VI KHI NAO
Eleven Eleven: When I think of two authors working together, the first image that pops into my head is a game from my childhood: the three-legged race. Two friends are attached at the ankle and thigh with a length of rope or two bandannas, so their legs become one, like conjoined twins. And the goal is to move together in rhythm because one wrong move will throw the team off balance. Reading Human Tetris, it’s difficult to pull out a poem or a line and think: oh, this is Ali or yes, I can tell this is Vi writing here. How many times during this project did you feel like conjoined twins?
Vi Khi Nao: I think Ali and I were not glued by the hip or wrist, but rather by our uterine lining that was periodically sloughed off and is a rhythm all its own. I bleed heroically on my period. Just heroically. I bleed like a gladiator. Or, a bull.
Ali Raz: Vi and I couldn’t syncopate like swimmers for half of the time because my libido was steeped in writing my masters paper for this film class, but I think half way through the project as I begin to invest more time in writing with her, she and I came out of the oven feeling we had been overbaked by yeast. I think we both inflated at the same time and it was during this inflation that I felt we may not match in bread or croissant size, but the baker used the same kind of yeast brand and it made us feel singular in our microscopic fungal composition. It’s easy to syncopate with another once we share a similar ritual. I think we feel very yeasty now more than ever.
EE: We were delighted but a little surprised to read Human Tetris, because it’s so different from your previous projects. Vi, your most recent book, Sheep Machine, was made in relation to Leslie Thornton’s short film of the same name. Ali, you have been engaging with film as well. This past November Tupelo Quarterly published a piece you wrote about Hitchcock, chaos, and birds. Why this new direction and why now?
VKN: I am always writing new things. I am prodigious. Soon, I will have more books than César Aira! Ha! HA HA!
AR: To the extent that Human Tetris is a project about desire, I wouldn’t consider it a new direction but the same old one. Hitchcock is all about desire gone wrong, desire re-routed through the things that go on to destroy us. Or less drastically, channeling Barthes (who has already said everything that is worth saying): no text without desire.
EE: You note that the text “seeks not so much connection as an understanding of the shape of desire.” Are these poems expressing their loneliness or are they looking for validation?
VKN: These poems are expressing their intimacy with the baroque period. It’s a style of European architecture or sense of humor that allowed sexuality to be ornate and Caravaggio and Rubenesque. Even Bernini in Italy would be extravagant like candles in order to be quixotically French. The shape of desire can be comedic like Ali Wong or Riaad Moosa or Tumi Morake. Our understanding of it has made our uteri inflate backwards without our permission. We like it when books we produce do that to us.
AR: Desire = loneliness. This is as an axiom.
EE: Does romantic love exist? Can romantic love exist?
VKN: Romantic love doesn’t exist. And, can never exist.
AR: It not only can and does: it must. This answer is best affirmed in the immediate aftermath of an episode of Romantic Love, when the visceral reality of the thing temporarily and emphatically sweeps away intellectualized (and, in their own way, necessary) doubts as to the validity of the concept. Vi, counter to what she just said, lives by this more than anyone else.
EE: We are more connected than ever, and yet, I get the impression that most of us feel more alone. In 2019, with over 1,500 dating apps at our fingertips (trust me, I just googled it), if not love, what are we looking for? Since each poem is tagged in a different location around the globe, this desire must be universal and cross linguistic & cultural boundaries?
VKN: We are looking for snow that won’t melt and ice that won’t freeze.
AR: 1,500: wowow. Susan Sontag wrote somewhere in her diary that sex without romance is like playing at love, simulating it: an exercise in sadness. So this empty search is probably not only global, as you note, but properly historical. The proliferation of dating apps would then make sense; the building of an empire on nothingness and lack, something that ought to strike us as very familiar.
EE: Ali, in an interview you call out Facebook: “Facebook as a platform seems to actively create a spectacle of around-the-clock sociality that thrives on feelings of exclusion and loneliness.” And condone Twitter: “I like Twitter a lot: it has these flourishing communities of intelligent, fun, and interesting stuff. Just scrolling through it, one comes across tons of nuggets and factoids to follow up on. It’s great.” Not all social platforms are created equal. Generally speaking, in your opinion, has technology strengthened or weakened relationships.
VKN: I don’t think it has strengthened or weakened it, just changed it. In the past, we use a bicycle or wheel to escort our romantic affairs around and now we use an Uber. One advantage of technology is that it makes bad relationships go faster so we don’t have to be in them for twenty or thirty years. However, technology also invites us to repeat our mistakes at an exponential rate so we end up in many micro bad relationships, which holistically equates to being in a bad marriage with a million people for thirty plus years.
AR: I correct myself: Twitter is also insufferable. The same uploading of the self; the monetization of ordinary lives for others’ benefit. Perhaps the internet is dead; a lost frontier whose tragedy equals its expired utopian hope. Is this pessimistic? Very well then; it’s pessimistic.
EE: Are you ready for your fans to begin emailing you for romantic advice? Any plans for a weekly Ask Vi & Ali column?
VKN: I am ready to mishandle everyone’s love failures. I will provide advice to ensure divorces.
AR: Great idea; someone, please make this happen. I can think of nothing more cheekily evil than to offload my person delusions onto the hopes and desires of unknown others.
EE: Can you describe your ideal romantic partner(s) only using fruit?
VKN: A tree-borne jackfruit that grew to at least 55kg (I don’t like my lovers bony) before falling on someone’s head (to guarantee the certainty of her reasonably abundant corporality), forcing the fruit to split into two, exposing her meaty flowers and fleshly petals to fall apart like confetti. Also, a jackfruit that knows how to open doors. I love my lovers to be chivalrous.
AR: Mango. Only mango.
EE: The size of the book and cover are very creative, and you were both behind the design. Why did you choose this shape? How did you choose these images?
VKN: I didn’t want my drawings to be on our cover. Ultimately, I credit this entire design of this cover on Ali Raz. Without Ali, we would have abandoned the origin of its design: She came up with its shape (her love for Polaroid) and its highly thoughtful concept (please view below).
AR: The images are old artwork that Vi made, I believe, decades ago -- plus a receipt for a beautiful blue typewriter bought from a Hollywood Blvd. in Iowa. We felt the combination of quotidian traces and a dormant (Vi is a trained visual artist with, oh, rooms full of lithographs, hand-made books, and paintings just waiting for an outlet) archive of images reflected something of what we were going for in the book.
EE: To read the poems, the book must be turned on its side. You are forcing the reader to physically do something in order to access the content in the book. Is this power-move intentional? Are you a dominatrix? Second question, what role does the physical book play in storytelling?
VKN: We saw this book as a video game. And, if the players open our book to play, we assume that they are fully responsible for their carpal tunnel syndromatic discomfort (as a game controller can have a similar effect) and we can’t take credit for their new acquired relationship with chiropractors. The reading experience can be one of falling, maybe like a waterfall, so that is one way to introduce a new poetic narrative structure. The story is how to be erotic and funny and falling like pieces of tetris until it stacks so high, the game has to end.
AR: We’re not dominatrices. We might even be dead.
EE: Some readers might think they’ve found a copyedit we missed. What’s you intention behind publishing a book with errors?
VKN: I love some degree of errors in books. One should not have graphite up the asses.
AR: Glitches, snags, and the false confidence of grammar-puritans: the book is mildly messy, a little annoying in its layout, and totally in love with the prick of psychic discomfort a typo can enact on a certain type of reader. But the book is far more about love than it is about pain, and even the deliberate misfires of syntax can only count discomfort as collateral for what was always an act of love.
EE: Our mission as a press is to promote new types of storytelling; we need new narratives because real life doesn’t follow the Hero’s Journey storytelling arc. Rightfully so, you called us out on lacking a diverse catalog of authors. Although we are a new small publisher, this doesn’t give us a pass; it means we have room to grow. Looking at some other presses who are similar in size and scope, this seems to be an issue that stretches beyond 11:11 Press. In addition to seeking authors that don’t identify as white & male, how do we as a new member of this indie community connect with more diverse readership so the skewed demographics of our submission’s inbox improves?
VKN: Thank you for giving us an opportunity to state the gender disparity. I become sad when I see male authors having an easier access to the publishing world. We want to embrace fairness. We know that life is unfair, but it doesn’t have to be that unfair. We appreciate your openness with us. You could have responded with indifference and contempt, but instead you welcomed us and this gesture, in itself, is more transformative than what can be measured with the naked eye.
AR: What Vi said. Plus: I really like this statement by Black Sun Lit as one approach (my favorite) to orienting oneself within this thorny field.
EE: Who are some authors you wish more people would talk about?
VKN: Kim Thúy
AR: JA Baker. John Haskell. Aamer Hussein.