Vaan Nguyen is the daughter of Vietnamese refugees who were among the so-called Boat People who fled Vietnam by sea in the late 1970s. After failing to find refuge in the Philippines, the family was given asylum in Israel by then Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Born in Israel in 1982, Nguyen grew up in Jaffa. Today she is an up-and-coming Israeli poet, championed by some of the country’s leading critics.
Her debut collection, The Truffle Eye, first saw the light of day six years ago, as a stand-alone pamphlet handed out with an issue of the literary journal Maayan. The journal is now publishing the collection—together with a handful of few new poems—as a proper book.
Nguyen was familiar to Israeli audiences before her collection was published. Her story—or at least the part of it that is connected to her past, her family, and her roots—served as the basis for director Duki Dror’s 2005 documentary, The Journey of Vaan Nguyen, in which Vaan joins her father on a journey back to Vietnam in an attempt to reclaim the family’s confiscated land.
Nguyen didn’t plan on being a poet. “I had a blog in which I wrote what is happening to me and shared my thoughts,” she told me. “Some of my posts seemed pretty poetic, so I changed their structure according to an internal rhythm and it became poetry. During that time I met Roy “Chicky” Arad, one of the editors of Maayan, by chance. He invited me to participate in poetry readings and that’s how the ball got rolling.”
She describes her writing as “documentary” poetry. “It’s like a road map,” she said. “It’s about points of emotion and shock, moments that are etched into the brain, pictures that turn ugly, avenging ex-boyfriends, and achieving closure with myself. Everything that I do is related to my biography and in some way references my family history.”
Arad maintains that he would have published her book regardless of her background, but that it is, nonetheless, an inseparable part of her work: “I find she’s one of the most interesting young poets in Israel,” he said. “In today’s context, you can look at her and imagine that maybe in the next generation a great poet will come out of the community of African refugees that we have in Israel. It’s like the masterpieces that Jews wrote in Europe before the state of Israel was established. Now that we’re the majority, it’s interesting to listen to literary voices that represent the outsider. Of course we would have published her book regardless of her history. She’s a great and very unique poet.”
Here’s Nguyen reading a poem from The Truffle Eye:
Dana Kessler has written for Maariv, Haaretz, Yediot Aharonot, and other Israeli publications. She is based in Tel Aviv.