Vignette Inspired by Audrey Chin

Last week, I published a review of Audrey Chin’s book As the Heart Bones Break–a novel that I found both intriguing and instructive.  In this review, I mentioned that I actually put the book down at points and found myself writing little vignettes–responses to her work– compelled by the rich subject matter.  What I ended up with was stuff that, in another liftetime, I swore to never take on–stuff that previously turned me off–but which I decided to take a stab at.  I’m glad I did it.  And I’m indebted to Audrey for opening a new world for me.  For this piece, I used the second person narration (the “you”) that Audrey made her centerpiece device. Give me your feedback.  Tell me what you think!


Short, squat, brutal—you could have had a promising career as a mixed martial artist but you were born in the wrong time.  All you needed were the tattoos, you think, appraising yourself in the motel mirror, watching the fuzzy television set, which is feeding you spoonfuls of a blurry premium channel for free.


“He’s got the shape of a trash can,” said your uncle Hong, always rosy-faced with booze.  “He’ll never amount to anything.”  And you showed him.  You punched him in the face.

Now he’s dead.

Almost everybody around you is dead—you’ve got the igneous touch.  Hong killed himself with cigarettes and booze, then ran his car into a tree.  Your mother was a whore and she died a whore’s death—putting food in your sour little gullet. It was easier to tell you she ran off with a man, instead of telling you the truth, but you found it out anyway, in your own good time.

The rest of your family, they all fell into the ocean on a boat.  And you, the deserving one, floated like a message in a bottle into the arms of a religious couple in Minnesota.


At night, this is your foster child dream:  Underneath the black blue of the South China Sea lies the treasure of your extended family–diamonds, pearls, gold in the form of necklaces.  Drifting.  Scattered.  The currents are pushing them away, into oblivion.  Your mother is a mermaid and she glides among the wreckage, dapples of wayward sunlight like freckles on her shoulder, but she never turns back to you.  And then with a flick of her tail, she is gone.


How much could that treasure have bought?  Could it have turned your life around?  Could it have bought you a tract house in Orange County? Would that have changed anything about the life path you have come to know as your own?  Probably not.

You became a little food horder.  Thief of Spam and Corned Hash.  Then, you kicked that habit and horde nothing.

Here you are, at fortytwo, already an old-timer.

But when you washed up on the shores of these United States, you were already fully formed—a delinquent.

You look at yourself in the motel mirror.   It vibrates from the couple next door, who are continuously fucking or fighting.  “Do it.  Go ahead.  Do it.”  The voice is a female’s, high pitched and yappy.  She is speaking alternately in Spanish and English.  But you have stayed in hotels long enough to know the Esperanto.

Your body, it is a funhouse mirror—lengthening and folding into itself, distorting, buckling, weaving.  Now’s the time you could say I could have been a contender.  You with your wifebeater shirt and your sneer.  You with your comb in your back pocket.  You with the igneous touch.

Fun house mirror

But you wouldn’t have gotten that reference.

Growing up most of your life in a foreign country means you are lobotomized of most popular culture.  No accent have you, but everything else is a little bit messed up—not all the wiring with all the factory parts.

You’re a perpetual foreigner, a dispensable cog.  You’ve only ever made enough money to splurge on a shit hole hotel like this.  That announcer who does the play-by-play asks you this question in the voice of Howard Cosell:  How does it feel to be on the run?

And in that finely tuned instrument that is the harpsichord of your mind, you answer deadpan—no accent, no stutter:  I been running all my life, my life all one run.

Review: Audrey Chin’s novel, As the Heart Bones Break

The first book is the bravest one.  The second, the third, the fourth—those too are feats of brawn, of calculated risk.  By “first,” I don’t mean the conventional sense: debut.  The book I am about to review comes from an author who has already written quite a bit, who has sharpened her knife on the whetstone of craft.


By “first,” I mean novel, innovative, groundbreaking.  Highwire acts, first books of this order—the ones that open up the doors to new areas, bridging gaps in our intellectual DNA–represent an incredible feat of derring-do because they lay the foundation for a tradition.  First books are that seed in the oyster, that first crystal that forms a matrix of startling geometries, multi-faceted and sparkly.

Who cares about the umpteenth Harlequin Romance? Those books remain forgettable and anonymous–contraband wrapped in a paper bag, the detritus of a disposable culture.  We only care about the trailblazers:  Jane Eyre lives forever in our erotic memories, remade in our wet dreams and our silver screen fantasies, because it is the first book that set the stage for the formula of the Harlequin Romance.

Even the hero, who is described as charismatic but ugly, gets remade in our memories as startlingly handsome; in our idealizations of Jane Eyre, the craggy-faced Earl of Rochester transforms into Michael Fassbender and Plain Jane, into Mia Wasikowska.


Audrey Chin’s book is definitely a trailblazer in this sense.  As the Heart Bones Break follows a Vietnamese refugee as he traverses a world that Vietnamese Americans know well but have yet to write about:  civil war, escape, displacement, integration into society as a refugee, trauma, memory, history.  Most Vietnamese American writers have taken a piece, a chunk, and woven stories with more modest dimensions.  But Chin’s book is singular because it is an ambitious book; Chin wants to capture the sweep of history—its complexities and contradictions, its ambiguities and dark shadows.

And she makes no bones about the fact that she is absolutely aware of the risks.  As a woman who herself married a Vietnamese refugee, Audrey Chin understands that she enjoys a privileged vantage point both as insider and outsider.  In a previous piece for Diacritics, she wrote touchingly about this position—the risks involved, the fact that she is well aware that she is still an utter outsider.  She has also put her finger on one of the pitfalls of over-identifying with any minority group:  the arrogance behind the faulty assumption that by marrying a refugee and indeed learning the Vietnamese language, you somehow enjoy special access.  Her conclusion is one that is absolutely true but oft forgotten by the people who choose to love us:  you may understand up to a certain point but, really, after that you are in a vast ocean on a rickety boat and you will never know how deep it is until you capsize.


On the strength of her very compelling essay, I chose to give this book a serious look-see.  Why?  Because of the self-consciousness, the unprecedented sensitivity, the candor it brought to the table.  Audrey Chin made it clear that she understood the power dynamics behind representation.

Most of our lives, Vietnamese people have not been able to control our own images.  Most times, non-Vietnamese who married into our special world—turbulent, ever-shifting, precarious—have had to do this work for us.  They get a bit cocky about actually “knowing” the world.  I’m sure every Vietnamese person reading this has met someone who, precisely because they have become attached to one of our tribe, will then act as spokesperson, cultural interpreter, tour guide.

The strength and also the weakness of Audrey Chin’s book comes from this sentiment of circumspection.  We can tell that the author has spent a lot of time meticulously researching the history of the Vietnam war, the causes behind it, the people, the places.  Why?  Because quite often she will display that knowledge.  She will explain.  Sometime, she will over-explain in order to prove she is on firm ground.  She will take care to insert points of history into exposition or dialogue.

The best parts are when the author lets go of the need to explicitly address history.  Here is a nice example that I wish there was more of:

You bit into the banh.  How you love the feel of the thin crispy skin in your

mouth, the nutty richness of the filling, the candied melon and sesame oil

aftertaste.  Nibbling the cake alone this way reminds you of 1979—eating in

hiding so you don’t have to share, swallowing slowly to keep the flavors in

your throat, to make believe you’d eaten more.

For a Vietnamese, 1979 is a year that doesn’t need to be explained.  It is a time of hunger, a moment when many folks are plotting their rickety escape.  There are people who are in refugee camps.  There are people dealing with the aftermath of war and embargo.  There are folks who are struggling to make it in the promised land of whatever country has shown them charity as aliens in need of harbor.  In this passage, history does not need to be explained but still reemerges as the trace.  The nothing.  This is how, in my mind’s eye, Vietnamese people experience history—less as sweeping narrative punctuated by battles and treaties, more as incursions into the every day, savored in odd moments.

I must say that I benefited from the book in great but unexpected ways, because I saw so many things still yet to be put into print—things I shelved.  I found myself putting the book down and seeing if I was up to the task of rewriting scenes, composing vignettes, refining portraits.  Why?  Because I was smitten enough by the novelty of the subject—a subject I personally never wanted to write about but also knew had to get written by someone with greater intestinal fortitude.  The book forced me to actually get off my butt and join in Audrey Chin’s high wire act.

Taking risks.

Gliding through the air.

Catching an idea on the upswing.

This may be a long way of finally saying that I recommend that people take a gander at this book, not because it’s a heartbreaking work of staggering genius, but because it just might get you to write a book that has yet to be written, that remains an embryo—anonymous—beckoning, biding its time, demanding that it should come to be known.

Cinco de Mayo: Stereotypes, Writing, Understanding

This essay originally appeared on Huffington Post but it was always intended for Los Angeles Mystery! 

Cinco de Mayo came and went, and this time, it developed its latest wrinkle:  the wide-spread charge that it is politically incorrect, corrupt, unwholesome.  The charge follows a pattern that we are long familiar with—that the American holiday has little to do with the event it commemorates, that it is simply an organ of capitalism, that it becomes the breeding ground for the mold spores of racial stereotypes.

There is some truth to that:  most people just don’t know what Cinco de Mayo is about, beyond the fact that it is an excuse to guzzle tequila.  They do not know that the event commemorates an heroic battle for the city of Puebla.  Not Mexican Independence Day.

Indeed, it is an obscure holiday—one that Mexicans South of the border do not celebrate with as much intensity as gringos up North. Cinco de Mayo celebrates the defeat of the French in Mexico by a force of men who should have lost.  It is notable, but for most of its history only notable regionally.


The recent critique of Cinco de Mayo is that this kind of event is terrible because it is not harmless but insidious:  drunken men and women frolicking in sombreros, imitating Speedy Gonzales, only serve to reinforce the glee in racialism—so the logic goes.


And there is some truth to that, too: this is the time of year that the image of the Lazy Mexican—that perpetual brown-skinned napper, ensconced underneath a cactus with his legs pulled to his chest and his sombrero shading his eyes—gets trotted out.

I’m sure this gets old for many Mexican Americans.

Me:  I’m entirely sympathetic.  I don’t personally celebrate Cinco de Mayo for that exact reason.  And the thought of rubbing shoulders with slobbering drunk racialists is revolting.

But part of me wonders if the sad exploitation of Mexican tradition also has some residual value.   After all, the point of a stereotype is that it makes things that are invisible suddenly perceptible.  The Art Historian E.H. Gombrich tells us that stereotypes originally were used by artists to train themselves to see and reproduce visual experience.  We can draw “from life”—we can therefore see–because we have a scheme already in place in our mind.  And this allows things that we cannot readily see to suddenly come into focus.

Frontispiece to E.H. Gombrich's master work Art and Illusion

Frontispiece to E.H. Gombrich’s master work Art and Illusion

So here is my take, which I will introduce as anecdote:  I was in Brasil a few years back, right when the craze for Chinese tattoos became a national obsession.  Everywhere on the beaches frolicked beautiful, brown-skinned people showing off tattoos that featured Chinese characters for luck, happiness, beauty.  Often those people didn’t know what the very words on their ripped, tanned bodies actually meant.  Many tattoos were drawn crudely by artists who clearly did not grasp the fundamental principles of calligraphy; none of the strokes held together; none cohered.  Many tattoos were simply applied with stencils, and so the words were written—permanently—backwards:  monuments to ignorance and poor life choices.


“Look at that,” my East Asian wife nudged me.  It was a little girl, no more than ten years of age, sporting with her family in the waves.  “That’s supposed to say Luck.”  But the tattoo had obviously been applied with a stencil; the character was spelled backwards.  And so this tattoo that was supposed to commemorate Good Fortune was its opposite:  un-lucky-ness.  You could say that the tattoo had cursed the girl for life but I saw the family–frolicking, happy, blissful–in the waves and could only think of them as blessed.

For me, the broader context of the tattoos was the fact that China now was everywhere in Brasil.  China is a major economic force, and a great importer of Brasil’s raw products.  There was even a float that year at Carnaval, commemorating the importance of soy production to the Brasilian economy, which is emerging as a juggernaut on the world stage mainly due to the alliances that are forged across the ocean in China.


So for me, the tattoos were the sign of a culture grappling with the meaning of this encounter—turning it over in their minds, getting it wrong, getting it backwards, getting it sometimes right—and arriving at a dawning awareness of a mental coupling that is happening, that is manifest, that is all wrong but potentially, eventually, all right.