I’ve been a great admirer of Dao Strom’s work for over 13 years. When I was an undergraduate at Indiana University, a mentoring professor gave me a copy of her collection of short stories, The Gentle Order of Girls and Boys. At the time, I was trying to write a book that didn’t quite know what it wanted to be, and Strom’s writing opened my mind to what a book could be. I admired the fact that the stories in The Gentle Order of Girls and Boys did not offer definitive, epiphanic resolutions, focusing on the interiority and intimate experiences of the characters as they process the world around them.
The Gentle Order of Girls and Boys is a collection of linked stories about four different Vietnamese-American women living in the United States, inspired by Nina Simone’s song “Four Women,” the very beginning of a rich, ongoing dialogue which has evolved within and between Dao Strom’s successive publications: the memoir We Were Meant To Be a Gentle People (accompanied by a song cycle, East/West) and the poetry collection You Will Always Be Someone From Somewhere Else.
Meghan Lamb: In your preface to The Gentle Order of Girls and Boys, you explain that the book "almost wasn't published," in part because its original publisher-a major house in New York-rejected the manuscript. You speculate that this publisher might have been concerned with the project's "narrative scarcity," not only because it examined the stories of Vietnamese-American women, but because it was so invested in their precisely embodied lived experiences, their "interiority."
I'd love to hear more about how you define "interiority" as a writer, given that this book's "interiority" feels more complex-and internally conflicted-than the self-reflective monologues western writers are often taught to associate with narrative interior. While your female characters in The Gentle Order of Girls and Boys observe, analyze, and evaluate their environments in such different ways, they all seem to feel a certain distance from their internal selves: an inability to access something they feel they should be feeling. How have your own feelings regarding narrative "interiority" changed over the past decade? How have these changes shaped your creative projects?
Dao Strom: I’ll start by saying that, at the time I wrote the stories in Gentle Order, my impetus was simply to write a book that could be read and responded to on the merit of its own art and questing, and I wanted to create characters who could be accepted as individuals, without needing the (overt) filter of race applied in order to guide how to read them. I wanted to write the kind of stories I loved to read: ones that evoked in me inklings of deeper insight and resonances concerning the nuances and mysteries—emotional, ineffable, etc.—about life as a human being, as a human body amid other bodies, with complexities and disparities and ambiguities all intact. And this book that I wrote was rejected by its first publisher for the reasons cited, “interiority” being one of those, which means they did not see writing of such “interiority” to be sellable or interesting enough and from which also follows that they did not see “interiority” in young Vietnamese American women—who are not obviously wrestling with their issues of race—as being important or of interest enough.
Things are different now, no doubt, but I still believe “interiority” in writing is something to be advocated for, and especially for writers of color. We are in a moment of greater concern for marginalized stories and voices, but—conversely—a pressure to be a moral agent, or educator about race in America, or representative of one’s marginalized community, is created. This is still a form of Other-ing and also has embedded in it a perhaps unadmitted expectation to see the existing power structures still, ironically, acknowledged. Meanwhile, my feeling, especially of late, is that it should not be expected or assumed that a writer of color’s interior life is always going to center around thoughts of race and identity and their experience as racialized beings. To prioritize that would be to also suggest that what matters most is how we are received/perceived by others, outside of ourselves. This is important, true, but it is still not everything. I guess the type of “interiority” I am lately craving and wishing to advocate for is one that writes from deeply inside, looking either inward or outward, however it chooses, but that can convey that interior being irregardless of externally-imposed boundaries or definitions. I want to read and experience how the light falls from behind those eyes, how the sensations of life and living feel, on minute, intimate, deeply particular levels. I think we need this as profoundly as we need the political and social arguments in literature.
Meghan Lamb: In another interview (with Vi Khi Nao), you talked about how you "found your form" when you were writing the experimental hybrid memoir We Were Meant to Be a Gentle People. I'm really curious about how-precisely-The Gentle Order of Girls and Boys served as a precursor to your chosen "form." Did the "fictions" you wrote in The Gentle Order of Girls and Boys help you access the "nonfictions" in We Were Meant to Be a Gentle People? Was The Gentle Order of Girls and Boys its own kind of test, experiment, or shadow text? Or was it something else entirely?
Dao Strom: I would say that The Gentle Order of Girls and Boys is its own kind of book, apart from the We Were Meant To Be a Gentle People project that followed it, but no doubt they weave a continuous path and there are connective threads. I’ve always written from a personal angle, using the ‘material’ of my own life, memory, perceptions, etc., as impetus and source. I am fueled--inspired—by the very act of perceiving and then by the contemplation of how those many sensations and impressions live on in memory, in the body, in the mind, in ethos, too. One of the currents I was caught up in when I wrote the Gentle Order stories had to do with pondering/feeling the “feminine” experience (not in a gendered sense so much as energetic, i.e. yin versus yang energies, inward versus outward, obscured versus overt ways of action in the world, etc.), and, in that sense, they are also stories about characters who (aware they belong to the realm of those perceived as ‘lesser’ bodies, in effect) are negotiating for their own agency and way of being within a world whose “order” they do not necessarily relate to or wish to enter. Looking back, I also see that Gentle Order captures narratively some of the impulses that are expressed formally in the Gentle People book in its hybrid, coded, elusive, sometimes self-cloaking while self-revealing, currents. The word “gentle” is another connective tissue, in that I feel both books have ways they are trying to invite readers to perceive with more sensitivity, with more heed of subtle currents.
Meghan Lamb: From the stilted English in letters from Mary's father to the evasive accounts of Vietnam offered by her mother, The Gentle Order of Girls and Boys contains so many poignant explorations of the voids, gaps, and in-between spaces of language. Reading these moments, I can't help but think of a line from your East/West song cycle-"Every word is a cataclysm"-as a kind of thematic refrain, a reminder of all that we long (and fail) to share through our language: the deep internal ruptures that result from "every word."
In light of these moments-these "cataclysms"-I'm curious to hear how your ideas of language and connectivity have changed over the years. How have your perceptions shifted with your evolution as a writer, a reader of fellow Vietnamese-American writers, and a founding member of She Who Has No Master(s)?
Dao Strom: To risk being a little indulgently self-referential here . . . the song you mention—“Cataclysm”—also opens with these lines: I don’t know if I can fake it anymore / I’ve lied long enough for you / & if you think you know me / just because you read the words I wrote / well here’s another song for you. With that song opening the East/West song cycle, as well the first “chapter” of We Were Meant To Be a Gentle People, in a way, what I felt I was doing was shaking off the constraints and expectations of language and narrative structures that had thus far held and guided me--namely, the notion of having to tell a story straight, or that the self of a character—or writer—could be known straightforwardly at all. It was my way of declaring (to myself as well to anyone who might stop to listen) that I wasn’t going to stay inside the lines anymore, that I was too tired to keep up the facade of trying to fit the mold. At that time (which was also the period after The Gentle Order of Girls and Boys first came out), I was feeling, pretty strongly, the frustration of my words not being received as I thought I was conveying them, and also that the “cataclysms” of what I was trying to write about were often too heavy or somehow too much for readers or listeners to receive. For instance, in my years playing music (in Austin, Texas), one of the reactions I often got was that my music was too “dark”; on one occasion I even had a booking person tell me I could potentially “make it” in that town if I would just play more “upbeat” music. In hindsight, I see now what a ludicrous constraint that was for me to be trying to fit into, to play in such a way as to be acceptably heard by those types of listeners, while coming from the history and background and bent that, in truth, I come from. Sometimes I have felt like I am this creature standing on the edge of an abyss or with this wild, immense terrain just behind me, but all that people see (or choose to see) is this small, soft-looking, female, indeterminately brown surface. Add to this the stereotypical assumption that Asian women are demure and yielding and dependent (which is what has been historically projected onto their countries, as well), and maybe it starts to be more understandable why speaking my truths, my words, could feel like “cataclysms” that, no matter how plainly or carefully I uttered them, would not be what others ultimately wanted or were willing to hear.
There is or was, I could say, maybe also something about Vietnam and America—what Americans are willing or unwilling to see about Vietnam and Vietnamese agency and imagination—that comes into play here, too, I think.
But it has been more than ten years since The Gentle Order first came out and when I started writing those songs, and my relationship to those “cataclysms” has also evolved by now. In 2015, I co-founded She Who Has No Master(s) with several other Vietnamese women writers, and in 2018 I was invited to take over the editorship of diaCRITICS, an online journal of the Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network/DVAN (founded by Viet Thanh Nguyen and Isabelle Thuy Pelaud) that highlights writing and art by diasporic Vietnamese. All these evolutions reflect a progress that was happening on a larger collective level too, I think, of our diaspora forming more connectivity within itself, in general. For many years I knew no other Vietnamese writers or artists and was quite isolated from any community that shared that background. Then slowly, starting around 2010 or so, I began to make connections and also began to see that other diasporic artists were wrestling with similar themes and issues, that I wasn’t entirely alone.
Meghan Lamb: As your characters in The Gentle Order of Girls and Boys navigate their raw, young identities, they also develop their creative perspectives through film and music. I'd love to hear about your own creative evolution as a hybrid artist who not only blends genres, but often melds writing with music, video art, and photography. Do you see stirrings of your own artistic growth in these characters?
Dao Strom: Yes, certainly. Details about the film and music aspirations of the Gentle Order characters are borrowed from my own life—like, yes, I did hang a timing belt on my wall as art in my college apartment, and for one film class lighting assignment we taped the word “TRUST” over a window—but the details are also spread out, of course, across the different characters, and elaborated and appropriated. I studied film as an undergraduate, then moved away from that to end up in a graduate writing program in fiction. Somewhere in those years, I picked up a guitar and started learning how to play music, purely as a pleasure, with no ambition to write my own songs or perform, at first. Like Darcy in “Walruses,” I moved from California to New York City after college, but was overwhelmed by the big city life and eventually ended up retreating from it. I had a similar experience as I wrote for Darcy, when my New York roommate came home one day and handed me a box of cassette tapes he’d found on the sidewalk; amid those were albums by some Americana and folk music artists that, by chance, opened a door for me. It would seem like the twists on my artistic path often came as happenstance, rather than me plotting my way toward them. After the publishing challenges with Gentle Order, I tried, but ultimately failed, at writing another novel; I dealt with rejections and well-meaning people in the publishing world even telling me that if I would just write in a more traditional format, I would do better. But I simply wasn’t capable of it. I was living in Juneau, Alaska with my husband and homeschooling my son—a pretty insular period for me—when I began to step onto the hybrid path. At some point, amid all the failure-to-connect that I was experiencing, something in me eventually clicked, and I decided to veer even further out to left field, which was what led to the Gentle People book. I had no map or context for what I was doing and was often plagued with doubt about it, but I didn’t know how to do things any other way. Looking back now, I see the overall arc of my path gave me everything I needed to arrive at that hybrid format, that it all actually makes natural sense. Poetry and cross-genre experimentation were probably where I should’ve been oriented all along, it just took me some practice and searching to get there.
Meghan Lamb: As someone who (also) grew up in a multi-racial family within a mostly white, suburban community, I'm really struck by the ways your Vietnamese-American characters observe and analyze the whiteness of those around them. They're constantly exposing privileges these white people aren't capable of seeing themselves, but their exposures are usually quiet, careful, subversive: beneath the surface of the conversation. I'm sure this kind of subversive exposure is a learned strategy for you-something that feels like second nature or survival-but I'm very interested in hearing how you imagined your inevitable white readers when writing these moments. Were you conscious of writing both toward and against their invisible whiteness?
Dao Strom: This is a tricky but good question. I have to admit, at the time I was writing these stories, I was not thinking so lucidly about my own relationship to whiteness (though perhaps I should’ve been) and, possibly, I also was not picturing any exact type of reader at all. I was simply writing from the place I felt most compelled to write, and I was writing what felt true to me to write. Much of the writing that I loved then—writers like Mavis Gallant and Alice Munro—wrote stories steeped in human psychology and emotionality, and very often their stories revealed characters in full spectrums of weaknesses and strengths. There is a certain impartiality that those authors portray their characters with, not coddling them, not demonizing, not trying to moralize to any degrees; this approach (I wanted permission to do this too, simply put) certainly informed how I approached writing my own characters. To me it seems like an honest yet compassionate way to write: with the author as a sort of narrative witness to the complex and full humanity of their characters. In The Gentle Order, the stories are as much about the perceiving (i.e. the observations made by the characters) as they are about the characters themselves and why/how they perceive as they do, why they feel they must perceive as they do. I see them now as women characters trying to make their own roadmaps for navigating human personalities and dynamics, because they instinctively know the existing maps don’t accurately account for them, and to a degree, this, yes, has to do with being of mixed-race or Vietnamese-American background in settings where they are, almost always, the only ones of their kind. This was very much the way I felt throughout my youth and early adulthood, and how I have felt as a writer, even when I didn’t have the theoretical language or perspective to understand I was deriving my own strategy for navigating it all.
Meghan Lamb: The Gentle Order of Girls and Boys reverberates with longing, seeking, and (maybe knowingly impotent) attempts to imagine home. The search is both internal and external, of course, covering the geography of spaces in California and Texas as well as more speculative terrains. Mary moves from Los Angeles to St. Louis (a city at the center of the U.S. that feels neither fully midwestern nor southern) and attempts to assemble some narrative for her experience, some narrative she can compare to Kenny's "adventurous" travels. Darcy is effectively homeless, struggling to define her relationship to (and tenuous ownership of) the liminal space she lives in. Leena feels lostand unsure where she fits within her big empty Texas house. Sage travels through the beautiful voids of the desert with her son and this man with whom she shares a difficult-to-define connection: a connection they often call "husband and wife" for lack of any better explanation.
How has your understanding of home changed in the years since you wrote The Gentle Order of Girls and Boys? Do you feel any closer to home (as an external or internal space)?
Dao Strom: I appreciate this read on these stories and your pulling forth those elements of rootlessness and seeking. The question of belonging, and the quest for it, at the same time knowing that it is more complicated than just finding one physical geography to stay put in, are questions that haunt these characters and that have certainly played a part in my own life and being, especially as a Vietnamese person in America. This sense of displacement and longing has been with me as far back as I can remember, and for me, it’s not just cultural or geographical—i.e., it is not going to be rectified by returning to Vietnam or being somehow more traditionally “Vietnamese” either—the displacement is also on a level that is spiritual and hard to encapsulate. I used to believe that I would find a place eventually, but after moving around a number of times I’ve come to realize (which is maybe also just a process of maturing) that my sense of disconnect and restlessness, and my uncanny ability to—sooner or later—find myself at odds with any given town, community, group setting, etc., are aspects and patterns I contain within myself, for whatever set of reasons and influences. About a year after Gentle Order was published, I left Texas and then spent time in Baja California, Alaska, and on the Oregon coast, before eventually settling in Portland, where I live now. Even after almost 10 years in this town, I can’t say I feel a strong sense of belonging although I do make an effort to engage with where I am; I try my best to be present, while I also keep within me the sense that all of this, all the “homes” we make, are potentially transitory. By now, I guess I would say, I’ve come to terms with a sense of not belonging anywhere completely—which is perhaps why I felt compelled to title my recent poetry book You Will Always Be Someone From Somewhere Else. I’ve also begun to be interested in the idea of “place” as nonphysical—for instance, I like to think about songs as “places” one can enter and inhabit. Art/art-making are some of the likely “places” that might equate, for me, as home.
Dao Strom is the author of Instrument/Traveler’s Ode, a poetry/music collection (Fonograf Editions/Antiquated Future Records, 2020); a bilingual poetry/art book, You Will Always Be Someone From Somewhere Else (AJAR Press, 2018); an experimental memoir, We Were Meant To Be a Gentle People, and song cycle, East/West (2015); and two books of fiction. Strom has received awards from the Creative Capital Foundation, Literary Arts, RACC, NEA, and others. Her story collection The Gentle Order of Girls and Boys (Counterpoint Press) was reissued last year with a new foreword and author preface.
Meghan Lamb is the author of All of Your Most Private Places (Spork Press, 2020) and Silk Flowers (Birds of Lace, 2017).