Come out to see poet Joshua Nguyen and fiction writer Linda Masi, along with poet Jessica Cougar, read as part of the MFA program’s Broken English series. We caught up with Nguyen and Masi to find out what inspires their writing, and you can catch their readings tonight at 9 p.m at Proud Larry’s!
Tell me about what you’ll be reading tomorrow at Broken English.
Joshua Nguyen: I will be reading a mix of half old, half new poems, centered around food. Lately I’ve been thinking about food a lot. One, there isn’t a big diversity of food here, so I’ve been cooking a lot of Asian food myself. And I’m interested in the history of food and how it pertains to culture and my history. I realize that in a lot of my significant memories, I can remember the food in the background, like what food surrounded that memory or experience. And also, I’ve been working at the Canteen a lot as a chef, so I’m learning more and more about how food is prepped and how food is cooked, and that is always in my head now a days.
Linda Masi: I will be reading two short pieces and an excerpt from a longer story, or if time permits, the entire story. My target for the short pieces was to write based on prompts. The first piece is based on the opening first sentence phrase that begins with “My mother never…’ and the second piece’s prompt is ‘story without dialogue.’ They are inspired by some of my personal experiences but are not necessarily about me and hint on humour, and the supernatural (hailing Halloween). The longer story is titled ‘At Thirteen’. It tries to explore experiences with terrorism and life after in North-Eastern Nigeria. Regarding the writing process, I tried to employ the use of culture, memory and imagination to create a place of belonging and identity for some of the characters in the story.
What’s been your overall inspiration as a writer?
Joshua Nguyen: When I grew up in Houston, there was this group called Meta-Four Houston. We met at the downtown library, and I had four main mentors, Deep, The Fluent One, Outspoken Bean, and D. They taught me the importance of having my own voice, and they got me out of my shell. And then when I got to undergrad, there was Spitshine poetry. My teammates were amazing like Ariana Brown, Arati Warrier, Jasmine Bell, Adam Hamze, and Joseph Flores. And then my mentor, Sam Sax, he’s the biggest reason why my writing has grown in its maturity. When it comes to writing influences, there’s Flannery O’Connor because of her twists and turns. And then there’s Edgar Allen Poe, who was my first foray into poetry. Hieu Minh Nguyen, Ocean Vuong, and Franny Choi also were other inspirations.
Linda Masi: First and foremost, I just love writing. I am usually not talkative (unless I have established some form of familiarity with the other person(s)), so most of the things that I would have spoken end up getting written and some rent a mansion inside my head. I should end their lease and publish them in a book! One person who has been and still is a big inspiration to me as a writer is Elechi Amadi. He was one of Nigeria’s pioneer authors and also happened to be my first Creative Writing Course teacher.
What specific steps do you recommend a student take in the writing process?
Joshua Nguyen: Don’t get married to the first few lines of your poem. Usually if you’re just starting off with an idea, you’re just getting your juices flowing. So the first few lines may not be the greatest compared to the second half of the poem. And also if you have this really great line you want to end with, and the ending is really great, but the poem doesn’t fit as a whole, then the ending line can be the beginning of another poem. So just recycle your lines, don’t throw them away.
Linda Masi: I would recommend that one’s reading list should include the classics, literary essays, journals, whatever interests you, and read across genres. Also, read both the “well written” and the “poorly written” novels based on reviews to broaden your understanding on how to write and how not to write. You can start with Han Kang’s The Vegetarian. I haven’t gotten over the literary techniques I gleaned from the novel since we studied it earlier in the semester in the Form, Craft, and Influence class.
Describe to me the most valuable skill and the toughest challenged you’ve faced so far in your career.
Joshua Nguyen: Find a community who will encourage you and support you and give you feedback, then you’ll grow tremendously. Also, don’t be afraid to ask your friends for feedback.
My challenge was accepting that I’ll never be myself around my family, and that they will probably never read my writing. And then still writing about my family to preserve a love and history that we share, even though we don’t really talk about it.
Linda Masi: The most valuable skill I’ve learned so far is revision, but I’m still learning it though. During revision I get to cut out the clutter and make the story as lean as possible so that only what really matters gets page space. My biggest challenge has been to know when I am done with a story to stop the revision process and put out the story. I have learned to overcome it by establishing a reader-critic relationship with a dear friend of mine. We both attended a residency program some time ago and since then, do read and critique each other’s work, as much as possible.
Why’d you choose the MFA program here?
Joshua Nguyen: Julian Randall, my roommate now and we also knew each other from CUPSI, he posted a Facebook status with reasons to apply to this program. So he really recruited me to apply. Plus it was only a 9 hours drive from Houston, and I want to be close so I can see my family. And my girlfriend is there, and she is the love of my life, so I wanted to be able to see her often. Everyone in the program loved the program and the faculty and their classmates. The program also had a professor who taught screenwriting, and that is something I want to formally be trained on.
Linda Masi: The Ole Miss MFA Program is a “superb” total package– great faculty with splendid record, great colleagues with wonderful talent, diverse learning environment, great teaching opportunity to broaden one’s career options upon graduation, and of, course, great funding, and much more!
What advice would you give to any undergraduate students?
Joshua Nguyen: Don’t discount the “grind”. I think the “grind” is very important. If what you need to do is to grind it out to survive, than you need to survive first. But if you have any opportunity to follow your dream like I did, you should take it and seize it.
Linda Masi: How to succeed in school, as a writer, in life-keep an open mind always, you will be surprised what new things you would learn, what new people you would meet; and never stop dreaming and taking steps towards your dreams- you will be surprised where you’d find yourself someday.
Looking towards the future, what goals do you hope to achieve? Why?
Joshua Nguyen: My thesis is actually about Chinatowns. I’m trying to get funding from my department go to a different Chinatown each year and work in the back and see how food is made and how the community thrives in Chinatown. At the end, I want to have a hybrid book about the chefs and the people in Chinatown with interviews and photographs mixed with my own poetry. I also want to write a screenplay about how I waltz with my girlfriend in Houston under the skyline.
Linda Masi: To make the best out of this MFA program and go on to a great career, and to do justice to my thesis. It’s all worth it!
Joshua Nguyen is currently an Ole Miss MFA candidate as well as a Kundiman fellow. He has also been published in The Offing, The Acentos Review, Freezeray Poetry, Button Poetry, Birds Thumb, and the Texas Review.
Linda N. Masi is a graduate teaching assistant in the English Department at the University of Mississippi. Some of her stories have appeared in anthologies like Nothing to See Here (2015) (from the 5th FEMRITE Residency for African Women Writers), Songhai 12, (2014) edited by Lindsay Barrett and Molara Wood, and The Beggar’s Story and other Stories (2013), Edited by Elechi Amadi. Some of her other works have been published in journals such as Blackberry: A magazine, The Sunday Tide, Spoken Stories, The Nigerian Christian Graduate Magazine, and Levure Litteraire, as well as a children fantasy fiction The Necklace of Relur (Lantern Books, 2016). Her play The Price of Peace (2010) and book of poems The Talking Drum Hums (2013) are recommended by the Rivers State Ministry of Education as literature texts for the 2015 – 2018 Junior Secondary School Curriculum. She was an executive member of the Association of Nigerian Authors, (ANA—Rivers State Chapter), and is currently enrolled in the MFA Creative Writing Program (fiction) at the University of Mississippi.