Author and journalist Andrew Lam started college at the University of California, Berkeley, as a biochemistry major, with the intention to go to medical school.
But when he went through his first heartbreak, his path changed forever. Lam took a writing class to express his feelings, and, “the next thing I knew, words kept flowing out.”
Students, professors and Bloomington residents filled the School of Journalism auditorium Thursday to hear Andrew Lam talk about the evolution of his writing life in an event co-sponsored by the IU School of Journalism and the Asian Culture Center. Lam’s appearance is part of the IU observance of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.
The sad love affair opened the door to the writing life, but it quickly was replaced by Lam’s exploration of cultural identity. Much of Lam’s writing reflects his experiences as an 11-year-old refugee who, with his family, fled Vietnam as it fell to the Viet Cong in 1975, and the way the family adapted to a Western life in California.
Comparative literature professor Angela Pao introduced Lam as a writer who “uses words as bridges between different forms of writing, media and cultures.”
Photo by Nicholas DemilleLam read passages from his work, including an essay from Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora.
Lam’s works have appeared in many newspapers, and he’s been a commentator on NPR’s All Things Considered. He co-founded New America Media, which syndicates work from 2,000 ethnic media outlets and provides news from the point of view of ethnic minorities. He has also written two books:Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diasporaand East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres.
After giving up a research career after discovering his passion for writing, Lam enrolled in a master’s degree program in San Francisco, where he was one of only two Asian students in program. His first assignment was to write a three-page autobiography about why he wanted to be a writer. When he finished reading his to the class, Lam said there was silence in room and the professor had tears in his eyes.
“It was the first time I felt the power of language,” Lam said, “the power of words to change the world.”
From there, Lam freelanced for Pacific News Wire and was hooked. He also started sharing his stories on NPR’s All Things Considered, presenting the program’s first Asian male voice. A few years later, PBS sent a film crew to follow his trip to Vietnam for a documentary, My Journey Home, and he recalled almost crying on national television.
“My career seems to be such an accidental thing,” Lam said, “but it’s so intrinsically my life.”
Lam said his parents were initially resistant to his career choice. His mother’s first reaction, when he said he was moving to San Francisco, was that they shouldn’t have let him go to UC Berkley because he became a “hippie.” But their point of view started to shift when his writing was translated into Vietnamese, and they saw him win awards and become successful. Lam said a chapter in Perfume Dreams summed up their relationship: “Love Your Parents, Follow Your Bliss” was inspired by this.
Lam read three passages from his books, including a section from East Eats West about a family karaoke session that turned into a family therapy session. He sang bits of You've Got a Friend, and joked that he was the first contributor to sing a capella on All Things Considered.
Photo by Nicholas DemilleLam signed copies of his books for the crowd, which included professor Joe Coleman (left).
In the open session after the talk, Lam answered questions from the audience ranging from his writing inspirations to his relationship with Vietnam today.
“I love books that create a lot of images in my head,” he said, citing his childhood love of comic books. “I write visually. I don’t like to write about it unless I can see it.”
Lam said when he first went back to Vietnam in 1991, the country was different from his memories. The unrecognizable languages, vocabulary and cultural references made him feel like he was in a totally different country. He said these changes in Vietnam have both made it easier to forget the Vietnam War and created a generation gap in the population.
Alfonse Pham, an IU doctoral student, first met Lam in 2006 when the author spoke at UCLA. Pham said he enjoyed hearing Lam read from his own books.
“Lam gave voice to a generation,” Pham said. “We do live in two worlds, and the gap between them isn’t well-studied. His writing is beautiful, and it embodies our experience.”
Junior Panagiota Doukas was familiar with Lam’s writing because she had read Perfume Dreams for a class. She said it was a totally different experience reading his story and hearing him talk about it in person.
“His talk was fantastic,” she said. “He’s so engaging when he speaks, and it’s important that people hear his stories and remember.”