March 31, 2013
Birds of Paradise LostStoriesBy Andrew Lam(Red Hen; 200 pages; $15.95 paperback)
Several decades have passed since harrowing and miraculous tales of "boat people" splashed across the headlines. In the eclectic and engrossing collection of short stories by Andrew Lam, readers are bound to rediscover a profound sense of awe at the vastness of such journeys, both literal and metaphorical, from Vietnam to America.
In "Birds of Paradise Lost," Lam depicts an array of immigrant experiences, including the hopeful expectations and heavy burdens inherited by the generation born in the "beautiful country" (what Vietnamese once called the United States). Whether narrated by American-born offspring or refugees themselves, each story - many of which are set in the Bay Area - portrays a multifaceted understanding of the tribulations and opportunities available in a new cultural landscape. Unique to this particular community is the paradox of encountering Vietnam veterans who carry their own traumatic or even nostalgic recollections of the home country.
In "Bright Clouds Over the Mekong," a former soldier and a Vietnamese widow struggle to reconcile images that dangerously collide and contradict. In "Love Leather," a once-prosperous Vietnamese entrepreneur works as a tailor in a store dedicated to S&M paraphernalia.
By way of a flamboyant customer who "once served in the 101st Airborne Division in Nam," he discovers that there must have been more than one Saigon, just as there is clearly more to San Francisco than he had read about in his "English for Today!" textbook.
At the Folsom Street Fair, Mr. Le sees that "his dream has taken him farther ... [than] the jumbo jet plane never could. How everything has changed, as if the skin, once broken, will in some way remain forever open to the larger world, just as the borders, once crossed, remain forever porous to the traveler."
In one of the most vivid and heart-wrenching pieces, "Step Up and Whistle," Lam reimagines a scene most of us witnessed by way of one iconic photograph: the last helicopter airlifting refugees after the fall of Saigon. Here is the excruciating moment of letting go, when a husband helplessly loses the grip of his wife and baby.
Lam's narrator, a young boy at the time, witnesses: "It was the end of my Vietnamese childhood and the beginning of my American one. But for Uncle Bay, it was the end of his marriage and fatherhood and the beginning of his profound tragedy."
Images of drowned children, lost spouses and siblings and parents haunt these stories, along with variations on the theme of starting over while observed by ghosts. Reminders of boats, oceans and the thin line between being saved and not saved, echo the almost-interchangeable presence of the living and the dead. Children play a game called Drowning and Rescue.
As a magically resurrected ancestor in "Grandma's Tales" says, "Mine is a story of suffering and sorrow, sorrow and suffering being the way of Vietnamese life. But now I have a second chance and I am not who I was, and yet I have all the memories, so wherever I go, I figure, I will keep telling my stories and songs."