That the lens of grief can distort everyday life into something both crystalline and surreal is on full display in Vi Khi Nao's experimental novel "Fish in Exile" (Coffee House Press, $16.95 paper) in which a cast of characters collide, conflict and claw their way through the aftermath of a tragedy.
After the loss of their children, a mother and father named Ethos and Catholic, as well as their neighbors and the children's grandmother, recount not only what happened (despite its inventiveness, there is a plot here) but also the ways in which it's fractured them individually and as a whole. Their names, of course, are an indication: expect the poetic, and an undercurrent of allegory.
Told in alternating perspectives, fragments, reports, stage-play format, footnotes, reimagined Greek myths and, at one point, a drawing, "Fish in Exile" manipulates form as a means to exploring its themes thoroughly. "I used form as a way to customize the garments of grief for my characters," Khi Nao told me over the phone.
We discussed writing in English as her third language, the pros and cons of genre boundaries, and, amazingly, "Fish in Exile's" beginnings as a Harlequin romance. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
It struck me while reading your book how rare it is to read truly original and startling metaphors. A woman's face is "olive oil spilled in a copper pan," a book is "thick as pineapple core," the inside of a geode "looks like scraped knees…" To what do you attribute your facility for metaphor?
My first training was in visual art. I think visually more than sonically. When I experience the world, I see it in images and in light. Because I see the world visually, it has to pass through that threshold — almost like a machine, an aesthetic machine.
Your first language is Vietnamese and your second is Latin. The language in which you wrote "Fish in Exile" — English — is your third. What effect has this had on your work?
My Latin tutor told me that the best way for me to learn English was through Latin. We would read books in Latin — Greek and Roman mythologies – and translate them into English. I wasn't trained to use Latin as a communication device — it's more like a translation device — and so I move from one translation to another translation to another translation. When you have a domino effect of translation, it's very different from direct translation, or from experiencing something from the mother tongue.
Your prose is brazenly poetic and, at times, almost scientific. Would that be your Latin background also?
Yes, but I also love doing research. When I was composing the initial chapters for "Fish in Exile," I drew a blueprint for the house that Catholic and Ethos live in — I took out a ruler and I measured the diameters. The grief that the characters experience is so abstract I had to create a rooting system for the narrative to ground itself. I found that concreteness allows for the abstraction to coexist with realism. I wanted the reader to experience something that they wouldn't normally experience, but I didn't want to abandon them to some literary metaphor that's so out there they can't reach it. I wanted them to feel at home in their exile.
Your protagonists, Catholic and Ethos, are grieving the loss of their children, who are missing and presumed dead. What was the seed of this story?
When I was growing up in Vietnam, there was a woman who had a son who drowned in a swimming pool. I remember her screaming. It was so penetrating, the extreme degree of her pain and grief, that even when I was 8 years old I would wake up in the middle of the night, startled by it. In Vietnamese culture, when someone dies, the whole neighborhood knows and the whole neighborhood experiences it — it's not a private grief. It's not an isolated experience, quarantined to the victim's family.
Certainly, in "Fish in Exile," which rotates perspectives, you explore the many ways that individuals grieve, but their grieving doesn't feel collective. It feels isolated.
Well, part of the novel is about what it's like to live in that culture, where I was playing hide and seek in banana trees, and then be a refugee in the Philippines and an immigrant in the United States. My family, we stayed in Iowa of all places. We experienced our first snowstorm. We felt really remote and isolated.
So, while the book explores grief as a form of exile, your own experience of exile was a kind of grief?
Yes. That's a beautiful observation. It's double edged.
After the death of their children, Catholic and Ethos buy pair after pair of pet fish, dress them in homemade, fishnet clothing, and "walk" them through the water of a custom-built aquarium. It's such an unusual image. Where did it come from?
I was living in Providence, R.I., and I would take the bus to the sea a lot. That's where the aquarium concept came to me. I remember thinking that the grief is so repetitive and so cyclical, I need to find a metaphor to express that… To buy the same fish over and over again. To name them and dress them and still they die and still the grief manifests itself… Some people say insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, but I don't think so. Perfectly sane people do this all the time.
You experiment with form in the novel — the dialogue, for example, is written in play format. What appealed to you about that form?
I read a lot of books and I often get confused about who is speaking to whom. I have to go back pages and pages to see, "OK, Meredith said this, and now Tom said this"… Wouldn't it be nice if I just made it easy for the reader to understand who's speaking? Everything else about the book is so abstract. I wanted as much clarity as possible in a place where emotions are not as clear.
Cross-genre work, hybridity, and the space for writers to push the boundaries of genre feel like it's gaining more and more momentum. Are distinctions between genres even valuable anymore?
Um, I think they help with libraries, you know? It's important to be able to identify things that bear similarity. Certain books are for sure poetry: to define them as anything else is to not respect the form. If someone wrote a poetry book and said, "Well, this is a fiction and it's a memoir and on top of that it's a play but it looks nothing like a play," I think that could be dangerous. Sometimes, if someone's hair is black, just say it's black. But other times there are books that are category-less. I think there should be a category for the category-less.
"Fish in Exile" covers a broad, ambitious canvas. Were you ever a little scared to write it?
To be honest with you, I originally wanted to write a Harlequin romance. A lot of my experimental work is very difficult for my sister to read — she reads more mainstream writing — and I wanted to write a Harlequin romance for my sister since she's so supportive. (When I first came out in [the literary journal] Noon, she bought, like, three copies.) I failed miserably. If you haven't noticed, "Fish in Exile" became absolutely nothing like a Harlequin romance. One of the reasons "File in Exile" came out the way it did is that I had a different vision for it, and it already failed. There's a machine of aesthetics in my being: Whatever I put in, the output is going to be nonlinear. I attempted Harlequin romance, and it came out this experimental book.
You pose this question in Ethos' voice, but I wonder about your personal answer. Is it better to be in exile at home or at home in exile?