Interview with Vi Khi Nao on her book Swans in Half-Mourning
Vi Khi Nao’s stories have been published by Ploughshares, Glimmer Train, and Noon. She recently finished her MFA in literary arts at Brown University. I recently sat down with her to have a conversation about her new book Swans in Half-Mourning, which is out on Per Second Press. The press is also sponsoring a contest with a $300prize for best review of Swans in Half-Mourning. Information on how to enter that contest is here.
Monkfish Jowls: How did you write Swans in Half-Mourning?
Vi Khi Nao: I wrote most of Swans in Half-Mourning when I was in Providence, using two hands and a new set of Asian almond-shaped eyes. I wrote the first few bad drafts on a manual typewriter (over a hundred years old) and maybe one crawfishmosquitosmelly draft while I was in Baton Rouge staring at its unruly airport. Each time I typed, it coughed up a few semantic spider webs and India Point dusk. Sometime I wrote in the morning. It was a piece workshopped for Brian Evenson’s class. He said we could submit anything.
Originally, the narrative was to thrive on a non-homosexual plane, but during the long summer of 2012, while I was eating fancy Nordic and North American cookbooks, I felt extra-homosexual and decided that literary birds and women need to dip their tongues in languishing Sapphic bathiterature and alabaster milk made for only writers.
The earlier section, probably the sexiest, in particular, I wrote while I was on a train from Paris to Arles, France. I wrote it for Thalia Field. She has written Bird Lovers, Backyard, her recent published book then, and that summer I had fallen in love with her love for birds and her sense of humor related to the eradication of ants on the internet and, of the subject, Buddhism. Sometimes after I wrote Swans in Half-Mourning, the whole world seems to be raining eyes. Mourning eyes that would come after me and then eyes that would come after reader’s reproductive organ’s hearts. Sometimes I imagine them opening up like whetted oyster knives cracking up wide-awake oyster shells.
MFJ: The real-world fashion designer Alexander McQueen appears in this book. What makes him a fairytale character?
VKN: There are many ornithological references to McQueen’s dresses. Also, there is a Queen inside of his last name. Often a Queen or two exist in fairytales. This gives away everything: Alexander McQueen committed suicide, which is a fancy way of saying: come to the underworld for a chthonic fashion runway. My flesh. My ash. A dress. Black light bulbs the size of Lucifer.
"At the bar I am served a beer and a parrot. You may have a parrot for your shoulder as you drink. The parrots, when served, lie on their sides on the bar, perhaps talking to you, until you pick them up. They are stored on a shelf under the bar like silverware…" —Padgett Powell, "South Carolina”
I'm Judging a Short Writing Contest with a $300 Prize.
To celebrate the release of Vi Khi Nao’s novella Swans in Half-Mourning, Per Second Press is offering a $300 prize to those who purchase and write a review of the ebook which is available for $3.00. This is a great book, worth way more than $3.00, (In fact print copies sell for $300,000.) There is nothing to lose, and much to gain.
Here are the details via Per Second Press:
Rules and Regulations:
Contest will open on 11.23.13. (But you can buy the book today.) All eligible entries must be posted by 11:59 p.m. EST on 12.15.13
Who Is Qualified To Enter?
Lipstick lesbians, Mohawk lesbians, Monolithic Lesbians, Academic Lesbians, Butch Lesbians, Tom-Yum Soup Lesbians, Sleepless Lesbians, U-haul Lesbians, Men, Coffee drinkers, Tea Sippers, Instagramic Lesbians, Soft-donut Lesbians, Farmers-That-Look-Like Lesbians, Oven mitts, Scandinavian utensils, Men Who Are Into Utility Bills, children over the age of 18, andeveryone else.
What You Need To Do To Be Eligible To Enter:
1. Pay the $3 entry fee by ordering the ebook version online: Swans in Half-Mourning (ebook will work with Apple’s iBooks (iPhone/iPad/Mac), Nook e-readers, Windows computers, and other readers.) 2. Read Swans In Half-Mourning (only 41pgs) 3. Write a review. The word count for eligible reviews for Swans In Half-Mourning must be over 196.3 words. 4. Post the review on the product page for Swans in Half-Mourning. 5. Your First and Last Name must be on the entry 6. Contest begins on 11.23.13. All eligible entries must be posted by 11:59 p.m. EST on 12.15.13 7. Email us your name and entry at: persecondpress at gmail dot com by 11:59 p.m. EST on 12.15.13 (how will we pay you if you win?) 8. Breathe
Who Is Not Eligible?
If you have read and written a review for Swans In Half-Mourning prior to 11.23.13. (I know who you are. You are welcome to post your review, but you will not be eligible for the competition.) If you are judging this contest.
What is the Prize?
Who Will Win?
The best review on Swans In Half-Mourning will win. The reviews will be judged based on the following criteria: Creativity, Depiction of Narration (what you think happens in Swans In Half-Mourning), Helpfulness
The winner will be decided by 12.31.2013 Please share this contest with others!
"Finally have a day off. I’m in Berkeley. Going to try to write 700 words which might take forever. I saw Rebecca Solnit last night, but I really just wanted to read Virginia Woolf’s Orlando which I took off the store’s shelf. Guh—it took me long enough to get around to her, and of course when I did get there, I find she’s perfect in every way. So much fun. Like playing games with your smartest friend."
Speaking of Amy, check out part of her contribution to Unstuck Journal’s third issue: The Witch Almanac. Unstuck publishes literature with elements of the fantastic, the futuristic, the surreal, and the strange. They’re currently running a Kickstarter to get their third issue off the ground AND holding a contest judged by Amelia Gray. Entry for their contest is free, but you must follow Unstuck on Twitter. Details at the bottom of this page. Good deal.
Sylvia screams and screams. She hit a light pole with her car, and now… It’s five years later and Sylvia has brain damage. Who knows whether she would have preferred to have been taken to the great sky. She screams for her mom, who lives to the east. She screams, “Hurry. Hurrrrrry,” at the nurses. Almost always she screams, thirty times an hour.
For a while, I hear, she had a roommate at the home. Sylvia made the woman cuddle her at night.
This is all true. It’s hard to imagine waking up for the first time after the metamorphosis that took place in that car that night.
I’m looking at the town where I grew up on a map. There are so few roads running to it. So few ever clamored to be there. And yet, that’s where I happened.
Towns and cities are strange. How does one pick one? Familial relations? The price of wine? Of petrol? How do people know where they “belong”? How do they know the top five cities they’d most like to live?
Like, which ant mound would you like to belong to? Well, perhaps a small one next to a tree.
But really it’s persons I love, not rivers, or towns, or football teams. And how do I know where the heart that I want to beat next to mine will wind up?
There’s so much to write to you about. I was just walking along the ocean thinking about you because the song about New Mexico we used to listen to got caught in my head.
I saw a sea lion swimming a few minutes ago. And my shoes got soaked when I was caught off guard by the waters skirting across the sand.
My socks and shoes are now sitting beside me, drying on a rock, under the lighthouse as I write to you.
Who were we then? You from New Mexico. Me from Illinois. Two kids in Iowa. We’ve done well at disloyalty, that human trait I’m all too familiar with. Neither of us writes or calls. If you had heart problems, I wouldn’t even know about it.
I suspect you’re doing all right, however. I’m well. I have a baby brother you wouldn’t have heard about. I eat my share of oats. I might quit eating animals again—it’s on my mind. I don’t believe in the things we used to believe in, although you might be surprised to hear that I go to mass sometimes. I like the part that goes, “Do this in memory of me.”
2. I read a book in an unusual manner last week. Three days in a row I took the BART train to Berkeley, where I sat in the library and read Kensaburo Oe’s A Personal Matter. The journey took fifty minutes each way. This is the most effort I have put into reading a novel. I would probably do it again, but not again for Oe.
3. I’ve been thinking about painting.
4. Farro is a grain like barley. Some people would confuse it with barley and others consider the two interchangeable. The first time I had farro was when I made it for my mother. That was in a pan with tomatoes and onions. I have made farro for myself since then, but since I am not cooking for anyone, I merely cook the farro and toss with baby tomatoes. Close enough.
5. Today I called Kevin my “patron saint.” It’s true. Are you the patron saint of anybody?
"I sent grandma and grandpa an anniversary card, but I realized when I got home that I had bought a card that one is supposed to send to one’s spouse/significant other. It’s subtle, though. It says, "You have my heart / Happy Anniversary." I drew a scenic vista over the first line so maybe they won’t notice. Or they will chuckle. Or they will disown me as a grandchild."
My friend Vi is reading tonight at Prairie Lights as part of the Iowa Review’s fall reading. She has a piece in the upcoming issue. As I’m in California and cannot attend, please go in my place. It starts at 7:00. The details are here.
Ken Baumann’s Sator Press has a new web page. Go there to find all three of their ebooks available as “pay what you want” downloads. That includes $0. Check out The Angel in the Dream of Our Hangover, Mark Leidner’s short book of aphorisms, if you want a place to start: “one does not begin a poem, one abandons one’s life.”
Annie said to read Go Down, Moses by William Faulkner and so I did. I’m happy I listened to her because:
"You can’t be alive forever, and you always wear out your life long before you have exhausted the possibilities of living. And all that must be somewhere; all that could not have been invented and created just to be thrown away. And the earth is shallow; there is not a great deal of it before you come to rock. And the earth don’t want to just keep things, hoard them; it wants to use them again. Look at the seed, the acorns, at what happens even to carrion when you try to bury it: it refuses too, seethes and struggles too until it reaches light and air again, hunting the sun still." —WF, GDM
Some places must grow better writers than others, just as oysters will taste better depending on what coast they grow on, which water they filter for their food, which silt they snuggle into at night. Let’s be connoisseurs, listening and looking for the earth and the air of the midwestern storytellers, the New York writers, the prim English novelists, the California beats, the Chinese poets, the Japanese surrealists, and all of the rest. Their hills, their streets, and the impressions of their feet on their river beds lying transformed in their words.
You change your time zone. You change your elevation. You change your scene, your name, your bed. You get new shoes and an anteater who likes the rain. You find new music and old music you’ve never heard. Bartok and Harold Arlen. You drink new drinks. Things with carbonation in unexpected places. Like vodka. You have new skin, you couldn’t have helped that anyway, but you wear your hair in a way that you’ve never worn it before: short in the back and long in the front. The bangs bow down over your eyes.
You buy pink salt and pink pepper. You eat avocados, although you hated them before. You look at new equipment to buy: for fitness, for brewing, for brining, for mapmaking, bookbinding, and even for drafting. “I’ll draw houses and build them,” you think. You have never drawn anything besides a bird one time.
You search and search and search. You and a million more of you and a million more of not you. Never meeting, always striving upwards. A soap bubble against a blue August sky.
Cities are weird. Hostile to human needs. The businesses have signs that say: Restrooms for customers only. There’s even a building with a sign that says, “Do not let your dog urinate / on this building.” Not even the animals are safe to pee when they need.
Then you’ll go down to Haight Ashbury because you’ve heard of it for years and you’ll find a Ben and Jerry’s. Then you’ll go to City Lights where they proclaim Ginsburg and Kerouac, but they have security sensors at the door. Beep beep beep. Times are strange. Ain’t nobody free any more.
I almost stole a salt shaker from a restaurant on Haight Street. Thought that’d be cool. But I bought salt instead at Whole Foods. Not sure what that means. There are blisters all over my feet since all of San Francisco is uphill. Even when you backtrack, it’s uphill both ways.
I am in Oakland in my friend Kevin’s apartment. I have run out of road. I am here with Woodrow, the ball python, and a bed roll. I listened to Patti Smith’s Just Kids. If you want to be an artist or you want to be a human, you should read it. Driving across Wyoming while listening to an audiobook is the best way to read. It is also a very impractical way to read.
If I had anything to think about in a serious manner, I would consider also doing that while driving across Wyoming.
I am worried about my car getting broken into, but Sam Shepard said, “If you miss a beat, create another.” And that’s how we have to go—constantly improvising, and building upon what happens. Watching the wake of the past fade behind us into river, as we press onward. Taking risks when we have the strength to do so.
I saw salt flats today and a man and a woman selling jewelry they made laid out on a blanket at a rest area. They had a small child. That was in Nevada, in the middle of nothing. Right now that feels so far in the past and not something I saw this morning. What is a day to man with mountains and all the land untouched by humans around? You can get lost in those eons.
If you take an airplane, you miss everything. The mountain flora. The people in Nebraska who sound like frogs when they talk. The rest area in Utah that’s covered in salt (“Please wash salt off your shoes before entering the restroom,” said the sign on the door.)
The streets in Salt Lake City have names that are numbered systematically, which would thrill the hearts of metric-system and Esperanto nerds.
Learn before you head out where all four of your car’s spark plugs are so when you’re in Cheyenne, in the noon-day sun, trying to change them, you can change all of them instead of half of them.
iPhones and Google and free WiFi at McDonald’s are amazing because they will help you find the other two spark plugs after your car goes into panic mode while driving with old and new spark plugs.
The scene upon entering Nevada from Utah is exactly as you might imagine it.
Notes from the road: Day 1: A comic scene will commence when, because of your burnt out tail lights, you get pulled over by a Nebraska police officer. At the same time your pet snake will choose that moment to attempt to emerge from the pillow case into which he has been tied all day. This will resemble the chest bursting scene in Alien or the tent pitching that occurs in young males tucked under blankets. Do not let your eyes linger too long with the officer’s when you tell him, “It’s my snake.”
If you are on a budget cell phone carrier, you will have no coverage through most of Nebraska.
Bob Dylan’s Chronicles is one crazy book. It sure is.
Driving might be a sure-fire cure for an Internet addiction. (Especially driving through Nebraska.) Now, if you could only keep rolling through those plains for the rest of your life.