Excellence ~ Thanhha Lai

(Editor’s note: Every year, Concordia College hosts the National Book Awards on Campus program. As part of that program, winners and finalists of the National Book Award give a talk to a lunch group of first year students and various faculty on the theme of academic excellence. Thanhha Lai won the 2011 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.  This is her talk.)

Good afternoon. I’m honored to be here.
So I’m to talk about excellence. But I must tell you, I’ve spent the last two decades trying my best not to think about excellence. The word itself, with its triple layer of hissy sounds, is annoying enough. Add to that its actual meaning: to be shiny, better, best, to strive, to be more, more, more, all that exhausts me. Then pile on top the connotations: inner drive, outside expectations, all-around judgments, infinite game of pitching this against that, and ultimately I just want to curl up like a pill bug and protect myself.

Because it took me so long to get published, twenty years in fact, I’m better qualified today to talk about what happens when you’re not so amazing, when you try and try but for whatever reason you are rolling among the unseen, the unheard, the seemingly clueless, the ultimate dreamers. I entered this realm of non-excellence innocently enough. Trust me, with my refugee background, with a made-of-iron mother who never asked but somehow conveyed that if she had a doctor or two, some engineers, maybe a lawyer among her children–those would be lovely paybacks after a lifetime of war, I would never have chosen to be lackluster by choice. I descended into this region simply because I wanted to craft sentences.

But we’ll come back to the sentences. First, let me tell you that I stared out shiny enough. Got straight As because to achieve academic excellence all I had to do was study. I knew how to do that. Acquiring English took more effort, but it wasn’t impossible. Then I went to college, majored in journalism in the years before the newspaper crash, got a job. I thought I was set for life.

Then one day, right around the time when I was assigned yet another nonstory, this one about what people were doing instead of watching fireworks on the fourth of July, I came across a book that essentially started the meltdown of my shininess.

It was this text, The Tale of Kieu by Nguyen Du, Vietnam’s most famous epic written in 6-syllable/8-syllable couplets, which my mother has been reciting from memory all my life. I would like to offer Huynh Sanh Thong all the peonies in the world for his translation.

So I began a still on-going reading project. Even now, the VNese lines are so impossible to decipher I can only handle a few couplets a day. I’m so grateful to have VNese as my mother tongue because while the fluid translation conveys the meaning, the lovely echoes of words and images remain locked in the original language.

But, here’s the thing, as soon as I began absorbing and molding these couplets into my being, I began to tire of chasing down the latest fatality and murder and calendar news stories. I developed this maddening need to craft sentences. I didn’t dare dream of couplets, but I thought I might have enough ability to create sentences that would rise to that level of Nguyen Du’s exact wording and images. Inevitably, those sentences ended up in my newspaper copy. My editor, exasperated from explaining yet again why the way the leaves fluttered on a branch was unnecessary in a lead about the dead body found underneath the tree, gave me this advice: “Do not compare an animate object to an inanimate object.”
But all over The Tale of Kieu were images of eyebrows curving like willow leaves, of voices that sang like jade, of reeds waving as if to taunt us. Instantly I knew I had to quit.

Back then I was still in the habit of telling my family the truth. As soon as I said, “So I quit,” my mother’s living room filled with tongue-clicks, chic chic chic, my family’s unanimous signal for hardy disapproval. I repeated, “Did you hear what the editor said? She said you cannot compare an animate to an inanimate object!!!”

There were at least three exclamation points at the end of that sentence, but all my family heard was the rip of a shiny life.

So where do you hide when you yearn to craft sentences but no one is paying you? Graduate school, of course. Not in writing, that was still too scary, but in literature. What mother can fault a child for wanting a Ph.D.? So I read beautiful novels but mostly I read critiques of those novels. Then one day my professor told me, “The criticism is more important than the text itself.”

Instantly I knew I had to quit. By now, I had gotten a bit savvier about my family. I didn’t tell them anything. And they didn’t ask.

So what do you do to get by while you’re wrestling with images and rearranging syntax and no one is paying you? Let me just say there’s never a shortage of tables waiting for someone to come by and say, “What will it be today?”
So I wrote short stories and got published and was accepted to an MFA program. By now my family no longer applied the shiny requirement to me. It was enough that I never asked them for money or listed them as emergency contacts.  With an MFA, I landed an adjunct position teaching the equivalent of freshman composition. Ah, adjunct teaching, where you can look sort of shiny on paper but have to proofread overnight to eat.

And I began a novel. I kept telling myself, if my mother can put nine children on a ship and head to a new land, then surely I can write a novel and have it be not embarrassing. So I tried and tried. Years passed. I wrote and wrote. Still, the novel went around and around.

Disgusted, I just stopped writing. Watched lots of movies, went to the gym, lunched with friends. But after a while I could predict most lines in a movie, the allure of rock-hard arms faded, and my friends were all whining about their novels. All the while I kept reading. I never considered giving up reading. And inevitably one day I picked up The Tale of Kieu again. How can I read “Con tam den thac van con vung to,” meaning a silkworm at death still emits silk, an homage to eternal love, how can I read that and not want to craft something of my own?

I returned to writing. Fifteen years later, after finally relinquishing the convoluted novel, I began a much more manageable project that would get published and recognized. So I must say I do feel shiny again.

So I win the National Book Award, it means what? It means as I start my next novel I’m right back to not knowing. I feel exactly like I did when I started Inside Out. Can I get the voice right? How can I convey characters and push along plot and develop a world effortlessly within the first few pages? No amount of shininess for a past work is going to help me with this one.

But I’m not as nervous this time because I know that excellence doesn’t last. It’s better for me to let go of that goal and sink, sink all the way to nothingness because it’s there that I can begin to rebuild again.

The truth is everyone struggles, no matter if you have won a prize or are trying to get published. Everyone struggles. But the opposite is also true: everyone is rewarded. You don’t have to be shiny to be rewarded with brief moments of peace. So for all the writers out there, know this, if you write long enough, and take it seriously enough, there will be a moment when everything clicks. This moment does not happen often, for anyone, so enjoy it. It’s like having dark chocolate melt and linger on the back of your tongue, don’t chew it, let it float on your taste buds, then glide down your throat and pass into your chest cavity and intestines and hips and groin and thighs, and then calves and ankles, feel that moment at your heels, spreading out to your toes, hold on to it because soon it will disappear. By some universal law, doubt and anxiety and boredom will return. But it returns to everyone, shiny or not. So while you are lucky enough to be inside this time of clarity, savor it, because while it might not lead you to a permanent realm of excellence, it does bestow upon you a taste of why you write. And that, for me, is enough, and for as long as chocolate lingers on my tongue, it is excellent.