Iowa City poet and musician shares pain through ‘sweet’ stories

Jayce Nguyen has played various gigs in Iowa City and published a poetry book last summer. The artist frequently uses strawberries as a source of inspiration.


Sarah Stortz

Jayce Nguyen poses for a portrait in her home on Feb. 11, 2020.

Sarah Stortz, Senior Reporter

With pastel-pink tapestries and plants hanging around her room, entering Jayce Nguyen’s space feels like stepping into a dream. The most common imagery she uses for both her room and appearance is strawberries, with strawberry-themed decorations on her walls and tattoos of the small red fruits covering her body.

The sweet-tasting fruit carries more meaning to Nguyen than just a snack or a tattoo — they’ve been an integral part of her life since childhood.

Her poetry book, titled Strawberry Daze, highlights her life-long love for the fruit. Nguyen knew strawberries were an important imagery to keep while explaining her life story.

“I think it plays off of haziness and fogginess and just contrasts between strawberries, which are usually tart and sweet, and days [that are] maybe not so much that,” Nguyen said.

She discusses her experiences with love, self-harm, and being the daughter of immigrant parents in the book. Nguyen said many people in Iowa might not necessarily have access to those themes — due to its predominantly white population — so she wanted to share her experiences to help her readers gain a better understanding of them.

Sarah Stortz
Jayce Nguyen poses for a portrait in her home on Feb. 11, 2020. (Sarah Stortz/The Daily Iowan)

“It’s more comfortable [for people] to not search for that,” she said. “It’s more comfortable to not have to listen to that all the time. But it’s important and it’s real and it’s what’s happening in the world and it’s happening to me, so it clearly exists.”

One of her poems titled, “A Fisher Catches Another” — where she performs at all of her spoken-word venues — details her experience with sexual assault. In the piece, Nguyen compares herself to a fish, calling herself “gutted” while the perpetrator is represented as a fisherman.

Nguyen said it took months to finish writing the poem, as she found it difficult to touch on the memories again.

“I remember writing it one stanza at a time, and then leaving it and coming back because I couldn’t think about it for so long,” she said.

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Her last entry, the title poem of the book, concludes the story with an emphasis on love, describing Nguyen’s mother and how she gave birth to her daughter.

Despite what she has endured, Nguyen said art was a valuable way to help express herself during her journey.

“I think a lot of people don’t think that writing is art, but I very much believe it is,” she said. “I mean, art can be anything from arranging some beads or arranging your home decor. It’s all art to me, and I think it’s just a good way to either step in or step away from something and really hone in on the feeling.”

Additionally, Nguyen frequently plays musical gigs in Iowa City, singing along to her ukulele. Afterwards, she’ll typically share her poems. Compared with singing, Nguyen feels more vulnerable when reading her poetry out loud.

“There’s no music or melody to really show or hide behind,” she said. “It’s just you talking and spilling it all out, which is scary.”

Through all of the wounds, Nguyen said the Iowa City community helps keep her going.

“They’re all so nice, and they’re so supportive and I love seeing them all,” Nguyen said. “… Seeing their talent just makes me go, ‘Hey, I want to do that more too.’ ”

National and local resources for individuals in need of support are available on the UI campus, in the Iowa City area, and/or by phone:

  • University Counseling Services – (319) 335-7294
  •  Student Care and Assistance – (319) 335-1162
  • UI Employee Assistance Program – (319) 335-2085
  • CommUnity Crisis Services – (319) 351-0140
  • RVAP Crisis Line – (319) 335-6000, (800) 228-1625
  • Iowa Sexual Abuse Hotline (800) 284-7821
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-(800) 273-8255