Monique Truong and Andrew Lam answering questions from the audience aftera reading event recently organized by the Vietnamese American Arts & Letters Association (VAALA). Photos courtesy of Dzung Do.
Monique Truong already was a practicing lawyer and Andrew Lam on his way toward becoming a doctor when they both decided to abandon stable careers to bravely pursue writing as a profession.
Truong and Lam chose to veer off course and take the road less traveled by their peers ― all the engineers, doctors and lawyers they knew. The gamble seems to have paid off.
The two have just published their second books with rave reviews from critics ― Truong with her “Bitter in the Mouth” and Lam with his “East Eats West.”
The move from first to second book is crucial in the literary world, Lam said.
“It's different to go from freshman to sophomore, meaning the true test for many of us is whether we have the staying power; publishing more than one book. Many give up when their first books don't sell,” he said. “It's a tough world out there and you are only as good as your last piece of work.”
Lam's second book, 'East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres,' was published this year by Heyday. Photo courtesy of publisher.
Despite the ongoing struggle to keep publishing and the rough road of “financial instability” that Truong said she sees as the dark side of her career, both writers said they were glad to have made the move.
Truong eerily reflected on what might have happened if she had not made the daring transition away from practicing law. “I firmly believe that if I had remained a lawyer, I would not be alive today,” she said. “The depression and the misery that I felt on a daily basis would have driven me to do something drastic.”
Life these days is much happier for Truong. Since she began writing professionally, she has published two moving fictional novels illustrating the Vietnamese experience outside of Viet Nam.
Her first publication, “Book of Salt,” catapulted Truong into notoriety when it won numerous literary awards ― New York Times’ Notable Book, New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award, the 2003 Bard Fiction Prize, the Stonewall Book Award, Barbara Gittings Literature Award, and the Seventh Annual Asian American Literary Award. Her work also was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award and Britain’s Guardian First Book Award.
That book narrates the experiences of a Vietnamese cook named Binh living in Paris. Her latest publication, also receiving accolades, focuses on a character named Linda Hammerick and takes place in Boiling Springs, N.C., where Truong spent some of her early life.
“ ‘Bitter in the Mouth’ is in many ways a coming-of-age novel, and as we all were young once, I think that readers will find quite a bit to relate to in Linda's story, despite its specific locale – the American south – and her unique neurological condition that causes her to taste words,” Truong said.
Truong teaches her readers about the unusual ailment, known as synesthesia, while simultaneously giving them a history lesson on the often ignored pre-1975 Vietnamese America. These subtle lessons sneak their way into the twists and turns of Linda’s life from childhood to adulthood.
From the beginning, the reader is inescapably captured by Truong’s poetic writing style and mysterious storytelling: My great-uncle Harper wasn’t where I thought I would begin, but a family narrative should begin with love. Because he was my first love I was spared the saddest experience in most people’s lives. My first love and my first heartbreak were dealt by different pairs of hands. I was lucky. My memories of the two sensations, one of my heart filling and one of it emptying, were divided and lodged in separate bodies.
Like Truong, Lam enlightens the mind while entertaining the heart, but he does so in a notably different style. Truong’s books are fictional novels with a single continuous story, while Lam’s books are comprised of non-fictional short essays with multiple stories.
Lam, a journalist, essayist and editor at New America Media, wrote his first book, “Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora” five years ago, and subsequently won the PEN American Center’s “Beyond the Margins” Award in 2006 and was a finalist for the Asian American Literary Award for his collection of essays.
His latest book, “East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres,” is also a collection of essays, but coming from his own experiences rather than the experiences of others. In it, he focuses on the indelible mark that the East has made on the West rather than vice versa, which usually dominates most discussions of the hemispheric pair.
“My first book, ‘Perfume Dreams,’ … addressed life of [Vietnamese] refugees in the camps, and it talked about surviving and finally triumphing in America,” he said. The second book “is further along that continuum. It is a celebration and meditation on the consequences of the Vietnamese Diaspora on the cultural life in America. And it looks at Asian cultures in general and how that has changed life in the West irrevocably.”
An illuminating passage in his book comes from a short essay on the “Wild, Wild West”: Yoga is the new aerobics (my instructor is a redhead) and acupuncture is now accepted by HMOs (my favorite acupuncturist is French). Many women and men of American letters now have South Asian or Chinese last names, which is no longer new. You can find fish sauce and wasabi down the aisle in Safeway. Turn on the TV and the Food Network will teach you how to make pho soup and Thai curry. Asian cultures have become so much part of America that they’re tattooed as Chinese or Sanskrit characters on alabaster skin.
Attempting to educate their readers about the overseas Vietnamese experience, both Truong and Lam dance around tales of struggle and survival within and beyond the borders of Viet Nam in their books. Readers will simultaneously learn and lament while digesting each author’s words.
In the literary world, a repeat of success in writing such as Truong and Lam’s is rare ― and even rarer ― among Vietnamese American writers.
Lawrence-Minh Bui Davis, co-founder and co-editor of Asian American Literary Review, commented on the lack of Vietnamese American literature in the past.
“In the larger body of Asian American literature, historically speaking, there is not a ton of Vietnamese American literature as compared to Japanese American and Chinese American, for example, or Filipino American,” he said.
“A part of that is because Vietnamese Americans have not been living in the U.S. for that long so there’s not as much chronologically. You can’t go that far back,” he said. “Also, I think the tendency for any immigrant group is that when you first arrive, survival is the first and foremost thing and sometimes writing happens during the process of survival, but typically it doesn’t.”
Authors Monique Truong and Andrew Lam offer advice to those who are considering entering the literary world.
Truong: “Do it gradually. Don't feel as if you must make a drastic change. Begin by carving out some writing time for yourself; time when neither work nor any other responsibility can encroach upon it. Even three hours a week can make a difference. Get yourself into a room or a café and write. Then, if you find that the words are flowing and you need more time you can think about a short leave of absence from your work. These small steps will lead you to bigger ones.”
Lam: “My advice is to do it only if you really, really are passionate about writing and about literature. Don't do it because it's romantic. Don't do it because it's hip. And don't do it because of some idea about fame. Do it out of passion. It's a difficult career even for those who are considered successful. There are so many good writers who trudge along without any recognition. It's a tough road. On the other hand, there's no feeling like it when you finish a piece of writing that managed to say something smarter than you, nothing like it when you manage to render words into art. All that sweat and tears are worth it.”