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Experience And Imagination: Interview With lê thị diễm thúy

About a week after lê thị diễm thúy found out her book, "The Gangster We Are All Looking For," was chosen as the 2011 One Book, One San Diego selection, we asked about her inspirations, and her reaction to being San Diego's new literary superstar.

Could you tell me a bit about how you came to write the book?

The summer of my last year of college, I was homesick and began to imagine my parents’ story. I wondered who they were before I was born. "Gangster" is, in part, a love story. It follows a marriage that takes place during wartime to show who these people become as refugees in another land.

lê thị diễm thúy, author of The Gangster We Are All Looking For

Above: lê thị diễm thúy, author of The Gangster We Are All Looking For

I wanted to put out a different story of the Vietnam War and its aftermath. I wanted to look at the repercussions of war through an American setting, through the story of a Vietnamese family now living in San Diego.

"Gangster" is an American story, not only because the characters come to America as a result of a war that the U.S. was engaged in, but also because their experience, of displacement and transition, is one that many different immigrant and refugee groups arriving to these shores share.

But this is not a memoir?

No. Not a memoir. It’s a novel about memory, the memories these characters hold onto of their lives in Vietnam while they are in San Diego. "Gangster" is not my personal active recollection; it is the personal recollection of the narrator of the book as she tries to face the death of her brother.

Are the characters based on real people?

The mother and father are based on my mother and father. The narrator is made up of many people, parts of my sisters, my mom, even a picture of a girl I saw that inspired me.

Mr. Russell was an imagining of many retirees in San Diego of the WWII generation. He has fond memories of his time in the Pacific, and based on those memories, he extends his good will and generosity to these Vietnamese refugees. Though there are no characters in the book who are Vietnam veterans, I believe that American G.I.s and Vietnamese American refugees have something in common. They share an experience of Vietnam that is difficult for others, who have not been there, to relate to.

Do you consider yourself primarily a novelist, a poet, or short story writer?

I think of myself as someone who works with words in various forms: prose, poetry, and solo performance.

Many scenes take place in the narrator’s imagination.

Two things that all people draw from in life are experience and imagination. Whatever we have not yet experienced, we must imagine our way toward. Children have not experienced much, so their imaginations fuel them. For much of the first half of the book, the narrator imagines and pictures things she does not really understand, but it is her way of trying to handle what is happening to her-- and she is learning a new language.

The book is structured on the page almost like film frames. The arc of the book is that the narrator begins by asking questions, of her father, her mother, the uncles. As she grows up she begins seeking the answers herself. Throughout the book, the characters’ experiences in Vietnam and in America are drawing closer and closer together.

What else do you want readers to know?

Leaving Vietnam was a complicated and painful experience for me, but I do believe that if I had not left, I would not be a writer today. I am looking forward to bringing "Gangster" back to San Diego because in many ways, my life as a writer began in San Diego.

Is there anything you’d like our community to know as we launch your book as the 2011 One Book, San Diego selection?

It is especially meaningful to me that the San Diego Public libraries play such a large part in the One Book, One San Diego program. It was in the public libraries of San Diego that I learned to love being in the company of books, and experienced both the consolation of words, and their power to challenge and transport… My hope is that, through readings of "The Gangster We Are All Looking For," San Diego itself-- its history, people, and neighborhoods-- becomes a rich point of focus.

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