This is Vietnam’s Renovation Generation. Sonic portraits of young minds re-shaping the country’s future. In episode ten we’re talking to Nam Lu, nonsensical poet, collector of old objects and books.
People they often call me Lu, Lu is my nickname, it comes from blue, it’s my favourite colour and also my favourite mood of the day…
We talked to him about not believing in words, being the black sheep in his family and struggling with finding meaning in life.
** There are some parts of this conversation which some listeners might find upsetting**
How long have you been smoking the pipe?
Nearly two years.
We had coffee with him in the courtyard of the quaint house he lives in which doubles as his café…
We want to create a quiet and peaceful space for people.
Tranquil café has quietly established itself as exactly that space. Silence is gently enforced and the handful of tables filling the small space with shelves full of books are always occupied by people working, reading or just seeking refuge from Hanoi’s constant buzzing. It is the place created by its owners with their own needs in mind just as much as the customers’.
There is an old saying here that the customer is god. I think it’s bullshit. The customer they are friend, and friends you respect me, I respect you and we are both happy. You are not my god I am not your servant.
Nam is certainly no servant to anyone. He has much more important things to concern himself with. Like writing and figuring out just what the point of his life is.
I don’t know want I am doing with my life.
While you are figuring that out what are you doing with your days?
My mind is so full of thoughts I have to write down. Some people they can paint, some can write music. With me I write.
He writes prose and short fiction, but mostly poems. And though he spends so much time arranging words, Nam, it turns out, distrusts them.
I don’t really believe in words. If I see something very beautiful, or something very sad, something very delightful, I can never make you feel the same feeling.
So last year I have one of my books published and some people they ask me about the message behind my words. I don’t want my work to carry some message. You don’t have to understand it in one way, that’s very limited and very narrow. I want people to take my work as something like the tree they see on the street. They can enjoy it or they can hate it.
Nam himself doesn’t read much poetry, but there is one influencer who pops up a lot…
It is it the poet’s activism and ability to stay true to himself that inspires Nam, and also…
…the way he use his words, his choices of words, the way he arrange word, or the rhythm in a poem.
Nam himself certainly knows a thing about nonsensical poetry writing…
I started composing poem at the age of 7. Very silly one, I have written some very long long poem about everything around me, about my father, my mother, my bother, my friends, the trees, my house, my dog, my cat, the table, the chair, everything.
…we did ask him if he would read one of his earliest work…
…we move our house several times so I have lost all of my childhood manuscript.
So now Nam’s early writing endeavours and discovery of poetry only live in his memory.
I remember some summer noon many years ago, when my mother she carry me on her lap and I sleep and then she always you know read poem or sing for me…
But his mother was only a part time poet…
My father, my mother, my older brother, my sister in law, they work for the same company and the same section. I am the black sheep of the family. They work in finance and managing.
A rift that manifests itself in other ways as well…
Whenever we talk we often have fight. But of course we love each other and we are close. We never hug each other or say I love you, I love you too. We don’t have the habit of expressing our feeling, but yeah of course I know that we love each other very much.
It’s a bond that gives Nam emotional strength when his thoughts turn gloomy.
I never think that I will live long. I know it’s very negative thought, but I always think that I will die before I turn 30.
Because I… cannot find the meaning of my life. I know it’s kind of negative and maybe it’s not suitable for your podcast, but I’m just being honest. I did try to commit suicide.
You tried? Already?
Yeah last year.
I thought about my mother, so I stopped.
[NAM READS HIS POEM]
Squares, and there are many thoughts standing, waiting line in these squares, and my mind is also full of white clouds, also full of empty clouds and from both side the clouds are floating in my sky.
Days and days I feel that my life is so boring and my mind is also full of smoke. My heart it has four rooms and the smoke is full in all four rooms and the smoke is floating floating everywhere. And my mind is full of wilderness and who destroy my square, and who turn my clouds into stones and why my arm, my hand they are too short and why smoke they all tearing apart, they all disappearing.
Are these all of your books?
No, just the books I bought when I moved here.
Oh and you only just moved here like a year ago…?
…Well this is money well spent.
We had come back to see Nam the day after our first interview. He invited us to his room in the house next to his café to read the poem you just heard. Part of his first poetry collection published last year.
I collect Soviet children’s books.
Stacks of books, two rows deep and a dozen high occupy much of the space.
We had first been aware of Nam through his photography. Three years ago he showed a series of photographs as part of Nhà Sàn Collective’s emerging artists series. Close up shots of his ex-girlfriend. Zoomed in details like scars, her belly button, the space between her fingers were printed in a landscape format on soft, silky paper and hung to create their own universe. A celebration of the small things that truly distinguish one human from another.
We were strangers and we may become lovers and then we may become strangers again and what I remember all the time they are always the small details of that certain person. Some moments that I recall, some scar, something on her skin, that’s what I remember not the words. You can say the same words to different people but there is only one version of it and you can never forget it.
Small details that triggers memory is a theme that had been running through our conversation with Nam. And we had asked him to show as one of those old objects he collects because it has a story hidden within.
Trầu tiếng Anh là gì? … yeah something like that.
so it’s like a grinder, like a really intricate metal grinder isn’t it, like a bell, what is this?
The little bronze grinder, about 7cm high, is used to crush beetle nuts by old ladies who can no longer chew them. It was given to him by one of three women who used to play cards with his mother every afternoon.
They don’t play anymore, because all the three old ladies they all pass away now, and now whenever I come back to my home back there, I can always see my lonely mother sitting in the living room and no one to play cards with anymore.
Whenever I see it I remember that lady and also I remember my mother and I also remember myself back in the years. And touching it and hearing its sound makes me remember how I get here, remember my story, where I come from, my family and about the meaning of being here.
As a discussion about the meaning of being here would stretch the scope of any of our episodes, we decided to save that conversation and ask Nam instead how he thought his generation differs from the one of the beetle nut chewing women.
The Internet… it really changed a whole generation.
It gives us more colourful life, it can inspire our work and inspire our life. I think that people nowadays we can know a lot about each other. Know a lot of information, but to understand someone is another story.
To know and to understand is very different.
[MUSIC FROM GỖ LIM]
It is produced by Eliza Lomas and Fabiola Buchele, our production assistants are Trang Nghiem and Trang Ngo.
And research is done by me Maia Do.
Jacques Smit is our photographer and the narration was done by myself, Bill Nguyen.
An & Of Other Things production.
For episode 11 we talk to two NGO workers Trang and Mai to hear their thoughts on sacrificing love for academia, how Đổi Mới drastically changed their life course, and the power of friendship.
Be sure to listen!