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Linh S. Nguyễn – chat with Story Planet

Linh, an enormous congratulations on the recent publication of your first chapbook, Visiting Gales, with illustrations by Christie Wong. Some of us from Story Planet were honoured to attend your online launch party, and witnessed the beautiful collection of gentle creativity from many people looking to evoke the mood of the chapbook. We’re all incredibly grateful to witness your embarkation of a career as a writer.

Visiting Gales is a collection of two short stories that ask, through memory and fiction, what composes childhood, growth, and independence. Young characters weave within their relationships to find answers to their evolving selves and environments, where changes are shaped by commonplace occurrences alongside miraculous unknowns.

How were these stories and this chapbook dreamt into being? 

The two stories for this chapbook, “The Robins” and “Down Feathers”, were born in my creative writing class at U of T four years ago.

At the time, I was only writing creative nonfiction — not because I preferred it but because I hadn’t yet figured out my fiction voice and was still scared to admit I wanted to write stories for a living. So when the time came for us to write our final project for this class, I thought, “I’ll just stick to nonfiction.”

That’s where “The Robins” was born. It was inspired by a robin’s nest in the eaves-through of my family’s home many years ago. That summer, we saw the birds teaching their babies how to fly, and when the little ones flew away, I thought the parents’ mourning cries were the saddest thing I ever heard. It really stuck with me, so I decided to write about that. I changed all the names and POV, called it fiction, and handed it in.

Fortunately, my creative writing professor was too sharp. She read it, and said, “I know this isn’t fiction. I can tell in the writing voice.” No matter how hard I argued, she refused to let me turn in anything short of a real fictional story.

So I tabled “The Robins”. It would go through many rounds of edits and rewrites in the following years and finally return to its roots as a personal reflection on childhood and growth. I asked my trusted editor, Jasmine Gui, to review it before I submitted it to The Soap Box Press.

Instead, for class that year, I wrote “Down Feathers” on the subway to school, specifically between Runnymede and Spadina stations on the TTC in Toronto.

All I had to go off was the first line that just came to me: “Lyra was seven when her wings grew in.” And a line from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s short story, “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings”. The line was an offhand comment in his story, mentioned briefly, about a “Portuguese man who couldn’t sleep because the noise of the stars disturbed him”. 

So those two lines informed that entire story. I had no plan. I just wrote. It came out remarkably easily, almost fully formed, and honestly, I loved it. I knew from the start it was special, and “Down Feathers” will always hold a special place in my heart, because it opened the door to my fiction writing again, which is so much of what I write now.

Linh, an Asian woman with chest-length black hair, is looking at the camera from the side. She stands by a wooden-paneled wall and is smiling with her mouth open. She's wearing a black, sleeveless shirt and red lipstick.
Credit to Albert Hoang

Then last August, I was browsing several websites in search of a home for some of my stories. I found out The Soap Box Press was publishing chapbooks and became excited at the prospect of putting together a bigger project with more creative control. 

When this idea came to mind, I approached Christie, sent her five short stories that I had floating around, and asked for her thoughts on what stood out, whether she’d be interested in illustrating, and which stories she thought would work well together. We chose these two for their similar themes and submitted!

Can you tell us a little bit about your relationship with Christie?

Christie and I have only recently met in person, after our chapbook was released! We were introduced by Jasmine Gui, founder and editor of Project 40 Collective in 2019. My personal essay, “Cracks in the Wall”, was published in LooseLeaf Magazine Volume 7, and Jasmine thought that Christie would be a good person to illustrate it. Little did she know of the creative chaos she would unleash! Or maybe she did. Jasmine is a genius.

Christie Wong sits on a stall by a table covered in cloth, holding a DSLR camera and smiling at the lens of the camera taking the photo. She is an Asian women wearing round, wooden earrings, round glasses, a green sweatshirt and grey/beige pants.
Credit to Lucy Lu

Since then, Christie and I have worked together on a number of projects, from workshops to illustrated pieces. We have a beautiful working relationship built on profound trust. She is a creative amplifier, and I always feel excited and energetic coming off a call with her. Our skills complement each other well. It’s fabulous to have that artistic push from someone so talented.

These stories evoke a lot of emotions about growing up, finding your place in the world and redefining what that world can look like, as an individual and within a family. What was your inspiration for this?

The idea of growing up has always been something I’ve struggled with, probably because I read too many fantasy adventures as a child and desperately wanted my own. I spent a long time resisting that I might not get to fight dark lords with secret magic powers. When I inevitably grew older, I began reflecting on what the idea of “growing up” actually means. I don’t have an answer, but these stories are my explorations of the feelings involved in that question, of which there are many complex ones!

As an English major, I studied children’s literature in my undergrad and wrote my thesis on portal fantasies as a way of understanding maturity and responsibility. This is further informed by my experience as an immigrant. This intersection of childhood and home are central to much of my work presently and going forward.

As you touched upon, as children, we often have this sense of “growing up” as being a big discovery or fantasy in life, when in reality the realization otherwise can be challenging. What would you hope your writing could leave for others, both young and old, to deal with this notion of growing up?

Personally, the message I want to weave into my stories is one that’s helped me reframe my own relationship to fantasy. While I initially wanted to escape as a child, I later became more interested in the return to our world and how fiction allows us to see everyday occurrences in a new light. After all, magic does exist. We see it all the time in small gestures and grand phenomena; it just might look a little different than in the stories. That doesn’t mean it has any less power or ability to effect meaningful change. I wrote about this realization many years ago on my blog.

In “Down Feathers” specifically, it was important for me to show adults of all sorts who, like Lyra, keep their wings throughout their lives. I don’t want to see adulthood as the loss of any wonder or magic. We do have the ability to preserve that beauty, though of course, doing so is a privilege for many.

Illustration from 'Down Feathers' Lyra is sitting on her back with her back facing the viewer. One wing is stretched out to her side, plain, and the other falls to the floor, with feather textures. The image is in black and white.
Illustration by Christie Wong

That said, I still hope readers interpret my work in any way that speaks to them, especially in ways I can’t predict. 

What was the process of working with The Soap Box Press to release the chapbook?

It was so smooth! I loved how much creative freedom we got. All the art, from cover to illustrations, are Christie’s. None of my words were changed without my consent. We got a say in every step, including the layout. I feel a lot of ownership over the project, never once like it’d been taken from my hands.

Illustration from 'Down Feathers'. A character is seen standing atop a huge seashell, holding a large feather at its stem. Clouds and a half moon are in the background. The illustration is in black and white.
Illustration by Christie Wong

Tali Voron, the founder and publisher, has supported us wholeheartedly in our unconventional and ambitious release of this book, including our stacked launch and workshop that followed. She’s a skilled facilitator and organizer, always ready to jump in and say yes to our wild ideas.

Alongside yourself and Christie talking about your creative processes, your launch party featured people across the creative spectrum, including a dancer, painter, meditation guides, and musicians. What inspired you to set it up this way?

Honestly, Christie was a huge driving force of this event. Her wide-ranging and incredible creative connections made it so easy to gather everyone we wanted to join us in performing. We knew we wanted to share the celebration and feature other artists. At the same time, we wanted a community-like feel. It ended up being the perfect night with an amazing turnout.

Personally, I love seeing my words take on different artistic forms that I’m not skilled in, which is why working with Christie is so great. She sees things I don’t, in a whole new medium. To see my stories interpreted through dance, music, and meditation, was mind-blowing and heartwarming. It wouldn’t have been nearly so special without Alena, Anda, Rosie, Jess, Vicky, Justine, Jazmin, and Julia. We got to celebrate them all!

At Story Planet we work with students who may be at the beginning of a lifelong love or career in writing and illustration. What would your advice be for anyone starting to write, and how to improve and practice the craft?

It sounds trite, but reading and writing are the only ways to excel at this craft. There’s no shortcut! More specifically though, the practice of freewriting is essential. I’ve been intentionally honing my ability to sit down in front of a blank page and write whatever comes to mind for nine years now, without getting stumped by a need for perfection or inspiration. So much of writing is doing it badly and doing it over again; I’m on draft number four of my book right now, and the first one was awful! It’s not about talent. I wish I’d known that as a child. You are a writer if you write. That is enough.

Pursuing a career in the arts, especially for racialized youth without industry knowledge or connections, can be a tumultuous path, but it is possible and incredibly rewarding. I love the work I get to do. It’s definitely challenging, but I’ve tried to prioritize creative projects in my life (mostly because I don’t know how to live any other way), even when working minimum wage jobs for years out of school. Maybe fame and fortune will follow, but that’s definitely not how it starts and not what I’m counting on. I’m still very much in the grunt work stages yet loving it.

What’s next for yourself and your life as a writer?

I am off to the University of Cambridge to pursue graduate school! My one-year program is called Arts, Creativity, and Education, and I’ll be focusing on the role of play and storytelling in decentering whiteness in learning spaces. My last degree tied in well with my creative practices and writing, so I’m very excited for what this adventure holds.

I also have some super exciting writing news on the horizon that I can’t yet share publicly. It involves my debut novel, which is a middle-grade portal fantasy featuring an 11-year-old Vietnamese-Torontonian protagonist! I can’t wait to talk about it more, so stay tuned!

In the meantime, I have two creative non-fiction stories to be released later this year! “Death and a Wind Farm” will be published in the next issue of Living Hyphen magazine, and “The Christmas Lamp” will be published in The Soap Box Press’s anthology, “The Hyphenated Generation”.

Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with us. We’re so fortunate to be able to work with you at Story Planet and can’t wait to celebrate Visiting Gales even more, and all your future projects!

You can buy a physical copy or e-book of Visiting Gales from The Soap Box Press.