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  • By Carolyn Lê

Interview: Author Andrew Lam Talks About Journalism and Which of His Characters He’d Have a Drink Wi

As a Vietnamese American writer, Andrew Lam’s works have helped many Vietnamese Americans investigate the void within themselves—specifically, the history of their parents’ pasts as refugees of the Vietnam War. “I’ve met many Vietnamese American youths who tell me my stories helped them talk to their parents and get them to open up about their past. Each time, I’m surprised. I didn’t really know my writing could do that.”

The author of two collections of essays and a book of short stories, Lam challenges the single narrative of the Vietnamese American immigrant experience. His works insist on the need for a universe full of stories that showcase mythology, journalism, fiction, and storytelling. These narratives become a way of reconstructing identity that is not entirely determined by one experience. In addition to authoring Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora (2005), East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres (2010), and Birds of Paradise Lost (2013), Lam is a journalist, and editor and co-founder of New American Media.

Chopsticks Alley interviewed Lam after our Live Talk, April 30th, A Day of Many Meanings.

In your story collection Birds of Paradise Lost, the short story also titled “Birds of Paradise Lost” shows a moment when the protagonist Thang reads the report about Mister Bac’s self immolation in the San Jose Mercury News. The paper gives us a set of information that allows the reader to identify Mister Bac (his full name, age, and occupation), but it appears the text is calling attention to this kind of information, which is usually included in journalism writing, as unsatisfactory. As an author and a journalist, what is your perspective and how do you approach this when reporting?

As a reader of news, I am wholly dissatisfied when journalism tries to explain something, especially motive. Recently [on April 19th, 2017], Aaron Hernandez, the football player, hanged himself in his cell [after being indicted for a murder and a double homicide]. Many news organizations said he hung out with the wrong crowd. The information they provided were so unsatisfying because many football players hang out with the wrong crowd, and they don’t end up killing people. Only yesterday [April 23rd, 2017], we learned from Newsweek, that he was bisexual. He was trying to hide himself. The fear of being outed was so significant that he’d rather kill someone than be outed as a person who had gay sex. The shame of being involved was never addressed by any of the other journalism companies. That was the first piece that began to give significance to motive. Often times, journalism does not do a very good job in explaining a person’s background and their motive to why someone, for instance Mister Bac in “Birds of Paradise Lost,” would commit suicide. What is the real motive? Why would someone pour gasoline on himself and set himself on fire? It is very important to get to the deeper layer because it’s so easy to say, “[Mister Bac] is patriotic.” If he’s patriotic, and I would say my uncle is patriotic, my father is patriotic, you can do a bunch of different things to show your patriotism other than to protest during a time when no one is there to witness it.

It may be that he was not of sound mind. That’s what Tinh, Thang’s son, was saying. Tinh never condones that kind of killing. He basically asks Thang, Why would your friend do this to himself when Congress isn’t even there? The only reason his story was reported was because there was a tourist who managed to take a picture. Otherwise he wouldn’t exist in an American newspaper. So was he clear minded? Was he overwhelmed by grief? Thang couldn’t accept that version of the story because he’d rather have this patriotic narrative. Unfortunately, when you force that kind of narrative on yourself and others, you don’t get to the heart of the story.

Thang is the protagonist of “Birds of Paradise Lost.” He learns that one of his best friends, Mister Bac, committed self-immolation in Washington, D.C., in front of the Capitol building. Mister Bac left a note that explains his actions.

In Birds of Paradise Lost, which character would you like to go out for drinks with and why?

​​I have to say, I have drinks with all of them for years because that’s how I get to their deeper story. I have to live with their deeper lives and know them inside out. So metaphorically, I have been drinking with them for years. But if there is one that I would actually meet up for drinks, it would be Robert, the kid in “Show & Tell,” as an adult. I think he has a profound, deep sympathy for us. He’s a kid who doesn’t know much about Vietnamese history, but is somehow intuitive enough, because of his own grief, to have the ability to tell someone else’s story who couldn’t. To me, he’s like a spiritual person. He’s the class clown, but he’s also someone who can sympathize with others. That’s someone I want to be friends with. He’s someone that would say, “I totally understand where you’re at.” Imagine if he grows up to be a sound human being, he would be an awesome person.

Robert from “Show & Tell” helps Cao, the new kid from Vietnam who doesn’t speak English, tell the story of his family during seventh-grade show and tell.

We noticed that diacritics, or accent marks, aren’t included in this collection, specifically, in the names of the characters. Is there a reason why? The first to come to mind is Mr. Le from “Love Leather.” The story points out that most people would mispronounce his name as Mr. Lee.

When I was writing it, it was a technical problem. When I was writing these pieces, I didn’t have access to Vietnamese fonts. This was a long time ago, since I’ve worked on these for 15 years, and after a while, I just forget to. So it no longer became critical for me to go back and add them. But in my next collection, I can type in Vietnamese because it’s easy. For years, I didn’t know I could dictate in different languages besides English to Siri. I could speak French or Vietnamese to Siri, and I’m so happy. It’s technology that’s enabled this easier transition. The absence of diacritics has no profound meaning. I still cannot type in Vietnamese, or French. So technology really enables a sort of facility of languages.

What's next for you? What are you working on now?

I’m working on two books. Slowly but surely because I’m a journalist by trade. I’m working on another collection of short stories. The first book eliminated some of the stories that were too parallel with other stories in Birds of Paradise Lost. This one is built around a younger generation dealing with identity, sex, love, and the history of Vietnam is in the background. It’s tentatively called Stories From the Edge of the Sea. Another book is a novel.

Andrew Lam’s Books:

''When Americans say Vietnam, they don't mean Vietnam.'' Perfume Dreams (2005) won the 2006 PEN Open Book Award. These essays explore the Vietnamese diaspora in the United States, the duality of Vietnam, and the state of becoming; that is, identity is complex—it is never fixed and is constantly changing.

Lam’s second book, East Eats West, named 2010’s Top Ten Indies by Self Unbound Magazine, reworks the narrative of the East and its otherness into one where the East has agency and is increasingly less other. The text confronts and destabilizes the category of the Orient and the Occident. He weaves journalism and storytelling together to reflect on the theme of globalization and cultural identity.

Memories of war have come to define the Vietnamese American identity, as the body of the Vietnamese American would not exist without the war that eventually displaced thousands of Vietnamese into the South China Sea, many of whom sought refuge in America. Therefore, the Vietnamese American body is informed by the trauma of the past. However, Lam’s short story collection, Birds of Paradise Lost, argues for a different alternative to this inextricability—one where it is possible to move beyond the past and shed the burden of identity representation. The book was a finalist for the California Book Award and won the Josephine Miles award for fiction.

You can find Andrew Lam’s books here.

His articles can be read on Huffington Post.

Lam’s upcoming events:

Colusa 100A

Roots Catering, 3221 Esplanade

James Hormel LGBT Center

Smithsonian Library of Congress and Dupont Underground

Carolyn Lê

Literature Editor

A San José native and a recent graduate from University of Santa Cruz with honors in Literature, Carolyn has a deep appreciation for Vietnamese American literature and the Vietnamese American community. She is excited to be a part of an organization such as Chopsticks Alley, one that celebrates Vietnamese American culture and encourages positive self-identification. Driven by her educational background in literary criticism, she seeks to empower those who are historically marginalized, underrepresented, and underserved through literature and writing. She is also a dog-lover and has been a professional Dog Training Instructor for over 7 years!

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