Phuong Phan interviewing Nhung Dinh on her book: "Vagina Talks: Queer and Sexuality Lexicon"
I first met Nhung Dinh in Berlin a few years ago. At this time, we were introduced by a mutual friend, as Nhung was in town to participate in a workshop on gender equality organized by Missy Magazine. Since then, I’ve been following her artistic work which includes performances, workshops and initiation of conversations about gender equality in Vietnamese contemporary arts. I also get to know her as an educator and activists through the many projects which deal with the issues of LGBTIQ+ communities in Vietnam. Nhung’s many projects share the same energetic spirit that is contagious and inspiring. Her body of work has contributed to raising an awareness of gender and gender equality in Vietnam.
Nhung Dinh, a Thai Binh-born, Hanoi based researcher, educator, artist and activist who is known for her Bàn Lộn (Vagina Talks) workshop series in 2018. The workshops invited people to talk openly about vagina and vulva – terms that remained taboo in Vietnamese society today. Since then, it has transformed into a community that “reverses the conversation about cunt in the Vietnamese language” and “encourages all people, regardless of their sexuality, gender, age, married status to draw and talk about what they think about cunt and what cunt means to them”. Nhung Dinh uses language to break rules, taboos and social boundaries, and works as an educator in the areas of sexuality, sexual deliberation and empowerment, aspects that are reflected in all of her work.
For this matter, I visited Nhung in her brand-new studio in Ngọc Lâm, Hanoi which she inhabits with a friend, two playful dogs, and two very attentive cats. Nhung and I talked about the new book she recently published with her friends and colleagues. Chỉ Bàn Lộn, a 534 pages lexicon of queer and sexuality in Vietnam was launched in last September. We discussed how the idea for this lexicon has developed through the years, a continuum of her other works in the past. Nhung Dinh also shares with me her thoughts about how vulgar language, and curses can be an inspiration and empowerment for people who have little power in society.
Phuong Phan (PP): It’s wonderful to sit here in your studio, Nhung.
Recently, you launched the second volume of Chỉ Bàn Lộn, an encyclopedia on queer and sexuality in Vietnam. I know this book is very important to you personally and to the queer community in Vietnam. But let us start our conversation first with the role of language, especially the means of vulgar language for you personally.
Nhung Dinh (ND): Many people who don’t know my work well usually think I jump from one thing to another. But there is a common thread in my work over the last twelve years. My work mostly deals with themes of sexuality, gender, and expression. Particularly, I’m interested in the expression of the self, the expression of one own’s interest in everyday life.
I started out by working on a four-year research project for an NGO in Hanoi. We were investigating the everyday lives of queer people in Vietnam in 2009. This project inspired me to look at this issue from different angles. For example, I looked at the representation and expression of queerness in literature, visual arts, music and even personal stories. In other words, anything that had to do with queer piqued my interest. I wanted to record everything that had to do with queerness.
Over the last six years, I have collected many objects and stories from queer people I’ve met. In 2015, I had a chance to bring all the collected materials into a show called “The Cabinet Exhibition” which took place at the Vietnam University of Fine Arts. However, after working for international and Vietnamese NGOs, I realized that most research do not pay much attention to the role of language, especially vulgar language.
In the interviews we conducted for the research, our interviewees used a lot of vulgar words and curses. But for some reason, these words were never been printed or presented by researchers at conferences or in any academic reports or journals. I remember a colleague telling me that vulgar language sounds “crude”.
Additionally, if readers read vulgar language in our papers, they would have passed judgement on the queer community which already experiences discrimination on a daily basis, he told me. At the time, I was talking to a lot of curators because I was looking for vulgarity in visual arts and languages. Actually, I was looking for something poetic in vulgar language which was rejected or even denied by some linguists or so-called experts.
PP: In Vietnam, home education vulgar language or foul words are completely forbidden. Until today, vulgar words still represent a lack of good manners and education. There is also the aspect of gender inequality and class differentiation in the practice of vulgar language. I feel that every boy and every man in Vietnam uses vulgar expressions. But girls and women are kept away from using the same words. We are not allowed to use them because they are associated with a lack of courteousness. People believe that the use of vulgar words affects the personality of a woman. Using vulgar words is political and touches upon questions of power. Who gets to swear and use vulgar language?
But what is the poetic thing about vulgar language for you? Why are you interested in vulgar language at all?
ND: I think my interest in vulgar language began with my daily experience of sexual harassment. I was so frustrated that I knew so little of vulgar words, especially when being slandered by men. Vietnamese culture and the role of women are strongly influenced by Confucianism. Women are not allowed to express themselves in a vulgar manner otherwise they would be considered impertinent (không ngoan). But I think, when women were cornered, they could fight back and use vulgar words as their weapons.
I was in a situation which is kind of a ‘grab’em pussy’ that Trump uses. At this moment, I wanted to say something hurtful to the man who slandered me but I didn’t have the right words to do so. Obviously, because of our physical conditions, I could not stand up to him. He was physically stronger than me. I just stood there, shaking with anger, but could do nothing. I think I said something like “you imbecile” or you “lowbrow” to him. But “lowbrow” or “imbecile” wasn’t hurtful enough, as if a mosquito had just lightly touched his elbow. He grinned at me and rode off on his motorcycle. That was the moment when I realized that my orthodox academic training didn’t give me the skills and words to deal with this kind of situation.
When I met queer friends, I noticed that people who experience discrimination on a daily basis, who don’t belong to an orthodox system, and who work in the sex industry, have a very rich repertoire of vulgar words. The language they use is a kind of weapon to fight back. To them, language is also a sense of belonging to their communities, a reaction and action at the same time. When I hear people say that vulgar language is not poetic but bad language, I want to create a space for this “bad language” to exist on their own rights and to seize the power of these words.
PP: As I know, you have collected a lot of these “bad words” and curses during the years. These words are expressions of freedom and deliberation for you. But how did you orchestrate these words together in this meaningful encyclopedia – Can you take us back to the time when the idea first emerged?
ND: I think I initially collected these words instinctively without knowing what to do with them. In 2015, I met Stevie Anntonym, author of Lesbian Lexicon who inspired me to work on the first volume of Chỉ Bàn Lộn which was published in 2018. The first volume is the size of a passport and mainly contains translation into English of the Vietnamese terms used by queer communities. When I finished this book, I felt like it was missing a soul. I knew immediately that I wanted to go beyond translation.
PP: When I look at the first volume, it appears to me like some kind of manual, handbook or glossary of words. In contrast, the second volume takes the shape of a space for people to express themselves in many ways.
ND: Exactly. For the second volume I approached the subject differently. I started looking at the words in their context and in conversations with others, without giving them a fixed translation into English terms or a fixed definition.
I also want to invite readers to be in conversation with others for the sake of a better understanding of the words. There are also specific sections describing a particular context in which these words are used. Readers would immediately understand their meaning by understanding the context and the setting.
Four years have passed since the publication of the first volume. Our society has changed very quickly. Today, I think the audience is more open, especially young people who are more open about taboos and sexuality than their parents or grandparents. They are also very creative in using language to talk about sex and sexual desires. Actually, this generation of young people inspired me to take a new approach in this volume. Here, I wanted to give a perspective on how to look at queerness rather than a definition of what queerness is.
I also want to show that the term “queer” is completely fluid. In the encyclopedia, there are many words that are used not only in the context of the queer community, but also in other communities of heterosexuals.
PP: Words come from different milieus and are used by determined socially classified people. Now, we read and find these words presented here that obviously belong to certain communities. Conceptually speaking, do you think we are facing cultural appropriation in this lexicon?
ND: I received the terms from different people. I also don’t want to focus only on one group in the society. I have participated in many forums to get a deeper understanding of the terms. I personally think that it is not easy for you to acquire the terms because they only have meaning when used by certain people.
For example, I learned the term “National Day” from some prostitutes. When they use this expression, it means that they cannot work on that day because they are having their period (red). So in a month, they have several days which are as red as National Day when red banners and red flags are visible vividly everywhere. People also get their official holiday. This day has become a metaphor for their inability to work. So I think the words or expressions have their meaning only when they are used by the creators of the words.
PP: I think we both agree that words have their own history. I understand you to have wanted to trace the history of certain “bad words” to show how the social contexts in which these words are embedded have changed over time. In my opinion, many words cannot be translated because they are culturally embedded in a system and social milieus. Actually, I like the fact that certain concepts or words cannot be translated or explained with other words. I even like the idea that there are words that are only used and understood by certain communities. It reflects the potential of creating multiple spaces through words.
ND: At the beginning, I did not realize that the volume would be almost 600 pages long. During its creation, I received many contributions and suggestions from friends and colleagues or people I happened to meet. I began to realize that translation was not possible. If you translate every word or the situation and context of the words, the charm (duyên) and the poetry of the words are lost. Therefore, I wanted to focus only on the Vietnamese language without giving an English translation.
And regarding the spaces that you mentioned, you are right. For example, certain sexual practices no longer have to do with queer people, but are also practiced by straight people. Certain spaces or activities that were considered to belong to gay communities are no longer just for gay people.
Practices and terms have changed over time and have become collectively owned by queer and non-queer communities. Depending on how open you are, it doesn’t matter if you are queer or not. For the encyclopedia, I also wanted to work with a more diverse community in terms of age, sexual orientation and preference for sexual practices. I invited people to contribute with their essays and drawings as visual accompaniment to the words presented here. It’s a collaboration of like-minded people, so to speak.
PP: I see the collective spirit shining through in this volume. It is also reflected in the design and the concept of the encyclopedia. For example, I do not see your name as the author or editor of this book. Your name appears among other contributors. Do you see your role here mainly as the initiator of conversations and a collector of ideas and stories rather than insisting on the authorship of the book?
ND: Definitely, I don’t want to fix my role in this volume. The knowledge that is presented here is made collectively. I tried to avoid hierarchies, and I don’t want to put myself in the role of a judge.
PP: Talking about difficulties, I’m genuinely curious about how this volume came about regarding the production and distribution of the book?
ND: One difficulty is funding. This volume was not funded by NGO’s although I got many good resonances from them. Still, the format does not fit within the framework of NGOs currently working in Hanoi. The lexicon is a hybrid of feminist and queer approaches among many others. There are many other reasons why this book could not be funded in an orthodox way. It was literally born with the blood and soul of many people.
In retrospect, I think it was not the most difficult thing I went through in this project. The difficulties of printing both volumes reflect well the general problems of printing and publishing in Vietnam. If we had had less strict regulations on printing and publishing, we could have launched a funding campaign to finance the project.
In fact, I took the inspiration from strict regulations in Vietnam and applied them to my own practices as the “author” of this volume. In particular, I invited people to contribute without giving them any strict regulations or guidelines on how they should do their work. The volume literally refuses any form of censorship from my side as an initiator.
PP: This volume also makes great demands on the reader. It doesn’t just present to you as words but requires a certain effort and knowledge to understand them. It demands a high degree of sensibility from readers. Also, the terms you collect are constantly changing and evolving by the communities that use them. Somehow, I feel that you are literally expanding the general understanding of a dictionary or an encyclopedia, which usually has mainly the character of explanations.
At its core, Chỉ bàn lộn means first of all to discuss but it also implies a continued transformation of word meanings through discussion. It is also an anthology of neologized words that reflects the current development in queer and non-queer communities in terms of their sexual orientation and understanding of sex and sexuality.
ND: Certain words have only recently been developed by communities. There are words that have been created in recent years by transgender sex workers.
They have created new words to communicate with each other without arousing too much curiosity from outsiders. These words are mainly used in the South of Vietnam. Hence, some words are regional in nature. However, the communities have brought these words into being. The words in turn also need their communities to become meaningful. Actually, I am not calling this volume mainly a queer lexicon. I urge readers to be open-minded and interactive with the volume. There is also a puzzle which I invite readers to engage with by doing their own research on sexual organs and finding the right words for the puzzles.
PP: As you mentioned earlier, the lexicon also addresses young generations in Vietnam. Which role does social media play in the entire process of the project? I assumed we would gain more words and expressions through the possibilities and language of social media such as icons, emojis, etc. as well as the language of social media.
ND: I think the power of social media is significant in this volume. The realization of this project happened also during the Covid-19 within a strict social distance. Without the internet and social media, this book would not have come into being. I met people in workshops but I also discovered many new concepts of terms through remote research on the internet.
Secondly, as you can see, some terms emerged through the keyboards when writing English terms with Vietnamese keyboards. For example, the combination of the prefix porno, por on a Vietnamese keyboard automatically becomes pỏn. So if you try to write porn with the Vietnamese keyboard you will get pỏn. The word became an index for pornography. The same for the term queer, it becomes quể for queer people.
Actually, the words came by “accidents”, by changing the language on the keyboards of the phones. It’s a hybrid of many things, a process of languages which in turn reflects the impact of globalization on the Z generation growing up in the digital age. There are many other ways people play with words and the pronunciation of English terms in their native Vietnamese. Combining the pronunciation of s and x in the term bisexual, this term can stand for bisexual people, but also for someone who no longer has a sexual orientation.
PP: This process looks to me like a creolization of languages – an emergence of new cultures and languages brought about by interactions and encounters between societies and relocated people. I also see the joy and pleasure that shine through in the examples in the lexicon. This joy and pleasure of playing with words become their strategy of making space and become visible in their own way. In fact, a shift in language takes place that turns the notion of class on its head. They have taken vulgar words and curses to another level that is very sophisticated and requires a lot of knowledge and imagination.
ND: Exactly, they take their power by creating new words and using them in certain ways that others don’t immediately understand. This process is exactly their space.
on the examples in the lexicon. This pleasure and joy of playing with words become their strategy of space making and become visible in their own rights. Actually, there is a shifting in language which turns the concept of class upside down. They have put vulgar words and curses to another level which is very challenging and requires a lot of knowledge and the capacity to imagine.
ND: Exactly, they take over their power by creating new words, using them in certain ways other people won’t understand immediately. This process is exactly their space that they claim.
Phuong Phan is an art historian, independent researcher and curator based in Hanoi and Berlin. She is interested in the history and formation of Southeast Asia as well as the conflicts sparked by the War in Vietnam. In her curatorial and research works, Phuong aims to explore how artists respond to socio-political and cultural transformation in this region.
Nhung Dinh is an artist and activist who has been working for many years in the intersection of politics, community education and the arts. She is the founder of Vagina Talks – an education project that raises awareness about gender equality and sexuality. Nhung lives and works in Hanoi.
The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of Heinrich Böll Stiftung.
This article is a part of web-dossier "Vietnam in Motion", a collaboration between Phuong Phan and Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung Southeast Asia Regional Office.