Interview with Genaro Kỳ Lý Smith on “The Land Baron’s Sun”

Last post, I wrote about Genaro Kỳ Lý Smith’s The Land Baron’s Sun. Today, I am sharing a recent interview I conducted with Smith. In the video above, Smith talks more about his grandfather and reads two poems from The Land Baron’s Sun.

Leave a comment below by 7:00 AM CST on December 15 to be entered for a chance to win an autographed copy of The Land Baron’s Sun for Christmas. I will choose the winner next Tuesday with a random generator. 

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In the acknowledgements of The Land Baron’s Sun, you write about Darrell Bourque telling you that your grandfather’s “story needs to be heard” because it is an important story to everyone. What makes Lý Loc’s story so significant?

Lý Loc came from a privileged life: inherited land from his father who was only known as the land baron (to this day, my mother does not know his name), had seven wives, twenty-seven children, seven houses (1 per wife), mistresses to go with each wife; he was a major commander for the South Vietnamese Army.  When the Fall of Saigon occurred, he lost everything to the point of writing my mother a few years later asking for money, food, medicine, and clothes.  It is a tragic story that needs to be told.  The idea of someone who had it all to living as a pauper is and has always been an intriguing story.  Also, had I not known about his seven wives or his privileged lifestyle, his story would have died with my mother.  The goal therefore was to resurrect his life, the lives of his wives and their children.  The purpose of writing the book was to leave his legacy.  I simply did not want him to die.

You dedicate “Ghost Stories: Ái” to Robert Olen Butler whose book A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain (1992) tells the stories of Vietnamese immigrants to Louisiana. What, if anything, did you take away from Butler when writing The Land Baron’s Sun? What other writers inspired or influenced you overall?
Honestly, I was envious of Robert Olen Butler’s ability to tell stories from the point of view of Vietnamese people/characters.  It forced me to learn about the mindset of immigrants and how they had to assimilate in America.  Butler understood my culture, history, and the language better than me, and I wanted to reach that level of immersing the readers into my country, my culture, my people.  It finally happened in 2002 when I sent a couple of fiction pieces to Neil Connelly, a McNeese alumnus and author of 4 books, who told me, “I kept forgetting you were half Vietnamese.  In reading your work, I thought I was reading a person who lived his whole life in Vietnam, a person who was a full blooded Vietnamese.  I had to keep reminding myself that you are half.”  That has always been my goal: to make people think they are reading someone who is completely Vietnamese.  Nam Le, author of The Boat, is able to do so in his collection of short stories whereby in one story it is from the point of view of a Vietnamese creative writing student, in another he is a white female visiting a former college friend in Iran, or a white teenager in Australia, in another a teenage Columbian assassin, and so forth.  He understands the language of “others” so well that you forget Nam Le is Vietnamese.

Before I read Mike Tidwell’s Bayou Farwell (2003), I did not realize the Vietnamese immigration that took place. I knew there was a large Vietnamese population, even in north Louisiana, but I did not realize some of the reasons for the migration, specifically, until I read Tidewell’s book. In “The Bottom Dreamers: Tú Đức, Minh, Thanh, and Bảo” and “Fidéle” you present immigrants to two very distinct regions of Louisiana: the Gulf Coast and the I-20 corridor. How were the experiences of the characters in these two poems different or similar?
I grew up in a section of Los Angeles I called “Asia Minor,” which appears in the upcoming novel The Land South of the Clouds.  We had an enclave of our own made up of Chinese, Philippine, Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese women married to American men.  However, there were “outsiders” who wanted to convert us religiously, or tried their hardest to make us assimilate, but we wanted to do so on our own terms, at our own pace.  On the opposite end, there were those who did not want us to assimilate and just go away.  Vietnamese people for the most part settled according to their trade.  For instance, if you were skillful at fishing, you settled in the regions near the Gulf of Mexico or in the Pacific Northwest.  Also, they settled according to climate:  Louisiana’s humid climate is similar to Vietnam’s, for instance.  But you take New Orleans, for instance, or any parish in the southern regions of Louisiana, and it looks like home to them.  New Orleans, Grand Coteau, Lafayette, and many other places are influenced by French architecture and also by Catholicism, and so they easily identified with that since Vietnam was colonized for 100 years by the French.  New Orleans is a mirror image of Saigon, Cholon, Nha Trang, and so many other cities and villages.

Throughout The Land Baron’s Sun, the landscape takes on the appearance of God. In “Vacation,” Lý Loc describes the road to the beach as “the back of God’s hand” and the backdrop as “God’s spine.” Elsewhere, the cave in Italy where Michelle Jolibois experiences he sexual awakening appears like the mouth of God yawning with His molars on full display. How does the landscape and spirituality intermingle within these poems? Is there an intermingling?
There is an intermingling of landscape and religion.  We see it every day.  Some people, most people, I believe, take it for granted and don’t realize the magnitude of His creation, the beauty, bounty provided for us.  They’re all at our disposal to use for the greater good, and oftentimes, we don’t give thanks.  This intermingling of the landscape and God has been so prevalent with Southern literature, and I notice it with Asian literature:  the idea of Asians being thankful for what the land has provided for them to sustain their lives through Buddha or God.  I wanted to treat the landscape as something sacred and personal as faith.   I also treat the landscape as though it were a woman:  beautiful, and we want to covet it/her.  But through our actions, we rape the land, mistreat the land, and a woman’s body, to me, is something I cherish and worship, though I know that sounds sacrilegious.

After reading Ernest J. Gaines, William Faulkner, and other Southern authors, I am always drawn to the use of dust in literature. Sometimes it’s just used as a descriptive item and nothing more; however, with poetry, where every word means so much, dust appears in “The Land Baron’s Sun,” a poem that shows Lý Loc’s “collecting” rent from his tenants. After the father collects sex for the rent, the boys gathered outside resume their playing, “filling the morning with laughter and rising dust” as they chase the ball around the yard and “kick up a storm of dust that linger/ among the trees, coating the pears.” Does the dust have a significance here? Or, is it just a descriptive word for the scene? I ask this because the scene makes me think of Gaines’s Of Love and Dust (1967) where dust chokes out the idea of love amongst the characters. 
Dust plays a significant role in my faith and writing.  We often see it as decay, and in a sense, in “The Land Baron’s Sun” when Lý Loc sees his father “collecting” the rent from a female tenant, there is that shattering or decaying of his innocence when espying something he does not understand.  But dust represents a rebirth, and I’ve always been intrigued by the concept that something can be reborn or recreated from the dust and ruins.  His idea of who his father is has been shattered, and from this incident he is reborn in a sense, and he becomes his father later in the book, but he also becomes a better father and husband than his father ever was.

Reading The Land Baron’s Sun, I couldn’t help but think about the ways that the experiences of Vietnamese immigrants and African Americans overlapped in the South during the mid to late part of the twentieth century. This becomes apparent in the “The Bottom Dreamers: Tú Đức, Minh, Thanh, and Bảo,” “Fidéle,” and “The Shape of Things.” Do you see similarities between these experiences?
The similarities are always the same: trying to recreate themselves in a new environment, in a new country but also holding onto their roots.  “Fidéle” was inspired by an incident where a couple took walks every early evening, and they invited my mom to come to their church.  This went on for several weeks until she agreed only if they would attend her temple for service to see how she worshipped.  I just see the hypocrisy in religious people and it doesn’t matter what the religion:  you want my mom or anyone to come to your church but when invited to do the same, you decline.  That has always stuck with me.  Because we’re minorities, because we exist in a dominant society, it’s like we have to reeducate ourselves in coexisting with different people.  What we’re also doing is trying to ingratiate ourselves so that we are not discriminated against, and it’s not just with blacks, and Asians, but anyone, anyone who is not white.

Food plays an important role in The Land Baron’s Sun. The first poem, “In the House of Snails,” sees Lý Loc’s seven wives gathered in the kitchen plucking “snails from their spiraled homes.” Elsewhere, in the reeducation camp, Lý Loc recalls the food he eat at home. What is the importance of food within the context of the poems?
Food or eating is a sacred act.  We wash our hands before we eat, we say grace before we take the first bite, and so I wanted to show the importance of being nourished not just by food but through what is a sacred act: eating.  What I also wanted to show is this juxtaposition or contrast of a time before the fall of Saigon where “plenty” is set before them in “great abundance,” and so with the first poem, they have all they could ever ask for, or all they could ever consume.  It portrays a time of leisure, of gathering as a family unit, and then of course with the fall, that abundance is absent and the characters are starving physically, religiously, and spiritually.  When you’re reduced to eating just rice and greens, your body and mind pine for what you’ve always enjoyed: fish, pork, beef, chicken, ducks.

Part III, “What of My Wives and Children,” chronicles Lý Loc’s loved ones as they either remain in Vietnam or migrate elsewhere. This section confronts the idea of the American Dream head on, presenting the immigrant experience in Louisiana specifically. Rather than becoming the land of opportunity that would provide a better life, America suffocates even more. The collection even concludes with the image of fish in a market stall. Their mouths open, “only to discover the world outside their oceans/ is empty of the promise of breathing.” For me, these lines comment on the American Dream. For you, should we even still consider the idea of the American Dream as something that everyone, immigrants and citizens, can attain? Are their fallacies with the very principal of that dream? 
There are fallacies with the American Dream just like The Great Migration for Negroes.  There are those who go through the right channels, work hard, and discipline themselves, and many obtain the dream.  There are plenty of stories of immigrants achieving the American Dream.  Look at Marco Rubio, for example.  However, some gain the dream through ill and illegal actions because of outside forces that prevent them from obtaining it the right way.  And then there are those who try but fail due to circumstances, or by the dominant culture obstructing their paths.  There are laws they do not understand or do not know exist that could have aided them in receiving a better education, better housing, better line of employment, just an overall better standard of living.  What troubles me is that there are those will be born poor and starving, born without being exposed to the simplest things like art, film, and literature, and they will die poor and starving and never learning the aesthetics of watching classics, traveling abroad for vacation, or reading a poem and be moved by it.  And that is what inspired the lines regarding the world outside their oceans empty with the promise of breathing.  There is this suffocation they only know, and that is the sad part about living:  existing one way and never being exposed to something positive, fulfilling, satisfying, joyful, something that is out of their grasp.

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Leave a comment below by 7:00 AM CST on December 15 to be entered for a chance to win an autographed copy of The Land Baron’s Sun for Christmas. I will choose the winner next Tuesday with a random generator. 

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