Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Now Read This...


For three years I haven't read anything, fiction or non-fiction, that didn't have something to do with Vietnam. I was looking forward to reading about something or someplace new, but it wasn't a chore when I got sucked into reading Angie Chau's book Quiet as They Come. She's a new and compelling voice. It's hard to pull away once the Vietnamese bug catches you. Vietnam is a deeply fascinating place and culture. Working there made it even more so. It has a rich and complicated past, a messy, energetic, present, and a hope fueled future. In between, there is the Vietnamese diaspora. That is what Angie Chau writes about - the Vietnamese-American immigrant experience.

Angie is a child of the diaspora. She was born in Saigon, left Vietnam when she was 4, was raised in San Francisco, graduated from UC Berkeley and earned a Master's in Creative Writing from UC Davis. Her book of short stories, Quiet As They Come, chronicles the life of a group of Vietnamese immigrants living in a house in the Sunset District in San Francisco.

I don't know Angie well. We've exchanged a few emails and we just missed each other in Saigon last month. I left for Seattle just as she arrived to promote her book, meet new people, and connect with the culture her family left behind. Andrew Lam, another terrific Vietnamese-American writer, introduced us. I was curious when I read her bio and bought the Kindle version of her book right away. It's compelling. There are echoes of Andrew's Perfume Dreams, and I was reminded of Robert Olen Butler's Pulitzer Prize winning A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain.

I'm astonished at how resilient the people of the diaspora have been. They have made lives for themselves in other parts of the world - leaving their homes in Vietnam with nothing, risking everything to get somewhere unknown, and then building lives for themselves and their children in foreign places. I want to shake every child of privilege I know when I feel his or her complacency and sense of entitlement. I shouldn't be surprised; it's all they have ever known but I've come to know many children of Vietnamese immigrant parents who are stunning examples of how hard work and focus can deliver the American dream. It's only 37 years since the fall of Saigon and these families have relocated, learned new languages, found jobs, saved their money, bought homes and sent their children to college. I often wonder how I would do in their place.

Angie Chau reminds us of what it was and is like. I can't wait for her next book.

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