Larissa Pham Is In Control Of Her Story

Photo: courtesy of Catapult.
Photo: courtesy of Adalena Kavanagh.
“And I realized, Oh, what I'm doing is I'm telling a story of a relationship," Larissa Pham explained of the process of writing Pop Song, her new book, "but also of what it means to find out things about yourself.” 
A memoir-in-essays, Pop Song spans a decade of Pham's life, focusing in on those shiny, sticky moments — and people and places and things — that never fully feel like they're in the past. No matter how far away we are, we're always, in some way, in conversation with them as we continue to live our lives. These are the things, people, places, sounds, sights, and tastes that define our sense of what the world can be, and of what we can be. Pham's writing reflects what happens when a person opens themselves up to everything around them, accepting that ceding control — by falling in love, by traveling to unfamiliar places, by getting lost while staring at a painting or listening to a song — is an act of intimacy, and sometimes even a way of gaining control again, by having a new story to tell.
In Pop Song, Pham tells many stories from her life: of the people she's loved, of the art and artists that have inspired her, of the places she's been and the food she's eaten. It's a sensual, intimate book; reading it is an experience akin to one of those unexpected, hours-long conversations that take place in a dark corner at a party, the kind that can only happen with someone you barely knew, but will now know forever. It's a reminder of the pleasures of casual intimacy, and how getting to know other people is often the best way of learning about yourself.
Below, I spoke with Pham about Pop Song, the limits of control, how her work as a painter informs her writing, and what it means to be in dialogue with other artists — and with herself.
I’d love to talk about the beginnings of Pop Song, and how it was that you knew you wanted to write a memoir, and specifically to explore your life, your thoughts, your influences in this way — super-closely, and so that everything feels interconnected.
The way that I wrote Fantasian, my novella, was through a list. My friend was like, “Well, why don't you make a list of things you're obsessed with, and you can write a book about that?” So I did that and and I was like, This worked out great. Let me do it again. So I made another list for something that I was calling “Intimacies” — which is now the name of a Katie Kitamura book, so I'm glad that I didn't use that title. [laughs] But I was thinking about making a catalog of intimacies, like a catalog of modern intimacy. I really was interested in the texture of what it felt like to be close to someone, and the new ways we were talking about intimacy and the ways that relationships form and what they feel like, and what the substrate of a relationship is.
You write about different relationships that you have with people — romantic and sexual and friendly and every other kind of intimacy — but perhaps the relationship you interrogate the most is the one you have with yourself, and you do that in part by engaging with art, whether it’s Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse or Nan Goldin's photography or Louise Bourgeois. It just felt so beautifully reflective of how we actually process things in real life, how even if we come across something by accident, it might be the thing that makes everything else fall into place.  
A lot of the book came together in that way of being moved by something and wanting to write about it — it's kind of tautological, but everything in the book is in the book because it moved me. I didn't select it just because I thought it would be a good fit, if that makes sense. So everything that I have an encounter with [in the book], I really did have an encounter with and I wanted to write it down and share it.
Writing about relationships feels very first-nature to me. I think for a lot of people probably it's that way. Like, they're just so much a part of us in our lives. Writing about art feels a bit more like something deliberate that I'm choosing to do, but also very much part of my vocabulary in terms of how I see the world. I think it does come down to this idea of an encounter and wanting to be authentic to that and wanting to express something specific about the art, too. 
There was actually one show that did feel a bit like I was seeking it out, and that was Louise Bourgeois in Shanghai, because I was like, Oh my God, I'm so sick of these art fairs. I needed to see something beautiful. If I had been there a year earlier, it would have been a show of Dutch masters, and that would not have been maybe quite what I needed. So maybe in some ways, it's a book about serendipity, being in the right place at the right time to have something right when you need it.
This book spans about a decade of your life, from 2010 to 2020, which happens to also be a time when we all started to utilize a new visual language, with a whole different level of accessibility to images at our fingertips, thanks to our phones and social media and just being super-online. I was thinking about how that level of engagement with the visual affected the creation of text, and I was also wondering how, for you, studying art and immersing yourself in art and being an artist, how is that in conversation with your writing?
I mean, it shapes everything. This idea of  being able to see everything and having so much information at our fingertips... I grew up on the internet, probably both of us did, and, for me, having so much accessibility to find images and go down a rabbit hole to research a filmmaker or an artist who, maybe you couldn't see their work in person, but you could find an archive or images from online — that was my experience growing up, and I was moved to do that by reading and seeing things that mentioned works of art that I didn't have access to.
So in a way I wanted this book to be in dialogue with the things that taught me how to look for things. I was hoping, you know, that if someone likes what I've written about Roy DeCarava, they go and they look him up and they fall in love with his work, because there's so much more of it than what I wrote about. So, that was my hope. But in terms of my art practice and my background informing the work, I think it really does shape everything. I really wanted to be a painter for most of my life — writing was just this thing that I did. 
But, [laughs] my mom was always like, “You're so much better at writing than you are at painting.” And she was right. I think I was only ever an okay painter. I love to paint. I love the language of painting; I dream about paint. When I write about painting, it's in such a fetishistic, loving way, because I love it so much. And I think knowing about how things are made — like, taking a black-and-white photography class and knowing how that's made; taking a painting class, mixing my own pigments, knowing how that's done — that informs my understanding of the objects that these things are, as well as what's in them conceptually. I just have a real reverence for the process, because I am aware that these are made things and that people are behind them.
I've always loved any piece of art, even something that I wasn't drawn to at first, if someone just told me a little bit about it. I immediately will feel more connected to the work. I guess it’s storytelling really, but telling these stories feels very important to my integration of visual arts into my writing practice.
There’s a very specific kind of urgency to your book, the kind of quiet, propulsive energy that comes when you really want to tell a secret to someone. And with that energy also comes a lot of exploration, everything from intellectual to physical to emotional exploration to, well, travel, and roaming and seeking new things out. What is it that makes exploration, seeking the new, so important to you?
The original title of this book was “How to Run Away,” which I hated, so I changed it to Pop Song, which I love, but they’re different aspects of the same text, I think. The roaming, seeing something new, being in a new place, it challenges you; I always feel like if I go somewhere else, I'll be able to change myself, that I'll find a new me, buried underneath. Maybe it’s the old me and if I can recover a part of her then even if I go back to my life, I'll be better. It never really happens like that, but absorbing new things has always been really important to me. I miss moving through space in an unfettered way. I know that's a privilege, but — I also think borders are fake.
Borders are fake, and imposed in arbitrary ways. So, one of the things you engage with a lot in the book is the issue of control — of self-control, of control over other people, of allowing other people to maybe control you — and of seeking out all of the ways, both conscious and not, that we try to have control over ourselves. What did it mean to you to explore these different angles of agency and what it means to you, and to all of us, in this ever-chaotic world?
I feel like I have to answer this in a roundabout way, which is that I feel like we don't know these things about ourselves until much later, when we look back. In “Body of Work,” I was looking at my younger self — like, younger by about five to eight years — and I had enough distance to see my younger self and be like, well, you were doing what you could, you saw these sites of power and your way of interacting with them was very conscribed to a small arena, but this was what you had access to. So this is what you did, and I have such forgiveness for that person.
I'm also not her anymore. So there's a little complication there, right? Like, I don't want to advocate for that behavior now. I don't want to seem like I advocate for some of the self-destructive things that I did in my youth, but at the same time, I totally know where she was coming from. I think having the distance to be able to engage with the actions of my past self has been really helpful in terms of just parsing what control would have looked like in the past. 
I don't know if I could really tell you concretely how I know to engage with it. I think maybe the one thing that does feel controlled is the quality of the writing itself. I wanted to make sure that I was really in charge. I didn't ever want to spin out in the text. I wanted to be an authority in telling my own story, even as I admit that, you know, I'm trying to be honest, but these are just my memories and this is my perspective. 
Beyond all the different artists and people and objects you’re in dialogue with, you’re also essentially in dialogue with yourself throughout Pop Song, which allows you to process things from your own past and present, and, not disown them, but acknowledge that they might not serve you anymore. 
I don’t know if it’s anxiety or just an observation about modern life, but I feel like there's so much stuff. We have these huge online archives of who we were, and I think it's been really interesting to see how people engage with the matter of their past selves, even if it's something really simple, like, a picture of you from 2010 or something like that. It's a dizzying amount of data. 
I feel like that awareness of who you were in the past, it's kind of inspiring to see how we grow through it. There’s this paradox of people — especially public figures, and particularly women  — being expected to always be a past version of themselves as archives somewhere, but the world keeps moving and so do we. 
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Pop Song is available for purchase, here.

More from Relationships

R29 Original Series