Kimarlee Nguyen’s writing was as restrained as the Cambodian elders she conjured in her fiction, short stories that sketched precarious, haunted lives in a chilly new country.
But her personality was as exuberant as the rugby she played at Vassar, with a team so determined, said Kiese Laymon, a novelist and her creative writing professor there, that the players would regularly come to class concussed.
“Most people are reserved in their personality, but in their writing everything busts out,” Mr. Laymon said. “Kim was the opposite. She would tell stories so it appeared that nothing had happened. But, oh, man, so much was happening.
“You know sort of immediately the kids that are going to make themselves into writers,” he added. “Kids with relentless imagination and uber desire to revise. Kim had all of that, but also had, as she would say, honest stuff for her people.”
Ms. Nguyen’s work was imprinted with her parents’ experience living under the brutal Khmer Rouge regime. Her mother’s family had lived in a refugee camp in Thailand for three years before coming to the United States in 1982, eventually settling in Revere, Mass., where Ms. Nguyen grew up.
She died of the novel coronavirus on April 5, on the way to the hospital in nearby Everett, her cousin Tina Yeng said. She was 33.
Ms. Nguyen was born on May 6, 1986. For the last six years, she taught English at Brooklyn Latin in New York, an academically rigorous public high school with a classical liberal arts curriculum and a diverse student body.
She was passionate about anime, Harry Potter and her students, whom she mentored with fierceness, humor and scented stickers; after hours, they crowded her classroom.
Ms. Nguyen earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Vassar in 2008 and a master of fine arts degree from Long Island University Brooklyn in 2016. Her writing has appeared in PANK, Hyphen Magazine and The Adroit Journal; she has had numerous fellowships and residencies and was at work on a novel, “Lion’s Tooth,” about a Cambodian-American family living in Cambridge, Mass.
She is survived by her brother, Steaven Nguyen; her mother, Vy Yeng; and her father, Hai Van Nguyen.
Many of Ms. Nguyen’s students were, like her, first-generation Americans and would go on to be the first in their families to attend college. In an online tribute, one wrote:
“Two years ago, I was still that immigrant kid, struggling with English, I felt excluded, I felt embarrassed for not being able to speak for myself like the others. But you believed in me, you and your positive energy brought me out of darkness.”
It is with great sadness that we share the loss of Kimarlee Nguyen, a dear member of our community & an inaugural Mentorship Fellow, who passed away on April 5, 2020 at age 33 due to complications from COVID-19. Kimarlee was a brilliant, unforgettable writer we are devastated to lose. She was one of three fiction writers in Kundiman’s first Mentorship Lab, which brought together nine emerging writers for an intensive six-month program. In her application letter, she spoke about the importance of community, and we count ourselves as lucky to have communed and shared space alongside her this past year. At the end of the program, we asked each writer to send in a testimonial about their time in the program. Kimarlee’s was especially representative of her generous, warm spirit and her devotion to community:
“I’m really bad at stuff like this — explaining in just a few sentences how a six-month fellowship has changed me. I can go on and on about things like community and confidence and representation, all things that Kundiman gave me in spades. But perhaps the most important thing this mentorship has given me is the belief that things can be different.
I came from an MFA program where the majority of my classmates either ignored my work or spent time ‘othering’ my narrative. I have only recently come to terms with how damaging that environment was to not only my writing but also to my own self-confidence.
People out there can be so cruel. But people can also be so kind, so loving and that’s what this mentorship has taught me. We writers do not need to be at each other’s throats, trying to one up the other in order to be some crazy version of ‘the best’ or ‘the most accomplished’. The Mentorship Lab is a space where all of us are fully ourselves, doing the hard work of creating and revising in a space that is safe, where all of us is seen, in all our genius and with all our flaws.” —Kimarlee Nguyen, December 2019
To honor Kimarlee, we’ve compiled a selection of her writing as well as remembrances from those who knew her. There is also a memorial fund for Kimarlee to assist her family with funeral costs; please consider donating if you can.
Please join us in reading and remembering Kimarlee’s crucial voice and beautiful storytelling.
‘The Ear of the Sky’ in Hyphen Magazine:
“Underneath the blanket, bouncing off the window, her words crawl up my arm and circle his bowed head. She speaks in Pali, the old language. I can’t follow along, but the words bring with them the heat of summer, the smell of incense and the saffron robes the monks wore, all gathered in a line.”
‘We Gather Here’ in Adroit Journal:
I put in to my nose and I take a deep, long smell. The panties still smell like her – I flick out my tongue and taste the inside triangle of silk. Just a taste of salt and something deeper too. I move quietly, taking off my shorts and slipping into the panties one leg at a time.
‘And In Your Eyes, It Looks Like…” in Cha: An Asian Literary Journal:
You are thinking to yourself that once this is all over, you will never wear beige again. For fourteen years of your life, the same colour, all the time, except for those six months where you were free and the world was technicoloured, and you wore every colour you could think of.
‘If You Cut Me Open, Right Now, This Is What You’ll Find’ in Drunken Boat:
“Where life gets real hard and the winters here get so cold that I feel my bones breaking and everyone in the house is screaming about stupid things that won’t matter tomorrow, I tip my head back like this, right and remember me, all bruises and anger, leaning back, just holding the mango to my nose, smelling, smelling all the good that is yet to come.”
‘A Short Reminder of How History Works’ in Matador Review
“When they came for her, she was busy packing a suitcase, something Ma told her to do, but like all girls who were straddling the line between teenager and adult, she didn’t think her Ma knew anything and waited until the square of light from the window was shadowed by the approaching iron-toed boots and hunched shoulders.”
‘Love Story’ in Cha: An Asian Literary Journal:
“You and I, on the edge of the seawall and I wanted to tremble in the radiance of the sun at its highest point in the sky. I would have said nothing and basked in the glory but you turned to me and told me to tell. So I did and I gave you the words for you to carry.”
‘This is a Story We All Know’ in Kartika Review:
“At school, our teachers would ask us if we were scared living where we lived, and we could only say, it’s home. Back then, we didn’t know a lot, but we knew what was and what wasn’t a secret.”
Pik-Shuen Fung, Mentorship Fellow: “The first time I spoke to Kimarlee was at the Lit Fest in DC, and I had just signed with the same agent as her. We only got to talk for a few minutes, but Kim was so warm and generous with her advice. She said, What do we call each other now that we have the same agent? I laughed bc I thought she was joking, but she said she was serious, and then took a selfie to commemorate the moment. What I remember now is how she had this beautiful unconstrained quality about her, and how much she absolutely unabashedly loved selfies.”
Bushra Rehman, Mentorship Lab Fiction Mentor: “Love you Kimarlee. Everyone’s talking about the ways you were light. You are. The light of the world has dimmed with your passing. I hope you joy in your journey. I feel you would want me to talk about your writing. It was what brought us together, so I will: From the moment I read your work, I knew you were special. Then I met you in person and realized you were a powerhouse of spirit and talent. I was lucky enough to be your writing mentor through Kundiman. We talked often about your dreams, your future and the book you were so close to finishing. We talked about how difficult it was to balance the writing life with the demands of New York City public school teaching, as much as we loved our students.
You knew something was shifting. You were feeling so excited about the future, about living a writer’s life. I was excited for you, knowing how amazing you and your work were. I don’t know how to hold these dreams now. It’s been part of the ripping heartache.
Kimarlee, light to you, your extraordinary story-telling, your unforgettable smile, your light and your charm.”
T Kira Madden, Mentorship Lab Creative Nonfiction Mentor: “Kimarlee Nguyen was and is an energy source that warms and deepens anyone lucky enough to share space with her, with her words. Just being near her, sitting next to her in a classroom, felt like a tremendous gift, an enlightening. I loved hearing about her students, about her artistic process; the way she described anything and everything from a square to a horse to her family was transcendent and indicative of a greater understanding. The literary community, and the world at large, will be lesser because of this physical loss, but her art and generosity of spirit will move through us, on and on.”
Danielle Ola, Mentorship Fellow: “Over the past few days, I’ve found memories of Kimarlee in the most mundane places. In my morning coffee. In the ache of my shoulders. In a blinking cursor on a blank page. No matter how I try, they come to me in piecemeal. But I remember this: how Kimarlee would lift her chin whenever she spoke about her students, proud and reaching. How, within minutes of talking to her, it felt like I was missing home on the shoulder of an old friend. How she was always the first to remind us how precious we were to one another; how precious we were to her.
Kimarlee knew how special it was that we’d come to the Mentorship Lab and built a little family, one that knew how to hold each other in one moment and push forward in the next. In so many words, from the first reading to the last, she reminded us of this. We are so lucky we are to have one another. Be grateful.
You are so loved, Kimarlee. We’re grateful for you.”
Sulagna Sarkar, Student: “She wasn’t just a teacher, she wasn’t just another staff member. She was a role model, an influence, and a source of hope. Many of us students resorted to Ms. Nguyen to just talk. I remember once walking in when visiting her and although my friends and I would visit many of the teachers. My best friend had just been greeted with hugs joy laughter by Ms. Nguyen. She began to ask everything from how was the family, to how school was, to how he’s coping with anxiety, and not only did she do the same for me but she continued to ask us both such specific things to our life. It showed not only did she listen when we would go to her but she cared. So no, she wasn’t just a teacher. She was everything for a person that was struggling in our school. She was understanding and loving. She loved us all like her own children and she was loved, even if she didn’t know it, by ten times as many people because that’s just who she was. We will always love you Ms. Nguyen. Rest In Peace to a beautiful person both in and out.”
Subarno, TBLS Class of 2004: “Ms. Nguyen was not only a teacher, she was a friend. At times I would feel so tired of the school environment and lose all motivation to work, but she kept me in check and made sure I not only was working but also having fun in the class. She was always so kind and made sure no one was ever upset or sad. We lost a teacher, a friend, a great person. The world will greatly miss your presence Ms. Nguyen. RIP.”
Divya Nair, Mentorship Fellow: “Dear Kimarlee,
I wish the tears would flow from my eyes. Those are the tears that offer some catharsis, a fleeting lightness. But these are the tears that gush from the center of the spine, filling the ribcage to bursting — a symptom of a particular grief
It is a rapacious grief, gulping up all the many orbiting, dormant, and subconscious sorrows of the heart, magnifying them in the context of this new reality.
This new reality no longer contains the corporeal you. Naps in parks on crisp fall days, hands clasped with an old friend but new love at a concert, a particular passion for lengthy train scenes in stories, sparkling eyes as you share warm and insightful wisdoms, a beautiful denim jumpsuit with hoop earrings, an eager anticipation of Cambodian Thanksgiving with family — the kind of Thanksgiving that involves karaoke of course. These are the precious bits I remember of that you that is no longer here.
Nevertheless the celestial you persists in your stories — potent, electric, important. They were stories that left those fortunate enough to behold them stripped naked, vulnerable, breathless.
And that’s the crux of it all — the power you wielded with your spirit and with your pen. This is what you leave for us — fused tight upon itself into a North Star burning hot and wild in the liminal space separating our worlds.
No star can take your place but it will guide us as we wait to share your world again.
Paul Aster Stone-Tsao, Mentorship Fellow: “I remember when I first met you in DC at the Asian American Lit Fest. Exuberant. That’s the word that first comes to mind.
I remember thinking to myself wow– what a beautiful person with such radiant energy. I was so excited that you were a fellow Kundiman fellow and that we’d get to spend time together the next couple months. I remember wanting to be pals with you almost immediately and was jabbering on about some nonsense because I wanted to talk to you more and was curious about who you were and how your trip to DC was as you were joining us from another writers’ residency you had just wrapped with.
You were so gracious and kind and I will never forget the space you held for all of us and the way you held yourself– such power, grace, strength, and a tenderness so fierce it strikes me today in its lingering resonance, thrumming and gold– molten. It is warming my heart now, to hear the sonorous sweetness of your voice– the fearlessness with which you spoke your truth, how even the smallest blade of grass would sway to how it is your words would reach into the recesses of what most of us would turn away from but you faced it, and spoke. I heard you. We heard you. And are listening still. Truly, unforgettable.
It is and has been an honor to have been blessed enough to have witnessed you in your presence– to have gotten to share time and space and energy with you. Your being touched me entirely and you made a difference by simply being in the goddamn world, shining and dazzling absolutely everyone with your smile and the love you had for all of us lucky enough to have known you even if for a little while. I remember it to this day– how your smile, your laughter, your wit could light up an entire room even on the most tough days of working through hard and difficult matters of memory, trauma, emotional windstorms during our Kundiman workshops. You were a beacon of such hope and wisdom– and it continues to radiate even today as I write this.
My time shared with you is a gift I will cherish quite simply forever– in and through all the iterations of it– with and alongside the memory of you and how this memory perseveres on– giving to all of us, light.
You said that ‘perhaps the most important thing this mentorship has given to me is the belief that things can be different’– and indeed, with you and the way you dared to touch the world back– they can.
My love to you Kimarlee, and to your family, loved ones, friends, colleagues, students, mentors– quite simply, all the people you touched in this living. I will miss you dearly. Thank you, for you.”
A Poem for Kimarlee
by Paul Aster Stone-Tsao
…as a creek on a spring day/ when all the flowers/ still sing for you
disguised as a coin
an angel tosses itself.
it lands somewhere in your hand.
you reach for a moment
and the glass at the tables’ edge trembles.
under the creek, a birds’ cry.
in your dreams tonight
a melody blooms
that the tears/ tears
are flowing now
in more than one direction.
life still brims over
in the multiplicity of this folded moment.
“i love you” is a gesture
too, that gives toward how your memory could exceed itself
and continue in the invaginative
time of the Now, and live