Ba cuốn tiểu thuyết của Dương Như Nguyện [Uyen Nicole Duong] về Người Mỹ gốc Việt trong quá trình Di Dân Tỵ Nạn (THE VIETNAM TRILOGY) sẽ được xuất bản bởi Amazon Encore trong năm 2011, gồm có:
Daughters of the River Huong (tái bản)
Mimi and Her Mirror (ấn bản thứ nhất)
Postcards from Nam (ấn bản thứ nhất)
Và sau đây là phần nhận định văn chương của G.B.A. Nash về cuốn tiểu thuyết trên: A Tribute to Mimi — POSTCRIPT to Postcards from Nam, a novella by Uyen Nicole Duong
The novelist’ s journey and the burden of cultures
I got to know Mimi when her creator was struggling with an epic manuscript that was far too long. Mimi was born in the classic subconscious journey of novel writing that Robert Olen Butler advocates in his creative writing class. She was not planned, nor structured. She emerges as her creator submerges. Nowadays, no one wrote like Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which, in today’s standards, would not be successful or even readable. Not to mention the fact that the attention span of readers of the 21st century is measured by the size of the computer screen and how quickly links can be clicked and browsed.
Yet, in the end, Postcards from Nam became a novella of fewer than 100 pages double-spaced. It is truly a novella in the count of words. Yet, it tells stories that are epic in the Vietnam experience: from lives in a small alley of pre-communist Saigon in the 1960s, to the very unique and contrasting personal characteristics of a young boy and a young girl of that era, all the way to the 1975 life-about-face, and a harsh, gruesome escape at sea, the sufferings of Vietnamese boat people, to the contemporary life of a female lawyer in the Capital City of America and her search homeward, embedding the conflicts in the lives of first-generation immigrants unknown to outsiders – all the complication of human beings spanning over a century.
The first question I ask is why the novella begins with a very detailed description of where Mimi lives. The Parc Royale? How is it relevant or even necessary to what we are about to see? In novel writing, one either narrates, describes, or interprets. I suppose this speaks for the 3 fundamental methods of story-writing: narration, description, and interpretation. Butler, the novelist-teacher, will certainly tell us that the key to effective creative writing lies not in narration but in description. “Showing, not telling” is our motto.
Barthes and Foucault, the incomprehensible theorists that no one is supposed to understand, tell us something else (perhaps what we think they may be telling us, because they are supposed to be not so understandable): self-interpretation is a taboo, because the author is supposed to be dead, in order for readers to be born.
Yet, in the end, to make it all in fewer than 100 pages double-spaced, our Mimi narrated and interpreted, as she (and her world) were described by her creator. Somehow, Mimi’s creator did all three to give us the story in fewer than 100 pages. A story within a story within a story in the novella form.
Parc Royale is important to Mimi in her journey to re-meet her “Nam,” such that the descriptive method has to be up for grab, because what we see at Parc Royale becomes the textual backdrop upon which we find our Mimi. Parc Royale is the constructed work of an architect, who purposely creates an illusion. The apartment complex is supposed to be an imitation of the South of France, yet it lies in the heart of hot and humid Houston, Texas. We know then at the beginning of the novella that nothing in Mimi’s world has been real. It is all an imitation of something else, very far removed from her authentic Vietnamese childhood. The postcards become the linkage between fragments of lives that have been broken, segregated and separated, into compartments, drawers, and blanket folds (as Mimi tells us). Nothing that is so disconnected can be real, just like the phoniness of Parc Royale. The postcards, therefore, constitute the only reality, if reality means continuation and re-connection of many pieces of life. The need to be back in touch with that reality – the only reality against the artificial Parc Royale scenery – foreshadows our Mimi’s return to her search for Nam.
The detailed (almost boring) intricacy of Parc Royale description may remind her Vietnamese readers of what has been seen in Vo Phien’s prose, Mimi’s creator told me after she finished the manuscript in 1999.
Did Mimi’s creator mean to do this, to “describe” Parc Royale a la Vo Phien style? (Interestingly, later, Mimi’s creator departed completely from description, in order to “narrate” the summary of Nam’s escape all in a short-handed fashion like a journalist.)
I venture to say No, the author did not write her English prose with Vo Phien in mind, because novel writing is all about the sub-consciousness. The progression of story-telling just turns out that way, with Parc Royale description in detail, and it is my job to think about why, to put my own creativity into the process of interpretation and understanding. This Vietnamese writer Vo Phien came about in our discussion because Mimi’s creator took herself off the authorship, to become the reader herself, in order to rediscover her Vo Phien.
In my view, the subconscious approach to writing has placed Uyen Nicole Duong very much under the influence of Bob Butler’s creative discourse in his classroom, even if Uyen has never taken any of Bob’s class. Yet, very painfully, in chapter 7, Uyen strained to interpret the complexity of her character Uncle Dien and his world and motivations, via a process of rationalization and editorialization about the Vietnamese Rashomon. Interestingly, the exploration and exposition of Uncle Dien occurred all in dialogues. There is no better way to accomplish this purpose than telling by dialogues.
The character’s creator had to rationalize for us by using the analogy of Rashomon. Her symbolic and imaginary lovebird sings Rashomon. Why?
When I think about these technical aspects of the craft of novelistic writing, post-facto, as evidenced by this novella, I feel and sense the burdens facing a Vietnamese American writer living between cultures. Among those Vietnamese who write in English, yet still understand and speak the Vietnamese language very well, Uyen Nicole Duong is the only one who still straddles these two complex and paradoxical worlds. Why? I asked her. “It’s the love and respect for my parents and their generation,” she said.
The only thing to cope in between two worlds for a writer like her is to commit the sin of novelistic writing: to opinionate and rationalize in order to explain and interpret, in the middle of her otherwise subconscious novella. The empathy comes only from the few friends like me, those who understand the complexity of both worlds, the demands and curses that she must undertake, while striving all her life (almost like a contortionist) to call them her blessings: the richness of life experience or the sense of duty of an immigrant still loyal to the home culture, that is. (Nabokov, the noted author in exile, on the other hand, divested himself of that loyalty, both to Russia and to America, with his amoral Lolita. He took the punch, which became his Hollywood success.)
The visual artist’s journey
It is obvious to me that Nam is Uyen Nicole Duong’s symbolism of art, where art is symbolized by the unfulfilled, yet eternal love between two innocent children. The theme is almost cliché. Childhood love. What brings it to life is, again, the textual backdrop — that Vietnamese alley which, in stark contrast against Parc Royale, is the most authentic of all symbols of authenticity.
Here, Mimi’s creator uses the symbolic impressionistic brush and no longer intricate details to describe the alley where innocent love takes place. The squatting women, the rain, the heat, the uncontrolled little baby brother, the aristocratic grandmother, the teacher-turned-mason, the sickly mother who had a miscarriage, the smell of the earth, the naked children rain-bathing, the old Chinese tomb, and Mimi’s insecurity about it all. In that insecurity and fear of loss and the feeling of not belonging, she finds comfort and home. Because of Nam.
It is difficult for me to envision or classify whether Nam is the protagonist or the antagonist, in the traditional dialogue or categorization of a literary critique. It is noteworthy that either as protagonist or antagonist, Nam never narrates anything directly to us. He only wrote a few lines, spoke a few lines, and drew a lot of pictures and objects. What tragically happened to him and his inner world were all described via the words of others, like Old Kiki and Mimi herself. This is very typical of Uyen Nicole Duong’s art, craft or subconscious construction. The most important voice is always the missing voice. Perhaps Nam is nothing but these other characters’ projection of themselves.
Yet, this novella is about Nam, the visual artist. As a visual artist, Nam’s wishes are simple yet more grandiose than anything we have ever known. He wanted to draw and send postcards all over the world. The epitome of internationalization and globalization. What an ambition, yet so matter-of-fact-ly stated! Postcards, here, become the identity and possession of Nam, for him to assert himself as the artist without border. Postcards, here, therefore, become the voice of a people. And culture.
What’s more, Nam is a clever, resourceful, and highly intelligent boy. Look at what he has done: making money in a small alley, finding his way to the luxury goods and gourmet delicacies of Saigon as a token for his love. One may question whether this is believable. Not for the regular average Vietnamese boy, but for Nam, oh yes, because Nam is supposed to be a genius, so naturally genius that he is underestimated by himself and even his “snobbish” love, the endearingly cocky Mimi. (Mind you, he is also a French chef by imitation, and a professional gambler who would beat you at Las Vegas, any time!) In the transition of Vietnam, he travels all the way down south for the boat’s escape and maneuvers enough to save his brother from the beasts of the sea.
Miraculously, he even saves his life against savagery!
And, he is also beautiful beyond description, such that he becomes that rare pearl in the white sand – the sheer life force that accounts for his survival, in the myth of the sea. He is Art himself. In this sense, this novella is a work of surrealism and mysticism, typical of Mimi’s creator as I have known her. One does not dissect this body of work to find out how believable it’s got to be. One must approach it with a blind sense of faith, in Nam and in Mimi, and what they represent to us.
Nam is also our tragic hero. The young boy who has the courage to make a promise. Such a grand promise. Grand like his ambition. The promise is to become Mimi’s protector. To take care of Mimi’s heritage – her aristocratic grandmother, abandoned at the end of the war and discarded in the change of regime. Figuratively Nam has made a promise as grand as that of Tu Hai, the literary hero of the Vietnamese, as Mimi’s creator told me, having stripped herself of the author’s cloak.
Yet, Nam is such an unlucky being, before man, beast, and God, before that almighty sea of our moonstruck mermaid, Mimi, who looks for him against the waves. Does art survive? In the words of the Asian version of Hemingway’s Old Man, Old Kiki, yes, art does survive.
But in the end, our visual artist does not survive. And Hemingway’s Old Man poignantly tells us that. Memory, or history, can destroy delicate art. Nam is defeated. The tragedy takes over him completely, and he succumbs to that tragedy by repeating it upon himself. Nam must ennoble himself with the calling to feed his family and to day-dream about his sweetheart Mimi as the only internal escape.
The survivor is therefore, his love, Mimi, who must recreate the postcards, the alley, in all the confusion created by the lack of black-and-white clarity and the dilemma of moral judgments by first-generation immigrants. By returning to her roots, she must face individuals like Uncle Dien and Lieutenant Dat, and the terrible secrets they hold, all murmured by vicious gossips, rumors, and personal attacks. No more no less than the confusion among the survivors of the Jewish Holocaust or the Cambodian killing field.
There is only one way to breathe victory and success into Nam, our tragic hero: it is the salvation of Nam’s brother. Here, Nam becomes the benevolent Sisyphus of Vietnamese boat people. He repeats the tragedy to no end with his lifestyle in Bangkok, the result and justification of which – the only thing that makes sense at all in exchange for the damnation of a visual artist — is the saving of his brother. Tiep is Nam’s success story. Like Mimi, Tiep suffers from amnesia in order to become whole. Nam provides the potion for that amnesia. Like Mimi, Tiep becomes the successful immigrant who can forget. This is the grandest and most difficult mission that Nam has accomplished, and it has also become the curse of his life.
Love versus tragedy
The Western critic would consider the novella a Greek tragedy. Yet, it is a tale of romantic love, the only thing that makes sense in time of chaos. The garden of love is the alley of crowded pre-communist Saigon. Two children. One bond. And then tragedy beyond their control pulls them apart, until the phoniness of Parc Royale contextualizes her willing return to him. Love, by its nature, as defined by the Greek gods of the West, is pre-destined, yet selfish and possessive. Nam can leave Tiep, his biggest creation, to the amnesia, but he must regain Mimi to himself, before he gives it all up. Religious calling, to Nam, in middle age, is the equation of a peaceful death, because although he can now be free from his Sisyphus fate, such beginning is also a departure from love – after that, we readers understand there will be no more postcards. Mimi is to reconstruct her life based on the knowledge of Nam’s tragedy. The birth of a novelist to tell the story of their lives, their love, and their immigration experience is her turbulent birth, and also his calm death. The letting go of the love birds is the path of artistic creativity. Yet, in there, once, there is also the voice of the character’s creator: the “nothingness” of Buddhism.
So, here, Mimi’s creator told me she reluctantly consented to a translation of her title to denote that possessiveness – the postcards do belong to Nam. They are Nam’s creation. His claim of identity. No longer just the vague voice from a culture. Or a place. It is Nam’s right to reclaim the memory of childhood shared with Mimi. His Claim to Love. And Hymn to Life. In this sense, Nam has not died. Will not die. He becomes Mimi’s life force.
Before that proclamation of right and artistic authorship – via the postcards, Nam was all about giving and self-sacrifice. The perfect unconditional love. He gave it all and never asked for anything in return. He gave his Mimi her favorite food, perfectly prepared. He became the flattering audience of her performance. His unending support and utmost adoration was unconditionally given. And he set her free. She was never burdened by him, because after all, he was just a little boy who remained in his modest place, the alley, for his Mimi to fly high in her childlike ambition of her future – to become the lady of the world.
How idealistic is that love? Very much. How realistic is it? Also very much. In the innocence of childhood, ideals are absolutely possible. “It’s someone’s Dalat. It’s my Hue. It’s us Saigon. Like Proust’s Lost Paradise.” Mimi’s creator told me.
Destination: the journey to truth
Mimi, after all, signifies our yearning for truth. A logical and rational being, she practices self-control, suppressing the romantic idealist in her. The postcards, as news, become the bridge to truth. But, in that truth-seeking mission, she is also motivated by the yearning for love – what is lacking in her North American life, camouflaged by the amnesia she experienced about her childhood and the fall of Saigon. Her own tragedy, not yet told to us here, in this novella. But her creator does give us a hint: what causes her amnesia and then her awakening?
Incidentally, in the character building that gives us Mimi, we also see the coming of age of a young girl – her introduction to what womanhood means. Why such elaborate description of the Vietnamese hospital and the experience of birth, labor, and death (the near-death experience of Mimi’s mother and the loss of her baby brother, the fetus – a controversial spiritual question???)
We see that along with the idealistic notion of childhood love is Mimi’s entry into the world of human sufferings, women in poverty specifically. At the hospital, our Mimi becomes the woman-child. As astute readers, we may see these hospital scenes as the “slice of life” story-telling approach. But, as poignant observers, we see how Mimi has received love and also the knowledge of life.
And then there is the impressionistic description of the unclaimed tomb that belongs to the dead immigrant: the Chinaman – Mimi’s first notion of a lost soul, the fate of an immigrant, dead and buried on foreign land somewhere in an alley among people he did not know. Mimi’s creator never speaks to us of how Mimi might have remembered the tomb as a grown-up: she will one day become like that Chinaman – dead and buried in America. It is our job as thoughtful readers to think about the writer’s subconscious journey – her creation and her symbolic description of the details and events that make up the novella. What does it mean the old Chinese tomb in that Vietnamese alley?
The sketches of this novella also tell us the epic nature of the body of work at one time, before the novella was born. We become curious about Mimi, the same way Mimi has become curious in her truth-seeking mission. That truth-seeking mission leads our Mimi to the darkness of untruth – the worlds of characters like Uncle Dien and “that SOB Dat” – together making up the “freedom of speech” rotten phenomenon of the first-generation – their price for the escape at sea?
And out there, there is also the character of David Dougherty – the uninvolved mainstream watcher. The benefactor, nonchalant, yet tangentially interested.
The stabilizing force? Mimi’s mother and her voice. The nurturing voice of motherhood, who helps, who explains, and who reinforces a sense of self. The voice of Mimi’s mother (always by phone only) becomes the author’s convenient means of rationalization to achieve her artistic compromise against that burden of culture.
Finally, in the will of her creator, Mimi’s truth-seeking mission becomes the Vietnamese Rashomon, the most terrifying tale to be sung by the love-bird: the darkness, the uncertainty, the nastiness, the artist and truth seeker’s constant striving for a sense of nobility in a place that can be so ugly and threatening, the very burden that Mimi’s creator must bear. The pen flows, yet blocked as a result. The price of survival and life-rebuilding, for an immigrant artist, is also the imprisonment of culture. The only clarity, therefore, is Love itself. But that Love is unfulfilled, despite Nam’s claim of ownership.
Between Nam and Mimi, at least one must survive. Truly survive, in the perfection of art.