Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen
At my parents’ house sits a shrine to our ancestors. There are photos of people I loved, and people I never knew: my grandmothers, grandfathers, the greats and the greats before them.
Every morning, my mother kneels and prays. She closes her eyes and hums tunelessly, lighting sticks of incense. The air fills with their heady scent. I don’t know what she asks our ancestors for, but since she began this daily ritual, there has been a change in her: she is full of light.
Whenever I visit home, for Tết or our ancestors’ death anniversaries, I kneel and pray too. I hold the incense, and I close my eyes, and for a few moments, I am weightless.
Mostly I talk to Bà Ngoại. It’s been twenty years since she died.
Hoa Pham’s new play, Vivid, centres around Khanh (Chi Nguyen), a young Vietnamese-Australian woman with schizophrenia who is an inpatient at a mental health facility. Her grandmother, Bà (the wonderful Moni Lai Storz), died one hundred days before the narrative, but appears to her as a clear reality, whether knitting at her bedside or advising her about her relationship with her boyfriend, Khoi (Jamie Vu).
Khanh’s family came to Australia by boat, and her mother was raped at sea, eventually taking her own life. She regularly has nightmares about refugees, and is told to her horror that the torture of asylum seekers continues today. We learn that her father does not know of his daughter’s schizophrenia – a reflection on the stoicism of Vietnamese parents, and the lack of cultural understanding around mental illness.
Pham deftly captures the in-between feeling of many second-generation Việt Kiều – gratitude and guilt – as she draws a complex portrait of a young woman haunted by her family’s demons alongside Khoi, a man with the same background who would rather just forget. “You think too much about the past – it makes you sick,” he tells Khanh. “You have to remember you weren’t on the boat. We’re lucky.”
The recurring motifs of Buddhist spirituality – from a shrine stage left where the characters leave offerings, to the traditional 49-day mourning ritual, in which they don white headbands – are married with Khanh’s delusions to create the distorted space in which Vivid exists. This duality begs the question of whether the ghost of Bà is a spiritual presence, or a manifestation of psychosis. The answer is never made clear, but it’s obvious that to Khanh, she is as real as anyone else – and so is the unshakable bond to the past.
Here, Pham also explores the discord between Vietnamese spirituality and Western medicine and treatment with the psychiatrist character of Craig (Joshua Monaghan), who is unable to fully grasp the complexity of his patient’s visions, or the depth of intergenerational trauma and grief.
With Khanh as an unreliable narrator, Vivid does not follow a linear storyline – rather, it is an abstract exploration of what it means to navigate the world as a woman of colour with mental illness and trauma backgrounds, and how these things affect those around us. Do our loved ones ever truly leave? Does our families’ suffering and sacrifice define us? Do we exist separately to these experiences, or are they an inextricable part of who we are?
I think of my father on the boat, mapping its route through the stars as thirty others slept, unsure of what the morning would bring.
I think of my mother, scrubbing hospital floors with not a word of English on her tongue, in a foreign country, dreaming of the coffee plantation where she grew up – a place she may never see again.
I think of my grandmother, lying still in the casket, taking with her the stories I was too young to ever ask for or understand. We talk in my sleep, and she is everywhere.
I have my mother’s smile, my father’s brows. I wish I remembered enough about Bà Ngoại to know what parts of me are hers.
I wasn’t on the boat – I’m lucky.
But they were.