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January 4th, 2024 - Phong Nguyen

January 4, 2014


Ten years ago, I was thirty-five years old, the age of Dante in The Inferno, an age which he called “midway through the journey of life.” I had just completed the first draft of my first novel, The Adventures of Joe Harper, which took its protagonist from Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and its structure from The Inferno and began with a thirty-five-year-old Joe Harper wandering the Missouri woods at night. The moment when I had completed the draft, I slammed my hand on the table and stood up in the middle of the coffee shop. It felt a bit like swishing a half-court shot on the basketball court when the crowd was all turned the other way.


Marguerite Yourcenar referred to the years between childhood and old age as “a vain commotion, an empty agitation, an unnecessary chaos,” and even though I am still within those years now, when I look back at my thirty-five-year-old self I can grasp how small and strange my current strivings will appear from the vantage of history.




January 4, 2014


It’s a winter Saturday, and I am preparing a talk for the book release of Pages from the Textbook of Alternate History, my second story collection, which will be launched at the Kansas City Public Library on Tuesday the 7th. I send myself an email of the talk, which is full of overwrought explanations about how alternate history stories are, by definition, not factual accounts. I worry that some poor soul will be confused at the very idea of counterfactual history, so I anticipate challenges that might arise in the Q&A, and create a sort of decision-tree for potential responses. I tread lightly when it comes to a story of mine called “Einstein Saves Hiroshima,” which is a not-so-thinly veiled call for peace in a nuclear age, because I am hyper-aware of living in Truman country, where rationalizations of the use of nuclear weapons on a hundred thousand innocent civilians abound.


I am hunched over the laptop, a familiar posture on weekday mornings when I compose my fiction; but my upper back protests a bit because it expected a break on the weekend. I lift my neck into an attempt at good posture. Thomas Harris said, “Problem-solving is hunting. It is savage pleasure and we are born to it.” My crooked back, then, is a casualty of the hunt.




January 4, 2014


I’m in the best shape I’ve ever been in, perhaps the only time in my life that I’ve been at the recommended weight for my height, 167 pounds and 5’9”. I’m still in my mid-thirties, however, and my attempts at hipness are a bit forced: torn jeans, tight black shirt, a beaded choker. I can’t help but feel good about the way I look, and that vanity alarms me because I know its underside is self-loathing when the mirror inevitably reflects back something less healthful and youthful and spry.


Marjane Satrapi said that “Anything that has a relationship with pleasure, we reject it. Eating, they talk about cholesterol; making love, they talk about AIDS; you talk about smoking, they talk about cancer. It's a very sick society that rejects pleasure.” This is what is left unsaid: that life consists of trading one pleasure for another. If I take pleasure in a cheesecake, my pleasure in my body might be diminished. Pleasure isn’t infinite; it’s bartered.




January 4, 2014


It is three weeks away from Burns Supper, and I have recently taken on the responsibility of performing the “Tam O’Shanter,” a 228-line poem by Robert Burns, for a gathering of new friends in Springfield, Missouri. Every year since then, I’ve heard this about my recitation: “it gets better every year.” Therefore if I play these performances in reverse, it is a deterioration from the snappy delivery with which I will employ the Scots dialect in the year 2024; so that my 2014 performance is likely a muddle of missed lines and awkward pauses, made worse by the liquor sloshing about in my gut, but it feels good because there is nothing else to compare it to.


Strangely, memorizing the “Tam O’Shanter” has become a family activity. My son and my cousin have committed it to memory, and I learned later that my grandfather used to host a Burns Supper at his home in Whitewater, Wisconsin. It is perhaps particularly strange given how ethnically diverse we are that so many in my family have decided to celebrate the Scottish in our heritage in this way.


My brother will visit, and he will join me for the first time at this Burns Supper gathering. In the background of the photo below, you can see between us copies of Pages from the Textbook of Alternate History, which was just released.


Despite being the most celebrated poet in all of Scotland, Robert Burns lived and died in poverty. Known as the “ploughman poet,” he represented the everyman despite his extraordinary genius. According to Mark Twain in Innocents Abroad, soon after Robert Burns died, when they laid the foundation of his memorial in Edinburgh, his mother Agnes Broun was said to have visited the site. She looked at the foundation, then looked toward the sky and said, “Ah, Robbie, ye asked them for bread and they hae gi'en ye a stane.

Left, Nam Nguyen. Right, Phong Nguyen. Photo Credit: Sarah Nguyen


Phong Nguyen is the author of BRONZE DRUM (a Book of the Month Club Selection for August 2022 and one of NPR's Best Books of the Year for 2022), and four other books. He currently serves as the Miller Family Endowed Chair in Literature and Writing at the University of Missouri.

He encourages you to learn more about the Human Rights Watch, which helps expose abuses and secure rights around the world.


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