Poet and multimedia artist Diana Khoi Nguyen, the inaugural Asian American artist-in-residence in the Department of American Studies last semester, didn’t always know how to write about her experiences as a Vietnamese American.
A writer of color, she was educated through predominantly white programs reading mostly white authors with largely white mentors. She felt “slow to embrace the Asian American aspect of (her) identity,” Nguyen told The Herald.
It was after a retreat for Asian American writers hosted by the nonprofit Kundiman that she felt more comfortable writing reflectively about her own experiences.
“There were not only other Vietnamese American writers, but also other writers who identify as Asian American, and I was like, ‘Where have you all been my whole life?’” Nguyen said. “I finally got to go to this space where there were other people doing their own creative thing, who also had difficult home lives, who also never met other people who looked like them doing the same thing as them.”
And as artist-in-residence last spring, Nguyen said she relished the opportunity to mentor aspiring writers and writers of color through workshops — aiming to give them the early-career inspiration she wished she had.
“Getting to spend time and talk to Asian American students is probably my favorite thing because I wish somebody had done that with me,” Nguyen said. “I’m happy to be there as a resource for others … as a way to have been there for a version of me.”
Nguyen returned to campus Wednesday to read her work and talk about her experience and writing process as part of the Nonfiction@Brown annual reading series — the first fully in-person event in the series since the pandemic began.
Nguyen recited two poems from “Ghost Of,” her lyrical poetry collection about the loss of her brother to suicide. She projected childhood home videos in the background while reading a poem from her forthcoming poetry collection and recited some prose from another work-in-progress. After her readings, she answered questions from a packed room of students about how she writes about trauma and translates her poetry from text to speech.
Nonfiction@Brown, which runs in parallel with the course ENGL 1190X: “Nonfiction Now,” is “about bringing in writers who are engaging in contemporary nonfiction in new and different ways,” said Michael Stewart, senior lecturer in English who helped organize the series.
“I went to a couple of her workshops last time she was here and was just blown away,” Stewart said. “Seeing how she worked with the students and listening to her talk about pieces, I immediately was like, ‘This is somebody we absolutely have to have.’”
Some students, including Leila Kim ’22.5, came to the event after having read Nguyen’s work in their English classes.
“We read her in class, (but) that was a whole different experience than this,” Kim said. “To hear her perform was an entirely different experience, and it made me think a lot about the piece afterwards,” Kim said. “It was so nice to be able to hear her voice.”
Work as artist-in-residence
As artist-in-residence, Nguyen, who is also an assistant professor at the writing program at the University of Pittsburgh, ran several workshops, curated a community exhibit at the Providence Public Library and brought poet Paul Tran ’14 to speak on campus.
“It was wonderful to come in and meet with people on their writing and visual practices and see what they were doing,” Nguyen said.
She noted that many people’s works surrounded family-based archival or documentary projects. “It was really self-directed by the students, and Brown students are amazing because (they) know what (they) want to do, and (they) just do it,” she said.
Laura Kenney ’19, who attended some of the workshops and is now pursuing an MFA at the University of Pittsburgh to continue working with Nguyen, saw the workshops as an opportunity to see how Nguyen was as a teacher after first appreciating her work as a poet.
“Reading Diana’s work just absolutely floored me, and she quickly became one of my favorite poets working today,” Kenney said. “Diana is both a brilliant poet and a deeply compassionate human and also a really thoughtful instructor. Her pedagogy is unrivaled, in my experience, in that she brings a very genuine enthusiasm into the workshop and reading space.”
Kenney, whose interests in poetry revolve around how trauma affects memory, also noted the “human element of care” that Nguyen brought to each workshop.
“She’s so invested in the emotional well-being of the people in her classes, and that is so important when you’re writing about a traumatic subject to have that kind of support and that type of compassion and generosity,” Kenney said.
Kate Hao MA’22, another student in the workshops, was similarly impressed by Nguyen’s dedication to her students.
“She was so available, so committed and her stated intention was to be as much of a resource to students as she possibly could,” Hao said. “She’d really follow through and commit to that in a way that I think is really admirable.”
Hao, who worked as a Programs and Exhibitions Fellow at the Providence Public Library, also collaborated with Nguyen to curate a student-community literary and visual arts exhibit at the library as part of a series on identity. The exhibit “Would That: Expressions of Possibility in Asian America and Diasporas,” included work from members of the Providence, Brown and RISD communities and was available in May, which is Asian American and Pacific Islander month.
“I’m a big advocate and proponent for community engagement,” Nguyen said. “It was also a way to celebrate the work that people have been making all semester. I had a blast, and I really loved it.”
Nguyen’s creative work last semester primarily involved poetry and intersecting multimedia, she said, but her nonfiction work is “heavily autobiographical.”
Nguyen started writing as a child to process complicated feelings and emotions resulting from a difficult home life and childhood.
“I really started (writing) for myself around late middle school, all throughout high school … as an outlet for all the confusing feelings, the difficult feelings that I felt, since I didn’t really have somebody to talk to about it back then,” Nguyen said.
She didn’t seriously pursue writing until a mentor suggested to her that she should consider a masters in creative writing. “I didn’t go in right away. I worked in tech a little bit, then I burnt out, then decided I should go back to school,” Nguyen said. “And then the rest is history. I can’t imagine doing anything else now, actually.”
Nguyen emphasized that she identifies “first and foremost as an American writer,” but her work can also reflect her experiences as Asian American and Vietnamese American.
“I would say that’s a newer distinction because my work does focus on the Asian American community, specifically children of immigrants,” she said.
While Nguyen writes about aspects of family and home life that can be relatable to any reader, she acknowledged that “very specific cultural things … tend to resonate with other folks who look like me.”
When publishing “Ghost Of,” Nguyen was initially concerned that her story would not be relatable to white editors and readers. But she found that her experiences with losing a loved one were widely relatable, despite the fact that not all the “cultural details” were universal.
Today, Nguyen enjoys being a teacher and mentor to student writers and writers of color. She emphasized the importance of finding a safe community to grow in as a writer, especially based on her own experience as a Kundiman fellow.
“Try to find a safe and trusted community who is aligned with your own vision for your work, who can advocate for you (and) basically see you as an artist,” Nguyen said. “Hopefully, you see them in a similar way so you can build your own community outside of institutional spaces. That really builds a sustainable model to keep writing and to be a writer, especially outside of school.”
She advises aspiring writers to “read as much as you can, and read as widely as you can, not just in the area that you’re writing.”
“With regard to being a writer of color ,… trust yourself first and foremost, even if others around you are naysayers,” Nguyen added. “Don’t change anything for anybody. Just write it as it is or however you wish for it to be.”