Tuesday, December 13, 2016

[Poet Spotlight] Vaan Nguyen

Back in 2014, Tablet's Dana Kessler did an interesting profile on Vaan Nguyen, a poet born in Ashkelon, Israel in 1982 whose parents had come to Israel as refugees from Vietnam. With a childhood in Jaffa, she writes in Hebrew and uses her verse to examine her identity as an Israeli with Vietnamese roots. Her 2013 debut book, The Truffle Eye was translated by Adriana X. Jacobs, which received a 2015 PEN America Award. It had previously appeared in 2008 as a chapbook.

Jacobs has an interesting essay on the process of translating Vaan Nguyen's work. The first poem that Jacobs encountered was Nguyen's "Mekong River," which opens The Truffle Eye, and was encountered online. Jacob feels that Nguyen locates much of her poetry in Tel Aviv, and "engages and challenges—through the double position of the insider/outsider—the discourse of exile and return and the politics of memory in Israeli culture." In her 2015 article "Where Are You From: The Poetry of Vaan Nguyen," Jacobs suggests "the cosmopolitan and transnational movements that shape her work evince a characteristically twenty-first century Israeli mode of travel and translation."

I think this speaks to the importance of helping and encouraging emerging poets in the Southeast Asian diaspora to get their work online. While there is tremendous joy and value in being published in a print-only journal, and having a physical, tangible book to behold, there's also a necessary conversation in verse that needs to be held with one another that cannot, and now, should not, wait until commercial concerns of market can make it plausible. It makes me wonder if any Khmer or Lao families made it to Israel now, and if there were similarities or differences in their integration and the arc of their expressive culture.

Her journey was highlighted in Duki Dror’s 2005 documentary, The Journey of Vaan Nguyen. You can watch the full film online for about $3 at Vimeo these days.

Her poems have appeared in publications such as Free Academy, Maayan Magazine, Gulf Coast, and Drunken Boat,where her translator Jacobs notes "For children of immigrants, it is never enough to answer that one is from this place, in this moment; the question always implies another origin, another place... The very act of asking where someone is from displaces them."

Vaan Nguyen has also been a journalist and an actress and part of Gerila Tarbut (Cultural Guerrilla), which works with both Israeli and Palestinian poets. I look forward to seeing where she continues to take her literary output in the coming years ahead, and what she do to navigate the ongoing questions of diaspora, in addition to what other topics capture her poetic attention. It will be of interest to see how she engages with other poets with roots in Southeast Asia now living abroad, and if she will be able to find a significant space for her voice in the US.

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