Ban Mai in conversation with “Kinh khuya” author
Author: Ban Mai
Published on: 2/24/2016 11:44:18 PM

Ban Mai: Hello Tạ Duy Bình. At 24, as a young actor in Hanoi, you were invited to an international festival for young playwrights in Australia. Why did you decide to stay in Australia and how have the changes in terms of culture and language been for you?


Tạ Duy Bình: I first came to Australia in August 1988 to participate in the International Festival for Young Playwrights in Sydney. After the festival ended, I applied to stay [in Australia]. I went back to high school [in Australia] to finish grades 11 and 12, but only focused on three courses: English, music and theater; my main purpose was learning English and acquainting myself with Australian culture, art and theater. Afterwards I worked with a few companies in Australia before co-founding Citymoon Theater with my Australian friend, Bruce Keller, in 1995. To fit in and work as a performance artist in Australia, especially for someone coming from a different culture and language like me, was difficult. I had to constantly learn about English and Australian culture, and at the same time retain my personality in each performance.


Ban Mai: As a migrant artist from Vietnam, it must not have been easy for you to make a mark in the competitive Australian theater industry, and yet over time you have had several successful shows at Parramatta Riverside Theater. You also have received awards from the New South Wales Committee for the Arts for your play “Yellow is Not Yellow”. That said, you are recognized as a distinguish actor and director in the performance arena. What is your reason to move from theater to poetry? When was your first poem composed? What was it about and how was it published?


Tạ Duy Bình: I had been in love with poetry and music before taking courses in pantomime theater at the Youth Theater. Maybe that is why poetry has always been present in most of the plays I have written and directed in Australia. My first poem was written in Vietnam, about love, and never published. I began to write more poetry and more differently when I met Hoang Ngoc Tuan and a group of poet friends in Sydney, which later became the Tien Ve group. My poetry is regularly published on Tien Ve and Da Mau.


Ban Mai: “Kinh khuya” (Late night sutras) is 100-page poetry book, published in a modestly small book format by AJAR Press in December 2015, edited by Nhã Thuyên and Kaitlin Rees. It includes 44 pieces of prose and poetry, extremely short and laconic, many of which strike readers as theatric or Zen. How did “Kinh khuya” begin? And how does Zen influence your writing?


Tạ Duy Bình: “Kinh khuya” consists of poems I wrote intermittently between 1998 and 2015. Many works in “Kinh khuya” were born out of theater projects. About Zen influence, I went to temples and was influenced by Buddhism at a young age. When I came to Australia, I found Vipassana, and later joined Sen Búp (Lotus Bud), a Zen group in Sydney who practiced the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh. Sometimes I intentionally insert Zen in my poetry, like the way I insert poetry in theater. But other times, Zen enters my poetry without me knowing, probably because I meditate daily.


Ban Mai: Your poetry evokes musical theater and paintings. Some of your prose is as colorful as if you were throwing paint onto canvas, like your poem “Colors”. But the last few lines “[…] from the mother’s womb/ crying, crying/ father lulls a yellow song /sleep tight my child/ red, yellow, black, white, purple, brown…” make me think of the shades of human skin. Is that right? Your poetry often elicits sudden images like so. Another poem, “Kiếm gỗ” (Wooden Blade), is full of drama, like a cinematic reel about a knight. Could you talk more about these pieces?


Tạ DuyBình: I wrote Colors during my graduate studies in theater at Wollogong University in 1999. I was thinking about my fate, the fate of immigrants in Australia, and a multicultural Australia. I was thinking about the gains and losses, pains and joys, of this integration process.

I love martial arts and have learned different types such as Wing Chung kungfu, Shaolin kungfu and Boxing. But due to my Buddhist practice, I often experience conflicting pulls between violent and non-violent tendencies. Maybe “Kiếm gỗ” offers me the optimal solution of immersing in my passion for martial arts while preserving the non-violent spirit of Buddhism.


Ban Mai: You have written multiple bilingual poems with Vietnamese and English intertwined. For example in “August”, “I will”, or “Sometimes I Forget”, a Vietnamese line is followed by an English one, and then a Vietnamese one, and so on. Is it hard to juggle two different languages when composing poetry?


Tạ Duy Bình: I have lived in Australia for more than 27 years, more than the number of years I lived in Vietnam. During the early years, I constantly thought, wrote, read, listened to and spoke Vietnamese. Slowly, since I had to use English often, I began to think more in English, and sometimes I dreamt in English. There were times when I was writing a poem in Vietnamese, English words suddenly popped up. At first, I translated them into Vietnamese before including them in the poem at hand, but later I just used the original English lines. Many times, English lines opened up new Vietnamese lines, and likewise, Vietnamese lines have inspired more English ones.


Ban Mai: Your poetry explores the fundamental questions about human existence – loneliness, death and love. “Đi, về - Về, đi” (Going, returning – Returning, going) is a melancholy poem about the immigrant’s struggle with the term “home country.” Could you speak about the origin of this poem?


Tạ Duy Bình: I wrote Đi, về - Về, đi on a flight going/ returning to Vietnam in late March 2009 when I was visiting my sick father. I first didn’t pay much attention to the verbs “to go” and “to return,” but a few lines in, I noticed something interesting about my situation. For a Vietnamese living in Australia, going is synonymous with returning and returning also means going. Going or Returning is equally great.


I just feel something… something… when I say: Đi, về - Về, đi.

Oh! How wonderful…!


Ban Mai: “Missing the strange scent that keeps coming back in dreams/ Wings flapping into a sky familiar and strange/ Make me a pair of wings.” (Fly) In “Kinh Khuya”, the pair of wings seems like a recurrent image. What does this dream of flight mean?


Tạ Duy Bình: I often dream I could fly like a bird. Those dreams have repeated often throughout my life, and entered my poems. I think those dreams of flight are dreams of freedom, a true freedom that extends beyond all attachments. Maybe “Đi ra ngoài” speaks to that dream of flying.


Going outside of all

All this… all that… all within… all without… all new…

all old…


so the foot

does not touch

the Ground


the Sky


Ban Mai: As a writer living overseas, do you ever feel pressured by certain ethical or traditional taboos when you compose? Many young poets now include images of sexual organs in poetry. What are your thoughts?


Tạ Duy Bình: I believe I’m not pressured by these taboos when I compose in Australia. If any, it’s the pressure I create for myself.


About young poets bringing sexual parts into poetry, I think it is a fine and normal thing. Literature and the arts should go beyond all taboos.


Ban Mai: While many writers inside would like to be published abroad to circumvent censorship, why did you decide to have “Kinh khuya” published in Vietnam? How did you get connected with AJAR Press?


Tạ Duy Bình: I was fortunate to meet Nhã Thuyên in Sydney and later we became friends. Nhã Thuyên invited me to publish a poetry book with AJAR Press, and it was my pleasure to collaborate.


Ban Mai: What are your plans for the new year? What are your dreams?


Tạ Duy Bình: Good health, happiness, and forevermore the dream of true flight.


Ban Mai: Thank you for such an interesting talk. Wish you the best with your dream.




Translated by Quyen Nguyen