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Shelf Awareness Star Review of 'Birds of Paradise Lost'

The 13 stories in Andrew Lam's Birds of Paradise Lost soar like birds in mid-flight, bridging the space between the dreamscape of Vietnam and the glass and steel of "Gold Mountain" (Cuu Kim Son, a Vietnamese name for San Francisco that also serves as a synecdoche for the United States). Lam, a Vietnamese-American writer and journalist, acknowledges the profound losses of his parents' generation, but also embraces the buoyant desires of his adopted country--a "mysterious and vast garden... its soil made fertile by love and its endless foibles."

Illustrating the contradictory yet porous divide between East and West, Lam's stories reveal indelible, quirky insights. "Minh oi," a term of endearment in Vietnamese that means "my body," affirming the transcendent unity of husband and wife, is linked to metaphors of sexual bondage in the gay S&M world of "Love Leather." Former boat refugees, now affluent, become "yacht people"; a father's failed war becomes his son's passport to a compassionate life. The most accomplished among this vivid flock of stories, however, is "Everything Must Go," which reenacts the story of Orpheus and Eurydice in the dark basement of an estate sale as two lovers are forever divided by their seemingly intractable worldviews. He mourns his lost Eden through broken relics, while she revels in rare bargains as a way to redeem her future. --Thuy Dinh, editor, Da Mau magazine

Discover: Lam's short stories offer a tragi-comic portrayal of Vietnamese-American lives as an ever-evolving process of resistance and assimilation.
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Published on March 19, 2013 12:30 Tags: birds-of-paradise-lost, book, culture, hybridization, identity, immigration, review, sex, short-stories

Kung Fu Secret Fighting Techniques: Available Soon in English

Lam Chun-fai, a master of Southern Chinese kung-fu style, Hung Kuen, is the first of the kung fu masters to publish a fighting manual in English. Hung Kuen is a secret technique that has been closely guarded and, up until now, only transmitted orally to trusted pupils. News of the publication of the manual stirred excitement among some kung fu aficionados in Europe and in the United States.

Teacher Lam's reason: Kung fu is in steep decline in Hong Kong, where he lives. There, youth are too obsessed with the internet -- video games, social media, YouTube and so on -- to be focusing on something as complicated as martial arts practices. To save his knowledge from extinction, the aging teacher is willing to divulge fighting secrets and techniques to foreigners.

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The old master's techniques will be more than welcome in America and beyond. For a few decades now, martial arts have become the norm in America. On magazine racks at bookstores, you can find dozens of magazines with titles like "Inside Kung Fu," "Martial Arts Experts," "Black Belt," "Official Karate," "Dojo" and so on.

Turn on the TV and you'll see ads like the one for EASPORT where Golf legends Tiger Woods and Arnold Palmer are engaged in kung fu fighting or see an ad for razor where a baby learns kung fu to fight his own father for the attention of his mother. For the video game enthusiasts, there are an array of choices: Kung Fu Panda, Kung Fu Rabbit, Kung Fu Master and countless other titles. And mixed martial arts have become the rage, with fighters using various fighting styles to do full contact combat.

So much has changed since Bruce Lee first flew like an avenging god across the silver screen in his awe-inspiring kick nearly half a century ago. Lee not only introduced martial arts to the West, he redefined cinematic language itself. Gone is the notion that bigger is better. Swiftness and a precise kick can topple mass. Agility proves superior to brawn. The body in martial arts motion is pure art, a kind of acrobatic dance endowed with a kind of lethal elegance and grace that had not, up until Bruce Lee, been imagined for cinematic fights.

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Since then, it has become obvious to observers of globalization and its effects that no single system can exist as a separate entity, nor can its borders remain impervious to change. All exist with varying degrees of openness and exchange. The old Silk Road, along which so many religious ideas traveled, has been replaced by a far more potent thoroughfare: unprecedented global migration, mass communications, and the information highway, which transcends geography.

We live now in an age of crossover, after all, where traditions from the East and the West exist side by side for the picking. Roles are being switched quickly enough. Steven Spielberg sells Kung Fu Panda to the Chinese and the Chinese sell blue jeans and iPhones to us. The majority of yoga teachers are white here in San Francisco, and when asked why Indians don't like to teach yoga, a journalist who hailed from Calcutta said, "Actually, most Indians I know don't do yoga, either. I wouldn't know a downward dog if it bit me." And a computer programmer who came from New Delhi joked, "Oh no, Indians are too busy doing computer programming in Silicon Valley. We might think about it if they have stock options."

The lesson we are quickly learning in the 21st century is that no one owns culture. The most popular ideas tend to transgress borders and in time, shed its old skin for a myriad of rebirth. It should come then as no surprise that the new martial arts master of the Hung Kuen style might have blond hair and blue eyes and the colonizers of the moon will speak Mandarin.

Meanwhile, with the Internet shrinking the globe, and with the world defined by mass movement, rendering geography obsolete, the whole world becomes a virtual library of Alexandria.

Some in Hong Kong may gripe about how cherished Southern Chinese fighting secrets are now literally an open book, but they may be surprised to find that Chinese kung fu itself not purely Chinese.

Historians may disagree but the 5th-6th century figure, Bodhidharma, a Buddhist monk from South Asia, looms large among Chinese martial arts practitioners as well as Buddhist scholars. Legend has it that, along with being the patriarch of Zen Buddhism, the reportedly ill-tempered but holy sage taught monks at the Shaolin Temple marvelous ancient yoga breathing techniques (which enabled him to scale tall mountains to arrive in China in the first place). Boddhidarma's disciples and their disciples went on to invent a myriad of kung fu fighting styles.

Which is to say, secrets often become an open book, and the heritage of one nation can quickly become the heritage of another in a blink of an eye, and that's the way it should be. It's the energy that is fueling the major part of the 21st -century global village, and it reinforces our knowledge that the borders have been porous all along.



Andrew Lam is an editor with New America Media and the author of three books, Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora, East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres, and his latest, Birds of Paradise Lost.




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Andrew Lam's latest book, Birds of Paradise Lost, a collection of short stories about boat people who remade themselves in America's West Coast.
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Published on May 29, 2013 07:15 Tags: book, buddhism, china, east-west, english, globalization, kung-fu, martial-arts, monks, tai-chi

comments from readers of Birds of Paradise Lost

"I read Birds of Paradise Lostand East eats West these last two weekends. I don't know how to express my deep appreciation for the beauty of your writings and how they touch me.

I first went to Vietnam some 40 years ago, not physically but psychologically, with the war, received refugees students in 1975 as a high school teacher, and then worked with PATH, a global health organization, until recently with an office in Hanoi and made several visits to work on HR matters. Last year, I fulfilled a desire to live and work in Vietnam and spent 5 months in DaNang teaching English at a private university.

As I watched last night's brief tribute to Carole King, [ While I've always liked this song,"You've got a Friend",but it took on very special meaning a couple of weeks ago when you read from East eats West (Singing in the Family) at the World Café event in Seattle that I learned about from Peace Trees.] I saw as well a tribute to you and just want to thank you for enriching my life through your writings and your experiences and I'm sure without a doubt that you've touched many others. What more could a person ask to be able to do?"


"I cherish these stories for their compassion and understanding – the anger or frustration brought by clashes of values –if there was any – has been replaced by acknowledgement. I don’t imagine it has been easy, but you have made the process so graceful and fluid. It’s quite amazing, actually." A lawyer in DC.

"I love your stories. " "You're one of the most intelligent human being I've ever met," a busine$$man.

"I greatly admire your writing but these stories are on an even higher plane, and I especially appreciate your ability to navigate so many different narrative voices and persona with amazing sensitivity and a prose style that somehow manages to be both intimate and ironic. Truly an impressive work and I salute what you have so fantastically rendered. You deserve all the kudos that are bound to come your way."

"I've been coming to these commencements [UC Berkeley] for over three decades. Yours is by far the best. Thank you," A retired professor.

"I know it's fiction but I want to take your characters to lunch and talk with them. I don't want your stories to end." A graduate student at Chapman univ.

"Birds of Paradise Lost" just blew my mind.. Editor of a news website.

"Wow. absolutely beautiful and breathtaking.
love love love how your words are so viscerally cinematic."
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Published on June 06, 2013 14:07 Tags: author, birds, book, comments, experience, literature, readers, reading, stories, vietnamese

A review of Birds of Paradise Lost

 

Some of you might be familiar with Andrew Lam’s previous work “Perfume Dreams: Reflections of the Vietnamese Diaspora” and “East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres”In his new book, Birds of Paradise Lost, Lam challenges the expectations of the “immigrant story” in a compilation of thirteen stories of immigrants who fled Vietnam to start a new life in the San Francisco Bay Area. Eric Nguyen reviews Lam’s book.

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In the title story of Andrew Lam’s fiction debut, Birds of Paradise Lost, a group of elderly Viet Kieu men mourn the death of their friend, a local newspaper owner who burned himself in protest of communists “who ruined [his] country” and the US government’s own inactivity towards the “human rights violations in Vietnam.” The man is proclaimed a hero and soon after, his friends promise the sacrificial suicide will not go in vain. “Brother Bac,” says Thang, an old professor, giving a toast to his departed friend. “Don’t be surprised if I follow your footsteps. We’ll show the Americans, not to mention the younger generation, what old men are capable of.” At this proclamation, his son walks in, furious that his father would follow such an illogical course of action. “To live fighting for something is different than to die in its name, especially when it’s uncalled for,” his son writes in a letter to the editor the next day. Later, his son drives him home and they argue about overseas activism. At the end of the story, Thang jumps out of his son’s car and walks aimlessly down the streets of San Jose, asking himself if he could ever possibly sacrifice his life here in the USA for the freedom of people in another country that is longer his.

In a way, the title story represents the tension in much of the stories in Birds of Paradise Lost. What does Vietnam mean, now that it is so far away? What is the meaning of America, this new home? The answer is never simple in these stories that chronicle the lives of those who are haunted by their past, yet are thrown into new lives. Thang speaks to his friends, “drawing inspiration from the old days when still lecturing in Saigon on Vietnamese history.” This is a striking contrast to his activism in the States, where he dons “black pajamas” and “[sits] inside a flimsy bamboo cage on Lion Plaza…demonstrating against Hanoi’s unjustifiable arrests of clergymen and dissidents back home” as “shoppers walked by…and children giggled as they stared at the sight.” Lam’s stories are about memory and what happens to these memories once one is removed from their place of origin.

His stories not only touch on older generations, but also the younger ones as well, giving readers a diverse cast of characters ranging from old professors to middle-age gay men to teenagers who have adopted the slang of their new urban neighborhood. In “Show & Tell” a recently immigrated 7th grader returns to school. The students are malicious and they bully him: “I hear they eat dogs over there is that true?” says one classmate. “They eat bugs and snakes for lunch,” proclaims another, all of which is made worse by the fact that the student is mute in his new country, unable to say anything except a heavily accented “no undohsten.” At the climax of the story, the boy breaks down and elaborates on his own journey through chalkboard drawings—how he escaped, how his father was left behind, and how he remains haunted. It’s a moment of great empathy that gives voice to an otherwise voiceless figure of the immigrant.

What is refreshing about Lam’s work is that it defies expectations of “immigrant story.” Expectantly, there is intense grief associated with the loss of one’s homeland as well as the challenges of assimilation and survival. In “Hunger” a single father struggles to carve out a place for himself and his daughter in Section 8 housing, while attempting to come to terms with the death of his wife at sea. In “Step Up and Whistle,” the narrator’s uncle finds himself in trouble for re-living the past in a museum and is taken into police custody, yet there is also a good measure of humor, irony, and strangeness. In “Love Leather,” a leather smith daydreams about his old business in Vietnam and plans to build a new one as he works in a S&M sex store in San Francisco. To grow his business, he decides to go to the infamous Folsom Street Fair, an annual public BDSM gathering that highlights San Francisco’s Leather Pride Week. In “Bright Clouds Over the Mekong,” a Vietnamese widow finds the American veteran who killed her husband and plots his revenge through prescription drugs and poisonous “black grass.” She eventually falls for the man and struggles to continue her plan. Lam’s stories are fresh in their mixture of humor and tragedy. They teeter between the possible and improbable. By doing so, Lam recasts the immigrant narrative with a feeling of both uncertainty and surrealism—for what is more surreal than leaving your country by boat and then starting a new life in a formerly allied nation? In the most surreal story, “Grandma’s Tales,” Lam takes a page from GeorgeSaunders and revives a dead matriarch: “I lost everything I owned when I left my beautiful country behind,” she says before leaving her grandchildren for a date with a famous novelist, “But now I have a second chance.”

 

A REVIEW OF ANDREW LAM’S BIRDS OF PARADISE LOSTPosted on Jul 8, 2013 Leave a comment      1 Vote

 


andrewlam

Some of you might be familiar with Andrew Lam’s previous work “Perfume Dreams: Reflections of the Vietnamese Diaspora” and “East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres”In his new book, Birds of Paradise Lost, Lam challenges the expectations of the “immigrant story” in a compilation of thirteen stories of immigrants who fled Vietnam to start a new life in the San Francisco Bay Area. Eric Nguyen reviews Lam’s book.

Have you subscribed to diaCRITICS yet? Subscribe and win prizes! Read more details.

In the title story of Andrew Lam’s fiction debut, Birds of Paradise Lost, a group of elderly Viet Kieu men mourn the death of their friend, a local newspaper owner who burned himself in protest of communists “who ruined [his] country” and the US government’s own inactivity towards the “human rights violations in Vietnam.” The man is proclaimed a hero and soon after, his friends promise the sacrificial suicide will not go in vain. “Brother Bac,” says Thang, an old professor, giving a toast to his departed friend. “Don’t be surprised if I follow your footsteps. We’ll show the Americans, not to mention the younger generation, what old men are capable of.” At this proclamation, his son walks in, furious that his father would follow such an illogical course of action. “To live fighting for something is different than to die in its name, especially when it’s uncalled for,” his son writes in a letter to the editor the next day. Later, his son drives him home and they argue about overseas activism. At the end of the story, Thang jumps out of his son’s car and walks aimlessly down the streets of San Jose, asking himself if he could ever possibly sacrifice his life here in the USA for the freedom of people in another country that is longer his.

In a way, the title story represents the tension in much of the stories in Birds of Paradise Lost. What does Vietnam mean, now that it is so far away? What is the meaning of America, this new home? The answer is never simple in these stories that chronicle the lives of those who are haunted by their past, yet are thrown into new lives. Thang speaks to his friends, “drawing inspiration from the old days when still lecturing in Saigon on Vietnamese history.” This is a striking contrast to his activism in the States, where he dons “black pajamas” and “[sits] inside a flimsy bamboo cage on Lion Plaza…demonstrating against Hanoi’s unjustifiable arrests of clergymen and dissidents back home” as “shoppers walked by…and children giggled as they stared at the sight.” Lam’s stories are about memory and what happens to these memories once one is removed from their place of origin.

 

His stories not only touch on older generations, but also the younger ones as well, giving readers a diverse cast of characters ranging from old professors to middle-age gay men to teenagers who have adopted the slang of their new urban neighborhood. In “Show & Tell” a recently immigrated 7th grader returns to school. The students are malicious and they bully him: “I hear they eat dogs over there is that true?” says one classmate. “They eat bugs and snakes for lunch,” proclaims another, all of which is made worse by the fact that the student is mute in his new country, unable to say anything except a heavily accented “no undohsten.” At the climax of the story, the boy breaks down and elaborates on his own journey through chalkboard drawings—how he escaped, how his father was left behind, and how he remains haunted. It’s a moment of great empathy that gives voice to an otherwise voiceless figure of the immigrant.

What is refreshing about Lam’s work is that it defies expectations of “immigrant story.” Expectantly, there is intense grief associated with the loss of one’s homeland as well as the challenges of assimilation and survival. In “Hunger” a single father struggles to carve out a place for himself and his daughter in Section 8 housing, while attempting to come to terms with the death of his wife at sea. In “Step Up and Whistle,” the narrator’s uncle finds himself in trouble for re-living the past in a museum and is taken into police custody, yet there is also a good measure of humor, irony, and strangeness. In “Love Leather,” a leather smith daydreams about his old business in Vietnam and plans to build a new one as he works in a S&M sex store in San Francisco. To grow his business, he decides to go to the infamous Folsom Street Fair, an annual public BDSM gathering that highlights San Francisco’s Leather Pride Week. In “Bright Clouds Over the Mekong,” a Vietnamese widow finds the American veteran who killed her husband and plots his revenge through prescription drugs and poisonous “black grass.” She eventually falls for the man and struggles to continue her plan. Lam’s stories are fresh in their mixture of humor and tragedy. They teeter between the possible and improbable. By doing so, Lam recasts the immigrant narrative with a feeling of both uncertainty and surrealism—for what is more surreal than leaving your country by boat and then starting a new life in a formerly allied nation? In the most surreal story, “Grandma’s Tales,” Lam takes a page from GeorgeSaunders and revives a dead matriarch: “I lost everything I owned when I left my beautiful country behind,” she says before leaving her grandchildren for a date with a famous novelist, “But now I have a second chance.”

 

Indeed, Birds of Paradise Lost is about second chances and the mixed success of starting over. In “Sister” a wealthy real estate agent tries her best to escape her personal history. After telling a client she’s Vietnamese, she instantly regrets it. “Why hadn’t she said she was Chinese?” Yet a nightmare involving her escape by boat begins to resurface and she soon finds herself involuntarily dialing the number of her old house in Vietnam. “How difficult is it to let the past go?” the narrator asks. Lam’s stories are poignant and powerful in the chronicling of not only Vietnamese Americans, but of human frailty and strength as well.

 

 

Eric Nguyen is a writer from Maryland. He has a degree in sociology from the University of Maryland along with a certificate in LGBT Studies. He is currently an MFA candidate at McNeese State University and lives in Louisiana.

Andrew Lam is the author of Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora, which won the 2006 PEN Open Book Award, and East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres. Lam is an editor and cofounder of New American Media, an association of over two thousand ethnic media outlets in America. He was a regular commentator on NPR’s All Things Considered for many years, and was the subject of a 2004 PBS documentary called My Journey Home. His essays have appeared in newspapers and magazines such as The New York TimesThe LA Times, the San Francisco ChronicleThe Baltimore SunThe Atlanta Journal, the Chicago TribuneMother Jones, and The Nation, among many others. His short stories have been widely taught and anthologized. Birds of Paradise Lost is his first story collection. He lives in San Francisco.

 

 

 

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Published on July 08, 2013 14:09 Tags: birds-of-paradise-lost, book, california, immigrant, memories, refugee, review, san-francisco, trauma, vietnam, war

Birds of Paradise Lost is now available on Kindle

My book, Birds of Paradise Lost, is now available on Kindle.


The thirteen stories in Birds of Paradise Lost shimmer with humor and pathos as they chronicle the anguish and joy and bravery of America’s newest Americans, the troubled lives of those who fled Vietnam and remade themselves in the San Francisco Bay Area. The past—memories of war and its aftermath, of murder, arrest, re-education camps and new economic zones, of escape and shipwreck and atrocity—is ever present in these wise and compassionate stories. It plays itself out in surprising ways in the lives of people who thought they had moved beyond the nightmares of war and exodus. It comes back on TV in the form of a confession from a cannibal; it enters the Vietnamese restaurant as a Vietnam Vet with a shameful secret; it articulates itself in the peculiar tics of a man with Tourette’s Syndrome who struggles to deal with a profound tragedy. Birds of Paradise Lost is an emotional tour de force, intricately rendering the false starts and revelations in the struggle for integration, and in so doing, the human heart.
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Published on August 13, 2013 14:22 Tags: available, birds-trauma, book, kindle, recovery, refugees, san-francisco

Review of Birds of Paradise Lost in New Pages

Review of Birds of Paradise Lost

Fiction by Andrew Lam
Red Hen Press, March 2013
ISBN-13: 978-1-59709-268-5
Paperback: 216pp; $15.95
Review by Michael Caylo-Baradi


While reading Andrew Lam’s Birds of Paradise Lost, I kept thinking of novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED speech, back in 2009. It was titled “The Danger of the Single Story”; the subject echoed the project of challenging master narratives from the previous century. That challenge germinated revisions in university reading lists, back in the late seventies, as the war in Vietnam approached its final phase. Adichie underlines the role of power cultivated in a single story, and how it insinuates, then calcifies, subterranean borderlines through stereotypes. On a Virgin flight from Lagos before her talk, Adichie heard an announcement about charity work in “India, Africa, and other countries”; however unintentional this categorization of Africa as a country was, the remark was not isolated. Adichie was clear about that, that the comment signaled pernicious perceptions about Africa, the kind that framed the continent in a stereotype: that its economic situation is prime destination of numerous charities from the First World. On the other hand, Adichie’s problem with stereotypes “is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete[;] they make one story the only story.”

Lam’s first short-story collection contains a resounding, single story; it is about a journey, of a people, from one territory to another. They fled Vietnam for the United States and other places, and along the way help was offered through charitable hands. Their blood is infused with varying degrees of displacement and contradictions, often spurned by memory, nostalgia, and longings for the motherland on the other side of the Pacific. Lam’s single story, in this collection, is the immigrant story; the pursuit of the American Dream is indelible to its narrative, the struggle that transforms, meditates, and forges new ways of being in a new land. Through clear, accessible prose, Lam tells that story over and over again convincingly, unapologetic no matter how stereotypical the characters in his stories might appear to be, crowded with characters who have done well in North America. But the more Lam repeats that rhythm and the deeper he takes us into the lives of these characters, something gives and fades, which blurs not only the dimension of stereotype we perceive in them, but also the line between their Vietnamese and American identities. And, too, quite surprisingly, Lam sometimes burns that line with humor, the kind that begs for a live audience at any late-night chat show with respectable ratings.

“Yacht People” is probably the funniest story in the collection, which sounds like a sketch from John Leguizamo’s early days as a stand-up comic, delirious with one-liners, and extended tenors of bathroom jokes. Through humor, Lam subverts the horror of being in a very crowded refugee boat: “Crowded is, if you bend down looking for your plastic slippers, you’d lose your cherry.” The journey from the Mekong to the Philippines, through the South China Sea, is infested with Thai pirates, or “opportunistic fisherman with knives.” Starvation heightens the horror on the boat. The nameless narrator remembers how his mother saves his dying, three-year-old baby brother; she cuts one of her fingers, so the baby can drink her blood: “It was gross. It was awesome, man. Mama fed him like he was Vampire Lestat.” The baby survives, now six feet tall and “handsome as Bruce Lee,” but wrecked with “emotional baggage . . . wrapped around [his] mother’s finger.”

The refugee boat is not simply an element of transition in Lam’s stories, but the embodiment of hell itself, a sort of Rubicon that must be crossed, an experience that refuses to be exiled from memory. Thus, in “Sister,” real estate broker Ivory is ambivalent about visiting Vietnam; she lost her parents in a shipwreck but survives with her brother Jaden, now an MIT student, preparing to visit their homeland. “Hunger” appears to stand out among the boat stories in the collection because it deals with cannibalism. Lam’s sense of empathy shines here. You can feel Mr. Nguyen’s and his daughter Rose’s pain and suffering: “Some nights she wakes up crying . . . and holds his precious in his lap on their creaky bed as they watch their combined shadows dance on the wall.” The trauma of sharing Mrs. Nguyen at sea with other passengers is now eating them alive in San Francisco, which profoundly affects Mr. Nguyen’s ability to better his life. Occasionally, little Rose derives maternal comfort through a large African-American lady next door.

The collection magnifies the world of an American community. Lam attempts to cover its complex dimensions: from Mr. Le, who works in a gay adult bookstore in San Francisco; to two grandchildren who ice their 94-year-old grandmother when she suddenly drops dead on them; to street-smart Tammy who loathes the presence of Steve, the G.I who ends up bringing back her father’s ashes to America, in her family’s restaurant ; to the father in “Birds of Paradise Lost” who meditates on “how [America] snatches immigrant and refugee children from their parents’ bosoms and turns them into sophisticated, razor-tongued strangers.” The title story attempts to calibrate the tension and gap between two Vietnamese immigrants, father and son; the son’s biting op-ed piece about his father’s best friend immolating himself in Washington to protest the communist regime in Vietnam underlines their perceptions on patriotism, family, and individualism. Their divergent views on these matters illustrate how the immigrant condition soon splinters into divergent lives. The son’s disagreements with his father insinuate a map for his own future, which, no doubt, would be an American story, different from what his father might draft with ambivalence.

In many ways, Lam understands the single story Adichie was talking about. The collection is his salute to the one he knows well, the immigrant story, one that, in itself, is composed of numerous stories. Perhaps the other danger in the single story is not simply its perception of singularity, but more so, the listener’s or reader’s narrowed and insistent perception that there is only one story in a single story—when, in fact, organically, any story is a universe of narratives.
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Published on October 02, 2013 12:58 Tags: andrew-lam, birds-of-paradise-lost, book, immigrant-story, literature, reading

Check this new book out: AS THE HEART BONES BREAK

In Thong Tran’s Vietnam, everyone is at war and no one is who they seem—not his adopted father, a French civil servant, not his Blood Father, the Viet Cong rooster master, not his pro-American journalist tutor. Like them, the boy from the Mekong Delta cannot escape the war. And like them, he too must create shades of himself to survive. But even a conflicted heart needs a home. Thong yearns for a true father and a cause to give himself to. He chooses independence, liberty and happiness—his tutor and the Viet Cong. Tragically, there’s no independence, liberty or happiness at war’s end. Re-invented as an American aerospace engineer, husband and father—the Viet Cong informer must spend another half a lifetime crossing the Pacific as a defense industry dealmaker before he can set down the bones rankling in his heart.

A rape, a baby, a bone bangle, and a murder—these are the pieces of a puzzle that Thong Tran, a Vietnamese man, must decipher to understand who he is. Told in a series of flashbacks, As the Heart Bones Break is a heart-wrenching exploration of identity and allegiances. The story is narrated in the second-person and told from the perspective of the bone bangle that Thong inherits and wears around his body. As Thong navigates a maze of dubious allegiances, double-dealing intelligence agents, and a family and country torn apart by war, where the different masks one wears may mean the difference between life or death, he begins to realize the true price of being a man with no real home.

Growing up in the peaceful Mekong Delta, Thong’s childhood with his adoptive father Chief Clerk, a French civil servant, and his adoptive mother, is idyllic. But, eight years after the rape, Thong’s blood father unexpectedly returns to the delta to visit his brother-in-law, the Chief Clerk. Commanded to pay respect to a man he has never known, young Thong is torn between his allegiance to his adoptive father and his charismatic and mysterious blood father, The Commander, a Viet Minh guerrilla fighting for Vietnam’s independence against the French.

As war invades the Delta, Thong is sent to Saigon to live with his adoptive Oldest Sister and Oldest Brother- in-Law. There he meets the enigmatic Chu Hai, also known as Mr Trung, a seemingly pro-American journalist who becomes Thong’s tutor and mentor of all things American. As the American military forces spill into Saigon, Thong struggles with his anti-American feelings and also falls in love with Ai Nguyet, a graceful Vietnamese pianist who is frustrated by Thong’s reticence about his role in the war.

Under Chu Hai’s tutelage, Thong becomes a pawn in Chu Hai’s game of espionage. Thong meets Julia Anderson, an American journalist, on an assignment to cover news in Vietnam. Both Julia and Thong, fascinated by each other, become entangled in a love affair, the hidden repercussions of which are only revealed later. Now a full- fledged Viet Cong informer, Thong loses Ai Nguyet’s affections, due to his reticence. In the aftermath, Thong vows never to tell anyone about his true identity for fear of hurting and losing the ones closest to him.

There is no untangling of allegiances even after the war ends when Thong finds himself in Orange County, California in the fall of 1985. He is married to Nina, the American-born daughter of South Vietnamese loyalists. An aerospace engineer by day, the careful identity that Thong has constructed and the superficial peace he feels, despite continuing to hide his true identity to those closest to him, is shattered when his cover is blown.

Sent back to a Singapore base to be a dealmaker for the U.S. defense industry in Communist Vietnam, Thong continues his undercover role as a Viet Cong informer. Thong returns again to his homeland and breaks down. The dissonance between Thong’s memories of his beautiful country Vietnam and the sad reality that Vietnam has deteriorated into post-war leaves Thong disillusioned. The tension between Nina and Thong continues to mount as they navigate a relationship that crosses international lines.

Thong makes his way to the Mekong Delta to visit his adoptive father and mother. There he discovers that the Chief Clerk is paralyzed by a series of strokes. The Chief Clerk’s wife, blind and senile, does not recognize her son. When Nina visits Thong in Singapore with their son Tri, she decides she needs time to digest the idea of a husband she’s never known. Hesitating to reunite, Nina demands full disclosure. To win her back, Thong resolves to fully disclose who he is, whatever the cost.

As the Heart Bones Break is a lyrical journey of both self-discovery and self-deception, about the various masks one must wear during and after wartime, and about the ultimate importance of loyalty and family. The novel explores the destruction of the Vietnam War from the perspective of those that had to live through it, and is told in chapters that alternate between the past and present. The plot further mines familiar territory regarding male-female relationships but is distinct from other stories because it is told from a man’s perspective, a man who must finally confront who he is and what he stands for, and unravel how the choices he made in the past may take its toll on his perfect American dream and family. Unlike any other narrative; this novel’s harrowing voice, second-person perspective, mystery elements and inter-weaving of time and space will appeal to a wide variety of people. At its core, Heart Bones is the tale of one man’s quest to make peace with his choices, laying bare the relationships between men and their fight to become authentic sons, fathers and lovers.
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Published on January 17, 2014 23:30 Tags: book, mystery, saga, singapore, vietnam-war, writing

Author Andrew Lam Shares Immigrant Writings

The Friends of the Contra Costa College Library and Poets & Writers, Inc., hosted an Author Talk event in the Library and Learning Resource Center Saturday.

The Author Talk’s guest of honor was author Andrew Lam, known for writing about the immigrant experience in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Lam read several passages from his three books and discussed his cultural upbringing and feelings of alienation at a young age.

“My work is very pro-immigrant experience and it has always shown immigrant experience and how that can change people’s experiences when arriving in a new country,” he said.

Lam’s latest work, “Birds of Paradise Lost,” is a collection of short stories that focus on Vietnamese immigrants in the Bay Area. Lam was born in Vietnam and forced to move to Guam at a young age, which is when he first began to feel alienated.

“I remember one of my first times in Guam hearing about the end of the Vietnam War and being unable to return. It broke my heart at the age of 11,” he said. “It took years for me to mourn that fact and, when I got to writing, I talked about the loss of a home country through my eyes.”

He said his foray into creative writing came about when one of his English as a Second Language professors at UC Berkeley read his work and convinced him to change his major.

“And my mom didn’t like that,” he said. “She was already telling people her son was a biochemistry major at Cal.”

He mentioned how technology removed letter writing as a popular outlet for venting or voicing opinions and is now predominately relied upon by prison inmates and refugees.

“It’s unfortunate that the only people who do practice (letter writing) are the only ones who have no other way of communicating,” he said.

Lam asked the attendees to write a letter to their younger selves and to read them aloud when finished.

“Letter writing is the most natural form of writing because you’re addressing someone and you have to be true with what you feel,” he said.

Lam also said that writing fiction can contain many different forms of emotions.

“Fiction can allow you to live from the inside out. In fiction I can live all the lives, I can claim to know various perspectives,” he said.

Much of Lam’s work revolves around the perspective of a refugee migrating to the United States and the cultural shock that comes with being an immigrant.

“We build our composites on who we know and some of the time people do not like how the writer envisions them,” Lam said. “I had one uncle tell me he wouldn’t speak to me unless I vowed not to write about him anymore.”

Although this occasion marks Lam’s fourth visit to the college and the first time a workshop was included during the reading, the turnout was surprisingly low.

Library coordinator Ellen Geringer said, “The fact that (the event) was on a Saturday had a lot to do with the (low) turnout. I was really sad, I thought people would’ve liked it because we got to see lots of different sides of him as he read and spoke about writing.”

Only six people attended the event, two of whom were students of adjunct English professor Nora Kenney.

Dr. Kenney said, “I was interested in discovering his work and, as a professor, am always looking for new writers and content that would touch on the things I like to teach. It is a privilege to have this discussion here and for students to hear about the immigrant experience, independent of color.”

She said that inviting an immigrant writer is an ideal way of unifying a crowd and that there tends to be a tendency to “otherize,” or de-emphasize, strangers without knowing them, and hosting this type of event shows how much people have in common and in ancestry.

Student Audrey Webb was glad to hear Lam’s experiences.

Webb said, “People who do not know about immigration should read his stories. It’s good to hear from someone who has gone through that experience and has his own personal account.” 

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Published on March 01, 2014 11:43 Tags: andrew-lam, book, california, identity, immigration, recovery, trauma, vietnamese, war

Review of Andrew Lam’s Birds of Paradise Lost (Red Hen Press, 2013).

Red Hen Press always publishes books slightly off the beaten path, ones that are formally experimental and/or contextually odd or unique. Lam contributes to this indie press identity with his first foray into fiction, the loosely connected story collection Birds of Paradise Lost. I recently taught a course which focused primarily or arguably on story cycles and I suppose you could place this collection within that realm only insofar as Lam unites the collection with the themes of Vietnamese American displacements and traumas (mostly set in the San Francisco Bay area), but goes beyond some of the ur-tropes associated with writings of this ethnic group by positioning complicated characters within respective fictional worlds.

These oddballs and pariahs include queers, figures with disabilities like Tourette’s syndrome, cannibals (in one grotesque and traumatic case), a woman who seeks revenge, often in tandem with more common figures such as refugees and migrants.

Stylistically, Lam avoids sentimentality and overwrought pathos and instead focuses on a kind of rawness that characterizes the lives of those struggling to get by; one of the most compelling stories is actually written from the perspective of the classmate of a newly arrived Vietnamese boy and typifies Lam’s ability to draw out what might be a more mundane story by refiguring it from another’s viewpoint. Lam’s collection is more in line with the work of Linh Dinh (see Fake House: Stories or Blood and Soap: Stories) than something like Nam Le’s the Boat or Angie Chau’s Quiet as They Come. A quirky and provocative work!

Read Stephen Hongsohn's review here
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Published on March 14, 2014 23:27 Tags: andrew-lam, birds-of-paradise-lost, book, literature, review, vietnam

LA Review of Books: Joy Horrowitz on Birds of Paradise Lost

“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.

¤

Birds of Paradise Lost
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.

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Published on August 31, 2014 12:01 Tags: american-dream, birds, book, immigration, literature, review, stories, war