Working with Words: Linh Nguyễn
Linh Thùy Nguyễn is a writer, editor and arts producer. She is the programme coordinator of the Emerging Writers’ Festival, an online editor for the Lifted Brow and the deputy editor of Liminal Magazine, a digital platform dedicated to Asian-Australian creatives and artists. She also moonlights as a front-of-house usher at the Wheeler Centre. Linh spoke with us about reading, writing and revolutionary encounters with Edward Said.
What was the first piece of writing you had published?
A series of self-published scrapbooks that I created throughout my tween years, mostly filled with poetry, photographs and collage artworks, which I would distribute to unsuspecting family members.
My first proper experiences of writing and editing was in student media. I wrote on and off again for Lot’s Wife, the Monash University student publication, throughout my undergraduate degree. Looking back, the majority of what I wrote wasn’t very good – mostly rambling film and art reviews – but it provided an entry point to having my words edited, published and in print.
What’s the best part of your job?
I wear a lot of different hats. I like the freedom of being able to move between various roles and pursue all of my competing creative impulses; I don’t feel pressured to confine myself to one thing. I encounter and learn something new every day, and I’m constantly being challenged and pushed to my limits – creatively and mentally, at times emotionally and physically.
I resist the notion that writing is something best taught within the hallowed halls of elite academic institutions.
As an editor and festival programmer, I get to work alongside people who I admire deeply, and I have the immense privilege of championing and supporting work that I feel is essential and necessary.
What’s the worst part of your job?
The precarity and instability of working within the arts. The fact that success and survival in the creative industries so often depends on one’s ability to perform unpaid labour and accrue social and cultural capital. Learning to navigate the confluence of the professional, the personal and the political. Also, counterintuitively, always feeling like I never have enough time to read.
What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?
I’m not sure! Can I even talk of a ‘writing career’ at this stage? It’s still very much early days for me. This whole year has been a long, steep learning curve. Taking on the role as an online editor for the Lifted Brow, a literary publication that I’ve been voraciously reading and following for years felt like a pretty huge moment. Also, getting a job with the Emerging Writers’ Festival! I feel like I’m just starting out, and, in many ways, still finding my footing.
What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?
The first thing that springs to mind is something Brit Bennett said at her Wheeler Centre event a few months ago, inspired by this Ira Glass quote: when you start out, your work is always going to fall short of your taste. There will be a seemingly insurmountable gulf between what you know is objectively Good Writing and what you are actually capable of. It’s inevitable. Essentially, her advice boiled down to this: get used to disappointment. Break through it and preserve. This was strangely comforting to hear.
Also, It’s a cliche and wildly taken out of context, but this is great advice for writing and for life, from old man Samuel Beckett: ‘Ever tried, ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself?
It was a piece of feedback from an essay I wrote. It was surprising in the sense that it was true, but also something I hadn’t yet realised or put a name to. A friend of mine told me that I was trying to do and say so much, my essay ultimately collapsed underneath my attempt to encapsulate everything.
If you weren’t writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
I don’t know! To be honest, I don’t get to do much writing these days – I have too many other competing commitments, and I’m an exceptionally slow writer. I need to stew and mull over things for months, maybe years, before I can create any meaningful work.
It’s also next to impossible to solely pursue writing as a vocation. This question probably strikes fear into the heart of most writers – we’re already fearful of obsolescence and irrelevance.
I do think that, ultimately, I would be miserable working in any other field. Writing and literary-adjacent activities are where I feel I belong, and frankly I’d be unfulfilled doing anything else. However, I’ve always harboured a secret desire to be a dancer, but I think that ship has long sailed.
There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view?
My reservations toward creative writing degrees is best articulated by this article from Viet Thanh Nguyen. Of course, writing is a technical skill that can be honed and enhanced through rigorous guidance and practice – people aren’t magically endowed with the ability to produce brilliant writing from up high. However, I resist the notion that writing is something that is best taught within the hallowed halls of elite academic institutions. My own experiences of studying literature at university are mixed and ambivalent. Every so often I revisit this essay by Junot Diaz, ‘MFA vs POC’, because it so accurately captures and reflects my own sentiments.
At best, creative writing degrees can teach you how to be a competent writer, but I’m not sure if it can make your writing worth anything.
What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?
There are myriad ways you can not write but there’s only one way to write: by putting pen to paper.
This question always make me think of this poem by Anne Boyer, ‘Not Writing’. There are myriad ways you can not write, but there’s only one way to write: by putting pen to paper. No one can really tell you why or how you should do it. Any advice I can give would be entirely unoriginal and wholly unearned, but since you’ve asked, I’ll say this: read widely, deeply and critically. Carve out a space inside yourself and protect it fiercely. Build a strong support network of people who you love and trust.
Also, on a practical level: find a job that can support you financially and materially.
Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?
Both. My local is Brunswick Bound. I try to shop there as much as I can, as I think it’s really important to support independent bookstores. I also love the Paperback Bookshop on Bourke Street and Readings, of course. I used to have a special route I would take – across Brunswick, Carlton and Fitzroy – where I would visit all my favourite second-hand book shops, but sadly most of them are gone now. For books that are out of print or hard to find, the internet is a god-send.
If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why?
He’s not a fictional character, but I would love to sit down and have a chat with John Berger.
What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?
If I were to single out a single text that has profoundly altered my thinking and worldview it would have to be Edward Said’s Orientalism. I read it as a first-year uni student and it completely restructured how I understood the world and my place in it. It gave language and a theory to something that I always felt but never knew how to articulate. It’s a dense, academic text – challenging to read and mostly inaccessible if you don’t already have some foundational theoretical knowledge – and, even though I barely understood half of it, that book was nothing less than revolutionary for me.
Otherwise, discovering McSweeney’s as a lonely teenager. It introduced me to literary journals and a whole world of writing that I didn’t know existed or was even possible. More recently: Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky With Exit Wounds; Trinh T-Minh Ha’s Woman, Native, Other; Viet Thanh Nguyen’s non-fiction book, Nothing Ever Dies.
The Digital Writers’ Festival starts tomorrow, Tuesday Oct 24. Check out the programme.
Hot Desk Extract: three approaches to mem*ry
Paul Dalla Rosa on An Exciting and Vivid Inner Life
'Nothing connects humans like fiction'
Giving new life to lost objects
How tiny dioramas brought joy to a locked down world