“Imagine yourself as someone who’s valuable for more than your pain”: An interview with Larissa Pham
Updated: Oct 21, 2022
“I had come here, after all. I’d seen and talked and found my way without anyone to witness me or love me or hold my hand, and emerged triumphant in my loneliness, a pink flower against pink clouds. Nothing had come out of the sky to strike me down. I was still standing, and I could still feel.”
- Larissa Pham, “On Being Alone”
Larissa Pham’s Pop Song calls out to you directly. With clear-eyed and lyrical prose, the essays in this collection trace the indelible lines that music, art, literature, and our relationships make on us: James Blake, Agnes Martin, Roland Barthes. Her travels are just as wide-ranging as her objects of study, from the distant blue of the Arizona horizon to the fluorescent yellow of the Shanghai skyline. Over Zoom, we talked to Pham about waiting to write, the politics of pain, art marked by effort, and her forthcoming novel.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Austin Nguyen: Something I love about your dedication (“If you’ve ever sung along to a song on the radio, this is for you”) is that it brings to mind how public vulnerability is—that any act of vulnerability implies being made openly and willingly susceptible to an external threat. What did you do to cultivate the space and energy to engage in vulnerability while writing Pop Song, and how, if at all, have those practices changed in the last year?
Larissa Pham: I wrote this book during the pandemic, in deep isolation. My roommate, Clare, who’s mentioned in the book, gave me this really cute sticky note pad. It was shaped like a panda. I stuck two of them on my desk; one said “It's okay to be vulnerable” and the other one said something like, “If you’re afraid people are going to get mad at you, you might as well do it, because they’re already mad at you.” I had these reminders on my desktop way back in January or February.
I wanted to write a book that took the form of a contract between writer and reader. In an online essay, your words can easily be taken out of context—you have headlines, you have a little pull quote and screenshots and whatnot, and it’s hard to make sure that someone reads the whole thing. But I was thinking about all these books that had inspired me, and there are things to these books in these pages—that you have to open and look at and hold with your hands. That allows for a real kind of vulnerability and just goes really hard emotionally. I said to myself, I’m going to write this book that asks the reader to take it as seriously as I’m taking it and asks the reader to read with a real generosity. I really just want to meet the reader exactly where they are. And I think people have met my book with a lot of generosity and good faith and I feel really, really grateful for that.
Mishal Imaan Syed: In Pop Song, you talk extensively about your experiences with photography, both recreationally and in art school. You discuss how photography looks like an objective, honest evaluation of the subject but is still a construction at heart—it tells a story, gives us a narrative. Memoir seems to work similarly as a medium. How do you navigate the space between representation and construction of reality, both in art and in writing—how do you achieve that balance?
LP: I think the way I navigated that in this book—which is a little different from navigating this issue in fiction—is that I was really aware of what it means to write something down, what it means to use language. What it means to distill a relationship and fence it into something that has narrative. And not in the scripted, sculpted sense of narrative, but in a way where you start at the beginning, and you end at the end.
When you read a sentence, your eyes are encountering it from beginning to end, so no matter how hard you try you’re always going to put something in a container. And so the book is pretty meta in that way. There are a lot of sections about writing, about thinking, about myth-making, the image of the relationship and these experiences that I was building as I was living and writing them.
And there’s this one review that was really astute and they mentioned that, at times, it seems like I’m really frustrated with language, which points to that: All these things are constructions—only one other person knows what happened in this book, and that’s the person I write about. Other than that, everything I’m presenting is crafted in the best way I can. I have to acknowledge that it’s crafted, it’s a made object.
MS: The second section of Pop Song is titled “Blue.” You mention that blue ties into your desire to “run,” to find the “distant blue place…[you] had been seeking.” This section reminded me of Maggie Nelson’s Bluets and Joan Didion’s Blue Nights. As an artist, for you, what about this color evokes the desire to escape, to find open space for the practice of writing—in this case, in New Mexico?
LP: It was really serendipitous; every text and every piece of art mentioned in the book is something that I did encounter around the time that I was experiencing those things, or as I was writing.
If you’ve never been to New Mexico before, first of all, I really recommend it. There are these really beautiful canyons. The landscape goes on for a really, really long time, and it goes on for so long that the mountains in the distance—they do look blue and they look purple. And the red of the dirt and the creamy color of the mesas and the stripes of the mountain and the layers and striations. The colors bounce off each other, so that blue becomes brighter and more potent.
I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, and there’s a lot of big landscape there, too, and the mountains in the distance are always blue. And reading Rebecca Solnit and her relationship to that color, which is set in San Francisco—that’s the feeling. Like I always want to be there with the blue; I’m standing here and I point to there, and I want it to still be blue when I get there, but it’s never going to be that way. Blue is a very spectral, mysterious color—it doesn’t occur that often in nature. There is something strange and mystical about it. That doesn’t necessarily happen with other colors. Blue isn’t the only color I’m obsessed with, but it’s the only color that I had an essay about in this book.
I actually had another essay about the color orange, and I ended up cutting because it was a little too happy. But part of it is in the Paris Review. So you can find it there.
MS: Something that strikes me in your essays is your contemplation of memory and narration. In “Body of Work,” you mention that, as you narrate your life (as writers do), “the story begins to overtake the impressions of memory.” You say that you need to keep diaries to “pull a sieve through the disorganized world.” How do you keep the raw material of your memories separate from your narration? What distinguishes memory from story, and what alterations do you make, if any?
LP: During my “Body of Work” era, I was on Tumblr and writing about life very quickly after the moment, like coming home from a party after being out all night, and I’d immediately go write a blog post about it. So my writing from that period is very raw and fresh—it has a certain tenor to it that I don’t really feel as attracted to right now. At the time, a lot of those things were happening for the first time. Now, I’m old and jaded, and the things that are special to me about the night are different.
I think the biggest change is that I don’t write about everything right away. I might have a sense that something is important, and the little camera goes off in my brain saying, “Remember this. This is going to be an essay one day,” instead of going home and immediately writing about it. I’ve actually tried to do that less. And the raw material you see there—I do keep a pretty organized archive of my life; I don’t delete emails; I don’t delete text conversations; I don’t delete contacts. I pay for cloud storage and I have a billion photos on my phone. So I have a pretty encyclopedic knowledge of when everything happens and what was said or what I saw. And I know all those things are constructions.
When I was writing the sections from Shanghai, for example, I referred to my archive a lot. I also refer to Google Maps to figure out exactly where exactly was I, how far did I walk to fact-check my own experience. I think narrative-making is a really important process; as a writer, that’s all I do. But also psychologically, there’s a lot of power and agency in crafting your own narrative. There’s also power in realizing you can do it more than once.
AN: How does that tie into your beliefs about revision and revision process?
LP: I’m still learning to revise, to be honest. A lot of the text you see in Pop Song is exactly how it looked when it first came out of my hand, though that doesn’t mean I didn't revise parts. I believe in revision on a structural level—like if you have to add a section, you have to move things around. Which is related to figuring out what something needs and figuring out what you want to say. Once you’ve cleared out the mess of what you want to say, you can begin to lay it down. For me, that’s always come very quickly; once I know what I want to say, all the sentences point in that direction. So if I have trouble writing something, it’s because I don’t know what I want to say. So revision, for me, is an ongoing process that’s tied very deeply to the structure of the piece; it’s impossible for it to be a surface level thing.
MS: In “Body of Work,” you say that beauty isn’t solely found in suffering (the acquisition of a bruise) but in knowing that you’ve endured. Lately, I’ve been struggling with personal questions about the perceived necessity of suffering in an artist’s life. How do you address the question of whether suffering is necessary to produce legitimate art?
LP: I don't think it's necessary at all. But the question that essay seeks to grapple with is that it’s rare to meet someone who hasn’t suffered. And it feels so good to be able to articulate that suffering and have someone hear you, to say. “I believe you, I believe that you’re hurting.” And then you’re like, oh, it feels so good to say that I hurt. But what do you say after you’re done saying you hurt?
I think that’s a really important question, especially for writers of color and writers with marginalized identities. So often, we’re asked to reflect our pain writing and make it legible and understandable to others. It can be a reifying structure where you find yourself bouncing around in a room of pain. And so what happens when you open the door? For me, that’s where my intellectual life began, where my literary life began, where my formal questions began. What can you think when you allow yourself to think and to imagine yourself as someone who’s valuable for more than just your pain? And what does that mean for you?
So I don’t think great art necessitates suffering. People see suffering as a way to legitimize things. I do think that most narrative requires conflict, and I think it’s interesting to think about forms of conflict and forms of narrative/plot that don’t really have to do with suffering and pain as we so broadly think of it. It’s a chicken and egg thing.
MS: In the section titled “Haunted,” you talk about feeling “saturated with other people’s traumas” and their constant media representation. I’ve often felt the same way, and I’ve tried to strike a balance between addressing the need to write about trauma while trying to avoid sensationalizing it or making trauma my defining characteristic as a writer. How do you acknowledge the fact that trauma, our own and otherwise, shapes us while creating a sense of self that exists beyond it?
LP: For me it always boils down to this question of specificity. Trauma, in the broad-strokes way we encounter it in most contemporary narratives, is pretty flattening; there are certain scripts about what that looks like for people, how it looks for people. But if you think about the granularity of a life, that is so specific and particular; everyone is more than the worst thing that’s happened to them. When we choose to work through these events, whether that’s in an essay or fiction, as I’m doing now, thinking about what is that granular specificity that makes it a story about a person and not a story about an event. And that, to me, is a distinguishing factor. I do think it’s worth exploring—for better or for worse, it’s become a topic that I return to over and over. I wouldn’t say that we shouldn’t write about trauma, but I think the way we go about it is significant.
MS: In “Crush,” you mention that you like to observe art in which you can see the artist’s effort on the page—you discuss Kusama’s infinity nets, viewed close up, and the “coiled emotion” and passion inherent in each brushstroke. In other words, you value art that makes its labor (and, by extension, the artist's connection to it) visible, as opposed to a piece of art that seems effortless, a product of genius. Why do you think you value so-called "labored" art—is it a way of re-centering the human connection that a piece of art has under capitalistic commodification? How does this tie into your socialist worldview?
LP: Ooh, I like that take—it’s not something I would have put all the pieces together that way myself, but I like that. I don’t know if I see it in terms of labor specifically. But I do find myself very drawn to artists who make these crazy drawings. There’s this artist I follow on Instagram; her name is Frances Waite. She does these huge pencil drawings—huge, the size of a wall, and they’re super detailed. You can tell she’s really going in and working that surface with care. If we’re going to draw an analogy, if the canvas is like a body or like skin, I do think—and I have a painting background—when you treat a surface, when you make a mark, that’s care. When I see someone treating a surface with care and I can see their hand evident in it, I feel so connected to the work of art. Because I know what it’s like to prepare a canvas, I know what it’s like to stretch something, I know what it’s like to paint just to make a stroke. So I feel very close to that, and that means a lot to me. And I’ve drawn, so I know what it’s like to make marks with a pencil.
Which is why I’m left feeling very cold with artists like Lucio Fontana, who just slashes the canvas. Conceptually, I get it. But I always have a soft spot for seeing the hand of the artist, and I think it’s because your hand is connected to your brain. And I really like conceptual art as well, and I love Jenny Holzer, I clearly don’t hate things that are fabricated either. But fabrication to me is just a different affective experience than seeing something that was made by hand, whether that’s a person’s hand or a studio assistant. But what you’re saying is definitely applicable—you know, like Jeff Koons. His work is like, what can I fabricate and how big can I make it?
AN: Being a writer is not a clearly defined path, which has been causing uncertainty for me, and it seems that you, too, weren't quite sure how to trust your creativity initially. In "On Running," you say, "I’d already dropped out of chemistry, then genetics, abandoning meticulously typed-up lab reports for paintbrushes and glass palettes in the studio on Chapel." What does being a "writer" and "artist" in general mean to you, and what did it take for you to feel comfortable with those labels? How do you approach the uncertainty inherent in being a writer and artist?
LP: It’s funny because I have “artist and writer” in my bio, and no one has called me out on it, even though I haven’t really shown much work since 2019—which is, I think, the last time I was in a show. If you can think of something as a practice, you should call yourself an artist because you have to practice. If there’s something you’re iterating towards, exploring, interested in, that is art making. I don’t think you need a show at a gallery or be published to think of yourself as an artist or a writer.
That being said, sometimes I don’t think of myself as an artist or writer. It’s one of those things where the goalposts are always changing. My first publication was in 2014, so it’s been almost 10 years, and I still have trouble saying I write for a living. When I published Fantasian, I was like, okay, I’m an author, but I didn’t really feel like one.
When Pop Song came out, I was like, “Now, I’m an author, but I still don’t know if I feel like one. I still don’t have a novel out.” I just know if I have a novel out, it’s just going to be one thing after another that makes me feel like I’m not supposed to be here. So I don’t know if it’s super helpful to think of myself as a particular title—it’s more like, is there something in the work that I keep returning to? Are there questions I still haven’t answered and things that I still want to say? And I think if there comes a day when I don’t have any more questions and I don’t have anything else to say, then I won’t be a writer/artist anymore. But as long as there’s something in the work that pulls me back, that’s the most important thing. The work is what matters most. And I do say work to combine both practices—the craft of making something.
MIS: You return to the image of the door multiple times throughout Pop Song, and in an interview with BOMB, you talked about your artistic allusions as “doors that [readers] could go through.” Can you talk a little more about your writing as a way of finding and opening doors, and perhaps how that gains a new resonance as the world itself opens back up, regardless of the state of the pandemic?
LP: I’m a humble girl from Oregon—I learned so much through books, and it was like a chain reaction. I’d read about something: I’m in Powell's (setting the scene), I’m the main character, listening to music, and I’d pick up a book, and maybe it’s poetry or some classicist like Ovid’s Metamorphoses. And from there it’s just hop-skip-jumping around. I really owe so much of my aesthetic and literary sensibility to references from books. That’s how I learned about the world. There’s no one in my life who sat me down and was like, “Here are all the things you should read, here’s how to become a person who knows about culture.” I’ve always appreciated reading a book where someone’s telling me about something else. That’s why I love Kate Zambreno, who is always talking about other artists, other writers. That’s why I like Moyra Davey, Trisha Low’s book Socialist Realism. All these books where people are just talking about what it is they’re looking at. We’re not vacuums in the world. If there’s a piece of art that can help me explain how I feel, I’d rather use that as a way to come up with a sentence. So that’s the door you’re asking about—wayfinding, avenues for research, avenues for being interested in.
I hope when people read this book, they’re like, “Oh, I’m so interested, I want to take a class in black-and-white photography.” And I just love the door metaphor.
AN: In “What we say without saying,” you recall, “When I was younger, I used to sing around the house when I was happy—I imagined my voice cascading in a ripple down the stairs.” What did your house sound like growing up, and was there anything in particular that drew you to music in general (not necessarily to write)?
LP: My house was always full of beautiful, extremely loud immigrant family yelling up and down the stairs to each other. I was conscribed into piano lessons at a young age,never really took to it, did play piano all through high school, but I was never good at it, never really liked it, and never enjoyed it. But I really loved music from a pretty young age—like pop music, the things young people listen to. I grew up in Portland, Oregon, and there’s a pretty good indie music scene here. So I started getting really into local music and local bands, like Starfucker. And going to shows was a way of getting out of the house and spending time with my friends and meeting new people—so that became very foundational.
Music was also just an early site of identity formation. It was a place where you have your headphones, you go in your room, you listen to Explosions in the Sky, you have a bunch of feelings, you go to school and tell all your friends about it. It’s such a private, rich interior experience that has a wonderful subculture about it that, in retrospect, it makes a lot of sense that I was so into music as a child.
MS: Pop Song is primarily about love and trauma, the changes that come with them, but there are moments that more explicitly nod towards your experience as a Vietnamese American woman. From “Blue”: “I’ve always been aware of what my existence means, that my presence here—wherever here might be—is the result of an absence somewhere else.” From “On Being Alone”: “I knew that even Vietnam—a country I’d always longed to live in—would never be the home for me that it had been for my parents.” How has writing your novel (the one you’re currently working on, not Pop Song) converged with these ideas of identity and home?
LP: You know, It’s been a really cathartic experience. I’ve been writing a historical fiction novel inspired by a family, which is something I never thought I’d do. I never thought I’d write historical fiction, and suddenly I’m out here on JSTOR trying to figure out some really specific historical details.
But I think it has helped me feel closer to my family and what they experienced. And there’s such a gulf between generations, especially in families that have had this refugee experience. My life is just unimaginably different from that of my parents. There are a lot of ways in which I’m deeply lucky and have not suffered at all.
But there’s also that diasporic wound that doesn't really go away. So I think, by trying to embody and inhabit some of the political and life questions I think my parents and grandparents would have faced, that’s one way of knowing and trying to understand them. Also trying to articulate the weirdness of these intergenerational relationships has been therapeutic. Because it’s just naming and describing, and description itself can be a gift in healing, a healing thing. It’s like that Maggie Nelson quote. But sometimes, articulation is all we have, just to say this is how it feels can be enough or can be something.
AN: As you continue and finish up your novel, what music has guided you?
LP: I wish I were finishing up the novel; I’m not. I’m a little over halfway, I’d say. When someone asks you if you’ve read a book, you just can’t think of a single one. I’ve been listening to Bibio, been listening to Four Tet, this weird Japanese jazz playlist I found on YouTube. I’ve been going for nostalgia and emotional music—so like Sufjan Stevens, Kina Grannis, real tearjerkers like Iron & Wine—or it’s been really ambient, techno-y sad—sort of like Oneohtrix Point Never type stuff. I have to get into a trance-like, state in order to write. This is really full trance meditative mode.
Larissa Pham is an artist and writer in Brooklyn. Born in Portland, Oregon, she studied painting and art history at Yale University. She has written essays and criticism for the Paris Review Daily, The Nation, Art in America, Guernica, and elsewhere. She was an inaugural Yi Dae Up fellowship recipient from the Jack Jones Literary Arts Retreat. She is also the author of Fantasian, a novella.
Austin Nguyen is a third-year English and psychology double major whose writing has appeared in The Rumpus, Electric Literature, Ploughshares, among other publications. He loves ignoring his emails and is busy trying to make his wardrobe gayer.
Mishal Imaan Syed is a third-year studying English and creative writing. She is the recipient of the Clara Rusk Hastings scholarship and the May Merrill Miller award for creative writing. In her free time, she fluffs her hair, daydreams, and plays classical piano.