“Human Tetris”: A Collaborative Exposé from Vi Khi Nao & Ali Raz

Ryan Bollenbach here. Heavy Feather Review is publishing short pieces on the blog from writers who have collaborated on previous projects in order to give potential collaborators ideas and stoke excitement for The Zachary Doss Friends in Letters Memorial Fellowship (collaboration itself being the biggest takeaway I hope to create from all this). Please read about my late friend Zach and consider creating work for the fellowship. After May 31, I will award $50 to four pairs of writers who have collaborated, winning praise from friends of Zach, Brandi Wells and Leia Penina Wilson—and myself. The friends’/comrades’ work will appear in print in HFR Vol. 11.

I have asked numerous collaborators to contribute a piece about their process, and we’re taking a very liberal definition of collaboration here, so however they wanted to talk about their collaboration is welcome. Translators may make a run at collaboration in this regard. I provided sample questions but these features don’t have to be a one for one interview format, no siree. Collaborators might interview each other, or create some document such as Polaroids from a fake stan, etc. However, some collaborators have chosen to simply answer the questions, which is also great. Deviation is, of course, welcome.

Vi Khi Nao is the author of Sheep Machine (Black Sun Lit, 2018) and Umbilical Hospital (Press 1913, 2017), and of the short stories collection, A Brief Alphabet of Torture, which won FC2’s Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Prize in 2016, the novel, Fish in Exile (Coffee House Press, 2016), and the poetry collection, The Old Philosopher, which won the Nightboat Books Prize for Poetry in 2014. Her work includes poetry, fiction, film and cross-genre collaboration. Her stories, poems, and drawings have appeared in NOON, Ploughshares, Black Warrior Review, and BOMB, among others. She holds an MFA in fiction from Brown University, where she received the John Hawkes and Feldman Prizes in fiction and the Kim Ann Arstark Memorial Award in poetry.

Ali Raz’s work has appeared in 3:AM Magazine, Plinth, Occulum, Journal 69, Queenmob’s Teahouse, and elsewhere.


This wasn’t the first time I collaborated with Ali. We once wrote a short story together that took place in Florida and possibly had an alligator in it. I don’t quite recall. We tried to send it to a few writing contests and publishing places under a unified pen name, but it was rejected across the board. I have known Ali for seven years now. It’s not a very long time to know someone, but it’s a long time considering that it embodies almost a quarter of her life and ⅙th of mine. My collaboration with Ali doesn’t influence my writing directly, but our conversations across the seven years have shaped the intellectual and philosophical dimensions of my work. Ali always advocates for my fragmented, experimental, sexy work, but I love drifting into impoverished places in literature such as mainstream writing and she is always encouraging me to return to the form that reflects the content of my existence the best. I don’t know what that content entirely is, but Ali’s influence is obvious as I try to become less obsolete to myself. Ali’s concrete, ritualistic writing method is the antipode of mine—I write whenever and wherever, diagonally and horizontally and frontally and it seems to work—while Ali must operate on a pre-planned landscape. It’s amazing that we managed to pull a manuscript (Human Tetris) together despite this obvious adversarial impulse. Our friendship has grown across these seven years like a large, miscellaneous box of chocolate made out of paper and liqueur and every month or so we each take a bite from one of the bite-sized blocks and the juice from that chocolate will melt our lips—making a mess of our faces—and we would take out some time to make fun of the dessert painting on our giddy vandalized faces before taking a nap. Ali loves to sleep a lot and I do too, but Ali really sleeps and her sleep pattern also dictates the direction of our work. Most of the time and especially lately, our conversations have been shaped by her dreams and how much she sleeps. I suppose this is a one-sided collaboration in itself. At any rate, our friendship has lasted this long because I am so capable of fainting a lot.


Vi is like a dynamo. She generates an energy that passes on to whoever touches her orbit. Writing Human Tetris was like channeling the energy field of a very good friend. It had the warmth and goodness of friendship but with an additional charge, that of two people trying to make a work. So there was discipline in it too. Vi is the most disciplined writer I know; it’s the first of many lessons she passed on to me, the importance of discipline. Whatever else it might be, Human Tetris is above all a record of a friendship—our friendship, to which it obviously doesn’t do justice or try to encapsulate but which it is imbued by and suffused with. The book is a moment in time, recorded. Maybe all texts are degraded versions of the energies that produced them, the life and time that was poured into them. This is especially true of Human Tetris, which is the trace of a particularly tender, evolving friendship. It is the book version of going on adventures together: trekking through White Sands in New Mexico, lighting wood fires in an airbnb in the Mojave desert.


We wrote Human Tetris over the entire month of December 2018. We finished it before January became January. Originally, we didn’t plan on publishing so soon, but when I flew to the East Coast to teach students at Columbia, my life took a drastic turn. Ali wanted me to have heart surgery very soon as she wanted me to stay longer and healthier in this world, but I had planned not to live that long or have that surgery. One morning when I woke up from a dynamic dream, my heart went terribly awry and I knew that with my heart condition I wouldn’t have very long to live. I had promised Ali not too long after we finished the manuscript that our work would be published; it would be impossible to keep that promise if I died. I remember Mike Corrao reaching out to me about his work and I recalled researching the press that published him. I wrote 11:11 Press and within days, in February of 2019, our manuscript got accepted. I was grateful for that acceptance. During much of its pre-book launch and publication, Ali was with me in Iowa, helping me prepare for my heart surgery and then helping me convalescence. She requested USC to allow her to work on her MA class materials remotely. The publication of Human Tetris embodies Ali’s extraordinary commitment to keeping me alive and around in this world. If it wasn’t for Ali, I doubt I would be here to even compose such lines for you. A book is sometimes a vessel of the human imagination, but this book that I collaborated and worked on with Ali is an embodiment of immortality, a material object that has a shared home with both infinity and the human linguistic carcass.

11:11 Press was incredibly supportive, devoted, professional, and delightfully generous with us. Their tote bags, their printed t-shirts, their stickers and chapsticks, and all their professional and writerly devotion in the publication of Human Tetris in small and big ways became bread crumbs of encouragement that both Ali and I hope to want to continue collaborating with each other and continue our lives with the publishing industry. Small presses are the vascular engine of the publishing world. Large publishing houses should feel ashamed of themselves if they are capable of providing support for the little ones but choose instead to suffocate or drive them out of business entirely. We all need vultures to keep our desire alive, but not at the expense of human fragrance.


We would use the money to pay the winner of a caption contest for a drawing posted by Vi Khi Nao on he Instagram. Ali Raz would be the judge.

Or this:

We would use the money to pay for a stripper for Ali Raz. Since Vi lives in Sin City, Vi and Ali would go to a strip club (something we have been trying to do for over a year, but have been unable.) Vi doesn’t like strip clubs very much because they make her fall asleep very fast. But Vi’s mom loves them, as you can tell. So, we would attempt to make Vi absorb her mother’s tastes a bit. Which will be an impossible task, but the money would be a good cause for Ali. Yes, the money. Vi likes to exaggerate Ali’s desire for a lap dance. It’s not an exaggeration.


Me: petite, myopic, smells fishy, tends to crush my lovers (in bed)
from sheer weight & will, & I urinate (at least) twice per day

You: over 30, Asian, sexy, delusional, super yellow (from being too Asian)
a heliotropic like a     sunflower from smiling too much


Des Moines, IA near a post-Brexit thing called England


Taco-loving sleep addict seeks a like-minded
lizard. Let’s cuddle and eat the whole winter through. Other activities,
if absolutely necessary, may include: clipping newspapers, listening to Radiohead,
and/or sniffing glue.


Los Angeles, CA


If you are supernerd, quirky, socially impeded (and abhor casual usage of term “social awkwardness”)
collector of arcane knowledge, lover of the esoteric (though incapable of grasping
the banal), and totally down to fuck — hmu! I’m exactly who you think I am; between
doses of coffee and ssri, I sink up out of the haze
sometimes, supercharged with sexual magnetism and that animal lust.

Come make me SUFFER.

San Francisco, CA


I make one heck of a shepherd’s pie, great at putting on glossy makeup,
and curling my eyelashes while tending my 23 goats. I am also good at milking (not just animals).
Ready for 3.3 kids & artificial insemination (I don’t expect us to have all the apparatus for
This—help me crowdsource some sperm for us?). Each day, after I gather our goats into our byre,
I like to stand & watch the sun fall asleep on the giant bosom of the earth.
Like the sun, my life is simple, but I think my love for you is solar & enormous & possibly quite singular.

New Haven, CT


curl up with me like a leaf. be my wellness dog. i’m always sick (but don’t let that scare you!).

who isn’t sick in these days of anomie? indeed, if you are perennially well—i don’t trust you.
be sick with me, let’s be sick machines.


Seoul, South Korea


Be my cuddlebuddy. It is raining tonight.
I am out of bread, milk, and eggs. Shall we go shopping for me?

Me: Pit-stains on my shirt, chocolate chip on my shoulder.

You: Exquisitely sexy and always on time.


New York, NY


Tired of another night of slicking around the mean streets alone—be the gin
to my tonic, Vega’s Chun-Li, other implicit combos.
Yes: be implicit for me.

Interests: sauerkraut, torpedo sex, mango slush, long nights at
the arcade, early mornings in bed. Please be same or similar.


Oklahoma City, OK


I want to creep around haunted houses
with you, doing terrible things. I like grossness; viscera; the unseen regions
of the body. We don’t watch movies, we are the movie. You must be: busty, pure,
virginal, just a touch sapphic. I am: youth greying into age, ripeness
sliding into rot, black leather on red velvet, as scared of witches as I am in love.

Meet me where the night ends.

Newt, TX


Fast cars, fast lovers are overrated.
I like my women with bi-directional personality & noiseless (not voiceless) won’t make
a sound during sex, eating out, or walking.
The slower you are the more I want you. I am slow & timeless
& don’t want things to change too fast. I used to embrace everything
(genders, nouns, clowns), but with experience,
I realize that this philosophical stance is dangerous.
Forgive me if I want less of you, a safer version of you, a more
conservative edge of your Protestant climate.
Although unifocal, I can easily bifurcate you, like a tree after being chased by lightning.




On a sheet of paper? Your bedsheets? Our dinning table?
Let you be my fork and I your wife.
Or you my spoon & I a reflection on your knife.
Me: nice, not bi, will cry, shy, won’t say goodbye without dipping my fingers in dye,
always ask why, oh my.
You: a goon, will swoon & spoon with me under a full moon, fond of raccoons & sand dunes,
hate June, but will eat prunes,
willing to make love in the late afternoon,
willing to sing me a sexy tune before blowing me a balloon.
See you soon!

Oslo, Norway

Check out HFR’s book catalog, publicity list, submission manager, and buy merch from our Spring store. Follow us on Instagram and YouTube. Disclosure: HFR is an affiliate of Bookshop.org and we will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase. Sales from Bookshop.org help support independent bookstores and small presses.

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