“Art comes out of desire in the face of indifference”: An Interview with lê thi diem thúy

By Maryann Henck, Maria Moss, and Sab­ri­na Völz

lê thi diem thúy at Leuphana University in May 2015
lê thi diem thúy at Leuphana Uni­ver­si­ty in May 2015

When lê thi diem thúy (pro­nounced “twee”) vis­it­ed Leuphana Uni­ver­si­ty this past May, not only did our stu­dents have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to attend her read­ing and talk, the three of us also had the plea­sure of inter­view­ing her. lê thi diem thúy is the author of the high­ly acclaimed nov­el, The Gang­ster We Are All Look­ing For, but pri­mar­i­ly sees her­self as a poet. If you’re look­ing for some cre­ative inspi­ra­tion to start off the new year, take a peek at the interview.

ASB: When did you first decide to become a writer?

thúy: It was nev­er decid­ed that I would become a writer. What I want­ed, ever since I was a child and first learned to read, was to be with words. Read­ing was both a chal­lenge and a con­so­la­tion, sto­ries were worlds I could enter, and from a young age I under­stood that words some­how sum­moned worlds.  At first I only want­ed to be trans­port­ed as a read­er. Per­haps I became a writer when I real­ized that I, too, car­ried worlds with­in myself, and words were the key to unlock those worlds and release peo­ple, places, moments, ques­tions, desires. 

ASB: Where do you get your inspi­ra­tion from?

thúy: What moves me, what I don’t under­stand, what tor­ments me, what hum­bles me, what eludes me in its beau­ty, mys­tery, ferocity.

ASB: Dur­ing your read­ing at Leuphana Uni­ver­si­ty we heard you say, “Art comes out of desire in the face of indif­fer­ence.” Could you please com­ment on that statement.

thúy: I believe art comes out of a whol­ly sub­jec­tive desire to cap­ture or con­vey some­thing that has urgency for the artist – and almost no one else. I don’t mean the ques­tions that dri­ve my work aren’t of inter­est to oth­ers, I only mean that in the mak­ing of the work, I alone am moved by the desire to get clos­er and sum­mon some­thing onto the page. I take respon­si­bil­i­ty for this desire, as if it were a haunt­ing that only stuns and stops me in my tracks.  The teem­ing world moves on, as it does, as it should. I wel­come and I under­stand that I work in the face of its pro­found indif­fer­ence. No one and no thing asks, and yet I insist on mak­ing these marks which, through char­ac­ter, the ten­sion of a sen­tence, the evo­ca­tion of time and place, are marks of my own desire to engage with the world.

ASB: What would you call your­self – a Viet­namese Amer­i­can writer, an Amer­i­can writer of Viet­namese descent, or an Amer­i­can writer?

thúy:  I am a writer. I work with words.

ASB: What is the rela­tion­ship of your writ­ing to your own biography?

thúy: If I had not left Viet­nam at the age of six, as a refugee, a boat child, and expe­ri­enced the deep frac­tur­ing of my own fam­i­ly which is to say, at that age, my entire world

If I had not had to learn Eng­lish quick­ly and under great pressure

If I had not, in the act of try­ing, as a child, to trans­late for my father, while being aware that I could answer cer­tain ques­tions on his behalf (name, address, date of birth, etc.) but in no way con­vey his joy or sor­row, the worlds he had lost and been forced by the knife-edge of his­to­ry to leap over

If my own expe­ri­ence of the round­ness of the world had not shown up the lie and utter inad­e­qua­cy of the lin­ear answer or explanation

If the war

If its long aftermath

If I wasn’t a girl who could not stop ask­ing ques­tions and believed that some­where there were not answers to these ques­tions, but even greater, more tan­gled, more wor­thy questions

If I had not been forced to leave Viet­nam, I would not have had to find a way – through words – to first return myself to myself and then – through words – pull the worlds I car­ried onto the shore of the page here in America.

ASB: Thank you for not only answer­ing our ques­tions, but also allow­ing us a glimpse into your poet­ic process.

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