me back into silence. I am afraid my truth, the truth, will be misconstrued. That is to say, every time I do a reading from this book, I am making a conscious decision of what not to read because I am still afraid of what it means to tell the truth. So to answer your question, the right to free expression is something I am always working toward in my writing, but I cannot claim that I’ve arrived at this consciousness in the book or life.
“I am a gay man, an Asian man, a brown man. I am Vietnamese. I am an American. . . . I have a responsibility to write about these histories as it informs the ways I move through the world. It is a shared responsibility. In this way, writing holds the consciousness of my complicated identity. I have to be present and conscious in my writing because if I am not, I am at risk of being written. I am at risk of being erased.”
Working and writing as a person of color in the English language, in this country, my voice is always being silenced. It happens when the white chair of my department politely directs me to refrain from expressing my anger, frustration, or resentment when talking about race because it violates some measurement of professional conduct. It happens when the white male colleague writes in an interview evaluation, “Truong is a nice guy but he is small in comparison.” It happens when silence is both imposed and chosen as a form of expression. It has taken me 15 years and four publishers to arrive at this printed book. My right to free expression has been challenged. I wrote this book based on the facts for concerns that someone will challenge the truth.
5. Have there been instances where you had to practice self-censorship in order to perform the “otherness” your collection engages?
Self-censoring is not a practice so much as it is a condition of existing. I would like to believe that I can say what needs to be said at any given moment, but the reality is there is always a voice in my head telling me to get to the next moment. Sometimes the voice is born of fear and anticipation of being judged by a panel of three white people. The white gaze is made official and decisive, always by a panel of three white people. Other times it is about the need for self-preservation.
Self-censorship implies a choice in the moments or a lifetime when it happens. This performance of otherness happens because I am conditioned. This is the act of self-preservation. It amounts to cutting oneself down because you get to choose the depth of the cut, the amount of blood you shed in performance. So that it’s clear, this answer to the question is not a performance.
6. What advice do you have for young poets?
Writing is hard work. Write what is hard. Do the work. Claim your voice. Don’t get caught in the performance of it all. If you are angry, write your anger. Break something with your words. Ask questions in your writing. Tell the truth. If that is not enough, state the facts. Imagine. Always write in search of the imagination. I say this as someone who just wrote a book seeped in the difficult real and still I say I am still trying to write the imagined poem.
“Writing is a way of accessing my voice. If I don’t write, then I am silent. If I am silent, it is because I have been silenced. This has gone on for far too long. I have been silent. I have been silenced. These answers, like the book, are the breaking of silence.”
7. Writing is an intimate process. book of the other now also belongs to readers. How do you prepare for that?
I don’t know how to prepare for this book. I cleaned my home obsessively. I gave away the many objects I collected over the years in my efforts to hold onto past histories. I threw out materials I hoarded in the hopes of stockpiling ideas for future artistic endeavors. I am sitting in a dark room except for the single bulb that casts enough light to answer these questions. I am trying to be present.
If the book now belongs to the reader, the reader should know that I’ve stated in the book that there is always room next to me should you choose to walk next to me. If the reader sees themselves inside the book, that the book is written because and about them, that too is a reality inside the book. It occurred to me while writing these responses, there is yet another perspective. Some are not standing next to me nor do they see themselves inside or implicated in the book. They are walking in the same direction as I am walking. They maintain their distance from across the street. They may never cross the street, yet they are seen from my perspective. This is yet another reality.
8. What was one of the most surprising things you learned in writing your book?
A lot of people have commented on the bravery or courage of this book. I know it is conveyed as a way of honoring or caring or supporting the book. With that said, I’ve learned that I am uncomfortable receiving those accolades. I am writing the truth about what has been happening to me. I am stating the facts in an effort to write myself back into existence. I shouldn’t have to be courageous or perform some act of bravery. Speaking the truth should be no different than breathing, laughing. It should be a part of our daily existence, and yet it is not. It is made to be this feat of human accomplishment, a rarity. As such, it perpetuates the culture of silence and fear that precedes their considerations of truth. I have been writing with this fear and living with this silence for far too long.
I had to ask myself some difficult questions while writing this book. What are you afraid of? At what point does silence become the lie you live with? This book is an answer to those questions. It is the breaking of silence.
9. This collection communicates the urgency of an ongoing reality and is written “in the first. person. second. person. present. tense.” Were there any difficulties in approaching an already complicated subject in this manner? Did you ever consider writing this in a different style?
The difficulties have resulted in so many iterations of this book. The book in its current form is a culmination of 15 years of writing, 15 years of living, 15 years of enduring. At one point, this book was punctuated by a cis-identified white male. He is a friend. I asked him to police the grammar of this book. It occurred to me that the act of policing is so present in our relationships to language and each other. I wanted to enact that police state in my work, to enact that lack of authority in my writing, to enact the conditions of existing as a person of color writing in the English language, in the United States.
The process leads me back to my relationship with grammar and language. Why have I been so incapable of claiming authority over this language? Because I am brown? Because I am an immigrant? Because I am always reminded of my place when I am told that my English is good, that I speak English with no trace of an accent? I used to say that I write in a borrowed language so that I won’t be held accountable. But I am always held accountable for stealing some white woman’s crummy five dollars. I didn’t take the money and still, my mother paid her in full.
English is my second language. I only write in the English language. Borrowed or not, I’m not giving it back. At some point in the process of writing and rewriting this book, I decided to do the work of punctuating for myself. I chose to mark the entirety of this book with the single action of asserting the period. It felt violent at times. I am using the period as a disruptor. I am using it as a drumbeat. I am using it as a blunt instrument to dig, to spoon, to punch my way out of this subject and this book.
“Working and writing as a person of color in the English language, in this country, my voice is always being silenced. . . . It has taken me 15 years and four publishers to arrive at this printed book. My right to free expression has been challenged. I wrote this book based on the facts for concerns that someone will challenge the truth.”
10. The narrator encourages readers to sit in the “discomfort” invoked by the text. How do you confront discomfort in your work?
I’ve sat with the discomfort of this subject for most of my life: the discomfort of being othered and accused of taking five dollars from some white woman’s purse, that becomes the discomfort of being rejected for a chance to compete for a fair and equitable livelihood, that becomes the discomfort of seeing someone who looks like my mother on the news—she was punched in the face for being an elderly Asian woman.
I’ve confronted this discomfort throughout my life, in my writing. I live with this discomfort. Once this happens, it never stops happening because I’ll always carry the memory of it happening. I move with it through the world. I’ve learned to share this burden with my community. I am putting it in the book. I am asking the reader to sit with me, to share in the discomfort and share in the knowing. And just when I least expect it to happen, I am hit with this discomfort yet again.
Today, I received a note from someone I consider to be a friend. They said that they were moved by what’s been written about the book, that they were there at the scene of the crime, that they were looking forward to reading, feeling the book. And just like that, the words of a friend could still amount to a gut check gut punch. Why? I want this book to be read, so that the reader might want to unread this book. I want my voice to be heard loud and clear. I want this story to be seen as the truth. And if there is still doubt, I want you to know I’ve presented the facts.
I want to compel the reader of this book. I want to confront. I want to convict. I want to sit with the discomfort of knowing that someone was present at the scene of the crime, and still it happened. I want to sit with the discomfort of knowing that this book is my life. It happened and perhaps it is happening even now. What I don’t want is this—that the book is read as accidental entertainment.
Truong Tran was born in Saigon, Vietnam. He is the author of six previous collections of poetry: The Book of Perceptions, Placing the Accents, Dust and Conscience, Within the Margin, Four Letter Words, and 100 words (co-authored with Damon Potter). He also authored the children’s book Going Home, Coming Home and an artist monograph I Meant to Say Please Pass the Sugar. His poems and books have been translated into Spanish, French, and Dutch. He is the recipient of The Poetry Center Book Award, the Fund For Poetry Grant, the California Arts Council Grant, and numerous San Francisco Arts Commission Grants. Tran is also a visual artist who believes that art—be it poetry, cooking, sculpting, and even gardening—are his ways of thinking through the conscious of the times we live in. Of the endeavor that is book of the other, Truong says, “This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I set out to write a book with the premise and constraint of honesty. It took a decade of struggle to write, to circle back, to say the thing that needed to be said and perhaps another lifetime to hold. This book is not the performance of anger. It is angry. This book is not performing otherness. I am the other or so I am told again and again.” Tran lives in San Francisco and currently teaches at Mills College in Oakland.