patti smith + viet thanh nguyen and vu tran!


2016 april 19:  patti smith at the graduate center.

patti smith was in conversation with kevin baker, and she was at the graduate center as part of a festival commemorating the 70th anniversary of camus' only visit to the states.  it's always such a pleasure to hear patti smith, even more so when she's talking about the writers and books she loves.

again, did a pretty crappy job recording questions.  ^^

[before the program started, patti smith said that she had a horrible case of the allergies, so, "if i start coughing, don't worry -- it's not catching."]

kevin baker:  how did you get introduced to camus' work?

patti smith:  well, the truth is i loved french literature, and, if you were french, i was going to read you -- it was that simple.  i don't know; i just really liked the titles of the books.  the original title of the stranger was the outsider, and i was arrested by it.

KB:  he's a great observer.  do you feel he influenced you?

PS:  oh, absolutely.  and it's truthfully entirely literary -- i'm not a political writer ... but his writing style, it's just -- i just understood it.

PS:  i know it might seed conceited, but, as a young person, i aspired to walk in his tracks if i could.

KB:  it struck me that he writes a lot about metamorphosis.  and that's also a thing of yours, it seems to me.

PS:  i guess so, but i never thought about it.

PS:  the idea of metamorphosis has always been comforting to me because it gives us this sort of idea that we have another chance.  metamorphosis or resurrection, whatever you want to call it -- another chance.

PS:  the idea of death seemed so terrifying to me, and a happy death helped me find some kind of reconciliation.

KB:  was there a particular reason?

PS:  i was so ill as a kid, and i heard countless times some country doctor telling my mother, "i don't think she's going to make it."

PS:  i didn't want to die because there were so many books to read.  there were a million books i hadn't read, so i had a lot to do.

PS:  [about a happy death]  it's like all the hubris of youth that suddenly in the end very quickly evolved into a different place.

KB:  people say that your work sounds kind of like a french novel-in-translation.

PS:  i'm not like a big proust reader -- i mean, i plow through proust, but those long, long sentences ...

PS:  i don't think writing is ever easy.  writing is torture.  [...]  there are moments you think you're a genus, but that's disproved the next day.  writing is labor.

PS:  when i was living in the twentieth century, i mourned that i wasn't living in the nineteenth century.  now the twentieth century seems so innocent.

PS:  when you're writing, you create an atmosphere that the reader can enter like gumby.

PS:  being profound isn't really my biggest ability [KB:  au contraire!], but, when i'm performing, risk is always part of it.  part of the battle is that you have to communicate with the people.  you have to rein in.

2016 april 21:  viet thanh nguyen and vu tran at the brooklyn public library as part of the international writers series.

this was an incredible event with two smart, well-spoken, thoughtful writers.  my little asian-american writer heart was bursting as i walked home afterwards.

i gave up on trying to record any of the questions.

vu tran:  i guess i've always had these conversations with my vietnamese friends who are also writers.  when i said that to the new york times*, i felt kind of guilty because i hadn't engaged with it on a deeper level.  i had guilt on my part because viet has always been doing that -- he's been doing that in his criticism work.

*  i'm trying to find this interview.

viet than nguyen:  (started this vietnamese arts organization that grew into this bigger representative of vietnamese arts and cultures)

VTN:  to me, that's really crucial because obviously the work of writing is something to do on your own but so many people need a community for sustenance.

VT:  what's also really important about it, though -- at lease, for me -- i grew up in oklahoma, and i didn't have any vietnamese friends -- i didn't have any asian friends, let alone vietnamese friends -- and i feel like you end up sitting not in a vacuum but in a context you don't always need.

VTN:  when i was in college, i wanted to write on vietnamese literature, but there was very little [of it].  it's incredible to see this explosion of vietnamese literature and vietnamese literature-in-translation from the last thirty years.  there's a lot for people to read out there, who want to read more of vietnamese literature and participate in this community.

VTN:  sometimes, vietnamese-american writers write about vietnam, sometimes they write about different things.

[re:  genres]

VT:  i wrote that short story -- the second chapter in dragonfish -- and i felt that narrative -- the crime narrative, if you will -- didn't feel fleshed out to me.  there were some characters with this backstory i thought i'd investigate.

VT:  the crime framework became primarily something -- we all read mysteries because of the kind of ambiguity of the story and the shadows that can never be resolved [...] and i thought that was kind of an interesting framework for a story about immigrants.  because immigrants do that.  we walk around with all these stories from our parents, our grandparents, and we don't want to share everything.  [thus creating a natural ambiguity and maintaining shadows.]

VTN:  i always loved genre fiction.  i don't look down on genre, and it's really weird to me that, in this literary world of new york, we sell a lot of genre fiction [but put literary fiction on the pedestal].

VTN:  i'm scared of reading genre fiction because i know that, if i pick up a jo nesbo novel, i'm not going to put it down.

VTN:  what i'm most excited by are books that mix genres and aren't easily contained.

Q to vu:  why a white-american protagonist?

VT:  he needed to be a white-american because i guess i was playing with two things.  one was the narrative that i think we're all familiar with -- a white westerner comes into the native community, and he's the one who saves them.  but, also, there's the conventions of crime fiction or the detective novel, in that i was interested in the detective who wasn't very good at detecting -- and, in my mind, those two narratives tended to overlap.  in my book, i think what robert [the protagonist] does is that, because he doesn't get access to this woman he loves so desperately, he creates this other narrative for her, which is that she's crazy.

VT:  i don't let [robert] learn that much [about her] because, sometimes, you can't get all the answers to your questions.

Q to viet:  in the sympathizer, you wanted him to be the anti-hero.

VTN:  anti-heroes are the privilege of majority culture, majority writers.  you have the full panoply of representation to you as the majority.  if you're the minority, you have the burden of representing your community.

VTN:  why would my anti-hero be all of vietnam?

VTN:  the novel was deliberately set up to be a confession from one vietnamese person to another vietnamese person.  i think it's easy for writers of minorities to write to a white person because publishing is very white.  i rejected that.  [...]  what is translated [in the book] is american culture to the vietnamese.

VTN:  my experience has been that americans as a whole don't know anything about us.  on one hand, there is a very large refugee community, but, on the other hand, it's very invisible.  we had this whole interior life scattered across the country, and no one knew about them.

VTN:  when i was growing up, in every pho restaurant, there was this clock, and that just affirmed for me that vietnamese people are very conscious of time.  

VTN:  i grew up with my dad constantly telling me we're one hundred percent vietnamese.  [...]  the second time [my parents visited vietnam and came back to the states], my dad said to me, "we're american."

VT:  in my book, i think of vietnam as this animating but debilitating shadow that follows all these characters, whether they wanted it or not.  with my characters, it was more, at least with suzy [the vietnamese wife] i think that -- she abandons her daughter, and i think vietnam is embodied in this one act.  it's something she feels guilty about, but, at the same time, she knows it's something she has to do.  that tends to happen -- it'll be like one particular experience or one fact that ends up, in a way, if you're displaced from your country, that becomes representative of that in your memory.

VTN:  another [thing] that minority writers are expected to do with this refugee narrative is that, in the end, the characters are americanized.

VT:  i [wanted there to be] not literal ghosts -- i want the reader to question whether these are actual ghosts or not.  the thing i was thinking about is that, when you talk about magic realism, that kind of magic is diffused in that culture.  i thought that american culture -- they don't actively believe in ghosts in ways that other cultures do.  and, in many ways, i think that has to do with religion.  i wanted that spectre of ghosts to be something that weights on the characters a bit in different ways.

VTN:  haunting is so much a part of the legacy of war.  haunting is real, even if ghosts aren't.  if the parents are haunted, oftentimes, the children are haunted, too.  and i wanted to make that quite literal.

VTN:  if you look at so many immigrants -- filipinos, cambodians, koreans, laotians -- so many of them came here because americans fought wars in their countries.  but the american dream doesn't remember that.

VT:  i feel like the melting pot is an idea that goes back to the huddled masses yearning to break free, and it goes back to this idea of immigrants coming here to make things better for their families and assimilating -- but that melting pot doesn't leave room for those who were forced to come here.  if you believe in this notion of the melting pot, it's not just something that builds things; it destroys something in the process -- you're erasing something in the process, and that's detrimental to those people.

VTN:  we blame refugees because they're easy scapegoats for problems in society, for these problems we've caused in other countries.  it's very important to remember that the refugee narrative is very different from the immigrant narrative.

VTN:  i know [that the pride vietnamese are showing in my book after winning the pulizter] is more of a symbolic appreciation than a literary appreciation, and i'm okay with that.

VT:  i got the chance to change my name when i got my citizenship in the sixth grade, and i wanted to pick scott, but my mom stopped me, and i'm very grateful for that.

VTN:  the job of writers is to destroy the cliche.

2015 reading: here are some numbers.

this is why i like the end of the year.  >:3

in 2015, i read 68 books*, and here are my top 7 from those 68 (in no particular order) (or, rather, in the order i posted them on instagram, which was in no particular order).

  1. helen macdonald, h is for hawk (jonathan cape, 2014)
  2. alex mar, witches of america (FSG, 2015)
  3. patricia park, re jane (viking, 2015)
  4. rebecca solnit, the faraway nearby (penguin, 2014, paperback)
  5. jonathan franzen, purity (FSG, 2015)
  6. han kang, human acts (portobello, 2016)
  7. robert s. boynton, the invitation-only zone (FSG, forthcoming 2016)

(you can find quotes and reasons why i chose these 7 on my instagram.)

* as of this posting time.  i still have two days to read more!

in 2015, i went to 38 book events and readings, and here are 10 i particularly enjoyed.

  1. marie mutsuki mockett and emily st. john mandel with ken chen at AAWW
  2. michael cunningham at columbia
  3. meghan daum with glenn kurtz at mcnally jackson
  4. kazuo ishiguro and caryl phillips at the 92Y
  5. aleksandar hemon with sean macdonald at mcnally jackson
  6. alexandra kleeman and patricia park with anelise chen at AAWW
  7. lauren groff at bookcourt
  8. jonathan franzen with wyatt mason at st. joseph's college
  9. patti smith with david remnick at the new yorker festival
  10. alex mar with leslie jamison at housingworks bookstore

(both franzen events had no-photo policies.)

in 2015, i took 34 photos of books with pie.  mind you, this is not the number of times i ate pie.  this is simply the number of times i went to eat pie and decided to photograph it with the book i was reading at the time.  and by pie, i mean pie from four and twenty blackbirds because their pie is delicious and not too sweet and totally worth going to gowanus for (so, if you're in nyc, go get some!).

here are 5 photos of books with pie because it would be unnecessarily mean of me to torture you with all 34 slices of amazing pie, wouldn't it?


in 2015, i took 38 photos of books with stitch.

i suppose, to provide some context:  i love stitch.  lilo and stitch is one of my favorite movies (we're talking top 3 here).  i've had this stitch for 13 years.  i still shamelessly take him with me everywhere (he's in california with me right now).  obviously, he popped up every now and then with a book.

here are 5 photos of books with stitch.  i'm totally choosing how many photos to post arbitrarily (in multiples of 5, though, so maybe not so arbitrarily?).


in 2015, my book club started, and we read 10 books.  we've now eased into a routine of meeting at my friend's apartment and having a potluck, but we were absent this routine the first two times we met, hence the three out-of-place photos.  i know; it's making me a little twitchy, too; but we'll have 12 consistent flat-lays from 2016!

  1. marilynne robinson, lila (FSG, 2014)
  2. alice munro, the beggar maid (vintage, 1991) (first published 1977)
  3. kazuo ishiguro, an artist of the floating world (vintage,1989) (first published 1986)
  4. margaret atwood, the stone mattress (nan a. talese, 2014)
  5. jeffrey eugenides, the virgin suicides (picador, 2009) (first published 1993)
  6. ta-nehisi coates, between the world and me (random house, 2015)
  7. virginia woolf, mrs. dalloway (vintage, 1992) (first published 1925)
  8. michael cunningham, the hours (FSG, 1998)
  9. nikolai gogol, the complete tales (vintage, 1999)
  10. nathaniel hawthorne, short stories (vintage, 1955)

(we combined two months, so i didn't have 10 photos, so i included the nachos i ate when we met to discuss munro's the beggar maid.)

in 2015, i became much more brutal with dropping books because life is too short for books that simply don't hold your interest.  i intentionally dropped 13 books.

  1. claire messud, the woman upstairs (knopf, 2013):  so. boring. nothing. happens.
  2. cheryl strayed, tiny beautiful things (vintage, 2012):  i started reading this in earnest, but then i skimmed it with a friend, and then i never went back to it.  strayed’s columns are generally hit or miss for me.
  3. atul gawande, being mortal (metropolitan books, 2014):  this wasn’t what i was expecting it to be ... though i’m also not entirely sure what i was expecting it to be.  i think i was expecting more profundity, and i wasn’t taken by the writing.
  4. renee ahdieh, the wrath and the dawn (putnam, 2015):  omg, the sheer amount of adverbs in this made me want to throttle the book.  i always read with a pencil to mark passages i like or to jot down thoughts, but i read this with a pencil to cross out all the adverbs and circle all the different variations of “said” --  i want to ban her from using a thesaurus ever again.  and limit how many adverbs she's allowed to use.
  5. rebecca mead, my life in middlemarch (crown, 2014):  i really liked what i read of this, but i finished middlemarch and didn’t like that that much, so i never did finish the mead.
  6. rabih alameddine, an unnecessary woman (grove, 2014):  i just stopped reading this -- like, i put it down for the day and kind of forgot i’d ever started reading it, which was weird because i started reading it on oyster books and liked it enough that i bought the paperback … and then i never went back to it and probably never will.
  7. ta-nehisi coates, between the world and me (random house, 2015):  i know; i’m horrible for dropping this; but i did.  i never finished reading it for book club, and i didn’t finish it after book club and have no inclination to pick it up again.
  8. jesse ball, a cure for suicide (pantheon, 2015):  this tried too hard to be … whatever the hell it is.
  9. virginia woolf, mrs. dalloway (vintage, 1992):  ugh.  i'm sorry, michael cunningham, but UGH.
  10. emile zola, thêrèse raquin (penguin, 2010):  given the plot, this is going to sound bizarre, but i was bored to death with this.  it was so predictable.
  11. philip weinstein, jonathan franzen (bloomsbury, 2015):  given my unabashed, vocal love for franzen, you’d think i’d be all over this, but, as it turns out -- and i say this in the most non-creepy way possible -- i know way too much about franzen’s bio already.  also, my brain kept going off in all sorts of directions because it’s already full with my own critical analyses of franzen, and weinstein’s writing is very flat.  one day, i'll write about franzen.
  12. shirley jackson, we have always lived in the castle (penguin, 2006):  so. boring. nothing. happens.
  13. nathaniel hawthorne, short stories (vintage classics, 2011):  (no comment.)

in 2015, i took a lot of photos of books with food, and i am not going to count them all.  here are 5 i randomly chose so that i'd have 7 "in 2015"s instead of 6.


and that's all, folks!  stay tuned for my year-end recap coming ... at some point in the next two weeks.  >:3  happy new year!


01.  i think i will do a big post of all the books i've dropped this year because i've dropped quite a few books this year.  i'm wondering if i want to get going on that post now or if i ought to wait until the end of the year because it's only the beginning of october -- i still have three months to drop more books.

02.  over the weekend, i attended two events at the new yorker festival -- toni morrison with hilton als and patti smith with david remnick -- and i was planning on writing them up as usual, but i don't think i will because, one, there's no need and, two, i'm rethinking event write-ups in general and whether or not i will continue doing them at all.  (i probably will not.)  (not that i've been very good about doing them, anyway.  there are many more events i've attended that i haven't written up here, even though i have notes.)

the guardian did a write-up of morrison's talk -- you can find it here if you're interested.  lithub also transcribed the franzen event with wyatt mason from september 26 if you're interested in that, too.  the new yorker should be posting videos of its festival events soon, so you should be able to watch the patti smith talk -- and you most definitely should if you can.  she had a great conversation with david remnick, read from m train, and did a little surprise at the end.

03.  i'm going to see keira knightley in her broadway debut in the stage adaptation of thérèse raquin tomorrow and hearing margaret atwood on friday!  yey!