Summer Writing Resident Thuy Dinh: Schrödinger Catwalk, or A Tour in Opposites
Thuy Dinh is the third writer of the summer 2020 cohort to spend her week onsite participating in our local residency program at Northern Virginia's Woodlawn & Pope-Leighey House and Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture. Our summer writers-in-residence focus their weeks on-site exploring ways to rediscover and re-purpose place and place histories, and use writing as a means to build community, to bring awareness to critical social and environmental issues, and as a creative force of empowerment.
Read more about Thuy's experience onsite below. You can find more information about Woodlawn and all of our summer residents here.
Photo Credit: Khai Dolinh
Schrödinger Catwalk, or A Tour in Opposites
I structure my impressions of Woodlawn and Pope-Leighey House as a visual journey, starting with the entrance toward Woodlawn, then simultaneously reaching the two structures on the Woodlawn Estate. One, a Georgian mansion designed by William Thornton, was built in 1803 for George Washington’s adopted granddaughter, Eleanor Parke Custis Lewis, and her husband, Lawrence Lewis. The other, a Usonian home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, was built in 1941 for journalist Loren Pope and his wife, Charlotte.
In reality, one should visit each place sequentially, on separate days, so seemingly divergent are the buildings’ architectural styles and respective histories. They also stand at two opposite ends of the estate. In my imagination, however, I can visit both places at the same time, comparing, contrasting, and synthesizing them in ways that respond to my own history, inherent dualities, literary experience, and other influences. In this sense, my reconstruction of Woodlawn and Pope-Leighey House can be read as a series of exercises to embrace contradictions and circumvent borders.
Ritual Purification in a Pandemic
Covid-19 has impacted this year’s writers-in-residence program. The above is what I call the purification station at the entrance walkway toward Woodlawn Mansion.
Islamic culture practices Wuḍūʾ, ritual purification done in preparation for formal prayers. The current pandemic requires that we stand six feet apart, sanitize, and mask ourselves whenever we share space with other bodies. I like to think of these requirements not as barriers but daily lessons guiding our lives toward a more conscious, thoughtful interaction with others. In the old days before cell phones, the Zen master Thích Nhất Hạnh had the three-rings-before-answering-your-phone advice, so a person could prepare his mind before interacting with any caller. Maybe pandemic barriers are like editing tools for writers: process before articulation.
Architecturally, the term hyphen is the connecting link between a main building and an outlying wing, typically found in eighteenth-century Georgian mansions.
A hyphen can symbolize both inclusion and exclusion, for it was the passageway slaves used to reach the heart of a plantation home where they needed to perform household tasks, but where they did not belong and often were not seen.
A hyphen aspires to neutralize opposing forces. A hyphen is the center. A hyphen symbolizes marriage. A hyphen thrives in ambiguity and silence. A hyphen is irresolute, lacking integrity. A hyphen doesn’t have a hymen.
A hyphen is a far-flung colony connected to an imperial center. Applied to a person, it can be a stalemate or an alliance between selves. The Chicago Manual of Style and AP Stylebook have eschewed the hyphen, for it was “regarded by some as suggestive of bias.” Identity descriptive terms such as African American, Arab American, Asian American, Hispanic American, are now written without hyphens. Is it because a hyphen reinforces the insidious nineteenth-century notion of “separate but equal”?
Blueprint, Life Map, or Stories of Your Life
A newborn comes into the world with a blueprint, and is further shaped by the topography of her environment. In Vietnamese culture, a child, on the cusp of puberty, could be shown her life map.
Like most Asian tween girls growing up in the 1970s, I considered Bruce Lee my god and eternal love interest. Fed a steady Saturday-matinee stream of Hong Kong martial arts films, we dreamed of being limber, fleet-footed wushu rebels and Bruce Lee’s fighting partners, who answered to no law but our own inner sense of justice, honor, and beauty.
On my twelfth birthday, my parents told me it was time for me to see my life map. In Vietnam, many parents, after the birth of a child, would consult a reputed fortune teller to have this person create an astrology chart, or map, of the newborn based on the time of his or her birth. The fortune teller would then do an analysis based on the parents’ birthdates and other family members’ to see if the child might receive emotional support, or face conflicts, in relation to his/her social environment. This life map would consider natural elements—fire, earth, wood, metal, and water—and zodiac animals that represent the time, date, and year, of the child’s birth. For example, a child born under the sign of earth in the year of the buffalo would get along well with a parent or relative born under the sign of metal in the year of the goat, since earth nourishes metal and a goat, being a farm animal, would get along with another farm animal like the buffalo.
Anyhow, I was excited and couldn’t wait for my parents to go over my life map with me.
But what a letdown! The map supposedly representing my life from birth to death was a wrinkled scrap of paper with smudgy writing and a lopsided yin and yang symbol. My mom gave me a gnomic, fortune-cookie summation of my destiny, “Your life answers to tradition. You build within the four frames.”
I read this prediction to mean that I wouldn’t grow up to be a wushu rebel, but instead a stodgy, unimaginative person—maybe an accountant—who would live her life within the four corners of balance sheets and tax receipts.
Can a prediction become a self-fulfilling prophecy? Is your fate in life predetermined? It depends on how broadly, or narrowly, one reads any prediction.
South Vietnam fell four months after I turned thirteen. After a stint in a California refugee camp, our family resettled in Northern Virginia in May 1975, where I have lived to this day.
In my adopted country, I earned an honors bachelor’s degree in French and English literature and a law degree, both from the University of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson’s legacy. Bruce Lee has now been dead for nearly fifty years. From aspiring wushu rebel, I have morphed into a Washington, DC legal bureaucrat. And anyone reading my resume wouldn’t be faulted for thinking I fit the typical model minority profile. It seems the fortune teller’s prediction has, in a sense, come true.
In my profession, a legal construction can be read to reside “within the four corners” of an existing contract, or not, depending on the circumstances. In life, depending on the circumstances means the exit out of ’Nam, like the lyrics in Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem”: There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in ….
Like most refugees, I contain shadow universes beneath my daytime disguise. Translation means to carry over another world. A refugee self is a translated as well as translating self. She’s also many other things metaphorically: a shapeshifter, acrobat, surgeon, double spy, pilgrim, and architect of found material. Language, the articulated Frankenstein body of subjugation and defiance, can be a flexible tool that a refugee employs to answer to tradition.
In the early to mid-1980s, when I studied literature at UVA, very few literary works by writers of color were being taught. Lack of representation naturally prompted me to insert my point of view into the canon. This idea of resistance dialogue seems especially relevant now, when during my weeklong residency I have had the chance to absorb the stories of Woodlawn and Pope-Leighey House. The buildings, testaments to historical preservation efforts, still make me think of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias”:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair! Nothing beside remains. Round the decay Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare The lone and level sands stretch far away. But I read the poem in a hopeful spirit. The demise of one order allows other forces to emerge. Descendants of the once-invisible slaves at Woodlawn Mansion can now introduce colors, textually and contextually, into the house. Are the intersecting planes of the Pope-Leighey House more progressive than the architectural hyphens at Woodlawn Mansion that used to enforce the slaves’ invisibility? I see Woodlawn and Pope-Leighey House, while divergent in form, as being in continuous dialogue with each other, and each also in conversation with itself. Meaningful dialogues, unlike empires or regimes, open up borders, acknowledge outlier viewpoints, harmonize, and renew the world.
Are meaningful dialogues twenty-first-century hyphens?
Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hallways and Antebellum Butler’s Mirror
Corridors and hallways designed by Frank Lloyd Wright tend to be narrow, not much wider than a person’s width. Seemingly reenacting Plato’s allegory of the cave, the labyrinthine corridors would force Wright’s inhabitants to go outside to experience nature. In contrast, a butler’s convex mirror in a plantation home perpetuated hierarchy and ensured the slaves’ indoors invisibility. The mirror enabled the hostess or her assignee to see the flow of service from the hyphen wings to the main dining room, while keeping servers invisible from the gaze of attending guests.
Are Wright’s Platonic hallways more egalitarian than Woodlawn Mansion’s god-like eye? I think Wright’s vision is also tyrannical.
In the essay “A Testimony to Beauty,” describing her experience living in the Pope-Leighey House, Majorie Leighey wrote, “The need for more storage space is felt almost to desperation.... [A]n attempt is made to reduce possessions. The lawn mower [sic], however, is still out where the rain may harm it, and the ham boiler and turkey roaster still have to be climbed over as they rest on the very small kitchen floor. Guests for any one dinner are limited to two or at most four, because where can dishes for a proper dinner be put, in either kitchen or dining room?”* Mrs. Leighey’s frustration can be translated as: Does a male architect think of a woman’s needs when he designs a home? Wright’s aesthetic philosophy, like the butler’s mirror, edits reality. The ascetic elegance of his homes demand as many layers of choreographed labor as those seen and unseen at a lavish antebellum banquet.
Call Me by Your Name
The arrangement pictured above is by Hadiya Williams, as part of “Layers,” a permanent installation in the dining room at Woodlawn Mansion. The names on the paper in the tray belonged to the slaves at Woodlawn. But did these names belong to them, or in fact possess them? Many of these names recalled their masters’ and mistresses’: Calvert, Dandridge, John, Eliza, Frances, Lawrence, Martha, Nelly. It was as if each member of the Lewis household had a shadow doppelganger that shared his or her name. In 1820, when someone called out a name like Lawrence or Nelly, who answered? Would it have been confusing, or worse, a cruel irony, for a master and a slave to share the same name? Or did the first owners of Woodlawn see it as a sign of affection to bestow their personal names on their chattels? It reminds me of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go, in which “carers” were clones created solely to serve their original versions.
Wright’s Cantilevered Roof
Over seventeen years of living in her house, Marjorie Leighey learned there was a blurred distinction between “the sky and the ceiling above my head.”** She eloquently expressed the duality of Wright’s cantilevered roof—it symbolizes both sky and earth. It exalts but also oppresses—the winged heaviness of Wright’s signature roof is a reminder of one’s mortality: “The love for the land is part of why Mr. Wright used the horizontal line as much as he did here, and even the cantilevers, were up in the air. They are horizontal, and that horizontality again puts your roots in the ground. Mr. Wright felt...that we never knew ourselves until we knew that’s where we came from.”***
One day on the Woodlawn Estate, I followed a dragonfly and snapped its picture. I read somewhere that a dragonfly’s life lasts only a day, thus it’s considered a symbol of impermanence in Asian iconography. But the dragonfly’s seemingly fragile black and white form, against the greenness of the Virginia landscape, evoked this beautiful tension between the transient and the cyclical—the way nations and historical buildings evolve with time, due to subsequent uses by different groups of inhabitants.
And who is to say that an eighty-year-old building, like the Pope-Leighey House (that was dismantled and transplanted from its original site in Falls Church to Woodlawn Plantation in its twenty-fourth year), or a two-hundred-year-old house, like the Woodlawn Mansion (that has been rebuilt and repaired many times), is not on the same existential plane as a one-day dragonfly? Age is relative, depending on the circumstances, subject to interpretation. Many refugees change their birthdates, names, and reinvent their lives in their new environments. And death, like the loss of home or a country, can—with time—bring in a new chapter.
This is an abridged version of what Thuy composed during her residency. For the full text, click here.
* Steven M. Reiss, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Pope-Leighey House (University of Virginia: 2014), Appendix B, p. 150. (Mrs. Leighey’s essay was originally published in The Pope-Leighey House (The National Trust for Historic Preservation: 1969, ed. Terry B. Morton.)
** Reiss, p. 84.
Photo credit: All photos, with the exception of the wushu rebel image, are by Thuy Dinh.
Thúy Đinh is a writer, critic, literary translator, and co-editor of the online Vietnamese literary magazine Da Màu (Multitude). Her fiction, essays, and translations have appeared in Unbroken Journal, NBCThink, NPR Books, Rain Taxi, Shelf-Awareness, Prairie Schooner, Asymptote, among others. She was a finalist for The Asia Literary Review’s 2018 Essay Competition, and non-fiction scholar at the 2017 Virginia Quarterly Review Writers’ Conference.
Thúy has lived in the Washington D.C. Metro Area since 1975, shortly after her family fled Saigon, South Vietnam, near the end of the Vietnam War. Informed by her refugee experience, she has engaged in media, literary, and translation projects related to historical preservation, education and community outreach.
Follow Thuy on Instagram at @tdinh62