Friday, August 30, 2013

Andrew Lam's American Beginning: Learning a New Language, Seeing a New Future

In the 18th in a series of posts on 2013 books entered for The Story Prize, Andrew Lam, author of Birds of Paradise Lost (Red Hen Press), writes of learning to speak English after coming to America from Vietnam as a child.

For years, on my writing desk sat a framed little card, yellow with age, and it told of my American beginning. It's a picture of a sloop, and under it the word "Sailboat" is written, Mr. Kaeselau, my first teacher in America, gave it to me along with a deck of similar cards many decades ago when I was in seventh grade, and fresh from Vietnam.

The only English I knew back home was "no money, no honey," and "Ok, Salem." I learned it from the loud Saigon prostitutes who walked the tamarind tree-lined boulevards near the Independence Palace—across from which stood my school where I was taught Vietnamese and French.

Back then I thought English was a rather terse and ugly-sounding language—you don't have to say much to get your points across, but speak it too long and you risk hurting your throat. In America that fear became true. A few months after having arrived to San Francisco, my voice started to break. The youngest in my family, I went from a sweet sounding child speaking Vietnamese to a craggy sounding teenager speaking broken English. "You sound like a hungry duck," my older brother would say every time I opened my mouth, and everyone laughed.

But not Mr. Kaeselau, who took me bowling with some other students and sometimes drove me home. He had a kind face and a thick mustache that was quite expressive, especially when he smiled and wiggled his eyebrows up and down like Groucho Marx. He gave me A's (which didn't count) before I could put a complete sentence together, "to encourage me," as he would say. At lunchtime, I was one of a handful of privileged kids who were allowed to eat in his classroom and play games—peed, monopoly—and read comic books or do homework. It was a delightful sanctuary for the small kids and the "nerds," who would sometimes get jumped by the schoolyard bullies.

For a while I was his echo. "Sailboat," he would say while holding the card up in front of me, and "sailboat" I would repeat after him, copying his inflection and facial gestures. "Hospital," he would say. And "hospital," I would yell back, a little parrot.

Within a few months, I began to speak English freely, though haltingly, and outgrew the cards. I began to banter and joke with my new friends. I acquired a new personality, a sunny, sharp-tongued kid, and often Mr. Kaesleau would shake his head in wonder at the transformation.

How could he have known that I was desperately in love with my new tongue?

I embraced it like an asphyxiated person in a dark cellar who finally managed to unlock an escape hatch. At home, in the crowded refugee apartment my family shared with my aunt's family, we were a miserable bunch. We wore donated clothes, bought groceries with food stamps, and our ratty sofa with its matching loveseat came from a nearby thrift shop.

I remember the smell of fish sauce wafting in the air and adults' voicees reminiscing of what's gone and lost. Vietnamese was spoken there, often only in whispers and occasionally in exploded exchanges when the crowded conditions became too much to bear. Vietnam ruled that apartment. It ruled in the form of two grandmothers praying in their separate corners. It ruled in the form of the muffled cries of my mother late at night. It ruled in the drunken shouts of an aunt whose husband up and left her and their four children.

In that house, overwhelmed by sadness and confusion, I fell silent. When my father, who had escaped Vietnam a few days after us, managed to finally join us in San Francisco a few months later, things improved. Within two years we even took our first vacation to Lake Tahoe and Disneyland and in another, we moved to our first house in America, our humble American dream.

But by then I had practically stopped speaking Vietnamese all together, becoming as mother said, "A little American." It could not be helped. There was something in English that was in stark contrast with Vietnamese. The American "I" stands alone where the Vietnamese "I" is always a familial limitation, the speaker is bound by his ranking and relations to the listener. In Vietnamese there is very little use for impersonal pronouns. One is son, daughter, father, uncle and so on, and it is understood only in communal and familial contexts, whereas the American "I"—as in I think, I feel, I know, I disagree—encourages personal expression.

It would take me a long, long time before I would embrace my Vietnamese again, balancing the American "I" with the Vietnamese "we," but that, as they say, is another story.

In our refugee home, speaking English was a no-no even if speaking English had already for me becoming second nature. And sometimes, at dinnertime, I would spontaneously sing out a TV jingle with my craggy voice: "My baloney has a first name. It's O-S-C-A-R. My baloney has a second name..." The entire family would look at me as if I were a being possessed. Needless to say, my parents constantly scolded me.

Then one day my brother said with a serious voice. "Mom and Dad told you not to speak English all the time, and you didn't listen, now look what happened. You shattered your vocal cord. That is why you sound like a duck."

Since no one bothered to tell me about the birds and the bees, I fully believed him. I was duped for what seemed like a long time. But I remember being of two minds: While I mourned the loss of my homeland, I, at the same time, marveled at how speaking a new language could actually change me. After all, I was at an age where magic and reality still shared a porous border, and speaking English was to me like chanting magical incantations. It was indeed reshaping me from inside out. I was enchanted by the English language, its power of transformation, and that enchantment, I am happy to report, has never gone away.

When I graduated from junior high, I came to say goodbye to Mr. Kaeslau and he gave me the cards to take home as mementos, knowing full well that I didn't need them anymore. That day, a short day, I remember taking a shortcut over a hill and on the way down, I tripped and fell. The cards flew out of my hand to scatter like a flock of playful butterflies on the verdant slope. Though I skinned my knee, I laughed. Then, as I scampered to retrieve the cards, I found myself yelling out ecstatically the name of the image on each one of them—"School," "Cloud," "Bridge," "House," "Dog," "Car"—as if for the first time.

Then I looked up and saw, far in the distance, San Francisco's downtown, its glittering high rises resembling a fairy-tale castle made of diamonds, with the shimmering sea dotted with sailboats as backdrop. 

"City," I said, "my beautiful city." And the words rang true; they slipped into my bloodstream and suddenly I was overwhelmed by an intense hunger. I wanted to swallow the beatific landscape before me. For it was then that I intuited that, through my love for the new language, and through the act of describing and the naming of things, I, too, sounding like a hungry duck, could stake my claims in the New World.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Valerie Trueblood on the "When" of Stories

In the 17th in a series of posts on 2013 books entered for The Story Prize, Valerie Trueblood, author of Search Party (Counterpoint Press), lays out a notion central to short fiction.

“Anything can happen,” we say. The short story accepts that claim, and the truth it is after doesn’t seem to reside in character or plot. It’s a truth about experience itself, particularly what is abrupt, haphazard, or ungovernable in human life. In most cases the truth can’t be put into words other than those of the story, which is freer than the novel to be simply anything, as one day in a life—no matter how ordinary the life—can be anything, with bombs in it or kisses. The luck of the short story is to be that one day, to have a day’s suddenness in it, even if it covers years. Its task is to be one thing—a temporary plight or state of being—and not many. Thus its nature seems to me to spring out of the notion of  “when”:

... he accidentally shot his brother.
... the killer appeared on the road.
... he awoke to find he was an insect.
... she followed him to Australia.
... the horse threw her.
... his superior officer kicked him.
... he hugged the leper.
... the prostitute saved the travelers.
... the teacher stayed the night with her mad student.
... the soldiers on both sides opened fire on the messenger dog.

These moments are from stories of episode or event. We could name events from the incomparable stories of Chekhov, yet Frank O’Connor can say of him that he writes “stories with the very minimum of episodic interest.” And in truth they do take place for the most part in the alert senses and sore minds of their characters. But stories more openly located in states of mind also have this core of the “when” in them.  

... he heard the voices.
... the grandmother forgot the children she was minding.
... the parents tried to think of a present to take to their son in the institution.
... they walked in Kew Gardens.
... the old woman looked back on her ruined wedding day.
... he stayed at the side of his dying mother-in-law.
... she nursed the hurt jockey.

We live in a sea of information now, and the novel seems to thrive on it, but the short story, while scrupulous about detail, keeps much of the factual world out; it limits what flows into its set-apart time, its “when.” To Flannery O’Connor, the story, like the poem, was required “to do something with the least possible number of movements.” So the patience and generosity of the novel are denied it, while without hurrying, explaining, or asking for undue indulgence, it has to get somewhere quickly, often passing through an ordeal, and leave the reader in an awakened state.

We keep hearing that this oldest of forms is in the midst of a renaissance, at the same time that we hear that it is having a hard time finding its readers. But it seems to me the short story is always being reborn and will never lack for readers in love with its waywardness and its mystery.

... they had hiked to the top of the cliff he asked her for a divorce,
... he left the penitentiary no one met him, and
... it was time, the prisoners walked out to be shot.

Writers will go on writing of the moments when life is most saturated in meaning, no matter how often they’re asked if they’re ready yet to tackle a novel.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Ramona Ausubel and the Story About the Spool Farmer

In the 16th in a series of posts on 2013 books entered for The Story Prize, Ramona Ausubel, author of A Guide to Being Born (Riverhead Books), relates the value of pursuing even a bad idea for a story.

Years ago I was driving on the stretch of freeway that climbs over the mountains between the city sprawl of Los Angeles and the Central Valley. There were low, scraggly trees and brush and the black char of an old forest fire. It was almost pretty, a little dirt and leaf after having been stuck in the car a long time with only metal and asphalt to look at. Then, in the middle of a hillside, there were several huge empty wooden spools. They seemed strange and out of place, and one of those usually dormant parts of my brain wondered if this was, perhaps, a spool farm. Quickly, logic swooped in and presented some actual possibilities: These spools were meant to hold wire or underground cables, transported by truck to this location.

I was in my first quarter of graduate school and it was my paid job to write stories (technically my salary came from teaching freshmen to write essays, but whatever). So, I decided to write a story about a spool farmer. I took great pleasure in the thought that the state of California would be paying me for this. No one could stop me. It wasn’t exactly like Robin Hood, what I was I doing, but it felt good.

The important thing about this particular short story, its real stand-out trait, was that it was bad (and not on purpose). Thanks to the gift/curse of permanent Internet storage solutions, I can provide you with an excerpt:

People who didn’t know asked: “So you grow trees and then build spools out of the wood?”

“No," Walter said over and over. "No newfangled building. We farm them the old fashioned way.”
“From seed?” the questioner wanted to know.   
“No. We mate ’em, just like pigs or sheep or any of God’s other animals.”  

Instant classic, right? Spool sex with religious overtones and notes of the heartland.  Later on it is noted that the spools eat mostly grass, “though they do enjoy a good meat sandwich.” Ah yes, the carnivorous spool.

I don’t remember giving up on the story. That it failed was not a great disappointment and I moved on to other work right away. When I thought of it a year or so later I was embarrassed for myself and disbelieving. Did I actually try to write that? Thank goodness I never showed it to anyone, I thought. I was extremely relieved that I never turned it in to my workshop.

If I had been a more experienced fiction writer I might have known immediately that writing about meat-eating pieces of wood would pose a challenge. The trouble is that I might also have “known better” than to try to write about a pregnant teenager who believes she is going to give birth to a three-headed giraffe, or about a place where everyone grows a new arm when they fall in love. Those stories did come together, by whatever magical, alchemical means fiction does and I’m grateful that I was brave/dumb enough to try those first unknowable drafts.

I am writing a new batch of stories now and I have been thinking about the spool farm. You’ll be glad to know that I have no intention of reviving it as a work of fiction, but I’m weirdly proud of it. Not what’s in it, certainly not, but proud that I tried such a silly idea. I want, every single time I sit down to write, to follow the path that that unquestioning part of my mind makes. I’ve learned things about writing fiction in the years between the spool story and now, useful things, things I’m grateful for. But I almost never feel like I know what I’m doing—sometimes the most well-thought-out, doable-seeming ideas fail while the biggest leaps succeed. And I like it that way. I like that it’s always a surprise. The image of those spools is like a talisman I keep in my pocket to remind me not to think I know better. I imagine the field of them, ready to mate, ready to eat bologna on white bread. Be brave, they tell me. Be dumb. Be willing. 

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Joan Silber Makes Thematic Connections

In the 15th in a series of posts on 2013 books entered for The Story Prize, Joan Silber, author of Fools (W.W. Norton), discusses her unique approach to putting together a short story collection.

What’s your approach to organizing a collection?
 My last three books have been linked stories, and when I give readings, somebody in the audience often asks, “Do you plan all the stories in advance or do you just make them up as you go along?” When I hear myself say, “I just make them up,” I sound very carefree and irrepressibly inspired, which is unfortunately not true.

Stubborn Visionary: Dorothy Day
I start with a first story and then I keep digging for routes to further investigate what it’s about. In Fools, the first story came after a trip to India, which was disturbing in all the ways everyone knows. One consoling thing for me was seeing that every city seemed to have a Gandhi Museum—Gandhi being the great figure of visionary stubbornness. I pondered whether America had anyone like Gandhi, and I thought of Dorothy Day, famous Catholic radical, who began as a Village anarchist, and I set my story in her world of anarchists in the 1920s.

Anarchists were considered “fools” for their dedication to ideas—and for the next stories, I started to think harder about how people live for ideas (and why we think money or love can let us live without them). As I came up with new stories, I re-used characters—followed their offspring in later eras—grew branches from branches.  But really I was focused on thematic connections.  I don’t think we talk enough about theme--or meaning, which is what writers call it. Sometimes I startle my students in fiction classes when I say, “So what is this about?”

In this form I’ve come up with, characters who are hateable in one story can be humans we’re allied with in another. There’s a beautiful quote from John Berger in which he says, “Never again shall a single story be told as if it were the only one.” This suggests that a stretch is required of all of us, to get out of our own skins.