An account/review of Vietnamese-American writer Andrew Pham and his short story collection Birds of Paradise Lost

Andrew Lam (1964-) is probably the best-known Vietnamese-American journalist. To two collections of essays, Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora (2005, which he characterized as a cri de coeur, and I found frustratingly repetitious despite some moving essays) and East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres (2010, which he characterized as “more celebratory than Perfume Dreams), he has added a collection of short stories, Birds of Paradise Lost.

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The son of much-decorated Army of Vietnam Lieutenant General Lâm Quang Thi (1932-) Andrew Lam, his mother and sister were evacuated by air from Saigon two days before its fall in May 1975, followed (on a US Navy ship) by his father. Since then Andrew and his father have lived in the San Francisco Bay Area. The stories in Birds of Paradise Lost are set in San Francisco or the South Bay, with poignant memories of Vietnam. Unlike the author, many of the characters fled as boat people and spent lengthy times in refugee camps. Though his nuclear family did not have such experiences, he said that relatives were jailed by the communist victors in Vietnam or becalmed in refugee camps or lost at sea trying to escape.

He stressed that the stories are fictions, noting that he is not an elderly palm reader as is the protagonist of “The Palmist” or a teenage girl helping out in her mother’s restaurant as the narrator of “The Slingshot” is. Indeed, his background in Vietnam was more elite than those of any of the Vietnamese-American characters in his stories, with the exception of “Close to the Bone,” which focuses on a student/martial arts protégé of a former ARVN general who was successful in the US and is narrated by a gay son.

I often feel let down by the (non-)endings of short stories, particularly the prototypical New Yorker short story that stops rather than ends, and have added some of Lam’s stories to that cache, including “Close to the Bone,” which has a strong epiphany, but keeps going. I was also disappointed by the sputtering out of “Hunger,” a story with extreme material (cannibalism on a boatload of refugees from Vietnam), though in a way I can rationalize that the extreme drama was a one-time occurrence followed by more prosaic frustrations in a US housing project (Sunny Dale).

The story I like least, despite having a protagonist in whom I can believe, “Love Leather,” which opens the volume has an ending, though not one I find plausible. The reason I don’t much like it, however, is that it contains too much explaining, not enough showing.

The much-anthologized “Grandma’s Tales” has a fanciful ending, but its patent magic realism is pleasing. My other favorites, “Show & Tell,” “Slingshot,” and “Yacht People” have satisfying endings (the last of these the least, but good enough).

Aside from not having an ending, I find “Stand Up and Whistle” contrived (two characters with Tourette’s Syndrome at the Gerald Ford Presidential Library/Museum). I also find “Everything Must Go” rather contrived, though it has a tidy ending and not implausible characters, and “Bright Clouds Over the Mekong” (the only story not credited as having previously been published) very contrived, albeit with a plausible ending.

Most of the characters in all thirteen stories are of Vietnamese origin, a mix of those who came to America as adults and those who came as children (“generation 1.5). Some are nostalgic for the privileged position(s) they had in Vietnam. There is no consideration of why the evil communists won beyond US abandonment. There is no consideration of the views of ARVN fecklessness and unwillingness to fight that is a staple in the literature by Anglo veterans of the Vietnam War, nor of the utter failure of the RVN government to generate commitment from the populace or its soldiers below the rank of colonels. Two of the stories (Slingshot, Bright Clouds Over the Mekong) feature Anglo Vietnam veterans who remain besotted by Vietnamese women (seemingly to me in general, though doting on women owning and running Vietnamese restaurants in San Francisco and in the first instance the children as well as the female restaurateur) and Vietnamese food. The Anglos who do figure in Lam’s stories are seen entirely from the view of Vietnamese-American characters/narrators. I can suspend disbelief in them. Indeed, I can suspend disbelief more easily in the Anglo suitor in “Bright Clouds Over the Mekong” than I can that he is the former lieutenant of the Vietnamese American restaurateur’s most traumatic memories. And the only character (a walk-on) who was an opponent to American involvement in the civil war in Vietnam is regarded with contempt. The Anglo Americans not fixated on Vietnamese women and cuisine (no veterans of the war there) are little developed, more one-dimensional placeholders than characters with any nuance.

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At an appearance at the San Francisco Public Library, Lam expressed frustration at being asked “Is that about you?” even asked (somewhere else) if he had a grandmother who returned from the dead (as the one put on ice in “Grandma’s Tales” does). I was reminded of Robert Stone’s observation (at a book appearance for his memoir Prime Green) that, these days, American readers think that writers are incapable of inventing anything (writing fiction), except in autobiographies in which everything is suspected of being fictionalized. I don’t know that Lam had the second frustration in regard to Perfume Dreams, but first-person narratives from minorities are consumed in part for their seeming promise of authenticity (recall the annoyances at Famous All Over Town by “Danny Santiago”).

Another work (a memoir) about the 1.5 generation (that is, those who came to the US as children) that Lam praised was I Love Yous Are for White People by Lac Su – who provided one of the many blurbs for Birds of Paradise Lost. The two that have most impressed me are Catfish and Mandela and The Eaves of Heaven by Andre X. Pham (who also contributed a blurb, as did Pulitzer Prize winners Oscar Hijuelos and Robert Olen Butler, plus ones from Maxine Hong Kinston and Aimee Phan (We Should Never Meet).

No one (had time to?) ask Lam about his literary influences, which is perhaps a first in book-hawking appearances in San Francisco.

I thought the most interesting answer he gave was to a question about the difference between writing essays and writing fiction. I had just read a 1 March 1940 diary entry from Italian poet/novelist Cesare Pavese proclaiming that “the balance of a story lies in the coexistence of two things: the author, who knows how it will end, and the group of characters, who do not. If the author and a protagonist become merges, as with a story in the first person, it is essential to increase the stature of the other characters who restore the balance. Therefore, the protagonist, if [s/]he relates the story himself[/herself] must be primarily a spectator” (giving Moby Dick and Notes from the Underground as examples). Lam’s stories with first-person narrators follow Pavese’s prescription for balance, but Lam said that a pleasure of writing fiction is not knowing how the story he is writing will end. I have heard other authors say that after setting up a situation and characters, they discover what they characters will do (that is, how the story will turn out). The disparity between Pavese and Lam may be less than it seems in that, using “Slingshot” as an example, Lam said that after reaching the ending, he went back an provided some foreshadowing “clues,” so that the finished product has more of the author knowing how it will end than the actual process of drafting a story. had (Another difference Lam mentioned was the lack of deadline for fiction in contrast to journalistic pieces, though there are writers of essays without deadlines and fiction writers with advances.)

©2013, 2017, by Stephen O. Murray

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