DO NGUYEN MAI, name written family name to first, is a first-generation Vietnamese-American poet and musician residing in the Los Angeles Area in the United States. In her free time, Mai can often be found researching Southeast Asian history and teaching Vietnamese to young children.
Mai is also the founder and editor-in-chief of Rambutan Literary, a social media manager for the literary magazine The Fem, the social media manager for the journal Half Mystic, and a book review contributor at The Spark.
RACHEL: In “Calling Names” in The Rising Phoenix Review, your poem reads: Where are the black haired, dark skinned, plum lipped girls with limbs like strong, unyielding rosewood and footsteps as loud as the river rapids?
What is it about these girls that calls to your work?
MAI: My family is made up of these girls now turned women. My aunts, grandmothers, and mother have all been these girls at one point in their lives, the – unapparent to many – backbone of our family, and even of the Vietnamese people in general. There’s evidence to suggest that Vietnam was once a matriarchal society, and remnants of that in the way Vietnamese people revere the strength of mothers and daughters despite the very strong influence of Confucian patriarchal ideals. These girls have not only been the unofficial heads of our households, but also our warriors, our queens, our leaders.
RACHEL: As a writer, how do you balance telling your own history and your own story with the weight of (tbqh) bullshit “understandings” of editors (who tend to be white) who will want your writing to feel “authentic” to their ears?
MAI: The version of “authenticity” these editors know and ask for is almost completely two-dimensional and based off a generally vague knowledge of East Asia that they apply to all of Asia or the commonly skewed narrative of American involvement in the Vietnam War. If they think it’s “authentic,” that’s great for them, and it means what I’ve written will be shared.
What I know is that my writing is most certainly not a piece of their often absurd perceptions of Asian-Americans. My writing is not from a Western-driven perspective. It’s from mine. I work to make sure it’s all of what isn’t mentioned in American history textbooks when it comes to Vietnam, which means not only other perspectives on the Vietnam War, but also of Vietnamese culture and history itself.
RACHEL: Talk to me about Rambutan.
MAI: Rambutan Literary is a journal I started that’s dedicated to showcasing Southeast Asian literature and art from mainland, maritime, and diasporic Southeast Asia. It’s pretty cool – half the staff from mainland/maritime Southeast and the other half from USA and Canada. We’ll probably be expanding the staff soon.
RACHEL: Why begin Rambutan now?
MAI: Rambutan is my attempt at contributing to this big conversation on diversity. We talk about diversity and say that we need more representation for Asians, which is true, but that often is silently defined as East Asians. By creating a space for showcasing Southeast Asian literature and art, I hope to make people more aware of the fact that Asia includes the countries of Southeast Asia, too, and includes the people of Southeast Asia.
In addition to that or perhaps a part of that, Southeast Asians have often been viewed as uneducated, uncultured, and uncivilized peoples. I really want Southeast Asian writers and artists – through Rambutan or not – to continue to increasingly disprove that ridiculous notion.
RACHEL: Visible in both your own work and the mission of Rambutan is a valuing of both violence and peace, love and aggression. Why love? Why anger?
MAI: I feel that, oftentimes, love and anger both are very much intertwined. They are not emotions that contradict each other, which means that even with love can come oppression, and with aggression there can be freedom. To think of each in isolation would be to forget that sometimes they are one and the same.
RACHEL: How do you balance an appreciation for each?
Coming from my Vietnamese heritage and looking at Vietnam’s history even before Western involvement, it’s almost necessary to appreciate both equally. The Vietnamese people have experienced centuries of war and political turmoil and infighting, but in retrospect, that never negated anyone’s Vietnamese identity or their love for their fellow people.
RACHEL: Why work to become a part of the literary world?
MAI: If my writing can be read and shared, then parts of Vietnamese history and culture often ignored behind the American narrative of the Vietnam War can be shared. It really is that simple. Becoming a part of the literary world is to share stories unheard.
RACHEL:What song to you listen to when you’re pissed off?
MAI: Oh boy. It depends on what kind of pissed off, I suppose. I generally get pissed off at things surrounding politics, so songs I like to listen to are “Revolution” by Helly Luv, which is a really rad anti-ISIS anthem and “Salute” by Little Mix, which has a similar vibe and is pretty feminist, if you ask me.
RACHEL: Do you watch music videos? If so, do you have a fave?
MAI: The music video for Helly Luv’s “Revolution” is pretty killer. She has another song, “Risk it All,” which also has a cool music video, but “Revolution” is definitely a must-watch.
RACHEL: In The Bandit Zine, you shred typical understandings of platonic versus romantic love: And yet, the audacity to undermine platonic love remains persistent – platonic love poems called inauthentic love poems, platonic love songs called inauthentic love songs, platonic love called inauthentic love.
Tell me about love.
MAI: Ah, love. Platonic love, romantic love – no matter what sort, love can often be a strong source of agony, of pain. That doesn’t make it bad at all, though. This separation, this pain is not only a part of love, but in my eyes, is a joy of love.
It’s pretty strange, in my opinion, that people say romantic love is the most important or most rewarding or whatever. It’s just as intense as romantic love. I say that waking up in a room full of my beloved, dear friends is so much more pleasant and lovely and beautiful than waking up beside a lover.
Why write? Why poetry?
MAI: It’s a bit of an odd thing, but the truth is that I dream things, I see things, I hear things, and I feel compelled to write them down. These dreams and nightmares, I believe, come from the restless spirits of my ancestors. My family members are big believers in ghosts, or spirits, or that sort of thing. My mother and father both had dreamed things that led them to find the bodies of my grandfather and uncle, respectively, and they believe those dreams had come to them from the ghosts of the deceased. When I write, I am laying those spirits to rest. When I do not write, I either hear too many whispers that eventually I must write, or the silence is so strangely deafening that I must pray that voices will come to me again.
As for poetry, the Vietnamese have a rich history of verse, originating from the songs sung in the field. So even verse written by nobles has roots in the earth, in peasants’ sweat and blood. Poetry is more natural to me than other forms for this reason – no matter what, my writing begins from the time of my ancestors.