When you open the first pages of Fish in Exile, it is clear: you are conversing with a poet. Language is effortless and strange, glorious in its dexterity and rhythm. Each sentence has the capability to corner you, kiss you, crush you. This is story of Ethos and Catholic, a husband and wife who are mourning their young children, both dead in a tragic accident. It is a novel of mourning in the most active sense; we see the physical bodies in this marriage and the world around their family fissure and quake with seismic shifts of grief. Reading this novel is like diving under the surface of the ocean, and sinking, deeper and deeper, until you are somehow deposited back on dry land.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Vi Khi Nao over email about death, food, and sending characters to emotional Siberia.
One of my favorite sentences in the book comes towards the end: “Disbelief is a head-turner.” You achieve a beautiful whiplash, as if all the characters are constantly angling back towards the direction of the tragedy of Abby and Colin’s loss, caught in its undertow. Did the novel begin with the idea of this incident, or was it a place you arrived only eventually?
It was a place I arrived eventually. The plot is one big thunderstorm and writing allows me to separate one cloud from another. Entangled cumulonimbus clouds at times. Sometimes there was hail and I got knocked down to the ground. I am glad I got up from these literary concussions. Because if I didn’t I wouldn’t have finished this book.
I want to ask you about the connection between food and grief. There’s the most obvious reference in the book, the story of Demeter (and Catholic) planting garlic to deal with the grief of losing Persephone. But food is often used here to communicate a kind of surreal unknowability: “She sleeps as if she’s tucked under a hundred thin layers of phyllo dough.” Or, “The pillows, like large bleached raviolis.” There’s something sad and dangerous here, as if everything is made of a kind of flesh, everything is edible. Charleen is worried that her son Ethos won’t eat the fresh fish for dinner, because he’s imagining that this fish might be the fish that has swallowed his children. And then I thought about animals that “devour” their young. You wrote a story collection titled Oh, God, Your Babies Are So Delicious! Were you using food in these pages to convey a specific idea or emotion?
Yes, there are lots of food symbolisms in Fish in Exile. I invite food into my writing; sometimes food wears a human mask and behaves comedically in my work and releases the tension of ferocity that comes with loss. We desire to insert into our bodies the things we become fond of. Conversely, repulsion is important in grief too as it provides us a decent palette for hate. Sometimes noticing food outside of their usual element strengthens the bond between mortality and survival. It is a way of using language to camouflage our infancy of loss and our infantility of excess. Consuming food also palliates and assuages emotional cannibalism. If we could eat the flesh of what we do know, we could become both destructively godly and motherly like Saturn devouring his son. Our children could overthrow us if we don’t grieve/eat them properly. Food during grief can comfort us like edible pillows we could rest our heads on and consume once we have exploited their ability to absorb our dreams.
Staying with food for a moment, there’s a line we hear from Ethos: “Sometimes when I chew as slowly as I chew, I can’t tell if the salt is tears or anchovy oil.” It reminded me of a kind of inverse of this sentence from Madame Bovary: “he went on, re-chewing his happiness, like those who after dinner again taste the truffles which they are digesting.” Bovary is re-chewing his happiness, but Ethos is re-chewing his devastation. How is food connected to memory for you?
Food has no memories, though sometimes it pollinates. But, I have extraordinary emotional memories. And, because I possess this strong ability, it’s impossible or nearly impossible to consume me. Basically, I don’t think I am a kind of food that remembers other food. But, salt is memory and salty fish such as anchovy is memory. I am deeply wounded and attached and connected to fish sauce. So everything I write should have a little bit of salt in it. Ethos, here, is undulated in his own grief and crying allows him to forget and re-chewing is a mechanism of emptying the grieving moment. He truly does not know food is food. And, I don’t even know if salt is memory here.
In an interview with the LA Times, you spoke about drawing a physical blueprint for Ethos and Catholic’s house. Did you do any set design for the other locations in the book?
No, I did not. Though it would have been interesting to build an architectural space for their grief and intimacy.
I wanted to ask you about some of the choices you made regarding the form of the book. We see scenes written out as if they are plays to be performed. There’s even a moment during Charleen’s retelling of the Persephone myth where a scripted dialogue nests itself in the middle of another dialogue. Footnotes appear here and there, and there’s even an interview format, kind of like this one! In what ways were these choices essential to the story’s telling?
Intense emotions and situations must bear the burden of their forms. And, sometimes they must surrender their conventional appetites to make room for literary Tupperwares and bento boxes, which heightened their emotional depth and clarity. My characters go through drastic dress and scenic rehearsals. If they must put on a belt and a raincoat before donning a dress, then they do. I try to make them naked and fashionable while preserving their antiquated ways. But, ultimately, it is the authenticity of their transformation that dictates what genre dress they wear and if they are ready for bikinis in Antarctica. If my characters are prepared to go towards emotional Siberia, it doesn’t make sense to put them in a place where they would eat only potatoes and gravy.
This a line that serves as the ending sentence of a chapter: “When my eyes flutter open, my wife is still sedated in her formless monologue of a dream.” In the very next chapter, the line repeats, and then repeats again. There was something so striking about this, almost like the chapter break was a line break, but not an emotion-break. It stands out in the novel almost as a stutter—and Ethos himself describes it as a kind of record-scratch. What inspired this moment of repetition?
Disbelief and tenderness.
We hear quite a bit about the division between Ethos and Catholic: “This separation between married individuals. This disconnected and obscure and elliptical space between husband and wife.” Does the book exist in this elliptical space? Is that space a constant, or a condition of mourning?
Yes, it does. That space is constant, but their elliptical intimacy becomes more unbearable and broken with sorrow. At the same time, their pain and mourning augment their intimacy and help them grow deeper into each other as lovers and strangers. Closeness demands distance and what makes distance more fugacious and desired than death?
The question of exile feels extremely pertinent right now. Whenever I watch the news, I certainly feel in exile at home. Can you speak a little bit about your own relationship to the feeling and state of exile?
In this world, I feel and the world feels like a pineapple. In order to consume a pineapple, one must cut the tough segmented skin and rough leaves and its core. If you eat its core, your tongue will berate you. A pineapple can become spherical if you cut out its eyes. Everyday when I read the world’s news, someone’s eyes are carved and slashed out. I am in my body, but I can’t see the world. I have tried being a mango. But as soon as my skin is peeled and my cheeks swallowed, I have become just a useless mango core with excessive fiber that isn’t useful to anyone. We think that if we all fall asleep, our eyes won’t become available for incision, but sleep is the best time to cut anyone’s eyes out. We are born into this world to confront our own desolation before being pulverized back to dust. Whenever I look out into the window of the world, I think, is it my time yet to join in the dust storm?
You have a new book coming out called A Brief Alphabet of Torture. Can you tell me a little bit about that project? Is it a departure from Fish in Exile?
A Brief Alphabet of Torture is forthcoming in September 2017 from FC2. It is a book born primarily from a semi-intense meditation on torture and comprised of many divisions of feminine affliction and ontological wretchedness. The collection is primarily violent with some sections devoted to existential elegance and eroticism. Its voice is experimental and its form ever changing. Despite being a collection of short stories, it’s not a departure from my novel. It shouldn’t be seen as a stranger, but rather a sibling, like a half-sister or an older sister of Fish in Exile. Although, some sections of A Brief Alphabet of Torture are born before my first novel—their imagination seems to emerge from a shrewd place made full by its fierceness and mercilessness.
Hilary Leichter’s writing has appeared in The Southern Review, American Short Fiction, n+1, Electric Literature, Joyland, and elsewhere. She received a 2015 Fiction Fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts.