The son of a Vietnamese family rocked by war, Andrew Lam grew up amid the Bay Area’s vibrant immigrant bricolage, which has shaped the region’s cultural boundaries as well as his work as a journalist, activist, and author of fiction. In his latest book, Birds of Paradise Lost (Red Hen Press), Lam’s short stories trace the contours and conflicts of migrant life in the post-Vietnam War diaspora—through characters who span across borders, generations, and a broad social spectrum. Read “Show and Tell,” from Birds of Paradise Lost, here.
Michelle Chen: You’ve been a journalist, a radio commentator, memoirist and now, fiction writer. Why the genre shift?
Andrew Lam: I have been a fiction writer right from the start. The trouble was that I could never make a living writing fiction so got into journalism by sheer luck—a classmate at my MFA creative writing program introduced me to essayist Richard Rodriguez, who was editor at Pacific News Service. He hired me to write commentaries and news analyses.
What can fiction do that non-fiction can’t? It can get into the secret lives of people, reveal their inner thoughts and yearnings, and get closer to the human experience and beyond. I can be a lot more versatile writing fiction—speaking in a voice of an old man or an angry teenager or a traumatized woman. I can embody their lives in a way a journalist can’t. Birds of Paradise Lost was cathartic for me to write, as I got to really let go of my own ego, live someone else’s life, and get at the core of their suffering.
You introduce an earlier book of yours, East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres, with a description of the imaginative space “between East and West, between languages, between memories and desires.” For me, the phrase “writing in two hemispheres” evokes a cultural or geographic divide, but also the supposed division between the emotional and rational. What is the essence of a hemispheric outlook from your perspective?
It is both regions of the brain as well as the conflict between East and West. It struck me early on that a lot of people feel they have to choose between A and B when really they should be trying to balance opposing ideas. When I wrote East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres, I was chiefly thinking about how to build bridges between dissimilar sets of values. Mine, after all, is a world complicated by memories, ambitions, and displacement—and it refutes simplification. At home, I speak Vietnamese and French. In the office, I speak English, my language of choice. Americans celebrate birthdays. The Vietnamese celebrate death anniversaries. In Vietnam, I bowed to teachers and never looked them in the eye. In America, my math teacher told me I was “shifty” when I didn’t look at him directly. Such are the strange bearings for those of us who lurk between East and West, between languages, between memories and desires. However, where the two hemispheres over-lapse, is where I learned and relearned how to mediate opposing ideas and to bridge disparate viewpoints. It is barely charted territory, and fraught with contradictions and tensions, but fun and exciting as well.
Your characters in Birds of Paradise sometimes embody stereotypes—of Vietnamese refugees, queer Californians, and lonely but assimilated “successful” immigrants. But they also subvert and challenge those stereotypes. How do you lure people with the familiar and then spring the strange on them?
I am sometimes asked about what kinds of “literary devices” I employ. But I don’t think in terms of technique or try to play on stereotypes or any social construct. I leave a lot of assumptions and theories at the entrance to the fiction world. When I hear a voice—as in the girl in “Slingshot” who speaks in a particular way, or Bobby’s voice in “Show & Tell”—I feel like I have to tell that story. When a scene moves me, I live with it until characters are born. Usually, I don’t even know what the story is about; I have to listen hard until it’s revealed.
Once I know my character really well, it is as if she’s playing out her life in front of me and I’m simply recording it. I do, however, fine tune and play with themes or add a certain quirkiness in subsequent drafts once I get the core of the story down. I hone the characters’ decisions and gestures. But I never set out with the idea that characters should be “strange.” People are strange. Inner life is a labyrinth and a mystery—those who have experienced war and exodus have already inherited a whole world of strangeness, traumas, and sadness.
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