Introducing...

So sleepy!

...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)

The House on Dream Street

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.

The Reeducation of Cherry Truong

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.

The Danger of a Single Story

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

of

us,

sister

and

we are

so much

more

"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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