OCTOBER 11, 2014
AMERICA, Lan Cao notes in her second novel The Lotus and the Storm, is “the country that both betrays and redeems.” Mai and her father Minh, the two main characters, emigrate from Vietnam to the United States after the fall of Saigon. But while America’s involvement in the Vietnam War contributed directly to this refugee crisis, the country receives its immigrants with ambivalence at best, demanding, as Mai calls it, “the fakery of assimilation.”
From Theresa Hak Kyung Cha to R. Zamora Linmark, Asian-American writers have long been creatively employing language and structure to illustrate issues of cultural and geographical dislocation, as well as the ambivalence, and violence, of assimilation. In Lotus, Cao’s use of multiple points of view and her withholding of narrative add to this tradition. As reluctant heirs to America’s 20th-century war involvement, characters like Mai and Minh struggle between the need to speak about their past traumas and to hold them secret.
Cao’s 1997 debut Monkey Bridge was a game changer: the first novel published by a Vietnamese-American author about the war, it featured a teenage Vietnamese immigrant, also named Mai, and her mother, as they contended with family secrets and postwar traumas. Cao, a former corporate attorney who is now a professor of international law at Chapman University, was born in Saigon and emigrated to the United States in 1975, and like the young protagonist in her first book, lived with an American military officer and his family and later attended Mount Holyoke College.
The success of Monkey Bridge arguably paved the way for writers such as lê thi diem thúy, Dao Strom, Amy Phan, and Andrew Lam, whose fiction has done much to complicate and add nuance to literary depictions of Vietnamese Americans, both immigrant and native-born. While Monkey Bridge gave perceptible nods to that most seminal of Asian-American texts, Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, The Lotus and the Storm converses indirectly with her first, elaborating on the necessary and rarely seen perspective of the southern Vietnamese who lived through the war and its aftermath. With three different first-person narrators and multiple storylines that span decades, Lotus strives to be an epic, thicker in heft and detail and reaching more deeply than Monkey Bridge.
The parallels between Cao’s two novels are striking: both have a daughter named Mai, a close friendship between a Vietnamese father and a white American military official, women who sacrifice themselves to save their families, characters with hidden political allegiances, and secrets shielded out of love. While Mai in Monkey Bridge asks, “What had happened to my grandfather? What sort of sorrow was my mother living with?” the central question in Lotus might be: “How much, if at all, do we recover from the loss of love? How much, if at all, do we ever let go of grief, even as we proclaim the need to leave it in the past?”
The first part of The Lotus and the Storm alternates between chapters narrated by a young Mai, growing up in Vietnam in the 1960s and early 1970s, and chapters narrated by her father Minh in 2006, 30 years after he and Mai fled Vietnam. The novel opens with Mai’s recollections of her mother Quy, decked out in a satin ao dai and pearl drop earrings, steering her Peugeot through the southern Vietnamese city of Cholon in 1963. Quy’s presence, both immediate and remembered, remains at the forefront of the book. The daughter of a landowner and a lover of French food, opera, and Chopin, Quy is described as “fiery” and “gorgeous, almost imperial.” Because she marries a man without money and her ancestral land remains inaccessible during the war, she is also a resilient businesswoman, singlehandedly managing her family’s finances and doing brisk business with her ethnically Chinese friends, who dominate both Cholon — a neighboring city of Saigon where Cao grew up — and its merchant class.
Every night, Quy tells stories to Mai and her sister Khanh, including the tale of Scheherazade and her sister in Arabian Nights and the Vietnamese epic of Kieu and Trong. In the latter, Kieu sells herself as a concubine to save her family, which Quy refers to as “heroic renunciations.” Mai, in one instance of the book’s hyperactive foreshadowing, pairs the mythic couples’ names with those of her parents. During the novel’s early years, Quy serves as the face of the household while her husband Minh, a commander of an elite combat group in the South Vietnamese army, is away from home for months at a time.
Both Mai and Minh’s past and present storylines leap forward chronologically. Living in Sleepy Hollow Manor, a Virginia apartment complex full of Asian immigrants, and cared for by his daughter and a devoted neighbor, Minh spends his days watching television news, observing, “Iraq is becoming another Vietnam.” Mai, now in her forties, has a law degree but works as a research librarian and lives a “half life” in which the present “barely touches her at all.” In contrast to the bright, curious girl of 1963, the Mai in 2006 has no friends or life outside of work other than occasional outings with her father to the mall in their suburb’s Little Saigon. The plot of the book is the distance between then and now. What happened to Quy and Khanh, who are missing from the Sleepy Hollow Manor apartment? And how did Minh and Mai become the bag of bones and half-alive characters they are now?
The chapters told from Minh’s point of view move between his present narrative as an invalid to his recollections of the war years, when he was in his prime, with his “halo of thick black hair” and “tumble of tight, compact muscles shifting quietly under his uniform.” Cao’s depictions of the landscapes of Vietnam are vivid, expressive: the deep greenery of the jungles, the rust bleeding from the walls of tin shacks, the scent of blooming frangipani and mentholated oils. Some of the novel’s best scenes are Minh’s harrowing, horrifying depictions. Also compelling are his ruminations on Vietnamese identity, in particular that of the South, which he calls home to “a freewheeling, all-or-nothing lot.” Even before the war, he says, “sorrow was deeply carved and deeply felt in Vietnam’s soul.”
Minh’s recounting of the past evades emotion and focuses instead on military tactics — as he says, “I am better able to understand the loss of the war and my country than I am ever able to understand the loss of my daughter and my wife.” Although the prose grows ponderous at times, Minh gives the history and complexities of the war, from the 1963 presidential coup and the 1968 Tet Offensive to the roots and consequences of America’s involvement.
“For every gesture of trust, there is, is there not, a countervailing gesture of betrayal?” Minh asks. The Lotus and the Storm smartly upends both its readers’ and its characters’ assumptions: Quy and Minh’s marriage is not what it seems, nor are Minh’s friendships with men like Cliff, the American military advisor who helps him and Mai leave Vietnam during the fall of Saigon, and Phong, whom Minh met at officer candidate school. Even Quy’s family has its own wartime contradictions and ruptures. Her father was brutally murdered by the Vietcong, but her brother, known to Mai as Uncle Number Five, is a Vietcong and an occasional visitor to his sister’s house.
During the war, Vietnam became a site in which multiple countries played out their own political interests, and Quy is a woman fought over by multiple men. (“Many men were in love with your mother,” Cliff tells Mai, and Minh admits to liking it when “foreign men” ogle his wife.)When Minh and Mai emigrate and Quy decides to remain in Vietnam, it is Minh’s friend Phong who plays a central role in deciding her fate, leading to a decades-long rift between the two men. So in love with Quy that he barely seems to care when his own wife is raped, Phong, like Cliff, saves Minh’s life out of his love for Quy. And Quy’s own sacrifices, vigorously alluded to but not exposed to us until far later in the book, are what the men say saved them all.
In Fae Myenne Ng’s Bone and Chang Rae-Lee’s Native Speaker, as well as in more recent works such as Bushra Rehman’s Corona and Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You, secrecy, or concealing information, between friends, partners, and family members, is a survival tactic. In Lotus,Mai and Minh are saddled, physically, with the weight of their own histories. While Minh declines to a near-invalid state, Mai flies into frequent rages, hitting and bruising herself as “something more powerful takes over.” Like the title object in Monkey Bridge, a bamboo bridge that requires great dexterity to navigate, Minh and Mai’s relationship to one another, as well as their relationship with the past, is dangerous territory, booby-trapped with painful emotions, and the characters’ first-person accounts serve as catharsis. They confess not to one another, but to the reader. Sharing their stories becomes not only a negotiation between present and past, but also a form of healing.
Following the death of her sister Khanh, young Mai stops speaking, and months later, when she witnesses the shooting of a beloved American soldier during the Tet Offensive, she “metamorphosed and crossed into an elaborately different realm,” saying:
I am here and not here. I watch and am watched. I am. I am not. Like a storm, black and raging, a figure from within me shifts her shape until she is enormous and angry and erupts with a roar.
Trauma writes itself on the body, and in Monkey Bridge, the mother character is a literal embodiment of war’s aftermath, her face scarred by what she calls a cooking accident, but what was actually — secrets again — the result of a napalm attack. As an adult in America, the Mai in Lotus has tried to erase her mother from her memory, blaming herself for Quy not loving her enough to stay with her after Khanh’s death. Diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder, Mai describes her years in Virginia as “missing from our lives even as we live them.”
In a move that takes creative risks, Cao writes Mai’s grief and trauma not only as symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, but also as something tangibly lived and felt. Grief and trauma, elevated beyond DSM diagnosis, are given their own voice: that of Bao, one of Mai’s multiple personalities, whose name can mean treasure or storm. Bao gets her own first-person narrative in the second part of Lotus. A third personality named Cecile, the name called out by Mai’s childhood pet bird, also appears in several scenes. Quiet and obedient, Cecile plays Chopin at the piano.
Vietnam has receded for Mai, but not for Bao, a presence both parasitic and salvific, making her first appearance after Khanh’s death and the Tet Offensive. Bao’s existence originates from Mai’s pain. While Mai “lives her life in this country as if it were a prelude to something more lasting that is not here yet and might never be,” she is only able to do so because Bao does the heavy lifting, absorbing Mai’s painful memories and “shielding her from immense sadness so she can be free to move on in this country.” But Bao dislikes Mai for this responsibility (who wouldn’t?) and explains Mai’s fits and rages as:
When it is no longer possible for me to hold it all in, when it swells grotesquely in me, when I end up releasing everything so it can wail and thrash inside the frenzied shadows out there, she, the miscreant one, is the one who will become enraged.
I loved the idea of Bao as narrator, but was not as taken with Cao adding yet another first-person voice to a novel that already moves too frequently, and at times clunkily, between characters, time, and place. The latter part of the novel switches between chapters narrated by Bao and Minh and Mai, and strains under the weight of this. Cao’s reliance on the retrospective voice throughout Lotus lends a feeling of distance towards the story. Because the characters often recount in summary, rather than scene, the narrative can feel more removed than necessary. A novel that begins with the ending — we know, already, where Mai and Minh end up, geographically and emotionally — must maintain sufficient reader interest in order to propel the book forward. In several instances, Minh wants to tell Mai something about the family’s past yet decides not to, or is unable to. But it can be difficult to sustain such a lengthy work on the plot point of not telling.
In a New York Times review of Monkey Bridge, Michiko Kakutani wrote that Cao’s “orchestration of these melodramatic revelations is far from fluent — incongruous developments and clumsy foreshadowings making us suspect that something is afoot long before we’re supposed to.” Lotus,too, falters with overenthusiastic dramatic foreshadowing. Mai and Minh both “register a sensation of dread” right before moments of danger, and there are too many instances of eyes flashing and stomach tightening and suspicions about Phong, Cliff, and Quy prior to the actual pile-up of revelations that come at the book’s end. And the scenes that cause the barriers between Bao and Mai to finally weaken, have several cringeworthy moments that feel forced.
Cao’s prose can distract from her characters and story as well, with awkward and heavy-handed passages such as “I felt a twinge of rancor”; “Becalmed, hers was becoming a life of separatedness”; “Life’s flow, like an arpeggio of notes whose combination is seemingly limitless, lies beyond our grasp”; and “Both allow you to disappear into the shape of turbulence, to throw yourself into distant echoes and old vestiges that might be most strangely but also most strongly felt only when you are inside the center of the storm.” Similarly, Minh’s lengthy descriptions of banh mi and other aspects and items of Vietnamese culture seem too transparently instructive and inorganic.
Such missteps don’t fully take advantage of Cao’s skills for carefully rendering time, identity, and place, which are reasons why we should read her: as a vanguard writer who continues to add to our understanding of the Vietnam War. Expanding on the questions posed by her first novel 17 years later, Cao’s new epic gives us insight into how trauma reverberates, its fallout stealth, persistent, far-reaching.