“Linda Vista, with its rows of yellow houses, is where we eventually washed to shore. Before Linda Vista, we lived in the Green Apartment on Thirtieth and Adams, in Normal Heights. Before the Green Apartment, we lived in the Red Apartment on Forty-ninth and Orange, in East San Diego. Before the Red Apartment we weren’t a family like we are a family now. We were in separate places, waiting for each other. Ma was standing on a beach in Vietnam while Ba and I were in California with four men who had escaped with us on the same boat.”
This litany of place names and apartments opens Lê Thi Diem Thúy’s novel, The Gangster We Are All Looking For (Alfred A. Knopf). Lê Thi Diem Thúy (pronounced lay-tee-yim-twee) was born on January 12, 1972, in Phan Thiet, the capital of Binh Thuan province. Phan Thiet, a coastal city set at the edge of the South China Sea, is 100 miles east of Saigon.
In 1978, when Lê was six, she and her father, much like characters in Lê’s novel, stepped into the South China Sea and left Vietnam. Three months after they began their journey, Lê and her father arrived in San Diego.
This is how the narrator describes the trip: “Along with other people from our town, we floated across the sea, first in the hold of the fishing boat, and then in the hold of a U.S. Navy ship. At the refugee camp in Singapore, we slept on beds side by side and when our papers were processed and stamped, we packed our few possessions and left the camp together. We entered the revolving doors of airports and boarded plane after plane. We were lifted high over the Pacific Ocean. Holding on to one another, we moved through clouds, ghost vapors, time zones.”
Before Lê and I talked — she from her home in Massachusetts — I read her novel. I also read reviews of the novel, all of which gave Lê’s work unqualified praise. Often, while I absorbed the five chapters that make up The Gangster We Are All Looking For, I had the sense that the narrator, a girl who shares many of Lê's real-life experiences, was speaking to me out of a dream. The voice that delivers the five chapters addresses the reader in quiet, hypnotic tones. The voice is musical and delights in sonorities, in watery rises and falls. So that I was not surprised, as I asked questions and Lê answered, that I felt rather pleasurably spellbound by her voice over the telephone.
I wondered what Lê might have known about America before she arrived here. “Before you came to America, did you have an idea of America in your mind?”
“No. I had none. America didn’t exist, and Americans didn’t exist for me.”
What did she remember of her life before San Diego?
“My grandfather. My mom’s father. I was quite close to him. He was a fisherman. He had a fleet of boats, probably three, that went up and down the coast. They would deliver things. I remember his arms. His arms were very strong. He was a big-boned man. He had a certain kind of stature.”
Lê and her father were sponsored by the International Rescue Committee (IRC). “The organization,” she said, “placed us in a studio apartment on 36th and University with other Vietnamese refugees — all young men my father’s age, whom I referred to as ‘the uncles.’ My father felt this wasn’t a good environment for me. He brought this up with our caseworker at social services, and the two of them decided that I would live with her and her family in Spring Valley until my mother arrived. She was a French-Vietnamese woman married to an Anglo-American professor at San Diego State. She was a wonderful person. I lived with her and her family for two years.”
I was curious as to the nature of Lê’s early memories of San Diego.
“Some of my earliest memories of San Diego have to do with a new scale of space. I was amazed by the momentum and how big and fast things were. I was amazed by parking lots, by the amount of concrete. I remember one of my first experiences inside a gym, it was probably first grade, and maybe it was raining and the kids had PE inside the gym. They were running in circles indoors. I remember thinking that was very wrong. Because it was so claustrophobic. I remember that the space felt both big and enclosed. I had grown up in a beach town in Vietnam and was used to having a sense of horizons and playing outside. Even in the rain.
“I was amazed by supermarkets. Amazed. Amazed at how much stuff was in them. And how many of each thing. And all lined up so pretty.”
American food, Lê didn’t like when she first arrived. “No,” she said, “I didn’t like the food at all. The woman I lived with made me Vietnamese food to bring to school. I would eat rice and certain Vietnamese dishes at lunch, and then I slowly took to American food. I remember going to a picnic and deciding I would like pickles. I decided I would. And I did.”
“Did we smell funny to you?”
“Just very clean, in a strange way. You couldn’t smell the smell of the person. That struck me as strange. It still strikes me as strange. In Vietnam, a grandparent will kiss a child by sniffing the child. They nuzzle. You sniff each other, you nuzzle each other. The sense of smell there is much different, and sniffing someone is a mark of affection.”
Lê lived in Spring Valley for two years and went to Spring Valley Elementary School. “The principal was Hawaiian and wore Hawaiian shirts. Holly Hobby dresses were big, and I think that they asked us not to wear them because the girls were tripping on them. Every day we had a different game on the playground, like Monday was makeup day and Tuesday was toes day — you stomped on each other’s toes. Wednesday was wedding day. I don’t know what Thursday was, but Friday was flip-up day. So that if you wore a dress, you had to wear shorts underneath. I loved that.”
Lê had never seen television before coming to America. “Never. I thought the people lived inside the set. I thought they couldn’t come out. But then the whole thing about commercials confused me, because there was a commercial for a game that was popular at that time, Hungry Hungry Hippos. There were hippos on four corners of a board. There were marbles in the middle, and you pushed the lever on each hippo and they swallowed the marbles. I must have seen a commercial for it and then stayed at someone’s house who had the game. So that was an early slippage, where I thought there was this thing inside the box that comes out.”
Learning English, Lê said, “happened quickly, partly because I was so young and also because I felt that I had to pick it up for my dad. I devoured fairy tales and encyclopedias. I was fascinated by encyclopedias.”
“When you were first speaking English, did English words feel funny in your mouth?”
“Yes. I could not wrap my mind or my tongue around certain words. Like the word ‘squirrel.’ The teacher said, ‘Squirrel is pronounced the way it looks.’ I thought then that it must be ‘sky-rail.’ That’s a word I still think of; even when I say it now, I hear it the way I used to say it. And I see a squirrel running along a metal rail in the sky.
“I decided when I was eight that writing was what I wanted to do. I wanted to live there. It calmed me. It was like making a path through the wilderness. I loved reading, and I felt that the feeling that I got from reading was made by writing. I made that connection early. I wanted to make that place and make that feeling.”
In 1980, Lê's mother and younger sister arrived in America. “My mom had escaped Vietnam with two of my sisters, an older sister and a younger sister, and my older sister drowned at a refugee camp in Malaysia. My father sponsored my mom and younger sister, six years younger than I am, from the camp.” (The family’s oldest child, a son, drowned when he was six.)
The family moved into an East San Diego apartment. “So it was the four of us. At first,” said Lê, “I didn’t trust my mother. I wasn’t sure she was my mother. I blamed her. Because I couldn’t see what was keeping her from coming to me. I didn’t understand that it was not as if she had a choice. I was very confused by that, so it took me a while to warm up to her. I didn’t trust she wouldn’t leave again. But she wasn’t the one who’d left. We’d left, and she at first couldn’t make it out with us. But in my mind it turned into ‘She left.’ She was wonderful about it, because she knew. She knew.
“When my mother first came, she did sewing. She got that work through other women in the apartment building. There was a lot of finding work through other people. Like my dad, the company that he worked for, Vietnamese guys also worked there. They looked out for each other in that way. Also, you had different levels of English proficiency. So if you all went together, you could fill your forms out together.
“One thing I wanted to get into the book was the sense of the parents working, because my parents worked so hard. A lot of writing doesn’t have working people in it. So I used all the jobs that they did. My dad worked as a welder, a gardener, housepainter, all of those things.
“When my dad was gardening, my mom often would go with him. They would do houses together. After that, she worked in Vietnamese restaurants. She was a cook. She was a wonderful cook, and it was wonderful, at home, to have Vietnamese food again like that. Ginger fried fish, rice noodle dishes. The last restaurant she worked in was a fancy place down in the Gaslamp that has now closed, but they served French-Vietnamese food, which was basically what my mom cooked at home, but fancied up.”
“It must have been difficult,” I said, “to leave the family in Spring Valley and to see your mother again for the first time.”
“It was and it wasn’t. I knew when I was with the other family that I was just visiting. There’s a way in which I think when I went back and lived with both of my parents, it was like, ‘Okay, there was the adventure, this is our family now.’ That’s what I mean when I say that in many ways a fairy tale was like reality for me. Because those transitions were so sudden and magical. That entire world was appearing and then vanishing, the scale of that felt very true to me.”
I said that to go from a house in Spring Valley with an American couple to an apartment where people didn’t speak English would seem a kind of magical transition.
“When I moved in with my parents, I was the only one who spoke English. Even though I had been seeing my dad most weekends, my Vietnamese was off, grammatically. The syntax was wrong. It was a child’s Vietnamese, and in many ways it still is. It’s not the language I’m most versatile in. It’s the language I’m most transparent in. So I had it all wrong. Because Vietnamese is a tonal language — the same syllable can convey wildly different meanings, depending on how it is spoken — there are so many ways you can slip. There’s a strong sense of wordplay. So, yes, there was a whole language thing that had happened in those two years which set me apart from my parents. I suddenly was living in an apartment building where there were Southeast Asian immigrant families. The kids all spoke English. Better than the parents. We were translating for our parents. We assumed a certain adult role because of that language capability. When I was living with the family in Spring Valley, we all spoke English. When I moved in with my parents, it was important that someone speak English, and I was the one. That was a lot of responsibility. I was aware always of what it would be to not have the language. So it made language powerful and urgent; it was like being thirsty and having water. I knew what it was to have that water and to not have that water. I was speaking the language for people who couldn’t get that water. Those people were my parents.
“I feel that my childhood was in Vietnam and that a lot about being in the States was about growing up fast. My mom’s English was never great. I think she understood more than she could say. If I could do something by myself, I would. I went to my own PTA meetings. My dad would drop me off and I would go in and he’d come and pick me up afterwards.
“This taught me English in this emergency way. What allowed me to relax into English was my reading of English — the fairy tales, stories, even school ‘See Spot run’ things. When I was in sixth grade, there was a magazine called Star Hits. I used to buy it at the Thrifty’s, and it was pop-song lyrics, like Madonna and Duran Duran. There was a girl in my sixth-grade class named Sonthaly. I think she was from Thailand. She and I would take turns buying this magazine every week and sharing it with each other. So I knew all these lyrics to these songs that I didn’t necessarily hear. I remember loving to read those lyrics. The first poetry for me was those pop lyrics. I loved it when they wrote ‘ooh, ooh, ooh.’ ”
Lê's family lived in neighborhoods where blacks and Hispanics had homes. How, as a child, did she feel about blacks and Hispanics?
“I didn’t differentiate between Vietnamese people and black people or Hispanics. I thought we were the same in that we were different from white people. It had to do with class. The black and Hispanic people in my neighborhood or kids I went to school with were poor like me. So I felt that we were all in the same group. I associated the white people, the Caucasians, as being of another caliber because they were more put together, they maybe had more money. So it wasn’t a distinction of ethnicity or race so much as a feeling of class. Mexican people were living in Linda Vista before I left Linda Vista, and I knew that they were another culture, but I felt like they were more familiar than Caucasians were. It was also because I came across Caucasians in formal settings, schools and libraries, or on television. We would go to JCPenney and I would see people shopping or working there, and because a place like JCPenney was like a palace to me, I felt that the ease with which Caucasians were wandering through that palace meant that it was familiar to them. Whereas we didn’t often go to places like that. Because we didn’t belong there or we couldn’t afford things there. I felt that Caucasians had a sense of entitlement or I conferred on them a sense of entitlement that I myself didn’t feel and I felt my family didn’t have.”
“When you were growing up in San Diego, what were some of the principal markets where Vietnamese people shopped?”
“There used to be one at Fourth and University. Linda Vista had some small shops, and now it has quite a big one. There were also shops on University that we would go to. That was where our social life was, because you run into people there. For my mom, it was nice to be in a place where there were Vietnamese people and products. We would go there as a family trip; we’d get dressed up and go to the grocery store. It was an occasion, to go grocery shopping.”
“Did your parents observe Vietnamese holidays?”
“We celebrated the Lunar New Year, and we had feast days for the dead. My mom was Catholic, and my dad’s Buddhist, but they weren’t superobservant. Sometimes my mom would go off to church — there was a Vietnamese church and priest — but she didn’t pray every day — not like my friend Helen’s dad, who kneeled on his knees every evening and seemed to pray for hours.”
“When you were a little girl, did you ever want to go back to Vietnam?”
“I don’t think it was a thought like that. It was more like I would have these moments of wondering where all those people were. We didn’t have much contact with the family there. So in the most kind of unexpected moments, climbing a tree, say. Say there was a tree that was a small tree and it grew into the back of my friend Helen’s house, in her back yard, it curved up and over. We would climb this tree and then jump down into her garden, into her back yard. I would have moments sometimes before I jumped thinking, ‘Where’s my grandfather? What’s going on with him?’ But it wasn’t a question I felt I could ask. I think because I observed the implicit silence that we could think about Vietnam but we couldn’t talk about it.
“My parents didn’t talk about people in Vietnam. They didn’t know when they would see them again. For my mom it was difficult that she didn’t see either of her parents before they passed away. Yet her whole time here, the question of their well-being was paramount to her. My parents would send money, they would write letters.
“They wouldn’t avoid talking about Vietnam with their friends,” said Lê, “but they would talk about it in the past. They would talk about when they were young, but they wouldn’t openly say, ‘I wonder how people are doing there today?’ When my dad got together with his friends, they would sing songs and tell stories about when they were schoolboys. But there was a way they leapt over the war and the aftermath of the war.”
“Were there divisions in the Vietnamese community in political beliefs?”
“Yes. A lot of the Vietnamese who came here were from the south, and you had two waves. You had the wave that came in 1975, many of whom had some connection to the southern government or the Americans. Then you had the wave that came in 1978, which were more the economic refugees. I think it was among the people in 1975 that you have a stauncher anti-Communist viewpoint. My parents were among the group of Vietnamese who feel that Ho Chi Minh was a nationalist and a patriot and that if he hadn’t died, things might have been a lot different. [Ho Chi Minh died in 1969.] They were southerners and they didn’t support the Communists per se, but they were also not movers and shakers. They were among the mass of working-class people who basically don’t want too much attention put on them, because often it’s bad.
“There’s that Chinese proverb, ‘Empires rise, empires fall, people suffer.’ I think my parents were very much among that group of people who didn’t have a relation to any particular empire but were from Vietnam — and always felt a connection to the land itself. To this day, my father wants to retire there.
“They weren’t a part of that group of Vietnamese people who refused to go back to Vietnam until the Communists were out. They never felt that way. They both hoped that eventually they would go back, and it wasn’t to support any government. It was to be back where they had come from.”
As Lê moved toward adolescence, her parents became increasingly protective. “My parents were strict in ways that sometimes made me feel like I was raised in the ’50s. I didn’t get to go out. My parents had anxiety about American popular culture based on what they read in Vietnamese newspapers.
“They worried about sex, drugs, rock and roll. Movies. They felt that it was a promiscuous culture, and they had anxieties about sexuality. I didn’t do after-school things because they didn’t like me staying out after school.”
“What would they have read in the Vietnamese press?”
“Murders, kidnappings. Those were things they were anxious about. I grew up very anxious about being kidnapped because my parents felt so anxious about it. They worried about my getting lost. Which I think is an anxiety of their own. My mom had anxieties about losing her way. But my world wasn’t big: home, school, the library; I wasn’t going to get lost.”
This fear of kidnapping, Lê said, was one reason that as a child she loved the Persephone story. (Persephone, according to the American Heritage Dictionary, in Greek mythology is the daughter of Demeter, goddess of the earth. When the god Hades seized Persephone and took her to the underworld, the earth grew desolate as Demeter searched for her daughter. The god Zeus sent Hermes to bring Persephone back. But Hades fed her a pomegranate seed, the food of the dead, compelling her to return to the underworld for four months each year. Persephone represented the revival of nature in spring, and the Eleusinian Mysteries honored her and Demeter.)
Lê said, “Why I responded so strongly to that story was because Persephone was kidnapped. Her mom searched the world over for her. In a way, that’s what happened to me. When I read the myth, I was curious about the girl, like what was she thinking? Because when you read the myth, it’s always from the mom’s or Hades’s point of view, or that of the gods, who worried because the mom is the goddess of the grain and she won’t allow the wheat to grow. Mortals are angry at the gods because there’s going to be a famine, right? They have this anxiety. It’s all about this girl being kidnapped, but the girl never speaks. The only thing she does is eat those pomegranate seeds, and how could she not? She’s in the dark gray netherworld and she sees this jeweled fruit. So maybe she doesn’t have to say anything. Maybe her eating the pomegranate is enough.”
“At some point you must have begun to feel a difference from your family and other Vietnamese immigrants.”
“I did. But some of that had to do with the fact that I had lived with this other family for two years before my mother came. I experienced what I thought was an American family, where the kids had softball practice and picnics. Then my mother came with my sister, and I moved back in with my parents. Because I had the experience of living with a family that was American, I knew that it was possible to live the way Americans do. But things were very different for my parents in finding a job that they felt they could keep that could give them enough money. They were struggling like the parents in my book who go through a string of jobs. The father in the other family was a university professor. They were stable in a certain way. It’s not that they didn’t struggle, but they were more comfortably middle class than my parents ever were. But because I’d had those two years with the family that was comfortably settled in certain ways, I knew it was possible to live that way.
“If I hadn’t, I would have only experienced life through my parents as always feeling impossible. That was part of the distance, that I knew it was possible. I’d been through it with another family. I didn’t understand why it wasn’t possible for us. I didn’t blame my parents. I didn’t think, ‘If they could just get it together.’ It wasn’t like that. I felt strongly that they were struggling for something which I felt I had just left, with the other family.
“For my parents, it felt always like it maybe wasn’t going to happen. But I knew it could. I knew it did for other people. Later, when I got to college, I saw it was an injustice. Things come easier for certain groups than others, and those factors have to do with language and culture. Effort alone sometimes is not going to get you there.”
I asked Lê about her parents’ backgrounds.
“Both parents,” she said, “were from the south. My father was from an area north of where my mom lived. It wasn’t the north though. He had come more from the country part of that area. She was living in the village part. Growing up, I had imagined my father as being different. I had mistakenly thought that my father was from the north. I’ll tell you why.
“It wasn’t because he was from the north, it was because I was led to believe that he was so different from anyone else my mom had ever encountered. I knew that my mom was from the south. So I made this difference be that if she was from the south, then he had to be from the north, right? It had to be that kind of extreme difference. Because when I wrote much of The Gangster I was not in touch with my family, it was something that I got wrong, factually, but that is right for what the book became. One of the things that the book addresses, albeit in an oblique way, are divisions between Vietnamese people. That division between the north and the south is real. But my own father was not from the north, no.”
How, when she wrote The Gangster We Are All Looking For, did Lê understand the division between North and South Vietnam?
“A lot of people who fled Vietnam as refugees, whether it was in 1975 or 1978, are from the south. They fled in the aftermath of the end of war and the North Vietnamese takeover. Many of those people, especially Father’s generation, feel that their country was taken from them and that they don’t want to have anything to do with it until it’s a democracy. The war was basically a civil war in which the United States got involved for its own interests, and that involvement escalated into something tragic for all involved.”
“Were South Vietnamese in general opposed to the ideas of Ho Chi Minh?”
“Possibly. They could have been staunch Catholics who felt that the Communists were against religion and likely to abolish the Church or to persecute Catholics.
“My mom grew up Catholic, and she said that she felt, and I think a lot of Vietnamese people felt, that Ho Chi Minh was ultimately a nationalist. He was a Communist, but more than that he was a nationalist. Maybe if he hadn’t died and maybe if he’d been able to see the war through, then things might have been different. We don’t know. That’s all conjecture. For some South Vietnamese, the strong feeling is against him, but I think the mass of Vietnamese people would say that they are not against him, because he devoted his life to the idea of a free Vietnam.”
“What are other differences between North and South Vietnamese?”
“Well, sometimes Southern Vietnamese people think northerners are uptight. Snooty. They have a different accent. North-south divisions in Vietnam are similar to north-south divisions in a lot of other countries. The north is considered the seat of political power, education, and industry, whereas the south is the agricultural center. The educated northerners and the happy, entrepreneurial southerners — that is the stereotype. Southerners are seen as being more amenable to outside influence — the French, the Americans. Because of that, the southerners were considered easygoing opportunists, whereas the northerners were fighting for the country. The northerners had ideas and ideals. Southerners were just simple marketplace people. Those are the stereotypes.”
In The Gangster We Are All Looking For, said Lê, the portrait of the father is that of a “man who’s not much portrayed in American media. The stereotype of the South Vietnamese military is that they were completely incompetent. So much so, you might think they were the main reason why the U.S. was unable to win the war. Militarily, the ARVN [the South Vietnamese Army] failed for the same reasons the Americans had: they were trained and directed — by the U.S. military — to fight a conventional war against an opponent waging a guerrilla war. After the Communist takeover in 1975, you had a whole generation of southern soldiers who felt abandoned. The American soldiers went home; their ARVN counterparts were sent to reeducation camps, hard-labor camps, and indoctrinated in the new Communist program for Vietnam. They are forgotten men. The Gangster We Are All Looking For is saying that this sort of man is worthy of our attention and our reconsideration.”
Lê’s father indeed was in a reeducation camp. “He did work with the Americans during the war,” Lê said. “He was a parachutist and was in the Special Forces, so he tells me. But so much of what I know about my father is not clear, because he didn’t talk about it and still doesn’t. He’s thinking about going back to live in Vietnam, and sometimes I think that’s where he’ll tell me more, when he’s there and I go back and visit him.”
What Americans speak of as the “Vietnam War,” people like Lê’s parents called the “American War,” to distinguish it from the war against the French. During that war, it was referred to by the North Vietnamese — and now officially by all Vietnamese in Vietnam — as the “War of National Salvation Against the Americans.” I wondered, was Lê uncomfortable when the war in Vietnam was discussed in school?
“It wasn’t often discussed, because American History ended right after World War II, or sometimes we’d get to the Korean War. We’d run out of time. So you’d get Cold War stuff, and then you wouldn’t have time for Vietnam.
“When the war did come up, I was curious. I wanted to know what happened after the war. I was always waiting for that part of the history so that I could understand how I got here. We never got to that part.
“I was anxious about the war part because I was ashamed that Vietnamese people were dying. It seemed like they died all the time. It was like, ‘The U.S. went in and it had all this airpower, and it tried to do this and that, but it was unable to defeat this wily enemy.’ Because my family was from the south, I knew that I wasn’t this wily enemy that defeated the Americans. At the same time, I didn’t know who I was in that story of the Americans and the Vietnamese.
“Usually it’s the Americans and the North Vietnamese, and that’s the fight. The South Vietnamese and what happened to South Vietnam wasn’t spoken of. So there was a huge gap in my understanding. I started seeing films like Rambo. There was such a strong emphasis on the American soldier in this exotic, tropical, faraway place that was physically hostile to him and where people couldn’t be trusted. I felt that implicitly the question was, ‘Were those wily people worth our losing our innocent American boys?’ I felt judged by the huge effort that the Americans had put into saving South Vietnam. I didn’t like those films, because I was cast out by them. They were also going over the wounds of the American soldier and the American point of view.”
“Did your parents talk about the war?”
“Never. They talked about Vietnam in terms of the market or missing somebody. I felt when Vietnam was depicted or spoken of in English — in school or on television — those nice memories, those pleasant memories, those memories of beauty or longing or love that my parents carried were never articulated. So I felt sad that there was on the one hand this battle and blood in the movies. Then on the other hand there was this quiet, almost murmuring my parents did. They were very different from each other, those two. The murmuring was what I experienced at home, and the public spectacle was what I experienced at school or when I went to films.
“Both had huge gaps. In films, it was like there were no real Vietnamese people. They never got developed as characters. There were always a group of them, and they were introduced as a group and they died as a group. Or they were introduced as an individual, but you couldn’t trust that individual. Or they were introduced as an individual who was a friend of the main character.”
“Who was valorized,” I said, “by his association with the Americans.”
“Yes, valorized or demonized, depending on the association with the Americans. So I felt, ‘Well, there weren’t Vietnamese people in those films.’ But then, in the way my parents talked about Vietnam, sometimes you would think there had never been a war.”
“Did your parents go to these Vietnam War films?”
“They did. But they thought they were comedies. Especially the Rambo films. I think not only Vietnamese people saw the Rambo films as overblown and comedic. But my parents didn’t see them as drama. They saw them as adventure stories. A film like Platoon had more resonance for an American audience than for my parents.
“Platoon was a painful film for me, because I saw so much passivity on the part of the Vietnamese in it. That kind of passivity was painful because these people look like me. They were going to die. I knew that. But I’m not supposed to get involved with them. But they look like us. That’s how it was mixed in terms of experiencing the war through media or experiencing it when it was spoken about.
“To this day I haven’t seen Apocalypse Now. I’ve only seen fragments of it. I saw Platoon, and I saw Heaven and Earth, also by Oliver Stone — that was part of his series. But at some point, I watched these films or I went into these conversations preparing myself for the fact that there weren’t going to be real Vietnamese people or characters in there. That was just the way that it was, and that I shouldn’t look for them or expect them to be there. And to a large extent, they still aren’t.
“In this country, it’s still like we’re going to see what happens to the American GI. What happened to his soul? What happened to us as a country that we sent these innocent boys over there to this dark and hot and faraway place to lose their souls? I think those conversations need to happen. But the questions about what happened to Vietnamese people don’t get brought up. Or what does it mean for a Vietnamese person growing up in America? How did they understand their American identity?
“So what kind of questions do I, both as a Vietnamese and an American, ask? Because I’m involved in these two countries that have had such a strong and powerful encounter, I ask as a Vietnamese and I ask as an American. At times I look at American history in relation to the Vietnam War and I think, for America to grow in terms of its sense of consciousness, world consciousness, it has to be able to look back on that war in a more comprehensive way. The most basic beginning would be to ask what happened to the Vietnamese. Not just during, but also before and after the war. That is why it was important to me that Gangster be based in the U.S., that these are Vietnamese people now living in Southern California. This is after the war and this is what it means to survive and to arrive.”
“As a young person, there was no one to whom you could turn to ask these questions, was there?”
“There was no one. I feel it now, profoundly, for the child that I was. I was filled with questions that weren’t conscious — they weren’t in my mind so much as borne in my being. What happened? How did we get here? Why are we boat people? If my mom misses her parents, if she misses our town, then why aren’t we there? All of those questions I couldn’t ask because my parents would have said, ‘We can’t answer those questions’ or ‘Don’t ask — we don’t know.’
“And they were traumatized, and because I had no one to whom I could ask those questions, I swallowed them inside myself. But because I was a very curious and engaged child, I continued to ask them, but in that murmuring way.”
In films and news reports, in fiction and nonfiction about the Vietnam War, Vietnamese women often were portrayed in unflattering ways. As prostitutes, for instance. I asked Lê about this.
“Right,” she said, “the women are prostitutes or they are backdrop, they are a mass of village women. There was no room for women. Or if they were there, they were there as a lot of Vietnamese bodies. These films needed those bodies, because they needed to show those bodies running and being shot at, and screaming and crying, and that emotion and violation. But those bodies never spoke. If they did speak, no one understood them. You didn’t understand how each body was related to the next body. What was the connection? Were they mother and daughter, were they sisters? Those things weren’t allowed in terms of character development, because you didn’t have characters. These are concerns I can articulate now. But as a child and as a teenager when I saw it, I thought, ‘Is that us?’
“But at the same time I felt that they couldn’t see me like that because I speak English. Which is ridiculous. But I thought, ‘If that was me, I would have said something to that guy, and I could have too.’ ”
Lê attended Montgomery Junior High for three years. In 1987, she entered as a sophomore at San Diego High School. “I made good grades. I didn’t have a choice. My parents wouldn’t have accepted anything less. I still wasn’t allowed out. I could go to the library at night. I went to the Linda Vista Library. I would read, look at architecture books. I would look at things I had no idea about. To this day I feel that libraries are special places, because you don’t know what you’ll find. That’s dangerous and exciting.”
“Were you popular in high school?”
“I felt like high school was so hierarchical. I didn’t feel it was a world where I could be myself. I was full of adolescent angst. I felt like I couldn’t perform in certain ways. Partly because they didn’t matter enough to me. I had friends. I didn’t have enemies. My best friend was a punk rocker who didn’t do well in school but who was very smart. I was close to her. She was an outcast in a way that I wasn’t. I could talk and make social and all that. But when you’re close to someone who can’t even fake it, you become sensitive to all of the cruel ways people can act.
“She and I dressed completely different. I wasn’t a punk rock girl, but I was very open. I still like punk rock. In its inception, it had this idea which was, if you’re going to get the mic you should say what you have to say, because you may never get it again. There was something raw and urgent about it — a performance energy that had to do with saying things that did matter to you — even if it was ‘Get out of my face.’ ”
Lê graduated from San Diego High School in 1990. “I was eager to leave. I wanted to see the other side of the country. I was eager to go to college. I learned about Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, from a counselor. I liked that it was interdisciplinary, and in the end it was the right place for me.”
Lê never stopped writing. “I am self-taught in that I never went through any formal writing program. The good thing about that is no one told me what the rules were. I wasn’t told never to do things. So I think I made more mistakes, but that worked for me.
“So much focus is put on ‘A writer has to find her voice.’ I think the cultivation of a writer’s voice has a lot to do with training yourself to hear differently and to hear different registers than what in life we normally hear. It’s about playing with the volume of the world so that you can hear things you’ve been carrying around inside you. Those things have a particular insistence for that writer. The reason is not that important. The things that haunt you, haunt you.”
In her senior year at Hampshire, Lê wrote the title chapter of The Gangster We Are All Looking For. The Massachusetts Review accepted the chapter for publication. A Harper’s Magazine editor read the chapter in the Review and acquired an excerpt from it for the Harper’s “Readings” section. An agent read the Harper’s excerpt, and the next thing Lê knew, she had a book contract. That same chapter went on in 1997 to win a place in Best American Essays. In 1998 the Village Voice named Lê as one of eight writers “on the verge.”
After Lê graduated from Hampshire in 1994, she began to do sections of what became the book as stage performances. I asked how she arranged these performances.
“In the beginning, what would happen is I would do a performance and someone in the audience would ask me to do another one. It was word of mouth. I drove around and took the show from place to place. It was fun. In the beginning I would make $250 a show. I was living in Northampton, so I could live on that and pay my rent. I started doing readings as well, and I would get fees for readings. I’d read poems. I’d read from things I was working on for Gangster. I lived off my credit cards, I fueled the economy. Like a good American.”
In 1998, Lê went to Vietnam with her boyfriend and her mother. “It confirmed things for me that were ghostly before. Something came into focus in a very bodily way. The heat and the dust, the sweat, the flowers, the smell of the flowers. My Vietnamese started coming back. I felt like a child. I went again in 2001 for my mom. She was very sick and decided that she wanted to be buried there, where her parents were. So she went back for the last month.”
After her mother’s death, Lê began again on The Gangster We Are All Looking For. Published in 2003, the book received great praise. Publishers Weekly wrote: “This is a stark and significant work that will challenge readers.” The New York Times noted that “the cumulative, almost liturgical effect of the novel is both heartbreaking and exhilarating.… Lê’s novel is a brilliant evocation of human sorrow and desire, a stunning affirmation of how metaphor can make time and memory as real as the newspaper you are holding in your hands.” The Chicago Tribune described it as “a book of searing evocation, showing us what it means to live a dual existence, caught between past and present.” Newsday praised the book, noting, “It’s as if words are controlled substances — her joy, addiction and means of escape.” The Ottawa Citizen applauded the book: “Everything about this novel works, from the luminous language of the child to the violent despair of the father and the self-mutilating anguish of the mother.”
“Do young Vietnamese come to you after readings?”
“They do, and a lot of young Vietnamese my age, even younger, will say, ‘I feel like you’re talking about my life.’ After the book came out, I had a lot of people say that they felt that the story was so familiar and they recognized themselves in the narrator, or recognized their parents in the narrator’s parents.”
“Is there a coterie of Vietnamese-American writers your age?”
“Yes. Many are in New York or San Francisco. Just in this past year there were three books that came out by Vietnamese-American women writers. Mine was the third. There’s a generation that’s coming up right now of Vietnamese-American writers who are getting mainstream publishers. People in their 30s.”
“Are you worried about your work being ghettoized?”
“Yes. It’s part of why the book wasn’t a memoir, though it has been mistakenly referred to as such. I didn’t want people to be interested in this story simply because some of these things had happened to me personally. Fiction allowed me greater freedom. This girl, this narrator, her parents, these are people that come from the world that we live in. This book is about the aftermath of war. The experience of refugees, of exile, these are things that are happening now.
“I’ll never say, ‘Oh, no, that’s not my background.’ It’s not about that. It’s about that I don’t want to be limited both in how I’m perceived and how I’m allowed to move. That’s why I love writing, because it’s about imagination and being visited by things and getting to go away with them. I love being kidnapped by my work. There’s a way in which I willingly surrender. There’s a way in which writing allows me to leave home. On some deep level, I’m most at home when I leave.”
Last year, Lê read from her book in the Barnes & Noble store at Hazard Center. “People from different parts of my life were there — my family and people from high school and friends from college. It was somewhat surreal; I was back in San Diego, and the book is so much about San Diego for me. So it was powerful to read it in San Diego. At the same time, I thought about my mother, and I felt like it was so slow. I thought that this whole process has been slow to make these people visible in the world of this book. There’s that phrase, ‘Art is slow.’ People have been living lives like this for so many years and so many generations. This book is putting a name and a face and feelings to an experience that so many people have gone through.”