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(Original art by Vi Khi Nao)
A Solitude of Two
At a moment of pain and challenge, former Black Mountain Institute fellow and The Vegas Dilemma author Vi Khi Nao received a DM from a Brooklyn-based writer named Daisuke Shen. Initially strangers, the two would, within months and across a continent, create a new book together and forge a deeply restorative friendship. This is the story of the birth of their creative alliance.
This story first appeared in the Fall 2022 issue of rjmagazine, a quarterly published inside the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

A Solitude of two: From Vegas to Brooklyn, the birth of a friendship—and a book

To Daisuke, from Vi …

On September 7, 2021, my short-story collection, The Vegas Dilemma, will come out in the world from 11:11 Press. A few days later, you will be one of the first few people in the world to personally congratulate me on its birth. Words from you will make me feel that my life has some value to somebody. At the time of your congratulations, I will imagine you as a sheet of silk paper roaming through mottled verdant woods. In my eyes, you are swift and gentle. With you in mind, I keep thinking about Emily Dickinson, whose wisdom could be a lot better if her axiom, “Tell the truth, but tell it slant,” was instead, “Tell the truth, but tell it Asian.”

When it comes out, the manuscript will measure the intensity of my suicidal solitude and isolation but will not capture how my health has declined greatly. The book cannot capture my time in Las Vegas. Those long three-hour walks under the scorching dome of Sin City had already vanished from my body. It was around this time in Denver that my heart, unbeknownst to me, shifted into Afib. Vegas had been particularly hard during COVID. I had fallen ill, bedridden for a month before the pandemic starts imbibing terror from everyone’s consciousness through a manmade straw made of denial.

I wish you and I had already been friends when my roommate in Vegas at the newly built Echo apartments on Tropicana Avenue threatened to bleach-spray me and another Asian roommate. Your friendship would have helped me feel less alone amid the bigotry that would follow all Asians in the years that followed the Wuhan scapegoating …

Daisuke, Brooklyn, May 31, 2021

The thing about sadness is that it is — most of the time, at least — read in bad faith by those other than its holder. Or perhaps it is the other way around: People acknowledge the holder’s sadness as truthful, and thus rob them of their own scapegoat.

In Brooklyn, I can walk for hours, and the feeling of solitude isn’t shameful. I love this borough, the familiarity of place, the Chinese uncle who owns the laundromat across the street and the nice girl in 3A, who sits and bakes her bare feet on the bench outside our building. Two months ago, it snowed as I headed back toward my apartment, carrying my heavy groceries. The schoolchildren were coming out to meet their parents. They pointed at the sky and demanded answers from it, the way I think we should all greet our personal terrifying and formidable gods.

In Last Words from Montmartre, Qiu Miaojin writes: “Dazai detested hypocrisy above all. One could even argue that it was the world’s hypocrisy that killed him. Guillaume Apollinaire, the French poet Dazai adored, also hated hypocrisy. Dazai says that people loved pretense, and terrified him.”

What I love about New York is that it is a world in itself, and because of this there are parts of it I must accept, even those I do not love: for instance, the many people here who love pretense, as you once wrote, Vi,

… more than sharks love blood.

Or something along that line. She may have misquoted.

It came out of the pre-disgraced Kevin Spacey’s mouth.

– “Binchotan Charcoal and Its Ash,” by Vi Khi Nao

Vi, Denver, June 15, 2021

Even if the literary muse offers the illusion of companionship, the writing life is often known for its solitary journey. Especially in the desert of Las Vegas. When I was a fellow at the Black Mountain Institute, the literary life I led was quiet and small. In my application submission for the fellowship, I wrote, “Las Vegas is familiar to me only because my mother lives and used to own a dry-cleaning business in Henderson. Though I am a stranger, Las Vegas has always been a nomadic home for my creative production.” When I thought of Las Vegas, I thought of the readings I had given at the amazing Writer’s Block. But most of all, my experiences in Las Vegas up to that time had been defined by culinary urges and temporary desolation and desiccation. I believed this sequestration was a result of my not having been connected to the city’s literary community. I hoped my time at BMI would change this perception while giving me a chance to become closer to my mother.

(Vi Khi Nao)
(Vi Khi Nao)

Daisuke, Aug. 30, 2021

I reached out to you, Vi, on May 31, 2021 at 5:39 p.m. because I adored your lack of pretense, and I wanted to be your friend. Shouldn’t we all be so simple? I say this now even as I shroud myself in whatever narrative I feel suits me, the same way everyone else does; but I think more people should make themselves transparent and interrogatable. If only to those they want to.

I have applied for the City Artist Corps grant. As always, I expect not to win, so the news comes as a shock: Perhaps I am, as the man at the deli said to me upon discovering the last bottle of flavored vape juice he had in stock, a “lucky person.”

Luck can only be kept if shared, and I want nothing more than to share it with you.

I propose to you that we write a book together. You immediately agree to the task.

Shall we base it off of a queer Asian film? you ask me, or something along those lines. We talk about Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Wong Kar-wai, the directors we and so many others adore.

But then I think about my favorite film, Funeral Parade of Roses, which was first recommended to me by my friend, the director and poet Jesi Gaston. You watch the film and love it. We start the document and let each others’ words guide us into the beautiful afterlife of Eddie and her companions.

Vi, Sept. 10, 2021

When you proposed that we write a book together, Daisuke, I was in the midst of collaborating on four projects with others and I didn’t know if it was possible for me to launch into another manuscript project with you.

But then it all happened so alacritously fast: One moment I was watching Funeral Parade of Roses and teaching at three different institutions and traveling to promote A Bell Curve Is A Pregnant Straight and The Vegas Dilemma and collaborating on those four different books; the next moment — in a breathless, fugacious, city-hyphenated breath of two months, in between making thit heo kho and cháo gà — I found myself adding pages into our shared Google Doc for Funeral.

You make the journey exhilarating with your shrewd, foxy sense of humor and your dynamic sentence constructions. The way you narrate stories infused with wise, metaphorical emotions and psychic foresight excite me to astral dive into so many different worlds coexisting in my manuscript with you.

While the quality of my life diminishes greatly during our writing of Funeral, your gifts, a love language of yours, begins to reconnect me to my Asianness and my Asian identity. I took pictures of everything you sent me, knowing that I could recycle these images later and work them in our manuscripts. And I sent you the Vietnamese food I made for my partner who is white. I had taken a scholar-in-residence position at Boulder. The state was so white that even the only Asian writer, Patrick Cottrell, residing in Colorado wrote me, “Vi, Colorado is so white!”

We both feel so lonely, but you made me feel less alone in my Asianness when you sent these gifts. Iowa is white, but Colorado is whiter. Your gifts spoke so many of my love languages.

(Vi Khi Nao)
(Vi Khi Nao)

Daisuke, Sept. 17, 2021

It is September 17, or what some would term “today,” though I agree with Ingeborg Bachmann when she writes, “‘Today’ is an impossible word for me … that only suicides ought to be allowed to use, it has no meaning for other people.”

Is today a thing that can hold hope? I think so. I think that the day we will spend in Philly on October 9 — another version of today — felt hopeful to me. You will present me with jackfruit chips and books. We will eat American breakfast in the Chinese restaurant in the hotel lobby. We will shoot our short film using the drone that Ali Raz bought for you, which we will name Billio 9. We will drink boba tea and you will hang your tired legs, and Billio 9 will eat the tissue paper you throw at her with gusto.

I am reading The Vegas Dilemma and thinking of your life there and my imaginary life there. I am thinking that perhaps Las Vegas is a place of hope for some people. I have never been to Las Vegas, and I am unfamiliar with the people there, but Google tells me that Steve Aoki lives there. I imagine each of his birthdays up until the age of 40 being spent at different Benihanas. Now whenever he goes into a Benihana, he thinks of his father. He thinks about fried rice and faces lit up by fire, and when he performs at shows, the faces gazing up at him each resemble a rubbery shrimp or an oiled piece of broccoli.

Las Vegas is a desert and she invites people to lay on her luxurious tongue. She read The Vegas Dilemma and wanted to save you from loneliness, and she also understood your pain. Las Vegas is a mother who has given birth to Caesars Palace and The STRAT Hotel and Waffelato. The Las Vegas of my imagination is pro-Vi Khi Nao, and anti-animal cruelty and malapropisms. When you come back, she smiles with her face, knowing you can’t see it. When you eat breakfast, she floats a little prayer up toward God.

Vi, Sept. 18, 2021

I wanted to document our bond and knew that I wanted to include this image in our Funeral manuscript.

A box of your gifts came to the loft I share with my partner in Denver’s RINO district. A fever had begun to unravel its way out of my body. There were so many sachimas and so many dry ZHANGQI LONG preservation packages of tofu (vegetarian meat, hot & spicy 102g) that I nearly died from glee. It cheered me up greatly during my time of convalescence.

When, four years ago, I was hospitalized for internal bleeding in Vegas, my mother and her white lover came to my St. Rose San Martin Hospital room with a box of pho. My mother and her lover had driven me to this hospital on Warm Springs Road just a few weeks before the Vegas shooter, from his 32nd-floor suite at the Mandalay Bay, had discharged over 1,000 bullets and annihilated 58 people and wounded hundreds. My body had chosen a good time to bleed out because if I had bled out in the desert on 1 October, 2017, no hospitals in Vegas could transfuse three units of blood into my body. The hospitals in Vegas were not prepared for the massacre. Who is ever prepared for a massacre?

Blood shortages moved Sin City denizens to wait in long lines to donate their blood. The nurse who came to take my vitals at 3 in the morning was a Filipino and she was kind like the way you were kind to me, Daisuke. I had stunk up my hospital room by defecating nonstop. I continued to bleed while I was hospitalized. But she took out from her handbag an apple-scented perfume bottle, and told me that this should help me feel less alone with my feces. I thought about her during the Vegas shooting, how she coped with the October 1 sanguineous, hemoglobinic chaos. I thought about your kind words to me when The Vegas Dilemma came out. How you made me feel less ashamed of my sad, lonely life there.

Daisuke, Sept. 18, 2021

I remember when you first told me of your body’s weeping; the way you prepared yourself to die while on the bathroom floor. I need to clean it, you thought, so that my mother does not have to. You are always putting others first, even in death, and because of this, Death spared and will continue sparing you. And even when it turns its head to meet your eye, it quickly shies away, as it knows that myself and the others who love you will always steal you back.

Poop and death are considered crass topics, I believe, by those who believe politeness is a virtue. But politeness is most often a grave and craven practice popular among the elite, those who would not like to be bothered by remembering America’s love of violence, or of the gravity of choice: When one chooses to eat a hors d’oeuvres in response to the question of Why do you ignore my palpable suffering?, it is nothing short of cowardice.

Vi, Sept. 21, 2021, Mid-Autumn Lunar Festival

Your gifts arrived in time in celebration of my favorite Vietnamese holiday. I celebrated it with sexy-underwear dried tofu in preservative packages with my partner, Jess.

In a Henderson apartment on Eastern Avenue, I used to read Han Kang’s The Vegetarian. But my mother wanted me to stop reading it. She begged me to go to strip clubs with her, especially the good ones on Blue Diamond Road. She knew Blue Diamond Road well; her very first Las Vegas apartment had been on Blue Diamond.

Eating those sexy tofu packages gave me the impression that there are Asian edible strip clubs I could always consume. You made this possible, Daisuke, through food. We Asians express the love we preserve for one another through food. Eating these in the RINO loft with my partner made me think of my mother and of you.

My parents immigrated from Vietnam — boat people we are — in 1989. When I was a child, during the lunar festival, I would carry these red lanterns and eat mooncakes while walking like stray cats on red dirt roads with my aunts and cousins. Over 30 years later, from your wonderful Brooklyn breath and writing, you wish me my first Mid-Autumn Lunar Festival. And it quickly downloaded into my consciousness how alacritously you understand. A half-white, half-Vietnamese boy once baked 100 lunar cakes from scratch and gave half a dozen to me once when I was living in Iowa City.

The gesture is nearly the same — the affection in particular, but yours felt more compassionate.

(Vi Khi Nao)
(Vi Khi Nao)

Daisuke, Sept. 24, 2021

I will always understand you, or at least try my best to understand. One thing about friendship is that even that which is left unarticulated can be immediately grasped by the other: like a pull toward celebration for the Mid-Autumn Lunar Festival, or the way we both try to suffocate our sadness or pain so the other person does not worry. Of course, we both understand what is on the other’s face or in the carefully omitted speech regardless.

Sitting in different cities, far from one another, we recorded our interview for Las Vegas’ Black Mountain Institute today. We were bound by our words, and by the city you had roamed and written. Inside my cramped closet of a bedroom in Bedstuy, I put towels around the windows and the crack underneath the door so that sound could not leak in or out. I stumbled over my words as we greeted each other and jumped into my excessive questions, which you answered articulately and wonderfully as always.

Early on in our friendship, you told me this: “I love making mistakes.” You asked Andrew to leave the typo in the intro to The Vegas Dilemma because you loved the way the word tranfsormative looked. It was not the more ordinary “transformative,” but something somehow much more beautiful. But your editor Andrew gently told you that they’d have to publish the word in its correct spelling. I’ve tried my best to live by this creed, repeating to myself that I love making mistakes even when I do not.

The best art, as you have taught me, is created this way, it can’t be pushed out of a Jell-o mold. It’s Jell-o that can defy gravity or turn into a bucket of snakes or a beautiful woman. ◆

Daisuke Shen and Vi Khi Nao’s co-authored novella, Funeral, is forthcoming in January 2023 from KERNPUNKT Press.

Daisuke Shen is a fiction writer. Their work has previously been published in journals such as Autostraddle, The Nervous Breakdown, Hobart After Dark, Maudlin House, Joyland Magazine, and more. Their novella Funeral, co-authored with Vi Khi Nao, is forthcoming from KERNPUNKT Press in January 2023. You can read more of their work at www.daisukeshen.com.

Vi Khi Nao is the author of six poetry collections and of the short-story collections A Brief Alphabet of Torture (winner of the 2016 FC2’s Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Prize) and The Vegas Dilemma. A recipient of the 2022 Jim Duggins, Ph.D., Outstanding Mid-Career Novelist Prize, her work includes poetry, fiction, film and cross-genre collaboration. She was the Fall 2019 fellow at UNLV’s Black Mountain Institute. To learn more about her work, visit www.vikhinao.com.

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