Navigating Diaspora with Poetry

Members of the Vietnamese poetry collective She Who Has No Master(s) visit Reed

She Who Has No Master(s) came to Eliot Chapel on the evening of Thursday, November 14, with visiting writers Vi Khi Nao, Stacey Tran, and Dao Strom. Seated next to each other as if at a press conference, the writers conducted their reading from behind a folded out table, centrally illuminated against the absence of other light in the room and leaving the audience dimmed in the pews. Behind them was a projection of a poem: staggered lines in white text, each by a different author, scrolling from the right across a black background. The text was suspended in a state of partial dissociation and interspersed with narrow rectangular grids of footage of a beach, in which its authors were occasionally present. Towards the end of the reading another video was shown, shot in the desert with cinematic sweep, depicting two women in vivid traditional dresses wandering a landscape of enormity and blankness, opening a durian and ladling its contents into a bowl, finishing by laying on the ground beside the fruit. As it played, Khi Nao, Tran, and Strom did the same thing to the durian that had been on the table in front of them. On their way out of the reading, audience members helped themselves to spoonfuls.

She Who Has No Master(s) is an experimental poetry collective made up of female writers of the Vietnamese diaspora, its arrangement of members changing with each collaboration it produces. It aims to express that diaspora through its multiple bodies of experience, to assert it as uncontainable in one narrative, to use multi-voiced poetics to ascertain how much of its alienation is bridgeable. Khi Nao, Tran, and Strom, each from different generations and separated from Vietnam to different degrees, came together in a Google document. They wrote about food, the relationships it’s a part of, what it brings out of us, the other ways in which it can provide nourishment, one after the other contributing to a shared creative space to a single work. Reading it out loud, the individual rhythms of their voices, their specific ways of relating to, understanding, and employing language, were made all the more apparent by the piece’s thematic cohesiveness. It was a tacit assertion of the divergence of voices that any definition of Vietnamese writing has to accommodate. When the three met in real life, they had dinner together, sharing food in the same way they had shared their words. Viewing fragments of pieces together, they recognized and identified a fleeting sense of belonging. The goal of their collaboration became constructing a space where, while it lasted, they could occupy that sense of belonging together.

Towards the end of the evening, Khi Nao read first a seventeenth century Vietnamese poem, then a translation of that poem, then her post-modernist interpretation of the poem. As the original expression navigated its language’s refraction and reidentification, it served as a reminder of how many voices speak through our own, how many we enter into conversation with as we engage in creative work. She Who Has No Master(s) offered the opportunity to hear those voices side by side, sharing –– if only for a moment –– space, and durian.

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