Dustin Kelley: All right, my name is Dustin Kelley, a librarian at Lewis and Clark College's Watzek Library. Today is November 16, 2020, and I have the privilege of speaking with Julian Saporiti via Zoom. Julian, you are a musician, scholar, and a recent Portlander. And I so appreciate you taking the time to meet with me today.
Julian Saporiti: Thanks, Dustin. It is a pleasure to chat with you.
DK: Could you begin by just telling us a little bit about yourself?
JS: Yeah. You said it well, I am a musician and recently, in the last decade or so, I have been a scholar. I have a couple master's degrees in American studies and ethnomusicology, and I am polishing off a Ph.D. in American studies right now. And I just recently moved to Portland, largely in part to be close to my mom [Jacqueline Saporiti], as I had finished up coursework back in Providence, Rhode Island, at Brown. And she had moved out here from Nashville, Tennessee, which is where I was born and raised, a few years ago. And part of the reason being is that there was a couple Vietnamese grocery stores—like legitimate grocery stores—which you take for granted, I think, if you are on the West Coast, or Houston or Northern Virginia, but for us down south outside of maybe Atlanta or Charlotte, it is a beautiful thing. So yeah, I have been enjoying Portland, and then the pandemic hit like a week after my girlfriend and I got an apartment. So it has been enjoying it from inside more than we would like.
DK: That is fair enough. 2020 has impacted the world in so many ways.
DK: From what you have been able to experience, the few times you have been able to get out into the city, what are some of your first impressions?
JS: Yeah, I mean, I have been coming through Portland for a long time because before I was in academia, I was in a band, just a rock band. I was a singer and a guitar player, and we would tour through Portland a few times even though we were located on the East Coast or down south. And I started with some good times: we played a store called… I think… Music Millennium or something like that and a place called Berbati’s Pan—I do not know if that is still there, this was over a decade ago now—and had some really fun times in both Portland and Eugene when we would be on tour. I always really liked how much green space was out here, and that is still what overwhelms me. We were in the Hoyt Arboretum just yesterday, just walking around and in the Redwood Path, and the fact that you can see these things a few minutes drive from wherever you are, you know, Mount Tabor, the Japanese gardens, or getting out to the [Columbia River] Gorge or the coast, it is just an incredible place and really a wonderful mix of the outdoors and city amenities. And in a culture where, in 2020, you do not have to feel so … I do not know, you know how it is, it is stressful in certain cities or parts of the United States right now if you are not like a White dude, I think. Portland kind of overcompensates for that—they are very nice white people here.
DK: [laughs] Have you been able to make any connections within Portland's Vietnamese community? I know you have not been here that long.
JS: Yeah, no, not specifically. You know, there are a few neighbors. My mom lives down in the Woodstock area and she has got a bunch of Asian neighbors. It is so funny, because when I first came here—or not first, but when I started coming here a few years ago on tour for the No-No Boy stuff—I worked a lot with the Japanese American community. And a lot of people would complain to me, like, Portland is so White. And demographically, absolutely it is. But, like, relative to a Vietnamese kid who grew up in Nashville, it is easy to go up and down 82nd and you can eat for two months at a different place of incredible caliber. So, I find it more of like, really, a cultural haven. But, personal connections outside, you know, a few neighbors or just people at the restaurants, but when we were still going out, you know, or the grocery stores. My mom is like—she hangs with the nail ladies at Boston Nails on Division and she gets in her Vietnamese there. But aside from that, I really have not gotten the opportunity to work with people as a historian or just a person, you know, friend, whatever, in the Viet community the way that I have in the Japanese American community or even visiting with people at the Chinatown Museum here in Portland. So it is definitely on the list because it is kind of an ongoing project for me to find out what it means to personally be Vietnamese American, having grown up with so little Vietnamese influence.
DK: I think you will have plenty of opportunities to explore that more in the coming years.
JS: Hope so.
DK: So, you mentioned wanting to move to Portland to be closer to your mother. How long has she been here?
JS: On and off, I think going on like four years. So, she had come out and rented, and then she sold the house in Nashville where we grew up and was in an apartment for about a year or year and a half, and then she bought this place in Woodstock about a year ago. So, like, fall of 2019. And, yeah, my girlfriend finished her degree at Brown, and she sings with me—she is a wonderful musician and artist—and we just were looking for a place to go away, off the East Coast, just way, way off the East Coast. And, you know, had family in Portland and was, like I said, a vibe that we both agreed with. If I am going to be in a city, this is a good one to be in.
DK: So, you mentioned growing up in Nashville. Can you talk a little bit about what your childhood was like living in the southern United States?
JS: Yeah, I mean, it was great in a lot of ways. Nashville and the South and kind of that, I do not know, ethos, is what informed who I am as much as anything else in my life. And I love the food and the music. I mean, as far as America goes, it is kind of the cradle of civilization, as far as our culture goes and things like that. And you know, it is very similar to being Vietnamese, because it is a place that still cannot get over a civil war, and still flies a flag that lost and holds a lot of grudges. And that creeps up into 2020, as we have seen with people having these very black and white discussions over busts and statues of people who should or should not be remembered, or flying a flag that means something or does not mean something to certain people. There was a lot of backwardness from my political viewpoint growing up in the South, but it is also the place that nurtured me, gave me all the love that I needed to grow up and fed me both literally and artistically very, very well. I could not imagine being the musician, or the, you know, for lack of a better term, thinker that I am today in my personal and professional lives without having grown up in Nashville. And also without being kind of a little bit of not fitting in in Nashville, which is the burden of being an Asian kid who was born in 1985 in Tennessee.
DK: You mentioned that there was a smaller Vietnamese American community in Nashville, as opposed to other southern cities like Charlotte and Atlanta. Was there really any Vietnamese American community to speak of, or even community organizations that you were familiar with growing up?
JS: I knew nothing. Like honestly the only Asians I interacted with—and they would call themselves more Oriental at that point than Asian. I mean, it took a while for that nomenclature to get to the South. I did remember one Thanksgiving, I brought a Chinese American friend home from the Bay Area. When I was up at Berklee College of Music, she went to Wellesley—her name is Emily—and she came home for Thanksgiving to hang out. And my mom used the word Oriental to describe us at the dinner table. And Emily, just being from the Bay Area, being like, fourth-generation Chinese American or something, maybe only second, I do not know. Anyways, she was just, like, flabbergasted someone would still use the term Oriental. It was like the N word to her. But that is what my mom said all the time growing up, and that is what a lot of, I think, older Asian American immigrants said as well. But we did not run into a lot of Asians in Nashville: the people who own the buffets, like the Chinese folks my mom would always be friendly with, and there was this woman who was Chinese-Vietnamese who owned the grocery store that we would go to, a little tiny grocery store, off Charlotte Pike. I do not remember her name, but her daughter's name was Lily—and she was my age—and we used to play on the rice bags together every Friday when I would go in with my mom, and she would buy crabs and other Asian supplies and stuff like that. And that was the extent. My little brother, obviously, is half Vietnamese, too. But that girl Lily was the only Vietnamese kid that I met until … I want to say, like, my mid to late twenties. The only Vietnamese person my age besides my family that I met.
JS: Wow. Can you tell me a little bit about your Vietnamese heritage? How long has your family been in the United States?
JS: Yeah, so it is really my mom and then a few other cousins. Everyone has a unique story, but mine [my family’s story] does not quite track with a lot of the people that I talk to professionally, as a historian and stuff like that. They were French citizens before or right after World War I due to participation in the French colonial government. And they kind of got on that train and were––even after, you know, Ho Chi Minh liberated us from the French––still kind of benefited from positions of political power to the point where my mom's granddad was in the South Vietnamese Assembly. And someone who speaks fluent Vietnamese could go through the archives and see what he actually did. But I just know that, you know, they were well off enough to have, like, a country house that they lived in, my mom's grandparents, with, like, a servant. And they were very culturally French. My mom's second language really is Vietnamese, first language is more French as far as writing and intellectual pursuits as a student. [She] went to French Catholic school, grew up in downtown Saigon, like I said, the family house was in Vinh Long. And in ‘68, that is where, during the Tet Offensive my great grandfather was assassinated. And my whole family, including my mother, were in that house when the grenade came through the window and my great grandfather was killed. Because, you know, during the Tet Offensive they were targeting different diplomats or politicians in South Vietnam. That story is something I was told with a few others, like scattered stories, that is part of my memories of Vietnam through my mother. And it is really difficult, especially if you do not have any other Vietnamese community around, because she went [to the United States] shortly after that murder. In 1968, she got out on a student visa to go to college in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, and so that is like seven years before the fall of Saigon and everyone scattering. And so she has this unique experience where she is a teenager, right? She is, like, eighteen, nineteen years old when she comes to America. She is already culturally very Western. And she told me the story about, you know, she would be asked by, like, the local Lions Club in Elizabethtown to come speak on the war that their sons are getting sent over to go fight and die for. And she really had no interest because she was a kid—she was a teenager. To quote her, she was more interested in the colors of the nail polish coming out than what was going on back in Vietnam. And, you know, that is something that I look for as a historian as well. It is very much those individual moments, not the kind of larger scope or putting everyone in the category of “refugee,” right? What were all these individual, unique lives? Everyone I have talked to, all my friend's parents now, who were first-gen refugees have very different lives, had very different positions. And my mom was definitely upper-crust. [She] spoke this creole French and Vietnamese, and still does with her sister who lives in France. But yeah, my Vietnameseness totally refracted through imperialism and French colonialism, through my mom becoming an American after so many years, being mixed. I would not say diluted, but it is a strain that a lot of immigrant kids have. That is my Vietnameseness.
DK: So glad you mentioned how unique everyone's experiences are. That is one reason we want to have an oral history project, is it gives so many individuals the chance to tell their unique stories. And I think it is incredibly important, and everyone can tell their story as you are doing right now, in your own words. And I think that is really an important part of history.
JS: Yeah, me too. It has to be individualized. The person I work most from theoretically in my dissertation work is—or academic work—is Yen Le Espiritu, who wrote the book Body Counts, and she is all about just disentangling that political identity of the refugee and getting more to the ground level: what did people experience? And in my work as an artist [I] really try to do that more. So, just because, you know, it is too much of a burden to carry that around, to be labeled as an immigrant or refugee, like, as your main thing, because it either villainizes you to some people or it makes you this kind of charity case to other people. And it is like, this is just the historical predicament that we found ourselves in. Shit happened, it sucked in a lot of ways but people made the best of it, or they did not, and this is where we are now. And to me that is the most honest approach to being a historian is just admitting the mess that is history, and then we just sort of sit with it and sort it out.
DK: So how did your mom come to leave Vietnam and end up in Nashville, Tennessee? That is a multilayered question.
JS: Yeah, it is a long journey. All sides of my family have very interesting American journeys. And my mom, she had gone on a high school exchange for a year or semester to around the Lancaster area of Pennsylvania. And so she knew that area, and then she knew Elizabethtown was close to it. So, after that assassination, I do not know if she was aware of it at the time, but certainly I am sure her parents were happy to have her be able to get out. In ‘68, she goes to Elizabethtown, she gets her degree there, and then she moves to Boston, Massachusetts, and lives off Commonwealth Avenue—I think it is Commonwealth because I lived very close to that when I went to school there. Then, she moves to San Francisco and she meets my dad, who is this very vagabond-y, the last of the Cowboys kind of folk singer, hippie dude who was from Boston originally, then went to the Navy after dropping out of college and not being able to get back in, and then ended up in San Francisco. So, these two wild people meet each other—I would definitely not say destined to be with each other—but they meet each other, they both move to Nashville because my dad is a very good record promoter, and he eventually becomes a record executive at one of the big companies in Nashville. And thus why my mom ended up in Nashville, thus why I was born, and my brother was born in Nashville.
DK: You mentioned how Nashville has such a small Vietnamese community, not knowing very many Vietnamese people. Did you grow up speaking Vietnamese with your mom and with your brother?
JS: No. My mom and [her] sister did not even grow up speaking Vietnamese to each other that much, it was much more French. I do not think my aunt still knows how to read or write in Vietnamese that well. Like, she is seven years older than my mom. And they started teaching Vietnamese to my mom when she was in French Catholic school, how to write it and stuff—my aunt did not get that education. So, Vietnamese was—one, it is super hard to pronounce if you are an American, and if you are a Tennessean, at that—and so French was just, like, the language that we spoke because, the thing is, my mom came to the States, but after ‘75 when Saigon fell and the rest of my family was still there with the exception of my grandfather––my mom's dad who died in Vietnam––the rest of the family went to France because we were all French citizens, still are French citizens, you know. So, they all went to Paris and so the language of our family was French. So, that is what I grew up speaking with my mom. I still text with my mom in French. If I talk with her and it is just one on one, we will kind of switch between French and English depending on how much I really need to understand of the conversation. But Vietnamese is a completely foreign language to me, and it is sort of an intimidatingly foreign language to me. And, like I said, you know, we kind of represent this part of the Vietnamese community that French was our main language, and I do not know what percentage of people who got out, you know, that was probably a lot more people in France, I would think, than here. But yeah.
DK: What other aspects of Vietnamese culture did your mom try to impart upon you?
JS: I do not know how much effort there was, you would have to ask her. But, from what I took away, the food one hundred percent, like, she is a great cook and she would always mix it up, like, she did great Italian and French and American dishes and stuff like that, other Asian dishes, but her Vietnamese food was always a special occasion food, like some chả giò, little crispy egg rolls and some, like, lemongrass pork and stuff like that. Not a lot of pho. I do not think she grew up eating a lot of pho, which is interesting that it is, like, super popular now. But yeah, I would say the food from the get-go, like, fish sauce is very much a part of my life growing up and still is. [I] need to eat those flavors very regularly. And then a few folk stories: I think she told me some stories about, like, dragons or something growing up. But yeah, she is not only split between, you know, like, Vietnam and America. She has that French triangulation as well. So it is a very complicated identity that she is dealing with and then how you pass that on to a kid growing up in this super White, super Southern, super conservative environment of Nashville in the 80s and 90s. I am not sure how you parent that … yeah.
DK: Let's change gears a little bit. Would you be willing to introduce our listeners to your music career from The Young Republic to your current project, No-No Boy?
JS: Yeah, absolutely. So, I went off to music school—I have been a songwriter since I was fifteen—and went off to music school in Boston and formed a band there. And we got really lucky and got signed to this British-European record deal and toured all over North America and Europe for years, like at least five years. And that is what I did as a young man, just writing rock songs and folk songs and playing cool festivals and bars and stuff like that. So, I was very much just a kid in a band for a long time. And then the band broke up like all bands do, and I kind of went back to Nashville to the recording studio we had built and lived there for a year and kind of vagabonded around Nashville and realized I had not really learned anything as a young man. And so I read a lot of books and went to the library, and sat in on classes at Vanderbilt for a year, then eventually some teacher there said I should go to grad school and they told me what that was. And I eventually went to Wyoming—and that led into research about Asian American history, funnily enough, like the Whitest state in the country. And that is kind of where I got in touch with being an Asian American. I went to these places of Asian American history, where there was, like, Chinese massacres in certain towns or Japanese internment camps. And then that allowed me to start investigating this No-No Boy project which looked into not only those histories of Asian American immigrants, but my own family history for the very first time. And somehow, a dissertation of all that material has wound up into seventy-plus folk songs, which I tour around the country, and sort of combines my love of history, doing oral histories with people, going through archives, making movies, and writing songs. And that is kind of what the project is.
DK: So, your work has taken you to vastly different American landscapes from the US-Mexico border to Alaska, and you just talked about Wyoming, among many others. What are some of the lessons you have learned throughout your travels?
JS: I mean, I would have to kind of get into like categories of lessons. I have learned a lot … I started out getting a Ph.D. or doing this project, thinking that, like, it was much more activist-y, it was much more like I have something to tell people, I have seen the fucking truth or something like that. And that is just not the case anymore, especially going to, like, like you said, in Alaska, we work with this Indigenous community in Shishmaref, which is on this tiny little barrier island on the north coast of Alaska just under the Arctic Circle, like a quarter mile wide, and it is eroding into the sea because of climate change. And so we are working with a six hundred-person community in the school there to try to get those folks, encourage them to talk to their elders, and make that into art or a podcast or something like that to preserve these stories because I know what it is to come from a community that is displaced. And to get the stories while the elders are all still in one place, before the seawall is completely collapsed or the island roads completely sink into the ocean. That is important to me, and I find kinship through that experience, or soon to be experienced, of being displaced and not having that land to grow up in. So, we work up there in Alaska, and that has taught me a lot of humility, and to just not do the typical anthropological thing of going in and trying to ask for a lot of information and then trying to write about it, but rather be of service and bring music, help with physical labor or teaching or something like that, and then just sort of sit with the community and see if anyone wants to embark on this project with you, using what I do as a model. And the same thing is true down at the border, which is even a more harsh situation right now.
I see a lot of kinship with, you know, the stories of my mom's generation: people talking about leaving on these boats or, in my family's case, having to sneak overland through Cambodia to get a flight out of Bangkok to France; just heavy stuff. And I talked to people who have walked the entire length of Mexico who are stuck in these refugee camps at the border. Who are just… it is just sort of luck of the draw for whatever political circumstance, a lost war, the United States wanted all these Vietnamese to come in. I do not know if that was to save face because of losing the war, feeling like they let down these people, or what? In this political circumstance today, at least up until 2021, these folks are not allowed to come in even though their circumstances are just as dire and they face certain death in some cases. So, I think as far as lessons go, you find connections over connections, not through blood lines, but through bloodshed. These kinds of historical moments of trauma that you see over and over and over—displacement, incarceration, migration—and that humbles you. Like, I do not really have anything to tell anybody. And now it is much more of, like, how can I help out? And my training happens to be as someone who can preserve these stories, like yourself. And then I have the added bonus of being able to make music out of them, and then hopefully get them to reach a wider audience. Yeah, so I do not know … a lot of humility and a lot of just like, you got to break these stories down to the ground on an individual level because we cannot just put all these people in one box because, like I said earlier, it either villainizes them or it makes them these kind of false heroes just for being a refugee.
DK: Well, and listening to some of your work with No-No Boy, I can see that activism and telling individual stories so clearly. The most recent album that you have released is “1942.” Can you tell us a little bit more about that project?
JS: Yeah, it is all part of one big project. So the songs, they are all in one big folder, you know, the seventy-plus songs and all these archival videos I make. I release them in chunks, because no one is gonna listen to a seventy-song playlist. But the first one was called “1942,” commemorating the year that some of my personal friends who were, like, family to me now, went to these Japanese internment camps during World War Two, specifically at Heart Mountain, Wyoming, which I have a close relationship with. So it is a mix of all these kind of Asian American slice of life songs, whether it is two kids walking through this internment camp in the middle of Wyoming in the winter, or whether it is a doctor trying to escape on a boat from Vietnam and ending up in Pulau Bidong, which was the most crowded refugee camp, the most crowded place in the world for a while. Or whether it is just two Chinese American kids kind of hanging out, riding the subway in Boston. It is these collections, like I said, of small stories, stuff that the history books do not necessarily get at, stuff that my academic writing could not get at, because you want to argue points or make larger philosophical claims. And songs just kind of let you sit in these moments, right? So for you, you get all these oral histories—it is world building, what you are doing. And that is what a songwriter sort of does in reverse, takes this body of knowledge and then puts out all these characters, and scenes, and moments, and affects—most importantly, emotion, which the historian rarely captures, and sort of does the opposite process. So I think of it as kind of an hourglass, like all the stories and archives, the oral histories come in, and then I kind of put them back out, in this broad, emotional artsy-fartsy way.
DK: I found your song “Boat People” to be especially powerful. And I want to play some of it.
[Music playing - lyrics below]
Forty years ago, the doctor left on a boat
Never seen the snow or felt it in his hand
Sail until you see dry land
I can’t get off the news, I can’t get off the floor
The “good folks” go inside when we need them most
What do prayers do behind locked doors?
Tuan went back to rebuild, only to watch Saigon fall
Now he climbs up Mont Royal, makes a life in Montreal
Donated winter coats and Barbie dolls
I am curious if you could tell me a bit about the song's backstory?
JS: Yeah, so this is almost word for word an interview, I think from 1979, from the Canadian Broadcast Corporation—an archive they did about Vietnamese refugees coming into the country. And it was just one guy, this Dr. Tran, who was a doctor back in Vietnam—I do not really know what happened to him after he went to Montreal in the late 70s, early 80s—and it is just his story. It is just one person's story of having to shake the cops, use several different modes of transportation to get to this rickety little fishing boat. He has to leave his wife behind him, him and the kids leave, they get on this boat, they get attacked by pirates—by Thai pirates—in the South China Sea and end up in Pulau Bidong. And it is this sort of narrative intertwined with what was happening in the year that I wrote that, which was 2017—Trump's first year in office, when he made the executive order to ban all those Muslim refugees and Muslim immigrants—and I was just seeing these overlapping histories, people being displaced, having to get from somewhere and seeing pictures of literal boat people from Syria on TV while I was writing this song about a boat person from Southeast Asia.
And just, once again, these overlapping histories of what is happening now to what was happening then. And how that juxtaposition—while the historical specificity needs to be maintained—that juxtaposition needs to be made, whether that is to say to the Vietnamese community who, many of them are largely conservative, “Hey, they let you all in,” and they were happy to have you and you got government support when you were displaced from the war. Why do you have such conservative values on immigration now, when these people need just as much help as you did? As well as to the larger point of bringing awareness to any kind of displaced group, whether that is the Rohingya having to flee Burma, the people coming out of the Middle East or West Africa or Central America. I see, once again—while breaking down the term refugee and getting to the individual experience—I see people who are bound by having a raw deal for the moment in the place they were born in. And, you know, I cannot imagine living through a war like my mom did. And I cannot imagine living through a war like some of the folks that I work with, at the border or overseas, do now.
DK: The music video for the song starts out very zoomed in on you. And you can tell there is something behind you, that you are standing in front of some sort of projected image. And as it zooms out, you can see this large gathering of people. Is this a specific image from Dr. Tran’s family? Or is it just in general of Pulau Bidong?
JS: Yeah, it is just from Pulau Bidong. Yeah, once again, I really only know that recording, that archived oral history of Dr. Tran. I do not know him personally like I know a lot of people who are the subjects of the No-No Boy songs. And that was just, I think, this beautiful, vibrant, multicolored image of this tropical island, a paradise to Westerners I am sure in our imaginations, that became so crowded; it was the densest place on Earth for a while. And in that photograph, it is similar to what I do when I play live concerts, if and when that ever happens again. I just sort of have it really zoomed in on a couple characters, and it is really grainy, and then by the end of the song it has slow-zoomed out to that mass of humanity, that mass of boat people and it just does not stop. It is kind of unrelenting. It is, like, how many more people are there? Yeah, so you try to capture that a little bit in the music video.
DK: Your song, “Imperial Twist,” pays homage to Vietnamese rock and soul, as you call it on your website. Particularly a band affiliated with CBC. Is that right, CBC?
JS: That is the name. That is the actual band, it is called the CBC Band.
DK: Yeah, thank you. I appreciate the correction. Can you tell us the story of how you discovered this band and why it struck such a chord with you?
JS: Well, yeah, so they were like a family band. Like, I think the drummer, he looks like he was twelve when they were playing in the late 60s, early 70s, in Saigon. They were one of the many, many rock bands that, created by the American occupation, found jobs. Because you could make money, American money, playing for the troops at these bars and stuff to entertain them, and also going out to army bases. And I found the CBC Band through this sublime frequencies compilation of Vietnamese rock and roll called Vietnamese, I think, Saigon rock and soul. That is where that album refers to, and there were two of their tracks on there. The CBC Band was mostly a cover band, and they still gig to this day in Houston—incredible musicians. But they had these two Vietnamese songs, and I had never heard … I had heard Vietnamese singing, like in traditional Vietnamese folk music and stuff, that is very kind of zither heavy and things like that, but I never heard, like, this incredible rock and roll music, which is what my mom grew up with. This is what those teenagers in Saigon grew up with, like the West had already imperialized, occupied. This is the music of the day, and I found it so amazing because the Vietnamese tonal language being sung on top of this psychedelic Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix, Zeppelin kind of music did something I had never heard before. And it was just, like, this opening up of questioning authenticity, like, who, who makes rock 'n' roll? Who makes culture? What happens when people learn music through imperialism, then take it and localize it and then give it back? Even if it is not heard back in the United States for a long, long time. You know … they just blew my mind, basically, to say it plainly. That music blew my mind. The guitar playing was amazing, the rhythm section was great—but the vocalization, to hear this female voice just wailing in Vietnamese over these hard rock songs was so cool. And something that I really could have used hearing when I was a kid instead of hiding away from my Vietnameseness. And so this band—I did more research—and they kind of jumped around the Pacific when they were refugees in the 70s and finally ended up in Houston. And they still, like I said, they still gig today. And, you know, in my journeys as this Asian American troubadour now I have a good friend named V, who grew up in Houston, and she is like, “Oh, CBC, yeah, I know those guys.” So I have been able to talk to them a little bit through V and they have sent me some signed CDs and stuff like that. But a large part of this next album I am making—it is coming out on the Smithsonian [Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, the nonprofit record label of the Smithsonian Institution]—is very much in tribute to that band and all of those Southeast Asian bands who took rock ‘n’ roll, took American blues, took jazz folk music, and sort of made it into something new.
DK: This morning, I listened to the song “Tell Hanoi I Love Her” several times on repeat. It just kept speaking to me, and I am not Vietnamese, but hearing it just felt so personal and so tied into the identity that you have been speaking about throughout the interview. I want to play the beginning of the song for our listeners.
[Music playing - lyrics below]
Twice southern with two civil wars
A fool to think that this place could ever be yours
The in between, that’s where we must explore
Tell Hanoi, I love her
Jenny’s mother in the nail salon
Bedazzled star spangled t-shirt tiger mom
Saw the flag on my hat, told me to take it off
Tell Hanoi, I love her
Keep no grudge against some old world kin
Not letting go, now, that’s the bodhisattva’s sin
I named my Chrysler after Ho Chi Minh
Tell Hanoi, I love her
DK: I was struck particularly by the song’s introduction, and how it relates to past traumas, and how we relate to the past when it is painful. You have the lyrics, “Twice Southern with two civil wars / A fool to think that this place could ever be yours / The in-between, that's where we must explore / Tell Hanoi, I love her.” And then you repeat that refrain on several occasions to end your verses. What are you hoping listeners take away from this?
JS: Well, like you said, it is very personal. It is sort of a personal exploration of a very confused identity, which I think is the larger Vietnamese consciousness in the United States. You know, and once again, I am like an outlier—I think we are all outliers—I think all displaced people are outliers, because they are struggling to imagine a place that they cannot go back to. Even if you physically go back to Vietnam, you cannot go back to Vietnam my mom grew up in, it just does not exist. Like Saigon does not even exist anymore, it is not even called that anymore. And so, yeah, I do not know what I am trying to tell anyone other than just sort of, it is those small moments. It is that demystification of big words like “refugee” and “immigrant” and “war” and displacement and diaspora or however smart you want to get, and just bringing it down to, like, thinking about each other on a human level. And so the last few years, talking to so many folks who have told me like, “Yeah, I won't go back to Vietnam until my parents are dead because they would just freak out.” Or, “I only went back because my sister who was still there died and I went back for the funeral but my husband will never go back because he was in a reeducation camp and fuck those people.” You know, it is like, you sort of understand why so many of us have disparate political beliefs because we have gone through such wildly different things, especially those first-gen refugees. Like, I got an auntie, who lives in DC who voted for Trump, and I was, like, shocked to hear that because I am a pretty progressive person. And my mom was just like, “Yeah, she votes Republican.” And then I looked up the statistics and it was like, “Oh, crap, a lot of us vote that way.” Which is cool—I grew up in Tennessee, I got aunties, White aunties, Asian aunties, whoever, who raised me, who vote that way, that is just part of the culture down there regardless of how I agree or disagree. But the whole point is like, you do not know those people's lived experiences and you cannot just put them on blast, or just not understand them, or say they are backwards or whatever, especially people who have, like, risked their lives to leave their home, which is something I am so privileged to not even be able to imagine; and I do not want to imagine. I have to think about like, wow, what if, like, Tennessee changed its flag and Nashville changed its name. And I did not even have a passport that worked there anymore. That is wild shit. That is incredibly wild stuff to consider. And we are so freakin’ lucky to not consider it.
And so this song tries to sit in those in-between moments, you know, the in-between, that is what we have to explore. And for me, as a Southern Vietnamese refugee’s kid, to say, “Tell Hanoi, I love her,” you know, the seat of the Communist government, the people who came down and invaded our way of life, you know, quote-unquote, and displaced us, so to speak, or how many people feel about the North Vietnamese, and now the Vietnamese? I have got no beef with those people and I love them as much as I love the refugees. And I bet they are probably just as confused about history as we are in this part of the refugee diaspora, you know? And there is only that mess—that all of our stories combined can get close to the truth is, kind of what that song is about, sort of standing in the middle and saying, “Hey, I got a lot of respect for Ho Chi Minh for kicking the French out.” I am also a French citizen who speaks French with my mother. It is a lot of complication, a lot of confusion, a lot of layers. And again, like even trying to talk it out with you. That is why I write this into poetry, into a song, because you can put that on repeat, like you said, and three or four times, maybe still get stuff out before you are saturated. And here I am just babbling on about stuff I cannot explain without my guitar in my hand.
DK: That is a great tool, I am glad you are able to express yourself that way. And I hope more and more people get to hear your music, because I think it can do a lot of good. I had a few questions about scholarship written down, but I think you have answered some of them. Do you have anything else about your scholarship that you would like to chat about?
JS: I just think it is important to get these stories, you know, and scholarship beyond the bounds of the library, the academy, the formal settings, these formal institutions. When I work with younger people, college students, or high schoolers, even middle schoolers, you know, it is trying to encourage them to talk to your grandmothers, because each one of them has a book’s worth of stories. No matter who you are—you do not have to be some refugee’s kid or something like that. Like, everyone has a deeply important contribution to what it means to be human, and please ask them before they pass on, because that is what I did not do. That is what I did not do with my grandmother. So there is a lot of regret that sort of stems from this project, stems from me finding all these other Asian grandmothers across the United States who have been through these incredible histories, cataloging their stories, and turning them into song. You know, that is all I would really say, it is a project about asking your grandparents, your elders, what they went through and just sitting with them—not like for a school project, but just sitting there, getting comfortable, turning the recorder on. And then, like you said, you know, I am able to use my guitar and share these stories more widely through that process and through filmmaking and things like this… try to do something like that, too, if you are a younger student, you know, try to make a podcast, try to paint a picture, try to do something that is beyond traditional scholarship. That is the intervention here, is to take all these research methods, you know, that you and I have been trained in, but make them more available to people. Get that information, get that primary source, but then do not put it into a twenty page paper because no student has ever like gone to the bar with their buddies and been like, “Bro, you know, I just wrote this sick twenty-page paper, you have to read it.” No one has said that. But they have done that with their podcast, and they have done that with their songs, and they have done that with their poetry, or their plays, or whatever. So I think that is sort of the intervention. I have the deepest respect for my way-too-long time in school that I have accrued at this point. But we got to do something more with this, because these stories, no matter who they come from, need to be shared and just sat with. Because, like I said, that is the mess of history. It is only when you burn them all together you get close to the truth.
DK: And it makes me want to know more things about my own history. And, having done interviews like this for the last several months, especially makes me want to go and do some of my own digging, like you are doing, and it is just such a fun thing.
JS: It is, you know, and even grandparent adjacent, like I never say parents because I have talked to my mom a lot about this, but it is so much easier to talk to my aunt because, like, talking to your parents is just weird, especially about personal history and things like this sometimes. That is why I always say grandparents, you know, are just people adjacent to the lives that your family have lived. Just be a historian of yourself, you know, and then bring that story together with other people who have done the same process, and we find a lot of commonalities. And we find a lot of things that we can be proud of, and a lot of things that we probably should have a handle on because they are traumatic and they are tough. No matter who you are–maybe the Whitest, straightest, most Anglo-Christian dude in the world—and you have a fascinating history and your grandparents have been through a lot and your parents have been through a lot. You yourself, by virtue of being a human being, have suffered and loved and been through a lot, and that is worth recording. And then some jerk like me can write a song about it, or you can do it yourself [laughs].
DK: So, just a few final questions. Have you been able to visit Vietnam yourself?
JS: Yeah, so my grandma died about a decade ago and she left a little bit of an inheritance, which my mom used to take me and my brother to Vietnam. And that was the first time since 1968 that my mom had been back—this was 2013. Once again, one of these wild things that I try to do this thought experiment of, like, if Tennessee changed its flag, Nashville changes name, I needed a new passport. That is insane. And then not going back for decades—for forty years, almost—you know, it is just too much. And so we went back and we went back and in my mom's style, which is a lot less dirtbag musician than myself. So, we got to stay in hotels and we even had a tour guide in certain places and had cars to drive us around instead of just, like, taking rickshaws everywhere. So, it was like way classy for my standards. But it was cool, it was cool. But it was just a taste, you know—I do not know, you would have to ask my mom what she felt—but for me, it was just a taste. And I was more disappointed with that. You know, after I first came back, I was like, I did not get this homecoming experience. And again, that goes back to that song lyric. That is because the in-between is my home, and that is what must be explored, and cultivated, and recognized, and legitimized, at least in our own eyes. Like, for the refugee’s kid, for the refugee, it is an imagination, your home. Like my mom's Vietnam does not exist anymore, Saigon does not exist anymore, and that sucks. But it is what it is, and so I have made peace with the fact that going back in 2013 and stepping foot on those beaches, seeing Hanoi, seeing Saigon, going all around, going to Cambodia. It felt weird, it felt beautiful, the food was on point—best in the world—the language was lovely, the traffic stressed me out to no end. But, like I said, it is a taste, and I hope I get opportunities to go back in my life because I would love to just kind of sit and be less of a tourist and hang out and maybe play some music with some people.
DK: So, I am curious, what is next for you and your career and some of your goals for the next five to ten years? What would you like for our listeners to be expecting for you in the next and in the years to come?
JS: Well, I hope they wish me good health, happiness, peace, and love. Whether or not they are Buddhist. And, I do not know, man, probably put out one more album after the one that is coming out in 2021 and keep talking to people, keep trying to use this mix of art and scholarship to do something positive in the world, teach… I love teaching. After being in academia for so long, I have no desire to apply for tenure-track positions or any of that racket. I want to find a place I like and just be a teacher, whether that is on an individual level, whether that is in music, or cultural history, or whether that is teaching at a community college, or lecturing, or … I do not know, some high school gig or something. Just helping out, being of service, being an artist, and trying to do what you do. Trying to capture stories and preserve them because that is just important. It is important to do. Expect nothing from me and you will not be disappointed.
DK: How can listeners engage with your work?
JS: If you go to nonoboyproject.com you can find everything in the world you need to find. A lot of little movies, a lot of songs and albums and some writing and stuff like that. Or, if you do social media, at least until I go through the record promotion cycle I will be on social media for the next little while. And then, yeah, I do not know. You can come find me once the pandemic is over and buy me Vietnamese food and we will have a chat over some chả giò and ridiculously sweet coffee.
DK: Sounds great. Is there anything we have not asked you about today that you would like to discuss? Or do you have any additional experiences you would like to be preserved in your oral history interview?
JS: No, everything is in the song. So this is a nice rambling, babbling component if anyone wants to go deeper if you want to reverse engineer this and see me at my best or go listen to an album.
DK: Sounds great. Again, this has been Dustin Kelley and I have been chatting with Julian Saporiti. And today is November 16, 2020. Thank you so much for listening.
JS: Thank you.