“The pain is there, and the pain is how people relate to us, or identify us. It makes me want to protect that pain.
I first met Larissa Pham in 2015 when we both read at the Asian American Writer’s Workshop. Afterward she approached me and after just a few minutes she suggested we be friends. Within a year she published an erotic novella, Fantasian, and not long after that she began publishing lyrical and searching art criticism for places like the Paris Review Daily. We last met up in person in Prospect Park in May 2020 so I could take her author photos. I had to remind her she probably wanted to remove her mask for these photos. It was strange times, and the times remain strange nearly a year later. In March 2021 we discussed her forthcoming book, Pop Song: Adventures in Art and Intimacy—a book that makes good on its promise of intimacy, baring the bruises and taking care to elucidate the politics and emotions of love, sex and art. We conducted this interview over email.
THE BELIEVER: The through line of the book is your experience of art and interpersonal relationships, most of those a mix of sexual and or romantic, but you do an interesting thing where you often address a “you,” not the reader, this isn’t second person, this you is a romantic partner. The topics addressed are already intimate, but letting the reader stand shoulder to shoulder with you as you speak to you creates an even deeper intimacy that borders on voyeurism for the reader. How did you decide to frame the book this way?
LARISSA PHAM: The cop-out to this question is that I don’t think I could have written the book any other way. At first there were multiple yous, and there are, in my mind, still multiple yous that are being addressed in the text. But ultimately I had to decide how I wanted to position the address, and it felt so much easier to have one person in mind. I had instinctively been writing toward one person, this figure of the lover, and I wanted to keep that. It’s very Bluets, which of course is felt throughout this text. It’s very Barthes. But I do think there is a lineage of writing toward the lover; I think the book has a lot of company in that aspect.
BLVR: A lot of your book is taken up with visual art criticism, do you read the wall labels in museums and galleries? If so, how do they inform your reception of the work?
LP: I do always read the labels if they’re available. I read the handouts that they give you at galleries. I like walking into a space and taking in the work as it encounters me, but I’ve never regretted having more context. There’s a lot of work, especially more contemporary, conceptual work, that becomes much more (or entirely) legible with context. Legibility allows me to appreciate what I’m seeing. I like knowing, for example, that Cerith Wyn Evan’s chandeliers are blinking in Morse code, and that’s something that wall text can tell me.
There’s also a whole body of art that is research driven and requires context and labels, and that work requires an intellectual engagement. I’m thinking of someone like Anicka Yi, for example. And even with work that is less conceptual it’s still interesting to look at a wall text and read what someone, a curator or a historian or both, has decided to write and highlight about it.
I think the art world suffers from an accessibility issue. Not just in terms of access in a disability justice framework, which does apply, but also in terms of gatekeeping of knowledge. I don’t want anyone to feel “shut-out” when they look at a painting. Good text provides context for a piece of art or for an artist, maybe even offers questions or points out interesting details. Of course, descriptive text can be racist or paint a certain narrative or be exclusionist because people write text and people do those things. But that’s why it’s important to have a diversity of curators and perspectives throughout the entire planning of an exhibition.
BLVR: You have a chapter titled “Camera Roll” which recounts the technical aspects of photography, the history of photography, mixed in with sections on your own photographs. Would you ever consider creating a visual component for Pop Song? Why or why not?
LP: My mom thinks that I should make a website where I link out to all the images of art that I reference in the book, like a kind of museum tour. I didn’t do that, though it’s a really good idea, but I did want people to feel inspired to look artists up on their own. I hope readers do! I don’t think I would create my own visual component for this book, though, if only because it was a narrative that I needed to tell in words. I did that, so I’m happy with it. The stuff that I need to say in paintings or photos, I can say it with them, or try to. It is a bit of a tease that I don’t share my own photos that I mention in “Camera Roll”, but that’s mostly because the black and white ones are so embarrassing. In the runup to publication, I am thinking about sharing some on social media with excerpts from the text, but that’s more of a personal history behind-the-book thing, not an art practice.
BLVR: When I read the book, probably because it’s titled Pop Song, and because there are many essays that work as lists or catalogs, as you say, I thought of the book as a textual playlist. In what ways did “Body of Work” help you sort out the direction and order of the book? Thematically? Time?
LP: Thematically, for sure. The book does feel like a playlist or a mixtape and I’m happy so many people have mentioned that! Like a playlist, things are running through it thematically, and though there’s evolutions (I hope…) they’re not strictly chronological. But it felt very helpful to get into “Body of Work” and realize that it was cracking open some things, namely around trauma and specifically gendered, racialized trauma. I had started the essay as an essay about pain; it came directly from one of my columns at the Paris Review Daily. I knew I’d wanted to write about pain and my relationship to it over several years and mediums; it made sense that I needed to get into specifics. Writing those specifics, remembering them, unearthing them, helped me to see what needed to be explored in terms of an “after,” if there can be said to be an after. Especially because I think of Pop Song as a book about love (which it is, I hope), it is also by necessity a book about trauma. They go together! When I started writing the book, back when it was more of a catalog, I was so interested in those little sweet crystalline moments. What felt most poignant, always, were those moments where love or the feeling of love was arising through and around the memory of pain.
BLVR: It’s about a week after the Atlanta spa shootings where eight women were murdered, six of them Asian.
Your essay “Body of Work” is partly about how you processed being racialized in sexual contexts. You discuss your awakening as a writer and thinker through the medium of Tumblr. You speak of finding community with other writers, particularly other BIPOC, and specifically Asian American girls and women parsing their sexual/romantic relationships.
You write, “All along I’d had the sense that something was different about the way men treated me, different from the free-spirited adolescent romances I’d grown up watching and reading. No one had told me it was going to be different for me. That it would feel so much harder to be loved. I felt crazy for not understanding.”
You also recount how difficult it was to write about your interpersonal relationships with men without talking about race, but resisting it at the same time. And despite all the painful experiences you process in this essay, you also write, “My pain was pain, but my pain made me interesting.” This particularly struck me today because I’ve been thinking about how I no longer want to be known for the things that have caused me pain as a mixed Asian American woman, and I realize this is a very personal reaction that I will have to figure out because I don’t want to pretend these things aren’t there, but I also don’t want them to consume me. It feels like the events of the past year warrants a shift in the quality of attention these things are given and how they are written about. My question is a big one, possibly unanswerable—going forward how would you like to center your Asianness in your writing, be it fiction or non-fiction? What do you want to read from other Asian / American writers?
LP: That line, “My pain was pain, but my pain made me interesting”—I want to qualify it with the knowledge that it’s a kind of resigned interestingness. Like, if this is going to be what makes me interesting, then fine. I’ll hurt and be interesting. I do not advocate this as a perspective now, to be clear! I think I have to be extra careful with this, because (as so much of the essay tries to reckon with) there is a lot of comfort in romanticizing our hurts, in letting our pain swallow us up and define us. I spent a lot of time in my early career writing about pain, particularly my own. I’m happy that now I get to write book reviews and write about art and don’t necessarily pour my heart out in that same way. I have, in some ways, cauterized that—professionally.
When you mention the Atlanta spa shootings, I’m reminded that I’m still in mourning. I am in mourning for those women and the victims of that shooting. I’m also in community with these women and their families, in the sense that I am an Asian woman, my parents are immigrants, I know a little bit of what that’s like. Not entirely. I do feel as though certain dynamics of racial fetishization have come to the forefront of national conversation. I haven’t really written or talked about it because though I experience those dynamics, as described in the essay, I don’t experience them to the interpolated degree that these women of a different class and different experience than me did. I’ve wanted to listen to other voices and organizers in this instance.
But again, to your broader question, am I an Asian woman? Yeah. Am I Southeast Asian? Yeah. I’m Vietnamese. Am I a writer? Yeah. All of this is playing into my work no matter what. What I write will be shaped by my experience and my perspective. I haven’t considered making my writing more overtly didactic or allegorical, though I know that that’s one response to being alert, or newly alert, to politics. I don’t know if I can center my Asianness in my writing any more than it already is, which is to say, it’s part of every fiber that gets woven. It’s weird to think that my book will be coming out in a climate where, due to an awful, really awful incident of violence, people are looking at Asian women and thinking, yeah, we should probably care. I am wondering how my identity might play into how my book is received, particularly the sections that deal with this particular racialized trauma. My hope is that other Asian women might encounter it and it will contain some bit of truth that feels, if not completely relatable, if not completely comforting, something like a lighthouse spotting another lighthouse from far away.
And more tangibly speaking I have noticed that my characters have always been Asian but recently I’ve been making them specifically and culturally Vietnamese.
BLVR: I also want to qualify that I didn’t read that line “My pain was pain, but my pain made me interesting,” as the totality of your being, even in the span of time that essay encompasses. What it pointed out to me is how I feel newly protective of my identity as an Asian woman now that there is a national spotlight on it. I don’t necessarily want to show the pain.
LP: Yes, definitely—the pain is there, and the pain is how people relate to us, or identify us. It makes me want to protect that pain. I’ve also read articulations of it. I think both can be helpful, depending on where you are.
BLVR: You’ve done work in anti-violence and I work with high school students and something we’re struggling with is acknowledging injustices students regularly face and being upfront with that while not flattening their experience to only being about their trauma or injustice. But in publishing it often feels like it’s easier to get works of trauma published than something that depicts something more nuanced (and part of me is hesitant to say this because I don’t want to imply that trauma is easy, or unimportant). In that way I wonder what Asian American fiction and non-fiction will look like in the future.
LP: This is interesting to think about, because I do see these conversations (and have had them!) about publishing’s relationship to trauma, especially trauma narratives from people of color. Of course, the trauma narratives sell; there’s a market for them. (This makes me think of Naben Ruthnum’s term “currybook,” too.) But at the same time, I also can’t really advocate for a piece of writing that doesn’t at least negotiate the historical and present-day systems that all people are entangled in. Like, part of what makes reading, say, a romance with an Asian woman protagonist so satisfying, is knowing that her dating struggles are going to be at least a little bit similar to mine, and different from a white character’s. If that’s missing, it won’t feel so true, you know? So maybe the book doesn’t need to have “trauma” in it to feel genuine, we can still have happy endings, romances, fantasies, all of those fun and lovely things, but it wouldn’t feel good to me to read a text where the characters of color feel cursorily written or arbitrarily tacked-on. Of course, we can also look to speculative fiction, science fiction, for maybe a more interesting or speculative discussion of these questions. People of color do exist in the future; Asian people exist in the future.
As far as what Asian American literature, specifically, might look like in the future of this time and not speculation—I don’t know! I think that there has been, on the whole, a general move away from the “currybook” as Ruthnum would put it. I think that’s because writers are getting older and younger (as in debuts) at the same time. I am sensing right now a generation of, I don’t know, disaffected first- or second-generation Asian American writers who are interested in things like alienation and capitalism, and less the tightly historical/diasporic narratives that seemed to fill shelves in the 90s and 00s. That feels interesting—putting the “American” in Asian American. Hehe.
Pop Song feels interesting to me in the context of this question because I don’t really think it’s a book about being Asian at all. It’s a book about love and some other stuff, and my being an Asian woman shapes it, very distinctly, but it wasn’t at all how I was trying to frame it. I maybe could have tried to write a stinky lunch essay collection. But that wouldn’t have been very interesting to anyone, least of all me. I don’t even have a stinky lunch story.
BLVR: I read your story recently included in the anthology, KINK. I felt like a little detective for noticing similar themes you cover in Pop Song. Abjection, BDSM, pain, and love. I enjoy noticing those connections in a writer’s work because it feels like they’re thinking deeply about their subjects. Above you say that love and trauma go together. As I was reading your story I had the same question the man had, which was, “How did you become the way that you are?” Which sounds terrible! What I mean is, why does love and trauma go together? When I try to separate the two in my head I have a hard time imagining it otherwise, even though I’ve heard stories and my former therapist told me how things might have been different if I’d had different formative experiences. Why are they so connected? Or is it dependent on who you are?
LP: The answer to this feels connected to my answer to the previous questions, which is that… trauma, in any form, shapes us, so it makes sense that the way we love would necessarily be limned by the events we experience. (I just read a great essay from Melissa Febos where she mentions using “event” instead of “trauma.”) Just as my being Asian, specifically Vietnamese, a child of refugees, etc. etc., shapes my experience of the world, experiencing trauma must affect the way we experience or value or perceive love. This happens for everyone! Everyone has experiences that affect how they love. Some are more dramatic, more drastic, than others, certainly. I’m aware that I am basically saying “stuff happens and you feel it.” But it’s true. Stuff happens and you feel it and it changes you, but also, the cool part is that you can keep changing.
BLVR: I heard that you’re working on historical fiction. What have been the challenges working in that form?
LP: It’s funny because I mention historic and diasporic narratives in one of my earlier answers and of course now I have to tell you that I’m working on a multigenerational historical novel exploring the genetic and inherited effects of trauma and mental illness. But it is interesting to me, the things we inherit, spiritually and otherwise. I love doing research for it—it’s set from 1954 to, roughly, 2025. I do have to decide if I’m going to include the pandemic or write a canon-divergence no pandemic alternate universe.
It’s made me think a lot about how migration is set off by geopolitical conflict—I mean, duh, but when you think about it, there are only so many ways that large groups of people move from one place to another. And the time and way in which you move will change the life that you have, the things that are around you. The research is really hard at times; I’m always looking for specifics. And a lot of it, from Vietnamese and Vietnamese American and American sources, has its own biases one way or another. Navigating that is confusing and sweat-inducing. But I want to do it well because I think it’ll be worth it.
BLVR: Lastly, what have you been reading that’s excited you?
LP: I’m in grad school now, so I’ve been reading a lot of fiction. I’ve been thinking a lot about the structure of Alice Munro’s stories, the way she plays with time, and the stories in Deborah Eisenberg’s most recent collection. Reading The Lover, by Marguerite Duras for the first time this year set my hair on fire. And this week I’ve been thinking about the multiple perspectives and the flexible, poetic structure of Beloved, by Toni Morrison.