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Saigoneer Bookshelf: 'A Thousand Times You Lose Your Treasure' Speaks Many Voices

When I first met Hoa Nguyen several years ago in Hanoi, it was her first trip back to Vietnam since she left as a child.

She was eager to tell me how a few days prior she had chanced upon a motordrome, or Wall of Death — the large, circular arenas that stunt motorcyclists perform in. It was an astounding coincidence because her mother, Diệp Anh Nguyễn, had performed in such structures during her time in a famous all-female stunt motorcycle troupe in Vung Tau in the 1950s.

The poems that Hoa shared during that visit were typical of her style: language-obsessed, rewardingly slippery, skittering and simultaneously playful and profound. Absent from them, however, was much mention of her mother or the country she grew up in. A Thousand Times You Lose Your Treasure, Hoa’s latest poetry collection, however, holds Diệp and Vietnam at its core.

Diệp in action as seen in the book, which includes photographs and several postcards.

Many of the poems in the book detailing Diệp’s experiences are presented in precise, straightforward language, such as 'Tryouts for the Flying Motorist Artist Team, 1958,' which offers the details “To ‘save’ performance shoes they trained barefoot / She took a taste of earth / held hands on the Wall of Death.” Or a prose poem that recounts the time a German tightrope group visited the troupe and expressed astonishment upon finding out that unlike in Europe, Vietnamese women could perform such dangerous feats. Hoa’s gifts for bending and manipulating language are many, so it is interesting to note that she shows restraint when presenting Diệp’s experiences so matter-of-factly. It is as if she is telling the reader that the story is so interesting, so thrilling, it demands no accouterments; there is no need to put frosting on fudge. 

Understanding elements of Diệp’s biography that Hoa has revealed in interviews, such as her mother being raised on a farm by her grandparents and running away at 15; having a daughter, Hoa, who died and naming the one that followed the same — both after characters in the Chinese romance novels she was forbidden to read but did anyway, and not remaining with either daughter’s fathers, are not necessary for enjoying A Thousand Times You Lose Your Treasure, but add a richness to the reading. Many of the details surface in shreds and snippets in the more lyrical poems, such as when she alludes to a photo “of the first Hoa,” or a grandfather with “too many books for a farmer.”

A photo of Nguyen's mother accompanied by an original poem, originally published as a broadside by Cuneiform Press.

Hoa’s ability to hit numerous emotional registers in a single poem is on full display in the standout 'Mexico,' which starts off as a light-hearted re-telling of how Diệp came to open a juice stand named Mexico and concludes with a peek into one of the many hardships she endured. Elsewhere, Hoa slips in her sly irreverence and humor; nowhere better than in a somber ghost story that concludes: “and Da Lat made the site on the hill / into an attraction you can visit / because why not.”

While perhaps not central, the book details Hoa’s own losses as well, namely her association with Vietnam and the Vietnamese language. Numerous poems point to the author’s inability to speak the language, such as the inclusion of a translation exercise for beginner phrases. Elsewhere, she notes: “They will smell fish sauce and pho / even without food in the poems,” which is a sentiment many POC writers can no doubt identify with. The lines gain particular power when considering that Hoa rarely writes what could be considered “identity” poetry, which goes against how many major western publishers like to frame non-white authors. Meanwhile, she alludes to the liminal space many diaspora writers occupy of not belonging fully to one group or another when she posits: “who wants to hear  / about your Asian North American experience anyway.”

Vietnam exists in the book independent of Hoa and Diệp’s experiences as well, such as in a graceful depiction of how one learns to play the đàn bầu; a list of the three most common types of tân nhạc, a clinical listing of the use of deadly defoliants during Operation Ranch Hand; rules for ceremonial offerings and the rituals involved in celebrating the first day of Tết. These poems may introduce novel, “foreign” details to audiences in the west, but the grace and precision of the language will entertain Vietnamese readers as well.

Another major thread woven throughout the book is ghost stories and general hauntings. The topics can be central, such as in 'Vietnam Ghost Story: High School Clock Tower' or 'Vietnam Ghost Story: Da Lat Lovers' which re-tell tales familiar to most Saigonese, or can be sprinkled into other poems via allusions and images. For example, she asks about the “homeless ancestors that live inside the [banyan] tree” in one poem and the need to “burn effigies” to clean a Ford Fiesta in another. The subject matter fits in well with the other themes of life and death, legacy, and mysticism, adding an ethereal sheen to the collection.

Two poems featured in A Thousand Times You Lose Your Treasure, originally published in Saigoneer. Illustrations by Hannah Hoang.

Yet for all the narrative elements, Hoa’s preoccupation with the joys of sound and language abound. In the first poem, readers encounter the lines: “angle looks too much like angel / and vice versa.” Her leaping, at times seemingly disjointed style allows for certain lines to function as delightful aphorisms such as “In the future even stones will need each other.” Elsewhere she invents words and phrases like “immigranty,” and “Skully sag-faced.” Unlike the poems that present a singular narrative, these lyric poems can function as stand-alone playgrounds for enjoying the pleasures found in dissecting, reconstructing, and relishing in words. 

The lyric poems have cavern-like spaces to explore, allowing readers to find a new nook, cranny, stalagmite, bat or geode each time they open a page. There are moments of language, dialogue and description that are intentionally disorienting or open to interpretation. When Hoa writes, for example, “I won’t laugh again / like that (silky),” audiences cannot be certain what situation is being described but the confidence and deftness of Hoa’s language motivates one to continue on into the caves she creates between the lines.

Despite the poems’ different styles and forms, the book never feels disjointed in part because much of Hoa’s play with sound and non-sequiturs connects to Vietnam, such as in 'Mud Matrix' wherein she writes “Chinga cartoon plunder / Chonga gangplank gratitude,” and elsewhere: “Despite claims of no birds in Vietnam (because of our constant eating aggression).” By grounding these poems in the images and language of Vietnam, the book gains a certain cohesiveness where each page enriches the following one. Ultimately, the collection is a triumph for how it can contain so many different moods and modes while remaining a complete and connected artifact.

The release of A Thousand Times You Lose Your Treasure is somewhat bittersweet, as Diệp passed away several months before its publication. Telling someone else’s story is always a fraught exercise; even more so when that person is a family member. Diệp was proud of Hoa and her accomplishments but was not a close reader of her work. Not long ago, Hoa gave her a broadside that featured her photo atop a motorcycle alongside one Hoa’s her poems. Diệp promptly propped it up in her room with a box of Kleenex covering the text. Yet Hoa considers herself lucky and shared “how special it is that she trusted me to tell her story, that she never said, Don’t write about this, or anything like that to me.” We are all very fortunate that not only did Diệp consent to have her story told, but such a talented poet was able to serve as a medium of them so the powerful stories can live on.

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