...Moxie Mondays! In which, every week, I blatantly take advantage of the public's love for cats by posting a video or photo of my own feline terror.
Moxie is a year and five months old. She is a domestic medium hair who was found on the streets of Dorchester, MA with two kittens (who have since been adopted). Her hobbies are chasing rubber balls face-first into hard surfaces, and chicken.
And in honor of our very first MM (Moxie Monday), a photo AND a video.
Onto less furry, and more papery, business: the non-writing of my novel. Also known as The Re'search (which is Research, but said in an elegant British accent because I'm classy). This research is not limited to google searches and wikipedia articles. I have actually gone to a library. I have also bought novels by Vietnamese American authors, and I've rented movies by Vietnamese directors, starring Vietnamese actors. Serious business here!
For now, I just want to focus on some of the literature. More specifically: The House on Dream Street by Dana Sachs (nonfiction) The Reeducation of Cherry Truong by Aimee Phan (fiction)
What drew me to The House on Dream Street was the firsthand account of living in Vietnam. While I've been to Vietnam twice, those short visits (almost three months combined) can't replace the day-to-day details of actually living and working in a place. The House on Dream Street is a travel memoir recounting Sachs's repeated trips to North Vietnam over the course of two years.
Sachs, an American journalist, impulsively drops her life in San Francisco for a new one in Hanoi. She settles into a garishly decorated room at a young family's house, tentatively forging a friendship with the quiet, retiring wife of her landlord. But as Sachs's grasp of the Vietnamese language grows, so too does her relationships with the local people, and her confidence navigating the chaotic streets and markets of Hanoi. She falls in love in Phai, a motorcycle mechanic and close friend of the family she lives with. Their whirlwind relationship falls apart when, after six months of living in Vietnam, Sachs decides to return to the States. Back home, she realizes her connection to Phai was just a physical manifestation for her obsession with Vietnam. But Sachs can't let go of Vietnam, and returns again and again, each time revealing a new glimpse of life among the impoverished farmers, the bohemian socialites, the high energy executives, and the veterans.
The House on Dream Street is a lushly rendered introduction to Vietnam, and while I enjoyed the fleshed-out conversations and snippets of insight into the culture, the view of Vietnam is an intensely narrow one. All trips combined, Sachs spends less than a year in Vietnam, and her struggle with the language grants her an outsider status for a portion of it. As Sachs didn't visit Vietnam intending to document her experiences as a memoir, her interactions with the people around her are unreliable. Before reading, I assumed Sachs had lived in Vietnam for at least several years and was disappointed to find out her longest stint was six months. Overall, this was an interesting read, but not a particularly illuminating one for someone already well acquainted with Vietnamese culture. Only part of my novel takes place in Vietnam, but as I'm not a fluent speaker either, I thought I'd rather be safe than sorry when depicting life there.
Like any person writing a story, there's a huge fear that it's already been done and done better. The Reeducation of Cherry Truong sounded uncomfortably familiar to the premise of my novel (French Vietnamese family members, secret letters, traveling to Vietnam), but as I read, those similarities became more and more superficial. Which was a relief, because this is a beautiful novel, both in story and craft.
The night before leaving a Malaysian refugee camp for a new home in Paris, Grandpere and Grandmere Truong learn that their son Sanh will be heading instead to America with his wife and child. Their daughter-in-law Tuyet, devastated by the Truongs' refusal to find a seat for her mother on the escape boat to Malaysia, has decided their chances are better in America. And so splits a branch of the Truong family, with consequences lasting decades.
After such a tumultuous history, the characters of The Reeducation of Cherry Truong are obsessed with the past, and none more so than Cherry, the daughter of Sanh and Tuyet. Intelligent but reticent, she sits on the sidelines and watches the family drama around her unfold. The novel is told from the perspective of several characters: both of Cherry's grandmothers, Cherry's mother and father, both of Cherry's cousins in France, and Cherry herself. It begins with Cherry's brother's exile to Vietnam, and Cherry's reflections on it serve as a narrative catalyst: each chapter afterwards alludes to a different time period, uncovering multiple generations across multiple countries, accompanied by letter excerpts. In less capable hands, this could be confusing and murky, but in Phan's confident and clear-eyed prose, the effect is of a pendulum swinging back and forth, each tick growing more and more resonant. Through the years, her characters struggle for redemption. None are ultimately sure if they've succeeded. At the heart of it all is Cherry, who collects her grandparents' letters and reads them for answers to how her family has divided and evolved. In the States, in France, in Vietnam, she watches her relatives with intensity, comparing their lives and wondering how things could have been if they'd never been separated. The family drama comes to a head in a near fatal incident that splits Cherry's family forever.
Growing up, I never read any Vietnamese literature, so The Reeducation of Cherry Truong holds a special place in my heart. I'll be continuing to search out novels by Vietnamese American authors, but as far as I know, this one is the most modern.