I learn the difference between Oriental and Asian in middle school. No one in my family teaches me. The people in my family don’t care about political correctness or preferred nomenclatures. Watching The Real World on MTV, Pam explains that things are Oriental—e.g. vases and rugs, food—whereas people are Asian. To say a person is Oriental makes them into an object.
lily hoang

interview w/ lily hoang

This interview was originally published at BrazosBookstore.com on 8.15.16

Say you get to do an interview for the first time in four months and it is with the woman that wrote your favorite book this year. What you don’t know is that she is in Europe during the weeks you have to reach her. In fact, she’s been in Europe for eleven weeks: fourteen countries, one book tour, one week-long writing workshop in Barcelona. The last time you used Skype, you were a junior in college, and it was to talk to your best friend while she was in Scotland, and your crappy ex-boyfriend during his year in Japan. Seeing the interface and hearing the sound of the dial tone conjures more feelings than anticipated.

When I meet Lily Hoang, author of the essay collection A BESTIARY—and four other books I have not read—I am wearing a hoodie I bought in 2009 for a band I no longer pay to see and pulling a personal pizza out of the oven because it is 9pm and dinner isn’t going to eat itself. Hoang also is in her pajamas, wearing a black t-shirt with a reference to something unknown to me and smoking an e-cigarette in her Boston hotel room. She ordered Indian food for delivery—they don’t have Indian food in New Mexico, see—and this is what it means to be professional writers: to eat on live stream with strangers because it is all the time you have before the deadline.

For two months, I backed A BESTIARY every way I knew how: reviews for Ploughshares and Heavy Feather Review, staff picks for the store and our website, and now this. In so many ways, I had already said what I needed to say, that A BESTIARY is the thing that finally gave me permission to stop worrying about everybody else’s opinions regarding my Asian-ness. It is enough to be myself and Asian and American, all. There is no quota. There are no rules.

In A BESTIARY, Hoang discusses her disguises through the years, and how few of them fit. During her marriage to a white man she calls Chris, she let her husband “correct” her opinions because that’s what “a good wife” would do. She made pies from scratch, with cold butter. “This used to be me,” she writes. Bitter toward the ex-husband, sure, but much more disappointed in herself for contorting that way. She uses Professor Hoang as comparison: “In the classroom, I project confidence and strength. People tell me I intimidate them.” Though dubbed her “favorite Lily to wear,” it is still a performance. It is all a performance.

When I call Hoang, she knows that I have read her book, which means I know what kind of sex she likes (rough), the name of her best best friend (Dorothy), all of her hate (and love) for her Vietnamese parents. I know about her abusive ex-husband and her abusive on-again, off-again boyfriend, the fling she had in Albuquerque; I know that she masturbates every day. In other words, I already know everything I want to know, more than I deserve to know.

So, what do I ask? I ask where she went in Europe. I ask if any of the recurring characters in her essays have read the book. I am thinking of her parents, but she thinks I mean the men and without any hesitation pulls me into the gossip surrounding the awful boyfriend. She tells me where he lives, what he’s doing. She says that when she posted a status that she was coming back to America, he sent her a message asking if he could buy her a plane ticket to come see him. Her response to me—in real time, side-bar—is to make a face and imitate her asking him if he had read the book. Then, since he has: “What makes you think I have any intention of seeing you ever again?”

She takes another puff on her e-cig, and I think, I want to be this woman.

Scratching her head, she says, “Do you want to know how I wrote the book? That’s something that hasn’t been written up yet.” I say, “Okay,” but what I wonder is whether or not she would have said the same thing if we were talking without video, if she couldn’t see my face. She tells me about studying with Rikki Ducornet and how she is responsible for the book that is on my bookshelf. During their summer together, Hoang read Ducornet the manuscript out loud. (Ducornet is in her seventies and can’t see well.) She loved the first piece, but was less enthusiastic about the second. An old woman without pretense, Ducornet asked Hoang if she had anything better, because everything except the first section was too self-serving, too purple. “I want to see what your brain can do,” Ducornet said.

Despite all, Hoang’s manuscript, the same one she read Ducornet, wins two contests. The first would not let her do revisions—it was the manuscript as is or bust. The second was the Cleveland State University Poetry Center. CSU gave her twenty days. Her deadline was September 10, in the midst of her deadline for her tenure portfolio, which was due September 1. Over curry and okra—so much Indian food the delivery person gave her three sets of silverware—Hoang tells me about those marathon weeks, how she juggled starting classes, being associate department head, finishing the portfolio, rewriting the book. She did not sleep.

What became the essay titled “on the WAY TO THE TEMPLE OF TEN THOUSAND SKULLS” was thirty-five pages in its original form. In my version of A BESTIARY, it is four sentences. Total, there are, Hoang says, “maybe ten” pages that got saved. The rest went to the trash, and for the better. In her acknowledgments, Hoang thanks Ducornet for their “fairy tale summer together,” and I want to know how these things happen. Because the book I read? Hoang cares so little for her own pain that many times I want to intervene on her behalf. It is a difficult, almost impossible, balance—to say, “Yes, this was me,” without romanticizing it at all.

Attempting an approach at the diagonal, I ask her about the title, and she says there’s “no special meaning behind it.” Instead, she tells me her definition of a bestiary—“a collection of animals, real and imagined”—and that she is a “literal human being” who says “exactly what [she] means.” In fact, she tells me she often gets chided for not being able to detect sarcasm. “I believe everything,” she says, and at this point, when she has not slept in days, has already been on two planes today and has another one in the morning, before dawn, I cannot argue.

Last question: what next? Right off, she says, “Tindering My Way Through Europe” and describes her vision of this book of steamy essays about her trips across the continent with all these handsome men with doctorates—EVERY SINGLE ONE. Hoang’s PhD? On “geography of the imagination.”

review: A BESTIARY by lily hoang

This review was originally published at Ploughshares on 6.24.2016


Not all rat mazes have corridors. For the Morris water navigation task, it is as it reads: a rat must learn to fare in water. It is placed inside a pool and must swim to the other side. Once the rat learns its path, the scientist adds a solution to the water, causing it to become opaque. The hypothesis is that the rat will be confused. However, “despite changes to the environment, rats swim right to the platform.”

Lily Hoang is a first generation Vietnamese-American. A Bestiary, her debut collection of essays, is not about rat experiments, though they appear in some cases (as the above garnered from “On The Rat Race”). In meditations comparable to Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, Hoang both approaches and avoids her sister’s death (drug overdose), her failed marriage (white man she calls Chris), and a destructive on-again, off-again relationship (white man she calls Harold).

She has made attempts, like the rat, to find her way back home, but the paths didn’t lead the way they promised. “I had wanted to be a good wife, and for the most part, I was,” she writes, “but the fact that my marriage was a catastrophe doesn’t change.” As for Harold, he is a stubby lighthouse with broken lamps and both of them know it, but she remains. In “On Scale,” she does the math: “The weight of my love measured against the weight of my life without him measured against his betrayal and all the terrible things he’s told me over the years. In the end, no matter my options, I know I will choose Harold.”

Suffering, she tell us, is a virtue in Vietnamese culture. It is right and true and noble, a thing required of all women. Hoang points at jade bracelets, describes how when she was young “my mother would cuddle me closely when I was sick. She would say, ‘Shhh, shhh,’ and tell me that she wanted me to give her all of my sickness, so that she would be sick and I wouldn’t.” This inherited anguish—the pain and pleasure it inspires—seems to be a birthright, one that clashes with Hoang’s ideology as a feminist.

In “On Catastrophe,” she introduces us to Other Lily: “She would succeed in all the ways I have failed. She would not be a professor. She would not be divorced. She would be a good daughter.” Other Lily is a medical doctor, does not have “bad skin” or “a head full of white hair” or “do something as shameful as smoke cigarettes.” Other Lily “saves two lives and loses none”; Other Lily “is in love. And all her loyalty and love is reciprocated, an equal distribution of desire and faith.” Other Lily is perfect, the embodiment of our “better” self, the one we have always been told we should strive to become.

Actual Lily is feral and flighty, ferocious in her inner life. However, she also writes, and not without effort, “Face the facts: there is no Other Lily, and I’m pretty satisfied with my life.” Here, she stresses an essential point: she is not an either/or but a both/and. Winding, whimsical, and wild, A Bestiary tackles race, womanhood, and memory with a precision that pinches right at the veins.

review: A BESTIARY by lily hoang

This review was originally published at Heavy Feather Review on 5.25.16

When it comes to writing, Asian women in America are given two choices. The first, of course, is the one where her exoticism oozes from her skin like bark slathered in sap, where she is delicate like dishes that only see food during holidays. She is an Asian woman with Asian parents who adore her and they have made a life possible only through this bootstrap-raising that the Puritans wrote about in their diaries. The second—also damning—is the one where she is angry, wild. In this narrative, her lack of decency begets what she deserves: no marriage, no children, no medals.

Lily Hoang knows these expectations when she pens the essays that comprise A Bestiary. To introduce the collection, she writes, “Once upon a time—shh, shh—this is only a fairy tale.” In the first essay, “On the Rat Race,” the princess appears, and it is not her. It is Hoang’s dead sister, who is never named, not once—in this essay, or any of the others. Instead, Hoang writes:

My sister died nearly three years ago.

I have stopped asking why before once upon a time began.

I have renamed her my dead sister.

If there is love beneath this pragmatism, confusion, and frustration, it is affection Hoang keeps close. For us, she displays her dead sister’s troubles—ones, it seems, her parents have difficulty recognizing. Later in the essay, the mother praises Hoang’s dead sister for using the meat carver on Christmas and Thanksgiving. “She’s the only one who’s ever used it,” Hoang reports her mother saying, “She was so talented!”

However, it is a mere meat cleaver, and Hoang’s sister was only in San Antonio for a few years, had only borrowed said cleaver a few times, before she died. Hoang also adds no adornment to her sister’s addiction: “Towards the end, my dead sister stopped discriminating: any opiate would do, anything to subside her pain.” Here, Hoang recognizes that her sister’s hurt could not be contained—not by drugs, not by her, nor the lover and two sons she left behind. The night before she finds “my dead sister seizing on her bedroom floor, before she went and died,” Hoang describes how she “heard her crawling along the carpet,” opening bags and zippers. This whole time, “I didn’t open my eyes.”

Pretend, make-believe, fantasy—shh, shh—is a theme throughout. “On Scale,” the final essay in the collection, is especially brutal, a litany of cruelties inflicted by Hoang’s ex-husband Chris, her lover Harold, and how she always stayed. “The weight of my love measured against the weight of my life without him measured against his betrayal and the terrible things he’s told me over the years,” Hoang writes. “In the end, no matter my options, I know I will choose Harold.” In other words, it’s not that she doesn’t know. She knows. She just can’t escape it. “My selflessness is a flaw I inherited from my mother,” she writes. “I suffer very well; my altruism can leave bruises.”

Some essays read as vignettes or parables while others dare even the most free-form lyric essays. “On the Geography of Friendship” with its movements (i.e., “Fugue” and “Allegro Non Troppo”) unfolds like a suite; “On Measurement” is an ode to Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.” Main characters—her dead sister, ex-husband Chris, lover Harold, and close friend Dorothy—appear often, in the way the same actors play all of Wes Anderson’s characters in his films.

With A Bestiary, Hoang takes the illusion of the Asian woman we all recognize—meticulous, string player, passive—and skewers her, without pity. In this fairy tale, Hoang is a “bad feminist” and her sister is the Sleeping Beauty. Vibrating with energy but never maudlin, Hoang repels, and dazzles—an amazing debut.