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Saigoneer Bookshelf: The Different Dealings of Trauma in 'Birds of Paradise Lost'

“I just can’t get the voices out my head,” Andrew Lam explains of his writing process.

Characters haunt his thoughts until he commits them to the page so they can share their stories in their own words. In the wake of the retreating poltergeists, readers are gifted with compelling, diverse accounts of Vietnamese living in America. 

Lam spent the first eleven years of life in Vietnam, where his father served as a high-profile ARV general and his great-grandfather was instrumental in founding the Cao Dai religion.

After the war, he moved to America, ignored his family’s aspirations that he become a doctor, and instead pursued writing. He worked as a successful journalist for major outlets including National Public Radio, The Huffington Post, New York Times and PBS, and founded New America Media. While his non-fiction — which has been collected in two books, Perfume Dreams and East Eats West, and earned him a prestigious PEN Award — excels as thoughtful and informative material that resonates particularly well with readers seeking to understand Asia’s influence on the western world and those navigating a hyphen-existence, fiction may prove to be his greatest gift.

Andrew (front) with his family in Vietnam.

The way a single water droplet pushes water rings in opposite directions, a shared trauma can send individuals on completely different emotional and personal trajectories. In Birds of Paradise Lost, Lam’s first fiction collection, the characters in the 13 stories all grapple with losing their homeland and the subsequent need to assimilate to life in America. Lam was one of the first writers to gain attention for his focus on this subject in English, and while many have followed in his footsteps, his work continues to resonate thanks to the diversity of perspectives, voices and tones he offers, as well as his mastery of the pacing, plotting, and structure of the short story.

An elderly immigrant who finds himself tailoring assless chaps in a San Francisco sex shop; a man who decides to share with the media his account of being on a refugee boat forced to eat their fellow passengers, including his wife; a woman who contemplates murdering the man who killed her husband in Vietnam while also falling in love with him; and a grandmother who comes back to life for a raucous night on the town all take center stage in Birds of Paradise Lost. Some of the characters came to America by boat, others by plane; some struggle to find economic security while others live rich, luxury-filled lives; some remain deeply committed to their Vietnamese heritage, while others want to present themselves as singularly American with no connection to their country of birth.

While united by their loss of homeland, the ways in which the shared experience propels their lives in different ways underscores the complex response systems humans develop to deal with psychological wounds. The importance of such contrasting portrayals cannot be exaggerated in the face of diaspora literature, and by extension experience, all-too-often being reduced to a singular narrative.

Such breadth of subjects is matched by the range of speakers’ voices: a feisty teenage girl who tells a white veteran at her family’s restaurant, “We ain’t living in your sorry-ass Mekong Delta fantasy shit”; a successful real estate agent haunted by memories that emerge in poetic descriptions: “Sunlight on a mosaic tile floor, the marble staircase shines like gold and the tamarind tree’s shadows sways on the white-washed walls, the silhouette of a girl washing her hair”;  and an upper-class couple that hunts for furniture to fill their three-story Victorian home that contains “hardwood floors, a generous skylight above the state-of-the-art kitchen with black granite countertops and accent light, two fireplaces, and a garden and a small Jacuzzi and tall double-glazed French windows — widows framed by glowing white satin curtains, that opened their living room to the bay.” 

Regardless of gender, race, age or socioeconomic status, the characters read as fully-realized and unique in ways that often push back against familiar immigrant tropes. And in a time hyper-focused on authenticity, representation and who has the “right” to tell a story, Lam takes the refreshing stance that what is important is if “I got away with it,” meaning was it convincing and does it feel true. The story “Show and Tell,” for example, is narrated by a white boy, and was written in response to the controversy surrounding Robert Owen Butler’s Pulitzer Prize-winning stories he wrote from the perspective of the Vietnamese. A bit of a tit-for-tat exercise, if you will.

Via San Francisco Public Library.

Lam explained to Saigoneer that the inspirations for his stories came from a variety of places, including a girl he overheard arguing with her boyfriend in a restaurant, seeing the iconic Saigon staircase in a museum, and a news report of a man who self-immolated in front of Congress despite it not being in session. Knowing his biography and reading his non-fiction reveals that he places elements of his own experiences and his friends and family in the book as well.

Noticing that few Vietnamese stand-up comedians exist in the west, Lam wrote “Yacht People,” which most overtly deals with the familiar subject of the perilous journeys Vietnamese refugees took by boat. While often tackled with heart-wrenching earnestness, as in Thi Bui’s The Best We Could Do or Thanhha Lai’s Inside Out and Back Again, Lam subverts the experience by putting a character on stage who wisecracks about it: “You hear Vietnamese are so damn practical right, studying to be doctors and engineers and computer programmers and shit like that, but did any fool on that boat bring a life jacket? Hell no. A gun? A flare? Hello — maybe a map and compass.”

Some may find the framing cruel or insensitive, but rather, it underscores that while some use somber reflection or anger, others turn to humor to heal.

In person, Lam is quick to break into a laugh and offer a joke, yet the gravity of much of his nonfiction leads many to expect otherwise when they meet, he says. And while his fiction does often deal with somber topics that he describes with appropriate solemnity, there are numerous places where his sense of humor peeks out.

In addition to the aforementioned standup set and the absurdity of a re-animated grandmother who shares stories of her tragedy-filled life that make her “a big hit at the artsy-fartsy party,” he occasionally plays with language to comedic effect, such as when in a sex shop, the description “Mr. Lee is as gay as Liberace is butch,” gets misunderstood to reference “Liberty” and “Bush.”

While some of the book’s levity exists as a natural extension of Lam’s personality, it also appears to keep him entertained while he works. Similarly, illusions and hidden nods to other literature serve not as Easter eggs to satisfy readers, but rather, to fuel his writing process. His stories, in this collection and elsewhere, are in subtle conversation with plots, themes and characters from various sources including Shakespeare and Flannery O'Connor, as well as fables and folklore.

Slingshot” is a prime example of influences shaping a story behind the scene. It focuses on the previously-introduced teenage girl who bristles at the American veteran’s attempts to claim that "Toi cung nguoi Viet Nam!" and by extension has a place within her family. In the writing process, the characters’ relationship becomes intertwined with Lam’s ruminations on what would have happened if, in Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus had never returned and Telemachus was forced to contend with his mother’s suitors on his own. Recognizing this allusion is wholly unnecessary for enjoying the story, but recognizing it adds another layer of appreciation and reveals the author’s literary acumen.

As exemplified by “Slingshot,” Lam has a special talent for endings that balance closure with mystery. Stories often culminate at momentous moments in characters’ lives, yet because trauma never truly disappears, unresolved elements abound, which allows readers to contemplate the perpetual aftermath. Upon finishing Birds of Paradise Lost, one will likely find themselves wondering what the future holds for each speaker — both in the immediate and long term — a sign of not only a tightly structured plot, but also fully developed characters. This is no doubt by design and, as Lam noted once, his greatest compliment was hearing a reader admit she wanted to get together with one of his characters for coffee.

As with any good work of fiction, there are numerous reasons one should pick up Birds of Paradise Lost. Not only is it an essential part of the Vietnamese-American literary canon that helps insiders and outsiders alike understand the multifaceted experiences of that group, but its depictions of immigration, trauma and healing transcend any specific historic moment and speak to what it means to be human. It also makes a strong case for the importance and joy of short stories which, unlike novels, one can read in a single sitting. Doing so affords one an entire arc of insight and entertainment that resembles listening to an oral tale: the type of interaction societies are built upon. 

Birds of Paradise Lost is readily available in online formats and a variety of Lam’s stories are accessible online, including “The Palmist” in The Huffington Post. Since retiring from regular reporting, Lam has taken up a bi-coastal existence, alternating between his home in San Francisco, where he occasionally teaches, and Saigon, where he regularly gives talks on a variety of subjects at public events and international schools. He is working on completing his next selection of short stories, which will focus on loss and grief, as opposed to trauma. Meanwhile, he is undertaking his first novel.

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