I am a fiction writer whose work is preoccupied with the legacy of the Vietnam War: for the Vietnamese who remained in the homeland, the Vietnamese who immigrated to America, and the Americans whose lives have intersected with both. I write with an awareness of American postcolonial narratives, particularly in the context of cultural identity.
My first novel, Dragonfish, a NY Times Notable Book, follows a white American police officer’s search in Las Vegas for his missing ex-wife, a troubled Vietnamese woman who has escaped an abusive new marriage and is now secretly writing letters to the daughter she abandoned twenty years ago, after they first arrived in America as refugees from the Vietnam War. Dragonfish employs the tropes of the crime novel and the noir novel—two genres that revolve around the endless permutations and consequences of violence—to dramatize how the violence of war moves far beyond the battlefield in time and place, how it seeps into the ongoing lives of its victims and can make criminals and refugees of us all.
The traumas of war and dislocation also animate my two current projects. The first is a collection of stories that take place in contemporary Vietnam and portrays characters negotiating a society shaped by centuries of foreign occupation and the weighty obligations of family, religion, and dogma. The book is concerned, in particular, with how the past manifests itself in the present. If our past is at once inescapable and inescapably ambiguous, how does it continue shaping and even distorting who we are, who we imagine ourselves to be, and who we want to become? It’s amid the slipperiness of these realities that the stories embrace the supernatural and the surreal, to reflect not just an ingrained facet of Vietnamese culture, but also the haunted nature of a historically traumatized people.
My other work-in-progress—a novel titled Intruders in Smoke—also features supernatural elements, though here to conjure the dark power of a past that has been withheld or unknown. It involves a Vietnamese-American painter, an orphan from the Vietnam War, who was adopted and raised in Oklahoma by a Caucasian family. In the wake of a tragic romance, the painter seeks refuge at an obscure artist residency in Louisiana, created and run by a Vietnamese couple who have meticulously recreated parts of Vietnam on the estate. It’s in this ersatz landscape that the painter tries to untangle his past and encounters phantasmagoric manifestations of the life he might have lived had he never left Vietnam, including a figure who might be an alternate version of himself. Akin to history-haunted novels like The Magus and Beloved, Intruders in Smoke draws on the Gothic tradition—ghosts, horror, madness, tragic and transgressive love—to confront the anxieties of identity and erasure for those who’ve been shaped almost entirely by the country and people that colonized the land of their birth.
As a creative writing teacher, my focus is broader and more craft-oriented. I offer a range of fiction workshops designed to help students find their voice, cultivate their voice, and then challenge and expand their voice—all while carefully studying the work of peers and masters of the craft. Every winter, I also teach a Thesis/Major Works in Fiction workshop where I help students shape their work for the longer form they’ve chosen. My pedagogical approach is simple: to teach literature in terms of how it moves, intrigues, and challenges the reader, and to teach the craft of writing in terms of how one might do the same for one’s readers. With fiction students, I promote the idea that good writing is the absence of bad writing: those common mistakes in craft that all writers initially make and must prune from their work through constant, meticulous revision. Only by becoming good writers can we aspire to become great writers, an ideal I encourage by essentially offering students ways to organize and dramatize their complex humanity—to write, as William Faulkner said, about “the human heart in conflict with itself.”
Courses (All taught through Creative Writing)
Advanced Fiction: Beginning a Novel
Thesis/Major Projects in Fiction Workshop
Arts Core: From Page to Film
Advanced Fiction: The Love Story
Advanced Fiction: The Importance of Plot
Minor Portfolio Workshop
Special Topics in Fiction: Refining Your Voice
Selected Publications in Fiction
- “A Refugee Again.” Displaced: Essays on Refugees. Edited by Viet Thanh Nguyen. New York: Abrams Books, 2018.
- “The Uncertain Memories of a Four-Year-Old Refugee.” Literary Hub, August 2016.
- Dragonfish: A Novel. W.W. Norton: New York, 2015.
“The Gift of Years.” Fence. 9.1 (Winter/Spring 2006): 15-32.
- Reprinted in The O. Henry Prize Stories 2007. Anchor Books, 2007
- Reprinted in A Best of Fence: The First Nine Years. Fence Books, 2009.
- Reprinted in American Odysseys: Writings by New Americans. The Vilcek Foundation Press, 2012.
- Reprinted in American Odysseys: Writings by New Americans. Dalkey Archive Press, 2013.
- “Kubla Khan.” Dead Neon: Tales of Near-Future Las Vegas. The University of Nevada Press, 2010.
- “Vespertine.” FiveChapters.com, January 18, 2009.
“This Or Any Desert.” Las Vegas Noir. Akashic Books: New York, 2008.
- Reprinted in The Best American Mystery Stories 2009. Houghton Mifflin, 2009.
- “Halong Bay: A Novella.” Interim. 26.1&2 (2008): 164-241.
“Monsoon.” Glimmer Train Stories. 44 (Winter 2003): 31-49.
- Reprinted in Where Love Is Found. Simon & Schuster, 2006.
- “The Other Country.” Harvard Review. 28 (2005): 8-23.
- "A Painted Face.” The Southern Review. 41.1 (Winter 2005): 23-43.
- “Vagaries.” Michigan Quarterly Review. 43.4 (Fall 2004): 545-570.
PhD, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, 2006; MFA, University of Iowa, 2002
Teaching at Chicago since 2010.