EDITOR'S NOTE: New America Media editor Andrew Lam has made his name as a journalist, but in his newest book, his past as a Vietnamese refugee reverberates through short stories about characters who fled Vietnam and made new lives in the Bay Area. NAM reporter Anna Challet spoke with him about the collection, Birds of Paradise Lost (Red Hen Press, 2013), published this month.
Anna Challet: Birds of Paradise Lost is your first book of fiction - how did you come to publish a fiction collection after so many years of working as a journalist?
Andrew Lam: I've been writing short stories for twenty years now, on and off ever since I was in the creative writing program at San Francisco State University. Though I later found a career as a journalist and an essayist, fiction is my first love and I never left it, even though there was no easy way to make a living from it. The collection is a labor of love and devotion, and whenever I found free time from my journalism work, I'd work on one story or another, or at least sketch out my characters, and research various issues related to my characters' dilemmas. After twenty years and thirty stories, thirteen pieces were finally selected and the collection was born. So far, the blurbs from [authors] Maxine Hong Kingston, Gish Jen, Robert Olen Butler, Oscar Hijuelos, Sandip Roy and others, have been most encouraging.
AC: You've written many personal essays and non-fiction pieces about coming to the United States from Vietnam. How does it feel to bring that experience into the lives of your fictional characters?
AL: Well, I always say that writing non-fiction versus writing fiction is a bit like architecture versus abstract painting. In non-fiction you have to stay true to historical events, be they personal or national ... In fiction, it's as if you enter a dream world that you created, but your characters have their own free will. They don't do what you want them to do - they get into trouble, do drugs, fight over petty things, and do outrageous things that you wouldn't want your children to do. In other words, you can only provide the background, the seeds - in my case the background of the Vietnamese refugee. When a well-rounded character takes over, he doesn't lecture you about his history and how he is misunderstood. He lives his life, does things that are unexpected, and makes you laugh and cry because of his human flaws and foibles.
AC: How did you come up with the title?
AL: It's the title of one of the thirteen stories in the book, and it's a story that deals with death and hatred and self-immolation. In the story, the narrator's best friend commits self-immolation in Washington, D.C. and leaves a note that says he hates the Vietnamese communist regime and wants his death to call attention to communist cruelty. But he also leaves his friends back in San Jose, California, reeling from his death. Was it a patriotic act? A passing tourist captures a picture of the man on fire, and the flame reminds the narrator of the bird of paradise - both like a bird and a flame, a phoenix of sorts.
AC: English is your third language, after Vietnamese and French. How is it that you've come to write in English - your "stepmother tongue?"
AL: You know, I have a funny story to tell about English and how I came to fall in love with the language. When I came to the United States in 1975 I was eleven, and within a few months my voice broke. I was desperate to fit in and spoke English all the time. Trouble was, in my household it was a no-no to speak English because somehow it is disrespectful to call parents and grandparents "you" - impersonal pronouns are offensive in Vietnamese. But I couldn't help it. I recited commercials like a parrot and I got yelled at quite often. My older brother one night said, "You speak so much English when you're not supposed to, that's why your vocal chords shattered. Now you sound like a duck." I thought it was true. I went from this sweet-voiced Vietnamese kid who spoke Vietnamese and French to this craggy-voiced teenager. I thought, "Wow, English is like magic." It not only shattered my voice, it changed me physiologically. I believed this for months ... There's magic in the language. I never fell out of the enchantment.
AC: Many of the characters in your stories seem to be preoccupied with time - telling the future ("The Palmist"), being unable to let go of the past ("Bright Clouds Over the Mekong"), living in constant fear of what surprise the present moment might bring ("Step Up and Whistle"). Do you often find yourself writing about characters who struggle in dealing with time?
AL: I hadn't thought of it in that way, but it's true that the past is ever present in the characters' lives in Birds of Paradise Lost. Perhaps it can't be helped. So many of them either experienced trauma - fleeing Vietnam, watching someone be killed - or inherited trauma from those who fled Vietnam, that the past is always flowing into the present. The future is of course the possibility of an absolution, the possibility that they can conquer this haunting aspect of the past so that they can begin to heal. Not all of them do, of course, just like in real life.
AC: What are your thoughts on being identified as a writer of immigrant literature? Given that you've written so much about the Vietnamese diaspora over the past twenty years, how do you think the concept of immigrant literature is changing in the United States?
AL: I think in a larger sense, immigrant narrative is comprehensive and speaks to the core of human experience. Isn't the first story told in the West about the Fall? Adam and Eve were immigrants too from somewhere, a lost Eden, a paradise lost. We all now are so mobile, so nomadic ... That experience of losing home, longing for home, that yearning for meaning and rootedness and identity in a floating world, it's what often makes an immigrant story into an American story ... Today, more people are crossing various borders in order to survive, thrive, change their lives. Even if you don't cross the border, with demographic shifts, the border sometimes crosses you ... America's story is largely an immigrant story. That hasn't changed since the Pilgrims ate their first turkey some four hundred years ago, and they were the original boat people.
AC: As an immigrant, what do you think of the current debate over immigration in this country?
AL: It's unfortunate that the country of immigrants has turned its back on immigrants. The atmosphere after 9/11 is toxic. In the war on terrorism, the immigrant is often the scapegoat. He becomes a kind of insurance policy against the effects of the recession. By blaming him, the pressure valve is regulated in times of crisis ... What we have now is a public mindset of us versus them, and an overall anti-immigrant climate that is both troubling and morally reprehensible. Missing from the national conversation are voices of pro-immigration reformers and civil rights leaders, who can speak on behalf of those who have no voice. Where are the leaders who can speak to the idea that it is not alien to American interests, but very much in our socioeconomic interests - not to mention our spiritual health - to integrate immigrants, that our nation functions best when we welcome newcomers and help them participate fully in our society?
I am glad to see the wheels are moving at last toward comprehensive immigration reform after last year's election. I am glad that immigrants themselves are speaking up. I am hopeful that the pendulum swings toward seeing immigrants in favorable terms once more.
All three of my books, "Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora," "East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres," and "Birds of Paradise Lost," are immigrant narratives -their dreams, their traumas, their struggles - and I write them with the confidence that these stories, written from the heart, will belong, in time, to America.
Andrew Lam was recently interviewed by Michael Krasney on the National Public Radio (NPR) program, Forum. To listen, click here.