Perfume Dreams is, to me, a storybook. Lam’s words, even the title, give me the chills. There are ghosts at work in this book, figures and objects and charred photographic remains. They move from page to page, essay to essay, rearing up repeatedly. The thick passport. The umbilical cord. The general’s old uniform. Lam knows how to craft a compelling story. Interestingly, within a book of stories, the act of storytelling itself is a subject of Lam’s interest. He grapples with the nature of storytelling: its guidance toward understanding the past, its limitations, its potential pitfalls, and ultimately its importance in his life…as his life.
As a child refugee, new to America, storytelling certainly helps Lam negotiate the foreign environment. He plays the role of child storyteller: “My popularity was partly because I told family stories, wartime stories. Vietnam was the first television war and even children in America knew something, if only vaguely, about it. It gave me an entry to the American imagination…” (36). Lam uses stories to appear knowledgeable about something bigger and more worldly than the classroom, while necessarily adopting the style of his peers in order to do so. His reputation back at home is unflattering. “The blabbermouth aired family laundry for a place in the sun” (36). Lam’s familiarly childish method backfires, however, when he goes so far as to put on his father’s uniform, aping the former hero, becoming a life-sized illustration. Here is where storytelling becomes a source of a new form of exile, from family, even as Lam draws closer to feeling at home in his new world. “I felt I had crossed some invisible line and a part of me was offended by my own profanity” (38). At this moment, Lam realizes his separation from his father is caused by, characterized by, and ultimately cemented by the language of stories. By shaping his past into stories, with the intention of entertainment and assimilation, Lam has lost a direct connection to that past.
Learning the English language is crucial to Lam’s success as a storyteller. At home, however, English is not welcome. On speaking English in a Vietnamese household, Lam writes, “The exterior landscape belongs to America, strange and nonsensical, not their true home. Inside, many Vietnamese refugees tend to raise their children with stern rules – the way they themselves were raised back home. Vietnamese is spoken, with familial personal pronouns…lacing every sentence to remind the speakers and the listeners of their status in the Confucian hierarchical scheme of things” (56). Children like Lam end up in between – living in one language outside, and another inside. The natural divide gives rise to tension, and language is something of a weapon on both sides. Lam uses English to cut his father’s power; his father uses Vietnamese to remind Lam of the need for loyalty. “Speak Vietnamese or don’t speak at all” (37). (It is interesting that he does not write in Vietnamese even now, continuing “not to speak at all” in a sense.)
Despite the divide sprung from the language of stories, Lam decides to pursue storytelling formally. The divide is thus deepened. “It occurred to me then that for children of Asian immigrants who covet an expressive, creative life, there is often a hidden price more costly than the regular fares…and it is one that wafts with the faint odor of dishonor…If he is to strive into the wilderness called the world of arts and literature, then he is to strive alone…I kept my distance” (41). Lam joyfully finds his voice and purpose in writing. Yet that writing is linked to journeying beyond, as if repeating the past as a refugee. It makes you wonder; was Lam destined to be a writer, or did becoming a refugee transform him into a language wanderer? As he said to us tonight, and I’m paraphrasing, talent and experience are different…experiencing tragedy does not necessarily make one destined to be a writer. So perhaps he sees himself as a writer first, before Vietnamese, American, or refugee?
By becoming a journalist in particular, Lam notably tells the stories of others. And in so doing, he continues to grapple with the strangeness of such a position. Of the Good Guys tale, Lam writes, “I am also aware that I will somehow benefit from their tragedy…I, the one who has a public voice, am about to gain a measure of notoriety as the teller of their sensational tale. Irrational as it may be, I feel like a cannibal” (59). Lam is a natural choice for covering the story, as he is the appropriate and willing visitor to Vietnamese refugee camps. His Vietnamese background and language, the past he tried to shed through an American childhood, ironically give him license to enter that past again in order to write about it. But the way is unclear. “Was I an activist, an interpreter, or a journalist? So many people with so many stories and I was the only receptacle for their tragedies” (83). In response to Tuyet, who wishes Lam to marry her and rescue her from the camp, he writes, “Instead of doing the story I was sent to Hong Kong to do, I would end up married to it. It was not a narrative that I had imagined for myself…I had yearned to be free from the past. This was why I had become a writer, wasn’t it? Or, was this – the past, the war, its aftermath – the story I was ready to tell and, by saying yes to Tuyet, willing to live with for the rest of my life?” (87)
This is Lam’s ultimate question as a storyteller. What is the story he is trying to tell? And how can he remain close enough to it to do it justice, while far enough from it to retain perspective and health? He stated tonight that, “The more I tell of history, the more distant I feel from that history.” Still, according to Lam, telling is better than not telling. Language is crucial in recovery from trauma, and clearly a ground upon which to decide how to move forward and what to bring with you while you do. (Lam says of the refugees who face Chinese interpreters who had no adept Vietnamese language skills, “The people aren’t allowed to tell their stories” (80) and they suffer for it.) True, there are consequences to storytelling – a destiny of traveling in between, a distance from family and past – but the story itself is too crucial to fear the consequences. It seems that Lam himself is the story he’s trying to tell. “I am evidence that the outside world exists” (130).