Haunted In Exile: An Interview with Vi Khi Nao
More acutely damning than exile from the living, there is no exile greater than exile from someone you love. The estranged mind can turn against itself, alienating you into a world of delusion, fantasizing and projecting while you’re next to the ghost.
In Vi Khi Nao’s Fish in Exile, married couple Ethos and Catholic experience the greatest loss: their twin children are washed out to sea, and they must relearn to navigate the oceanic possibilities of what it means to live and desire as they grieve, barricaded in their own prisons. Through mythic tangents and arrest, Nao pulls us through dismemberment, dissociation, and devotion with colossal sentences. On the eve of its release, Vi and I talked in Providence, RI about some of what haunts Fish in Exile beneath the surface.
KATY MONGEAU: When I started Fish in Exile, I couldn’t help but think about some of your daily habits. Specifically, your digital cataloguing of food and receipts, changes in the weather. The language of Exile is strewn together beautifully, but with meticulous inventory of memories, placement, objects, comparisons, etc. Do you think that your cataloguing habits are reflected in your writing process?
VI KHI NAO: The digital part of me wants to create inventories of my existence, but I am not sure if it is reflected in my writing process.
In creating Ethos and Catholic, I had to be hypervigilant, hyperfocused. I knew their grief and my own grief needed containers from the Container Store, and I had to exercise the power of cataloguing in order to do so. Writing Exile was very difficult because I had been operating at a highly abstract level for so long. I had to force myself to identify with concrete behavioral memories, which took me out of the abstraction from time to time. I do catalogue receipts, and the meals I eat, manically and religiously. I must have acquired some of these neurotic behaviors from Ethos because before then, I wasn’t like this. In writing him, I have become like him.
Mythology is a type of “grief container” that you use, and you draw from different mythologies in a way that isn’t tired. I’ve always thought that the most compelling element of myths is the intersectional relationship between grief and desire. What are your thoughts on this in Exile?
Death in mythology empowers desire, gives it an engine of imagined persuasion that doesn’t turn the readers or doers of myths into psychos. It allows for a more compassionate space to exist without judging. Some Greek characters are shallow and schizophrenic, and the existence of Zeus, Hades, Demeter, and Persephone in Exile gives psychotic voices a home when other emotions and characters are forced into exile (emotions such as hope, forgiveness, grace, and opening), which happens to us humans when we are being forced to choose between two lovers: death or desire. I think when an episode of tragedy and a host of tragedies takes place, the mythologies of the Greek and Roman are the most humane and forgiving. Why shouldn’t I turn to these more appropriate source that will allow my characters to breathe inside their exilic space?
I thought a lot about psychosis and the schizophrenic while reading Exile. It’s like when Charleen, Ethos’s mother, says, “In that ancient classical world, it was believed that expulsion was a fate worse even than death.” When you’ve lost someone who is still alive or no longer living, dissociation steps in to divorce you from that self, your self, until you can no longer be that person anymore. I was reminded of a line from Kathy Acker’s Empire of the Senseless: “Love goes away when your mind goes away and then you’re someone else.” You were in your own type of exile while writing this book. Can you talk about that?
You have a brilliant mind, Katy. Yes, I was in a domestic abuse relationship when I was writing Exile and I felt I had no one to turn to. And, for the most part, I turned to no one. The abuse made me so exilic that I didn’t even know that I was alone in my abuse. Shame and loss embodied my experience of relationship and I took those feelings with me to create Ethos, Catholic, and Charleen. I exiled myself into them. They did not know my pain, but they experienced my pain. To know someone else also experienced this even if they were imaginary characters alleviated the agony. I don’t know if my mind went away as depicted by Acker, but something did. I created these characters to help me cope with my own reality, a reality that was both composing itself, but also disintegrating at the same time.
My abusive ex read the first chapter (and eventually the entire manuscript) and thought I wrote about her and we fought feverishly. Part of the abuse meant I had to keep the clarity of the relationship to myself. Even in my own voice, I had to conceal myself from myself. My voice from my voice. She threatened to kill me. I had to make some of the emotions cryptic. At first I thought I didn’t write about her. But perhaps inadvertently I did? Through the rape of Persephone? She thought I did. I wrote about her, but I thought I didn’t. In retrospect, I cryptically did. I wrote about the relationship, but the truth of it became fragmented/ bifurcated/ shifted around in their narration. I knew I had to keep something in secrecy, but at the same time, I had to voice my pain and the abuse. I thought a lot about the fascist government during that time. I thought this was how a citizen of a fascist country lived under such great fear and tyranny. I understood why Anna Akhmatova memorized her poems before throwing them into the fire when the communists came to search her home. My rote inferno was born from creating absurd characters and stealing what couldn’t be stolen from the Greek. I told my friend at that time that my family escaped Vietnam to avoid the Viet Cong, and how I ended up being held prisoner by a communist in a love construct.
I love you, Vi. I see a somewhat parallel but tangential realm of tyranny and imprisonment in Ethos’s construction of the aquarium–by bringing the elusive element of his demise into his home in an attempt to take control over what he and Catholic have no control over. This and the perpetually dying fish are a self-flagellation, allowing them both to float in their own grief. What do you make of this kind of torture-in-suspension? This cyclical nightmare?
The manifestation of these psychotic episodes is necessary for the couple’s grieving process. They are compelled to go through the laborious motion of creating death, altering the wardrobes of death, of submerging their hands, but not themselves into death and these periodic dances turn their subconsciousness inside out like a shirt and give their memory a placeholder for fading while at the same time a performance floor to enact their chthonic obsession. Almost a micro-Greek theatrical tragedy on their own.
We touched on paranoia a little earlier. Paranoia was woven in ever so slightly, and I think it served the reader to follow along with Catholic and Ethos’ distrust in reality, allowing for speculative elements to come alive easier. Can you talk about the speculative elements of the narrative?
You are astute to observe that paranoia was woven in lightly. I knew paranoia dominated the emotional landscape of grief, and that I had to implement it somewhere.
Paranoia showed up in the grammatical construction of Catholic and Ethos. In my other work (The Vanishing Point of Desire and Oh, God, Your Babies Are So Delicious) the language there is very lyrical and fluid. But in Exile, the syntactic energy had to be contained in mechanism. Objects become acutely there. Ethos saw this. He observed this. It became the carburetor Ethos fixed, the aquarium and coffin he built. Ethos couldn’t trust his own emotions and often turned to Catholic to know the distance when he tossed his emotional core and echo across. When his echo reaches Catholic, it loses its absorption. She doesn’t give him permission to allow his echo into hers, and he is forced to find himself in himself.
I suppose when Ethos built the aquarium and Catholic designed the fish’s garments, something in them has broke down. The fabric of their reality and the watery components of their dark emotions come together to create another phantom-like fabric of reality. If this is their coping mechanism, their behaviors don’t seem that absurd, but rather intuitive and conducive to their grieving process. I think their distrust in reality never ceases to exist. What happens to their children forces them to gaze at reality through glass: foggy, blurry, a little bit disoriented. Even in their mild paranoia, they know something had to give. I sense that their brokenness is quite grounded. There is structure to their wildness. This does not only happen in literature, but in real experiences too. I have seen people who are torn apart by the tornado of calamity and find their center in the destruction. Perhaps paranoia is that coat of blurry light that polishes the surface of reality. Nothing more. It’s not something to be afraid of, but to embrace?
In a recent conversation about vocal techniques, a friend said, “There would not be music if it weren’t for the distance.” That really resonated with me in terms of Ethos–that there must be a lapse in continuity in himself, a gap in communication, that Catholic is in all forms impenetrable, and this allows for his grief to be beautiful and unrelenting. They suffer alone though together, as we all must suffer alone. The space between them turns into a silent myth. Can you speak about the function of silence in your work?
Carole Maso used to point to the large blank space on a manuscript as a way of writing, too. This question made me think of her didactic approach towards teaching her students about content and form. The manuscript is designed with lots of section breaks and whitespace. I am drawn to large white space and it is important to the novel. It acts both as the passing of time, a silent passage of time, as well as a way for the manuscript to breathe and to mirror the emotional, geographical, and atmospheric landscape of the novel. Some sections have only one sentence, and it’s generally placed at two-thirds of the page. That line mimics the line formed by the water level of the sea, so that the sentence/paragraph visually represents the white span of the sky, and the text below that sky as the sea: a sea of words. I think this is how silence operates in my work: it becomes the mouth of the sea. The sea can be Ethos and Catholic’s silent myth or music created by distance.
In addition to the narrative pregnancy of white space, Carole Maso also describes silence as a space filled with prayers. The communication between Ethos and Catholic is almost a failed telekinesis–both using magical thinking to will the understanding of the other. What are your thoughts about the religious fervor of nonverbal communication?
I think it’s the most powerful tool of communication: communication through the glance, through the glands, through the sonic absence of the others because it forces one to use our perceptual insights to their highest degree. It requires one to experience veracity through micro-intuition instead through language, because language can say one thing and mean another. When Catholic and Ethos converse with one another on this divine level, they are connected deeply at their spiritual core. Even when their verbal languages miscommunicate or fail to give them the superficial, immediate satisfaction desired in a particular time frame, their intimacy is evoked and strengthened in the long run by the connective, ecclesiastical tissues of their intimacy, whether that intimacy is designed, revealed, or matured through awkwardness, love, discomfort, despair, anger, betrayal, or unease. So, perhaps Carole Maso is right to assert that, though I want to alter her insight to this: intimacy is a space filled with prayers too.
I think taking verbal language with a grain of salt is important–intuition goes miles beyond in terms of perception with any sort of intimacy. Do you think that literature transcends that intimacy? Or do you think written language fails to achieve that seventh sense?
It becomes a super, powerful tool of communication when language and nonverbal communication emerge as one. Given the opportunity, couples can use them to strengthen the bond of intimacy. I don’t know if written language fails, but it can limit the range and spectrum of intimacy. Literature without human contact like a fish on a moped? Could it transcend? It could go beyond what it is capable of, but transcendence is work already completed by the imagination. But perhaps language doesn’t have to play a role of the witness. Writers can use it to assist transcendence.