This is the second part of an interview with Andrew Lam–journalist, essayist, short story writer. The first part precedes this one and is titled: “Andrew Lam: Language, Memory, Bliss.”
Is there a childhood memory that you return to again and again?
Let me tell you a story. In 2003 a PBS film crew followed me back to Vietnam, and in Dalat, a small city on a high plateau full of pine trees and waterfalls, they coaxed me into revisiting my childhood home. The quaint pinkish villa on top of a hill was now abandoned, its garden overrun with elephant grass and wildflowers.
We broke in through the kitchen and, once inside, I proceeded to explain my past to the camera. “Here’s the living room where I spent my childhood listening to my parents telling ghost stories, and there’s the dining room where my brother and I played ping-pong on the dining table. Beyond is the sunroom where my father spent his early evenings listening to the BBC while sipping his whiskey and soda.”
I went on like this for sometime, until we reached my bedroom upstairs. “Every morning I would wake up and open the windows’ shutters just like this, to let the light in.” When my palm touched the wooden shutter, however, I suddenly stopped talking. I was no longer an American adult narrating his past. The sensation of the wood’s rough, flaked-off paint against my skin felt exactly the same after three decades. Heavy and dampened by the weather, the shutter resisted my initial exertion, but as before, it gave easily if you knew where to push. And I did.
The shutter made a little creaking noise as it swung open to let in the morning air–and with it, a flood of unexpected memories.
I am a Vietnamese child again, preparing for school. I hear my mother’s lilting voice calling from downstairs to hurry up. And I smell again that particular smell of burnt pinewood from the kitchen wafting in the cool air. Outside in my mother’s garden, dawn lights up leaves and roses, and the world pulses with birdsongs. Above all, I feel again that sense of insularity and being sheltered and loved. It’s a sentiment, I am sad to report, that has eluded me since my family and I fled our homeland in haste for a challenging life in America at the end of the war.
Living in California, I had heard much about holistic healing and talk of long-forgotten emotions being stored in various parts of the body; but I had never truly believed this until that moment. Yet, it’s hard for me now to deny that there’s yet another set of memories hidden in the mind, and the way to it is not through language or even the act of imagination, but through the senses.
In America I used to speak of the house with its garden, and my childhood, as a kind of fairy tale, despite the war. Sometimes I would dream of going into the house and taking shelter in it once more; at other times I would dream that nothing had changed, that the life I had left continued on without me and was waiting impatiently for my return. In nightmares I saw it as it was–empty and gutted, and I was a child abandoned within its walls. I would wake up in tears. After so many years in America, I continued in my own way to mourn my loss.
Until, of course, I reentered the house again, and emerged with an unexpected gift–a fragment of my childhood left in an airy room upstairs. Now back in America I feel strangely blessed. I don’t dream of the house in Dalat any longer, or rather when I do, it has changed into another house.
Having touched the place where I used to live once more, I can finally say what I had wanted to say after so many years: Goodbye.
Andrew, your uncle, a singer, who remained in Vietnam after the war ended, talked to you of writing about those who left and those who stayed in Vietnam and of writing with a voice from the heart. Could you speak a little about writing with “a voice from the heart”?
My uncle was a propaganda songwriter for Ho Chi Minh’s army during the Vietnam war, so he belonged to the communist side, the winning side. Now he’s in his 80s, a dissident of sorts, writing about corruption and governmental failures. So he understands deeply about regrets and the need to write and create true art from the heart. He was deprived for years from publishing romantic ballads. His closet is full of songs that have never been sung.
So his advise was very much welcome. He said, “Writing is no joke. You must observe the world keenly and the things that affect you, move you, you must process with your eyes, your head. Then you must find a way to speak with your heart. Because only when you speak from the heart, can you move the hearts of others.”
I understood that long before his advice, but when I heard it, I felt validated. I renewed a deep connection with this estranged uncle–we, the entire clan, all fled to the West, and he was the only one left in Vietnam. I never write from the head–I write about things that move me and hurt me or make me sit up in wonder. My writing is best when they make me laugh or cry or shake my head in happiness with a certain tone, certain turn of phase, as if I am the reader myself. Use your head, your eyes, but yes, always speak from the heart.
All photographs: permission of Andrew Lam.
Andrew Lam is the author of Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora, which won the 2006 PEN Open Book Award, East Eats West: Writing in the Two Hemispheres, and most recently Birds of Paradise Lost, his first collection of short stories. Lam is editor and cofounder of New American Media, was a regular commentator on NPR’s All Things Considered for many years, and the subject of a 2004 PBS commentary called My Journey Home. His essays have appeared in many newspapers and magazines, from The New York Times to The Nation. He lives in San Francisco.
The Poppy: An Interview Series
Four to six questions begin as pods, then burst open with answers, bright lapis,
black-stamened, conspicuous—ornament, remembrance, opiate.
This interview first posted at Hothouse Magazine.