It’s pretty obvious that Kevin Minh Allen is a poet from his book of essays, Sleep is No Comfort. The language he uses is really evocative and there is a lot of emotional resonance in each essay. These aren’t feel-good works but ones that challenge and maybe even make readers feel uncomfortable about their assumptions around identity and transracial adoptions. Kevin kindly answered our questions about the book and writing below, and you can buy his book on Amazon now.
From the publisher:
Sleep Is No Comfort: Essays interlaces a bold, visceral, and unrelenting voice from author Kevin Minh Allen, throughout a discourse on the interchange of adoption, family, the Vietnam War, and the often too many times unsought aftermath of those that were born from it. With a keen eye focused on the subtleties and complexities of the Vietnamese adoptee voice and experience, a part of the overall Vietnamese diaspora, Sleep Is No Comfort: Essays in its singular voice, adds a new chapter to this canon in a way that has never truly been published before.
1) Can you tell us the motivation behind writing this book? Silencing seems to be a recurrent theme in the book, does that have anything to do with the need to write?
I think the main motivation for me to bring this collection out now was to bear witness to my own particular slice of American life that is interconnected with thousands of others from the first Vietnamese diaspora. However, my upbringing, my cultural and social training, and my family dynamics veer radically from the typical refugee narratives that are trotted out on each 5- or 10-year anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War. There are significant fissures in my story and this collection of essays was meant to find a through-line to connect the free-floating bits and pieces of me.
As most of us know, silence tends to leave a void, so for most of my young life I felt I was that void. I could see out at life all around me, but no one could really see into who I was, no matter how hard they pried. It was not until college that I revealed to myself that I could write what I could not say for all those years. The majority of the essays in my new book represent me waking up to my visions, my interpretations, my strangeness and my lived experiences.
2) Your essays are extremely frank and personal, you don’t really hold back on many things regarding your family. Were you worried at all about your family’s reaction to the essays?
No, not at all. I carry around the attitude that my family bonds will remain strong as long as we all give honesty a fair shot. If any of my relatives show that they cannot handle a mature and honest assessment of our shared past, then I will be the first to admit that I cannot help what I cannot help.
3) If there’s anything that links these essays together, it’s anger. There’s a rage that is palpable through all of them and perhaps shapes the essays and the words. Can you tell us whether this is something you planned and whether your essays managed to help you deal with that anger?
I once saw this piece of advice somewhere: “Do not teach your children not to be angry. Teach them how to be angry.” When I saw that, I immediately wished this type of advice had been passed down to me in one form or another. It would have taught me that anger can be cathartic and constructive.
In answer to your question, yes, the act of writing these essays allowed me to let my compartmentalized anger, even rage, to flow out into the literary air. This book of essays fulfills my mission to air my grievances about historical amnesia and presumptive opinions on an adopted person’s life. Knowing that my alert observations and unique insight have occasionally been minimized by both myself and others has fed my desire to forego contrition and embrace conflict. I have found this process of transformation to be enlightening and enriching.
I think the thrust of my book is a sincere coming-to-terms with a past littered with righteous rationalizing meant to throw sand in the gears of my curiosity and stop me from questioning how and why I landed in this country. The attitude I’ve infused into my essays is less a blunt harangue and more a piercing call to jump into the fray, I guess.
4) The theme of displacement in Asian American narratives is a very common one, and we wonder how you see narratives moving forward from there.
In today’s world, the creative, social and political spaces for Asian America are nearly wide open. I don’t discount that barriers continue to be thrown in our way or that time-honored stereotypes about us are still propagated, but we now recognize our growing numbers and our sizeable influence on the national landscape. From what I’ve been reading and observing these past 20-odd years, Asian America has been thriving and evolving and growing mightier, from generation to generation.
A skill and mind-set I believe we need to embody more is that we are the masters of our own stories and of the ways in which we express them. Forget about formulas, disregard sniping editorials, destroy and create, destroy and create. When it comes to my creative writing, I don’t know how to conform because I am my main audience. I don’t take direction from any workshop ethos and I’m pretty much on the periphery of any so-called peer group. If someone believes that limits my exposure to a larger audience or curtails any opportunity for me to engage with a vibrant creative community, then that person misunderstands the reason I started writing in the first place.
I would encourage any Asian American writer to start abandoning what you know and inhabiting the unknown, at the risk of whatever may come. Destroy, create.
5) Ultimately, what do you hope your readers take away from your collection?
My hope is that a reader of my new book will see that being a male mixed-race Vietnamese American adoptee is not all that it’s cracked up to be. All kidding aside, I hope a reader comes away with more questions than answers and would want to connect the dots between history, nation, identity, actions and consequences for their own edification and education.
Kevin Minh Allen was born Nguyễn Đức Minh on December 5, 1973 near Sài Gòn, Vietnam to a Vietnamese mother and American father who remain unknown to him. He was adopted by a couple from Rochester, NY and grew up in Webster, NY with his two younger sisters. He spent 17 years in Seattle, WA pursuing a life less ordinary and then returned to his hometown in September 2017 to pursue something more extraordinary. Kevin has had his work published in numerous print and online publications, the most recent being WHYY News, The Deadly Writers Patrol and LONTAR: The Journal of Southeast Asian Science Fiction. His first collection of poetry, “My Proud Sacrifice,” was published in July 2014 by Goldfish Press. His second collection of poetry, “Go In Clean, Come Out Dirty,” was published in December 2017 by Rabbit Fool Press. Kevin just had his first book of essays, “Sleep Is No Comfort,” published by CQT Media & Publishing in March 2019.