Vi Khi Nao’s Fish in Exile is one of the most singular novels I’ve encountered in years. It’s about grief, the fissure lines in a marriage, and the fractal nature of narratives; it’s structurally bold, but never loses sight of the raw emotions at its core. That it’s able to juggle these seemingly contradictory aspects–the formal boldness, and the deeply moving thematic aspects–is just of many reasons why it floored me when I first read it, and why describing it here is so difficult. Via email, I talked with Nao about the origins of her novel and the process of writing it.
Fish in Exile is one of the most unique books I’ve encountered in a while, from the way that dialogue is formatted to the characters’ names to its structure. Was the novel’s organization there from the start, and if not, how long did it take for it to coalesce into its current form?
From the start, the book was born very much like itself. And, it took me approximately 3.6 years to write, mold, and form it.
The characters’ names at times evoked morality plays to me, which I found to be an impressively jarring touch in an already unpredictable narrative. Were Ethos and Catholic always Ethos and Catholic?
Their names arrived initially and remained like so. During workshop or the editing process of it, Carole Maso thought that their names evoked too much historical and religious context and suggested that I surrendered to more “normal” names. I listened a little to her. I attempted to switch their names to Ethan and Katherine, respectively. But their names did not ring well with the narrative structure and without too much encouragement, I immediately abandoned the replacement altogether. It helped that Coffee House Press published the novel. They are very open-minded about having esoteric, exotic names in books. They are very open-minded about many things. Not sure if big publishing houses would be so ready to accommodate.
Fish In Exile often follows its own logic. Did you need to get into a specific mindset in order to write and edit the book to preserve that quality of it?
How far into the process did the book’s title come to you?
It came to me immediately.
Did you have any structural or thematic touchstones that you referenced as you were writing the book?
Fish in Exile operates heavily in the realm of metafiction. I understand “metafiction” as a way for language to be aware of itself without being blatantly aware of itself. Poetry in the context of a novel can be used as a device for language to be hyperaware of itself: extreme poetic gestures as seen in the interactions and conversations between Ethos and Catholic at times give the illusion that the text does not belong there, but in fact it does. The flowery language is done intentionally and philosophically. The language here can come across as awkward, comedic, or imposingly poetic, because it purposefully does not pretend to blend itself into the text; the text should not attempt to be colloquial or faithful to the general character portraits of the protagonists because in its poetic pose, it has adapted to a new register by acquiring a shape-shifting vernacular without asking permission from the readers. The readers should not see this gesture as betraying the emotional or intellectual core of the entire work, but as an act of a different kind of betrayal. The kind of betrayal that adheres to the hedonism of realism.
While I have used repetition to build erotic pulses throughout the body of the text to give it electrical energy, its enigma lies in the repetition’s capacity to manipulate time. While repetition may be seen as wasting time and words, repeating something that has already been said or appears to have already been understood, the device itself allows time skipping or time passing or time lagging. If we see repetition as possessing corporeality, it would take shape as a time machine. When used wisely and precisely and timely, it has the ability to move text in and out of the future and from the past into a fluid present. It has the ability to make language time travel through different registers. Repetition can move the text telekinetically. And give us the déjà vu feeling that we have been there and here already.
In addition to your novel, you’ve had a collection of poetry also released this year. What’s next for you?
My collection of short stories, A Brief Alphabet of Torture, is coming out of FC2 next Fall.