While reading Andrew Lam’s Birds of Paradise Lost, I kept thinking of novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED speech, back in 2009. It was titled “The Danger of the Single Story”; the subject echoed the project of challenging master narratives from the previous century. That challenge germinated revisions in university reading lists, back in the late seventies, as the war in Vietnam approached its final phase. Adichie underlines the role of power cultivated in a single story, and how it insinuates, then calcifies, subterranean borderlines through stereotypes. On a Virgin flight from Lagos before her talk, Adichie heard an announcement about charity work in “India, Africa, and other countries”; however unintentional this categorization of Africa as a country was, the remark was not isolated. Adichie was clear about that, that the comment signaled pernicious perceptions about Africa, the kind that framed the continent in a stereotype: that its economic situation is prime destination of numerous charities from the First World. On the other hand, Adichie’s problem with stereotypes “is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete[;] they make one story the only story.”
Lam’s first short-story collection contains a resounding, single story; it is about a journey, of a people, from one territory to another. They fled Vietnam for the United States and other places, and along the way help was offered through charitable hands. Their blood is infused with varying degrees of displacement and contradictions, often spurned by memory, nostalgia, and longings for the motherland on the other side of the Pacific. Lam’s single story, in this collection, is the immigrant story; the pursuit of the American Dream is indelible to its narrative, the struggle that transforms, meditates, and forges new ways of being in a new land. Through clear, accessible prose, Lam tells that story over and over again convincingly, unapologetic no matter how stereotypical the characters in his stories might appear to be, crowded with characters who have done well in North America. But the more Lam repeats that rhythm and the deeper he takes us into the lives of these characters, something gives and fades, which blurs not only the dimension of stereotype we perceive in them, but also the line between their Vietnamese and American identities. And, too, quite surprisingly, Lam sometimes burns that line with humor, the kind that begs for a live audience at any late-night chat show with respectable ratings.
“Yacht People” is probably the funniest story in the collection, which sounds like a sketch from John Leguizamo’s early days as a stand-up comic, delirious with one-liners, and extended tenors of bathroom jokes. Through humor, Lam subverts the horror of being in a very crowded refugee boat: “Crowded is, if you bend down looking for your plastic slippers, you’d lose your cherry.” The journey from the Mekong to the Philippines, through the South China Sea, is infested with Thai pirates, or “opportunistic fisherman with knives.” Starvation heightens the horror on the boat. The nameless narrator remembers how his mother saves his dying, three-year-old baby brother; she cuts one of her fingers, so the baby can drink her blood: “It was gross. It was awesome, man. Mama fed him like he was Vampire Lestat.” The baby survives, now six feet tall and “handsome as Bruce Lee,” but wrecked with “emotional baggage . . . wrapped around [his] mother’s finger.”
The refugee boat is not simply an element of transition in Lam’s stories, but the embodiment of hell itself, a sort of Rubicon that must be crossed, an experience that refuses to be exiled from memory. Thus, in “Sister,” real estate broker Ivory is ambivalent about visiting Vietnam; she lost her parents in a shipwreck but survives with her brother Jaden, now an MIT student, preparing to visit their homeland. “Hunger” appears to stand out among the boat stories in the collection because it deals with cannibalism. Lam’s sense of empathy shines here. You can feel Mr. Nguyen’s and his daughter Rose’s pain and suffering: “Some nights she wakes up crying . . . and holds his precious in his lap on their creaky bed as they watch their combined shadows dance on the wall.” The trauma of sharing Mrs. Nguyen at sea with other passengers is now eating them alive in San Francisco, which profoundly affects Mr. Nguyen’s ability to better his life. Occasionally, little Rose derives maternal comfort through a large African-American lady next door.
The collection magnifies the world of an American community. Lam attempts to cover its complex dimensions: from Mr. Le, who works in a gay adult bookstore in San Francisco; to two grandchildren who ice their 94-year-old grandmother when she suddenly drops dead on them; to street-smart Tammy who loathes the presence of Steve, the G.I who ends up bringing back her father’s ashes to America, in her family’s restaurant ; to the father in “Birds of Paradise Lost” who meditates on “how [America] snatches immigrant and refugee children from their parents’ bosoms and turns them into sophisticated, razor-tongued strangers.” The title story attempts to calibrate the tension and gap between two Vietnamese immigrants, father and son; the son’s biting op-ed piece about his father’s best friend immolating himself in Washington to protest the communist regime in Vietnam underlines their perceptions on patriotism, family, and individualism. Their divergent views on these matters illustrate how the immigrant condition soon splinters into divergent lives. The son’s disagreements with his father insinuate a map for his own future, which, no doubt, would be an American story, different from what his father might draft with ambivalence.
In many ways, Lam understands the single story Adichie was talking about. The collection is his salute to the one he knows well, the immigrant story, one that, in itself, is composed of numerous stories. Perhaps the other danger in the single story is not simply its perception of singularity, but more so, the listener’s or reader’s narrowed and insistent perception that there is only one story in a single story—when, in fact, organically, any story is a universe of narratives.