Vaan Nguyen has been described as “a veritable juggler of Hebrew,” a poet whose work radically remixes world classics and pop culture, the personal and the political, past and present. Born in 1982 in Israel to refugees of the Vietnam War, Nguyen’s debut collection, The Truffle Eye, addresses questions of identity and cultural legacy from what she has described as “points of emotion and shock.” Her poems travel far and wide, between Tel Aviv and Hanoi, taking in views of Manhattan, Paris, Milan, Salzburg, Pasadena and more. Through these movements, Nguyen reflects on how our lives take shape in the daily migrations we make between lovers, family, work, and the places we call home.
When The Truffle Eye (Ein ha-kmehin), first came out in Israel in 2008 (an expanded version in 2013), Nguyen was hailed as a “phenomenon — a poet whose first book positions her at the center of Israeli poetry.” In 2005, she appeared in the film, “The Journey of Vaan Nguyen” (2005) by Duki Dror, which documents the trip she and her father took to Vietnam to try to reclaim their confiscated land and property. As an actress and host, she has appeared in several other films and television programs, and she has also worked as a journalist and columnist. She began writing at age nine, and her work has been published in numerous mainstream and literary outlets.
Adriana X. Jacobs is the author of Strange Cocktail: Translation and the Making of Modern Hebrew Poetry (University of Michigan Press, 2018). Her translations have appeared in various print and online journals, including Gulf Coast, Seedings, World Literature Today, Poetry International, The Ilanot Review, and in the collection Women’s Hebrew Poetry on American Shores: Poems by Anne Kleiman and Annabelle Farmelant (Wayne State UP, 2016). She is associate professor of modern Hebrew literature at the University of Oxford.
The Truffle Eye
The Truffle Eye
Translated from Hebrew by Adriana X. Jacobs
120 pages | Bilingual (Hebrew & English)
Listen here to Diane Khoi Nguyen reading "Mekong River" from The Truffle Eye from the 92Y's "Read By" series (February 2021). The poem is at about 13:38 in the reading.
Vaan Nguyen’s electric poems of lust, longing, and detachment are both quintessentially Tel Aviv and entirely her own. Elegantly introduced and translated by Adriana X. Jacobs, this collection offers the English-language reader an essential window into the true and often surprisingly multilingual and multiethnic diversity of contemporary Israeli poetry—as it brings Nguyen’s linguistic journey from her family’s native Vietnamese to her native Hebrew all the way to the shores of English.
Jacobs thoroughly explains her spirited translation decisions, like rendering the ubiquitous Hebrew word mushlam—perfect—as “great” and then as “gr8” to capture the feel of internet slang. That choice also mimics the spunky irreverence of Nguyen’s Hebrew, which splits the word mushlam into syllables on several lines and stretches it with the insertion of English letters, numbers, and exclamation marks. In English as well as Hebrew, it all feels like perfectly natural language for a poet who originally made her name with a blog, and then moved to claim a unique perch in contemporary Israel’s vibrant and multi-layered poetry culture.
- Aviya Kushner, The Grammar of God (Spiegel & Grau) and Wolf Lamb Bomb (Orison Books)
In this explosively frank collection, Vaan Nguyen tunes her microscope to the textures and terrains of intimate spaces: between lovers and ex-lovers, travelers in lands both foreign and familiar, the individual self alone with a mind that can’t help but see the world through interstices. Here is a visionary moving along the edge of reality and its surreal offerings: where the flora and fauna of natural world intersects with the tensions of women and men. Only through a truffle eye, wounded or intact, can the world be revealed as “A bubble / of dying butterflies,” “A dick list / Wiped clean,” with “A bat cutting across the sky / Underneath, a bourgeois enemy on a mattress.” Nguyen's speaker moves through these visions with bold vulnerability, as if the speaker is daring the world to make its next move. “Look at me, I'm a routine,” Nguyen writes, and she’s right, though the truth is tongue-in-cheek: Nguyen’s lyrical routine is nothing short of exquisite, full of verve, full of nails.
- Diana Khoi Nguyen, Ghost Of (Omnidawn)