My Ngoc To, a member of the Advocate’s Features Board, is author of the recently-published The Washing Room: A Story of Stories. Last week, she recorded the final essay of her book for Notes from 21 South Street. I followed the reading with several questions, which were formulated by Victoria Baena ’14 and myself. I hope you enjoy “The Washing Room II” and the following interview.
– Kevin Hong ’15
Harvard Advocate: Why did you choose to write in vignettes?
My Ngoc To: I think it’s because it was the structure that best portrayed my story. Because there wasn’t one large story that could describe what I was going through, I wanted each story to focus on a different part of my life. And not even my life, but other people’s lives. I feel like The Washing Room is not something that happens once, or that you can follow with a line. It happens everywhere with everyone. Everyone gets dirty, everyone gets hurt.
HA: Do you think about the previous features you’ve written when you start a new one?
MNT: Actually, this book was kind of inspired by my time writing for The Advocate. “The Washing Room” was the first feature I ever wrote for The Advocate, and it was my first solid piece of writing. How this book came to be is that after I took my gap year, I came home and I felt like I had a story that had a happy ending and needed to be shared with people. I actually wrote a book that was in chronological order, that had a much more, you know, “typical” storyline. But it just didn’t feel right. I hated it, so I dropped it. During spring break I came back to it and took only the best chapters and then I combined it with all this other stuff that I wrote for The Advocate; I juxtaposed them in a way that made sense. And then I realized that this was the book that I was looking for.
HA: Do you think that The Advocate played this role in your book just by chance, or that there was something else at work?
MNT: I’m not sure if it was by chance. I comped the Features Board my freshman fall and got in; I actually wrote “The Washing Room” during my comp and it was something I was really proud of. For the first time in my life I felt that I was writing something solid and substantial. It was really exciting because somehow, I think, I entered a new stage of growth and development in my writing. And it probably came from being around so many other people who read and write well. I think I got inspiration from it without realizing it.
HA: Is your book in conversation with other authors who write about the immigrant experience?
MNT: I actually haven’t read too much immigrant literature. The only thing I can really remember is like Amy Tan, or something like The Kite Runner. But a lot of people who have read it told me they could really relate to my stories, because they too were immigrants, or their parents were immigrants. Or if they’re not immigrants they have been in situations when they felt alienated.
The book is called The Washing Room: A Story of Stories. “A Story of Stories” is the first essay I ever wrote on my family, my parents’ background. That was in the tenth grade, when I had an amazing English teacher; I guess she saw something in me and really encouraged me to write more.
HA: Are there any memoirists that have influenced your writing?
MNT: I’m less influenced by memoir writers than by poetry … After I read The Tao I became really fascinated by this really impressionistic way of portraying things. The Tao is basically a bunch of poems and vignettes and together they make something a lot bigger because they’re not confined by a strict architecture.
The quotes I put in the book are basically by writers who have influenced me the most. Rumi, Rilke — I also like Toni Morrison a lot and Augusten Burroughs, who wrote Running with Scissors. I liked how completely honest he was and how he wasn’t afraid to show himself in very bad states. It also encouraged me to be a bit humorous in my writing. I wouldn’t call it a work of humor, but some places were funny, I think.
HA: What is it to write a memoir at such a young age?
MNT: Yeah, it is weird. When I tell people that I’m writing a memoir, they’re like, “You’re too young to write a memoir.” That’s why I kind of don’t want to call this a memoir, because it’s not about my “life.” I haven’t been through the typical things people in their sixties write about. I’m not famous, I’m not blah. The reason I wanted to write this in the first place is that I felt I had a story. The fact that it’s based on my experiences is why it has to be categorized as a memoir. But I’m really just trying to paint a picture. It’s more like “a story from a real person.”
HA: “The Washing Room II” is preceded by a Morrison quotation. Can you read it?
MNT: It’s from The Bluest Eye. The quote is very dreamy; it describes how I felt after I walked out of the Advocate building; at a point of recovery from something that still lingers.
Sunk in the grass of an empty lot on a spring Saturday, I split the stems of milkweed and thought about ants and peach pits and death, and where the world went when I closed my eyes.
HA: Where can one purchase your book?
MNT: (Laughter) If you’re friends with me, you can email me and ask. You can also get it from the Harvard Book Store and order it online. Kindle versions will be available … at some point. (Laughter) By the end of November.