“Electricity in this Dehydrated Landscape”: A Conversation with Vi Khi Nao by Mark Ari

Vi Khi Nao is a true original, a fabulously prolific artist whose curiosity, creative energy, and talent are apparently boundless. She writes poetry, fiction, drama, makes visual art, and juggles several developing manuscripts at once. She’s the sort of person who will learn a new language to collaborate on a book with someone from another country. Her most recent collection of stories is The Vegas Dilemma. A recurring character who threads her way through the dazzle and despair of the urban desert holds together this collection of 29 stories divided into three parts.

There is loneliness on these pages. The yearning to bridge the distance between people can be sweet, sad, funny, and often terribly deep. In “Lonely Not Like A Cloud,” the protagonist is infatuated with Kristen Stewart. She masturbates, “thinking about her because she wants to sow telepathic energy between them, the sexual thread as a portal or a gate in which she could use the unfathomable cosmic vim to encourage their two souls to vibrate at the same frequency … to open the cosmic window of Kristen to her soul.”

In “Ashan,” we’re told that when the title character’s sadness is greater than usual, “he opens his freezer, digs his face into one of the freezer bins, and cries into it until his frozen tears are almost indistinguishable from the ice.” This is striking enough, but when we read that those frozen tears dropped into a whiskey glass allow us to taste the sadness in the whiskey, we learn something of Vi Khi Nao’s art.

The Vegas Dilemma is a restless collection. It ankles its way from grocery store Starbucks to the Hoover Dam, and back again. Along the way, there are detonations of image and language that go off unexpectedly. One can almost hear the hiss of a lit fuse sizzling in its pages. There is suffering here. Sometimes it’s remarkably light-hearted, but it always has teeth. Even the cover has teeth. That’s where I opened the delightful and wide-ranging conversation Vi and I recently enjoyed via Zoom.

Mark Ari: The cover of The Vegas Dilemma is an explosion of color and movement, naked limbs in graphite, red scrawls and teeth. Can you tell me something about it?

Vi Khi Nao: I was living in Vegas. I guess a part of me still does. It’s my favorite city in the United States. I’ve been to all the states of the United States, except for Hawaii, Alaska, and Idaho, and Las Vegas is my favorite city. When I was there, presenting at the Black Mountain Institute, one of the people who attended the reading was Tiffany Lin. We became friends. She showed me these beautiful drawings using just colored pencils. I thought, oh, so you don’t need to have fancy art tools and supplies to make great art. I fell in love with her work, especially her “Teeth” series.

MA: It’s striking—sexy and violent. Maybe that suits Vegas. I’ve never been there, so my vision is limited. I think of glitz and a big show of over-the-top opulence. A lot of gold paint. A lot of people trying to win something, which is maybe an American thing. The Vegas Dilemma, too, has its winners and losers. There’s the American professor trying to get his Korean students in bed. He wins; they lose. There’s the gambler whose victory cries are like a hyena raped by a lion, and his lover who sees this grotesque boyfriend as the only reason she’s not a total loser. You even have God in a kind of heads-up game with Mark Zuckerberg, and only one of them is going to come out on top.

VKN: There’s a lot of devastation in Vegas. I love it for its desolation. It’s a place that doesn’t apologize for the way it is. It’s saying, “I’m superficial,” and it doesn’t try to make genuine something that isn’t authentic to be begin with. There’s something very, very authentic about its superficiality. I love that. It’s opulent and desolate, but it also celebrates hospitality. Hospitality is the primary cultural language in which Vietnamese culture operates, so it reflects the impulses and preferences I grew up in and around. These contradictory elements come together. It doesn’t matter if you’re a winner or a loser; you exist on the cusp of everythingness and nothingness, all at once. I think of the desert, how incendiary it is, how burning hot it is, adding another texture of mirage on top of mirage. You can’t get away from, what should I call it? Vice echoes. Vice on top of vice on top of vice on top of vice, and then there’s nothingness.

MA: Your point about the honesty of its superficiality is interesting to me. There’s something real about the illusion that cops to being an illusion. One of the stories in the book that sticks with me most touches on this idea. In “Callously Touched by a Maniacal Man,” David is in love with Imogene. He’ll do anything to make her happy because he doesn’t want to lose her. It starts with leg rubs. But each time she gets tired, bored, or unsatisfied, the ante is upped. He must do more and more to please her. Finally, he not only accepts that she has taken a lover who makes her happy, he secretly forces that lover to continue to do so in every way she desires. The bullied guy does just that. Imogene is blissful as can be. So what if it’s based on illusion? Happy is happy. And in a very real sense, it’s David who makes her happy, because he’s the one forcing the other guy to do it. So, David gets what he wants, too: Imogene stays with him. Now, I don’t pretend to know what love is or what’s real to anyone, but this seems to go along with what you were saying about reality and illusion. Does what works in Vegas also work in relationships and love?

VKN: I think it does. I think it’s very casino-like. You gamble away your resources, your retirement funds, your savings just to have this vision of what you think happiness embodies. For instance, there’s a casino called “The Venetian” that looks like a replica of Italy. It’s all painted as an illusion on the ceiling. I’ve been to Italy, and I’ve been “The Venetian” in Vegas. Here’s the two, I think to myself, and it doesn’t really matter. If it looks like Italy, it’s Italy. Sometimes that’s what happiness comes down to. If you can project the proper digital landscape before your eyes and experience it, that’s all you need. Whether it’s authentic or not doesn’t really matter. And that’s how I fell in love with Vegas, too.

MA: The Vegas Dilemma put me in mind of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. Both collections deal with isolation and loneliness. Both are structured around a single character who appears and reappears, giving the collection an almost novelistic unity. Anderson wrote his stories over a short period with a preconceived whole in mind. Did the stories in The Vegas Dilemma develop in a similar way?

VKN: No, they kind of grew. I wrote the collection during the same era in which I would walk for three or four hours in the desert and then come back with a story and write it down. Then I’d go back out the next day and do it again. That was the ritual I was conducting at the time. After three or four months straight, I had several manuscripts, all based on this ritual. I had a novel and the short stories in The Vegas Dilemma. There’s a memoir, too, called Famine Before Feast. There’s a story in it in which I’m in the desert. I’d been walking for like two hours. There was this rabbit and, Ari, I just didn’t know it was a rabbit. I didn’t have my glasses. I approach it, and I realize it’s handicapped. It had lost both of its hind legs. The upper body was a little bit deformed. It looks like it was run over by a car or something. Half of its body is gone. You know how rabbits hop? This one kind of crawled. I was devastated. I’d never seen a handicapped rabbit before. I wondered how it survived so long. It still stays with me.

MA: I’ve been thinking a lot about walking lately myself. I just picked up a book, A Philosophy of Walking by Frédéric Gros. He writes about thinkers and artists like Nietzsche, Rimbaud, and Thoreau who found inspiration strolling in the open air.

VKN: There was so much to observe in the walking. I saw so much of Vegas that way It’s very different from being in a car and whipping through pulsating light that looks like marching ants when you’re coming into Vegas from, say, Death Valley, California. The whole city opens its legs, and you can see all the strokes of light pulsating in the backdrop. You get closer and you realize the realism of a city made up of so much electricity in this dehydrated landscape. I wrote several manuscripts born from this place. The Vegas Dilemma happens to be one segment of that.

MA: This ritual, as you call it, of walking and writing: how does it work?

VKN: I start walking around nine o’clock p.m., give or take, every day. That’s when I do the writing. My mind is writing. My fingers are not moving on a laptop. They’re not clacking away. But it’s clacking up there in my head. It’s composing sentences. It’s editing. It’s revising. When I get home around midnight or one o’clock, all I do is write for twenty minutes. A half an hour if the story is long. A lot of the stories in The Vegas Dilemma took me no longer than that to get down. There are very few edits. I’m basically an amanuensis, someone who just transcribes from their consciousness right onto the page. People think you must sit at a writing desk and compose. For me, it isn’t like that at all. I write with my feet. It’s invisible writing because you don’t see the gesture of it. You don’t see the evaporations of thoughts merging into one. There’s transformation taking place, and translation from one moment to the next. But it’s seamless. It reminds me of the invisible zipper bra. You just zip it, and you don’t see the seam line. But it’s all there. The stories in The Vegas Dilemma are born from that invisible bra line aesthetic.

MA: Are you still walking four, five hours every day?

VKN: I used to. Then I almost died, and I stopped. After my open-heart surgery, my body hasn’t been able to give me permission to walk that long. But I miss it. I really miss the long hours. There’s something about walking and being pensive and philosophical that go well together. Maybe Socrates and all those philosophers back in the day, when they walked in their sandals and had dust-coated feet and legs, that’s what they were doing as well.

MA:What do you do now that you can’t walk as much?

VKN: I got addicted to playing Scrabble for a bit. I was playing Scrabble sixteen hours a day. I’ve also been collaborating with a lot of people. Co-writing. They write one sentence, then I write a sentence, and so on, and we produce a full-length manuscript. Also, I learned Norwegian. I wrote a full-length four-story collection in Norwegian with my collaborator Miriam Hanssen. She’s not actually a writer. She’s a regular artist. We played Scrabble on Wordfeud together, and she wasn’t a very good scrabble player. English is very hard for her, so I said why don’t I learn Norwegian, so we can write a book together. I didn’t want it to sound like a 4-year-old wrote it, so I really learned Norwegian for us to collaborate. I’d write one sentence and my friend would write the next. We’d just bounce off each other for two hours every day during COVID. After two years we had a full-length manuscript!

MA: It’s finished?

VKN: She and I have shifted into editing mode. I can’t wait for these stories to come out in the world. One of my favorites is about an alien. It opens like this: “A toad is only 4,000 years old, but she still wants sex, the adventurous kind. She loves sex. If it was up to her, she would have sex a lot of all the time. New lovers who did everything to reach climax, they would stand in line and wait their turn to get her. But alas, she is bored. The lovers she has had have been downright boring.” And it just goes on. This alien thing has interesting sexual appetites, and it’s fascinating to explore that dimension.

MA: I often found myself smiling though The Vegas Dilemma despite its darker themes. Right now, I’m thinking of the fabulistic “Calm, Calm, Calm, Rupture.” In it, the ever-expanding Cleopatra, plumped by her passion for tiramisu and full of yearning for the elegant danseur, Buttercup, attempts a kiss that causes a trip that leads to a kick that leaves her nose looking “like the spine of a stegosaurus.” In an interview you did for 15 Questions, you said it’s important to be silly. Can you tell me more about this?

VKN: It’s a way of using your imagination. Pranks are one of my favorite things to enact my silliness or my philosophy on silliness. I love pranks. When they’re innocent and the intention is to make people laugh and lighten their load, pranks can be incredibly funny. They are performative jokes. I remember this video in which this person made ice cream sandwiches. Usually, the top part is graham cracker, the middle is ice cream and then another layer of graham cracker. But what this person did is put cream cheese in the middle, so it looks like ice cream. And instead of graham cracker, just some sort of bread. Then they offer it to someone. Yummy, yummy, this is ice cream, and the person takes a bite into this big chunk of cream cheese. I try to do that with literature. I try to include some sort of micro pranks in my stories and cryptic language that’s coded. Like for my short story collection called Oh, God, Your Babies Are So Delicious. There’s a story in there called, “The Baby,” and it opens with the line, “There’s nothing to eat but the baby.” A lot of people think it’s actually a baby, but I was cutting papayas up. That was the only thing I had to eat, papayas. But instead of saying “papaya,” I used the word “baby.” Go back to read the story and substitute “papaya” for “baby,” and it makes sense. A lot of sense. That’s the kind of the micro-silliness that’s fun and light-hearted that I do in literature.

MA: Do you have a favorite story from The Vegas Dilemma?

VKN It’s called “Field Notes On Suicide Or The Inability To Commit Suicide Or It’s Hard To Follow A Pomeranian Around.” I think that’s my favorite. I like the way it unfolds. I think about the tennis ball in that scene, the way it moves through time and history. It does things I didn’t foresee until I sat down to write it. It has all these 1979 references. Then there’s Moses and Aaron and Starbucks and Sin City and Donald Trump. It holds so much history for such a short piece. It’s just four pages. It feels very compacted, and it embodies a lot of the things I do. But I think it’s not a very easy story to consume.

MA: Why is that?

VKN: It’s deals with difficult subjects, from torture to suicide. It’s blunt. It doesn’t apologize for its existence. I like that. I like that a lot.

Mark Ari is author of The Shoemaker’s Tale, a novel (Zephyr Press). He edits and produces EAT Poems, a series of audio chapbooks, creative nonfiction editor for Flock Literary Journal, and a fellow of the MacDowell Colony, Hermitage Artist Retreat, Ragdale Foundation, and Fundacion Valparaiso. Ari publishes fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, and music journalism. New works include “Santa’s House on Sunrise Highway” for the upcoming Paycock Press anthology, Gigs Gone Wrong, and “Via Brooklyn Bridge” an in-transit installation combining poetry, sound, video, scent, and more in an immersive experience delivered to individual addresses by the United States Postal Service.

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