A Mouth Holds Many Things: On the Magic of Hybrid Writing

I am walking along a shoreline.
A shoreline is a place, a geography,
where two elements—water and sand—meet.
We call this place of meeting a line,
but it is also the continual erasing
of line. How water writes, erases, rewrites.
Its own delineation of: the encounter.
The shape of how these two realms meet a constant
Inconstant. Fluctuation of.
Demarcation. Is it water’s tendency to-
ward a constant inconstancy that insists on this
snaking of lineage—this lineal snaking?
Is it water the agent of erasure, even: self-
erasure? Or is it the sand’s nature—of both
yield and subsume—
that refuses, resists, the holding
of line? Resists inheritance of the notion
line makes record? Surely we know
sand is an unreliable canvas. Is ambiguity of
canvas. A mutable, shift ing substance of
page that does not wish to be page.
Together sand and water conspire.
Repeatedly evolving and eroding
the writing of their own betweens—
which is to say:
what is a boundary?
But a temporality of attempt.
At holding anything. (All writing begins as boundary.)
I am walking along
a shoreline. Line that refuses
lineal nature.

I begin here, with this image and attempt to send text across the page evocative of the shape of water, because this is how the hybrid journey begins for me: a realization of the transmutability, the very tenuousness, of boundaries that separate, that supposedly demarcate realms otherwise as distinct as ocean and land. My own arrival into the realm of hybrid writing was, like this tracing of a shoreline, not a direct, not a fixed or predictable path. Here are the facts: I had written and published two books of fiction—the genre that had thus far identified me as a literary author; I had, since my early 20s, also been writing songs on the side; I had an undergraduate background, a naive once-ambition, in filmmaking. I was trying to write what I believed might be another novel, a long-form book. But, images wanted to invade, and a straightforward throughline, characters with character arcs, plot, all those conventional narrative devices, continued to evade me. Instead, interiority and some esoteric, intuitive rhythm wanted to lead—an inner music vying to come through. I was aware of an elliptical nature, an unwieldy energy, at the subtle-beating heart, or twisted gut, of the story I was seeking to tell, that kept balking, digressing askew of the more normative, straight-paved roads expected of a “novel” or “memoir.” The story I was seeking to tell had to do with Vietnam, with my own mixed-cultural family and parental legacies, with the usual diaspora and refugee lineages of war and exodus and inherited traumas, but for whatever reason I could not wrangle those lines—in my case, thorny vines—into a shape that was a legible or “traditional” enough format to be sellable. (“Not to belabor the point, but if you would just write in a more traditional format,” my New York literary agent had once said to me.) But it was not that I was not trying; it was not even that I was trying, intentionally, to be difficult or experimental—it was just that as a writer I am limited: I could not lie, I could not pretend, I could not but follow the impulse of the art itself through which, in truth, I was wrestling with ghosts—and ghosts do not respect walls nor the notion of voicing through a single or same body, consistently.

And so, something in the work kept twisting—defying shape, container, resolution, or closure; the book that wanted to be needed to twist even further afield, needed to buck the leather constraints of “book” itself. I garnered rejections for this manuscript I was trying to write, I was gently released from obligation to my literary agent, also rejected by other agents and publishers. I found myself wandering a hinterland I had no map for—personally, creatively, professionally. In truth this was a very lonely period. At the time I knew no other writers who were trying to work across disciplines. I had no mentors; no community; no assurances that any of it was a very good idea. (No doubt, there existed examples of multidisciplinary artists and experimental writers, but I hadn’t yet encountered them along the path I’d thus far taken.) I kept working, through the isolation and self-doubt, the discovery and alchemy of those 7+ years it took to find—to forge—my way through that first hybrid project, which I eventually arrived at describing as a “memoir in image + text + music.” I found a small press publisher, lost them too (the press folded), made some new friends with whom I formed a loose publishing collective; I did all of my own editing, layout, design—learned the production line—and essentially published my first hybrid project on my own. If I had not taken it into my own hands as such, I am certain it would never have been permitted to enter the world in the form(s) it inhabits.

& what is writing? It begins
with cutting. Etymologically:
a verb; describing an action. To tear,
scratch, carve: line—immaterial
motion—impressed into or upon something
material. Stone; clay; leaf; pulp; fibers.
This tradition of the human
and mark-making. & why
do we—must we—write? The implement,
the stick, the chisel; the discovery
of puncture as tool
for claim or record. To arm
the self or the tribe against
forgetting, perhaps. To endeavor
to step outside of,
outlast, Time. Contained within
this tear (tear), however, always too an
impulse toward ownership. To draw
boundary between or around—
whether an object, geography,
observation, memory, or the ineffability
of experience. There is something we wish
to keep, somewhere we desire to belong to,
that we nonetheless know we are destined
—doomed—to lose. From its inception
writing was always a preparation.
For loss.

And I am talking about writing, but
I am also talking about hybridity. As a kind
of writing born out of such losses and knowledge
of losses. A writing assembling itself
amid/despite the vacuum of interstices,
ambiguity of middle-grounds, tangle
of intersections. A writing of refusals (to write);
a mutability of voice. Ebbs and
flows and many, repeated
obliterations. A writing that construes
itself of edges. Poly-
vocalities of entry and egress.
Assemblages of disassembly. Multi-
plicities. Duplicities. Many

Let’s return to water. I’ve always had a thing for rivers—I grew up along rivers that flow through the Sierra Nevadas of northern California, where—back in the 1850s—men who had come to mine gold from those rivers dug so much, they changed the course of those waterways. Rivers disrupted; re-formed. And, in the land where I was born, on the other side of the globe (from where had traveled with me those boundary-refusing ghosts), the patterns of rivers there too were heavily influential. Seasonal floods and deltas having cultivated a people who had learned to live in rhythm with the riverine vicissitudes of water; a myth that the first mother of our country’s people wept the rivers into being, and those rivers then had wed her (and thus us) to the sea. A river sends tributaries—many mouths—to the sea. And as this book knows: a mouth holds many things.

Which is to say: the theme of multi-
plicity is also a story of erosion.
Evasions; evolutions. De-
stabilizations. Dispersals; de-centerings.
(Dia-sporas.) The ground troubled, re-
written. A river breaks
from its main vein, because water possesses
ability to circumvent obstacles through frag-
menting—simultaneously multiplying a
nd dividing—itself. In order yet
to keep to its initial course.
Which was always simply to follow
gravity and rejoin
the sea, that primeval one-body
made of and fed by all
the mouths and streams.
I see multimodal writing
employing a similar tactic.
Of breaking apart to bring

We are divergent and we are confluent. Most of us arrive here on our own, singly, singularly. We arrive each of us to our particular patch of wet, shifting sand of our own peculiar accord, or chords, let’s say, idiosyncratically learned, then voiced.

Because the path of learning, of discovering, the hybrid realm was not, for me, one guided by mentors or models, especially initially, I followed no one, exactly; no one led or invited me. As is often wanted on the topic of lineage, I could cite the seminal works and names that have held space in this realm—Cha, Adnan, Vicuña, Rankine (et al)—but, in truth, those writers’ works did not come into my knowing until after I had made most of my journey through my first hybrid project, somewhat blindly, fumblingly, feeling as if I were navigating through a hinterland without a map. Yes: they were waiting for me, eventually, when I was ready to find them, and so honored to find them, and began then to also discover my contemporaries working in kindred, liminal spaces. In actuality: I learned from other so-called aspirants—other, current hybrid authors publishing via small presses, lesser-known—at the same time I was discovering the works of what we might call the masters—or mistresses—in the field: an albeit relatively short lineage of hybridexperimental works by women of color working predominantly in English. I feel it important to observe that an initiatory part of this journey, one’s commitment to it, may require (or at least did for me) a dive into the unknown, and willingness to abandon reliance on canonical thinking, canonical measures and validations and examples, as guideposts. At some point the markers stop—you venture into the open grasses of an open field, alone.

And for many of us, this learning, this tracing of invisible trails through overgrown grass, does not occur inside classrooms or existing structures. It arrives rather like a call on the wind we don’t know where it is coming or calling from, that we hear (or feel) from our seat at a desk in a room, perhaps… and it requires us to turn our attention out the windows. Something beyond the glass beckons. A new fracturing of the light, a refracted strange sotto voce sound, new registers of echoes (…)

<We are divergent and we are confluent.>
<We are collective without being majority.>
<We are multiple without being conglomerate.>
<We are scattered <<through/across>> : we are amongst.>


& what kind of writing is it seeks
to destroy itself even as it builds
itself? & why this performance—under-
grass tactic—of divergence / di-
versions? this method of the many

& what if I describe the mechanical
arms of writing as a technology sutured to
our natural limbs, but that
we were not born with, and so we
learned how to operate them, navigate
their inherited (dys)-
functions channeled via our [true] [off-
center] mouths?

& what if I claim ocean as
my literary form, sea as my preferred
genre (if I must name one)? May I
cite water as my container / conveyor
of choice, through which I
may allow the unmediated
flows of that immaterial substance
we call voice?

To comprehend that one thing can be multiple things at once and still be wholly that one thing; and that multiple things—separate—can simultaneously be the same thing. To understand there is no direct line for arriving at simultaneity or multivalence. To understand hybridity as a way of saying we are neither this nor (completely) that; at the same time we are this and we are that, maybe even that other that, too. And it’s all subject to change. We might dissolve or evolve any boundaries. And we won’t stay put where you think you’ve safely placed us, named us, tried to corral us. There is—necessarily—no formula to repeat us, our arrivals or our formations. Such positions and territories are not always supported, condoned, understood, or even accurately perceived by either the heres or theres one may have strayed from. Hybridity as a challenge to the dominion of identities. Hybridity as a state of slippage, unwilling to capitulate, an accepted tenuousness of being


Mouth Cover WEB front 2B 1611x2048 1

From A Mouth Holds Many Things: A De-Canon Hybrid-Literary Collection, edited by Dao Strom and Jyoshi Natarajan. Available now via Fonograf Editions. Image still from Dao Strom’s music video for “Jesus/Darkness”; filmed by Roland Dahwen, edited by Kyle Macdonald, 2022.

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