In Conversation with Nay Saysourinho
By Lois Payne and Katharine Yacovone, with additional reporting by Annie Agathopoulou
‘Writing is a lens more than a thing you do,’ Nay Saysourinho says, through a video screen.
We are sitting behind our screens in England and Greece as she talks to us from her house on the outskirts of New Haven, Connecticut. It’s daylight for her, dark out for us. Before we begin, she checks her video for any evidence of her kids, something familiar in the digital world of the Covid-19 pandemic. We see a little intimate square of her life through our laptops as she sees a little square of ours. Soon we’re talking about her path into writing.
‘My writing journey was actually pretty untraditional because I started writing three years ago.’
For someone who is relatively new to writing, Saysourinho’s achievements are impressive, including publications in journals like Ploughshares Blog and Kenyon Review, as well as fellowships and scholarships from Tin House, One Story Magazine, MacDowell, and Yale. Born in Canada, and writing in both English and French, Saysourinho is a literary critic and visual artist as well as an accomplished writer. She has recently finished writing her first novel, a modern fairy tale set in southeast Asia.
‘I think I always prefer fairy tales,’ she says. ‘I found a way that works for me, that satisfies me on the literary level, but also on the level of pleasure.’
She tells us a bit more about her writing journey, how she went from working as a contractor for the Canadian government to being a stay-at-home mother, and now to this.
‘I’ve always wanted to write, but I always avoided it. Because I was told that’s not a career choice. That’s a hobby.’
Though she may not have been writing for the majority of her life, it’s clear she’s always been a writer, and of course, always a reader. She adds, ‘Writing was always something I did in my head.’ Once she got over the initial hesitation, she started taking creative writing courses, focusing on the craft.
‘I started writing when I was thirty-seven, so I probably had a lot of stories to pull from.’ She laughs and adds, ‘Yeah, I had a very wild life. So, stories abound.’
Saysourinho attributes her preparedness for a late entrance to the literary community to her Quebecois and Lao culture. As a daughter of Lao refugees, Saysourinho speaks about the tight storytelling skills, the back and forth that she learned from her ancestors.
‘I think the reason I write the way I do, and that I was able to find a voice very quickly, was because of my culture. It’s an oral-based culture. So we don’t have a tradition of writing novels.’ She adds, ‘It’s a work of curation because memory is not something that you have an infinite amount of.’
In her opinion, this type of oral culture is similar to the act of gossip. ‘You have to condense it into something that is transferable,’ she says. ‘The mechanism of gossip is: If you bear with me in the next twenty minutes, I’m going to make it worth your while.’
Saysourinho’s condensed style, packed with vibrant layered detail, is clear in her letter for The Letters Page. We begin to discuss her submission, which she wrote at the beginning of the pandemic. The piece, framed as an email apologising for an essay extension, has a stream-of-consciousness style, a sense of vulnerability, and a confessionalism that is unique to the letter form. The piece slips seamlessly from professional dialogue to abstract poetic language as seen through lines such as, ‘Watch as I return my whale bones to the ocean, where they were stolen from. Watch me learn how to breathe on my own.’
‘If I was gonna submit a letter that was artistically true to my sense of letter writing,’ Saysourinho explains, then it would have to be uncensored and disorderly and show guilt.’
By this, she is referring to her ‘complicated feelings about [her] writing.’ She talks about how ‘serious’ writers like Hemingway and Fitzgerald — after whom contemporary writers are often modelled — cause her to feel a sense of impostors syndrome about writing that bleeds through at the core of this letter.
‘And it’s very hard, I think, to fight against that part of yourself who wants to be taken seriously, as a writer, especially as a woman of colour, or a woman, or a young woman. You know, because there’s a performance of desirability, and you wonder what you have to do to be desirable, to be published, to be seen, to be respected.’
‘Desirability was crucial in the formation of the ‘model minority’ concept, in that if you wanted to be accepted in the white community and feel safe, you needed to assimilate, and out-perform arbitrary markers of whiteness. But this was never true.’
As Saysourinho discusses this, she becomes emotional. She mentions the increasing violence towards Asian communities, causing many Asian Americans to feel unsafe in their daily lives. This growing disrespect and racism towards the shared Asian American identity must play a role in Saysourinho’s fight to be authentic and uncensored in her letter.
She goes on to mention writing letters to her friends, so we ask Saysourinho what appeals to her about that form of correspondence, as opposed to emails or texts.
‘I find letter writing very intimate,’ she responds. ‘It is something that it is harder for me to hide behind.’
She tells us that one reason she enjoys it is because of her love of stickers. With an eager smile she holds up a clear, plastic box to the camera. ‘I have to show you,’ she says, ‘This is my box of stickers. I put stickers on all my letters like I’m twelve years old.’
She goes on to say that one of the benefits of writing a letter is that it ‘removes urgency. I feel like with a text or email you’re required to almost give an update of all these things that in the end don’t really matter.’
She also loves to see the handwriting of her friends and think about the decision-making that has gone into the process. While she notes that the pandemic has brought out a greater emphasis on the ‘minutiae’ of daily life, Saysourinho admits, ‘I don’t want to text my friends ten times per day’, and prefers to ‘focus on the longer arc’ of her friendships. Ultimately she thinks, ‘It’s a great gift to send someone a letter. Letter writing is here to stay. I don’t think people will ever want to give up on it.’
Finally, when we ask if she has any tips for aspiring writers, Saysourinho is hesitant to respond at first. In her reluctance to give out specific advice about ‘theory’ or ‘finding an agent’, her humility as an author shines through. When she does respond, it is a passionate and encouraging message about writing in general, holding the sentiment of the sky’s the limit at its core.
‘If you don’t enjoy what you’re writing about, how can you convince me to read it?’, she asks. ‘If it sounds like it’s a chore to write it, that’s going to come across.’
‘Writing and editing can be tedious, of course, and the subject difficult or painful. But there must be a sense of wanting to bring people along with you, to see what you see, the way you see it. That’s what exhilarating about writing. We don’t write alone. We write with people by our side, always. The lone genius thing, it’s not real.’
For Saysourinho, passion and pleasure are vital aspects of compelling storytelling. She stresses the importance of pursuing writing topics that interest and bring joy, rather than getting discouraged by what ‘academia’ and ‘the literary circle’ deem intellectually serious enough.
‘You know, the things that you enjoy have value. You should never let anyone say that they’re unserious or frivolous.’
Nay Saysourinho’s piece, ‘Letter to Ellen’, appears in The Letters Page’s recent newsletter publication, Vol. 5 #10. Subscribe to the newsletter here.