Novel Traces Vietnamese Refugee Family Adapting To Life In San Diego
Reading and book signing: Wednesday, February 2, 6-8 p.m. at the Downtown Central Library branch in the third floor theater. Free parking is available in the Five Star lot at the Southeast corner of 8th and Broadway.
Reading and book signing: Thursday, February 3, 6:30-8 p.m. at Warwick’s Books in La Jolla.
One of the goals of childhood is to find out who we are and where we come from. Sometimes it's easy to do, many families are open books, proud of their generations and history. Others are more mysterious with whispers and secrets for a child to unravel.
Novelist le thi diem thúy tried to answer those childhood questions while her family struggled to cope in a new country and a new culture. thúy grew up in a refugee family from Vietnam here in San Diego in the 70s and 80s. Her experiences form the basis of her novel, “The Gangster We Are All Looking For” which is the KPBS One Book One San Diego selection for this year.
lê thi diem thúy is the author of "The Gangster We Are All Looking For," -- the KPBS One Book, One San Diego selection for 2011.
This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.
CAVANAUGH: One of the goals of childhood is to find out who weer, and where we come from. Sometimes it's easy to do. Many families are open book, proud of their generations and history. Others are more mysterious with whispers and secrets for a child to unravel. Novelist lê thi diem thúy struggled to answer those questions while her family struggled to cope in a new country and a new culture. Thúy grew up in a refugee family from Vietnam here in San Diego in the '70s and '80s of her experiences form the bases of her novel, the gangster we are all looking for, which is the KPBS one book one San Diego selection for this year. It's a measure to welcome lê thi diem thúy. Welcome to These Days. Thúy, good morning.
THÚY: Good morning.
CAVANAUGH: Now, could you tell me a little bit about how you come to write this book?
THÚY: Yeah. I wrote this book -- I started it in its beginnings in the summer of 1994 when I was a student at Hampshire college on the east coast in Massachusetts. I wanted to just think about who my parents were before they had me, before I was even in the picture. And to consider them as young people, even before they met, right? I think I was far enough away from home that I could begin to ask some of these questions, who am I? And when you ask who are you, you upon, who am I, then it's like, who are my parents? Who are they separate from me? Because they were the ones who had brought me to this country, and yet also were the ones who kind of -- who carried the memory of the home country of Vietnam. So I wanted to create a book that addressed this question of how we, as a family, came to be in America. But very specifically that we were individuals, that you, know, this is not just a story about refugees of war, but about a man who loves a women, they have a girl, they lost a child, so these are very human questions, and in the progress of reading it, I hope that people come to understand Tabar is -- is something that impacts specific places and specific people, not just during the span of a war, but in the period before and after. So the book is -- is really trying to map that sense of before a cataclysm, you have the build up, you answer the thing itself, and then you have ah, the span afterwards! And it's only in the span afterwards that you start to say, what was that? Yeah?
CAVANAUGH: Exactly. Now, when you first started asking these questions to yourself, the questions that form the bases of this book, were your patients mysterious to you in some way.
THÚY: Absolutely. I mean, I had a sentence that they were hot shot -- they were hay hot shot couple in Vietnam. They had a certain kind of attitude, they dressed a certain kind of way, my dad was really into funk when we got to America. I had a sense that they carried themselves in a certain way. And yet they lived relatively prescribed lives in America. They owned the house, I mean, they owned the realm of the house, say, but from the moment you stepped out the front door, they seemed to diminish in some way. And so there was this contrast between the private space and the public space where they were such lively story tellers, my mom would cook up a storm, they would tell jokes, but then when you wept outside, it was like they folded themselves down into discrete entities, which was really not who they were as people, you know? So yes, growing up, I did feel like, well, who are these people? And why is there such a contrast between how they carry themselves in private and then how they carry themselves in public as if the public was not safe to be in somehow?
THÚY: You know?
CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with lê thi diem thúy. She's the author of The Gangster We're All Looking For. And for people who have not read your book yet, how did you come to live in San Diego.
THÚY: I arrived in San Diego, much like the narrator in the book, I arrived as a refugee, my father and I was sponsored by a church group. And so I arrived in I think we lived in somewhere in east San Diego, maybe, I'm not sure. And then we started to -- my mother arrived two years later. So we were separated from her for two years. And during those two years, I think I became fully Americanized, [check] all of that stuff. So it was a shock when I met my mother again because it was like she had come from a world I'd left. And we didn't at that time have diplomatic relations with Vietnam. So you couldn't even call Vietnam, you know? So there were two years of very intense silence where my mom disappeared from me. So when she arrived, then we were a family again. But I think she -- my father and I had mislead her, basically, my dad took me to La Jolla and had me -- the two of us photographed in front of some La Jollan mansion and he sent her this picture that said, you know, we're doing type, like don't inquire about us. So I think she arrived thinking that we had it made. And we department have it made. And so it was a big starting over.
CAVANAUGH: You know what's interesting -- many things about this book, thúy, is the fact that it parallels so closely your own life, and yes, it is a novel, not a memoir. Why did you choose to make this a novel?
THÚY: Because it's about memory but they're not necessarily my memories. And I think if I had sat down and wanted to right an autobiography, it will be very country, there would be things I talk about that I don't talk about in this book. The form of the book is in fragments of it's in these paragraphs there create images that emerge and disappear. Of there's a kind of no to the book that you could think of if you closed your eyes a kind of film that is -- appearing before you. Of and the under tow of that film, say, what is not spoken, what is not visual, what is not visible, is the -- the toll of the journey that these characters have had to take. Right? The things that they captain talk about. The fact that there's an ocean separating them from their home land. And they can neither swim that ocean nor cross -- they have no means in which to cross it. And yet, everything that they care for is in there or across there somehow, you know? So I wanted to create a book that in many ways was introducing the enormity of my parents' loss, my parents' generation's loss, not my own. And also, it's a novel because I wanted the focus to be on the characters less, and that the story has pertinence less because it happened to me, you know? Thúy and more because it happens in the world.
THÚY: Right? We go to fiction to get closer to the stories that happen in the world. Right? Fiction allows us to enter historical moments request greater emotionaled meiacy. We will be able to understand and experience something that the facts alone cannot. So that's -- that was my project. You see in if I had written a memoir, it would have been more straightforward, I think. And this, I feel, like, is insisting on thence details of consider this man, consider this woman.
THÚY: That they of each other, that this is how they met, that this is who they were, that this is how they are. All of these questions that span a lot of time, but are all about getting you closer and closer to the inside of these characters.
CAVANAUGH: There's been a lot of comment about the way this book is written, first of all, the narrator is a six-year-old girl. And it's -- many scenes take place in the narrator's imagination.
CAVANAUGH: And much of the story is told in forms of vignettes of how this child is seeing a man, a sealing.
THÚY: A butterfly.
CAVANAUGH: Could you share with us a little of this reading so that our listeners get an idea of can the style of this book and what it is that we're talking about?
THÚY: Yes. I'm gonna read from page six, which is a scene when the father and the daughter and four men arrive in San Diego. And they're picked up by a man named Mel, whose father, Mr. Russell, had sponsored these refugees to San Diego. And do you mind if I just read the whole photograph?
CAVANAUGH: Not at all.
THÚY: Because that'll give us a better sense.
CAVANAUGH: Please do.
THÚY: Okay. So this is Mel and the refugees at the airport. "He waved his hundred in the air, and when I followed it with my eyes, I saw a poster of a man and a woman on the beach, lying on a striped house, sunning themselves between two tall palm trees. Above the palm trees were large block letters that looked like they were on fire. Sunny San Diego. The man was lying on his stomach, his face buried in his folded arms of the woman was lying on her back with one leg down, and the other leg up, bent at the knee. I looked at the triangle formed by the woman's tanned knee, calf, and thigh. And saw the calm sleeping waves of the ocean. My mother was out there somewhere. My father had said so."
CAVANAUGH: That is lê thi diem thúy, reading from her book, the gangster we are all looking for. You know, I must ask you, who is the gangster in your book.
THÚY: Could be you. I think, you know, when I -- when the book was due to come out, there was some discussion with my publisher about actually changing the name of the book. Changing the title. Because you have to read the book in order to know why it's called that. And you know, we live in a culture of gangsta rap and all of that, and you could read this whole book and say, where is the gangster? Where? Wait a minute! But it's significant that the title is spoken by an adolescent girl, in the aftermath of a fight between her parents where the father [check] and the girl says, when I grow up, I'm going to be The Gangster We're All Looking For. And so in a way, I think it's donning an attitude, like, lees, somebody who can hold this together. Right? And who is that person? And you could say at one time, the father was that in Vietnam, literally, but he's not able to be that in America. Or you could sigh maybe the mother is. I mean, she goes and shaves all her hair off, and you be -- I mean, so it's an attitude or it's I sense, like, whiff your back against the wall, who's gonna make it.
CAVANAUGH: How are you gonna do this? And sometimes it's not -- it's not always straightforward. So the crooked story in a way, is the breath of The Gangster We're All Looking For, right? In a way, you could say, when I grow up, I'm gonna be The Gangster We're All Looking For, and I'm gonna write this book called The Gangster We're All Looking For.
CAVANAUGH: You know, [check] because you obviously have bittersweet memories about San Diego. I read a description that you went to school in Massachusetts because you wanted to get as far away from San Diego as you could. What do -- what are your views on San Diego now? Are you looking at it from a deeper perspective, perhaps?
THÚY: Well, I think that I needed to leave San Diego in order to see it, and in order to miss it. And in many ways, I would encourage, you know, all young people who are listening to leave in order to see what it is that this place, which is your home, is to you. I think you needed some amount of separation just like I had to -- for better or worse, I had that experience with Vietnam. And I came to have it with San Diego. I definitely feel like I see the place more clearly. What I'm interested in is how it's a place that is -- its history is very much shaped by the military industrial complex, basically. And one of the things that interests me in mapping war and its aftermath is that we talk about the technology of weapons deployments and all of that, and troupe demoment and such, and preparing. But we don't want talk so much about the aftermath. Still as a nation we don't talk about soldiers coming home, what kind of welcome they will receive, how their injuries, physical ailment will will impact on their families, on their communities. We don't talk about, okay, we're engaged in a war in Iraq or Afghanistan, what if we start to have refugees from those countries?
CAVANAUGH: Right. Yes.
THÚY: But this book is about a family, you know, of Vietnamese refugees who are basically propelled here by the war.
CAVANAUGH: I need to stop you. I'm so sorry to do that. But I want people to know that they have two opportunities this week to meet you. Tomorrow night, they will be at the downtown central library from 6:00 to 8:00 PM. Talking about the book, and signed copies [check] you'll be at war wick's book store in La Jolla, also giving a talk about the gangster we are all looking for, and signing copies of thanks. I didn't mean to stop you there.
THÚY: Oh, no.
CAVANAUGH: But thank you so much for speaking with us.
THÚY: Thank you for having me.
CAVANAUGH: And if you would like to comment, please go on-line, KPBS.org/These Days. Of you've been listening to These Days on KPBS.