In my struggle to overcome grief and confusion, I found my self. And when I spoke up for those that couldn’t, I found my tongue. And when I told stories of those oppressed and suffering in obscurity, I found my voice, and my direction in life.
Andrew Lam is the author of Birds of Paradise Lost, Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora, which won the 2006 PEN Open Book Award, and East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres. He’s an editor and cofounder of New America Media, an association of over two thousand ethnic media outlets. He’s been a regular NPR commentator, and his essays have appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Mother Jones, and many other journals.
Featured at Talking Writing: This interview is part of a partnership with Talking Writing magazine. The How to Become a Writer Series here at PhD in Creative Writing now includes interviews with Talking Writing’s featured writers. Here is an excerpt of Andrew’s story “Grandma’s Tales,” published at Talking Writing:
The day after Mama and Papa took off to Las Vegas, Grandma died. Lea and me, we didn’t know what to do. Vietnamese traditional funerals with incense sticks and chanting Buddhist monks were not our thing.
“We have a big freezer,” Lea said. “Why don’t we freeze Grandma? Really, why bother Mama and Papa—what’s another day or two for Grandma now anyway?”
Since Lea’s older than me and since I didn’t have any better idea, we iced Grandma.
[Read the rest here at Talking Writing.]
Read more by and about Andrew:
How Andrew Lam Became a Writer
This is the next installment in the How to Become a Writer interview series, which will post here at Ph.D. in Creative Writing every other Sunday (or so) until I run out of writers to interview, or until they stop saying yes. Each writer answers the same 5 questions. Thanks to Talking Writing for sharing their writers, and thanks to Andrew for saying yes!
1. Why did you want to become a writer?
In my freshman year at Berkeley I fell hopelessly in love; in the year after I graduated my heart shattered. While working at the cancer research laboratory on campus while planning to become a doctor, I took to writing, in part, in order to grieve. Daytime and I bombarded the mammary tissues of mice with various carcinogens to see how they grew; nights and I gave myself to memories, to heartbreak. I typed and typed. I got good at writing, bored with science, with studying for the MCAT, and so I dropped the test tube and kept the proverbial pen.
2. How did you go about becoming a writer?
I took courses at UC extension. One of the teachers said, “Andrew, you are not going to medical school. You are going to creative writing school. And I already sent your stories to the San Francisco State University. They say for you to fill out the application, and you are in.” I said, “My mom is going to kill me.” I applied. Got it. And my first semester in my autobiography class I read my first essay out loud. The assignment was, “Why Did you want to become a Writer.” I talked about the Vietnam war, I talked about childhood memories, the falling bombs, the bravery of men and women. My parents’ struggles and fears. My own sadness. My longing to return to those bomb craters filled up with monsoon rain where children, who survived the battles, laughed and swam. “After all these years, I want to dive into that water,” I wrote. when I finished reading, there was this strange silence. The entire class looked at me in awe. The professor wept. The piece somehow reached the writer Richard Rodriguez and the editor Pacific News Service, Sandy Close. They took me to tea. They more or less offered me a job as an op-ed writer. I started to travel the world, started to write about my past, my history, and the Vietnamese Diaspora. And it resulted in “Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora,” which won a Pen award. In any case, it was all unexpected. And it started from a heartbreak.
3. Who helped you along the way, and how?
Many people helped me. My first English teacher in 7th grade was instrumental in providing a fun and safe environment – his classroom turns into a fun lunchroom and full of books; he gave us books to read in the summer – and I fell in love with the English language as I was going through puberty, a literal transformation along with a new literary life. Richard Rodriguez became a mentor of sort, turning my gaze toward literary non-fiction whereas before my only passion was for the short stories and the novel. He gave me Joan Didion, James Baldwin, VS Naipaul, Truman Capote and a whole lot of the literary giants to read. My boss, Sandy Close, who won a MacArthur Genius award, who gave me opportunities to travel the world the years after the cold war ended, and professor Franz Schurmann, of UCBerkeley, who made me think deeper and more seriously than I had before. My sister, who bought me EB White and William Strunk’s classic “The Elements of Styles,” because I didn’t have any writing confidence, English being my 3rd language after Vietnamese and French.
4. Can you tell me about a writer or artist whose biography inspires you?
James Baldwin comes to mind. His is a voice of grace. He wrote at a time when he is – a gay black man – is marginalized twice over, at a time of segregation. yet he wrote from that margin knowing full well that his voice mattered, that in time the margin reaches and changes the center, and integrates into collective consciousness of this country. He wrote with a generosity of vision and confidence that in time, his story belongs to America, to all Americans. It encouraged me, a refugee boy who comes from a defeated country that was encouraged to fight then abandoned by the United States, to write with that hope – that mine too, in time, become an American story.
5. What would you say in a short letter to an aspiring writer?
Be willing to live with disappointment, with heartbreaks and difficult questions when you have no readily made answers. For as certain as the rain, disappointments will come. And you will have to live with them and embrace them. And work through them. I myself lost a country. I’ve been homeless, and stateless. I lost friends and relatives due to war and the subsequent exodus. I had my heart broken. And yet I write to you today feeling profoundly grateful and blessed. Why? In my struggle to overcome grief and confusion, I found my self. And when I spoke up for those that couldn’t, I found my tongue. And when I told stories of those oppressed and suffering in obscurity, I found my voice, and my direction in life.
You are writing today at a challenging time in which being a citizen of the world is just as important as finding voice. So you must find the balance between the I and the we, between following your own conviction and finding a way to contribute to the greater good. But move forward, always. Don’t be afraid of failure. Or rather, move forward, despite of the failures and self doubts. And keep on writing.
I love the jagged, blurry image on the cover of the Birds book. Also, I think anyone who feels sad yet strong would do well to read Baldwin. His stories and novels make me want to take action even when I can’t and know the outcome is impossible. Thanks for sharing, Andrew and Kelcey!
I love that cover too, Melanie. And I was excited that he cited James Baldwin. Thanks for your note! -kelcey