Arts & Culture / Spring 2019

A National Book Award nod for PhD creative writing student

“Ghost Of,” Diana Khoi Nguyen’s debut collection of poems, was shortlisted for a National Book Award. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

With “Ghost Of” (Omnidawn, 2018), her debut collection of poems, Diana Khoi Nguyen found herself blinking in the literary limelight.

In September, just months after her book’s publication date, Nguyen learned that “Ghost Of” had been longlisted for a National Book Award. A few weeks later, the collection had advanced to the five-book shortlist, giving it a healthy chance at capturing one of the highest honors any book, much less a first book, can receive.

And although the book didn’t claim a prize at the November awards ceremony, Nguyen, a PhD student in DU’s creative writing program and a teaching assistant professor at the Daniels College of Business, remains “totally grateful” for the experience.

“I still don’t really understand,” she says. “There are moments when I’ll be walking the dog, and I just go, ‘What?’ I’m just totally baffled. … How did this happen?”

As it turns out, it happened in the usual way. In each of the categories — fiction, nonfiction, translated literature, young people’s literature and poetry —c ontenders are selected by a five-judge panel from submissions made by publishers. Over the summer preceding the awards ceremony, judges read all of the books in their category — in poetry, it’s typically about 150 volumes. They then compile the long- and shortlists. Hours before the awards dinner, they meet to determine the winners.

Nguyen’s nomination came draped in bittersweet emotions. “Ghost Of” is, after all, a meditation on tragedy — her brother Oliver’s 2014 suicide. Nguyen composed the work to come to terms with the loss. “I didn’t want it to be a retraumatizing experience for me, but a bridge, a way to begin to honor and think about him and to think about our past,” she says.

Until a class taught by Selah Saterstrom, director of DU’s creative writing PhD program, Nguyen had postponed wrestling with Oliver’s departure. “One assignment was to write a radical eulogy,” she recalls. “I had been really avoiding my brother’s stuff. [But then, as part of the course assignment,] I built a cardboard coffin and laid in it every day for like 10 minutes. It was very meditative. I wanted to retrace his steps in death.”

The poems came together in 2016, in the weeks after classes were over. “I only write for 15 days in the summer and 15 days in December,” Nguyen says. “It’s really crazy. But I don’t write outside of those times. When I’m teaching, or when I’m a student, I’m 100 percent a student, and I’m 100 percent a teacher. I can’t split my brain. I can’t do it.”

Between those 30 sunrises and sunsets, Nguyen aimed to write a publishable poem a day. She experimented with form and hovered over photos that signaled a looming crisis. Two years before Oliver’s suicide, she recalls, he rose in the middle of the night and gathered every family picture in the house. Then, with an X-Acto knife, he sliced himself out of each image.

“It was like a careful rage,” Nguyen recalls. “He didn’t smash anything. But he put them all back. We never talked about those pictures. My parents never took them down. They hung all the way up to his death. They hung even after his death.”

Nguyen contends with the emotional weight of those photos by incorporating them into a series of “Triptych” poems scattered throughout the collection. In each, a defaced photo serves as the lead element, showing the family flanking a conspicuously empty space. The other two elements embed text within and around a silhouette of the departed Oliver, thus filling him in and pointing to his absence.

Innovations and experimentations like these have earned praise from critics, who, like Saterstrom, credit Nguyen with an exploration of loss that captures its intangibility.

“Diana’s work,” Saterstrom says, “is able to locate the invisible pulse that animates the mystery of loss and recovery.”

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