On Hana Vu’s ‘Romanticism’

Terry Nguyễn pens twelve fictional shorts based on the singer-songwriter’s new album.

Art by Tyler Farmer.

“Where is the instrument whence the sounds flow?” — Rainer Maria Rilke

I have never tried to be a music critic and I’m not about to start with Hana Vu’s Romanticism, a rousing, dream-pop album on the existential yearning of one’s early 20s. While listening to Romanticism on loop the past month (some songs were replayed more than others), I learned that Vu wrote her 2019 EP, Nicole Kidman/Anne Hathaway, after watching The Hollywood Reporter’s actress roundtable interviews. Her lyrics imagine backstories for these women. Inspired by this and the ekphrastic essay-fictions of Lynne Tillman and Wayne Koestenbaum, I wrote twelve fictional shorts based on Romanticism’s tracks and visual concept. For me, a good song stirs up disparate feelings, loose memories, and forgotten affinities, coalescing into a euphonic tension; I tried to replicate that feeling in these meandering stories.


I have never tried to be a music critic but I’m a critic about everything else. My mother’s cooking, a stranger’s squat form, the taxi driver’s mismatched gloves, the bartender’s gin-to-vermouth ratio. But I don’t consider myself a judgmental person. I play devil’s advocate with my tastes. Every time I’m in a jazz bar, I’m confronted with the inferiority of language, my preferred medium. Why be a critic when I can lay the mind to rest in the crowd’s thoughtless thrum and succumb to the damp mosh pit of feeling? Shut the door on the system of binaries, of like and dislike, truth and falsehood, romance and reality, and evaporate — poof! — into the moment. The melody is a magician beckoning me towards the stage lights. The sublime is there too, so I am told. Maybe it will seduce me if I stare hard enough. There are too many words for our final destination but only one way to feel the air leave my lungs. 


I wandered around Madrid, lonely as a cloud, until I found a group of Chinese tourists. With them, I was no longer a liability, just another Asian face in a crowd of visors and selfie sticks. We went into the Prado. The Spaniards have a strict no-camera policy so we were scolded in every room. I do not know why I invoked the we when I was alone then, uncertain and unassured of my station in life. Perhaps it was to soften the intensity of I, though a creative writing instructor once warned me of the digressive femininity of my sentences. I heard aggressive femininity so I didn’t bother to change my sentences. The Chinese tourists and I stopped before the wall of Tintorettos. High up, towards the heavenly skylight, Judith’s servant holds Holofernes’ severed head in her hands as her mistress stands aside. What a clean cut, I remarked. Through her sheer shirt, Judith’s nipples stand alert, like two beady gemstones. That night, I dreamed I was Judith, Artemisia Gentileschi’s slaying Judith, pure shadow and strength. Vengeful and muscular, I was painted by a woman, whereas my delicate doppelgangers were the handiwork of men. My fist held a silver sword. I stood like a butcher, ready to make my cut. As the blade sliced through Holofernes’s jugular, I became my rapist, severed against the light.

  1. ALONE

In Marfa, I sit by the radio in his trailer, listening to girls sing about water, espresso, and tortured poets. The yard looks like it’s been kissed by a brushfire. A dog paws the dust. That’s Texas, I suppose. He isn’t coming back, which makes me a squatter and squatters have no protections in the Lone Star State. What a moronic nickname for a state. Someone put a bullet hole between his teeth. The papers say it was a one-shot job. No arrested suspects. He always claimed to have enemies. Before I read about it last week, I figured he’d just ditched me for one of them.

  1. 22

It was liberating, at that age, to be seen and not heard. The summer was a shapeless encounter and I was a vagrant phantasm, translucent in my mesh, methods, and mannerisms. Everyone I met was inclined to think of me as all surface and no depth, a pretty face to smile for their projections. At the time, I was content, flattered even, by these boorish instincts, by how simple it was to persuade people of my complicity in the current state of affairs. I met artists, bankers, influencers, and bouncers. I left rooms unexcused, dizzy and half-drunk. Most days, I went to the movies and sat alone in the loud dark, contemplating the sweet aftertaste of youth in my vanishing hangover.

  1. CARE

You left our first date early to go to the wake of a colleague you considered a friend. I knew very little about you but you were quite keen to tell me too much. Our shared devastation over the death of friends we didn’t know very well, friends we kept at an arm’s length that might’ve shortened to a finger’s length had there been more time endeared me to you. I wondered if, for you, it had a repellent effect. Like you said, Who could claim to know anyone in this economy? True knowledge was a tease. We’re only afforded glimpses of another’s personhood so significance is relegated to objects, locations, text messages, songs. I can’t help that my generation interprets care as a gesture: a virtual heart, cab money, “if he wanted to he would.” From beyond the fog of limerence, I realized that you were like most men I’ve despised: self-pitying bastards who think of themselves as the sad clown, always laughing on the outside and crying on the inside. You can’t fool me. I’m Stańczyk in my red tights, fingers still clasped in a prayer for your return. 


My stockings are inside out. I can’t get them outside in. When I flip them, they stay inside out. I wear my inside-out tights to the museum, and the words, “I AM THE CURATOR OF MY OWN MISERY,” slap me across the cheek. I am tired of being assaulted by words, I confess to no one in particular. In the next room, I take out my phone to photograph the words, “I AM NOT EXOTIC. I AM EXHAUSTED.”


I believe in dreams until I wake from sleep’s warm hammock and touch the cold hilt of reality.


The self-righteous are always so certain about their personhood. I can’t speak to what kind of person I am. What does that prove when personality is a conceit? When I fall in love, I want to know the naked contours of my lover’s mind. Their body is secondary. The flesh always arrives last. On the train, I read about a woman whose mind flew out of her like the black puff of an airplane’s breath. What a wonderful way to lose it — the cheerless vapor of her ejected consciousness evaporating into cloud dust.


At the end of the endless summer, I finally flew to see you. I held a quiet suspicion that this would be the first and last time, that after this summer, we would continue to regard each other in a diminishing capacity through our respective screens. I played the same song on repeat during takeoff to appease the anxiety that reared its head, as I considered (against my will) how the laws of gravity might temporarily, tragically cease to apply to this very aircraft. I wrote in my Notes app: The day the planes started dropping out of the sky, seemingly out of disdain for life on Earth, I called my boyfriend on my lunch hour and said, in the calmest voice I could muster, that I wanted to go on a break. A break, he responded. From what? My desire to leave him, as always, seemed unfathomable, but given how the laws of gravity were temporarily, whimsically in flux, I could no longer ignore the apocryphal ache in my— A ding to announce cruising altitude. “Takeoff alright babe?” A text from the man who was then my boyfriend. I swiped left to turn off the notifications. Suspended in the sky above my earthly problems, I had not mustered the will to change just yet.

  1. PLAY

We divided the kids into two lines. The ones on the right would be saved, you declared. Those on the left stood by expectantly. “Your salvation depends on belief,” you said to the unsaved, gesticulating like a preacher. “If your belief wavers, you’re as done as dead.” A girl on the left burst into loud, sniveling sobs. A girl on the right began to mock her. I thought it was a cruel game you played, making salvation out to be an uncertainty, though it was our job, as camp advisors, to stoke their belief into a rampant flame. They were so malleable, I said. You shrugged. When they grow up, you said, they will be tested in innumerable ways. The least we can do is prepare them for it. I nodded, enraptured by your spiritual schematics. You treated camp like a game and I was a ready player. In our shared bunk, we bartered our bodies for each others’ belongings: cut-off shorts, Maybelline mascara, smiley-face socks, hometown secrets. I was your sole accomplice because only men, as the Bible taught us, were afforded disciples. Of course, I dreamed of betraying you against a desert landscape, cupping your cruelty to my chest and drinking you dry until you shrunk into a rock. I woke up wanting you to be nothing. Nothing more and nothing to me.


I draw a heart in the sand for the sea to eat. I consider sending you a picture of my heart in the sand. I post an old picture of my thighs cradling Dante’s Inferno on Miami Beach. I draw a heart in my mind and transmit it to you through the psychic airwaves. We haven’t texted in three months. Your satellite is down, I think. This will be my last text. I draw a heart for closure, it’s true.

  1. LOVE

I don’t know what more to say.