Poet and ‘Rambutan Literary’ editor Do Nguyen Mai navigates culture for a living

Finding a place to get your work published isn’t easy for a lot of budding writers and artists. Unless you have a large network or some formal academic training, coming across the best avenues and platforms to get your poems and stories and art out there can’t really be solved by a little quick Googling.

So when news of Rambutan Literary started spreading among friends, the general feeling was excitement. Here was a publication that emphasized the importance of art and literature coming from emerging voices in Southeast Asia, including creatives living outside the mainland. At the same time, we were also wondering: Why didn’t anybody think of this sooner?

We got in touch with Rambutan Literary’s founder and editor-in-chief Mai Nguyan Do. We asked her about the origins and vision behind her brainchild, and what it’s like to be a creative third culture kid.

How did Rambutan Literary first begin? What made you want to create a publication that focuses specifically on the art and literature of Southeast Asia, while paying attention to the different stories that come from both the mainland and the diaspora?

Rambutan Literary was the manifestation of an observation I made in 2015 that literary spaces were inclusive to those of Asian descent, but often focused on those of East Asian descent, essentially suppressing South Asian and Southeast Asian voices. As I’m of Southeast Asian descent and not South Asian descent — there are others working on developing spaces for South Asian literature and art, anyhow — I decided to meet the need for a creative space highlighting Southeast Asian voices and perspectives by establishing Rambutan Literary.

Also, because of the political rift created by the Cold War between many of the Southeast Asian mainland and diaspora groups, there hasn’t been much interaction between the two as much as has been the case between others such as those of the Japanese mainland and the Japanese diaspora. I wanted to bridge that gap, hearing from many other Southeast Asians — especially millennials like myself — that building that connection between mainland and diaspora is a healing process for individuals, families, and whole communities divided by the events of the previous decades.

What kind of challenges do you face as the editor-in-chief of Rambutan Literary?

Being the editor-in-chief of Rambutan Literary has definitely presented its challenges. Increasing readership is tough. Having an international staff roster is also quite difficult to manage, and it’s what finally forced me to figure out how to calculate and memorize differences between time zones. This work certainly has its rewards, though. There’s been wonderful work passed into my inbox by my editors, and I’ve gotten to know these wonderful writers who are my editors, bloggers, and reviewers. I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to — albeit virtually — meet them otherwise.

I suppose I’ve always loved stories of girls and women living poetic experiences, being their own storytellers, their own narrators.

As a Vietnamese-American, what do you wish more people knew about what it means to be a third culture kid?

Growing up Vietnamese American is to grow up a constant reminder of a tremendous loss. You’re a perpetual, living reminder of that loss both for the former Vietnamese refugees who are largely RSVN [Republic of South Vietnam] loyalists and for the Americans. Having that identity an entire war tacked onto you produces something of a conundrum as you grow older and attempt to make sense of your identity, with both assimilation into American culture and adherence to traditional Vietnamese culture as presented by former refugees still a product of the Vietnam War. As a Vietnamese American, it’s very difficult to escape being, in many people’s eyes, the Vietnam War itself. I wish that wasn’t the case. There will always be external influences shaping one’s identity, but to have an identity crafted by outside factors is frustrating, and is a primary aspect of why so many Vietnamese American youth veer far away from even identifying as Vietnamese Americans. I wish our identities as third culture kids weren’t so heavily externally directed.

Who are you favorite writers? Or favorite books? Southeast Asian or beyond!

Some of my favorite works are all considered classics: The Tale of Genji by Lady Murasaki Shikibu, The Gossamer Years by Michitsuna and translated by Edward Seidensticker, Truyen Kieu by Nguyen Du, A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden also by Frances Hodgson Burnett. I suppose I’ve always loved stories of girls and women living poetic experiences, being their own storytellers, their own narrators. Outside of those authors, my favorite writers also include Thanh Ha Lai, Ha Jin, Duong Thu Huong, Lisa See, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Linh Dinh, Joshua Ip, Ocean Vuong, and Quan Barry. It’s a lengthy yet incomplete list. I admire their work, but most importantly to me, I relate to their work.

What kind of advice would you give to aspiring writers and artists?

Focus on the emotion, the substance first, and then turn your attention to technique and method. Focus on the passion, and the rest will follow.

For more information about Rambutan Literary, you can go to their official website or follow them on Twitter at @rambutanlit. If you’re curious about Mai’s other happenings, you can check out her website, or follow her on Twitter at @lotuscrowns.

#art #literature

Share this: