Dear Diaspora by Susan Nguyen
After a wave of anti-Asian sentiment and hate crimes during the pandemic, there comes a tide of the opposing forces. More than ever, Asian American poets are speaking candidly about the complex dynamic between being an “Asian” and being an “American,” as well as their personal experiences navigating these two identities. Joining talented poets like Ocean Vuong, Franny Choi, and Victoria Chang, Susan Nguyen makes poetic conversation with Asian diaspora in the voice of Suzi, a fictionalized version of the poet herself, in her debut collection Dear Diaspora, which won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry in 2020.
Dear Diaspora (Nebraska Press, 2021) is a collection of sixty poems, broken into three sections. The first and third sections of the collection are told from Suzi’s perspective, while the central section provides a documentary-style depiction of the Vietnamese refugee experience using a wide array of forms, including obituaries, interviews, letters, and statements by the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry.
The poetic persona “Suzi with an i” calls to mind “Anne with an e” in Anne of Green Gables: both are witty, perceptive, sensitive, and original in a way that endears them to readers. Burdened by problems too heavy for a child’s shoulders, Suzi turns her confusion and discomfort with her identity into a string of questions. Readers follow her physical and spiritual journey into adulthood, witnessing the pain and joy of her growth along the way. In Dear Diaspora, we witness Suzi’s mixed feelings about the American dream, her family’s immigrant history, her intergenerational trauma (especially about her father’s disappearance), her urge to assimilate into “white culture,” and her resistance. These feelings culminate in her desire to reconnect with her motherland and mother tongue, both long estranged from her. In the final section, readers see that the questions troubling young Suzi are by no means resolved and remain the center of an older Suzi’s self-exploration. Those questions are masterfully interwoven in poems like “Letter to the Diaspora,” “Questions I’ve Never Asked My Father,” and “Suzi as a Series of Questions.” The tone of the poems is intimate, especially when Suzi addresses diaspora directly as if that abstract concept is her pen pal or an estranged friend.
The titular poem, “Letter to the Diaspora,” appears several times in different forms in both the first and the third section, making Asian American diaspora and questions of “self-identity” recurring themes of the collection. In her interview with the Rumpus, Nguyen explains that “all of the ‘Letter to the Diaspora’ poems started as different sections of one longer serial poem.” Nguyen effectively breaks her long serial down and makes each epistolary section a standalone poem. This mode of narration contributes to the psychological realism of the collection. The confusion about one’s self-identity and the feeling of being in-between return and hit us at the most unusual occasions. When “Letter to the Diaspora” appears multiple times, it serves as a vehicle for growth; the same questions are provided with different answers at different stages of Suzi’s life as she keeps exploring, challenging, and embracing her diasporic identity.
Suzi’s diasporic identity manifests in her relationship with the Vietnamese language, the first language of her parents. Using a stunning metaphor in “First Language,” Suzi’s father traces the origin of Vietnamese, a language Suzi fails to master, to “the movements of tadpoles in the water.” In the final section of “First Language,” Suzi describes the bittersweet experience of trying to master Vietnamese, her eagerness to embrace the mother tongue of her family, and the difficulty she experienced learning to pronounce each word: “My impulse is to cradle one [tadpole] in my mouth . . . the tadpoles swim circles and my tongue follows, mapping its movement before spitting.” The awkwardness of imitation in language acquisition is captured in the extended tadpole metaphor, and the fact that the “foreign” language is Nguyen’s “first language” adds another layer of bitterness to the process. As a second-generation immigrant brought up in the U.S., Suzi is raised speaking English and the language difference also creates an invisible barrier between her and her family. “Suzi as a Series of Questions” depicts the poignant moment when the poetic persona realizes that “English is what makes [mother] sad.” Failing to speak one’s family language means more than the loss of language itself, as language is inextricably connected to one’s cultural heritage and sense of self.
As Amy Ling declares in “I’m Here: An Asian American Woman’s Response,” published in New Literary History, “I may not be able to persuade anyone to like tofu or Asian American writers, but I can tell them, as we’re all telling them, we’re here.” Nguyen’s debut collection is a valuable addition to the Asian American writers’ chorus, “We’re here” and “We are part of the cultural and national discourse.” Dear Diaspora, in its bold exploration of Asian American subjectivity and interrogation of the limits of the American Dream for a racial minority, continues to expand and reshape our national discourse. Yet, as Nguyen says in the last poem of the collection, “I’m learning how to hold grief / in my mouth. / Something alive / until it isn’t.” The absence of closure seems to suggest that the questions about diaspora and the associated feelings of displacement, otherness, alienation, and grief may never end, forever wanting an answer.
LI ZHUANG is a Chinese international student pursuing her PhD in creative writing at Florida State University. In May 2019, Li graduated with an MFA in creative writing from Columbia University. Her fiction and creative nonfiction have appeared in The Madison Review, The New Engagement, The Collapsar, etc.
SUSAN NGUYEN's debut poetry collection, Dear Diaspora, won the 2020 Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry and was published by the University of Nebraska Press in September 2021. She has been the senior editor at Hayden's Ferry Review since the end of 2021.