David Mehegan essay about l thi diem thy

original url: http://vietpage.com/archive_news/politics/2003/Jun/2/0104.html


Refuge in her writing 

Out of her family's painful emigration from Vietnam, l thi diem thy has crafted a quietly
powerful novel

By David Mehegan, Globe Staff, 6/2/2003 

CAMBRIDGE - Like bell hooks and e.e. cummings, the Vietnamese-American writer l thi diem
thy spells her name with all lower-case letters.

There's no special reason, she says - it's just a preference. Yet the low profile of her
name is at one with l's manner. (She uses her surname first and personal name - pronounced
''twee'' - last). During an interview that starts in a Brattle Street coffee shop, then
moves to a small, walled garden on nearby Appian Way, she is warm and relaxed, speaks
softly, laughs lightly. Still, there is a reserve, just short of guardedness, about her.
She says, ''I'm a very private person, by which I mean I want the focus to be on the work,
not on me.''

L, who is 31, has just published her first novel, ''The Gangster We Are All Looking For,''
a deceptively powerful chronicle of a Vietnamese immigrant family in California, told in
the voice of a girl who senses her parents' longings as strongly as her own and has a
painter's eye for every color and fine detail of her world. ''The Gangster We Are All
Looking For'' is among the first book-length fictional works to come from the generation
that fled Vietnam after the communist takeover of the country in 1975, the boat people of
the late 1970s and early '80s.

Based in Northampton and just finishing a one-year Radcliffe fellowship, l is a
performance artist turned fiction writer whose one-woman show, ''Red Fiery Summer,'' was
the forerunner of the novel. It was an unusual transition from stage to fiction, but for
l, it is all storytelling.

It isn't a novel in the usual sense but a series of episodes over a few years in the life
of an immigrant family: two parents and a daughter. The story moves back and forth between
Vietnam and California. Mother and father are ''Ma'' and ''Ba,'' and the unnamed girl is
the narrator. (The ''gangster'' of the title is Ba, rumored to have a shady past.) Early
on, the girl describes things with the simple words of a child; later she is an adult
looking back on the past. Throughout the book, the sentences are deceptively simple, with
concrete details and a palpable emotional restraint.

L is one of a few young Vietnamese-American writers beginning to chart this territory.
Others include Dao Strom, whose novel ''Grass Roof, Tin Roof '' also describes the
immigrant experience, and Monique Truong, whose new novel about a Vietnamese cook in the
household of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, ''The Book of Salt,'' has been widely
reviewed. Poets Mong-lan, Barbara Tran, and Quan Barry have all won major American prizes.

''There is a real coming of age for these folks,'' says poet Kevin Bowen, director of the
William Joiner Center for the Study of War and Social Consequences at the University of
Massachusetts at Boston and co-editor of the anthology ''Six Vietnamese Poets.'' ''There is
a younger generation of writers who have stretched themselves, expressing the exile's sense
of being between two countries.''

Along with several others, 6-year-old le and her father left their home village of Phan
Thiet in a small fishing boat in 1978 and were picked up by an American naval ship and
transported to a refugee camp in Singapore. Eventually they were resettled in San Diego.
Two years later le's mother and sister followed them to America, this time via a camp in
Malaysia. The family was stalked by tragedy: The eldest son drowned at age 6 in the ocean
off Vietnam, and a daughter drowned at the Malaysian camp. Another son reached California
in 1993, and two children were born in the United States.  Five children in all survived.

L is haunted by the deaths of her siblings; a little boy's death by drowning echoes
throughout the novel, and its heartbreaking details are related in the last section. When
her sister died, le became the eldest surviving child, but she says, ''I feel the presence
of these older siblings. I still don't think I am the oldest.'' When the American ship
rescued her and her father (and several others) in 1978 and recorded their names, her
father mistakenly wrote down her older sister's name, Thy (l's given name is Trang). When
Thy drowned two years later, her little sister kept her name.

As young children will, l learned English quickly. ''When I was as young as 8,'' she says,
''I wanted to write because I loved fairy tales.'' Reading a book of Grimm fairy tales, she
recalls, ''I felt transported. Things happen very suddenly in fairy tales: A man puts on a
cloak and vanishes. I could relate to that. Once I was somewhere and then I was here, and
everything had vanished. I didn't take it as fantastic. I thought it was real.''

L's family's story is the model for the novel, but she says it's not truly
autobiographical: ''The characters move through a landscape that my family moved through,''
she says, ''but in the novel I follow them as characters; I don't necessarily think of them
as me and my father and my mother.''

In 1990, l came to Massachusetts and enrolled in Hampshire College, where she concentrated
on cultural studies and postcolonial literature. Her artistic interest was in writing and
performance, especially the latter. She chose Hampshire because of its individualized,
multidisciplinary curriculum, but also, she says, because ''I wanted to get as far from San
Diego as possible without leaving the country.'' Besides needing freedom to grow as an
artist, she had to break away from her mother's anguished longing for home: ''She never
took to being here and was always wanting to go back. I felt enormous pressure to get her
back there somehow.''

In 1993, l went to Paris to research a project on French colonial picture postcards made
in the early 1900s. There she experienced again, as she had as a child, the feeling of
being a foreigner. She did not speak French (though she could read it). At the same time,
she felt strongly - for the first time - that she was an American, and that English was her
natural language. ''Being in France and not hearing English every day,'' she says, ''helped
clarify how I hear English and carry it inside me.''

Back at Hampshire, she wrote poems, prose pieces, and sections of dialogue and gradually
worked them into her first performance piece, ''Red Fiery Summer.'' Set in Vietnam and the
United States, it tells of the courtship of the girl's parents, of the sad fate of a
photograph sent to her when the family has resettled in California, and of the mother's
grief in her American exile. (The title section of ''The Gangster We Are All Looking For''
re-creates parts of ''Red Fiery Summer'' in fictional form.) The show also contains other
voices - an American marine, a girl who lost a friend in a napalm bombing, the French
photographer who made the picture postcards.

L speaks as all the characters, or suggests their presence by speaking to them. ''I have
the audience feel the presence of others, '' she says. ''Sometimes I embody them, and
sometimes I suggest the presence of other people. There are ways you can crowd the stage
even if there's only one body.''

After she graduated from Hampshire in 1994, l began to perform ''Red Fiery Summer'' at
colleges and elsewhere around the country, and once in Ireland. In 1996 she published a
prose piece - which later became the title section of ''The Gangster We Are All Looking
For'' - in Massachusetts Review, and the same year it was republished in Harper's magazine.  
New York literary agent Nicole Aragi saw the Harper's piece and drove to Bard College,
where le was performing ''Red Fiery Summer.'' ''It was incredible,'' Aragi recalls. ''There
was something very quiet about it, but it had the most astonishing impact. It's true of her
writing as well. She doesn't expose everything.'' Aragi urged le to expand the work into a

L intends her novel to reveal the Vietnamese spirit and culture through the specifics of
one child and her parents.  ''I am trying to particularize three bodies, only three,'' she
says. ''I don't think it has been done. In mainstream narrative about Vietnam, it's usually
about the American GI, while the Vietnamese are part of the landscape. They rarely get
particularized as characters.''

In 1999, Alfred A. Knopf editor George Andreou bought the book - still mostly a series of
fragments - on a hunch. ''It wasn't clear to me how these things were going to hang
together, but they did have something that fascinated me: an obsession to find a way to
create in English the consciousness of Vietnamese life,'' Andreau says. In time, he says,
the work came together.

L's appreciation of her parents' loneliness and isolation was intensified by a trip back
to Phan Thiet with her mother in 1998, 20 years after the little girl fled with her father.
In several ways, the trip transported her back to childhood. ''At first, people [in the
village] looked at me as the 6-year-old,'' she says. In a sense, she still spoke as that
child. Since she had grown up speaking English, her Vietnamese had not progressed beyond
childhood. ''I have a complete lack of sophistication in Vietnamese,'' she says. ''English
is the language I can truly express myself in.''

On that visit, she realized for the first time the richness and intricacy of the community
and family life her parents had left behind, so different from the alien world they had
entered in California. ''It was profoundly sad for me,'' she says. ''The most powerful
thing was this [extended] family. I must have been related to 200 people there. I realized
how isolated my parents must have felt, the extent of what they had lost and had never been
able to regain.''

Yet her mother did go home at last. 

In 2001, ill with cancer, she returned to Vietnam and spent her final days in Phan Thiet.
She's buried there, beside her parents. L and her family were with her at the end.

L thi diem thy has given up performance for now, though she says she may go back to it.
She is working on another novel, ''The Bodies Between Us,'' which also began as a
performance piece. It tells of the voyage of a girl and her father to a refugee camp, and
of a mother left behind. It also tells of a trip back to Vietnam to be with a dying mother,
and of an American ornithologist who goes to Vietnam to help restore the endangered sarus
crane. ''I see this story about the birds as a metaphor for exile,'' le says.

Though rooted in Northampton, le is a natural sojourner; she has accepted several writer's
fellowships (she has lived in Chinatown for her Radcliffe year) in places where she could
dream and work - New Mexico, Texas, and New York - and she intends to apply for others. She
says she loves to be alone.

''I am by nature a restless person, and I thrive on being in new places,'' she says. ''I'm
sure it's a refugee thing.''

David Mehegan can be reached at mehegan@globe.com. 

This story ran on page B7 of the Boston Globe on 6/2/2003. 

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