Abbigail N. Rosewood was born in Vietnam, where she lived until the age of twelve. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Columbia University and lives in New York. Her debut novel, IF I HAD TWO LIVES, has been hailed as “a tale of staggering artistry” by the Los Angeles Review of Books and “a lyrical, exquisitely written novel” by the New York Journal of Books. The New Yorker said “the novel poignantly conjures the difficulties of reconciling the present with an ‘ungraspable history.’” An excerpt from IF I HAD TWO LIVES won first place in the Writers Workshop of Asheville Literary Fiction Contest.
Vi Khi Nao: Can you talk a little about your name? Abbigail Rosewood? It’s a name I frequently associate with a plant grown in a Walt Whitman poem, rarely associated with someone who was born and lived in Vietnam until she was twelve.
Abbigail N. Rosewood: Since I left Vietnam at twelve years old I’ve never lived anywhere for longer than five years. My lack of geographical groundedness causes a psychic rupture that manifests in my name and the many other names I’ve tried on. One of my favorite characters on Game of Thrones is Theon, who balances three names¾it is a balancing act, as identity is one of the most powerful psychic forces. Changing names is like putting on a new mask. The people closest to me have seen all my masks. I have a complicated relationship with names.
Hearing my Vietnamese name out of context and pronounced incorrectly rouses a slow-burning rage that I refuse to bear on a day-to-day basis. Like a public secret, whispered by the right person, it can be sweet. I like to think that in giving myself a name, I’ve also given birth to myself, taken control, and also made up for my turbulent spatial orientation. Abbigail Rosewood is the name through which I discovered my creative voice, fell in love, and reconciled with my mother. Abbigail Rosewood did all that, not any other name. For now, it is the mask that gives shape to the free-floating substance underneath.
VKN: What was your Vietnamese name, may I ask?
ANR: The direct translation is flower of the ocean. A water name.
VKN: Your novel is divided into three parts. Was this structure born intentionally or did it fall on your lap from the mere gesture of narrative creation? How long did it take you to marry the parts together? You said you are never in one place for five years or more—how many geographical destinations did it take to compose this one particular literary destination, this mesmerizing landscape called If I Had Two Lives? One of your protagonists, a young one, a girl, nameless from Part I, desires her superpower to be the ability to haunt people. If If I Had Two Lives had this heroic power, would you like your work to haunt people? Or do you wish evisceration? What do you hope to achieve with your beautiful work?
ANR: I tend to write in scenes and out of order. In the beginning, there was no narrative structure, only characters getting bloodied on the page. It was like writing while blindfolded, not knowing why the characters were doing what they did, feeling how they felt. I trusted my subconscious to connect the parts¾this has always been a crucial part of my process. I’ve tried other structures, but ran into a few technical issues. Because the world of the camp is so unfamiliar to most readers, I decided to set up the political atmosphere first. The linear structure gives the reader enough time to acquaint herself with the setting, the rules and morality of this world.
The landscape of If I Had Two Lives is an emotional one. I am not interested in geographical groundedness, perhaps because I’ve never experienced it. I tend to intellectualize my reasons for not describing place with more details, but the truth is maps make me dizzy. Location is a feeling.
I love the idea of a book having a heroic power. Absolutely. After reading both negative and positive reviews, I realize that it doesn’t matter so much if an artistic work is liked or disliked, but that it provokes powerful feelings, perhaps dangerous feelings. I felt proud after reading a review that claims they don’t know what to make of the book. A haunting is similar in this way. It forces people to confront their own darkness. A haunting may incite fear, pain, and even anger. I would feel the book has succeeded if it manages to haunt.
VKN: One of my favorite scenes from your novel took place in Part II, where your narrator depicts the following, “Once while we were walking, she had stopped abruptly, blocking a line of cars. While people honked their horns and cussed at us, she calmly took out a compact mirror and held it at a strange angle from her chin.” Have you ever felt like Lilah? In the middle of reading your book, at a reading from a book tour? The desire to pull out a compact mirror made of words and ask yourself rhetorical questions before the audience while they honked their horns with their eyes at you? Does living in New York make you feel this way? The need to gaze at oneself from a different angle, to know that one actually exists and hasn’t fallen into a crowd of images and patterns?
ANR: I used to depart from my physical body, and looking back, I believe it was my mind’s way of protecting me. When I was in my undergraduate, I experienced this disassembling frequently and at the most inopportune time. I remember one night looking down at my legs and was fascinated that they were mine¾I’d felt no such ownership before. I think I was sad. So yes, I’ve felt like Lilah. The more content I become, the more I stay in my body, the less I need to see my own reflection¾the affirmation that I am real, I exist. At my book events, sometimes I do catch myself leaving, rising from underneath my skin. Fortunately, I have a little mantra to bring myself back down:
Eventually death will swallow all your accomplishments and failures. You will be forgotten. It won’t matter what you got wrong, how you messed up, or why.
Thinking this makes me feel untouchable. Fearless.
VKN: You have an amazing, captivatingly sharp manner of providing deep philosophical and psychological insights into your characters as you unravel them onto the page. And then you follow up those retrospective reflections with several rhetorical insights and questions, as if you have been in their shoes before. An example of this, “She drifted toward ambiguities like an object in perpetual free fall, never touching the ground. Jon and I were figures in the dream she’d created. Who was I outside of her fantasy?” How do you ground your intuition? And where do you go to retrieve the source and conduit of your wisdom? To make it visceral and real for your readers?
ANR: Thank you so much! I think I ground my intuition by finding the right language. Words open existing mode of thoughts, but also innovate and invent complexities that complicate life more than just reflect it. I read philosophical, religious, psychological texts¾they tend to circle the same thing using different languages. Sometimes when I read an ancient philosopher, I think to myself, I don’t understand a thing. Nothing. Then over time the material resurfaces from the depth of my subconscious, which tends to happen when I’m either meditating, writing, or dreaming. I really appreciate you thinking that I have wisdom, though I think what I have is compassion¾perhaps that is a feeling-oriented wisdom. My goal has always been to understand and not to judge. I’m the slowest person to react. I don’t know what I really think until I’m writing and reflecting on it. Then all of the sudden, I am howling about an event that occurred thirteen years ago. Readers are intelligent and sensitive. I assume that even if something they read doesn’t resonate immediately, it will resurface later, perhaps many years later as it has for me.
VKN: Can you talk about some of the texts you were reading while writing this novel?
ANR: I devoured all of the Patrick Modiano’s novels, the Agota Kristoff trilogy, Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy, everything by Alain de Botton, The Heart of the Buddha by Thich Nhat Hanh, The Order of Time by Carlo Rovelli, The Face of Another by Koko Abe.
VKN: You have an acute way of observing couples, especially a husband and wife, as demonstrated by your protagonists Jon and Lilah, in their binary dynamic, observing the way their yin and yang compliment each other, as seen here from Part II, “I hadn’t realized how much they resembled each other. I’d focused only on their differences when I first saw Jon, partly out of insecurity, partly out of jealousy. I couldn’t admit to myself that in some ways they were right for each other. Together they formed an enviable feminine and masculine whole. Just as when Lilah was without him, she grew sturdier and more handsome, when he was without her, Jon became softer, more fragile.” Did this perceptivity grow out of being in it or observing it across time? Or from reading extensively? How much research, directly or indirectly, do you do to bring the realism of your imagination onto the page? Or do you just write because writing requires invention and little research? You also frequently mentioned Lilah’s masculinity. “She was dark, attractive, and had a masculine dismissal of her own beauty that was comforting.” Was it observed intentionally? When I was reading passages from this section—the section where the narrator developed her friendship with Lilah,—how I wish you had spent more time depicting her feminine masculinity. As any sign of masculinity in women is often frowned upon, but I found it a natural physical attribute that compliments a woman’s carnal force in today’s modern world.
ANR: Thank you. I wish I’d spent more time depicting Lilah’s feminine masculinity too. I wanted to portray my ideal woman, the type I would risk perpetual freefall for. At the same time, I wanted to give the reader enough room to participate in the creation of their own Lilah, the Lilah they would find most enticing.
As for the couple dynamic, I’ve always wondered if I could manage to love in the way the narrator does Jon and Lilah. I spend a lot of time fantasizing. For a writer, the daydream is research. About years ago, I was looking into surrogacy out of financial needs. I completed the questionnaire, but in the end didn’t go through with it. As an artist, I am against institutionalized love, and as a human being I don’t think I can handle the freedom that would come with non-monogamous relationships. Sometimes I consider my jealousy and insecurity a moral failure. Worse, aesthetic failures. I strive to prioritize aesthetic values in my life, to always do what yields artistic beauty, but I also need structure in order to create¾I protect my boring life zealously. I like to feel out my fear on the page, imagine what I could live with.
VKN: How did you decide on the name of the narrator’s baby? Quoc Anh? Have you thought about flipping it or reversing it? Anh Quoc? When I think of the word “Quoc” I think of the “Quốc tế”—the kind of global surrogation one experiences in global family dynamics created by Angelina and Brad when they were still together. Did you have this globalization in mind? Or was it more a linguistic gesture, a nod towards homeland and country?
ANR: I haven’t considered flipping it before. Starting with my sister, all the children born in my family has an “Anh” in their name. I love this tradition that everyone implicitly agrees to. I didn’t think about “Quoc” in terms of globalization. I chose it because it is gender-neutral.
VKN: Since Quoc Anh is female, it makes more sense, ending with “Anh”—as Anh Quoc would masculinize it, wouldn’t it? Regarding less binary thoughts, you emotionally and psychologically prepared your readers for what would come, as seen here, “I consoled myself with the thought that the baby would be conceived out of love, even though the loved person was absent” and “When she found a picture of a gorilla, she slapped it repeatedly” (re: the Minh/Monkey moment in Part III). As a lover of literature, what is the most chivalrous gesture a writer could bestow on her reader, Abbigail? And, if chivalry isn’t what you desire linguistically, what is the best way to slander a reader then?
ANR: Thank you for these brilliant questions. I think the most chivalrous thing would be to have faith in the reader’s emotional courage, in his ability to confront his own trauma that my words might have triggered. I sincerely believe the more aware we are of our agony, our shame, the better equipped we would be at dealing with them. For the writer to cheapen a key moment, moments of transcendence, free of social and moral prejudice, would be a betrayal. Art is a war, so I’d like to think that chivalry matters.
VKN: When I read your book, I felt the following, “I was being erased by someone I haven’t met, but felt I already knew and loved. I tried to stand up to find my phone and call Lilah, but I couldn’t. Beneath my feet was nothing but air.” As if a book has the ability to erase me. Did you want to erase a reader you haven’t met? Also, when I read a novel, I feel as if it’s a massive confession, as your protagonist so wisely observed in the coffee shop, ““I think it depends on whether or not you want anything to change.’ He shook his head. ‘I don’t know—people like to confess their feelings, but afterward they’re not ready to face the fact that nothing changes.’” Ever since your book came out, what kind of butterflies have arrived to your doorstep? (Especially the ones that take flight near your narrator’s neighbor.) How has your life changed? Or has it not change from this novelistic confession?
ANR: I was occupied with the yearning for understanding. Before the book’s publication, my public silence wasn’t congruent with my inner’s massive desire for expression. Over and over I would make the mistake of choosing social harmony over authenticity. My life has changed because now a few people care what I think (thank you). I am surprised that it doesn’t feel hard or unnatural to be expressive off the page. Perhaps the novel has laid the groundwork and has set the tone. I’ve also woken up to the reality that the novel hasn’t cured me, nor do I feel understood.
I love that image of butterflies arriving on my doorstep. It has been surreal to hear from old friends, people who aren’t lovers of literature and who I didn’t expect to open the book beyond the French flap. For those who don’t write fiction, it is hard to explain that what’s on the page is me and not me at the same time. I don’t want to spend time defending the work nor contradicting their assumptions, so I tend to lean into the mood of their response and react as honestly as I can.
The person I needed to read it most is my mother, but she might never finish it. She told me that she didn’t have the courage. I have to live with that. So does she.
VKN: Was this reading why you wrote this novel? To fulfill your yearning for understanding? Or something else?
ANR: Yes, it was important for me to be understood. It is less so now. I just want to keep creating.
VKN: If you had to speculate, how far did she make it into your book? And, what do you think would prevent her from finishing it?
ANR: She finished Part I. I tried to persuade her by telling her that she’s gotten past the hardest part. She wasn’t convinced. I think she can’t finish because reading would give pain a physical dimension. I don’t think she can bear the idea of her daughter’s anguish, real or imagined. She told me something beautiful, “I know that your work is fictional, but you must have gone through these feelings when you wrote them, in order to write them. Any mother would suffer to witness this.”
VKN: Some of your great insights on love arrives quite unexpectedly as seen in the conversation between Lilah and the narrator, “‘And you’ll have yours,’ she looked at me with a dare in her eyes. ‘Nobody’s honest, ever. Not if they really know love,’ she said.” Do you recall writing this line? If so, can you talk about how this epiphany arrived to you? It’s a line I won’t forget easily.
ANR: I do remember writing that particular line and pausing to think about all the trivial and not so trivial dishonesties in my own relationship. Writing that line was a near epiphany because I was functioning under the assumption of truth¾that I was innocent. Wanting to be innocent in a relationship is incredibly arrogant, as it is like wanting to be flawless. I think I could also have written, “Nobody’s innocent, ever. Not if they really know love.” What I didn’t realize is truth has many faces and innocence is costly.
VKN: I love the profession you gave one of your protagonists, Lilah—one in which she makes prosthetic eyes. As if her profession and existence provides another eye into your story/creation/novel. I remember arriving to that Montauk moment and thinking, I am so happy to introduce this particular protagonist into this world because it brings a blind butterfly into your work and gives your novel a particular kind of nonchalant, dark flair that contrasted devastatingly to the brutality from Part I. How did you decide on her profession? Did you make a list?
ANR: Your words have improved mine. Thank you for such a gift. In my undergraduate writing class, I wrote a short story called “Real Eyes,” in which the protagonist also makes prosthetic eyes. The gaze, where it comes from, how it seduces and destroys is important to me. I’m fascinated by blindness and seeing, seeing while blind and vice versa, being blinded while seeing. There was a man named Craig, who I got to know over the years while waiting for the bus. He was blind. I just remember how he would repeat, “It’s a beautiful day, such a beautiful day. It’s a beautiful day.” I never asked how he experienced the day’s beauty, so I do what the writer does, imagine it.
VKN: There is a line from your novel in Part III, the “Việt Kiều” visit, that states, “Vietnamese is a language easy to erase.” Do you agree with that statement? If not, how have we not erased it?
ANR: I’m not sure I agree with the statement I wrote, but the beauty of fiction is I can play with certain sensations or beliefs that feel false, but might be true, or vice versa. In my own life, I’ve noticed that my Chinese-American or Korean-American friends who grew up in more than one country have a better hold on their mother tongues than Vietnamese-Americans do. I question if it is because Vietnamese is not difficult enough, being alphabetical rather than having characters, and by being an easier language to learn, also easy to erase? When I pray to my ancestors, I pray in Vietnamese. According to my fiancé, I have Vietnamese nightmares and scream in my sleep in Vietnamese. It is a language that penetrates the most profound tunnels of my consciousness. Still, I am unable to form complex thoughts in Vietnamese. I once thought that if I got in an accident that damages the language part of my brain, and if I would lose a language, I believe it would be English. My Vietnamese is elementary, yet fundamental to the bone of my being. So yes, you’re right, not easy to erase.
VKN: If your novel had two lives, what would you do differently?
ANR: In a different life, I would have no ego, no need for validation or understanding, and the novel would be read by one and one person only, my little sister.
Note: Watch the book trailer for If I Had Two Lives here.