By Lindajoy Fenley
posted April 5
Andrew Lam's short story collection, "Birds of Paradise Lost," lured me into a labyrinth of past and present in which time doesn't always travel in a straight line.
Sometimes I wondered what was ahead for Lam's Vietnamese immigrants. More frequently, I was intrigued by their past, though I rarely knew which direction to look. Skillfully, the author led me to an understanding of his complex characters by slowly revealing their secret struggles and histories. In each story, he foreshadows the conclusion by peeling back history in carefully measured bits.
For example, at the beginning of "Hunger," I wondered why a little girl eats only rice and steamed tofu and violently refuses to eat meat. I came to more than one realization about the source of her hunger before the story ends in an embrace.
When I first heard the title of the book, I envisioned a flower — a vibrant tropical blossom that looks like it could either fly like a bird or burn up like a flame. Since the author is a Vietnamese American who immigrated at the end of the U.S.-Vietnam conflict, I suspected the image had more to do with suffering than beauty. I found both as I read about the history, habits and hopes of people rebuilding their lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Though tempted, I didn't jump ahead to see whether I'd find a flower or a flame in "Birds of Paradise Lost," the eighth story in the collection of thirteen. Lam's writing encourages patience. Before I learned that the title story begins with a newspaper report about a member of the San Jose immigrant community committing self immolation, I read about an older immigrant who works in a San Francisco S&M shop called Love Leather and a newly-arrived boy who doesn't know any English trying to adjust to seventh grade.
In "Love Leather," I met Mr. Le who plans to buy the S&M Love Leather shop from his employer. One day he realizes that "his dream has taken him farther from his homeland in a way that the jumbo jet plane never could."
I met the child and his first American friend in "Show and Tell." Cao Long Dinh draws racing water buffaloes, flying kites, foreign soldiers and a map of America on the chalkboard to explain himself to taunting classmates while the friend narrates. Cao Long Dinh's only statement, delivered at the end of the joint presentation — "Hee fook heads leevenme olone!" — earns him applause and respect.
In "Everything Must Go," I got to know a trendy couple that seemed to fit like a pair of spoons until their origins revealed that these spoons didn't belong to the same set. Both characters — upscale immigrants who met while driving identical BMW sports cars — were so well developed that when I reached the end of the story I was startled to realize I didn't even know their names. Two simple pronouns — he and she — were enough.
As I read the book, I glimpsed the diversity of an immigrant community that grew out of Lam's imagination and life experience. He was only 11, when, as the son of a South Vietnamese military officer, he flew to California in a comfortable airplane, while other emigrants left their homeland as desperate refugees squeezed into rickety boats.
Today, Lam is part of a vibrant Vietnamese American artistic community that includes people with a variety of backgrounds. Writers and visual artists are more plentiful now, he explained in a telephone interview, because it is easier for the second generation to be more expressive after the trauma of the war fades into the past.
Just as Lam is able to show what war does to the refugees who lost their country at the end of the Vietnam conflict, he also helps the reader understand what war has done to American GIs. Two stories include former American soldiers who carry a love for the Southeast Asian nation they knew in one of its most tragic moments.
The book doesn't deal with immigration as a problem; nor does it provide facts and figures. It does provide, however, a sense of the size of the Vietnamese immigrant community and the depth of the human beings who belong to it.
Lam acknowledged his characters spring forth after he reads about real events. However, the people in his books are fictional beings who evolve organically. Although he gives them a biography, they have free will and end up doing the unexpected. They even talk differently than he would. "It's almost like the act of channeling non-existent people. You must listen and be patient and let the story evolve," he said.
Although "Birds of Paradise Lost" is Lam's first published book of fiction, he's been writing short stories as long as he's been a journalist — just over two decades. Some of the tales in this book have been published previously.
Fiction allows him to address issues that he couldn't in non-fiction, he said, noting that in both the story about self-immolation and in another about refugees surviving through cannibalism he imagined his way into how people might think or feel. Real people don't tell everything, he said, though, "if they would reveal their secrets it would be an amazing story."
Lam said he was sorry that "fiction often times moves people more than non-fiction." In fiction, he explained, the characters "don't lecture you. They show you and beacon you into their lives… You see their full humanity. And when you see the full humanity, it's very difficult to stereotype them… It's harder to withdraw and say, 'he's an illegal immigrant,' or 'he's a poor refugee.'"
However, he defended journalism, noting that investigating and reporting allow him to clarify issues and address important policy matters.
As I read Lam's stories, I wished I could meet people he had created. Each one was a multi-faceted individual. I emerged from the book — a labyrinth in which the past and future define the present — awed by a wordsmith who enriches his characters with history. Lam led me to new understandings.
I look forward to his first novel — a work now in progress, that, Lam says, "searches for the meaning of the war long after it's finished." The publication date is unpredictable. Lam said he's produced just 6o pages in the past year and is now quite busy promoting "Birds of Paradise Lost." Fiction writing, he said, is a labor of love.
Red Hen Press published "Birds of Paradise Lost" this year. Lam's two other books — "Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora" and "East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres" — also focus on the intersection of East and West. He is a cofounder and editor of New America Media, a nationwide association of more than 3,000 ethnic media organizations.
Lindajoy Fenley is a journalist who recently finished writing a memoir. She also writes a blog for Arts Midwest's Caravanserai program, helping American audiences understand Islamic cultures through musical residencies in the United States.