Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Not Just Another Immigration Memoir

Viet Namese-American Lê Thi Diem Thúy Honored with “One Book, One San Diego”


Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

In 1978, at age six, Lê Thi Diem Thúy was taken by her father from their home in southern Viet Nam and put in a small fishing boat as one of the fabled “boat people” who were fleeing Viet Nam’s Communist government after the U.S. and its South Viet Namese ally definitively lost the war three years earlier. Their boat was picked up by an American naval ship and Lê and her father were placed in a refugee camp in Singapore. Eventually they were given visas to enter the U.S. and were placed in San Diego, where they lived with her father’s four brothers. Lê’s mother and surviving sister were eventually united with Lê and her father after they fled Viet Nam by a different route, following a stint in a refugee camp in Malaysia where one of Lê’s sisters drowned. The sister’s given name had been Thúy (Viet Namese, like most Asians, place the family name first and the given name last) and Lê’s original name had been Trang, but when the Navy ship picked them up at sea Lê’s father gave Thúy as the name of his surviving daughter. In 1990 Lê chose to go to college in Massachusetts to get away from her family and her childhood in San Diego, and she studied to be a writer and performance artist.

These bare facts inspired a prose piece called The Gangster We Are All Looking For, originally published in the Massachusetts Review in 1996 and expanded into a novel, published in 2003. At least “novel” is the description of the book on its back cover; though the book follows the basic outlines of Lê’s childhood, publishing it as fiction instead of memoir freed her to give the book a haunting quality which, if the term hadn’t been so dreadfully abused, misused and overused in the last 40 years, could be called “magical realism.” Like other writers from Asian backgrounds who have learned English as a second language, Lê creates an almost palpable sense of the physical reality of her childhood as well as communicating a reverence for nature and the details of the natural world rare in writers for whom English was their native tongue. She also plays fast and loose with the reader’s sense of time — one moment she’s in her teens in San Diego, the next she offers a dim memory of her childhood in Viet Nam — but she gives the book an emotional unity that makes its non-linear structure work.

Lê’s book was honored by the San Diego Public Library and its media partner, KPBS, as the fifth annual “One Book, One San Diego” selection. It’s appropriate in one way — virtually all the previous “One Book” entries have either been about U.S. outreach to foreign countries or the immigrant experience in one form or another — and, as Lê explained when she came to the downtown library February 2 to speak about the book, read excerpts and take questions, the honor had an unusually deep meaning for her because she remembered using the library as a refuge during her childhood. “Volatile things happened with my family, and with the library I could be alone or share space and time with others in silence,” she explained. “I was raised by my father, my mother, the public library and the public schools. I had a high school teacher who had an all-Viet Namese class. None of us spoke English well, so he’d pair up the ones who spoke a little English with the ones who didn’t speak it at all, and he adapted.”

The Gangster We Are All Looking For starts out seeming like it’s going to be yet another immigration memoir, but as you keep reading the stark, simple elegance of Lê’s prose steals its way into you and gives the book extraordinary power and scope. Lê recaptures the awe and terror she felt as a six-year-old coming to a new land where the rules seemed so different and incomprehensible — notably in a scene in a supermarket in which her father picks up one item after another, not buying anything but just awestruck at the experience of being in a wonderland of consumer delights, so different from the ways people in Viet Nam acquired their food. The two butterflies on the book’s cover — images in vivid color superimposed on a black-and-white head shot — stem from Lê’s childhood fascination with a paperweight, a butterfly encased in glass, and her belief that the butterfly was alive and talking to her, telling her to free it from its glass prison.

One chapter in the book is titled “Nu’ó’c,” a Viet Namese word that, Lê explained, “means both ‘water’ and ‘home’ or ‘nation.’ Viet Nam’s emergence as a nation had to do with its maritime power. Viet Namese people have a deep and elemental relationship to their homeland. When you’re elsewhere, you feel like a fish out of water. The story is defined and shaped by water, because these are people who escaped by boat, and they ended up on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. So the Pacific is holding their past, and their past is calling them back.” Water also claims the lives of two of Lê’s siblings: the sister who died in Malaysia and unwittingly gave Lê her name, and a brother who had drowned even earlier, in Viet Nam, the memory of whose life forms the book’s powerful and wrenching climax.

A particularly moving section describes the Lê family living in an apartment with a swimming pool — until, for reasons they never learn, the owners of the building suddenly and without notice drain the pool, fill it with rocks and pave over the top with concrete. Recalling how her mother had looked across the surface of the pool and felt like she was back in Viet Nam, looking from her home across the beach to the sea, Lê described the filling of the pool as “like the end of the world, because it brought something homelike in the middle of all this concrete. Then the concrete comes in and takes over. The pool was a connection to home, and it being paved and covered over is like a death in the family.”

So much of the book has a somber, silent quality — Lê explained that unlike Americans, who have a slogan that “silence equals death,” Viet Namese are conscious of “the power of silence” — that it’s an abrupt shock when she describes an argument between her father and mother that quickly turns violent. Not that her parents attack each other directly, but her dad, whom she calls “Ba,” smashes the family aquarium and her mom retaliates by breaking the household dishes. “You must take all this with a grain of salt,” Lê warned. “Just because I wrote it does not necessarily mean I know what it means. In the first place, Ba starts this and Ma goes in the kitchen and breaks the dishes, and the girl inhales and swallows this stuff (the fish from the broken aquarium) down — the internalization of all this — and then says, ‘When I grow up, I am going to be the gangster we are all looking for.’” Earlier Lê has repeated her mom’s description of her dad as a “gangster” back in Viet Nam — though exactly what that meant is kept powerfully ambiguous — and here the word “gangster” gets applied to her and, by extension, to all of us.

Asked what feedback she’d got from other Viet Namese-Americans, Lê said, “A lot of them will say, ‘Those are my parents.’ I think it gives them a perspective on their parents. I get readers who are immigrants, refugees from other countries. One man said it made him remember how it felt when he first came here, and he wasn’t even a refugee. A lot of us have gone to another place, not knowing whether we will be accepted, but it’s been special for the Viet Namese-American community because our countries were involved in a war with each other. Viet Namese people have been in America a long time. I wrote this book to announce my parents’ arrival 27 years after the fact. It took me that long to learn the language and absorb the lessons.”

One of the book’s most powerful scenes is one in which, years after she left her family behind in San Diego and went to school on the East Coast, Lê gets a call from her father who tells her he has a “problem.” Lê doesn’t say what the “problem” was in the book — and she wouldn’t specify it when an audience member asked her about it, either. “When she’s 16 she leaves home and doesn’t come back,” Lê said. “She calls her parents one time to let them know she’s going to the East Coast to go to college. Her dad is a violent man, and he’s abused her physically. When he picks her up at the shelter, she’s still loyal to him but can’t be under the same roof with him. It’s really up to the reader to consider what’s up with him, and the question is how were they broken and how he can be made whole again. The character has often asked himself what’s wrong with him.”

Asked during her downtown library appearance about her experience in school, Lê said, “School is another strange world in the book. When the girl starts school, it’s ‘nap time’ in kindergarten and she can’t go to sleep, she wonders, ‘Why am I lying on the floor trying to sleep when I’m not sleepy?’ None of these people sleep very well. They’re often awake. She describes it as looking for a thread in the ceiling where, if she could pull it, her grandfather and her brother and the starfish would all come tumbling out of the sky. It’s like her relationship with the glass curio animals, where she’s trying to make them into the [real] animals she’s used to and wants them to be. She’s moving through public spaces like school and the bus, but she’s in a whole other space inside. Cities put people together when they’re in very different places. After the Communists took over South Viet Nam, a lot of the officials in the South Viet Namese government became cyclo — pedicab — drivers because those were the only jobs available.”

Another question, coming from an audience member who read Lê’s book in school as part of a class assignment, evoked this response: “Oftentimes, when you have led what they say is a dramatic or eventful life, people come at you and say, ‘Tell me your story.’ That attitude is not reciprocal. It’s, ‘Tell me your story, but I won’t give up anything about me.’ Every story, novel and fairy tale has told me how to become the writer I am today. You’re forced into the writer’s internal voice, found in that particular story. What reading allows you to do is when you read someone’s story, you have to focus on that character and pay attention. When you’re from an oral tradition, you have to listen very carefully.”

Indeed, Lê seems to regard language as not only the medium in which she (or anyone else) writes but an important subject in her writing. “The story is being told in English by characters who don’t speak English when the majority of the events occur” she said. “I wanted to tell a story in English about characters who’ve arrived to English as they have arrived to America, and they’re trying to express themselves in a language they really don’t understand. We are equally valid even if we don’t speak each other’s languages.” Later she called her book “a story about subverting English” and added, “I’m interested in language as a destabilizing agent, as much as I am in it as a net that gathers us together. I’m interested in the shadows of what the language does not say. One thing these people can’t talk about is the brother who died.”

Fielding one of the usual dumb questions authors get confronted with at public appearances — what three people, living or dead, would she most want to invite to dinner and a conversation — Lê’s first choice was Ho Chi Minh, leader (until his death in 1969) of the Communist government of North Viet Nam that eventually won the war against the U.S. and its South Viet Namese allies, “because I have so much to ask him.” Her second choice was William Faulkner — not surprisingly, given how much her writing, like his, focuses on the inner life and thoughts of the characters — and her third wasn’t a human being at all. It was Secretariat, whose spectacular victory in horse racing’s Triple Crown electrified the country in 1973 and set speed records in two of the events, the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont Stakes, that still stand today.

Though a number of people in the audience felt uncomfortable that Lê had selected a horse as her dinner companion (not that it should have been surprising from a writer who in her autobiographical novel had described herself talking to glass animals and believing a butterfly trapped inside a glass paperweight was calling out to her to be rescued), Lê said Secretariat deserved a place at her table because “what he did was amazing. He brought grown men to tears at Belmont because he did something that they, as men, felt was impossible, but for the horse it was possible.” Lê said she first learned Secretariat’s story from watching a documentary on ESPN, and she seemed to be speaking about both horses and people when she said of his performance, “There’s an energy that’s released, a deep expansion that goes beyond your wildest imaginings.” Lê then said she’s working on a new book that at first will have a conventional narrative structure leading up to an ending — and then will continue. “It’s what’s beyond the end that matters to me,” she explained.

Asked about “the American identity” from a fellow Viet Namese-American who’s a student at UCSD, Lê recalled a question she got earlier in the day at the Linda Vista library about the butterfly incident in the book. “For me all transformation is violent,” she said. “You’re reading not only about the girl but also the mother and father becoming Americans. The tragedy is that they have so much more to contribute than they are allowed or asked. The trajectory is taking [the girl] away from her Viet Namese identity, but the act of telling her story is bringing her back to her past. It is an American story because it’s about coming to America, and also because the event that brought her to America is a war that America and Viet Nam engaged in. … America is a diverse country, and yet the stories we’ve allowed to represent ourselves are very limited. It’s about the stakes of arrival, and in the process of reading it. It’s set here, it’s about here, and hopefully it will encourage people to talk about Viet Nam, about war in general — and about food, music and swimming.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: The two-word spelling of “Viet Nam” was given to me as correct by UCSD literature professor Jorge Mariscal when he spoke at the San Diego Public Library about his 1999 book Aztlán & Viet Nam: Chicano and Chicana Experiences of the War.