Literary Insights: Crossing Oceans, Crossing Genres

Writing in Multiple Genres

By Susanne Carter

I love discovering new writers. My latest discovery is Andrew Lam, an award-winning journalist who has parlayed his experience as a refugee of the Vietnam War into a memoir (Perfume Dreams, 2005), a book of essays (East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres, 2010), and a collection of short stories (Birds of Paradise Lost, 2013) during the past decade. Lam is now working on his first novel. In this blog I discuss how Lam has translated his experiences into several literary genres. In the Writers’ Notes I provide insights into multigenre writing.

In my struggle to overcome grief and confusion, I found myself. 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

Andrew Lam was 11 years old when he fled from Vietnam with his mother, sister, and two grandmothers two days before communist tanks rolled into Saigon in 1975. He didn’t know if he would ever see his father, a high ranking general in the South Vietnamese Army, again. From living a comfortable, upper-class life, overnight Lam’s family became homeless boat people, eventually landing in a Guam refugee camp before migrating to California.

In the diaspora, Lam left behind a Vietnamese boy who “never grew up,” he writes in Perfume Dreams. “He wanders still in the garden of my childhood memory.” Although Lam was “old enough to remember Vietnam,” when he arrived in the United States, he was also “young enough to embrace America, and to be shaped by it.” (p. 7)

American Cowboy

Much of Lam’s writing contrasts his perceptions of identity with that of his family members. While most of his relatives cling to Vietnamese traditions and thrive on “What Was,” Lam changed his identity as quickly as he adopted his new American name—“Andy.” To his mother’s consternation, “Andy” becomes an American cowboy. “America seduced him with its optimism, twisted his thinking, bent his tongue and dulled his tropic memories. America gave him freeways and fast food and silly cartoons and sitcoms, imbuing him with sappy happy-ending increments.” (Perfume Dreams, p. 6)

Transnationalism: A Blessing

Lam has travelled back to his homeland several times, but once there, finds himself “a stranger in my own homeland.” He elaborates:

Vietnam is an eighteen-hour flight from San Francisco, but it is also an impossible journey. The jet plane does and does not take me home again. Or rather, I go home again but the country of my childhood memories is long gone, replaced by a collective yearning of possibilities beyond the provincial. (Perfume Dreams, p. 130)

Rather than view himself as an individual trapped between “dissimilar and often conflicting narratives,” as many immigrant writers do, Lam embraces his transnationalism and considers himself a “blessed man” who “sees the world with its many dimensions simultaneously.”

Although his three published works all stem from the same immigrant experience, Lam sees clear differences among them. Perfume Dreams, he writes, is a “cri de coeur, the cry of the heart, which is really a way of trying to make sense out of the horror of the boat people experience or after-war experience or the suffering of the Vietnamese people.” Lam characterizes the essays collected in East Eats West as more of a “cultural celebration” that grew out of observing the world as it transformed “from exclusively West to a kind of mix-match, hybrid society that I live in.” He describes his short story collection, Birds of Paradise, as “spiritual,” because “the stories are written in a way of dealing with characters that are stuck between past and present and future, between trauma and new identity, and different people trying to make sense out of their place in the world.”

A Dream World

Having been primarily a non-fiction writer for most of his career, Lam admits that writing fiction is more difficult, demanding more time and solitude, which are in short commodity in his busy life. But writing fiction also allows a writer creative freedom, which Lam appreciates. “Short stories allow me to speak in a way that journalistic constraint cannot,” he says. In an interview with OneVietnam, Lam explained:

In non-fiction you have to stay true to historical events, be they personal or national… In fiction, it’s as if you enter a dream world that you created, but your characters have their own free will. They don’t do what you want them to do–they get into trouble, do drugs, fight over petty things, and do outrageous things that you wouldn’t want your children to do. In other words, you can only provide the background, the seeds–in my case the background of the Vietnamese refugee. When a well-rounded character takes over, he doesn’t lecture you about his history and how he is misunderstood. He lives his life, does things that are unexpected, and makes you laugh and cry because of his human flaws and foibles.

“Don’t Forget”

In his “Letter to a Young Refugee, 1999” Lam offers empathy and guidance for recently displaced Albanian refugees who are the same age as he was when he was forced to leave his homeland. “Above all,” he advises, “don’t forget.”

Commit everything—each blade of grass, each teary-eyed child, each unmarked grave—to memory. Then when you survive and are older, tell your story. Tell it on your bruised knees if you must, tell it at the risk of madness, scream it at the top of your lungs.

For though the story of how you suffered, how you lost your home, your loved ones, and how you triumphed is not new, it must always be told. And it must, by all means, be heard. It is the only light we ever have against the overwhelming darkness. (Perfume Dreams, p. 22)

Lam lives the advice he offers the young refugee. He has never forgotten the details of his life as a carefree child growing up in the tropical garden of Vietnam, the confused boy abruptly displaced to a Guam refugee camp, the new immigrant who changes identity and language to gain acceptance among his new American peers, and the writer who continues to make his voice heard. In continuing to explore his experiences through multiple genres, Lam has adopted the “task of marrying two otherwise dissimilar and often conflicting narratives. Vietnam and America are vying for my soul,” he writes. “But between Vietnam and America, for me, too, is an undiscovered country, and it is an epic in the making.” (Perfume Dreams, p. 47)

Writers’ Notes:

As the distinction between fiction and nonfiction and across genres blurs, more writers are writing across genres. Many writers have successfully crafted both fiction and non-fiction based upon personal experience, including Tobias Wolff, Tim O’Brien, and Sherman Alexie. Here are some insights into writing in more than one genre:

1. Time and solitude: As Andrew Lam points out, writing fiction takes more time than nonfiction, especially if nonfiction is your traditional writing medium. You will need time and solitude to make the transition.

2. Experimentation: Be willing to experiment and take risks to share your story in more than one way. Enjoy the creative journey.

3. Recycling: If you’re writing in one genre and hit a roadblock, trying switching genres, writes Sweta Vikram. Instead of ditching what you have done, you may be able to recycle it. Working on different projects in multiple genres may help stimulate creativity and expand your writing skills.

4. Reading: Stephen King believes that to be a writer, an individual must both write a lot and read a lot. He advises new writers not to “begin with what you know,” which is common advice, but to start with “what you love to read” (On Writing, p. 158) as he did. Reading several hours a day, he stresses, “creates an ease and intimacy with the process of writing… where you can write eagerly and without self-consciousness.” (p. 150) Thus, writers who want to write in multiple genres, must be well read in multiple genres.

5. Advantages and disadvantages: Be aware of the advantages and disadvantages of fiction and non-fiction writing. Joseph Bentz, an author of both, says that writing a novel totally absorbs his mind during the process (events swirl through his head and pieces of dialogue intrude throughout the day). Writing non-fiction allows him to keep more of a distance. Additionally, writing fiction requires daily attention to sustain the novel’s forward movement, says Bentz, whereas non-fiction allows for taking a day off occasionally. Another advantage of writing non-fiction, says Bentz, is his sudden awareness of how many things he sees, hears, and reads that seem to connect to his topic. “I love collecting all these ideas and trying to make sense of it all,” he says.

Sally Koslow, an author of both fiction and non-fiction, writes that “in fiction, creativity is the glue that holds the work together,” whereas “in nonfiction, curiosity becomes the cement.” Working between genres, she says, is “valuable cross-training for my brain.” And her favorite genre is always the one she’s currently working on.

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