“HOW DIFFICULT IS IT,” Andrew Lam asks in his hypnotic and hilarious short story collection Birds of Paradise Lost, “to let the past go?” Nearly 40 years after the fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam War, that question lurks in every corner of Lam’s beautiful book. Just as Vietnamese fairy tales are happy in the middle and sad at the end, this light-dark-light-dark-again collection reminds us that even optimism “is no fortress against the hunger of memories” for those refugees who fled their homeland via helicopters and boats with “sappy ideas of America” in their hearts. His answer, of course, is that it doesn’t matter how difficult it is to throw off the past, the past will have its way with you no matter what you do.
Lam’s real focus, in these stories, is somewhere along the intersection of freedom and bloodshed. Such a place is inherently chaotic, and you can look at these stories as a means of mediating the many contradictions therein. Reading them now — as we witness the fall of yet another US-backed regime, this one in the deserts of Iraq instead of the jungles of Saigon (not to mention the ongoing dispatches from Israel and the Gaza Strip) — reminds us that, from one generation to the next, war is the legacy that interrupts our dreams and defines our futures.
This is not the first time Lam has written about the Vietnamese diaspora. As a journalist and editor at New America Media, a collective of 3,000 ethnic news outlets founded by the nonprofit Pacific News Service in 1996, he has produced two nonfiction books on the subject: Perfume Dreams (2005) and East Eats West (2010). But Birds of Paradise Lost is Lam’s first attempt to engage the subject through fiction, and through fiction that brims with a particularly weird sense of absurdist humor. Whether the kids flash-freeze their dead Grandma till Mom and Dad get back from Vegas or a Vietnamese leathersmith learns about bondage in San Francisco, events spring from a wickedly funny imagination.
Still, the nightmares are never far away. In “Sister,” a numbed-out real estate agent is haunted by the beseeching image of her younger brother’s outstretched hands in a shipwreck. “This is life,” Lam explains. “If you belong to the losing side in a civil war, you become a boat person, a refugee, an exile — an enemy of history. You must remake your life elsewhere. She accepted that long ago.” And in “Hunger,” a single father, living in Section 8 housing after spending time in a refugee camp with his young daughter, struggles to overcome his wife’s death at sea. He can only comfort the girl at night with dancing shadows on the wall, convincing her that this is where her mother now resides.
It is in the small moments, like this one, that Birds of Paradise Lost comes most alive in its tenderness.
But the wacky and surreal moments abound, too. Take, for example, “Grandma’s Tales”: With parents off celebrating their anniversary in Vegas, a young brother and sister are left in the care of their elderly grandmother. She promptly dies. The kids, naturally, decide to stick her body in the freezer:
She was small enough that she fit right above the TV dinner trays and the frozen yogurt bars we were going to have for dessert. We wrapped all of grandma’s five-foot-three, ninety-eight-pound lithe body in Saran wrap and kept her there and hoped Mama and Papa would get the Mama-Papa-come-home-quick-Grandma’s-dead letter that we sent to Circus Circus […].
But then, Grandma rises from the dead. “I lost everything I owned when I left my beautiful country behind,” she explains before leaving her grandkids for a date in the afterlife with a famous novelist, “But now I have a second chance.” Off on her new adventure, she happily returns to her old home in Hanoi as her family mourns her loss in San Francisco. It is a deft turn: the topsy-turvy switch of perspective from one generation to the next; the realization of how intertwined they’ll always be.
If there is a unifying theme to this collection, it is belonging. It is why some immigrants can never escape the old Old World battles and inherited trauma, even though they never experienced their parents’ war firsthand. Lam explored the same idea earlier this year in his provocative Boom magazine essay “Give Me the Gun.” Inspired by the anniversary of the Boston marathon bombing, the essay examines what it means to remake a life, to adopt a new country as one’s own, to fit in or else remain a permanent outsider like the Tsarnaev brothers were. In the days leading up to this year’s marathon, as daffodils bloomed along the Charles River and local media buzzed with Boston Strong™, it was Lam’s essay that gave me pause and helped me finally see the bombings as they were: a strange collision of hope and memory.
“I am now seven years older than my father was when he came to California at the end of the Vietnam War,” Lam writes in the Boom essay. “I have been an American writer and journalist for over two decades. I am here to tell you that the war, though it ended so long ago, doesn’t end — and for children from war-torn countries, the Old World, its memories and turmoil, sometimes calls out for our blood.”
“I couldn’t help but wonder: how much of a scar does being a child of a war-torn country leave? And why do some old scars turn back into open, festering wounds?”
The answer, for Lam, is that history is never really far away. It seeps into our dreams, and when humiliation and nostalgia emerge for those who fail to succeed in their adopted homeland, the old memories take over along with fantasies of revenge.
The past, in other words, reappears in unpredictable ways, especially for those who think they can simply “move beyond” the nightmares of war and exodus. In Birds of Paradise Lost, the language of trauma is translated by the day-to-day heartbreak of surviving. It is in a classroom, when the bullied new kid stands up during show-and-tell and announces, “Hee, foock heads, leevenme olone!” It enters the Vietnamese restaurant as a Vietnam vet, or through the strange tics of a Tourette’s case. With each, the revelation is the same: the true immigrant narrative is not about turning rags into riches; it’s about fending off the ghosts of war.
Joy Horowitz, who is teaching at Harvard this fall, is a writer and author living in Cambridge, Massachusetts.