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"Who is American? How do we decide, and who decides?" an interview with E.M. Tran

by Sarah Fawn Montgomery

SFM: Why are you drawn to the genre of nonfiction? What about its history or form speaks to you? What compels you to write about truth, history, and your own experience?

I would consider myself a fiction writer in general, but find a lot of my stories in the seeds of truth, altering experiences I’ve had or crafting characters from people I’ve known. However, even though you’re free to imaginatively invent narrative, there’s a lot about fiction that is conservatively tied to convention and form. There is experimental fiction out there, but often it’s difficult to write in the face of overbearing historical precedent and genre conventions. So, entering into the genre of creative nonfiction has been very liberating in the vastness of its boundaries. I’m bound in other ways to “truth,” but what I can do with that truth, how I position it, and how I convey it are so fluid. Because of that formal freedom, writing about my own experiences feels much more authentic, and I am more open as a result with the truth that I know. It also allows me to look outside of myself and explore other possible truths, which I think ultimately can only enrich my fiction rather than remain separate from it.

SFM: Your winning essay, “Miss Saigon,” moves between the story of your mother’s escape from Saigon and your experiences of race and identity. The essay braids your mother’s story with your own, collaging past with present, memory with lived experience, and readers are driven through the piece by your use of form as much as your use of narrative. Why were you drawn to this form? How does the form work with, against, or perhaps because of the subject matter?

“Miss Saigon” was as much about my own experience as it was about my mother’s, and also, as much about larger experiences of trauma for many people. Hurricane Katrina effected thousands and continues to leave a visible mark on the city of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast despite it having been more than a decade since its landfall. And the Vietnam War, too, has displaced generations of Vietnamese people, the effects of that war rippling into the future in ways that are innocuous and sometimes invisible. Memories around huge traumas like these are so often elided, forgotten, revised, or representative of the oppressor, and as a victim of a trauma, I am also guilty of engaging in this act of false memory. So are all of us. The essay is really an exploration of how trauma interacts with memory and identity, and I wanted the form to reflect that. We remember in bits and pieces, the different parts of our selves materializing around formative events in ways that only mingle and touch when we can stand back and view in hindsight. It was also impossible to talk about my own experience with Katrina and my mother’s experience with the Vietnam War and Katrina as separate narratives that occur chronologically in time, especially considering our own subjectivities as Vietnamese American women in a predominantly white culture. All of these memories and issues of identity enact themselves simultaneously, so breaking up the narrative in parts where the past and present are told outside of chronological time was necessary to the telling of the story.

SMF: In his interview with Prairie Schooner, guest judge Kiese Laymon said, “I love essays that imagine a reader different than the reader we are taught to imagine in so-called literary essays. If you imagine a different reader, you produce a different piece with different rhythms, conclusions and questions.” Who is your imagined reader for “Miss Saigon” or your larger body of work? How does this reader impact your vision and craft?

For “Miss Saigon” in particular, I imagined my mother as the reader. It forced me to render her in complex terms, to be always aware of the dangers of two-dimensional characterization. In general, I often imagine my family reading my work. As a Vietnamese American writer, naturally I write a lot about the Vietnamese American experience. I want it to feel true to any reader, but especially to the people I am writing about. Sometimes the burden of culture can be taxing—like, am I morally obligated to write about Asian people because I am Asian? Am I unable to write different characters? Is it my onus to bear to expose to a mostly white readership that Asian American stories are important and exist? At the end of the day, I write what I write because I find it compelling and important, and I imagine an audience that is both insider and outsider to the subject matter. This vision of readership pushes me to trust my reader in an immense way in the delivery of information and execution of narrative and character.

SFM: Our guest judge also said, “In essay writing, I want to sometimes answer really old questions with different forms in the hopes of getting different answers. The readers of essays are so much closer to the process, too.” Do you see “Miss Saigon” answering old questions? What ongoing conversations is it entering or speaking back against? What “different answers” are you trying to get at in this essay or your other nonfiction?

“Miss Saigon” attempts to answer that question, which I also feel is so relevant in this current historical moment, of who is American? How do we decide, and who decides? I think so often we are bombarded with images of whiteness and inculcated with a fear of the immigrant because the immigrant does not conform to those images of whiteness. My mother is very beautiful, but her beauty has no value in a culture that only praises a particular type of beauty. Those larger questions about what our identities are and how we deal with trauma—the answers to those questions are so dependent on place and our environments.

SFM: Finally, what projects are you currently working on? What can we look forward to reading?

I have been working for the last few years on a novel about sorority women in the south. It is an examination of race and gender when thrown into an environment where standards are often inflexible. Sororities in the south are so rooted in traditions of regional whiteness, and when those traditions are disrupted or challenged, it makes for a very interesting conflict. I also have a short story forthcoming this December in the Iron Horse Literary Review about a young girl and her father building a boat in order to survive a flood in New Orleans.

Sarah Fawn Montgomery holds a PhD in creative writing from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where she teaches and works as Prairie Schooner’s Nonfiction Assistant Editor. She is the author of three poetry chapbooks, Regenerate: Poems from Mad Women (Dancing Girl Press 2017), Leaving Tracks: A Prairie Guide (Finishing Line Press 2016), and The Astronaut Checks His Watch (Finishing Line Press 2014). Her work has been listed as notable several times in Best American Essays, and her poetry and prose have appeared in various magazines including Crab Orchard ReviewDIAGRAM, Fugue, The Los Angeles Review, Natural Bridge, Nimrod, North Dakota Quarterly, Passages North, The Pinch, Puerto del Sol, The Rumpus, Southeast Review, Terrain, Zone 3 and others.