I think I am half in love with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. She's received a certain amount of attention lately for her TED Talk on feminism (sampled in Beyonce's song "***Flawless," and credited with a misspelling of her name), the arrival of her latest novel Americanah, and the film adaptation of her novel Half of a Yellow Sun (coming out this summer!). Talented, eloquent, and influential---she's someone to watch. But what struck a personal chord in me is her TED Talk on "the danger of a single story."
Like Adichie, I began writing stories as a child long before I had mastered handwriting. My first story is in marker, penned in a notebook with wide-rule and dashed lines for teaching the shapes of the alphabet. Like Adichie, I was an early reader. And what I read were stories about white characters.
I devoured Louisa May Alcott, the Little House books, Harry Potter, His Dark Materials, The Secret Garden, Heidi, A Little Princess, Julie Andrews Edwards...and they still hold a special place in my heart. But over the years, a strange dichotomy arose in my mind. There were people who lived in the world, like me, and then there were people who lived on in stories, who exemplified humanity and always would.
Adichie says it best:
"Now, I loved those American and British books I read. They stirred my imagination. They opened up new worlds for me. But the unintended consequence was that I did not know that people like me could exist in literature." (02:36)
I am not Nigerian. In fact, as a person of mixed race heritage (Vietnamese and white, to put it simplest), I am not any one thing. What I wanted to be was white, pure white, with "corn silk" hair like Lois Lenski's Mary Jemison and rosy cheeks like Heidi. I wanted to live in a household that drank tea and baked buns, I wanted to watch my mother sit at her vanity and apply pink lipstick, wriggle into a silk dress and go out to dinner with my father. I wanted a white teen experience, to worry about who would ask me to dances and to define myself in terms of social status instead of race.
The sandwiches I brought to school were seasoned with soy sauce. For school picture days and Valentine's dances I wore traditional cheongsam (Mandarin gowns) my mother brought back from Vietnam, and wondered why when a blonde girl wore a cheongsam it was sexy, and when I did it was embarrassing.
Whereas the western world finds the eastern exotic, I found just the opposite.
"My characters also drank a lot of ginger beer because the characters in the British books I read drank ginger beer. Never mind that I had no idea what ginger beer was. And for many years afterwards, I would have a desperate desire to taste ginger beer." (01:26)
I was thrilled to hear Achibie mention ginger beer, because it has stuck in my mind for years after reading Julie Andrews Edwards's Mandy. Nothing seemed so exotic to me as eating bread and butter and washing it down with a glass bottle of ginger beer. In this way, my memories of the British books I've read have a nontarnishable luster of charm to them. I couldn't relate to this world, but at the same time, it seemed to be the only one that mattered.
And so the stories I wrote were of the white experience.
"All my characters were white and blue-eyed, they played in the snow, they ate apples, and they talked a lot about the weather, how lovely it was that the sun had come out. Now, this despite the fact that I lived in Nigeria. I had never been outside Nigeria. We didn't have snow, we ate mangoes, and we never talked about the weather, because there was no need to." (Adichie, 00:56)
It is only very recently that I've fully embraced my heritage. Throughout my life I've gone from wanting to be completely white, to wanting to be completely Asian, to now accepting I am what I am. For the first time, two or three years ago, I wrote my first Vietnamese story. And now I am working on my first Vietnamese novel.
At first I was concerned about my authenticity as a Vietnamese writer. I wondered if my characters were stereotypes, and then realized they partly were. Not only was I discounting my own experiences as a Vietnamese American, but I was guilty of seeing a single story of Vietnam. A "single story" is a flat image of a culture. To see a Mexican immigrant. To see a poor African (and to reduce the entirety of the continent to one country labeled as "Africa"). For its reputation as a melting pot, we Americans seem to live in a vacuum.
Achibie mentions the reaction she received from her college roommate in America:
"My roommate had a single story of Africa: a single story of catastrophe. In this single story there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her in any way, no possibility of feels more complex than pity, no possibility of a connection as human equals." (05:02)
Vietnam's single story is the war: known as the "Vietnam War" in America and the "American War" in Vietnam. Vietnam has a history of occupation, but it has a present we tend to overlook. My novel mentions the war, but it is only one facet of Vietnamese culture. I will not let my heritage be defined by tragedy, the way I am so much more than the difficulties of my past. The goal of my novel is to create a second story of Vietnam, a second world in the hopes that multitudes will open up.
let people know
VIETNAM IS NOT A WAR
but a piece
"shrapnel shards on blue water"
-lê thi diem thúy
Still, every once in a while, I enjoy the taste of ginger beer.
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