Jade Hidle’s essay “Thúy” appears in Southern Humanities Review issue 54.1. The essay recounts Hidle’s childhood as a mixed-race child navigating her own identity both in the U.S. school system and at home. In the following interview, Hidle discusses the themes of mental health, racism, self-hatred, exoticism, xenophobia, sexual objectification, and familial relationships in her work, and shares the forces that inspire her craft.
Caitlin Rae Taylor: In “Thúy,” your essay published in issue 54.1 of SHR, you discuss your adolescent habit of plucking out your eyelashes as a way to feel close to your mother again. Can you explain more of how this emphasized your filial relationship, and did it in any way have an adverse effect on your relationship with your mother and/or your relationship with yourself?
Jade Hidle: Looking back, I realize it must have been hard for my mother to witness my trichotillomania manifest. I don’t think she saw it as a way for me to try (and ultimately fail) to bridge the distance between us. She simply wanted her first American-born child to be beautiful, get married, have health insurance, and live that American Dream that had eluded her. And there I was at the age that I was supposed to be blossoming into that dream she held for me, but instead plucked bare.
I’m sure she was disappointed and at a loss for what to do, if anything, because mental health was not a topic of discussion in our Vietnamese American household. My family had already been through such massive traumas of war, displacement, and discrimination that there was really no language for us to talk about anxiety, depression, or self-inflicted harm. Still, I would never have articulated it to her because our relationship has always been about me not trying to burden her who has already suffered so much. She is my mother, so I suppress my own feelings to take care of hers. (She probably feels that the opposite is true.)
To this day, I always initiate contact with her and usually only to see if she needs groceries during quarantine or to translate the news about anti-Asian hate crimes to keep her safe or, on a more positive note, share pictures of my kids with her. I don’t share anything about myself, and she does not ask. That’s not to say it’s right or wrong; that’s just where we are now.
I’ve had to deal with my mental health struggles on my own, and I’m still learning to ask for help. I encourage Asian Americans to grow comfortable talking about mental health. Doing so, I believe, combats the continued invisibilizing of our identities in America. That’s why I wanted to share part of my mental health journey through “Thúy.” I might look different than what’s expected of a Vietnamese American girl—ugly, even—but I am proud to say I’m here. And I thank Southern Humanities Review in helping me to feel seen.
CRT: Your essay goes into great detail explaining and exploring your experience growing up as a mixed-race child in the U.S. school system. How has gaining distance from your adolescence affected your practice of writing about those experiences?
JH: Despite the challenges my multiethnic identity posed in my education, I stayed in school. For a long time. Over the course of earning a Bachelor’s, Master of Fine Arts, and PhD, I gradually learned ways of integrating my personal voice into the daunting, often exclusive, culture of academia. That’s not to say that I’ve achieved a sense of belonging in education. It’s an ongoing process. On the daily, I confront resurgences of the imposter syndrome, microaggressions, and an overarching sense of marginalization.
But, now that I am an educator myself, I make it my daily mission to model for my students how to inhabit the space, in their own words, their own bodies, their selves. For so many of them—us—who are mixed, I emphasize that belonging doesn’t hinge upon a choice of either/or, but instead both-and. That adage “You don’t know something until you have to teach it to someone else” definitely applies here. And teaching students to be their whole selves, no matter how fragmented they’ve felt up until they enter my classroom, is empowering. My students and all of their growth, success, and leadership in areas where I never felt brave enough to venture help me to heal my old school day wounds.
CRT: In your essay, you distance yourself from your Vietnamese classmate, Thúy, and discuss how you often felt othered by most of the people in your life. What did Thúy symbolize to you at the time and what does she symbolize to you now?
JH: At the time, Thúy represented, I am ashamed to admit, the Vietnamese culture and identity that I was trying to run from. In the ’80s, being Vietnamese was not “cool” in Los Angeles where I grew up. The end of the U.S. War in Viet Nam was still fresh. My family and I were mocked and harassed, on top of all of the systemic discrimination. I went to an elementary school where I longed to be a “cool” minority; I truly envied the Chicanas and Black girls. But of course there is discrimination unique to each of those identities I can never understand. I tried to use my mixed-ness to try and fit in somewhere, but of course self-erasure never worked. So when Thúy came into my life, I couldn’t pretend to not be Vietnamese anymore. Confronting my own cultural identity—and a lot of the pain that I associated with that—was scary and embarrassing. It shouldn’t have been, but it was.
Now, Thúy is the home that I wish I’d never run from. She is all the internalized racism that I fight against for myself, my daughters, my students, and all the people of color surviving and thriving, despite the odds. I’m forever sorry to Thúy for responding that way and for pushing her away. I’m sorry to her for not being strong enough to be there for her when she needed someone. I’m sorry to her for denying who we were, our sisterhood through all that binds us across the Pacific, across all that remains unspoken.
CRT: “Thúy” focuses on themes of mental health, self-hatred, racism, and familial relationships. Do these themes also appear in your book, The Return to Viet Nam, and with what other themes are they in conversation?
JH: Caitlin, I think you just wrote my new bio for social media! Yes, those topics definitely weave through my book, alongside the triangle of colonization, tourism, and capitalism that informs my relationship as a Vietnamese American traveling to Viet Nam. Being mixed, I had to confront the GI-prostitute narrative that clouds my identity, so I addressed in my book themes of exoticization, sexual objectification, and sex work, too. Dang, my book sounds like such a bummer when I put it like that, but really it’s about homecoming. Finding love in liminality. Accepting myself on the threshold.
CRT: Can you tell me a little more about your writing process for The Return to Viet Nam? Are you working on another book length project now?
JH: Much like my identity’s relationship to Viet Nam, my writing process for The Return was fragmented and nonlinear or cyclical. I wrote in bits and pieces on restaurant napkins, Post-Its, photographs; some sections I wrote while in Viet Nam and others were about experiences that took much longer to process, so they were narrated in retrospect, fractaled through memory—that kaleidoscope of spatio-temporal distance. So, it really took the insight and patience of my editor at Transcurrent Press, Jason Casem, to show me how all the pieces puzzled together. I was lucky enough to study with Jason, a brilliant writer, in the MFA Creative Writing Program at Cal State Long Beach and have since counted him as a friend—a brother, really—so I trusted him to assemble my scraps into a coherent narrative. It was Jason’s idea to intersperse chapters oscillating between America and Viet Nam, between past and present. With Jason’s guidance, I was able to achieve a form that reinforced the content of tidal shifting in regard to identity, language, culture, trauma, and homeland.
Currently, I am working on a book of nonfiction in verse. I took some years away from writing to create beautiful humans, and then when the pandemic hit and we were all quarantined for a year I no longer had a four-hour daily commute to work. I used that saved time to get back into the practice. I quickly realized that all the pieces I was writing centered on people who had impacted my life significantly yet who would no doubt never remember who I was. Maybe it was something about becoming a mother, or maybe it was in response to being isolated, that sharpened my focus on all these people who never realized that they played a memorable role in making me who I am. About twelve of these nonfiction poems/hybrid pieces have been published in the past year, so I’m starting to look into shopping the book as a whole. The selling is, I think, the most painful part of the writing profession, so if I encounter anyone reading this any time soon, let’s stress eat some Cheetos together.
CRT: What draws you to the nonfiction form to tell your stories? Do you ever work in other genres?
JH: I actually started out writing fiction. The label offered me comfortable distance. And then I read lê thị diễm thúy’s The Gangster We Are All Looking For. That book changed my writing, my life. That book showed me the possibilities of telling my own stories in a world where my people and I were so vastly under- and misrepresented.
At first, it was troubling to write nonfiction. Traumas bubbled up during the writing, the workshopping was its own brand of scab-peeling, and then the rejection letters that are the everyday experience of working to be a published writer felt more personal than ever. Yet, it felt and still feels important to contribute to representing and diversifying the umbrella term of “Vietnamese American.” Lately, it’s been an education to practice nonfiction in verse and to craft my own hybrid forms. Experimenting in structure and style has encouraged me to see my own stories through different optics. Doing so grants me a sense of power over those experiences or, at least, to assure myself that those experiences mean something.
CRT: What are you reading right now and how is it influencing your craft?
JH: Much of what I’m currently reading revolves around my children. In my “book club” with my eldest (we are the only two members, and our meetings involve a lot of boba and French fries), we read so much amazing YA work out now—Elizabeth Acevedo, Angie Thomas, Akwaeke Emezi, just to name a few authors. Their books remind me to not be afraid to center social justice in my writing, that our words can be a big part of the movement, especially in reaching the younger generations who might need a voice as a beacon. I never think anyone would want to hear what I have to say, but when I imagine that I could reach a young reader—well, that motivates me.
I have another child who loves nature so much that she embraces every animal and plant that she sees. It makes a walk around the neighborhood endlessly long, but I read up on the natural world to learn to speak her language—Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass, The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben, and Aimee Nezhukamatathil’s entire body of work. I once heard Nezhukamatathil speak about how Asian Americans are rarely depicted in nature unless in the context of sexuality or labor (or both), so it breaks stereotypes to simply show how we enjoy the natural world. Her work encourages me to take the little loves that people might not expect of me and take time and care with it through words. Other poets who are really inspiring me right now are Karla Cordero and Arhm Choi Wild.
My youngest can’t sit through much more than one of her creased, dog-eared Star Wars picture books without jumping up to run and scream through the house, but she reminds me how much I love humor in writing. Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime is the funniest and most moving memoir that I keep coming back to. His writing, both in the book and in his stand-up specials, remind me that humor is part of resistance that can reach the widest audience. Though “Thúy” would fool you, I do like to write funny stuff. There’s nothing more healing than laughter.
CRT: What’s your advice to writers who feel caught between cultures, who may be trying to reckon with this in their nonfiction?
JH: Don’t judge yourself on a scale of “authenticity,” as in “I’m not ________ enough to be ________.” Flip that exclusionary perspective. Instead, see it as whatever you are writing is adding to what it means to be _________. You are expanding and enriching your cultures, just by being you and sharing your stories.
CRT: Is there anything else you’d like to share with SHR’s readers?
JH: To all the readers and storytellers out there, I am deeply grateful for your time and attention because these are the little steps that are needed to #StopAsianHate.
JADE HIDLE is the proud multiracial daughter of a Vietnamese refugee. Her book, The Return to Viet Nam, was published by Transcurrent Press in 2016, and her work has also been featured in Poetry Northwest, Flash Fiction Magazine, the West Trade Review, Bangalore Review, Columbia Journal, New Delta Review, and the Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network’s diacritics.org.