Srikanth Reddy in Conversation with Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis
The Poetry Magazine Podcast: Srikanth Reddy in Conversation with Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis
Srikanth Reddy: Welcome to the Poetry Magazine Podcast. I’m guest editor Srikanth Chicu Reddy. This week, I talked to Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis about the Center for Refugee Poetics. It’s a center without a center, a pop-up space to celebrate refugee poets, though it isn’t housed in any particular place. Lawrence cofounded the Center with the poet Ocean Vuong, and we get into why this space has no permanent home. As I was reading about Lawrence’s work as a curator at the Smithsonian, I was surprised to learn about his interest in ghosts, in what he calls ghost practice. We talked about the prohibition of ghost practices in Vietnam, and the ways these practices have migrated to the United States. We also get into ghosts in American and international horror movies, and how ghost practice, since the Vietnam War, has become a way to find the lost dead.
Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis: My family, ghost practice is a part of my family. It’s a pretty, it’s super common in Vietnam, as I’m coming to understand. I’ve been doing, reading kind of like anthropological work on ghost practice and mediumship. And I found out that there’s, like, multiple Vietnamese terms for a medium, or somebody that, like, can enter a trance state and invite a ghost to possess them. And then the ghost speaks through them. And I think, historically, that’s been for any number of reasons. But since the Vietnam War in particular, there’s just been like this massive explosion of need for mediums. It’s been a way to find the lost dead.
In the Vietnamese understanding, there’s ancestor worship, and then there’s ghost, maybe not worship, more like negotiation, (LAUGHS) because ghosts usually appear as unhappy. And it’s because they were buried improperly. And I’m like, poorly paraphrasing here. But this is, like, a game of telephone where I’m reading, like, a white man’s, generally a white anthropologist’s rendering of, you know, Vietnamese. And then I have stuff that comes from my family, but that is its own weird game of telephone for reasons of language and generational difference. And I grew up with hearing ghost stories from my mom and her experience with ghosts over time. And then I have uncles who are kind of active healers and almost like shaman.
Srikanth Reddy: So your, your mom and her brothers were all involved in—I’ve never heard the term, ghost practice, actually. It sounds like the name of an amazing, like, band or poetry book. Can you, like, what was their ghost practice?
Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis: That’s a made up thing.
Srikanth Reddy: Oh, okay. (LAUGHS)
Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis: Because, you know, there’s, like, communing with ghosts for various reasons. Like I said, in Vietnam, it was, has been very frequently for the purposes of finding loved ones who died during the war. And this is also under, especially with the rise of the communist regime, that was, like, a very kind of modernist idea of stamping out the supernatural, which you see across Asia and lots of other places. And so, ghost practice became prohibited. And shamans would have to practice in secret or be in danger of getting jailed. And it’s more recently, I want to say, from my readings, like in the ’90s, come back into, don’t ask, don’t tell kind of favor. And then in the US, it’s very different, because it’s policed not by the government, but like, in a more totalitarian sense by the entire regimes of knowledge we live inside of and that create us. It runs up against a kind of psychological rationalism, or, like, you know, scientific rationalism, but like, is inflected by a psychological industry where if you go around talking about seeing ghosts, there’s immediate kind of repercussions for what that means for your kind of personhood, and your sanity. So, there’s a kind of, a very different circulation of ghost practice or ghost knowledge in the diaspora in the US.
Srikanth Reddy: So, in some ways, it sounds to me like ghost practice is being eradicated, in some ways, in Vietnam, by a kind of new secular regime.
Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis: I would say, rather than eradicated, and maybe it was consciously eradicated, I would say more like, black-marketed.
Srikanth Reddy: Uh-huh.
Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis: Like, in a way where it’s always like, you’re not allowed to do this wink, wink, keep doing it. Because I’ve come to find out Vietnamese government officials would use ghost mediums to help find MIAs, including American MIAs. So I think, in the same way in the US, it’s also black-marketed, but just in a differential way, like to a greater degree.
Srikanth Reddy: Yeah, let’s, I want to talk a little bit about Asian American ghosts, or Asian ghosts, global Asian ghosts, you know. Because that’s like an entertainment industry thing, right? Like, you know, Japanese horror and Korean and, but, and I’m South Asian and, you know, I actually don’t think that Indian culture does ghosts really well. You know, you don’t get a whole lot of, like, you know, Hindi ghost movies, like, having the success of, like, The Ring, or whatever. Maybe that’s because of colonial wars in the region and the ways that hauntedness circulates through the collective imagination in some of those societies and cultures. Do you think, I mean, are you interested in ghosts just generally speaking? Do you like ghost stories like Henry James’s Turn of the Screw and like horror, you know, in the American context, or are you mainly interested in Asian, and how are they different to you?
Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis: I feel like it’s so smart. Like, I really love the thinking about it in relationship to histories of colonialism. What scaffolding shaped knowledge circulation and transmission and inheritance. So yeah, I’m fascinated by that. And, you know, there, I did think about some South Asian ghosty stuff.
Srikanth Reddy: Tell me, educate me. I don’t know.
Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis: There’s a couple of novels that are straight-up kind of based on ghost practices. I’ve always, I really liked Amitav Ghosh. I mean, he has a lot of stuff. And it’s like very much about, like, Western colonial civilization tamping stuff out, or, like, refiguring it or, you know, kind of appropriating it and making use of it. I like the, I like the idea of, like, the movies. Because there’s such a horror genre explosion recently, and, like, trying to think about what that means, like, why it’s so popular, why so many people are making that stuff. I’ve even tried to do some thinking about like, the kind of unbelievable popularity of, like, Harry Potter, wizard Harry. You know, like, magic, in a broader sense, and how, how much we love it.
(RECORDING of Harry Potter PLAYS)
And how to understand that love, in relationship to danger and threat, where there’s kinds of magic that we don’t want to talk about, or that have to feel primitive or supernatural or superstitious or horrifying.
And then there’s others that are safe. And that feels like not accidental. Henry James and others went a lot in the direction of, like, psychological projection. In that kind of historical era, that was really meaningful to use the ghost as a way of thinking about our kind of collective unconscious, what was bubbling up by way of the ghost, the ghost was telling us something larger. And, to me, it’s not the same as like, there’s a popular sociologist named Avery Gordon, who put out a book called Ghostly Matters maybe fifteen, twenty years ago, that’s been really, really popular and, like, thinking about haunting, taking off from, like, Beloved, and the idea of being haunted by history, which is not the same as psychological projection. But for me, those—a lot of my work has been thinking about how potentially violent those framings are, in the sense that, like, they’re useful and meaning making, but they have often been put in service of destroying the idea of a ghost as a ghost.
Srikanth Reddy: So, that’s fascinating. I mean, you know, because I, as you were saying that I was, I mean, I think my original question was kind of, not maybe, I hope not racializing ghosts, but, you know, kind of regionalizing them or thinking about ghosts like, how are Asian American or Asian ghosts different from, you know, American ghosts. And then that point you made about Beloved, and, you know, the ways that different cultures have different kinds of ghost practices and traditions that attach to different histories of injustice, or. But there’s also, yeah, there’s also the kind of just the unruly, spectral kind of like ghost as a ghost, right? Are you drawn to that on some level because you—have you had feelings of being haunted, or of having encountered ghosts?
Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis: Yeah, I think—so, yes, I have had ghostly encounters. But also part of is like, when my mom would tell me something, it was like cagey. She came really early in the mid ’60s, which is super early for Vietnamese. Most refugees left Vietnam in ’75 at the fall at the end of the war, but my mom left early as a graduate student. So she’s actually an immigrant, as opposed to, like, the distinction of refugee. The rest of our family came over as refugees post 1975. I was born in Florida in the late ’70s. So just a few years after the fall. But she was already, had a sense that, like, stories that she would tell me, I might be predisposed to think she was crazy. Or that if I repeated them, she worried about what kind of reception I would receive as a kid talking about these ghost stories. I’ve always been concerned with that. Like, that part of her, like, immigrant—(LAUGHS) here you go, as you walk through the Statue of Liberty. I mean, that’s not how she arrived. But, like, here’s your check-in materials as a new immigrant, is this understanding of, like, what immigrant knowledges are unacceptable. And like, as you said, unruly. But unruly to the point of being dangerous to you, or potentially dangerous to your family or to your children. And so, that kind of tension was always there for me. You know, I don’t think fondly about being gaslighted into thinking they must be a product of my own imagination, or my limited tenuous grip on sanity or something. Like, I want to have the license to feel and see and experience what I experience, in general, also, as like, you know, being mixed, where my dad’s ideas about a lot of these things were not at all in line with my mom’s. And it is also complicated by the fact that my parents are both scientists. So like, it’s like, almost comically amped up in terms of like, how we think about, like, where science and rationalism run into supernatural practice.
Srikanth Reddy: There’s so much there that I want to hear you tell me more about, and one of them is, and I know I keep returning to this, but it’s like, your mother, you know, who is an immigrant. And I keep thinking about how immigrants, in some ways, have a ghostly kind of experience, right? You had a life before. Now you’re in a kind of afterlife or a new life. Sometimes that separation between lives involves telling the story of the past life, right. Which may be marked by violence, or may have been marked by some other forms of rupture, or trauma.
Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis: Improper burial, in one way or another. Or like, yeah, you don’t get to be an ancestor, you become like, your passage into the next life was not, it’s not easy, and it didn’t follow a kind of protocol that allows you to be an ancestor. You become, become ghostly in some way.
Srikanth Reddy: And then, that figure of transmission of the ghost story, who themselves have a ghost-like kind of narrative, passes these stories on to a child, who then goes on to write about ghosts. And you’re working on a novel about ghosts. What’s that, is that novel trying to come to grips with that, that family history and that, like, political history of ghost stories and hauntedness and telling of stories, of these stories, or?
Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis: Yes, it is. It’s trying to come to grips with, with those things. And with, like, the idea of coming to grips with them, too. And it is the story of a second generation Vietnamese American woman who’s arrived in the US as a refugee, grown up in the US, and begins to figure out that she is a spirit medium who can hear ghosts. And she’s trying to figure out what that means in terms of what kind of life she wants to live, what her responsibilities are, what it means to listen to ghosts, in this kind of benighted outpost of the refugee diaspora. You know, there’s a kind of unknowability around ghosts in general, but then there’s also like this generational gap or this, what it means that I just cannot be the inheritor of so much practices and so much knowledge. But that doesn’t just cut off with, okay, well, then it’s done, and then you move on. In some cases, it means a kind of twisting around and trying to do what you can to find it. And so I wanted to, I’ve been wanting to think about that, like, on the level of what the character is doing, but also, in terms of me as a writer, the kind of work that I have to do. So, part of the process for the book is, I don’t get to write any of the ghosts. I’ve asked various, like, Vietnamese poet and writer friends to channel the ghosts for me. And I don’t get to see or know anything about what they’ve written. And I don’t get to touch anything that they’ve done. They give it to me, and I have to incorporate it into the book. And then I have to make sense of it or not make sense of it. But try and deal with it. I don’t get to make a ghost do the thing I want it to do. Or say the things that I want it to say or what I think it would say. I have to just kind of work with what comes.
Srikanth Reddy: I actually just got a little bit of like a goose bump on my back of my neck when you were saying that, because, you know, it does—I don’t know if it’s like that I’m excited to read the book or that I’m, like, scared by, you know, that idea of what you’re trying to do. It sounds like the novel is like a haunted house, or it’s like a house. Well, you know, I think there’s a definition of poetry, I forget if it’s Emily Dickinson who says that “nature is a house and art is a house that wants to be haunted.”
Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis: I mentioned before the mass dead of the Vietnam War. And that creating a need to draw upon the ghost world to make sense of this lasting trauma, both of the living world and of the dead. And I’ve always thought to myself, what about the refugee dead? Like, there are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of refugee dead, who are never buried by definition of their, of who they are and how they’ve died. And where are they mourned? How are they—they’re not buried, so how are they commemorated? And how do we grapple with their ghosts, which are not just living around us, maybe they are, but are also, like, I’ve always thought of them as, like, the clouds over the sea. Because so many refugees have died in transit, in displacement out on the ocean. We can’t look for them on land. Like, we can’t look for them here at home, we have to look for them—and not in a homeland, either. We have to look for them in diaspora, in transit, in movement.
Srikanth Reddy: Yeah, that’s a difference that I hadn’t really thought about, the, you know, the hauntedness of Vietnamese imagination, because of the mass death, within the borders of Vietnam, during the war, but also, the kind of like, the dead who are unhoused, or never repatriated, and how that resonates with the ideas of ghosts as being unquiet dead or dead, who are unable and never afforded burial at home. And, you know, it makes me think about this Center for Refugee Poetics that you have established with Ocean Vuong, the Vietnamese diasporic poet. And that’s a center that has no center, in a way. It’s described elsewhere as a pop-up center for refugee poetry and poetics. And can you talk a little bit about how the idea of a center that has no home came to you and Ocean?
Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis: Yeah, so, so Ocean and I have known each other for a really long time. It made sense to think about refugee poetics as existing outside of the institutions where we were housed. And rather than it existing in the formal idea of just like, well, let’s talk about refugee stuff in a panel, what if it was a center, it just—and we said it was a center, and we called it a center, and we advertised it as a center, and the only way in which it wasn’t a center is that it wasn’t a center. (LAUGHS) In a discursive sense, it would be a center, and in an imaginary sense, it would be a center. And I think a really important turn for us was, I had a chance to swing by the ICA, the Institute of Contemporary Art that’s connected to UPenn, and right at that time, there was a pop-up of Claudia Rankine’s Racial Imaginary Institute. And a curator there named Meg Onli, who I want to give credit to, had an amazing show up that, like, had regular kind of book club readings and discussions of Black poetry engaging local Philly Black community. And it was an exhibition that was, like, a reading space. But it wasn’t a reading space because it didn’t call itself a reading space. It had a number of kind of, like, immersive interactive components. But it didn’t call itself an immersive space or an exhibition either. It called itself a Racial Imaginary Institute. I looked into that, and that idea that it is something that, using MacArthur funds, Claudia Rankine started and imagined as a kind of roving mobile thing that would be devoted to Black poetry. That was also really important inspiration or, and validation for the idea of, well, okay, what if we did something similar for refugee poetics and refugee poetry and refugee literary creation? So there’s like that, like, that idea of, in refugee loss, you have nothing when you’re displaced, for the most part, or you have only what you can carry. But you also have no rules. I mean, they’re the rules of the boat you’re on or the land that you’re traversing and trying to survive, but you also are outside of governmental or institutional space, you know, not absolutely, but to some degree. And so like, it was roving, it was displaced from the outset, and could be continually produced as an idea. That allowed it to exist outside of institutional space entirely, but at a kind of critical distance. And be constantly critical of the kinds of institutionality that profit from and create refugee condition.
Srikanth Reddy: So, the refugee-like nature of the Center for Refugee Poetics, you know, its unhousedness is like the unhousedness of the refugee as an identity. I mean, in some other ways, it also sounds like there’s a playfulness to it, right? There’s a kind of like a hustle and a scam, you know, of like, you know, this is a center, but there is no center, and we’re, like, subverting the institutionality. I mean, it sounds to me like you’re having a lot of fun doing it. And then it also makes me wonder if you would ever want to have a center. Like, say, say, I were to come to you and say I have, like, $10 million I’m going to give you to create the Center for Refugee Poetics for real, would you want to do that? Or?
Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis: (LAUGHS) Yeah, I really, I really like you zeroing in on like it being fun, and something kind of fundamentally, like, trickstery or mischievous about it. That’s really consonant with my sense growing up in a refugee family in a refugee community. In the essay that I wrote for the recent Poetry issue, I think a little bit about the refugee condition in terms of victimization and victimhood and being frozen in victimhood. And that is just so far from my kind of lived sense of how refugee family is, never thinking of themselves as victims or, you know, passively accepting victimhood. And one of the easiest ways to conceptualize that agency is irreverence and humor, and that kind of playfulness. And when I think of, like, refugee entrepreneurs, it’s a hustle. And it’s, like, a wink, wink hustle of like, I am gaming the system constantly, because I understand that the system is set up to make me lose. And, as a refugee, I understand that it is always like a snap of a finger away from, “Well, we have a new country with a new name, it’s all been taken over and you’re either going to jail or you’re going to get kicked out.” And if you have that knowledge in the back of your mind, it helps you rationalize (LAUGHS) subverting systems. And maybe not just helps you rationalize, but it helps you recognize the necessity of not resting your entirety of your identity and your stability, or your sense of, like, morality and the joy of life on other people’s rules.
My partner is also Vietnamese, and her dad is, like, a refugee entrepreneur par excellence, who has done very well for himself. And her name is Mimi, and her dad said, “Mimi, I’m 62. I do whatever I want.” And like, that ethos, to me, is like, shot through and through with any refugee thinking. He’s a, he’s a refugee. It’s just like, I’ll do whatever I want. Like, I won’t say that to everybody, I’ll say whatever people need to hear. But like, I am constantly kind of operating under the principle of like, I will game whatever systems are put in front of me, and I’m smart and nimble enough to do whatever I want to. And so I think that kind of ethos feels like it has to be built into refugee making and creating and commemoration, partly as a way to get away from like, the kind of like death politics of just understanding refugees as the put upon and the kicked out and the victims. But also because it is the spirit of how refugees survive and move and come to understand the world. And I actually think it’s a fundamentally important way, and why I try to champion refugee arts, it’s not just because it’s this community of people and experiences are histories that we need to look at, but because it is such an important lens through which we can re-understand the world.
Srikanth Reddy: Yeah, now I, I feel like we’ve come to a really different way of thinking about the refugee from my earlier, maybe caricature of the refugee as a kind of ghost who’s haunted by a past that they’re kind of compelled to retell, right, to—
Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis: That’s not a caricature.
Srikanth Reddy: It’s part of it.
Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis: Yeah.
Srikanth Reddy: But, you know, the other part is the refugee experience as one of radical, like, self-invention, or self-reinvention, right, where it’s not just that you’re haunted and compelled to kind of return to the past, but in which, like, the futures that are available, they’re actually, you know, circumscribed by all kinds of social injustice and racism and, but also that your partner’s father’s, you know, “I’m going to do whatever I want,” that’s an incredible thing to be able to say at 62.
Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis: Right, right. Yeah. To think about like, what a lifetime of, of living through war and being thrown across the world largely by forces totally outside of your control, and then settle in a country that is not exactly hospitable towards you. And then too many years later, being able to tell your kid, “I’ll do, I can do whatever I want.” Not defiantly, like, not that there’s no note of defiance in there but like, living in that with like, (LAUGHING) like, quite happy with yourself. And there’s a beauty in that, to be able to get to that in the face of directly negotiating through all of that trauma and difficulty. That’s always felt amazing to me and wondrous. Which is not to erase the suffering or the difficulty of, of refugees and displaced folks, but it is to, like, I think, you know, we have, like, the saying that we look across marginalized communities so much lately and say like, well, let’s not just focus on the trauma, we need to focus on the joy, we need to not just focus on pain. And I, there’s a lot to that, and there’s a reason so many of us have glommed onto that. But it’s also that work of thinking about their kind of interpenetration, or how they are tied up in one another. Hearing my partner’s dad say that kind of like sparked for me a little bit, because I’m never forgetting who he was or who he’s been or the lives that he’s lived to get to that place.
The kind of inaugural version of the Center for Refugee Poetics, we opened with Ocean reading from this poem by Li-Young Lee. And the plan was for him to just read it, and he did start reading it, but we ended up reading it together, I think, because it was hard for him to read, it was difficult for him to read. And I like that memory of not being a, as thinking about refugee poetics as a inability to read sometimes and needing it to be a kind of joint endeavor and having to stop and start and the kind of pain being on the surface. So, I’ll go ahead and read.
(READS EXCERPTS FROM “Self-Help for Fellow Refugees” by Li-Young Lee)
If you happen to have watched armed men
beat and drag your father
out the front door of your house
and into the back of an idling truck,
before your mother jerked you from the threshold
and buried your face in her skirt folds,
try not to judge your mother
too harshly. Don't ask her
what she thought she was doing,
turning a child’s eyes away
and toward that place all human aching starts....
And I bet you can’t say
what language your father spoke
when he shouted to your mother
from the back of the truck, “Let the boy see!”
Srikanth Reddy: Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis is a curator for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, and a cofounder of the Center for Refugee Poetics. You can read Davis’s essay, “On Refugee Poetics and Exophony,” which contains an excerpt of Li-Young Lee’s poem, “Self-Help for Fellow Refugees” in the April 2022 issue Poetry, in print, and online. If you’re not yet a subscriber to Poetry magazine, there’s a special rate for podcast listeners. For a limited time, you can get a full year of the magazine for $20. That’s 11 book-length issues for just $20. Visit poetrymagazine.org/podcastoffer to subscribe. That’s poetrymagazine.org/podcastoffer. This show was produced by Rachel James. The music in this episode came from Resavoir, Alabaster DePlume, John McCowen, Rob Mazurek, and Irreversible Entanglements. Okay, that’s it. Until next time, be well, stay safe, and thanks for listening.
When Srikanth Reddy was reading about Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis’s work as a curator at the Smithsonian, he was surprised to learn about Davis’s interest in ghosts. This week on the podcast, Reddy speaks with Davis about ghosts and “ghost practice,” and about the unusual way Davis’s novel is being haunted by other writers. They also talk about the Center for Refugee Poetics, founded by Davis with the poet Ocean Vuong, which Davis describes as “a mobile literary arts and education project, a Center without a physical home, a roving sanctuary.”
To learn more about the Center for Refugee Poetics, check out Davis’s essay in the April 2022 issue of Poetry, “On Refugee Poetics and Exophony.”