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book discussions > Discussion: The Gangster We Are All Looking For

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message 1: by Wilhelmina (last edited Feb 09, 2009 04:09PM) (new)

Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments The votes are in and our discussion book for March will be The Gangster We Are All Looking For by Lê Thi Diem Thúy. The discussion will begin here on March 1. Rashida has agreed to lead our discussion.

Here's a bit of information from the Folger Library in DC (Thanks, Bill!):

Lê thi diem thúy’s debut novel, The Gangster We are All Looking For, takes up the loss and dislocation of a young girl and her refugee family newly arrived from Vietnam. In this novel, memory and perception transform the everyday into a dream-like landscape. Her prose and poetry have appeared in Harpers Magazine and The Best American Essays, among other publications, and her solo performance works have been presented internationally. She is currently working on her second novel.

message 2: by Qiana (new)

Qiana Whitted | 189 comments What an unexpected surprise selection! Given the number of votes cast this month, I hope this means that more folks will participate in the discussion (smile).

message 3: by jo (new)

jo | 1031 comments challenge number one: how do we pronounce the author's name? it would be nice to have at least a sense...

message 4: by Wilhelmina (last edited Feb 09, 2009 04:05PM) (new)

Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments I love Wikipedia!

lê thi diem thúy (pronounced LAY TEE YIM TWEE; all words uncapitalized) is an award-winning poet, novelist, and performer. She was born in South Vietnam in 1972, during the heart of war. In 1978, she moved to Southern California with her father among the many immigrants called "boat people."

There's a lot more about her, of course.

message 5: by Qiana (new)

Qiana Whitted | 189 comments Wow this is really helpful on the pronunciation. I would NOT have gotten that on my own.

message 6: by Wilhelmina (new)

Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments I received my copy of this book a few days ago. From my scan of a few pages, it seems beautifully written. It's exciting that we will discuss a writer who is brand new to me!

message 7: by Wilhelmina (new)

Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments I just wanted to mention what an interesting surprise this book is for me. It's a connected set of five short stories and I have only read the first one, but it is excellent. Big recommendation from me, so far.

message 8: by Carleen (new)

Carleen | 9 comments Why did it take me so long to join you all??? Better late than never! Linking over at the welcome white folks site. Looking forward to reading this book!

message 9: by Rashida (new)

Rashida | 264 comments Good morning all and happy March! We should be coming upon the transition to spring soon in the Northern Hemisphere, and that seems like a fitting time to discuss The Gangster We Are All Looking For. I'm going to jump right in with some thoughts and questions and I look forward to discussing this tiny but oh so very dense book with you all over the coming days.

Firstly, how would we categorize this book, and do you think it is important to do so? Earlier, Mina called it a set of five connected short stories. In the poll that selected this book, a commenter indicated that she had not read the book because she traditionally read more prose than poetry. I went into this thinking I was going to be reading a novel, about a traditional coming of age story with a new (to me) background. I believe our evaluation of the work is so closely connected to our expectations. So what did you think you were going to be reading? And now that you've finished what do you think it was?

There is no denying to me that this was an elegant and beautiful read. Le's use of language to convey the strangeness and innocence of the world of a disconnected child is amazing. However, it seemed that the surrealism of the words came at the expense of the exposition of the plot. I came to know how the girl felt, but not what she went through. I keep telling myself that this was purposeful, the child certainly did not understand from an adult view what she went through herself, and I believe that was a key point of the narrative. But as she grew older in the story, I came to expect more clarity to the facts of her life and it began to feel like the author was neglecting me and the interest and concern I had developed for the child. I wanted to know what happened to her after running away and what she did after her father called asking for help. I wanted to know if she ever saw her mother again, or if she found herself more permanently separated from her than when they were on opposite sides of the globe.

Which brings me to my third point. How did the journey to America alter this family? Was leaving their home the beginning of their drifting away? Or was that already happening before they set out on the sea? What was the center of Ba's rage? His treatment in Vietnam or his treatment in America? The brother's death seemed to permanently touch the girl, but she, at least, never saw any signs of it in her parents. The mother seems to grieve more for her still living parents, then for her child. Do you think the family was fleeing the death of the brother just as much as they were fleeing the political situation?

I'll stop here for now. Let me know what everyone else thinks!

message 10: by Jackie (last edited Mar 12, 2009 06:42PM) (new)

Jackie | 49 comments I loved this book!! I would never have found it on my own. I had all of the same questions that Rashida expressed. I have two responses.

First, I noticed that in the author's brief biography included with my copy of the book, that she came to American with her father only. I realize that the book is tagged a novel, but I wondered if the sections involving the character's mother were the author's way of creating her mother's place in the America she came to know. I wondered how that played a role in her decision to include a mother in the novel.

Second, like the style of The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston and the theme of the movie "Lost in Translation," I wonder if the surreal writing was purposeful to try to capture that moment between sleeping and waking up that is extended for immigrants. Your dreams are very real but in a language that is difficult to translate to waking life and waking life often times doesn't make much more sense.

I also felt that the mother's journey to America was very abrupt and never fully explained or given the significance that earlier events suggested it might possess. Did anyone else feel that way?

Has anyone read, "Stealing Buddha's Dinner" by Bich Mihn Nguyen? There were some parallels to this story in a mother being left behind in Vietnam.

message 11: by Wilhelmina (new)

Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments I agree, Rashida and Jackie! This author writes beautifully and captures the voice and thoughts of a displaced child beautifully. This book was a complete surprise to me; everything I have read about the immigrant Vietnamese Americans has dealt with adults. I had not heard of this book before the poll, but I'm very happy that it was selected. I do believe that the surrealism was deliberate and very effective. The first story, to me, was the strongest and could easily stand alone. More later....

message 12: by William (new)

William (be2lieve) | 1256 comments Mod
A story light as a feather...lifting up on gossamer wings..plucked away in sudden violence by shattered glass a quest for freedom...sshhh...sshhhh..stop?! or will the butterfly escape..lyrical, poetic, heartbreaking...sometimes my swimming pool was filled with rocks.

message 13: by Wilhelmina (new)

Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments I love your response, William!

Although this book was clearly inspired by the author's experiences, I wondered how closely the writing paralleled her life. This is from an article by David Mehegan in the Boston Globe:

Along with several others, 6-year-old le and her father left their home village of Phan Thiet in a small fishing boat in 1978 and were picked up by an American naval ship and transported to a refugee camp in Singapore. Eventually they were resettled in San Diego.

Two years later le's mother and sister followed them to America, this time via a camp in Malaysia. The family was stalked by tragedy: The eldest son drowned at age 6 in the ocean off Vietnam, and a daughter drowned at the Malaysian camp. Another son reached California in 1993, and two children were born in the United States. Five children in all survived.

Lê is haunted by the deaths of her siblings; a little boy's death by drowning echoes throughout the novel, and its heartbreaking details are related in the last section. When her sister died, le became the eldest surviving child, but she says, ''I feel the presence of these older siblings. I still don't think I am the oldest.'' When the American ship rescued her and her father (and several others) in 1978 and recorded their names, her father mistakenly wrote down her older sister's name, Thúy (lê's given name is Trang). When Thúy drowned two years later, her little sister kept her name.

...Lê's family's story is the model for the novel, but she says it's not truly autobiographical: ''The characters move through a landscape that my family moved through,'' she says, ''but in the novel I follow them as characters; I don't necessarily think of them as me and my father and my mother.''

The article, which tells more about le, is at the following site:

You can get it at the Boston Globe site also, but if you don't have a subscription, there is a fee.

message 14: by William (new)

William (be2lieve) | 1256 comments Mod
Ba was the most important and fully developed character in the book in my opinion. Even more so than the child who through her eyes the book is written. Significant chunks of her story are left unsaid and unresolved. Ba on the other hand goes from hero to monster in a few short pages. All sides and facets of his personality are exposed. He is by turns a gangster, soldier, prisoner, painter, gardener, doting father, loving husband, alcoholic, physical abuser, and madman. The daughter loves him regardless of his incarnation and even imagines becoming him and wanting to be just like him even with a clear eye towards all his faults. Even recognizing that all the people that are close to him have bruises that blossom upon their skin. Its no surprise that she runs away given the circumstances but what changed inside of her to go from ridiculing and denigrating the counselors that intervened when the childs abuse became apparent and leaving that meeting feeling more close to Ba than ever to making the sudden trip/flight across the country? I would have liked to see more introspection and examination of the young girls motives..but the author may have sacrificed some of the lyricism and poetry of the book to do this and that would not do either. It was kind of like an impressioniistic painting...not a lot to see upon close examination but if you step back to digest the whole a truly soaring work of art.
By the way did the child ever name herself..if so I've forgotten already.

message 15: by Wilhelmina (new)

Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments I don't remember a name for the little girl, Bill. Everything in the book is covered with a haze. Ba is seen clearly only because his emotions are so extreme. I found it amazing that the author could hold onto this surreal viewpoint. I don't think that the details about which we are curious were what she wanted to convey at all. When I picture the girl running away, I don't see one immediate cause. I see her running out of the fog and shadows of their lives, running in search of daylight.

message 16: by Katy (new)

Katy Like others, I feel somewhat neglected by the author when the plot gives way so often to more evocative, lyrical moments. In my less generous moments, I have even found those moments repetitive. But then I try to focus on the artistic purposefulness of the way in which the writer always returns to water imagery and how those evocative, surreal, lyrical moments involving water imagery repeat with a rhythm much like ocean waves, and the imagery and prose style parallel the experience of floating, drifting, being immersed, having no bearings due to a lack of a distinguishable horizon between sea and sky. I appreciated that when the girl's memory of having a brother who drowned is triggered, she is carrying ice -- water, frozen and stopped.

I think these moments are balanced by the ordinariness of the domestic scenes -- kids running about just being kids, and adults working, drinking, having sex, talking about cars and the price of groceries. The girl's rather straightforward and unabashed observations in these domestic moments, I think, reveal some of the things we feel the author is keeping from us.

It reminds me of Junot Diaz's Drown -- connected short stories told from the point of view of an immigrant child who is observing and experiencing total displacement. As in Drown, situations are not necessarily explained but rather just "are"; which, I think like Jackie noted, are intentional.

message 17: by Wilhelmina (new)

Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments " I appreciated that when the girl's memory of having a brother who drowned is triggered, she is carrying ice -- water, frozen and stopped."

Great observation, Catherine! This girl is living underwater, quite understandably. I think that we are having difficulty in discussing this beautiful book because the elements on which we usually hang our discussions - plot, character development, etc. - are just not the point of this book.

Being an child in the midst of turmoil reminds me of Tayari Jones' novel, Leaving Atlanta, in which a young girl is growing up at the time of the Atlanta child murders. Children still have childish concerns, even when their world turns upside down.

message 18: by William (new)

William (be2lieve) | 1256 comments Mod wasn't all so high falutin..I remeber laughing pretty heartily at the scene where the Jehova's Witnesses came knocking and the father and daughter claimed to be Bhuddist even though their picture of Jesus hung on the wall behind them. And her imagining the saints as the flying actors in Kung Fu movies...

message 19: by Rashida (new)

Rashida | 264 comments I'm pretty sure that the girl does not name herself at any point. I remember at one point where her name would naturally flow, she writes instead, "He called me by my name," and she goes on to describe how it falls around her. I'm still in the office and don't have the book to quote the passage but will try to look it up later.

I think there is some larger significance to this. She goes unnamed because I think she wants the story to be about so much more than her. I think this is exactly as Mina points out, in order to concentrate on the larger feelings and emotions, avoiding those details that we were so curious about. I think to, that this book is such an immersive experience, and it is like diving into the character and swimming through her experiences. The lack of a name removes a barrier to this kind of empathy.

I did laugh at the father using his foreignness as his excuse for not understanding the no fishing signs.

I'm curious as to what was the overall feeling that this novel left others with? Sadness, joy, hope?

message 20: by Qiana (last edited Mar 05, 2009 07:49PM) (new)

Qiana Whitted | 189 comments Hi everyone. Rashida, thanks for raising so many great questions in this discussion. Like others, I was initially mesmerized by the lyricism of the story, but after a while, it started to feel like "empty calories" and I was worried that I wouldn't have much to say. (But never fear...I always have something to say.)

Honestly, I did not like the fact that we know so little about the narrator and her motives - I usually welcome the detective work that comes with challenging prose/poetry - the trying to figure out the "how" and the "why" through context clues and inventive language. But I left this book feeling unsatisfied for the most part.

I do agree, though, with one of the earlier comments comparing the novel to an impressionist painting. Despite the thin plot and character development, I come away with the overall sense of mourning. I think that by the time we reach the last two chapters/stories, it becomes fairly clear that grief drives much of the pain and suffering in this novel - even more than the culture shock of living in America. This family is still reeling from the loss of the son, and the way that his death while Ba was in prison further separates them from each other (as well as the mother's community in Vietnam).

One of the images that sticks with me is of that pool. The one that ended up being filled and replaced with the plant. Given all the water/boat/drowning imagery, the idea of those young boys leaping from the balconies into the pool really captured both the sense of danger and freedom that the water symbolizes in this text. I thought that worked really well.

message 21: by Carleen (new)

Carleen | 9 comments I'm only 50 pages in, so I'm not going to read your comments. I just wanted to say this book, so far, isn't what I anticipated from the title. So far, far lighter than I expected.

message 22: by Wilhelmina (new)

Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments I keep intending to comment about the title of this book. This is #2 on my list of Most Misleading Titles of Excellent Books. (#1 is Miss Black America by Veronica Chambers which has absolutely nothing to do with the Miss Black America pageant, but is a lovely coming-of-age story about a girl and her father.) I'll bet that this title put off lots of people who would have loved the language and symbolism in this book and attracted lots of people looking for a gangster book!
I think that titles and covers can make or break a book, and I wonder how much control authors have over their selection.

message 23: by Carleen (new)

Carleen | 9 comments Wilhelmina wrote: "I keep intending to comment about the title of this book. This is #2 on my list of Most Misleading Titles of Excellent Books. (#1 is [b:Miss Black America |251890|Miss Black America A Novel|Veroni..."

Most authors have very little control over titles and covers. If you absolutely hate it, you can fight it and most likely get something a little more to your liking. But most of us don't get to dictate covers and titles. Who does, you ask? The sales team and book buyers for the chains and book clubs. If they don't like title or cover, publishers will switch...sometimes right before the book is released.

message 24: by William (new)

William (be2lieve) | 1256 comments Mod
The cover art on my library edition of this book is different then the one featured in our discussion group. Mine has an asiatic man looking (scowling?) at the camera (a gangster?). From my perspective I would more likely be attracted to the book with my library cover and the title than with the rather pensive look of the waif from the GR cover. But then I would have been sorely disappointed because the waif, the child's voice throughout, is more representative of the content.

message 25: by Wilhelmina (new)

Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments My book has the same cover as yours , Bill, and I agree that it poorly represents the content of the book.

message 26: by Qiana (last edited Mar 09, 2009 05:09AM) (new)

Qiana Whitted | 189 comments I'm tempted to play devil's advocate - if for no other reason that to keep the conversation going. What about the short story after which the collection is named? It seems to me that the title has a lot of significance there. Perhaps if we talk through the short story, "The Gangster We Are All Looking For," then we might figure out why its use as a title for the book may just be more appropriate than we think.

The short story raises the issue of the father's criminal past, and the problems it caused during his courtship of the mother... but the way the term is used during their argument (in which Ba starts punching walls and the mother is destroying things) takes on a bigger meaning. "The Gangster" becomes the source of their problems, the originator of the conflict, a figure that is both destructive and constructive in his/her power. Could this be why the main character as a vulnerable child, in the middle of their arguing, wishes she could be that "gangster"?

message 27: by William (new)

William (be2lieve) | 1256 comments Mod
I thought that the childs voice in delivering the essence of hero worship and parental adulation was exactly as it would have been for a father like Ba. He, after all, gangster or not did save the family and without Ma was the center of her world. But we also see her open her eyes to his faults as time progresses until she ends up running away from his violence and alcoholism. Before this happens but even after he has physically abused her she wants still to become him. In this regard she was very prescient. As we age and become, sometimes kicking and screaming in protest, our parents, she welcomed and encouraged the transition. So I agree with you Qiana that the title is not so far fetched once the context of the story is played out.

message 28: by Rashida (new)

Rashida | 264 comments Well, did they find the Gangster? Was that the point of her running away?

message 29: by William (new)

William (be2lieve) | 1256 comments Mod
I can only speculate since the author doesn't spell it out. That in the end the hate part of her love/ hate relationship became to much to bere. That the gangster in our adulation while then outside of us becomes an integral part of us. The one we are all looking for.

message 30: by Carleen (new)

Carleen | 9 comments I enjoyed this book, but it is interesting to me how works get categorized. What makes a book a novel? This collection felt more like slices of life--not a bad thing, but not really a novel either. My husband looked through it a bit and said it was like bunches of Polaroid pictures. That's how I felt too. Count me as one of the ones that missed having more of a plot, but I loved the simple language and the author's amazing eyes--how her characters saw things in great detail. It taught me a lot about the power of language. It's interesting the discussion of "literary"- a couple of the commenters mentioned the humor in this book--can't literary also be funny? Sure it can.

message 31: by Jackie (new)

Jackie | 49 comments Carleen, I agree with you about the snapshots in the book.

I felt that as the book progressed it became increasingly stream of consciousness. The first indication to me that significant pieces of time were lapsing inexplicably was when her mother suddenly appeared in America--but neither her arrival nor the girl's initial reaction to this event were noted. The chapter just began with the assumption that the reader was picking up mid-stream after a time of adjustment when the mother had rejoined the family. It felt weird.

message 32: by Qiana (new)

Qiana Whitted | 189 comments Snapshot, slice of life, and stream of consciousness all capture the fragmented nature of this book quite well. And you provide a great example, Jackie, of the moment that signaled to us as readers that this was not going to be a seamless, linear narrative.

In thinking about how the book is categorized, as Carleen suggested, I can't help but recall Jean Toomer's Cane which crosses genres more overtly than Gangster, but also features a slice-of-life approach, beautifully introspective language. Toomer's book is often called a "novel" but only because we lack words to really capture its inventiveness. Having said that: I love Cane and have deep cultural connection to it and this is something I simply wasn't able to cultivate with Gangster. So perhaps the comparison reveals more differences than similarities in the long run for me.

I'd be interested to hear about other "novels" that you all might compare to Gangster in terms of its style and use of language?

message 33: by Katy (new)

Katy Qiana --

I agree with your comparison to Cane - great observation. I, too, felt more connected to Cane and I wonder if this connectedness (in addition to or aside from cultural) can be attributed partly to the difference in narration.

I'm repeating myself, but Gangster reminds me a lot of Junot Diaz's Drown.

message 34: by Wilhelmina (new)

Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments This book reminded me of The Professor's Daughter A Novel by Emily Raboteau, another nonlinear book without the usual elements of novels. I had a difficult time trying to place "Gangster" on my bookshelves, since it was really not a novel or truly a collection of short stories. I surrendered and went with what was on the cover - novel.

message 35: by Josephine (new)

Josephine | 9 comments I guess it's easier to market a novel than an interconnected collection of stories.

I am glad I read this book ... this was a new point of view for me ... I had never read anything by a Vitnam War refugee prior to this.

message 36: by Jackie (new)

Jackie | 49 comments Josie wrote: "I guess it's easier to market a novel than an interconnected collection of stories.

I am glad I read this book ... this was a new point of view for me ... I had never read anything by a Vitnam ..."

I would highly recommend Stealing Buddha's Dinner. The author, Bich Minh Nguyen, grew up near where I live and I have heard her speak a couple of times. Poignant--also a series of short stories. Some are stronger than others. But very whimsical and reflective.

message 37: by Wilhelmina (new)

Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments Thanks for the heads-up, Jackie!

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