Harrowing memoir of Khmer Rouge genocide

The best-known portrayal of Angkar (usually called “Khmer Rouge” in the west) horrors focus on an American (“The Killing Fields). Angkar exterminated educated Cambodians and sought to eradicate anyone who spoke languages other than Khmer or who looked to be of non-Khmer descent (especially lighter-skinned Vietnamese and Chinese, even though Angkar was supported by the PRC). There were literate survivors of the Nazi holocaust (Elie Wiesel, Primo Levi), the Soviet gulags (Solzhenitsyn), the cultural revolution (Shen Fan), and the ongoing Burmese junta (Pacal Kew Thwe) but very few cosmopolitan Cambodians survived the starvation and executions of Angkar ethnic and social cleansing.

The “classless” Angkar dystopia was very stratified, as Loung Ung’s memoir makes clear: the Angkar cadres had the most food, the peasants who had never left their fields had enough to survive, those driven from the cities and presumed corrupted by urban life were starved or murdered outright.

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Ung’s 2000 memoir, First They Killed My Father, begins with remembering a life of prosperity and privilege as her father’s favorite in Phnom Penh. Angkar troops occupied and emptied the capital on April 17, 1975. The five-year-old Loung naively believed that the “evacuation” would only last three days. Angkar lied, and the horrors burgeon. Savvy a survivor as her father is, he is eventually taken away. She’d like to believe the Angkarite who says he’ll return in the morning. Her father knows better and tells her twelve-year-old brother Kim that he must protect the family.

Kim goes to heroic lengths (to which no one of any age should have to go) against implacable enemies. Loung celebrates Kim and their father and mother, blaming herself for lack of understanding and sympathy for the latter. Loung and Kim have to be mature and crafty long before chronological adulthood. Above all, they must not let anyone know they are urban and of mixed (Chinese-Khmer) descent, though their light skin give them away as not being peasants.

As the Angkar mythos shifts into a cult of Pol Pot, Loung focuses the fury, which she cannot show, on fantasies of providing him the painful death he evaded. Desire for vengeance keeps her going (rather than eating her up) as she trains to be a soldier. She eventually watches two women hammer and stab an Angkar murderer, but does not enjoy it… And has more travails on the South China Sea en route to a Thai refuge camp.

From title and subtitle, I knew I was getting memories of sickening mistreatment. An older sister is eager to forget the horrors, but Loung provides witness—very young when witnessing, and very gifted a writer (in English) about the horrors she saw when her happy childhood turned into a protracted nightmare. The 29-year-old author (and anti-landmine activist) recalls a few rays of sunlight that reached her in Angkar hell, and the lost paradise of the childhood that ended just after she turned five.

What the adult author imagines happened to (altogether too many!) family members, based on Angkar practices is set off in italics. The five-year-old’s hero worship of her father leaves open to more distanced readers to wonder what her father did as a police official, though being killed by Angkar “justice” clearly did not require evidence of any misdeeds.

That Cambodia had to be saved from its nativist butchers who outdid the carnage and economic suicide of Mao’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution by the far-from-democratic forces of the People’s Army of Vietnam is somewhere beyond ironic. That Ho Chi Minh City in 1979 seemed a paradise of freedom and prosperity says a great deal about the Cambodia in which Loung had spent the previous four years.

 

©2007, 2017, Stephen O. Murray

Leaving Las Vegas (after fleeing Vietnam)

I think that Vu Tran’s impressive debut novel, Dragonfish (2015) is “genre-blending” rather than “genre blurring.” It is a detective story in the noir subgenre of trying to find a troubled, enigmatic woman. I would not label Vietnamese refugee (ca. 1977 by boat) Hong/Suzy (born in 1953) as a “femme fatale,” but Robert, the (white) Oakland policeman (born in 1955, I think) who is the narrator, will never get over his ex-wife, who left him after eight rather manic-depressive years. There is the tortured romance angle (Hong’s second and third marriages). The novel is also a ghost story and alternates between Robert’s trips to Las Vegas to find and/or avenge her, and a long account of a horrific nine-days at sea between Vietnam and Malaysia that Hong wrote for the daughter whom she took with her. (“Refugee narrative” is another of the genres juxtaposed in the book.)

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Her first husband, back in Vietnam, had been a captain in the AVN air force, who was shipped north for prolonged “re-education”/torture, and returned after being diagnosed with advanced and terminal cancer. He did not want their daughter to remember him dying and dispatched them on the nearly fatal boat trip, one that was fatal to several other passengers. On the Malaysian island that has been made into a refugee camp, mother and daughter watch a brutal 31-year-old former AVN soldier and his very handsome young (7?) son. (The wife/mother drowned on the boat in which the other four successfully fled.)

In America the father (Son/Sonny Nguyen) and son (Jonathan Nguyen) prosper, though the father is a heavy drinker and high stakes gambler. Jonathan runs some restaurants and tries to minimize damage all around, including to Robert, who learns that Son had thrown Hong down a staircase and decided to go rough him up. By the end of the novel, the reader will believe that Jonathan tried to protect Jonathan.

There are hired , though Son has plenty of muscles in his own bullish body, plus a Vietnamese best friend of Hong’s, “Happy,” who has become a Las Vegas casino dealer… and who also tries to protect Robert. And I have failed to mention that Hong abandoned her daughter, Mai, after a year or so living with her late husband’s uncle (“great uncle” in standard American usage, though Tran has him referred to as “grand uncle”). Mai grew up to be a professional poker player.

I find it hard to believe that she has no memory of her father from her last year in Vietnam (when she was five years old, the same age as the author when he and his mother escaped by boat to Malaysia; his father, who had been a air force captain, had left before he was born) or of the surrogate father and his son (Son and Jonathan), each of whom saved her life while all were in the Malaysian refugee camp. I find it even harder to believe that the terminally traumatized Hong could write so smooth a narrative of her life in Vietnam, Malaysia, and California with the daughter whom she abandoned after all the travail of saving her and getting her to America. (Written to Mai, who has not seen her for two decades, it comes in three installments, including two pages at the onset of the book.)

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(2015 photo by Jeffrey Beall from Creative Commons)

Oddly, I find the Saigon-born (ca. 1975) author’s narration by the white cop more credible than that of the Vietnamese refugee. (In a NPR interview he said that “I didn’t have to fight to get that [Hong’s] voice out.”)T his somewhat amuses me given all the huffing and puffing about “appropriation” of “the other,” which is never applied to nonwhite writers writing of/about white characters. Yes, I recognize that though Vietnam-born, Tran is not a woman, either, and I really would not want the long narrative in the broken English of Happy’s dialogue. Moreover, the recollections of Malaysian exile are quite interesting. And the melancholy of Robert’s quixotic Las Vegas crusades and the atmosphere of Las Vegas are very convincingly conveyed by Tran. (BTW, he grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, apart from any Vietnamese American enclave. He teaches creative writing at the University of Chicago.)

 

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

Vietnamese orphans before and after “Operation Babylift”

Aimee Phan was born in 1977 in Orange County, so had no personal experience/memory of “Operation Babylift,” in which 10,300 infants and children were airlifted from Saigon to the United States before the city fell to the People’s Army of Vietnam. The eight stories in We Should Never Meet, published in 2004 (when the author was 27) are about orphans and their caregivers. Four are set in Vietnam (three before Operation Babylift; the last with two orphans revisiting Saigon and a nearby orphanage and the Vietcong’s Cu Chi tunnels). The other four center on orphans resettled in Phan’s native Orange County, where the heaviest concentration of Vietnamese American live.

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Though Phan is not an orphan and was not born in Vietnam, the stories are convincing to me (unlike her, I was adopted, as some of them were) both about the chaos of orphanages in the final stages of the Republic of Vietnam and about the abandonment neuroses of those who had been evacuated and grew up in Orange County (whether in foster care or as adopted children). The white Americans who devoted time and resources to helping the children survive, both in South Vietnam and in the US, may sometimes be clueless, but are seen in the texts as well-intentioned. Bridget, a pediatrician who volunteered to go to a Saigon for two months, leaving behind her own two-year-old and husband in “Bound” is not ineffectual. She clearly saved lives, though just as clearly was delusional about being able to go back and continue her old life and now older family along with a Vietnamese baby boy. The last two stories in the book, “Bound” and “Motherland” end optimistically. The plane filled with orphans on which Bridget leaves makes it out (as one plane did not).

The most anti-American character in the book, Vinh, is also the most despicable, preying on other Vietnamese refugees whom he (and his gang) know do not trust police and are unlikely to seek their aid. For me “Visitors” was the most heartbreaking story in the collection. Vinh feels some regret for what he does, which undoes none of the damage to the refugee family(/ies) he victimizes (also in the title story in which another sympathetic Vietnamese character is attacked).

Kim, another recurring character, has wisely broken up with Vinh, but is relatively nihilistic and envious of Mai, the smart and accomplished girl who had been placed in foster care with Kim and Vinh more than once. Kim was adopted, but returned after a month, whereas Mai was kept by a pair of devoted foster parents, who did not adopt her and were taking in a seven-year old Vietnamese orphan when she went off to college (Emancipation).

The whole is more than the sum of the parts, but less than a sustained novel. There is much more I would like to know about various characters. I wouldn’t say that the stories lack endings (like so many New Yorker stories), but they tend to be somewhat open endings, cutting away from the uncertainties the characters feel and from closure. Each set of stories (those leading to and those leading from Operation Babylift) proceeds in chronological order, but the alternation does not work for me, though I could have read the four orphans in Saigon stories first and then the four adolescent Vietnamese orphans in Orange County ones. Having followed Phan’s ordering of chapters, I don’t know if the grouping would have enhanced coherence, but I think I’d recommend reading the 3rd, 5th, and 7th before reading the 2nd, 4th, 6th, and 8th (mindful that the 8th casts light on where the 7th left off, literally in midair).

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(jacket photo of author ca. 2004)

 

Phan’s first novel, The Reeducation of Cherry Truong, was published in 2012. It juxtaposes escape from and return to Vietnam with immigrant lives (of two families of refugees) in France and California with fractured chronology and two sets of letters as well as the main narration.

 

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

Another gripping and moving nonfiction tale by Andrew X. Pham—His father’s

I was not the only reader who was very impressed by Andrew Pham’s combination memoir of fleeing Vietnam as a child and returning and bicycling across it as a young adult: Catfish and Mandala won the 1999 Kiriyama Book Prize.

Pham’s Eaves of Heaven (nominated for a National Book Award) is a memoir in his father’s voice as written in English by his son. Thong Van Pham, lived in way too interesting times (to borrow from the Chinese curse): he was a child during the Japanese occupation, the son of rural gentry in northern Vietnam during the war for independence from French colonialism, drafted and later recalled to the South Vietnamese (ARVN) military.

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Readers of memoirs by Americans (A Rumor of War) and North Vietnamese (Sorrow of War) who fought in the third of the elder Pham’s three wars have expressed considerable contempt for the skills and valor of ARVN troops. The senior Pham recalls great frustration at the corruption and failures of will and imagination of commanders (not least one who left his unit to be slaughtered), but also valor of some frontline ARVN soldiers (also see Perfume Dreams).

I wonder if his analysis of communist domination of the Viet-Minh fighting the French in the 1950s was as clear then as in retrospects, though I incline to believe that the US abandoning the government it had put in place (violating the Geneva Accords for a nationwide election, then greenlighting the coup against the Diems, greenlighting excluding Gen. Minh from the last RVN presidential election) was unthinkable to those who had fought on the American side of Pham’s third war.

The book ends after a stint in “re-education” prison before the Phams became boat people fleeing Vietnam (horrors covered in Catfish). Life in rural northern Vietnam during Japanese and French occupation and during the war of Independence, life in Hanoi before the French left, life in Saigon and in the ARVN, and in “re-education” prison are all vividly portrayed. The cutting back and forth seems distracting to me, though time and place for each chapter are specified. I would have preferred a chronological structure. Would the reader fail to notice the recurrence of brutalities, of fleeing and rebuilding, if the chronology was straightforward? I don’t think so.

The action scenes, notably a fight that an Algerian legionnaire forces a peasant into and the Vietcong attack on the paramilitary force Pham commands, are very vivid, as is the bitter taste of communist purges of nationalists within the anticolonial struggle of the early 1950s.

The book is not at all a rant. There are comic incidents, love stories, vivid characters, as well as the horrors of torture and battle. Pham recalls his mother (who died in childbirth at the age of 31) telling him that “the eaves of heaven had a way of turning in cycles, of dealing both blows and recompenses.” The balance seems to me uneven; to amend Wright Morris slightly: real losses and temporarily imagined gains.

©2009, 2017, Stephen O. Murray

[In addition to collaborating on this book, the Phams collaborated on translating Last Night I Dreamed of Peace: The Diaries of Dr. Thuy Tram.]

Returning to and bicycling across Vietnam

In many ways quite horrifying, Catfish and Mandala is one of the most gripping and moving books I’ve ever read. The book has a number of narrative lines. The author, Andrew X. Pham, bored with his work as an aerospace engineer, sets off to bicycle parts of the Pacific Rim. He starts on the GoldenGate Bridge and goes up the US coast. He flies to Japan and bicycles out of Narita Airport. He flies to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), takes his bike on a train to Hanoi and bicycles back. The perils of these eccentric trips are interesting, but within the realm of travel writing. So is the self-deprecation for such crazy ventures. The book is unlikely to encourage visitors (especially Vietnamese American ones) to Vietnam. And I don’t think I’ll be able to eat catfish in Southeastern Asia again (much as I liked it in Chiang Mai) after reading his description of the exuberance catfish have for scarfing down  fresh human feces.

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That the trip shows “You can’t go home again,” because what is left there is unrecognizable&is a fairly standard a finding. The resentment by those who stayed for those who left is particularly acute in Vietnam, but this is a difference of degree, not of kind from other places from which people have left.

 
What makes this book exceptional is the juxtaposition of Pham’s reflections on his late-1990s bicycling around Vietnam with his memories of fleeing Vietnam in 1977, when he was 10 years of age. An Indonesian ship rescued his family just before their boat sank. They spent a long time in a refugee camp in Indonesia, an almost as disorienting a time sponsored by a church congregation in the American South, and more hard time struggling in San José, California. The family member who did not survive is an older sister who changed sexes in America. But in some sense, the survivors are also casualties, despite some material success.
Pham is obviously very resilient, both physically and emotionally and makes something of great value from painful personal history and difficult travel. He is harder on himself than on anyone else. He has great compassion for the Vietnamese he meets in Vietnam and for his elders among West Coast Vietnamese-Americans. It seems to me that Pham’s journey into the multiple traumas of his family’s experience yields insights of universal significance. His journey across space also provides considerable insight into the modern phenomena of dislocation: able to travel, but nowhere at home, he is regarded as a crazy alien in Vietnam and America (and Japan)… and as Vietnamese by white Americans and as American by Vietnamese.
This beautifully written and painfully self-revealing book deservedly won the 1999 Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize. It is certain to be one of the classics of diaspora literature. It is hard to imagine a reader who would not learn from the book, and I would not want to meet anyone who is not moved by its emotional force!

(I did not figure out where a mandala occurs in the text; perhaps the whirling bicycle wheels?)

 

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(book’s jacket author photo)

At a Different Light bookstore appearance, clad in standard writer black, Pham said he started writing in 1992, while still an aerospace engineer. His year of bicycle travel cost roughly $4000 (so the Kiriyama $50,000 prize could fund 12 years? He may be resilient, but not that resilient!) He never had any writing classes, just the belief that in America one can be what one wants to be (and he loves America and would fight for America). He acknowledged that healing by confession and introspection is very Western and his parents are very Eastern.

His gay brother Phu said that, although their father is very proud of his author (now winner of a lucrative and prestigious prize), he hasn’t spoken to Andrew since the book washed so much family laundry. In public Phu told him that he doesn’t have any friends anyway, so why should it matter to him(!).

[Pham’s website records: “If I knew then what I know now, I probably would have never written Catfish and Mandala. It brought my parents considerable pain and created a silence between us that lasted four years.” That was followed by collaboration on what became The Eaves of Heaven and translating Last Night I Dreamed of Peace: The Diaries of Dr. Thuy Tram]

He also said that their mother denied ever having in any way been a brothel keeper (a fairly opaque insinuation in Catfish and Mandala). (I asked Phu if he or any of the other siblings has been to Vietnam. He said no, that although he was interested in visiting, it wasn’t at the top of his list of places to go.)

Andrew said that his two gay brothers had stable relationships and careers, while he and his other straight brother have managed neither.

©1999, 2017, Stephen O. Murray

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

Out of Vietnam, Carrying Vietnam to America

Andrew Lam‘s “Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora,” primarily his own family’s, contains memoirs and reportage published between 1990 and 2005. Some of these (especially “Notes of a Warrior’s Son” and “The Stories They Carried”) are outstanding. Others are slight; “Two Passports,” is particularly disappointing, ending the collection with wistful whimpers rather than a bang.

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Perfume Dreams is unsatisfactory as a book, because the basic lineaments of the author’s story—growing up in the South Vietnamese elite, the son of a lieutenant general in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, being evacuated with his family two days before the fall of Saigon (when he was eleven years of age, facing the loss of status in America, struggling with the English language and American culture, the father arriving a bit later, being deeply depressed, then rallying, earning an MBA and lifting the family to suburban affluence—are repeated and repeated and repeated.

The pieces reflecting on those experiences show that Lam could write a compelling memoir of the status roller coaster of his life and his relationships with Vietnamese in Vietnam and in the US. But he hasn’t.

Some of the pieces are primarily about experiences of others, most notably “The Stories They Carried,” which is a report from a Hong Kong refugee camp for Vietnamese “boat people,” most of whom were being sent back as “economic refugees” rather than political refugees. Lam’s own feelings as a privileged American citizen (exacerbating his survivor guilt) are very much a part of the piece, though it is primarily about the stories of suffering of those who fled Vietnam later than he did being ignored, disbelieved, and disrespected. “Viet Kieu” (Vietnamese-American visitors to Vietnam) is another very impressive piece that is primarily about others, but with the compassion of someone very well aware of his luck.

Although very impressionistic and open to suspicions about bias, Lam’s contentions about the fading of Vietnamese identity in Vietnam are interesting hypotheses.

I also have to grant that Lam produces some good hooks for his essays, for instance, this from “The Dead Travel”:

“‘Til death do us part,’ that age-old marriage vow, has to Confucian ears always sounded a little, well, noncommittal, In Vietnam, death is not the end of relationships, it only deepens them.”

(What follows provides insight into how ancestor worship works, although its primary focus is Lam’s maternal grandmother’s relationship to her dead husband, whose grave she tended and which she was very reluctant to leave to flee to America in 1975.)

As a book, Perfume Dreams is inferior to Catfish and Mandala (in which memoir is integrated into an account of a Vietnamese-American traveling through Vietnam), or Pascal Thwe’s From the Land of the Green Ghosts: A Burmese Odyssey, or the pair of memoirs by (Cambodian-American) Loung Ung: First They Killed My Father (about surviving in Cambodia, the daughter of a high-ranking officer) and Lucky Child (about humiliations in America, success in America, visiting family back in Cambodia).

The reflections on what it means to be a general in a war that ended in defeat and exile are insightful—and quite pertinent here and now. Lam expresses dismay that American representations of the war in Vietnam do not show any bravery or honor in the ARVN and its officers, showing a war between American troops and Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops.

Actually, the ARVN is not so invisible in American representations. Rather, its officers are portrayed as brutal (killing prisoners), corrupt (profiteering), and unwilling to fight (throwing away weapons and fleeing under any fire, like the Kuomintang army during the late 1940s). Decrying invisibility rather than hostility, Lam does not comment on the negative portrayal.

And this reader is not willing to take on faith that Lam’s father’s hands were clean. I don’t mean killing people, which is what soldiers do. The sentence that caught my attention was the recollection of his father calling in napalm. Lam’s relationship with his father seems too fragile to have candid discussion about war crimes—or whether his father was complicit in torture as well as involved (ordering) the use of napalm on his countrymen.

I would still rate “Notes of a Warrior’s Son” a five-star essay. My rating of the book is lower for its failure to attempt to integrate the slivers of journalism into a memoir, the repetition, and the thinness of some chapters.

(The book comes with blurbs by Robert Olen Butler and Maxine Hong Kingston and a quite useful foreward by Richard Rodriguez. Lam is a journalist, an editor with the Pacific News Service, who, like Rodriguez, frequently comments on “All Things Considered” on NPR.”)

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(Lam at San Francisco Public Library with another, better book)

 

©2007, 2017, Stephen O. Murray