MARCH 16, 2020
I WAS FIRST INTRODUCED to Dao Strom’s writing over 13 years ago when a mentoring professor gave me a copy of her collection of short stories, The Gentle Order of Girls and Boys. At the time, I was trying to write a book that didn’t quite know what it wanted to be: a hybrid of anecdotal research, autobiography, failed memory, and fiction. I was frustrated by the absence of literary models in my life. Strom’s book was unique — though I read avidly, I had not yet encountered a book whose sentences conversed with me, rather than speaking above me. I admired the fact that these stories did not offer definitive, epiphanic resolutions, focusing on the interiority and intimate experiences of the characters as they process the world around them.
The Gentle Order of Girls and Boys is a collection of four linked stories about four different Vietnamese-American women living in the United States, inspired by Nina Simone’s song “Four Women.” It engages with issues of gender, inheritance, language, and the search for home. For me, it felt like the very beginning of a rich, ongoing dialogue which has evolved within and between Dao Strom’s successive publications, the memoir We Were Meant To Be a Gentle People (accompanied by a song cycle, East/West) and the poetry collection You Will Always Be Someone From Somewhere Else.
I recently had the pleasure of talking with Dao Strom about The Gentle Order of Girls and Boys and the many beginnings it inspired.
MEGHAN LAMB: In your preface to The Gentle Order of Girls and Boys, you explain that the book “almost wasn’t published,” in part because its original publisher — a major house in New York — didn’t feel it was enough of a “novel.” Rather than change or adapt your book’s linked novella structure, you found a new home for it. What was that process like? Did this process lead you to formally reevaluate and redefine yourself as a writer?
DAO STROM: I think that I have always been a writer working in between genres and mediums, but I just didn’t fully know it at first. My first novel, Grass Roof, Tin Roof, was actually a series of short stories linked together by short, lyrical fragments. So, the loosely linked four-novella structure of The Gentle Order of Girls and Boys was, really, a natural evolution from my first novel’s form. The plain fact to state here may be: I was not a novelist or meant to be one, at least not in the traditional sense of one continuous narrative that follows one protagonist all the way through.
Losing that first book contract was initially a shock, but it was also, in the end, liberating. It woke me up to the realities of publishing and it set me on a different course. I would have to stake my own claim to make my own forms.
As it went: I did one more round of edits and retitled the manuscript, and my agent was diligent and determined about finding the manuscript another home. But following The Gentle Order of Girls and Boys, my writing did indeed change — taking a more hybrid tack: between prose and poetry, image and text, engaging the aural senses too. My failure to fit in resulted, ironically, in my going further afield. In looking back now, I see that it all evolved as it was meant to. I already had a visual background (having studied film) and a separate practice as a musician and songwriter. The hybrid-literary form allowed me to dissolve boundaries between my own different realms of “voice.”
The novella, too, is a form that inhabits a neither/nor realm, willing neither to compress nor elongate itself. I’ve always liked structures that allow for deeper immersion, while at the same time employing techniques of tension and truncation. In looking back, I will own that I could not have written any differently than I did. The writing dictated its desired parameters; I still work this way now, as opposed to trying to impose structure onto the work.
I’ve reread The Gentle Order of Girls and Boys numerous times over the past decade, and I’ve been struck by the ways rereading feels like an archiving of the self: a cataloging of who I was at different points in my reading. Do you experience a similar kind of self-archiving, rereading your own work? Can you trace your evolution as a writer in these pages, or do they feel fully distinct from the work you’re doing now?
There are emotional truths that I myself went through in each one of the stories in The Gentle Order of Girls and Boys. For instance, the first story is one of the most painful to reread now, because for me what it catalogs is a lot of internalized racism and intense self-scrutiny, even self-loathing, that was related, but in an unacknowledged way, to race, to becoming aware of what it means — or what it may “look” like — being Asian in America.
Mary, one of the protagonists in the book, is a lot like me during my early college years. She is trying to exempt herself from certain aspects of her racial experience, which is something a person of color who has grown up steeped in white culture might well do. She also projects a lot of that scrutiny onto her male friends, who are also Asian-American, and who are her most real relationships despite all her affectionate energies poured toward an absent (white boy) lover. But although I gave Mary a lot of my own traits and experiences from that age, in some ways I also put her at a greater disadvantage, making her even more alienated than I was at the time.
There is a truth about a father that arises in Mary’s story; in my own life, I also learned a truth about my father, though a little earlier, in my adolescence. Mary does not arrive at any emotional resolution about this or her other affections. For me, the story is a sort of time capsule of a period of disconnection and an emotional what-if — as if someone’s emotional bearing continued along that path. In my real life, however, some of the events and relationships I drew from to write the story have continued, resurfaced, even evolved in wondrous ways.
Memory also constantly changes memories. I don’t perceive things in the same way that I did when I was writing those stories. So, I might say I’m also glad I captured what I did when I did, with the particular sensitivity I had in that period toward those insecurities, desires, melancholies, et cetera. Reading back, some of it is entertaining, even humorous, to reencounter. The second story, “Walruses,” for instance, has a lot of very real, sometimes quietly absurd, details that occurred during a time that felt to me psychically gray, slightly harrowing, and formative. The story captures all that for me while riding its own fictional currents.
On the subject of self-archiving: Did the autobiographical elements in The Gentle Order of Girls and Boys feel like a prelude to the personal explorations in your later work? Have your feelings toward these experiences changed in the process of recasting them as fiction, nonfiction, or poetry?
Pieces of me are laced throughout these stories, no doubt, and a sort of “self-traveloging” reverberates throughout my work. I am most certainly an interior-oriented writer who uses the self as an ongoing repository. But none of it is precisely or wholly me, and in my day-to-day life, I’m actually a private person, not too prone to sharing. But I am interested in the mind and memory as material, and this is a tactic I employ even as a fiction writer. Perhaps my fundamental interest, really, is perceptions and how we string them into patterns by which we tell ourselves stories or try to make sense of living. I am always, always aware of every memory, every story, being a result of choices in perception and construction.
With We Were Meant To Be a Gentle People and my work since, I’ve started dealing more directly with perception, constructing the self/identity, constructing meaning, and simultaneously, questioning it all. I’ve started questioning the factors that feed into our perceptions and how they are retained as memory, as history, and so forth. In my writing life in my mid-30s and on, it may seem I dropped the artifice of fiction, to wrestle more directly with the material itself — but this is not to say construction and artifice are not still a part of the process.
Another common element in these works is the word “gentle” (which appears in two titles) and the bent of the long titles themselves. None of this was conscious, but I do think something is hinted at in those titles. From the Gentle Order stories to the hybrid elements of We Were Meant To Be a Gentle People and the Somewhere book, a gentling — an acuteness — of perception definitely plays a part. In all the works, I see threads about looking closely, about heeding the small, about seeking an order to the pieces of one’s life.
The Gentle Order of Girls and Boys features narratives from three very different Vietnamese-American mothers. Has your relationship with these fictional mothers changed over time, as you’ve raised your own son into a young adult? Do you find yourself identifying more or less with any of the mothers in this novel?
These mothers span different degrees of remove from their Vietnamese backgrounds, no doubt, and it is maybe only in the “Interlude” between the second and third stories that the specter of Vietnam looms visibly. I feel the most empathy for the mother in that piece and the ways in which she navigates her trauma — distantly, through so many omissions — and orders her present life to be as small and manageable as possible. Some of her tendencies I look at with affection — the covering of everything in plastic, the appliances never used for their designated functions, details I’ve observed in many refugee households — while also aware of the role of disruptive trauma in one’s past, that can underlie such habits, which I’m aware exist in myself, too, truthfully.
I don’t remember how it came to me anymore, but somehow the impulse arose to give that mother a child who would look at her only as a mother, his harbor and anchor, who in his child innocence would not know how to read her except through a lens of love. This seemed like a grace to offer that mother, and maybe to offer the book as a whole too. It’s also apt that, in a book designated to consist of four stories narrated through women’s voices, I would break my own rules and drop in a fifth story from a young male’s viewpoint — I have a hard time staying inside the lines, once a frame is drawn. It also felt fitting to imagine this male figure who was connected and yet different from the mother and sisters, maybe a little more at ease in himself (he also is not a refugee, but second-generation born in the United States), and who would be nothing but good-natured toward them. The female protagonists in all the other stories are to some degree displaced from their birthland. Maybe I was forecasting a type of male emotional capacity I wanted these women characters to encounter.
The mother I’m perhaps closer in experience to is Sage, in the last story, who is mixed-race and completely estranged from her cultural background. Though she has traits in common with me, I made her more rootless, more displaced from her Vietnamese-ness than I am. One of my favorite mothering scenes in the book comes when Sage arrives at a party (after she and her friends have marched in an antiwar rally) to find her son delighting in being wrapped up in a string of green Christmas lights. When I reread that moment, I am still transported, still pleasantly disarmed by how the children light up the page and imbue the story with a kind of gentle surreality. This sits in subtle counterpoint to the adult naïvetés and interpersonal confusions also at play in the story.
Do you and your son talk about your own memories of Vietnam? As a third-generation Vietnamese American, how does he process your shared or un-shareable experiences?
My son over the years has spent a lot of time reading over my shoulder. I’ve made it a point to let him know about our past, especially my parents. He knows that his grandparents were writers, that his grandfather spent a decade in the communist reeducation camps, that erasure and trauma have been a part of our history, and that I’ve been trying, in my art, to reconnect and reconcile with that history, its estrangements and echoes.
Inherited trauma is very real, and I believe that part of learning to live with it is being able to recognize it. I grew up with parents who believed it necessary to sever from the past, which was not uncommon for the first generation. I wanted to give my son what I didn’t have: a sense of access to the past and, hopefully, to a different kind of future as well. I took my son back to Vietnam when he was 15, and we are going again now, when he is 20. I am sharing my journeys with him, but I’m also aware he has his own journey and will integrate the past however he needs and chooses to, if at all. My simplest hope is that he should know where and what he comes from, while on a personal level be able to see the grace and resilience that lie behind him — he has grandparents, for instance, who have lived remarkable lives, who made difficult and selfless choices in the face of crises. I can’t know, of course, what my son really feels or will do with this information, but I hope in the end that he will draw strength from it.