Pasadena, CA: Red Hen Press, 2013. 216 pages. $15.95.
(Click on cover image to purchase)
The literature of the Vietnam War, like most war lit, is haunted by the effort to find or create a listenership. Listen to what happened to me, each novel or poem or memoir seems to say. Grabbing us by the collar, they remind us, yes, and in your name. For the Vietnamese, the process began in earnest when Doi Moi (Renovation), the communist government’s version of Perestroika, allowed limited publication of post-war voices that had long been circulated underground in their version of Samizdat. Nguyen Huy Thiep’s short story “The General Retires” set an early high water mark, soon followed by works by Bao Ninh (The Sorrows of War), and Duong Thu Huong (Novel without a Name). The circle began to close full in 1998, when novelist and memoirist Wayne Karlin, a Marine veteran, published The Other Side of Heaven: Post-War Fiction by Vietnamese and American Writers with co-editors Le Minh Khue, from Hanoi, and Truong Vu, a South Vietnamese immigrant now living in Maryland. “This book,” writes Karlin in his introduction, “was born out of the meeting of two people who, if they had met two decades previously would have tried to kill each other.” As the collection’s title hints, getting to heaven depends upon the mysterious act of truly hearing and knowing the Other.
One of the astonishing short stories in Karlin’s volume, “She in a Dance of Frenzy,” is now joined by thirteen more in Andrew Lam’s new collection, Birds of Paradise Lost. Each story from a different narrator, Birds of Paradise Lost is an exercise, and a superb one, in voice. One of Lam’s greatest gifts is his ventriloquist-like ability to get inside each narrator’s skin. Just as Lam connects with and penetrates each persona, so too each persona achieves a moment that bridges or leaps the gap between our two cultures, forever wedded by the tragic war.
Lam won the PEN Open Book Award (formerly known as the Beyond Margins Award) in 2006 for Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora and, in 1993, the Outstanding Young Journalist Award from the Society of Professional Journalists. He is currently the web editor of New America Media and a frequent contributor to NPR’s All Things Considered. His father was a top ARVN general in the war; his grandfather was instrumental in founding the Cao Dai sect. Lam was a child of privilege who attended French lycée and dined at the family villa in Dalat with touring American idols like John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, and Henry Fonda (who complained of his daughter). At eleven, Lam’s journey as a boat-person finally brought him to America. Perhaps Lam learned early the trick of other cultures.
For the challenge of truly listening to the Other is not a problem only encountered in war. It is a problem too of war’s refugees. Knowing the Other—different culture, different history, different purpose and ideology, different skin—takes an act of imagination, if not alchemy. Whether we penetrate cultural, political, or individual boundaries, it is an act so rare that we may as well call it magic. Such magic is the alchemy of much great art.
Such magic becomes a running theme in Birds of Paradise Lost. In “Show & Tell,” the narrator Bobby, an American seventh grader, begrudgingly befriends at their teacher’s request a newly arrived “refugee.” Cao Long Dinh speaks no English but is a talented draftsman. Like most kids Bobby loves comic books, especially “Phoenix [who’s] so very cool ’cuz she can talk to you psychically and she knows how everybody feels without even having to ask them.” Plagued by bullies and without any English, “Kal,” as Bobby takes to calling him, takes to the blackboard for “show and tell” and Bobby, Phoenix-like, “translates”:
“What, what’d you want, Kal?” Kal tapped the blackboard with his chalk again . . . and then, I don’t know how, but I just kinda knew. So I just took a deep breath and then I said, “OK, OK. Kal, uhmm, said he used to live in this village with his Mama and Papa near where the river runs into the sea,” and Kal nodded and smiled and waved his chalk in a circle like he was saying, “Go on, Robert Quentin Mitchell, you’re doing fine, go on.”
Before they are done, Kal has made the leap not only into the political whirl of the seventh grade but also that of American society:
And he was done. Kal turned around and climbed down from the chair. Then he looked at everybody and checked out their faces to see if they understood. Then in this real loud voice he said, “Hee, foock headss, leevenme olone!” and bowed to them, and everybody cracked up and applauded.
Kal started walking back. He was smiling and looking straight at me like he was saying “Robert Quentin Mitchell, ain’t we a team, or what?” And I wanted to say “Yes, yes, Kal Long Dinh—Refugee, yeah we are.”
American advisors and South Vietnamese working well together at last.
In “Bright Clouds over the Mekong,” a Viet Kieu war widow living in the Bay Area is confronted in the restaurant where she works by the same steely green eyes she saw in the GI, who killed her husband and wounded her in a village confrontation during the war. Her first thought is revenge. She decides to poison Harrison’s meals with prescription drugs, then with a vial of Vietnamese poison gotten from a traiteuse. Better to do so, she agrees to a date with Green Eyes. Lam’s magic is first to contrive to get the reader—at least this one—silently to urge her on to revenge when her commitment weakens. They become lovers and we begin to root for murderous Lan, as she calls her Vietnamese self, not for Kathy, her American self who wants peace. But then the moment of magic:
It came abruptly to her then, what Harrison was thinking years ago in that sun-drenched afternoon after he shot her husband in the chest and stood looking down at her husband’s corpse. He was thinking of his wife and kids, and how he could ever explain to them what he had turned into under that hateful sun. She didn’t know exactly how she knew, but she knew.
A sharp, jolting pain seared her breast. It was as if the old bullet wound was throbbing anew. Her heart ached. Her hand went up to protect her breast, and the ladle, caught in the gesture, tumbled out of the soup pot and onto the tile floor with a loud clatter.
Overcome with a lifetime of loss, Lan/Kathy here nonetheless finds her way to a moment of empathy: Green Eyes too has suffered loss, the loss of his own innocence. In imaginatively hearing his humanity, she rekindles her own.
Lam has been listening and his characters show the way for us to listen, too. It is one of the bitter ironies of modern, industrial and postindustrial warfare that the operating assumption, inculcated in military culture, is that soldiers must dehumanize the enemy in order more readily to kill them. Yet doing so dehumanizes not just the enemy but our soldiers. That is the lesson of Achilles’ fall into bestiality when he goes berserk in response to Patroclos’s death, dragging the body of Hector around the walls of Troy in the face of the funereal rites that make a true Hellene (and human). Achilles is rehumanized when Hector’s father Priam comes to his tent in the dead of night, and Achilles responds humanely to the Trojan’s appeal for his son’s remains. The paradox of war is that we are honored when we honor an opponent, dishonored when we belittle them. The challenge of the exile too is to detect and to embrace the humanity even of those who would dehumanize and seek to destroy you.