The Vietnamese International Film Festival: Dream of an Audience

Khanh Ho is writing the first Vietnamese American Detective Novel written by a Vietnamese American with a Vietnamese American Detective.  But occasionally, he takes time off to support worthy causes:  VIFF–the Vietnamese International Film Festival–launches March 1, 2013, 6-10 p.m.  All are invited.


I’ve been volunteering with VIFF—the Vietnamese International Film Festival.  As lead-up to the grueling work, we’ve been getting together and screening some of the features:  films about everything from wrestling in the Midwest to child abduction in Africa.  Deep topics.


The host is Ysa Le, who runs VAALA—the Vietnamese American Arts and Letters Association.  We all sit around in her fancy screening room.  Afterwards, there’s a discussion interlude, followed by a trek to the kitchen where we pig out and drink wine.  I know:  kind of high class.

We watched movies like Tran Anh Hung’s adaptation of Norwegian Wood–the blockbuster novel by one of this century’s greatest writers, Haruki Murakami:

Some of these movies have already garnered awards.  But some of them represent the work of artists who are just at the beginnings of what, no doubt, will be fruitful careers.  Some of it was super-polished; some, rough.  All of it was engaging; all, exciting.  Why?  Because I felt like I was watching something special and new and different—unique—unfold before my eyes:  like I was a witness to the blossoming of a flower that may only appear once in a desert landscape.


It was awesome to see the work.  Of course, everybody has smart things to say.  In the audience are several distinguished professors, doctors, lawyers—professionals of all sorts.  There’s even a guy who sits on a museum board of trustees and I got to shake his hand and everything!  There are also students—passionate and uncompromising, wild and woolly—who throw in more than just their two cents worth:  they throw in stacks of Benjamins and make it rain…gangsta style…as if we were at a Snoop Dogg concert.


Knowledge bombs:  everywhere I felt them.  Blam.  Blink.  Shazzam.


Here’s what struck me about watching the movies and discussing them afterward:  we may not have entirely agreed but the fact is that we are a very sophisticated audience…with some uncompromising tastes.  We know our stuff.


And here I thought I was alone–the only one in the world who is super-smart.  It is so liberating to realize that there’s a whole gang of people out there who know the same jedi mind tricks.


This reminded me of a lecture in my freshman literature class in college. We were studying Samuel Taylor Coleridge—one of the great Romantic poets.  You know:  he wrote that poem “Kubla Khan”—a nightmare dream vision of a pleasure dome with caves of ice…


Coleridge is one of the great poets of English Lit.  But few people know that he is also one of the great critics, too.  And what this professor said Coleridge said pretty much blew the top of my 19 year old head off:  great literature also demands a great audience; the two develop hand in hand; they are not independent; you cannot have one without the other.  And so the audience is just as important as the art object:  it is the setting for the brilliant, sparkly solitaire.

The VIFF launch–a red carpet event–is about to blow up.  All are invited.  To learn more, click here.

March 1, 2013 > 6 – 10 PM
1600 N. Broadway, Suite 210
Santa Ana, CA 92706

Lament in the Night: Historic Rediscovery

I spent all week writing like a fiend and kept myself going with the promise of this reward:  that I would get to go to a book launch.  Normally, I hate things like that; I used to run the writing series at Grinnell College, so I know about that world inside out—all the hard work that goes into it, the schmoozing, the aggravation of things falling apart, the endless back-and-forth of making it happen.  You can lose your life in the Chinese water torture of e-mails.  God, it made me lose my taste for stuff like that.


It’s kind of like when I worked at one of those fancy department stores for the Christmas season:  afterwards I could never look upon retail with the same feelings.  All I could hear was muzak on a loop, the sharp eye of the angry customer, the arguments with patrons whose cards were declined.  To this day, I despise shopping.


But this book launch was different.  My friend–Prince Golmulvilas–was going to be the emcee.  He’s a famous playwright and a professor in the Creative Writing Program at USC.  I admire him because he has the most amazing liquor cabinet and, also, a cat that is so obese that it has gone viral on Japanese Television.  I would have gone just to see Prince.  Guess what I discovered about Prince?  He’s got an amazing public speaking voice:  like a radio announcer.  I guess that happens when you hang out with stage actors.


The major reason I came:  the book that’s being launched is super cool.  Lament in the Night is a Japanese American mystery set in downtown LA in the 1920’s.  What’s more extraordinary:  it was published in that era, as a serial, written by a Japanese American day laborer—Shoson Nagahara.

This is not the product of some writer with an MFA program behind him.  This is not some guppy in the fishbowl of the multicultural era, when ethnic writing is factory farmed.  This is the writing of a man as poor as his protagonist—a shiftless detective (really a borderline homeless bum) who has to steal his food if he wants to eat.  This is a dude who picks up the rinds of rotting fruit from the sidewalks of Little Tokyo.


Here’s a pretty startling reading from an excerpt in the book:

Lament in the Night was written for the Japanese language newspaper and, in all likelihood, would never have seen the light of day in the English press.  But this cool guy, Andrew Leong, found it in a bibliographical index at the beginning of grad school.  The book had been collected in a single volume after its very successful newspaper run but, over time, copies simply disappeared.

There were only five existing copies of Lament in the Night available in Japanese.  Andrew was lucky to find one.  Nobody knew it was important, so it was a circulating copy.  “I tried not to eat bagels around it.”  Once he was finished, he returned it to the library and it became reclassified as a rare object in the Special Collections.

Later, he went to the Japanese American Museum archives and found it in the original periodicals.  He told me he didn’t even really know that much Japanese at that point, so he cut his teeth in translation with this mystery.  Now, he’s a professor of Japanese and English at Northwestern University.  He wears a suit and glasses and looks  official–weighty, brilliant, sage.  It’s hard to find professor gigs; I’m glad that he got rewarded for his efforts.


I got to talk to Andrew Leong at the reception afterwards.  It was fun—we have a few friends in common—even though I had never laid eyes on him.  That’s the cool part of going to these things.  And he told me in greater depth about the process of discovering and translating. I’m a sucker for that kind of stuff.  It was probably one of the funnest times ever to get the inside story.

Andrew said he would sleep at one of the hostels in LA’s Little Tokyo–possibly the same hostel that Nagahara’s detective stayed at.  Then, he would work all day at the Japanese American Museum, copying the serialized novel from the rolls of microfilm.


I’ve done that kind of work:  it’s tedious and easy to mess up…which is exactly what happened; he ended up missing a few pages and had to travel back down to LA to get the rest.  The museum staff helped him find what little information there was about Nagahara by checking the shipping documents of the era.  They were able to outline the skeleton of a biography that way.  That’s some sleuthing:  sleuthing a sleuth!

I am eternally grateful that there are people like Andrew Leong around who do a great service to mankind in the act of translating–people who will disseminate and make widely available stuff that would be entirely forgotten.  Andrew is an intellectual hero for me.


Later on at night, I lay in bed and looked up at the cracks in the ceiling.  They looked just like the lines that a palmist might read;  I never thought that before and this made those lines beautiful–filled with promise, instead of worry and squalor.  I wondered what would happen if the United States was taken over by the Chinese? What would I do?  How would I ensure that I would be translated into the dominant language a hundred years later?  How would I get a future Andrew to pick up my stuff and breathe into it the inspiration of a second life?

I should have asked him that question when I had the opportunity.  I guess I’ll have to chance it.



Where Do I Get My Inspiration From?

Where do I get my inspiration?  I get it from the mall.  No, really.  Let me clarify:  not the mall with the Forever 21, J. Crew and Mrs. Field’s Cookie.  The antique mall.


I have always tried to live near one.

In the Midwest, where I taught Creative Writing, they abounded.  In Seattle, where I spent a few years, I sought them out.  Currently, I live in a small old-timey part of Southern California that has one of those old downtowns, anchored by a university with neoclassical architecture that tourists love to photograph.  There’s even a soda fountain that has been a million movies and a little plaza with a fountain.  In this old-timey downtown there are acres and acres of antique malls.


Antique malls are my personal museum but better; I can touch and coddle, rummage and reminisce.  Every little booth is rented out to a different vendor—clearly someone who straddles the line between hoarder and artiste.  When I walk into each one, it is like an installation at the Whitney Biennial.  I feel as if I have entered a turbulent mind on the edge of lunacy—as cracked as old studio pottery and fine bone china.

TwinCity 11-7-092

My wife hates antique malls.  She comes from Korea, where everything is thrown out immediately if it is old or damaged or used.  My parents despise these places.  When I was a college student—that’s when I caught the thrift shopping bug– my parents would tell me that I was buying ghosts.  “Bad luck.  You die.”  My mom was dead set against my sartorial stylings.  Garments would mysteriously disappear from my bedroom.  “Ghost take.  Disappear.”  And so would go another pair of jodhpurs or gaiters or brogues.


It is exactly the freaky quality of these antique malls that makes me love them.  There are stories in those objects—stories of first love, of disuse; later of nostalgia, of reencounter:  the story cycle of any object in a consumer culture.  There is something morbid to my fascination and, it’s true what my mom says; for, undoubtedly, the original owners of those pretty gingham gloves have long ago died.  Yet I often wonder why my wife refuses to wear them.  After all, they were a gift.


I love playing the detective, too—why did that Coca Cola tray get a dent on it?  who would have thrown away those kewpie dolls?  how did all those pennants end up in this shop in mint condition?


coca_cola_trayBut mostly, I’m there because of the extreme empathy I have with the people who rent these booths—the purveyors of this ephemera.  I wonder if they make money.  Most assuredly, some of them do.  But more likely, they are collectors—passionate, enthusiastic—and they are sharing their riches.  Each booth, I know, represents a packed garage filled with newspapers packed to the rafters and an army of cats.  Each booth signals the presence of a Storage Unit filled with mint condition baby doll heads.  I must confess:  I find this sad and creepy.  I see myself in these collectors.  This is how I feel about my own writing:  haunted by a compulsion that causes euphoria and despair.



The Art of Losing

Khanh Ho is writing the first Vietnamese American Detective Fiction ever.  Why?  Because being the first is a power trip.   Like what you read? Share, comment, subscribe. 



I’ve had to deal with three losses in my life—all major.  The first was the loss of the country I never knew:  Vietnam.  And that loss—that emptiness—sat at the center of my life.  It was a loss I could never quite understand but it was present in unsuspected ways:  the fact that I could never visit my grandparents who had been left behind and separated by an embargo—that was one aspect of losing.  Such loss, it is accepted as a matter of course when it occurs so young.  This is exactly as it should be…because that is how it has always been.  That’s what is going on in a child’s mind.

Asian Family

The second major loss in my life came in the suicide of my little sister.  She hung herself with a telephone cord and I cut her down from the staircase railing.  It occurred at the end of my time in grad school.  Lucy was a beautiful girl:  a broadcast journalist.  She had just been diagnosed with bipolar disorder—a psychological condition that makes you feel extremely manic and, later, morbidly depressed.  I took her in. But even before she killed herself, I was dealing with a great loss:  she was disappearing before my eyes.  She was not the little sister that I had known.


The final loss came only a few years ago.  I was writing a great book—an academic tome—and had even secured funding to finish it.  This book was going to revolutionize the way we think about everything…in my humble opinion.  But when I was away doing research in wonderful Seattle, someone broke into my corner office in Iowa and threw away all my papers.  Years of research:  down the tubes.


I’m not sharing this to make you feel sorry for me.  I’m sharing this with you because I have been thinking much about loss lately—how it gives you fortitude, tensile strength, humanity.  And I’m realizing that all the characters I write—all the characters that mean anything to me—suffer loss on some level.


There is a game that kids used to play growing up.  It was a party game based on this premise:  if your house is burning down, what do you grab?  Kids often offered up ideas that ranged from the practical to sentimental:  photo albums, dolls, jewelry, cash.  It was clear to me, though, that my peers had never experienced a catastrophic event like a fire.  If your house is burning down, you should take nothing.  Absolutely nothing.


I knew that by instinct.


Once, while walking to high school, a woman almost ran me over.   I was jaywalking:  it was totally my fault.  This occurred right in front of my high school.  When the woman pulled into the student parking lot and got out of her car, I thought she was going to confront me.  She had grey frizzy hair and wore a suit jacket, slacks and heels—the uniform of authority.  But she said, “Aren’t you Khanh Ho?”  It turned out she had taught me how to read English in first grade.  She was a student teacher then.

University High School Los Angeles

The woman told me that I had drawn a picture of my house burning down.  I was sticking my crayon head out of the second story window.  It was a moving picture for her—a defining moment for a student teacher.  And she carried the memory of it as if it were a cherished object:  a locket on a delicate chain, connecting her to a sense of purpose that got her into the classroom every morning.  She was now teaching at my high school.  “I always think of you,” she said.  And it must be true:  how else would she remember my face after all these years?

A drawing of a burning house

I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I was skeptical.  I couldn’t recall having experienced such a great and terrible loss.  Memory is tricky:  I didn’t actually believe that she was remembering me at all—that perhaps she had gotten me mixed up with some other Vietnamese kid at the school.   I was raised to be polite, so I let her blabber on.


But now, after so many years becoming expert at loss, I wonder if I was not merely adept;  I wonder if I was born with a prodigious talent, like those piano geniuses whose feet barely reach the pedals but, nonetheless, bang away at a glistening Steinway.  Perhaps I was destined to grow into an expert—an expert of loss.  Perhaps that is why I even managed to lose, at such a tender age, something that another human being found unforgettable.




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Why you should e-publish; Why you should not.

Khanh Ho is writing the first Vietnamese American Detective Fiction ever. Why? Because being the first is a power trip.  This essay was originally published on the Huffington Post; it discusses the pro’s and con’s of e-publishing.  Like what you read? Share, comment, subscribe.

Get out there on the blogosphere and you’re going to run across it: strong words–yea or nay–about the merits of e-publishing. Some people argue that conventional publishing–that supreme waste of paper –is a holdover from a bygone era: like the human coccyx that is now a vestige of what once was a prehensile tail. They’ll say that e-readers–Kindles, Nooks, ipads–have democratized the process, making it possible for the producers to market and ship and profit–all directly. They liken it to how, nowadays, small boutique organic farms can sell high quality, bowel-moving kale at prices that gouge neither the producer nor the consumer.


But there are a lot of naysayers, too. The most powerful voices among them point out that writers should spend time on, well, writing; they shouldn’t get sucked up in marketing–blogging, campaigning, cover designing, tweeting, promoting–the vast muddle of dung-heap drudgery that paves the way for a book to become something you want to pick up. There’s also an elitist edge: critics point out that it’s more prestigious to conventionally publish, that this means your writing has been properly screened and edited. Allied to this is the aristrocratic feeling of holding an actual, concrete book–an artifact–in your hot little hands. According to the most vociferous critics of digital publishing, an e-book is an empty thing: smoke and mirrors; froth on the top of a mocha latte; nothing, really, nothing.


No doubt, there’s some truth to both sides of this debate. I’m completely sympathetic to making my own money, sticking it directly into my own pocket and blowing it all on bubble gum. The most I ever made from a conventional publisher was fifty bucks and I was so happy, I promptly got into a fenderbender! But I also don’t want to spend all my time on marketing and such. To boot, I’m a little less sympathetic to the idea that editors are going to give me a special approval. I’ve been publishing stuff conventionally since I was 21 and as soon as I lost my writing virginity–and every writer obsesses about that first moment of publication as if it were coitus–the siren call of seeing yourself in print was over. In one feel swoop, I not only lost my virginity; I lost my rights; I found this out the hard way. When my story was picked up for reprint they, sent me a check for fifty dollars and said “Hey, this is just a courtesy call. YOU don’t really own this. We bought it off the journal that originally published that sad little shriveled up story.”

I wonder if that was why I got into that little fender bender and stood out in the middle of two way traffic on one of the busiest intersections of Los Angeles wondering, not whether I was going to get run over, but whether I had insurance.


What you should realize, if you are considering e-publishing is that what is missing from the debate is a nuanced understanding that there are no absolute positions–no black and white stands–but idiosyncrasies, wrinkles, that reflect your place in the world. Count me lucky: I have already been approached twice now to be published with small, independent publishing houses for the three novels I’m writing. But I’ve graciously declined each offer. And my reasons are my own.

For me, what is really important to realize about the choice to e-publish and the choice to conventionally publish is all about you, your needs and your circumstances. Face it, you’re a crazy loon if you think you’re going to ever make a lot of money off this–so, really, the money question is entirely off the table. Instead, ask yourself this: What do you stand to gain from e publishing? What is it going to do for you? What do you lose if you get a real tree-based book out there? In helping you think through this key question, here are my major reasons for e-publishing my Detective Novel. It may not be YOUR reasons but I think it’s important for me to articulate these reasons precisely because they are not your reasons and most probably will neverbe your reasons. You must find your reasons. So here goes:

1) I know I’m good: I’ve published and done all sorts of writing–conventional and artsy–and so I know that I can write as well as all my friends who are already published with award-winning books, movies, plays. I’ve even edited works by my friends…many of which went on to win awards. So I don’t really need the approval of an editor. I know: the title of this subsection can also be called “arrogance.”

2) The only reason for me to publish would be to get a tenure track job as a Creative Writing professor but I’ve already secured that. Publication–conventional publication–still is what counts in the world of academia. But guess what? I already spent many years doing that kind of drudge work…and found that it often was the impediment to true creative production. Most Creative Writing Professors never find a moment to write; they’re too busy critiquing or grading or doing committee work. I taught Creative Writing in Iowa–the mecca of Creative Writing–at one of the top colleges in the country. So, I never want to go back to that. I’ve had my fill.

3) I also want zero interference from a publisher who will tell me to do crazy stuff. I don’t even want to think about the possibility of an editor in the offing. I have had so many friends alter their manuscripts to pander to editors, marketers–all the hobgoblins of conformity–that hem you in. With Asian American mystery writers there is a special danger: the need to pander to the lurid or the stereotypical. I know that it might help an editor or a publishing house to have a character who is dealing with Triads and white slavery…so I’m not even going to have that kind of conversation.

4) I want to publish quickly. This doesn’t mean I want to publish sloppily. But even after a book manuscript is revised, proofed and edited, conventional publication takes years and years and years. And this is not counting the submission process, which takes years and years and years. It’s glacial. And I’ve had friends whose manuscripts, even after acceptance, take 3 years to finally appear in print. I know that if I publish these 3 detective novels expeditiously, I will definitely be the first ever Vietnamese American writer to pen a Vietnamese American Detective novel about a real Vietnamese American Detective. That’s a coup. That’s a power trip. That makes it worth the effort. If I diddle around for another 3 years, somebody with gumption and a computer–some whippersnapper–will beat me to the punch.

5) I want to keep my rights. Most writers don’t realize that they lose their rights. Maybe not all of their rights. But at least some of them. You may lose your rights to turn your project into a movie, for instance. Or you may seriously impede the translation of your project into other projects–stage plays, radio broadcasts, etcetera. Writers are almost like migrant farm workers; they just sign on the dotted line because, like many people who keep their heads to the grindstone, they don’t see the sky above. Now let’s just be clear: I don’t think, necessarily, that I’m going to be able to sell whatever I write to a movie studio. But I want to retain my rights just as I want to retain control over my body.


So, these are my reasons for e-publishing my book. If I have contributed to the conversation by articulating positions that you, dear reader, are trying to muddle through, than I have already exceeded expectations: this is awesome. But what most people should realize, as they decide whether or not to involve themselves in the process, is that everybody brings to the table a radically different set of experiences. There is no one cookie-cutter answer. Yet again and again, the blogosphere is filled with self-righteous people who think their position is correct. I have made my choice but I do so with the awareness that my position is probably not right for you; after all, how many former-creative-writing-professors-disenchanted-with-academia are writing the first Vietnamese American Detective Novel with the first Vietnamese American Detective? Few, my friend, few.

Every Writer Needs a Muse: Mine was Viva

Viva used to come over and get naked.  She was our next door neighbor, a roley-poley girl.  I didn’t find her attractive–I was too young–but she would cut up apples in wedges and put salt on them.  Then, she would serve them up to me on a porcelain plate.  They were pretty good.  So, I would let her come over and get naked.


Viva was my introduction to fiction; with Viva, I became a real honest-to-goodness writer.  She was game for anything.  So I let her become my muse.


We would play in my unfinished garage, among the stacks of undelivered Reader’s Digests.  Stacks and Stacks.  My brother was addicted to working—he had three different newspaper routes and was always looking for extra cash.  So he picked up this Reader’s Digest Route.  But the stacks kept growing.


They kept growing.

Motley Press

And growing.


I don’t think he ever delivered them.  They became a forest—like the trees in Where the Wild Things Are…or some installation at a fancy museum.





Viva was always trying to escape her house.  She was a child of divorce.  Her father was a drummer.  They didn’t own; they rented.  There were always wine bottles at her house, which smelled like cats and cigarette smoke.  I know:  that year, my teacher kept on asking us to bring empty wine bottles to school for craft projects.  But my family didn’t drink.  So I would come over to Viva’s house and get her father’s empties.

There were always empties.


“Do you know what Viva means?”  her father asked.  He was really cool-looking for an old man:  bearded and lanky in that seventies polyester-shirt way.  “It means life in Mexican.”


Viva came over and we played soap opera.  She would take off her clothes and then I would pretend I was shocked to catch her in a compromising position with a stranger—a dark, handsome stranger–and then I would accuse her of infidelity.  I would point my finger at her–lightning in my eyes.


The scenario was always the same—her lounging in an imaginary bath tub.  Me:  angry as all heck, busting in.  She:  begging forgiveness.  I was a regular playwright.



Once, my brother came in and caught us.  It was my fault:  I had forgotten to lock the door.  He was really stern.  “If you want to get naked, you should do it in your own house.”  Viva hid behind the towers of Reader’s Digests, and made the pile of magazines tremble in terrible shame.


Then, Viva moved away.  And there were no more apples with salt.  Sometimes, I will eat apple wedges with salt and think of Viva—my first muse.  I’m eating apple wedges right now and guess what I’m thinking.  I’m thinking that Viva means life.

Happy New Year: Writing Exercise

Happy New Year!  It is the Year of the Snake!  Vietnamese people look at everything in terms of the animal zodiac.  You know:  you’ve seen it:  the zodiac is often printed on paper placemats at fine Chinese dining establishments everywhere.  In all there are twelve zodiac animals.  I am a pig:  a noble animal of unusual taste and distinction.


Wherever my parents travel, whatever foreign land they find themselves in, they buy their zodiac animals–horses and pigs carved out of numerous materials:  wood, iron, marble, crystal.  When they get home, they festoon the living room with little tableaus of pigs and horses, galloping and dancing with each other—always in pairs.  My mom is the pig; my dad, the horse.   These delightful creatures dance on lace doilies and foxtrot across the old upright piano and tango around the coffee table.   They hide among my trophies and pop up even in the bathroom hide-and-seeking among the bowl of dusty soaps that nobody is allowed to touch.  Gotta say:  this expression of love–it is touching and also extremely tacky.



Everybody in my family knows that, of course, my dad is the horse.  He is noble and even-tempered and forthright.  It makes sense that my mom is the pig; she is quixotic, given to flights of fancy and she’s got a temper.  I have a brother who is a snake but he kind of drifted away from the family.  Snakes are smart, financially secure, passionate but they are also jealous and suspicious.  This pretty much describes him to a T.  This also describes exactly why few people in our clan communicate with him anymore.


So, here is your writing exercise.  It’s about character development.  Create a character that corresponds with one of the Chinese Zodiac signs.  It can be any of them:  snake, monkey, dragon.  Whatever.  Here’s a link to get you going on this journey of discovery.


If you don’t want to create a character out of whole cloth, that’s okay.  Just pick a character you already have who may be giving you some trouble and try to figure out what their sign truly is.


This exercise will allow you to think about the through-line of your character—a problem that many people have, especially nowadays when art fiction tells you to create “fully rounded characters” that appear to almost be alive; flat characters, those based around a single idea, have fallen out of favor.  This means, often, that people don’t know what their characters are about.  They can’t get a handle of them because “real” people are vibrant and can never be contained and transcend the prison of categories.



But if you can’t focus on what your character is about, you will never be able to make the characters do things: react, conspire, love, revile.  And this, I think, is the failure of much student writing I’ve experience as a college level teacher of Creative Writing:  the students believe that their own characters are actual people without realizing that they’re only supposed to appear real:  they forget that the illusion is everything and that this illusion resides in the initial act of definition.


You don’t have to do this with the animal Zodiac.  If you find it too inaccessible, go ahead:  do it with the Greek zodiac.  It will yield the same results.


Happy New Year!  May only the best quality of the Snake find you!  May you get tons of writing done!


The Dream of a Writer’s Vacation

Khanh Ho is writing the first Vietnamese American Detective Fiction ever.  Why?  Because being the first is a power trip.   Like what you read? Share, comment, subscribe. 



I’ve been dreaming about going away to a foreign country to write.  Everything seems better, more glamorous, if you’re an expatriate writer—as if you smoked fancy, little cigarettes and wrote everything with a fountain pen.


For a period of three years, I traveled around third world countries—this was right after grad school—and when I returned to the States, I promptly got a gig teaching Creative Writing at a small college in the great State of Iowa.  This is when the writing stopped.  The irony of being a Creative Writing professor is that all the creativity gets sucked right out of you by the constant demands of teaching.



When I was a traveler, though, I wrote all the time—longhand, in little notebooks.  At Bob Marley Cafes.  Rooftop bars.  Next to great, roaring cataracts.  On slow-moving barges that crossed sacred rivers:  Ganges, Mekong, Amazon.  I wrote on top of a volcano on the desert borderlands of Bolivia, with its immense salt beds that extended so far, they caused the most dramatic optical illusions.  The mountain tops looked as if they were castles floating on clouds, foundationless.  Everywhere there were flamingos: reds and pinks and oranges.



I know this is a pipe dream.  It’s best to write where you are.  Packing, moving, flying, checking into hotels, paying cab drivers, haggling in foreign languages—these are all nuisances that hamper the process of writing.  But still, I think of the great writing I did while traveling.  And I think of what could happen if I spent a month in the Yucatan in a little grass hut, doing nothing but spilling forth the seeds of my brain-energy onto the page.

Evenings I would grill freshly caught fish brought to me by a little native boy—Rico—who also would run to the store for the price of my change.  The locals would know me at the one little cantina, where the flies gather on the sugary countertops that the one bartender constantly wipes down.  I’m sure the people of that Yucatan fishing village would miss me when I was gone, pointing proudly to an empty stool, “This is where that American wrote his great novel of detection.”


And Rico, now twenty and a father of three would look up from his cerveza and say, “Yes.  This is exactly where that American wrote his novel.  I know:  I brought him his fish.”



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Richard Blanco: The High, Low…and Middlebrow

Khanh Ho is writing the first Vietnamese American Detective Fiction ever.  Why?  Because being the first is a power trip.   This post originally appeared in the Huffington Post after the Inauguration of President Barrack Obama.  Like what you read? Share, comment, subscribe. 



Richard Blanco, the inaugural laureate, took the stage before a national audience at our great nation’s domed capital to deliver his oration. His poem, intoned in a solemn voice, had all the bells and whistles: epic and cinematic and patriotic — it opens with the light of the rising sun filtering Westward through America, retracing the passage of Manifest Destiny, alighting upon thronging crowds, staining glass windows and, periodically, touching upon the poet himself: gay, Cuban, immigrant, working class. It was intended to be a touching poem — a crowd pleaser.

The entire time I was watching, I kept thinking on something not so august and grand. And I will share it with you, not to be snarky, but to be honest: I thought of the time I spent three months in New York and, while taking the subway, watched a woman read a book — almost as if she was transported from the din and clatter and stink. Her face was beatific, like one of those martyrs in medieval paintings — who are ecstatic in their gory death. The cover had the image of a handsome young man with a striking resemblance to Tyson Beckford, rendered in highly shaded pencil — regular, soft features; devilish eyes; and a head cloth that in the street slang of the urban culture is referred to as a “do rag.” The title of the book was Homo Thug.

New Edition of Homo Thug with New Cover

New Edition of Homo Thug with New Cover

Don’t get me wrong. This anecdote is not leading to a meditation on Blanco’s sexuality, which the press already has much ballyhooed. It is not an attempt to make light of his brave act of self-display, of coming out — an act which never happens once but over and over again.

But truth be told, Homo Thug flashed before my eyes at that moment. And it speaks less to the issue of sexuality and more to the striking difference I see in the way that people react to literature in this time when the Internet inundates us with verbiage. Most of my friends admit on Facebook that they left the room — pee break! — when Blanco took the stage. And it fascinated me that we can find high brow entertainments so inaccessible — as compelling as steel cut oatmeal, as satisfying as wheat germ.

Everybody turns their nose at an inaugural poem. Everybody makes sure to come back for Beyonce. So, what I was really thinking about when these two figures flashed in juxtaposition — like all moments of epiphany — was the high and the low brow… and this lead me to wondering if there was a place for the middlebrow. If so, what is the middlebrow? Let me explain.


The high brow is something that is relatively new to American culture. For centuries, we couldn’t do anything but imitate Merry Old England. And it made us always seem second-class and kind of sucky. You see, poetry was considered a sign of great civilization and so the presence of great poetry was like the proliferation of a nuclear arsenal: a logical extension of the arms race: a sign of might. So, the absence of the nuclear warhead of poetry bugged us then just as it probably bugs North Korea now. Why wasn’t there a poetry that was distinctly American? Why were we still copying things written over a century ago and long gone out of fashion by people across the great pond whom we were supposed to be independent from? Why did we keep on trying yet never get it right? People spent a lot of time wondering about this predicament and, frustratingly, couldn’t find the solution. So though we forget, this much is true: Blanco’s poem is a sign of America’s might — as powerful as bombs bursting in air and as potent as Beyonce’s highest note. It’s just that now: nobody gives a darn… at least on the national stage.


Among community’s of color, though — Latino, African-American, Asian — the high brow still matters precisely because it is a display of a certain kind of power: a legitimacy. It is the low brow that is all around, which is cast off and derided, even as it is eagerly consumed in subways and buses and waiting rooms — a treat that, no doubt, will cause spiritual diabetes. My own community — Vietnamese-American — has all sorts of low brow entertainments. But we find acceptance, worthiness, accomplishment in the high brow: award winning novels and poems and films. They may be boring and hardly consumed by any but a few… but they signal a stage: a moment of entering into the mainstream, the rise of an aspiring 1 percent. They are mighty works, like the pyramids of Ozymandias.

So where is the middlebrow in all of this? What does it mean to have a middlebrow literature? Does it mean that minority communities have entered into a new stage of development? Well, I’m not sure. It’s an open question. To be fair, I should now make my full disclosure and tell you this: I’m writing a middlebrow book — the first Vietnamese-American detective novel with a Vietnamese-American detective, written by a Vietnamese-American. That’s how I’m billing it. So understandably that is what is on my mind, nowadays. That’s all I think about night and day. And everything, even the words read at the inauguration of the first ever black second term president gets sucked into my obsessive vortex. I’m wondering what it means when a new figure with a new kind of story takes the stage. Will people pay attention? Will it speak to them? Or are they all going to go out to pee?

Creative Writing Exercise: Developing Authenticity, One Object at a Time

Khanh Ho is writing the first Vietnamese American Detective Fiction ever.  Why?  Because being the first is a power trip.   Like what you read? Share, comment, subscribe. 


I’ve taken dozens of writing seminars—some good, some bad. Over time, I’ve done hundreds of exercises. And in my capacity as a college level Creative Writing professor, I’ve had the chance to assign writing exercises, too. So, I know: the best exercises get you into the groove. This one—the one I’m about to share with you–is by far my absolute favorite. This one is a keeper.

I did it in my first writing seminar with this really cool writer—let’s call him David—who gave off the aura that every professional writer of high class art fiction should emit: denim shirts; denim jeans; old leather belt with real silver accents; longish unkempt hair, never parted; scuffed, leather attaché case with a discreet imprint from a luxurious maker; cowboy boots; crows feet around the eyes. Kinda cool to a college freshman.
David had us bring in one object and tell two stories about it: one true and one false. We could not reveal the true one. We could not even give clues by creating deliberately crazy stories that would indicate falsehood. We were just supposed to tell two variations of one story. One girl brought in a brick that she supposedly rescued from a lava flow in Hawaii. Me: I brought in a stuffed animal and spun a totally false story of shoplifting at Arnie’s Toyland.

After each story was told, the class voted and discussed why we thought one story was true or false. This made for a fun class. You got to know a lot about your classmates by listening to how their minds work. You also began to realize that certain elements are important to the feeling of truth: detail, character, setting. These are the elements that make a story ring with authenticity, even if it is a bald-faced lie.

To do this exercise at home, without the audience participation element, pick an object and try to write a scene around it. If you’re working on a story, go ahead: use the object in the scene. You don’t have to write two variations. You just have to decide that the object is going to have a life of its own—that it will reveal all sorts of connections about the world it occupies.

This exercise is perfect for the mystery writer, because it is essentially a realist exercise. Mysteries live in the world of realism; they deal with the everyday world. No Hobbits or Space Creatures or Wizards inhabit this world of pulp. No zombies or vampires or barbarian warlords. Mysteries exist in the plausible world of our mind. And all mysteries—all–are locked in the objects that we hold, like flies trapped in the spider web of our own making.




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