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.”