On Photos That Lie & Poems of Hard Truths: Diana Khoi Nguyen’s Root Fractures: A Review by Aiden Hunt

One night in 2012, Oliver Nguyen carefully removed all of the family pictures from their frames in his parent’s home. Using a X-Acto knife, he excised his image from the family’s photographic history before returning the pictures to their frames. His parents never spoke of it with him or their two daughters, either before or after Oliver took his own life two years later. That silence still haunts his sister, as well as her poetry, which attempts to break it.

Diana Khoi Nguyen’s debut collection, Ghost Of, published by Omnidawn and a finalist for the 2018 National Book Award, made use of the defaced family photographs by presenting poems in the shape of her brother’s excisions. The multimedia artist continues her exploration of different types of trauma through pictures in her latest collection, Root Fractures, published by Scriber in January, 2024. While Oliver, or his absence, still plays a key role, the speaker widens her lens to include the rest of her family and her Vietnamese heritage in the new collection, with familiarly evocative results.

The speaker in “Notes on the Fractures” connects the Fall of Saigon in 1975 to the end of Oliver’s life in 2014, alluding to the meaning of fracture. From a brother lashing out and damaging the familial bond to the cultural trauma that comes with revolutionary change and state-sanctioned violence, each traumatic event is a crack, weakening the speaker’s ties to her roots.

Though Ghost Of used only English characters, Nguyen makes liberal use of her first language in Root Fractures. The book contains untranslated Vietnamese throughout, including in titles linking her family’s fate to that of Vietnam. Nguyen shared with David Naimon, on recent episode of the literary podcast, Between the Covers, how she’d forgotten that she spoke fluent Vietnamese as a child until seeing old family videos. The poet’s parents had enforced an English-only household since she was five years old, eventually erasing even her memory of having known Vietnamese. As refugees of a shattered South Vietnam, they wanted to assimilate in America by abjuring their native tongue and culture. After relearning the language, Nguyen is using it to continue her story. 

Root Fractures is divided into five sections, with many of the same poem titles recurring in each, including “Cape Disappointment”, “Misinformation”, and especially “Đổi Mới”. Many of these fourteen unnumbered “Đổi Mới” poems contain justified blocks of prose poetry— the syntactic inspiration for which the poet credits German writer Jenny Erpenbeck’s Visitation, a novel that employs lengthy blocks of prose but some feature shorter sections separated by page dividers, and including dialogue.

A theme of recurrence flows through both collections and is made overt in the poem “Again”, which Nguyen notes “owes the debt of plot recursion” to Melisa Tien’s play, Best Life. A synopsis of that play begins, “If you could turn back time, what would you do differently?” In it, a woman of color “aiming to get free” can rewind time. Meeting a “wealthy white woman with heartfelt yet deeply misguided intentions,” the protagonist repeatedly rewinds time in an attempt to have the “right” conversation. In Nguyen’s poem, the speaker similarly tries to imagine the “right” family circumstances, though what that means varies and no version ultimately satisfies.

The poem touches on other themes including estrangement and the hereditary nature of trauma. Nguyen’s fraught relationship with her mother comes through, as she cycles through scenarios, as in one section:

A ghost can host (an)other. A mother

Trong mọi thứ bạn là, bạn trong mọi thứ.

[tr. In everything you are, you in everything.]

The daughter takes her own life, because it is a way of taking her mother’s.


Several blank lines follow each “Again”, setting off each new scenario description.  In some, the speaker broaches communication issues, “With her husband, she teaches the daughter that every thing has at least two names: water, nước. Nước, country.” Following a scenario imagining a mother and (only) daughter returning to Vietnam once a year, pointing out whom they might now be had they not emigrated, the speaker says,

And if the end of the war wasn’t the end of anything, and the war was what it was: another plastic bead on a string of worthless beads.

She would have endured the lean years, finding herself married, a mẹ [mother], then a bà ngoại [grandmother], in Đổi Mới.

As one of the poems of that title explains, “Đổi Mới” was the term for “the launch of economic reform in Vietnam” in 1986. “Đổi Mới, meaning renewal more generally.” In another poem with that title, Nguyen again touches on inherited violence: “Health questionnaires do not ask if there is a history of violence in your family. \ To the question not asked, I want to ask, How many generations should I go back?” The speaker hints at possible causes for her mother’s later abusive behavior. Several sections explain that while the male family members fled the country, most of the women didn’t. Left behind to help her mother look after their family business, the speaker’s mother was sent to one of many “reeducation camps” after the country’s reunification.

Familial communication is a special challenge in a household where meaning gets lost in translation, as happens when languages like English and Vietnamese have basic linguistic differences. In its third iteration, Đổi Mới deals with these Vietnamese-American communication barriers. The speaker says, “The first time I heard ‘Việt Cộng’ I actually heard ‘Việt con,’ which was exactly what I was, a Vietnamese child.” 

The observations continue in another section, 

Việt Cộng, Việt con, con viết. If I fail to use the right diacritics, I fail to say what I mean.

In Vietnamese, the meaning of a word depends on the tone of each vowel.

In order to remember the sounds of each tone, I rely on words that rhyme: viết, giết. Giết, viết. 

Con biết giết không?” 

While “Việt Cộng” is a slang term for guerrilla fighters leftover from America’s Vietnam War, the homonymic phrase “con viết” translates to, “I write.” Playing on the phonemic language differences, the end of the third line translates, “Write, kill. Kill, write.” And the fourth: “Do you know how to kill?” The implications of a verbal slip are clear. Nguyen skillfully provides or implies meanings without resorting to translations in footnotes, enhancing the collection’s authenticity.

The poet carefully teases out her family history over four generations, providing pieces to a story only seen clearly in full. Root Fractures may not be the last to tell this story, but it adds great depth. Readers hear about times ranging from when both of the speaker’s grandfathers worked for the embassy in Saigon, leading to their emigration, to considerations about her own parenting in today’s world.

The seven poems titled “Cape Disappointment” take the form of five one-line stanzas each, with iterations spread throughout the book. The first of the poems seems to see the world through her mother’s young eyes, alluding to finding a wounded Navy SEAL, described as a “shivering seal pup,” during the war. The poem that follows, “Selkie Weaning Young”, continues the metaphor; selkies being mythical creatures from Norse and Celtic legend that shape-shift between seal and human form. They can be helpful and seductive to humans, but they can also be dangerous and spiteful. The section’s last lines make clear who the creatures symbolize and highlight muddy U.S. foreign policy goals, ending with, “The only seals in Vietnam: American men with green faces.” 

In the last “Cape Disappointment” poem, as in others, Nguyen reckons with her complex relationship with her mother through the speaker’s oblique lines:

what might distinguish museum from mausoleum

objects which don’t reproduce

my portrait reveals the furrow my mother carries which her mother carried

no need for lighthouses placed close together

a reflection on water as on glass aren’t they ghosts 

This idea of seeing herself reflected in her mother recurs throughout the collection, as the speaker considers what it means to have a child of her own, having been raised in an abusive household. She worries about continuing a long history of trauma.

Another series of poems recurring throughout are titled “Misinformation” and play with the meaning of that word, including both personal and official falsehoods. The first in the series depicts the chaos felt by the speaker’s grandfather and mother on the eve of Saigon’s fall in April, 1975:

The Americans offer to take us with them, he says, though he doesn’t know why.

His children do not know what he has seen.

  They wake and sleep to blooming bombs, whistling missiles.


an instrument whose sound is absorbed and amplified in the body of a girl

like mercury inside a fish.

The fuzzy logic of survivor’s guilt comes through in other sections, mother and daughter expressing regret about telling her brother that the “loud humming inside his head” wasn’t real, after finding dead bees in the walls following his suicide. In one section, the speaker intimates that her familial problems may be genetic, “Whether schizophrenia manifested in bà cô before the American War or in my cousin in America amid its latest interventions, I can still remember the sound when we were all alive”. 

In a later “Misinformation” poem, the speaker relates how “the man I love” lied about being an orphan as a child. In the next, separated by other poems, she recounts how her brother, likewise, falsely told the couple he worked for in the years before his suicide that he was alone in the world. This comparison compliments other parts of Root Fractures in which the speaker laments her similarities to her mother.

In Ghost Of, Nguyen used the defaced photographs in, among other techniques, triptych poems. Five poems spread throughout, and simply titled “Triptych”, consist of a photograph on the first page, text in her brother’s excised shape on the second, and a box of prose verse framing the white space of Oliver’s shape on a third. Each tells a piece of the story. Nguyen does something similar in Root Fractures, as in the four poems titled, “Root Fracture” and the two titled, “Tug”. She explores the distinct pieces of her familial and cultural trauma, completing the picture in words where images fail or lie.

Nguyen’s blank verse takes the shape of family members in some poems and stands in the picture’s foreground in others. One of the poems titled “Root Fracture” is a prose poem with the words conforming to the rectangular shape of the family picture behind them. The poet does something similar in Root Fractures, while varying how the pictures and text are arranged.

In Nguyen’s “Beside” poems, the speaker tells a little about each family member in their shape, with different textual persons overlapping in places. Being able to read only partial text adds dramatic tension and meaning as more becomes clear. Like most of this collection, it is a grand story told in snatches to be assembled and read as the larger picture comes into focus.

While many of the poems refer to a troubled family life, there’s hope of reconciliation toward Root Fractures’ end in lines like, “When a father helps his daughter to skate, they both hold hands, though she is moving away from him. With the same hands I used to keep balance, I now am writing my way back home.” Of course, calling that the end is only one way of reading the book.

Nguyen alludes to her nonlinear mode of storytelling in “Omnidirectional”. Placed in the book’s center, the poem forms two columns of sentence fragments, such as “hello my name is”, “took us to US of A”, and “April 27, 1975”. An epigraph implies that the words, centered and separated by the book’s spine, were taken from a transcript of her father’s words; presumably his refugee application. Endnotes explain that the poem is intended to be read in any direction, repeating or leaving out lines as readers see fit. A sentence from one of the “Đổi Mới” poems alludes to the speaker’s rationale for this: “Truth, like a directional, is relative.”

In complex collections of poems, with stories of generational trauma and loss, Ghost Of and Root Fractures don’t tell of absolute truths. If there is a single truth in familial and cultural trauma, they imply, it may be indecipherable. Nguyen instead tells her truth, and invites readers to piece it together along with her. It’s not always easy to hear, but it’s a truth worth hearing. While there may have been many traumas to fracture her roots, she’s transformed them to something beautiful, healing, and hopeful.

Typesetting Notes: “Cape Disappointment” poems consist of five one-line stanzas separated by a blank line. Translations in [ ]’s are contributed by the reviewer, using Google Translate, not part of the work. 

Aiden Hunt is a neurodivergent writer, poet, and critic, based in the Philadelphia, PA suburbs. He is the editor and creator of the Philly Poetry Chapbook Review, an online literary journal focused on poetry chapbooks. Find out more and follow his work at PAidenHunt.com.