Why I Write

I grew up very poor. My house didn’t have cable TV. The only form of entertainment my parents could afford was the public library near my house, and so during the summers and on weekends, I devoured every single book in that library until they had to pull books from other libraries around the town to satisfy my hunger for words. I was a problem child in school back then. I got in trouble every week. My mother was constantly getting called out of work and into my principal’s office. It wasn’t that I wanted to be bad, but I was bored. I had very few friends, and the only similarity I shared with the few that I did have were that no one else wanted to be their friend either. In a way, words saved me. At a time when no one wanted to be my friend, words taught me that the best friend I could have was myself.

A lot of writers disagree about whether you can write something into existence, but I started writing as a way to bring a world of my imagination in and out of existence. For example, in the 7th grade, I built a world where I was a queen of a magical domain and sole protector of this domain against the threats of evil. The characters I created in that domain became my first and only true friends. When I had my first crush, I wrote poems about her, praying that this energy I was expending could manifest reciprocated feelings. Even now, because I’m young and falling in and out of love, I am always weaving it all into a metaphor, as if metaphors could be the bridge between the reality and what I want it to be.

All this is a super fancy way of saying that I had a sad childhood, and like many artists, I took my sadness and put it to the page, like emptying it out of me to make room for even more sadness. Even now, I write best when I’m sad. Writing is the only therapist my health insurance will pay for. But in recent years, I’ve begun to think about my work back then as much more than me being sad or working through trauma. Unknowingly, I am committing the most revolutionary act. In a world that had no spaces for me no matter where I turn, I am writing into existence a space for myself.

Viet-Thanh Nguyen once said to me that we need to keep telling our stories. I need to keep telling my story as a female, Vietnamese diaspora writer. Right now, there’s no story like mine. And while I appreciate the efforts of Viet-Thanh Nguyen, Ocean Vuong, Hieu Minh Nguyen, Paul Tran, etc., I want them to know that they have it easy. As men, our culture is in their favor. I’m convinced our ancestors love them more.

I’ll admit that some days I want to quit writing. Doing all the work to carve yourself a space is exhausting. I am still depressed. None of the issues I write about have resolved themselves, and the road ahead is long and arduous. And sometimes I blame writing for the relationship I don’t have with my parents. I say writing is the half of me no one will ever understand. Whoever says writing is a an act of community has never been a Viet diaspora writer because being a Viet diaspora writer is a commitment to always being alone.

But one year ago, my cousin’s daughter was born. And just like my parents, her parents don’t understand, and they will never understand how to exist in a space that doesn’t want them to. And when I went through this, I was alone. I am lucky I kept hoping that it would get better because there were so many days I didn’t feel like it would. There are so many in my community who die because it doesn’t. I write because I have to write. I write because I can’t stop. When my cousin’s daughter reaches my age, I want her to find a home in the space I’ve been carving for her. I want her to know I was there.

Kimberly NguyenComment