Sample text for Grass roof, tin roof / Dao Strom.


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Counter 1
Fire Hazards

My mother collected newspapers. Mostly Vietnamese publications sent to
her by old friends now living in San Jose or Los Angeles. She clipped
articles and stowed them in binders and envelopes, supposedly to be
organized into some form of record at some later date. My mother was apt
to
get lost in a task, so enamored was she by the possibilities — the wealth

of information, and so reluctant, too, to reach any end that might force her
to
admit unrequited ambitions. Who is to say if she would actually need to
look again at any of these papers? Yet she could not throw them away. My
father, who had also thrown away a past — his by choice, however —
criticized my mother for refusing to let go of pain. He called her selfish.
"Your mother," our father would say, not unfacetiously, "your
mother is a fire hazard."
And I would take this in. Certainly he meant her papers, but in my
young mind it was she I saw going up in flames, up into black curling
smoke. It was her hair I saw shriveling to ashes and rising, her flesh
melting;
it was her eyeglasses I saw exploding from the heat and then — as in the
movies—only the frames that survived and landed, with a dramatic thunk, at
the edge of a circle of ashes. It would be the end of a scene, the glasses in
the foreground of a low-angle closeup shot in which smoke and a few
glowing
embers of orange were a blur in the background. My mother would be gone
from me; I feared this constantly. She was vulnerable and a little afraid of
the world and smaller than average. She sat on a pillow when she drove and
wore high heels everywhere, even at home. Whenever she went alone to a
movie or to run an errand, I prayed for her safe return. I worried she might be
kidnapped by a strange man as she crossed a parking lot, and we would be
left to live with just our father.
It is true my mother almost burned to death once in her childhood.
She was playing in the kitchen with her older brothers when they turned on
the stove and accidentally set her on fire. It was a gas stove; the flames
jumped, or my mother was standing too close. If it had not been for an aunt
passing unexpectedly by the house that afternoon, that might have been
the end of my mother, then and there. But the aunt threw a blanket over her
and saved her. My mother was six years old. She later told me this story
as
a kind of justification: it was the reason she never taught us how to cook.
As
for my mother"s collection of newspapers — these have since been thrown
away, too.

papier
I

It was a grand story with many events and an inconclusive ending, and it
left her with an ache in her brain and heart, a feeling akin to wanting.
Wanting
tinged with amazement and understanding — the ending would always be
inconclusive — and this was why the story worked as well as it did; this
was why it was so affecting and rending and lingering. For many nights
afterward, she went to sleep wishing she could live this story and picturing
herself after the experience a wiser, sadder, nobler person. Or she liked to
imagine meeting a man who had lived through such an experience, a
humble,
beaten man whose integrity only she would recognize, and she would be
his
friend. She wouldn"t ask for more than that.
She had been introduced to the story by a man whom she knew
only by his first name, Gabriel. He was a French war correspondent living
intermittently in her country and his own. When she met him in 1969, she
was twenty-four years old, unwed with one son, then a toddler, from a
previous relationship, and she was taking French and English literature and
language classes at Saigon University, where Gabriel often came to visit
the teachers, many of whom worked on the side as interpreters. She had
aspirations of being a writer or artist; she hadn"t decided yet which kind. On
her first date with Gabriel they saw an American movie about the life of
Vincent Van Gogh, starring Kirk Douglas. The theater was mostly full of
American GIs and foreign news correspondents and their Vietnamese dates
or associates, English-speaking, local advocates of democracy — writers,
teachers, print and broadcast news reporters and employees, students,
businessmen, travel guides, and ambitious prostitutes. Tran did not align
herself with this latter group, and trusted Gabriel did not either, though she
knew it would look suspect, a local woman on the arm of a foreign man. Her
foreign man, the Frenchman, however, was obviously not a soldier; for her
sake, he wore his press jacket (she had insisted on this, wanting the
distinction to be clear, but had told him it was because she liked him better
in the jacket). His build was also too slight and reserved for a soldier, and
he was older, with a long face and faintly smiling, thin lips. Tran thought
Gabriel"s deep-set eyes — with their yellowish hazel color, behind wire-
framed glasses — held an intellectual, disenchanted cast.
The movie was maudlin and heroic, this in a time when such
sentiment in the movies was still cathartic — though it is likely any movie
featuring the likes of Kirk Douglas would have been cathartic at that time, at
that outpost. Already a sense of hopelessness and consternation pervaded
the streets, though people seemed to be laughing, selling, buying, venting
opinions, and eating and drinking with all the usual fervor; it was this fervor,
in fact, that seemed now volatile and dangerously indifferent. Tran felt
watchful in public places. And though she would in all sensible mind claim
not to admire any military, she looked with a naive respect, even a deferent
longing, toward the American military men, for the very details of their dress
and physicality (the size and stoutness of their bodies, the muted colors
and
fitted cut of their clothes, their sweat-rings that seemed evidence to her of
their formidability rather than — as it seemed with the local militiamen,
whose uniforms always sagged — their inability to cope) had in her mind
aligned themselves with a concept of order.
Tran was wiping her eyes when the lights came up at the end of
the film, and when Gabriel asked why, she replied in her cautious French, "I
understand very well the melancholy of the life of an artist." She had
actually meant to use the word l"angoisse, but when la mélancholie slipped
out of her lips she realized this was more right: a more subdued, less
violent — more poetic, even — portrayal of the pain she had meant.
Suddenly
the small theater trembled in a great ground-shudder and there was a
muffled
boom and the noise of commotion outside. Inside, people began to panic
and
run for the exits. Gabriel took hold of Tran by both shoulders, pushed her
into
a corner against the stage. She felt the rough efficiency of his body pressed
suddenly, unsexually, against hers — she felt more conscious of this than
of the rumbling walls, to which she had already surrendered her fate in the
first instant. With intensity Gabriel was watching the crowd, craning his
neck.
His body blocked Tran"s view and she found herself staring at the fine brown
hairs of his chest, visible through the folds of fabric between his shirt
buttons.
She closed her eyes. Then the shaking stopped. They made their way
toward
an exit, and when they came out onto the street they saw the throng of
people gathered in front of the bookstore and mail depot, its front now blown
open and billowing black smoke. Three Vietnamese civilians writhed on the
sidewalk in front of the mess, crying in pain; a few local policemen and
Americans were running toward them. Gabriel directed Tran to wait at the
back of the crowd. "I have to work," he said. Then he took his camera out of
the small canvas satchel he wore slung over his shoulder. Tran watched his
back (his shirt half untucked, the seat of his pants rumpled) pushing
through the crowd.
Later, much later, they would define the bombing as fate — not
necessarily to say that their relationship was doomed, but that this omen
was representative of what was to come, or the nature of how things were to
open between them.

The novel he had recommended to her was an American classic, Gone
With the Wind. They read passages together ("If you want to learn English
you must read this story," he"d said; "there is not much good about the
English language except this story"). It was Gabriel"s favorite American
novel
for a couple of reasons: one, he saw it as a great depiction of "the American
insistence upon naivete"; and two, he liked those literary classics by
authors who had never intended to be authors, who said all they needed to
in
one book alone. There was something more honest, more respectable, this
way, he theorized, as if the book, the story itself, had forced its way out of
the reluctant author, rather than the other method, where the story became
tangled up in an author"s ego. This author was a woman (which appealed to
Tran) in the 1930s, and the novel had a good dose of everything: the rise
and fall of vanities and societies, births and deaths, unrequited loves,
illegitimate children, an irrepressible heroine, a scandalous hero. And at the
center of it, a civil war between North and South, something relevant.
Occasionally Tran and Gabriel would discuss the parallels between life and
literature and politics and cultures, which spanned years and seas.
Tran did not always understand Gabriel"s theories but was drawn
in by his wry spirit, the nonchalance with which he delivered his
well-informed and devastating perceptions about current politics, the same
politics that only distressed Tran"s Vietnamese colleagues and sometimes
confused Tran; she could easily find merit in every point of view. In fact she
somewhat admired Gabriel, his aloofness, his sense of comedy, which was
almost cruel and thus took on another quality — acerbic, tragic,
self-denying.
How did one become like this, she wondered, so intellectual and so
resigned
yet not resigned, by sheer virtue of a commitment to that very attitude? The
more time she spent with him, though, the more she began to see cracks
in
his mask. When they practiced reading in her language, his accent was
slow
and clumsy and almost embarrassingly earnest. The way he would point to
objects on the street (phone booth, gutter pipe, spokes of a bicycle wheel)
or a part of her body, and ask her the words that named these places,
these
appendages. His candor and his deep, eager, fumbling voice repeating after
her at first surprised her; she saw a man who desired to be someone other
than he was, whose knowledge and wit encumbered rather than enlightened
him. She understood then the grace, the simplicity, he saw in her — and
the lack of which he despised in himself. Thus did clumsiness and a hidden
vulnerability become the characteristics she associated with white. His
white body, covered in dark curling patches of hair, was long and awkward
and remorseful when they made love. His white linen shirts, wrinkled and
sweat-stained. His white skin that seemed so thin and unsuitable a cover,
especially under the tropical sun, and made nudity look unnatural (she soon
developed the impression that white people were meant always to be
clothed, that it was their more natural state). Yet he was her vessel and
gateway both, to a strange vision of power and regret, to so much of the
outside world she didn"t know how else she would ever reach. Though she
did
not think she loved him, at times she felt sympathy for him.
Then she began to experiment with trickery.
Things like: when once he pointed to the arch of her foot, she
gave him the word for the palm of her hand, and told him the palm was the
arch of the foot. How often would he need these words anyway, she would
think, as she swapped other words and objects. Doing this caused her to
realize how arbitrary and tenuous the association between an object and its
linguistic representation could be, in some cases absurd, even. She did not
know why she tricked him like this. It was a joke that paid off only much
further down the line, to another audience, and she, the initiator, would
never
witness or know of its end. The only satisfaction she received was in
knowing
she was effectively deceiving someone. And these were not outrageous
untruths, just pointlessly misdirected facts. Language, she saw, was a
thing
that relied on faith.
When Gabriel"s assignment in Saigon ended in 1971, he returned
to France; someone else had always been there waiting for him. Tran was
not mournful and told him confidently that she wished him well and would
not miss him, that theirs had been what it was for the time it was — an
intimacy enabled yet limited by the temporal circumstances of war, a
situation wherein people like him (more than her) could for a period
disinhabit
the more regulated life to which they must eventually return. Tran was not
an
impractical woman; back in 1966, when the man who was her son"s father
had denied any involvement with her, she had learned her first lesson about
the potential disappointments of love. In short, she had learned not to count
on reciprocation. He had been a slightly older man, an established
schoolteacher in their community, and he had introduced her to much about
philosophy and the creative life. For the first few months after discovering
she was pregnant with his child she had pursued him, demanding either
money or that he marry her, and he had laughed her off, claiming that her
relationship with him was merely a schoolgirl fantasy. Where the live proof
came from, he had said, he would leave to speculation. Tran had felt
crushed,
indignant, humiliated.She went to a fortuneteller who informed her she
should
not try to marry before the age of thirty, as all her lovers would either die or
leave her.
And a man from far off would come for her one day. "I tell this to many
women, it is true, to keep their hearts awake, their hopes up, but to you I
mean it," the fortuneteller had said. And for the first time in her life Tran had
experienced the resolve of knowing. Yes, she would have the child, but she
did not want or need the father. Her own father was shamed and her mother
heartbroken when Tran announced her decision. But they could hardly deny
the presence of new life when it arrived.
Tran would not know until many years later that in 1975, not long
after she left for America, Gabriel had returned to Saigon looking for her,
had gone knocking on doors of old friends asking after her. In the end she
would never know for certain if the man from far off she finally reached was
even the correct one.

It is said love can move any mountain is how she began her version of the
story, and love comes to us when we are not looking, when we have turned
our backs on its very possibility, have resigned ourselves to the longing. Yet
when it comes, we know it from the first moment the would-be object of our
affection appears. We know love by both the dread and excitement in our
hearts, by the resistance our minds raise against what our hearts are
straining toward; we know it by the fact that we cannot stop it once it starts
to happen and suddenly the world is full of a sense of great and imminent
change just ahead: the most minute detail overflows our senses now with
the
indescribable pleasures of hope.
It was heavy-handed and sentimental and she recognized this, but
it was the best she could do on a first try. She also believed that what
came out first was rawest and truest, and should not be revised, to uphold
its
integrity. She had no diligence for backtracking. She was a young writer.
Eager to expel her words.

Her story was commissioned to appear as a daily serial novel in one of the
city"s independent newspapers. A writer friend had secured the assignment
for Tran, and it was to be her first citywide publication. A big step, for she
had previously published only a few articles and short stories in reviews and
smaller papers. "This editor, you have heard of him, he can help you," her
writer friend assured her, "as he has helped many like us."
The man her friend spoke of was the paper"s chief founder and
editor, but because of his notoriety in politics, he and others had decided
his affiliation would be best maintained as an unofficial relationship. Only
his
close colleagues knew his role. He filtered decisions through a young,
posing editor in chief, and any actual writing he did he credited to other
writers (some of whom existed, some of whom did not). His physical
presence in the office was explained as visits to friends or consultations as
a
technical adviser. He shared a semiprivate office with the senior reporters,
and entered and exited the same way most of the staff did, through a back-
alley entrance. For the most part, he was not recognized and went about
inconspicuously under his assumed name. He had assumed names at
least
five other times in the past fifteen years, and had still been jailed four times
for what the ever shifting government had labeled "the creation and
advocation
of slander and/or immorality." He had been dubbed a "gadfly." But he took
no
side wholeheartedly when it came to the subject of the war — not the
Communist, not the American, not the South Vietnamese — for he believed
each to be a flawed system. Rather, he believed the true source of all
troubles between humans ran someplace far deeper than politics.
It was under his latest name, Le Hoang Giang — a nom de plume
alluding to the evanescent quality of autumn, translated literally from the
Chinese as "yellow river" — that Tran met him.
He was thirty-four years old, an unassuming presence, slender,
with kind eyes, a long, gentle face, and a warm smile. His hair was black,
his skin very brown. A hint of knowing and humor lingered about the edges
of
all his expressions, as if he were continually assessing but withholding
judgment. In a crowd, he was likely to retreat, to stand against a wall or
leave without warning or good-bye.
"Tell me your idea," he said brusquely the first time she sat down
before him. As she began to speak, he rested one hand on his cheek and
fixed his lucid gaze upon her.
"I want to write a love story based on the American novel Gone
With the Wind — you have probably heard of it," she told him, suddenly
unnerved by his attention. "I want to set it in our country, but follow the
same story line as the original. At least in essence I want to follow it."
He smiled as he leaned back in his chair and looked out the
window. On the opposite side of the street below was a sidewalk café that
was a popular hangout for the paper"s writers and supporters; it occurred to
Tran he could have been staring out the window minutes ago and seen her
seated at a table down there, awaiting her appointment with him. It was
raining, and the sound of water beating on the tin roofs was like nails in a
metal can. Rain dripped in heavy streams from the eaves outside the open
window.
"I read that book a long time ago," said Giang. "I found it moving.
And so thorough. You must"ve been just as moved by it as I was."
It didn"t seem necessary to respond, but out of respect Tran
said, "Yes, Uncle." She felt she must address him formally, as her elder.
He looked at her again. "What will happen in your version of the
story?"
She told him: instead of Atlanta at the crumbling of the Southern
Confederacy, it would be the northern port town of Haiphong at the climax of
French rule. The heroine would be from a rice farm in a small northern
village, and her family devout French-influenced Catholics. The family would
be forced to flee south at the advance of the Viet Minh, and the story would
follow that passage, which would bring the heroine to Haiphong.
"But mostly I want it to be a love story," explained Tran. "The
heroine is torn, you see, because she is in love with a childhood friend who
has gone off to fight for the Viet Minh. Then there will be a second man,
who is committed to neither the French nor the Viet Minh — he just wants
his own personal freedom — and he falls in love with the heroine and
pursues
her though she tries to deny him. She herself is apolitical. She doesn"t want
to go any farther south simply because she is waiting for her childhood love
to find her again. Maybe my story will reflect some contemporary issues.
The
heroine might find herself suddenly on opposing sides from the man she
loves and once could trust, but mostly, to be honest, I"d like for my story to
focus on the personal, emotional lives of its characters. When it comes to
literature, that"s what I"m truly interested in, you see."
"Yes," said Giang, seeming bemused, "life is never interesting
unless one is in love with another who is in love with something or
somebody else." He was looking at her now, but Tran felt as if he were
speaking more to the space behind her than to her directly. "Where is your
family from?"
"I was born in Van Dinh in the north and in 1954 we fled south. My
family — my mother, most of all — is Catholic."
"And where does your desire to be a writer come from, then?"
"Ever since I was a child I have sought comfort in books, in
stories," Tran said. "My family was poor and my father could not pay for me
to get a proper education, yet I insisted. I read every book I could get my
hands on, I begged my brothers — who did get to go to school — to share
their lessons with me. I had many disagreements with my father until finally
he allowed me to take a class here and there. Then I worked hard and paid
my own way through university."
Giang gazed at her placidly. Then he nodded. "It is no new thing,
you know," he said, "this story of men going off to war and women waiting in
anguish for them to return. Every continent in the world knows this story."
Tran didn"t speak, unsure if he meant to belittle her ideas.
He sat forward, laying his forearms on the desktop, his back
slightly bowed as if he were about to stand. He turned his face toward the
window for a moment. She could hear the hum of activity on the floor below,
voices and typewriters and drawers slamming and laughter and footsteps.
Finally Giang spoke: "I want you to write whatever you wish, and I will see
that it gets published. Do you know, little sister, that is all I want to do
myself? I am starting to think the only reprieve we will ever get from this war
is when we are able to create — and it won"t lie in our hands, but in our
minds alone." He smiled sadly. "Every day I am more tired. Last night we
were up very late, working. As usual." He laid his hands flat upon the desk.
She noticed they were large, his fingers long and tapered.
"Thank you, Uncle," she said finally, understanding it was time for
her to go.

Giang would tell her months later (when all formality between them had truly
dissolved) that he"d witnessed his fate in life sealed one morning in 1955 in
Hanoi. He had been eighteen years old.
He"d written his first political essay criticizing the disunity of their
nation (though he"d been cautious and also frankly undecided enough to
cast no direct blame on either North or South government), and it had found
its way into the dissident literary and intellectual scene that was forming at
that time in the North. The essay was not a spectacular piece of writing; it
was naive and spirited but had at its heart a certain lament — a sincere
sadness over what was being lost at the partition of their population. An
elderly established writer Giang respected called and wanted to meet him;
Giang agreed to travel from Pleiku, where he had been studying, to Hanoi to
meet the writer that weekend at the south end of Hoan Kiem Lake. But
Cuong Phong (the name Giang wrote under at that time; not as subtly
poetic
in meaning, it translated awkwardly as "strong wind") never made it to the
café:
a flu inexplicably gripped him the night before and he stayed in his hotel
room, sweating with fever. He neglected even to send a message. On his
way out of the hotel the next morning, he learned that several bistros near
the lake had been bombed the previous evening, and the man whom Cuong
Phong was to meet with had been killed.
The then–Cuong Phong walked out of the hotel and up the street
seeing everything with intensified exactness. So that he stared, and the
world of hearing left him. The unfamiliar city"s gray streets and rusting metal
gates and thin, dull silver-and-black bicycle tires and brown wood sidings
and
brown faces struck him; even the gray stripe of sky between two houses
seemed solid and throbbing. He kept his head down as he walked but felt
the
heat and the stirred air around each body he passed. He crossed a street
and stepped onto an ornate footbridge spanning a portion of the lake. From
the north end of the lake, he could see the south end — the row of
storefronts, the new cavernous holes in two of them, the surrounding
storefronts with their awnings and curved balustrades intact. He turned his
eyes toward the water and rested his arms on the rail of the bridge. For
several minutes he stared at the dark surface of the water. He did not notice
the elderly woman who had stopped beside him, put her hand on the rail,
and
leaned forward to peer into his face. She was asking if he was ill.
"No, no," he said, trying to shake himself out of his fog. "I"m fine.
Please let me be."
The woman glared at him and said nothing for a moment. Then
she declared, "That is what is wrong with you young people these days.
You are all trying to do everything on your own. You forget you were born
tied
to your mothers."
He didn"t know how to respond. He frowned, confused.
"Where has respect gone these days?" continued the woman, her
voice rising. "You young people are all ill."
He put his head in his hands. "Ba," he said, using the proper
address for a young man speaking to an elderly woman, "I am sorry.
Forgive me." He repeated this several times, deeply frustrated, as the old
woman continued to regard him with her stoical expression. Finally, though
he knew it was the rudest gesture he could make, he turned his back and
walked away without excusing himself.
And years later, the moment still resounded in Giang"s mind. He
heard himself repeating those words and felt how they continued to fall
short, words so impotent, he told Tran, "and me repeating them again and
again with an excruciating yearning." They were lying together in a borrowed
bed in some other colleague"s apartment (arrangements like this were
necessary, as Giang was married and they were hesitant to go to Tran"s
apartment for fear her neighbors would talk), as he told her his story. "You
ask, so I tell you. That is why I write," he said, "because I"ve not forgotten
the
feeling of being on the bridge that morning with the old lady. I"ve still found
no
satisfaction with it. None."

Phuong-Li did not care for politics. To her it was a futile way to expend
one"s energies, and she did not understand the tension it stirred among
people, the long heavy silences and sharp looks and charged nonchalance
that passed now among her peers who held varying views. Phuong-Li
merely
wanted to play with old friends as they had when they were children,
chasing
each other about in the rice fields or laughing at something simple like the
nickname Snake she had given one boy because he could not pronounce
his words correctly and he spit when he talked fast.
"Why do you call me that?" the boy asked her once.
"That is my secret," Phuong-Li teased him, and her other friends
giggled.
The boy, because he was fond of her, was flattered by her
attention, no matter what the reason, so he answered to the name Snake.
Phuong-Li liked to recall these small, clever childhood games;
they gave her a sense of importance, of secret control. Years later she saw
the boy she had called Snake. He was now nineteen years old and had
been away at school. What kind of school she did not know exactly, for
she"d never asked. School was school, that vague process a few children,
usually boys, went through. And when they returned, people bowed with
deeper respect to these sons, and mothers blushed with adulation if it was
their own sons returning in such style, for to parents, schooling meant
potential wealth. To Phuong-Li, it meant very little.
He came to her family"s house with another neighborhood friend,
and when Phuong-Li"s little brothers opened the door, the friend asked for
her. Snake hung back, his hands in his pockets, and looked at his feet.
When Phuong-Li came to the door, he waited to see if she would recognize
him before he spoke. She did, and jumped forward to embrace him. Time
and what she considered to be maturity had made her magnanimous
toward
all past acquaintances, close or not. He raised his face and smiled,
showing
warmth and something else, a certain light at seeing her again. It was in her
eyes as well, though she did not realize it.
"You"ve grown up to be so pretty," he exclaimed.
"And you"ve learned how to speak properly!" she teased him.
"I"ve learned many things" was his demure response. "Yes, I"ve
learned lots of awful and good things." The stiltedness in his tone almost
bothered her, but she dismissed it as some new style of speech; she was
too caught up noticing how good he looked after these years away, the way
he now held himself, the confident tilt of his head, the lazy sureness in his
smile and in his calm, smart eyes.
Later, he smoked cigarettes with her older brothers while
discussing politics and life in the city. She did not listen to their words, did
not recognize that they were secretly probing one another with statements
meant to provoke responses that would reveal their true allegiances. She
did notice a tension in the air, although it only made her lament to herself:
Why could they not all get along like old friends, like they used to, instead
of
indulging in all this tiresome talk? She admired the way Snake spoke,
though, his easy mannerisms, the fierceness that lay beneath his
composed veneer, showing itself only in small movements — the quick,
forceful lift of his chin at a sound in the kitchen, the brusqueness with which
he struck his matches. She thought he must be saying important,
intelligent
things, even if she did not understand them.
No, she cared nothing for politics. After that day, all she cared
about was love.

In the spring of 1972, Tran was in her seventh week of writing daily
installments. She woke early in the morning and brewed herself a cup of
coffee in the apartment where she now lived with her six-year-old son. They
lived alone, the two of them, because Tran had felt her sisters and religious
mother could not understand the life of a writer, especially when it was a
woman who sought such a life.
Tran stood over the small stove in the far corner of the first-floor
room, gazing each morning at the wall as she fried an egg for her son, her
thoughts drifting to another world, of horses and hoop dresses and colored
silks, of idle, well-educated, well-mannered women, servants announcing
visitors in doorways of parlors. Tall, handsome, white-skinned men in
waistcoats. They bowed and kissed the ladies" hands. And from this place
her thoughts would then drift into the world of Vietnam. But she was unable
to conjure any images of a parallel world here, only a vague sense of
longing. The world of Vietnam was too visceral and incongruent next to the
polished drama of the America in her mind. Even her imagined version of
Vietnam — the bustling port town of Haiphong in 1954, the setting of her
story — was humid and overcrowded and raw. (It resembled present-day
Saigon, the only experience of a city from which she had to draw.) There
were no equivalents here to the panoramic views of rolling green hills
outside
windows of estate houses, as existed in that other land. Even the war here
was not so noble and deeply felt a calamity as it seemed to be there. Here
the war was bogged down by the clearly unromantic facts of industry and
contradicting chains of command, and it often stretched on for months
without incident. And when an incident did occur it was always outside the
city limits, far enough away to seem almost — though not entirely —
irrelevant. As for the views outside Tran"s windows, they were of the stucco
walls of neighboring buildings. The inner walls of her own apartment (which
she would stare at for hours each morning as she typed) were pale blue and
cracked. The only decorative architectural elements were the concrete
blocks
with rough-edged patterns of ellipses and curved diamonds cut into them,
which fitted into the windows as screens. When the sunlight came through,
it
cast these patterns
in shadow on the concrete floor.
Tran slid the egg she had cooked into a bowl and set it before her
son, Thien. While Thien ate, she combed his hair. Sometimes she would
tell him a tidbit of what she was working on in her head. "Maybe today is
the
day Phuong-Li will encounter her old UncleMinh in the market," she would
say. (Writing a serial novel was as much an adventure as reading one, she
had found. She turned in her installments daily or weekly without much
revision or forethought, and the pieces were published immediately, taken
out
of her hands, cemented in ink that quickly. It made plot seem to her a live,
unpredictable factor she was stumbling blindly after, trying to keep up with
it.)
Thien would respond appropriately, because he had been following
along; all the names of persons his mother spoke of he accepted in the
same way, whether they were fictional or real. "Will Uncle Minh punish her
for
how she ran away last week?"
"But she knows Uncle Minh"s secret, that he married his wife for
her money, because she has met Uncle Minh"s other daughter, remember?
The one no one is supposed to know about."
"Uncle Minh is a bad man," Thien might say, and often Tran was
proud of his astute judgments.
After breakfast each morning she walked her son to the end of the
alley where it met an avenue. There he joined several other boys, and Tran
watched as they raced across the avenue and through the gates to their
school. Then she walked — smiling but not speaking to anyone she
passed — back to the apartment. And once inside, she would sit down to
write.

Copyright © 2003 by Dao Strom. Reprinted by permission of Houghton
Mifflin
Company.


Library of Congress subject headings for this publication: Vietnamese Americans Fiction, Danish Americans Fiction, Rural families Fiction, Stepfamilies Fiction, Young women Fiction, California Fiction