ON A BALMY late summer afternoon, I met Andrew Lam, a lauded Vietnamese-American writer and journalist and the award-winning author of Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora and East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres, in his “oasis of serenity” amid the bustling Saigon. He has returned to the city in order to research his new book project about history, family, and his motherland, Vietnam.
Andrew Lam’s “oasis” is nestled in the quiet alley by Saigon River. Every morning, at sunrise, he walks along the quiet esplanade between his condominium and the river and inhales the cool breeze. He then swings by a coffee house in the neighborhood to grab a cup of Vietnamese coffee and chat briefly with some locals, before secluding himself up in his studio. There he sits quietly on his private balcony overlooking the river and, in the tranquility and solitude that he “guards jealously,” writes.
QUYNH VO: Do you consider being a writer preordained or your choice?
ANDREW LAM: I do consider it a calling, a secret desire that in time became a public vocation. Love of the language was undeniable, and love of reading. When I began to write, all the sadness and confusion and insights that swirled about in my head began to find shapes and meanings. I struggle still to give meanings to them, but I now have a medium: the act of writing.
Should a writer be cosmopolitan or rooted? Can writing sometimes be a “homecoming” journey?
Another way of asking that question is whether the writer is rooted in many different realities, as is the case of our modern life. I am certainly informed by my Vietnamese childhood during the war, but that life itself was also informed by a certain French culture from my father’s side, who came from Bac Lieu, and was baptized as a Catholic. I inherited a certain southern joie de vivre and a pride in the French language — my father’s side were French-speaking and saw France as a destination of one sort or another. But I also inherited some northern witticism and poetry and devotion to Buddhism and conservatism from my mother’s side, who came from Thai Binh.
Given that the bulk of my life is spent in America, writing in a third language — well, you can see how complicated one’s biography can be these days. Home is therefore rooted in a sense of plurality, in a sense of I am both this and that. And more. Which is to say, identity is ever-shifting and should be open to adding additional homelands. Perhaps homecoming is always an effort but, given the complexity of the world, never a fully realized destination.
On some level, aren’t we all refugees from the past? If Adam and Eve cannot return to the Garden of Eden, what chance do we have? Humans are cursed with longing and loss. And the greater the loss, the greater the longing. The only thing that makes life bearable is for us to tell our stories.
What grips you the most about writing? Does good writing rely more on craft or innate talent?
To answer the former, I think the most important part of writing is to give voice and meaning to ideas, insights, feelings. In other words, the act of writing allows you to frame your experience, which can be confusing and polymorphous. Writing, at least for me, is a matter of distilling experiences into something that is transmutable to another. If you don’t have that urge, all the artifice and craft isn’t going to do it. The desire to express is at the core, serving as a driving force — the craft is what the writer learns in order to serve that core. In regards to talent, it is hard to say. I think we all have it, to some degree. I would never discourage someone who wants to pursue writing, if they have something to say. I would discourage those who romanticize the writer’s life without the deep yearning for self-expression.
Should every writer seek a sanctuary to unleash their creativity? Can writing navigate someone away from their solitude, serve as an escape?
There are so many kinds of writers, from those who write formulaic genre fiction to those who specialize in the personal essay. By sanctuary I assume you mean a place, or perhaps a state of solitude from which one writes. In which case, I’d say yes. Regarding the second part, which I don’t necessarily agree with, I see writing as an effort to make sense of my place in the world, in history, and to form a framework around it. I don’t see it as escape. I see drugs and alcohol as escape. Writing is pure effort. At least for me it is. Plus, even if I don’t write, I do like my solitude, and I guard it jealously.
Many of your stories are imbued with anguish, betrayal, trauma, and loss. Do you embrace torment as an inspiration?
I think that, having lived through the latter half of the 20th century and having experienced the war firsthand as a child, it’s impossible to escape trauma and loss. Your question seems to suggest embracing torment as choice — but having survived the war, I don’t think it is. While my life has been blessed with marvelous experiences, at its center there’s a deep sense of loss, and because trauma is all around me — my parents, my siblings, my relatives, and my friends all went though terrible times — it is what informs me as I write. Some people are astonished by how easygoing and funny I can be in person, and they can’t help but contrast me with the subject matter of my work. It’s true: happiness and contentment aren’t my cup of tea when it comes to storytelling.
In an essay, you write, “One learns to see the many dimensions of the world simultaneously. One refuses the singular narrative, marrying instead ideas and languages, living with many reference points. To return, one goes forward.” Do you mean by this that a writer should belong to nowhere?
I don’t exactly see “nowhere” as a destination, nor do I see it as home. On the other hand, I do see people living in tremendous transition within my lifetime, myself included, and it means living in many places with many reference points.
I am answering this, after all, in the city of my birth, a place from which I fled as a child at the end of the war. In America, for a long time, during the Cold War, I could not even fathom the idea of visiting Vietnam again, let alone writing in such a place. But here I am, 43 years later, living in Saigon. The other day I drove by the hospital in which I was born. I know it well, as my mother often commented when we drove past during the war, “That’s where you were born, on that second-floor window near the corner.” And I had a weird sense of displacement: “Wow, I really am back.” But to return, I do go forward. I don’t dwell in the desire to retrieve what I was robbed of. I don’t want the lost home, the lost country. If I am to put down roots in Vietnam, I need to build a new home. That old wise observation, “You can never go home again,” is especially poignant now, as I live a stone’s throw away from where my father, a three-star general in the South Vietnamese Army, boarded a US Navy ship and headed for the Philippines on the last day of the war. I don’t know what he makes of the fact that his youngest son now lives in a high-end condo overlooking that moment of his exile, writing these words. I am still trying to make sense of it.
Do you ever divorce yourself from your work, or is every piece you craft the embodiment of your selfhood?
My work can never capture my human day-to-day experience, its strangeness, its pitfalls, its sorrows and joys. While every piece of my work is informed by my way of looking at things, infused with certain personal sensations and insights, I do not feel that I live to write. Writing gives meaning to my life and anchors me; it gives me a sense of direction. And in return my life experience finds different ways of expressing itself in fiction and nonfiction. But writing doesn’t own me the way I see that it does with many others.
I live my life. And I write.
Who do you write for? Who do you imagine as your audience?
I write mostly for myself, but with the awareness that what I write needs to be understood by others. A lonely act that is a public act as well.
I do not use cryptic language. Also, it needs to be said that my motivation when I started is not the same as the motivation I have now. About 27 years ago, when I began to write seriously, I felt that there was a need to be understood by Americans who knew nothing of the Vietnamese experience. I fell in love with craft itself, and the obsession became simply how to tell a good story — and Vietnam, its history, my familiar territory, became the background of my stories. And yet … I am astonished every time a young Vietnamese American approaches me to say how much my writing has given them insight into their own history — and more important, their parents’ mindsets, what they must have gone through, since so many, as they tell me, “Never talked about it.” One young man from college came to me in Denver to tell me that my book Perfume Dreams opened up a conversation with his parents and grandmother about Vietnam and their refugee experience, and he was grateful for it. I am glad to hear it. Still, when Perfume Dreams was published, I didn’t think of my own community as readers. I had assumed that they all knew the subject matter inside out. But I was wrong. My writing in English about the exodus and its travails somehow gave second-generation Vietnamese Americans an entry to their refugee and immigrant parents’ lives. The gap, of course, had been a language gap — as well as the inability or unwillingness of parents to share their sadness and trauma with their children.
Concepts of hybridity and betweenness feature prominently in your work. How has immersing yourself in the culture and landscape of Vietnam contributed to your work as a Vietnamese-American writer?
I don’t feel that I have immersed myself in the culture and landscape of Vietnam, despite having been here for over five months. I feel that I am barely scratching the surface of a complicated country. Given its growing complexity, Vietnam probably requires serious immersion, which I am not ready to do. I have stories that are based in America, and they don’t necessarily need the current Vietnam to inform their direction.
On the other hand, hybridity implies being both this and that and maybe something more, a kind of plurality that is both external and internal, which is certainly true for who I am, or have become. It is that sense of having a dual perspective on the one thing that makes me the writer I am. For those of us who have been forced out of our homeland, who have had to put down roots elsewhere, reality will always be suspect. We always question our sense of place, our sense of self — and that plays out when we begin to express ourselves through the arts.