When I first read a story of Linh Dinh’s several years ago, I understood myself to be in the presence of an extraordinary literary voice. The story is called "!" Its narrator tells it after "perusing innumerable newspaper accounts" about a certain Ho Muoi, who has been sent to jail for "being a fake English teacher." Ho Muoi had discovered—and invented—English as a soldier in the North Vietnamese Army when his battalion captured an American soldier who proceeded to get sick, become delirious, and "blather for hours on end." Ho Muoi phonetically transcribed the soldier’s rantings (one of my favorite mind-bending ironies of this story is that to transcribe the soldier’s blatherings, Ho Muoi presumably used the Vietnamese alphabet, quoc ngu, which is itself a phonetic roman-alphabet transcription of the spoken Vietnamese language invented by the 17th-century French missionary Alexandre de Rhodes), and from these notes he extrapolated all of English, on the theory that "anything made by man can be duplicated: a chair, a gun, a language, provided one has the raw materials."
Linh Dinh’s stories bring into doubt things like summaries of short stories; I hope mine suggest at least some of the philosophical and political extravagance and hilarity of "!," which is now part of Dinh’s short-story collection Blood and Soap, just published by Seven Stories Press. The total effect of Blood and Soap is impossible to describe. As Dinh mentions below, it owes a certain debt to Jorge Luis Borges, but uses Borgesian metafiction and genre-bending to depict a sense of absurdity, confusion, and displacement peculiar to being a contemporary world citizen. Blood and Soap, though often very funny, is haunted by the loneliness and terror experienced by the individual in the global economy.
When I spoke to Linh Dinh by phone in mid-April, he had just returned to the United States from Certaldo, Italy, where he had been living for two years as a fellow of the International Parliament of Writers’ Cities of Asylum program. As befits the author of Blood and Soap, he was staying at a friend’s apartment and looking for a place to live.
Matthew Sharpe (Rail): You studied painting in college, right? So how did you make the transition from painter to writer?
Linh Dinh: Well, I was writing poems at the same time, and at some point I just had to give up one because you can’t focus on two and expect any sort of success. And painting is just so expensive—to maintain a large space, and the equipment. So I switched to writing exclusively. At some point I said, look, I don’t want to be a failure in two things. I want to try to be something in one thing.
Rail: Or even being a failure in one thing cuts your losses by half.
Dinh: Exactly. (They laugh.)
Rail: How about writing short stories? When and how did that happen?
Dinh: Short stories were more of a deliberate thing. I wasn’t inspired to write short stories. I had to figure it out and start from scratch. Before I had ever written a short story, I edited and translated an anthology of short stories that was published by Seven Stories Press in 1996 called Night, Again. And also I did a magazine in Philadelphia called The Drunken Boat, and I used to write little sketches for it, so that was the very beginning.
Rail: How did you figure out what a story is?
Dinh: I was so ignorant. You know, clean up my syntax, learn how to punctuate properly, really learn the very basics, what makes a sentence work. How to set up a dialogue. It was all self-fumbling, I didn’t take any workshops or anything. I like to just teach myself. And also, just looking at people you admire, see how they did it.
Rail: Whom do you admire?
Dinh: A bunch of people. Céline was an early inspiration. And Kafka. Kafka has remained a steady presence. And Borges. And other people come and go.
Rail: What is it about Céline that you like?
Dinh: Of course all the energy. And his dark sense of humor. And the grittiness of his observations. He was in there, he came into contact with a lot of people. And that sort of physical willingness to engage people was very attractive to me.
Rail: Now that you mention it, you share a certain biological sense of humor with him, the humor and strangeness of the body, and a kind of unsqueamish representation of the body.
Dinh: Right. But a guy like Borges was the other extreme. He lived through books. He didn’t live through his body. He didn’t have sex, he didn’t fall in love, or he fell in love very seldomly. So that was the other model, the guy who lived strictly through books. It’s very easy for writers to lock themselves up their rooms and surround themselves with their books. I think that’s why some writers try to pose as men of action, they want to compensate for it. It’s so easy to become a nerd as a writer. Borges was a fantastic nerd, he was the ultimate nerd, but so what, right?
Rail: You were born in Saigon and came here when you were eleven. So did you ever write in Vietnamese?
Dinh: Recently, I wrote some poems in Vietnamese, but the thing is, I came to English as an immigrant. It was a process to acquire English to the point where I felt confident enough to write in it, and my grasp of English, even now, is somewhat uncertain. Not because I can’t speak or write it, but nothing comes naturally to me. I have to think it through. I’m a hyper-conscious writer. On the other hand, I think it’s an advantage because I have to scrutinize the language much more painstakingly than a native speaker. And paradoxically, my relationship to Vietnamese is just as problematic. When I returned to live in Vietnam five years ago—I lived there from 1999 to 2001—I came back as a Vietnamese-American, with another language that I’m more comfortable with, which is English, so I sort of had to reacquire my Vietnamese. So when I write poems in Vietnamese, I’m just as self-conscious as I am with English. I’ve used my ongoing problems with language, my grappling with it, as a topic also. The two main stories in Blood and Soap deal with acquiring a new language.
Rail: "Prisoner with a Dictionary" and "!"?
Dinh: Yeah! And also, my wife… It’s painful enough to have to be an immigrant once. (Laughs.) I’m doing it twice because I have to relive that experience through my wife, who is learning English from the very beginning. And it’s not just a linguistic issue, it’s everything. It’s a social challenge, too, because when you’re in a foreign place nothing makes sense, really. I mean, everything makes sort of sense but you really have to examine how you sit, how you stand, you know, everything has to be re-learned. I like that. I wish I could sustain that forever, actually.
Rail: The very last story in Blood and Soap is a kind of allegory about somebody who does sustain that perpetual immigrant status: the grandfather who’s always moving from one place to another and never knows quite how to sit or stand. That one seems like one of the Borgesian stories to me.
Dinh: It sums up the whole book.
Rail: The first story I ever saw of yours was "!" and for me it goes beyond language acquisition to a powerful political statement about American hegemony and globalism, that language is only one of many things that America exports quite oppressively. Was that a conscious aspect of that story?
Dinh: Oh, sure. Vietnam has become a blind statement about the United States, like most places are these days. Not technically, but in the way they try to adjust to American standards, so to speak, they’re becoming a satellite of the United States. There are many negative aspects of this, but one of them is that Americans tend to view a foreigner as an imperfect American: his jeans not quite right, his t-shirt is a little off, his haircut. Americans judge the rest of the world by American standards and see failures everywhere. Which is I think preposterous. That’s not how it is. Well, it’s sort of how it is. (They laugh.)
Rail: In your story "!" I saw the fake English that your protagonist, Ho Muoi, invents, and which his students perpetuate after he’s thrown in jail—even after they know that it’s not "real English"—as a way of negating American reality.
Dinh: Yeah, but they’re also trying to negate the Vietnamese reality. They’re caught between. In a place like Vietnam, America is so seductive. And the Vietnamese model is so appalling. People are so disappointed with their own society and they want to reinvent themselves. Through American movies, through the videos, through MTV, through the music. American media sells itself very successfully. The poorer the country, the more enthralled, the more mesmerized they are by American media. It seems like a perfect solution. Everybody is sexy and happy and dancing and laughing. They don’t get to come here and see this and know the problems that Americans themselves experience. They only see the come-on. And they also judge Americans by American tourists. And only certain people get to travel to these places. Your working stiff making ends meet is not going to go to Asia and have fun and drink himself senseless. So they see these happy Americans on their own streets, and they’re convinced that the rest of America is like that, too.
Rail: Aren’t these happy Americans also odious? In some cases, anyway?
Dinh: To whom?
Rail: To Vietnamese. Aren’t they burdensome and annoying and loud?
Dinh: I’m sure some of them are. It’s just that in a place like Vietnam they see Westerners as a source of money. You want to sell them something, provide a service to them, so you can get some of that money. And Vietnamese who don’t come into direct contact with them see them as representatives of a much better society. Just by the way they dress, by how tall they are (Laughs), healthier specimens, you know?
Rail: You were born in 1963 and you left Vietnam when you were eleven, so you lived though the war.
Dinh: Yeah, but I was in Saigon. I didn’t really see anything. You knew there was a war, it was a constant shadow in your life.
Rail: I’m about the same age as you and I remember being a young kid and hearing my parents talking about it and listening to the reports on the radio every night, and my first experience of what news is was body counts, numbers of American soldiers dead, and I just thought, oh, yeah, this what you do every night, you turn on the radio and you find out how many people from your country have died in the war.
Dinh: Well, in Saigon, the same. Just body counts. And it was even more extensive because there was the South Vietnamese body count, the North Vietnamese body count, etc. It was like the box scores every morning. And there was so much propaganda that every side insisted that it was winning. So the body counts were distorted according to the source.
Rail: As is happening now with Iraq, we generally didn’t hear about the North and South Vietnamese body counts, we just heard about the Americans.
Dinh: Yeah, now you only hear about American deaths, you don’t hear about Iraqi deaths. Which is a little strange because, back then, the American media wanted to play up the North Vietnamese losses to show that we were killing them, but now they seem to be less concerned about that, because when you go in, technically, to liberate a country, if you kill so many it works against your own propaganda.
Rail: So how conscious are you of your audience when you’re writing? Whom are you writing for?
Dinh: I think as a minority writer you always dread being put in the ghetto, that you only get readers from your own ethnic group because they can share your stories, for example, and then the few whites or blacks or whatever, people from the other side of the group who stray into your stories are only there to check out the exotic details.
Rail: "Our Newlyweds" seems to be written as if for Americans who will not be familiar with Vietnamese wedding rituals or architecture, so there seems to be an effort to describe, for an outsider, This is what happens in a wedding ritual, and this is what happens afterwards, and then they go up to the roof and then…
Dinh: The source of that story was a travel piece I read. I read a lot of travel literature. I like being a tourist. So I was reading an article about Saigon in an Australian newspaper and I was using that as a model to describe that part of Saigon, but have a plot superimposed on it. Before I called you I was looking at a Lonely Planet of Mexico. I just love to read through travel writing. Not travel writing written by good writers, just any travel writing.
Dinh: It’s constant displacement. You’re there, you know? I was in Mexico just before I called you.
Rail: (laughs): Are you sure you’re not mistaking the word for its referent? Speaking of which, want to play a word-association game?
Dinh: Uh, shit, I can’t even think. Blood? Skip, skip that one.
Rail: Yes, "hand." H-A-N-D.
Rail: Bread. Did I say bread already?
Dinh: Bread. As in eating?
Rail: As in eating.
Rail: Well, how about red, since you mentioned it?
Matthew Sharpe is the author of the novels The Sleeping Father (Soft Skull Press, 2003) and Nothing Is Terrible, and the short-story collection Stories from the Tube.