Arts & Culture

Alum explores passion, trauma in Bookstore reading

Vi Khi Nao MFA’13 showcases recent book ‘Fish in Exile,’ poems in ‘The Old Philosopher’

Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 2, 2016

During author Vi Khi Nao’s MFA’13 reading of prose and poetry, time suspended itself as the writer effortlessly submerged Wednesday night’s Brown Bookstore audience into her dissociative sea of trauma.

Nao, winner of the John Hawkes and Feldman Prize in fiction and the Kim Ann Arstark Memorial Award in poetry, was born in Long Khanh, Vietnam. She read from both her latest novel “Fish in Exile” and her Nightboat Books Prize-winning book of poetry “The Old Philosopher.”

“Must beauty and melancholy coexist always?” Nao pondered to the audience with a sense of urgency, addressing the dilemma at the core of her work’s fractured heart.

Charged with a sense of feeling at once ethereal and organic, “Fish in Exile” and “The Old Philosopher” spoke to the antithetical disconnect and devotion so prevalent in Nao’s native Vietnam.

“Fish in Exile,” her latest, details the story of a married couple following the deaths of their two children. Coupling sensual and corporeal imagery of the couple with the mortal gravitas of their misfortune, the excerpts read from the novel provided the audience with a taste of her singular, distinctive style.

Nao’s writing, to pull from some of the prose on display in “Fish in Exile,” might best be described as an “opera of hysterical beauty,” replete in the kind of devastating ecstasy only forgeable by personal tragedy.

“That novel was published to release me from pain,” Nao said. “In my village, there was a mother whose child had drowned,” she said, speaking of the inspiration for the novel. “That mother released an excruciatingly loud and painful cry that penetrated my soul.”

A particular poignancy in Nao’s works also unfolds from one of the blurbs on the back of her poetry collection “The Old Philosopher.”

Attributed to poet and Professor of Literary Arts C.D. Wright, who taught Nao during her master’s in fine arts program and passed away in 2016, the blurb speaks to the indelible influence of Nao’s mentors in her writing.

Nao “was hugely talented,” said Forrest Gander, who was Wright’s husband and is a professor of literary arts. “She was writing manuscripts every few weeks and just had a much less conventional use of language,” he added, praising her “curious lexicon” and “different sense of time.”

These talents were similarly lauded by former MFA students. “Her work is sensual, melancholic and transformative all at the same time,” said Caitlyn Mongeau MFA’16, who introduced Nao.