This interview has been edited for length and clarity by Xfinity.
Singer/songwriter Thao Nguyen, of Thao & The Get Down Stay Down, first picked up a guitar at age 12. She began performing in a pop country duo in high school and spent most of her 20s touring. Her music has been described by The New Yorker as “music that makes you move from your bones out-it’s keenly intelligent and original.” Her album, “A Man Alive”, was voted one of the best albums of 2016 by NPR listeners and Paste Magazine. She’s performed all over the world, including at Lincoln Center’s Out of Doors concert in New York’s Damrosch Park last December. Rolling Stone describes her as a “Shape-shifting singer that expands horizons to dazzling effect.”
A new documentary about her journey to Vietnam with her mother premieres on PBS stations starting in September. “Nobody Dies“, a Center for Asian American Media-funded documentary directed by Todd Krolczyk follows Thao and her mother as they visit Vietnam, a first for both: Thao’s first time in the country and her mother’s first time since the Vietnam War. As Thao explores the country of her parents, she experiences a deeper understanding of the cultural influences that shaped her family, the impact it had on her music and her relationship with her mother.
Thao answers some questions about being a part of the documentary, her trip to Vietnam, and her influences.
The documentary centers around you bringing your mom with you to Vietnam. Why did you feel compelled to go there, and specifically to go with her?
Thao Nguyen: My parents are Vietnamese refugees. I was born and raised in Virginia. Growing up it wasn’t an option for us to travel to Vietnam, for many reasons. In college, my interest in my family and my heritage heightened. I knew that I wanted to see Vietnam, and I knew that I wanted for the first time I saw Vietnam be with my mom, as it would be her first time seeing her home country since she’d left in 1973. I also knew that she worked so hard and so much that it would be impossible for her to close up shop to make that trip with me until she retired. Quite, fortunately, our band was invited to play in Vietnam at a time when she was retired and able to join us.
Looking back on the trip, was it life-changing?
TN: Yes, it was absolutely life-changing. I grew up in Virginia with a bent toward assimilation. It was hard for me to acknowledge or embody pride in where my family came from, and I internalized a certain kind of shame and reluctance around my ethnicity. Going on a trip to Vietnam with my mom was in many ways a culmination of a years-long, ever-expanding embrace of who I come from. At the same time, this trip marks a vital benchmark in my ongoing love and effort to learn about and appreciate my family’s history.
I was so happy I was able to take my mom on this trip. I met the family I didn’t know I had, she saw family she never thought she’d see again. It was such a joy to see her traveling, to see her in Vietnam. I wasn’t sure this trip would ever happen. It did bring us closer together, I believe we’ve come to know each other better.
As a second generation Vietnamese American, how do you think the war in Vietnam impacts you today?
TN: I believe in the inherited trauma of war. I think there’s a lot of weight to absorb when you are raised by people whose lives were upended, who had to flee to live. I cannot imagine how lonely and scary it was to start a life in a bracingly different country and language. It’s difficult for me to acknowledge the indignities and humiliations great and small, some of which I witnessed, some of which I suspect they endured, of being new and Asian in America. It’s hard for a kid to ask her parents about their history when she suspects it is at times incredibly painful.
As I talk about in the film, my father was very volatile and difficult to reach and he oppressed our home in many ways. I think so much of what he could not express, and so much of what he did express, was a product of the trauma of war, of fighting for his country and for losing his country. I wonder of course what else he lost. My brother and I grew up not asking a lot of questions. In many ways, it felt not only uncomfortable but perhaps unfair to ask our parents to revisit all they endured. But just because you don’t talk about it doesn’t mean your life and the life of your kids will not be informed by it.
All of this unspoken influence of the war in Vietnam has compelled me to learn more about it, to read firsthand Vietnamese accounts, to watch films, to ask questions, to really engage with the war and what it meant for my family, to re-visit its backdrop presence in my childhood and bring it to the fore and look at it. When I go home now I try to ask my relatives more direct questions about the war, I try to remember stories my grandmother would tell.
On a sweeter bittersweet note, I look back with great tenderness and nostalgia for all the gathering my parents had in our home, with friends who were fellow Vietnamese refugees. I remember them singing old songs and ruefully laughing and immersed in a such a thick nostalgic bond, that kind of bond does not seem to come from anything else besides making it through a war and reuniting on the other side.
Your music is very powerful and raw. Can you tell us about your artistic inspirations?
TN: I am most inspired by people who do not wait to fight for what is just, people who do not wait to make what they want to make, and the short stories and novels of my favorite authors.
Why do you choose to work that you’ve done—for example, volunteering with women in prison?
TN: I’m a very proud member of the California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP), based in San Francisco. I joined about six years ago. I’ve always been involved in women’s empowerment and advocacy work, and the support of survivors of domestic violence in particular. I think I’m drawn to this kind of work because of what I saw growing up.
Working with CCWP taught me that so many people in women’s prisons are there as survivors of domestic violence, that they are in prison for defending themselves against their abusers. That was what initially drew me to CCWP. Once you witness and contribute to this kind of organizing, led by people in and outside of prison, once you see how people care and fight for one another, against abuses of city and state and federal power, it is so inspiring and clarifying. I’m so grateful for everyone I’ve met and from whom I’ve learned so much about humanity and I will always be a part of this community.
I’m also very proud to have worked with Oxfam America for over a decade. They fight passionately and respectfully to eradicate poverty on a global scale. They make concerted efforts to assist the women who are the primary food providers the world over. As my mom’s kid, I have unbreakable bonds to the unmatched strength of the woman as the sole provider.
I thought your honesty and how revealing you are with your emotions was very refreshing. Did it take a while for you to be open like that?
TN: Oh, I am still working on it. It’s not necessarily about knowing you want to be emotionally open and more expansive than how you were raised and trying to get there, it’s figuring out if you even want to be that open and revealing. It is much easier for me to be vulnerable onstage and in my songwriting because I can still limit and curate to my comfort. I didn’t mean to be so forthcoming in the documentary. When we were shooting the interviews I was just overwhelmed with the gravity of the setting and the occasion. I was meeting family I didn’t know I had, seeing where my parents were from, seeing the country they had loved but had lost.I couldn’t help showing what it brought up regarding both my parents. If I could have tightened it up I would have. And honestly, when I was in the throes of emotion I was still reasoning that the footage probably wouldn’t be used. And when I saw it was in the film I definitely tried to get it cut. Also, my family doesn’t know how emotional and open I am in the film and I can tell you I don’t think they’ll be thrilled but at least we probably won’t talk about it.
You talk about your painful relationship with your father. Do you see music or art as healing? How did you, or do you, deal with past trauma?
TN: I do see music and art as healing, and I’m so grateful for these outlets because there have been so many times in my life wherein they were the only ways to better understanding and ease of pain. It is an ongoing process to for me, in many ways this thing, in particular, is a bit of an open wound and I’m not sure what salve and when.
Why did you agree to have a camera follow you on your journey to Vietnam, and what do you think of the documentary, now that it’s completed?
TN: Todd is a great old friend of mine, he made our first music video over a decade ago. I really trust his eyes, ears, instincts, and filmmaking and was so glad he wanted to document such an important and historic trip for my mom and me and our family. And I was so glad to be playing these shows with my band and thought it would be a fun tour documentation as well.
Todd and I agreed from early on that the film would be shaped and principled as a tribute piece to my mother. I have so much love and gratitude for her and everything she’s done for my brother and myself. Our life together has been defined more by hardship and work. So much of what you know about your mom is how she is in relation to you, what she does and sacrifices for you. My entire childhood and adolescence I’d only seen her cooking, cleaning, putting up with my dad’s bullshit, washing our clothes, or running a laundromat, washing strangers’ clothes.
I’ve always loved hearing about her life before the war, about her rising career in the South Vietnamese State Department, about all of her travels, and her old boyfriends. At the same time, those stories reminded me of the life she’d lost and they brought me great sadness. It was incredible to journey back to a place where she could tap more directly into that history and channel it into real-time life and vibrant and swagger. I loved seeing her shine. I love that her present-day joy is so well documented. I will treasure this portrait of her forever.
What do you hope people will get out of watching the documentary about you?
TN: I hope as they are watching they come to see that it’s less about me and more of a love letter and tribute to my mom and her family and our heritage. I also see the film as a gracious nod to the U.S. policies that allowed my parents safe harbor in 1975. I hope this film can be a part of the conversations humanizing refugees in America, that in sharing our family’s story we show what it can mean to be a refugee, what it can mean to be the child of refugees, what lives can be built, what culture and art can be developed, bridged, and contributed when people who must leave their homes are given a place to land.
This Q&A is cross-published from the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM), a nonprofit organization dedicated to presenting stories that convey the richness and diversity of Asian American experiences to the broadest audience possible. CAAM does this by funding, producing, distributing and exhibiting works in film, television and digital media.
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