Award-winning author Andrew X. Pham (Catfish and Mandala, The Eaves of Heaven) and acclaimed literary fiction author Dao Strom (Grass Roof, Tin Roof, The Gentle Order of Girls and Boys) have a conversation about their notions of home, identity, the tendency to move around, getting fed up with Asian-Americanness, and not looking back….
ANDREW X. PHAM: All my life, I’ve been looking for home. As a child my parents moved constantly, partly because of the War, partly because they had businesses in multiple cities. As an adult, I find that I rarely lived anywhere longer than two years—going on 44 years now.
It seems to me that you also move around quite a bit. What is your idea of home? Is it tied to a sense of identity?
DAO STROM: Maybe it is my indeterminate sense of identity that drives my “search” for home. I don’t in general feel at home in the world; at the same time I identify with the idea that we are all to some degree just travelers in the world, in our experience of life in this world… I have always felt a sense of displacement due to the circumstance of VN, war, etc, and the multiculturality of my family – esp. my parents who each had a “don’t look back” attitude toward the past as a result of their own traumas at what they had to leave behind. These are some factors that have probably influenced my tendency to move around.
But too I am searching for something more true to my spirit. There is a sense of longing that I feel, which might be cultural or circumstantial, or just existential, that also drives my exploration of places. I have moved around in the U.S. mainly (California, Texas, NY, Alaska, Oregon) & have returned to VN only once, and I find myself wondering if what I am seeking might also be a way of life and perception beyond what is dominant in America…
You have traveled and lived outside of the West for some time. How has this influenced your concepts of home, Asian-Americanness, etc?
AXP: About thirteen years ago, I got fed up with being Asian-American and I really wanted to be just American. I left the States and spent some time wandering about Mexico, Central America, and Cuba—places where I suddenly became invisible. At that time, people in those places generally saw either gringo or Latino, Asian wasn’t a color that really registered. In a way, it was good for me as traveler to stroll through cultures and places largely unnoticed. I saw and heard things I was sure few gringos witnessed.
But, in the end, after so many miles and months, I suffered that invisible-man syndrome otherwise known as loneliness. And, of course, loneliness is often followed by homesickness.
Well, after a decade living here, I can confidently say that this was an erroneous assumption, but that’s another long story.
I did manage to fit in and learn two new languages and cultures, but the feeling of loneliness still shadowed me at times. This time, however, I did not experience homesickness.
These experiences and observations confirmed an earlier postulation I made after reading Saint-Exupery’sWind Sand and Stars, which was that home and identity are intertwined, inseparable.
Would you care to talk about your multiracial background and how that affected your sense of identity or home?
DS: Being raised by a Danish stepfather whose childhood was overshadowed by WWII and a rebellious Vietnamese mother who had lost a first husband (plus other loved ones) to war, it was ingrained in me from the start that in order to survive sometimes you have to cut off the old appendages & not look back. My parents were adamant in this belief – but I think also un-healed in their own selves because of it.
But this convoluted European-Asian-American perspective has been a vital part of my own development. I think I knew, instinctively (as did my European father and my Vietnamese mother) that history was much longer and more entrenched than the average American perception embraces; I knew this in my bones. At the same time I also grew up experiencing how – as an American – you can reinvent your “self”.
This seems a key part of the American experience, I think. So at the same time as my deeper self understood the currents of culture & history to be vital, my immediate self understood the necessity of the flow and mutability of identity as many of us experience it in today’s world. I like to think: there are two poles to being rootless — the freedom and access to many places at once, as well as the loneliness and potential disorientation of having so many options, identities you can choose or choose not to assume.
I think I have had to accept I am a person who wishes home were/could be one physical place and community, but I also know that that storyline is not mine. Because of where and how I was born, my journey this time around has forced me to embrace non-attachment to any one thing — the flip side to this being, perhaps, the opportunity to develop my inner life, a sense of self not reliant on any one physical place or set of customs…
So perhaps my sense of “identity” is located not in a physical home or culture, but in the very fact of the confluence of all these different streams.
When you speak of home and identity being inseparable or intertwined, and you speak of how you have come to not feel “homesickness” in SE Asia, do you mean to allude that “home” for you has a location in the geography or other aspects of SE Asia in particular? Or has a sense of “home” come to you as a result of time and experience?
AXP: I agree many war and trauma survivors do, as you say, hold that “in order to survive sometimes you have to cut off the old appendages & not look back.” It is a very common reaction—one that is often the last and inevitable resort. I’ve done it myself on a lesser scale.
I think that labels such as Asian-American or Whatever-American are effective only as terms to communicate in the demographic sense. They do nothing for “identity” as I know it.
I see identity as a constantly evolving and formulating thing. For instance, my identity as a teenager has no bearing on my identity as a young man in his twenties, certainly not for a man in his forties. For me, a person of many homes, identity is inextricably linked to the sense of home. It is a three-folds concept.
First, identity is rooted in the place where I came from and also the places where I have lived long enough to have a history, a past.
Second, identity is also bound to the place I currently live, where I put my head at night. It must be a place of my choosing as well as a place that chooses me. I must feel comfortable in it.
Third, identity is tied to the place where I can envision a future for myself, a place where I see my future self. That is, it is a place that allows me growth and a sense of continued belonging.
Southeast Asia so far has satisfied all three criteria for me.
I think identity for our generation, as we were growing up, was a serious concern. Do you think the younger generations share that?
DS: I took part one year in a Black April Week commemoration event held by some students at UT Austin. At the end of the event (in which I had performed one song), a young woman got up and sang a song in Vietnamese and remarked that we should “not forget where we came from” – referring to the Fall of Saigon and the end of South Vietnam. The sincerity in this, esp. from young people many of whom were born in the States, humbled me—as I did not at the time quite have it in me to look so baldly at that event for what it really was, and also to own it, as these young kids were doing.
Later I mentioned to the young man who was driving me around that I wasn’t sure that what I had to contribute was “relevant” to the Black April focus of that week; and his reply to me was this: “It’s all relevant.”
I think this speaks to the younger generation’s having the ability to understand and acknowledge the complexity of whatever “identity” is for us of Vietnamese descent—the need to take into account all of the disparate threads running into our collective story. I think this complexity will always be part of it somehow. Ultimately, I believe we are still crafting the narrative of what it means to be ‘of the Vietnamese who left VN.’ And the younger generation’s voices will be an important part of this, no matter what. Even if they don’t quite realize that just yet, or even want to.
I had a writing teacher at the Iowa Writers Workshop who once made an interesting observation about ethnic/immigrant literature. She said it appeared that the first-generation of writers arising out of any given immigrant circumstance seemed to shoulder the burden of establishing the events – the circumstantial facts – of that group’s “story.” & that this was a necessary part of the process, in order to make that information known to a wider readership. This also meant that it would not be until the later generations that the story could be told more as art, rather than a retelling of events. I am paraphrasing here. But I think this idea is partially true and that some of our work – as 1.5 generation-ers – has been to lay this groundwork.
Though at the same time I as a writer don’t exactly want to be stuck just retelling the immigrant journey story again. I want also the freedom to write stories and make art that can transcend those events and that subject matter.
Andrew X. Pham’s latest book, A Culinary Odyssey, is a cookbook diary of travels, flavors, and memories of Southeast Asia, funded through Kickstarter and self-published through Cloudtiger Productions. It is available in book and Kindle forms here.