Writing the “Tell”

Here’s a writing exercise that focuses on that key element of writing:  the “tell.”  The tell is that moment when people tip their hand and you can see their plot, their strategy, their ax to grind. Tells exist in poker (that clearing of the throat).  They exist on the witness stand (the tapping of the foot).  We have observed them among our friends (that look of annoyance that comes in a blink of an eye).


Great tells exist in gesture—gestures like a man sitting down as a woman stands before him—a clear sign that in a Henry James novel, which takes place in Victorian England, the man is carrying on an affair, that the two have come to a point where they have dispensed with the formalities, that he feels he no longer needs to stand up when a lady is in his presence.  This exchange is witnessed by Isabel Archer in Henry James’s great novel Portrait of a Lady and it is in this moment that she realizes that she has been tricked by her husband Gilbert Osmond and his older lover Madame Merle.   They were only after one thing:  her great and sparkling inheritance—a diamond solitaire against a black velvet gown.

Great tells can also exist in obsessions—opaque signs of darker stiller waters.  Great tells are moments of intuition—the tarot pack on the table of life.  We can look to fiction for fine examples, but when we look to our own lives, we learn so much not only about our craft but ourselves.  I’m going to unpack a tell from the anecdote of my own life and maybe it can give you something to work with when you work on your own work.


One of my friends is getting rid of her family encyclopedias—or at least trying to get rid of them—if her mom will let them go.  She’s about to go to Europe for 2 years, to flit about France and Germany, so that her egghead husband can do complex mathematical research.  And so she has been putting her life in order—selling stuff and visiting friends.  She’ll be gone a long time on a great adventure.  And now she is in La Jolla at cottage by the sea, looking at the accumulation of life and wanting to put some order to that world, too.  There are so many objects that amass like barnacles on the slow-moving ship in a home that has been kept in the family for generations.


So she put out a desperate call to her wide network of friends—friends who might france_germany_locatorcherish these artifacts, which now are so quaint in this age of Google.  For her, they represent a simpler time of America’s midcentury—the easy luxuries of mass-produced knowledge and TV dinners.  A time when America’s rising dominance after the successful prosecution of a World War, meant that every house could afford these books bound in the gold and red that is supposed to simulate the fine Moroccan leather of a country gentleman.

My parents had a set of Encyclopedia Brittanicas.  They were a gift from our church sponsors after we arrived to the United States as refugees from the Vietnam War.  And they were for years prominently displayed above the den television next to a bust of the Statue of Liberty bedecked with a strand of fake pearls.


One of my most poignant memories comes from the Brittanicas when my father attempted to explain the difference between a Coup de Grace and a Coup d’etat.  He reached for those trusty Encyclopedias and showed me the entry, featuring a black and white photo of a man who had gotten a bullet through the head as the final act of kindness in a massive take-over.

“A Coup de Grace can be a part of a Coup d’etat.  But a Coup d’etat does not always involve a Coup de Grace.”  He pronounced the word “Grace” the French way, not the way that my school teacher did, butchering it into the French word for “Fat.”  I think that at some point, he drew me a Venn diagram to drive home the point, showing the way in which two very distinct things can overlap at certain points but remain completely different.

President Ngo Dinh Diem, shaking hands with Eisenhower

President Ngo Dinh Diem, shaking hands with Eisenhower.  He would later be deposed in a coup d’etat.

It would take me many years to realize why this distinction would be so important to my father, why he would reach for those high-up-on-the-shelf Encyclopedias.  I never asked him.  We don’t really talk of such things.  It seems too morbid, too somber.  But I can guess.  And my guess is that it was because so many Coup D’etats had been the natural consequence of my father’s adult life—a life in a war zone that had come as a result of French Colonialism.  My father, a military man of more than modest rank, probably knew people who knew people for whom the Coup de Grace would have been the denouement of a Coup D’etat.  And a Coup D’etat probably meant the possibility of advancement—maybe demotion—or death.

The Coup de Grace upon the battlefield would have been a generosity—a bullet to the head that would relieve a friend or foe of his suffering.  My father did his military studies in the United States and trained in the graduate institution that produced all the great generals—Eisenhower, Petraeus, Powell.  And the first thing you see when you walked through my childhood home was his diploma—a diploma that signified that he had completed a course of study for which a Coup de Grace was an honorable thing and a Coup d’etat was a conceivable operation, the mechanics of which you studied in order to possibly one day enact it.  And so my father’s teaching me this basic lesson in the horrors of war—a lesson that he delivered with much patience and kindness—was also a tell of sorts:  a sign that the ghost of a life that he had left behind was still with him, even if he was a new man in a new world.  Even if in civilian life, he was just an accountant.

Is this a Coup de Grace?  Or is it an execution?

Is this a Coup de Grace? Or is it an execution?

So here is your task:  Design a tell.  Do it in the form of a dialogue—a tic, an obsession.  It doesn’t have to be as dramatic as a dialogue about shooting somebody in the head.  It can be as simple as an obsessive discussion of beekeeping or horseracing or veganism.  Look toward those moments in your own life where you figured somebody out in the small gesture that lays bare their strengths and their frailties.  But in the process of returning and returning to the topic, make that tell tell something telling about its teller.

The Mystery of Meatpacking

This week, NPR ran a story about meat packing—a story that explores the hidden costs of this industry in one of the most carnivorous countries in the world. It was essentially an update of Upton Sinclair’s classic work, The Jungle–a piece of muckraking journalism that changed the safety practices (and hygiene) of Chicago’s meatpacking industry.

Some things have changed in meatpacking. Some thing have not. The industry still uses the labor of recent labor, desparate to get a toe-hold on the sheer cliff that is the American rise.  NPR’s story emphasized the strain of injury in a mechanized, assembly-line world where repetitive actions destroy bodies attached to immigrant lives:  a broken world where health care, sick leave and worker’s compensation are all minimal.


It got me to thinking about mystery novels are all about exploring small microsystems in a vast network. And how the detective novel became such an American form, precisely because, in such a wide wide world, there exist pockets that are themselves as big as this country—pockets that remain enigmatic, intriguing, fascinating.  The mystery novel is a piece of reporting by a liar who makes everything up and attributes none of his sources.

I once lived in Central Iowa when I was a professor of Creative Writing at a small liberal arts college. So, I’m familiar with aspects of the NPR story: since Upton Sinclair’s time, it might surprise you to learn that a lot of meat processing is no longer located in the hub that is Chicago, that place where railroad lines could ship in livestock and ship out carcasses. Almost all is now perforrmed in small towns–pockets in the Midwest–that are wholly devoted to this kind of industry.

Most of those towns are dying–subject to the forces of brain drain and rust belt decay.  I used to joke that my town in Iowa suffered what I called the “Ashton Kutscher effect”:  anybody who was good looking or could do math left.  Or they at least try to make it in one of the bigger cities, like Des Moines.  This is another way of saying that little towns are good fits for new populations.  They are open to new immigrants who need them.

The great state of Iowa was the first state to host Vietnamese refugees after the Fall of Saigon.  And that had much to do with their charity and Christianity.  But it was also very much self-interested:  Iowa has one of the fast aging populations as young folks create that vacuum to the coasts where they try to see if they can be the next Superman or Vampire or Werewolf.

Recent immigrants will revive the small towns that created the genetic admixture that fuels the billion dollar industry that is Hollywood.  The new immigrant labor is a pivot point:  it allows the geriatric population an extended lease on life in their small slice of Mayberry.  Very often, the workers are refugees or recent immigrants. It is not uncommon to come across a whole town full of Mexicans or Vietnamese or Somalians.

Marshalltown, the town next to mine, was filled with Mexicans who were all reputed to have come from the same town in central Mexico.  They all worked for Swift and Co., doing pig slaughter.  “Swifts,” as the locals call it, is one of the major purveyors of pork product to America’s breakfast table.  And Marshalltown was but one of six towns, scattered throughout the Midwest, that were company towns under the thumb of this mega-conglomerate.  All six were raided by ICE in 2006 and the pig processing residents, deported or scattered or cowed.

Main Street Marshalltown

Main Street Marshalltown

I actually took my students on a field trip to Marshalltown for a senior seminar on immigrant labor.  But beyond this academic familiarity, I actually had relatives in Nebraska–a family of ten–whose entire town was organized this way, around cheap Vietnamese refugee labor.  They slaughtered cows, though, because Nebraska is filled with corn and livestock.  And it is easier to keep the slaughterhouses close to the forms of production where cost of land is cheap and regulation is low.

Most of my life, I did not know I even had these relatives.  I met them for the first time in Vietnam in 1993, right after college. We had been separated by two decades of economic embargo.  This was my Roots journey—one that was technically illegal, one that would finally give me the opportunity to see my alien birthplace. I was sure I would find out if my name was Toby or Kunta Kinte.

The relatives were waiting to immigrate to the USA through the “orderly departure program”–a program for soldiers who worked with the USA, soldiers that then suffered years of punishment after the new regime came into power. When Communists punish you, they punish your family and they crush you financially. I’ve heard some of the stories and they can be vicious.

These stranger-relatives were only days away from leaving when I arrived. They didn’t know where Nebraska was (I said it was very far away from Cali and it was famous for corn). They asked me if 7 dollars an hour was much money (I said you could live on it but not save). But their plan was for all ten to show up, pool their money and work until they could pay off their parents’ house. Then, they could do what they wanted with their lives.

It didn’t sound like a great plan and I told them so. But they said it was better than living under Communism. And my parents helped them by giving them the down payment on the house.

When I first met these cousins, they were just counting the days before they were to be gone. But the upshot after a few years on the slaughterhouse floor: several passed out on the bloody concrete after a few years of repetitive work and the incentive of overtime. Many felt trapped by this rotten bargain made at a moment of total ignorance–a bargain which would mean that they would never get educated and would be stuck in this life of measuring out their days by the count of cutting carcasses.

I saw them again, shortly after the father of the clan–my father’s half brother–passed out on the cutting room floor. They flew to Los Angeles and we hosted them. It was a sad reunion and there was something hollow in the hollow of their eyess.  We took them to Disneyland, which is something they had always wanted to see.

A Refugee on Refugees: The 41st Anniversary of the Fall of Saigon

The Fall of Saigon occurred 41 years ago and this week there were commemorations of this event that dispersed Vietnamese people across the globe—a river dumping into the ocean.  I was just a baby then, all but 3 years old when we boarded the big American boat that would take us to safety.  And family legend has it that I almost jumped into the ocean after my pacifier, so panicked to lose something that had given me so much comfort.

The First Wave of Vietnamese Were Evacuated by the US Military in Seaworthy Vessels.

The First Wave of Vietnamese Were Evacuated by the US Military in Seaworthy Vessels.

It hasn’t been easy growing up with the status of refugee.  There were so many images of us—so many unflattering images—that saturated the media landscape—images of skinny malnourished scarecrows like rats overflowing from the decks of sinking ships, images of naked young girls consumed by napalm fire…these images, they chopped my life up into a thousand mirrored fragments, and these fragments came to be reassembled into an elaborate prison house:  that thing that made me a joke, a spectacle, an amusement, an object of pity—always reflecting to me the bits of me that are alarming distortions.

The Girl in the Picture Wrote an Autobiography--"The Girl in the Picture"--Because That Would Be the Question Everybody Asked Her All Her Life: "Are You the Girl in the Picture?"

The Girl in the Picture Wrote an Autobiography–“The Girl in the Picture”–Because That Would Be the Question Everybody Asked Her All Her Life: “Are You the Girl in the Picture?”

For me, this was the most difficult part of being a refugee—the way that you could feel belittled.  And it was far worse than the mundane difficulties of acquiring a language, finding financial stability, learning the customs of the country.  I’ve filtered out most of the overt racism—the taunts—but still some things linger:  like the bearded professor in the tweed jacket—my college Chaucer professor–who was so moved by my excellent paper that he had to ask me the burning question, “Have you ever heard of the term ‘boat people’?”

I had, of course, and I told him that I was not one—that that term referred to people who arrived a few years after 1975, the year Saigon Fell.  Those people were so desperate to escape Communism that they took a gamble: launching boats they knew would never make a real voyage into international waters—launching boats that were bound to sink—because to sink meant that by international law, a passing ship would have to take them to safety.  Sometimes this gamble paid off.  Sometimes it didn’t.

In the 80's, a Second Wave of Desparate Refugees Living Under Communism Used Rickety Vessels to Escape Vietnam.

In the 80’s, a Second Wave of Desparate Refugees Living Under Communism Used Rickety Vessels to Escape Vietnam.

The professor didn’t understand what my “no” meant.  He was too excited.  He told me about a refugee family he sponsored—a family of boat people.  And how he developed a special bond with the young boat boy.  He had taken the boat boy to see his first baseball game.  The boy would have been just about my age.  And I knew what he was thinking—that it was him, the boat boy, not me, sitting before him with a paper that was A+ work.  “The family moved away after a while and then I never heard from them again.  I’ve always wondered why.”

Refugees always know when to speak their mind, when to keep silent.  We are aware of who has power over us in a room.  I had my ideas–theories–about why the boy should go away and never look back.  But I didn’t say anything.  What is there to say, anyway, when someone only wants to use you as their sounding board–their distant echo chamber–and isn’t really listening to you in the first place?

The thing about being a refugee is that you know quite a few things about being a refugee and sometimes this is a blessing and sometimes, a curse.  Right after I finished grad school, I spent a few months beach camping in Hawaii—an event that coincided with the announcement that George W. Bush invaded Iraq.  And as my beach camping friends sat around a pit fire, drinking beer, and speculating about the outcome of the war, I blurted out the obvious:  “No matter who wins or loses, there will be refugees—new refugees that the world will have to deal with.”  Everybody looked at me like I was a genius but, really, I wish I wasn’t in the position to possess this knowledge.

Refugees in Greece.

Refugees in Greece.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction

Viet Thanh Nguyen—my good friend—just won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.  This is awesome news on many levels.  He is the first Vietnamese American writer to achieve something so grand.  He is also a friend of over twenty years.  And for some reason, when friends make it, the cake tastes sweeter; the coffee, ever more rich and deep and layered.


Viet is a professor of English & American Studies at USC—a literary critic by training.  But ever since I knew him, he harbored the ambition to write a novel.  And I’ve watched him over the years self-consciously try to move out of the jargon-y world of literary theory and into the alternate dimension in the time-space continuum that is Creative Writing.

His debut novel, The Sympathizer, is what got him this year’s Pulitzer.  It tracks the confession of a spy–half French, half Vietnamese—who follows the Vietnamese exodus after the Fall of Saigon, the exodus of Vietnamese citizens that were aligned with the USA, citizens that were fervently anti-communist.  The spy is a double agent–a communist—sent by the upstart regime to keep tabs on the newly minted refugees who form the first great diaspora that would include among its numbers people like my parents, my siblings, and me.  This is a diaspora that will still remain politically active, one that will still support the overthrow of the communist government, even as the war has come to a close.


The narrator of The Sympathizer is forced to give a confession from his prison cell and the opening lines capture the arresting quality of his voice:  “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.  Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds.  I am not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book or a horror movie, although some have treated me as such.  I am simply able to see any issues from both sides.”  The lines really suck you in and are involved in a game of resonances that are the mark of someone who has read widely and deeply.  We can hear echoes of the opening lines of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man—the classic of African American literature.  This is no accident:  Viet’s son—Ellison–is named after that towering figure of twentieth century American literature.


And this is what is so interesting about Viet’s novel—the way that it is constantly interested in fitting its voice up and against, in concert and in harmony, with other voices in the American literary canon:  an awareness of himself operating within a grand tradition and taking his place within a literary conversation.  Of The Sympathizer, Maxine Hong Kingston writes:  “A Magnificent Feat of Storytelling, The Sympathizer is a novel of literary, historical, and political importance.”

I’ve always been in awe, a supplicant at the burnished throne, of writers who win big awards—the Pulitzer, the Booker, the Nobel.  And I have been blessed to find myself within the disco strobe light of their dance floor company at certain points in my life.  But it is a new sensation—one that I will cherish—to actually know a writer who has made such a big splash.  It is a singular prize, a gem you can keep under your mattress, to know that a writer of this level has shared his work with you, even before it has seen print.

Why I Can’t Stand to Speak French!

The French just announced that they will make some major changes to their language.  They will get rid of a lot of words.  They will simplify some spellings.  They will even get rid of the circumflex.

This is a major move.

You see:  the French are not only the great bastion of culture, they are the great bastion of high culture, mainly because they were the first culture to specifically engineer their language so that it would not change.  And that is why their culture remains with us—constant, immutable–a monkey embryo preserved in the cloudy formaldehyde room of specimens.


The puissance of the French language came about during a time when they had reached the height of their power and saw within the periphery, a great decline in the wasteland that is the future.  This happened in the 18th Century when the French would produce all that god-awful Rococo furniture and emerge with the crowning achievement of verbiage:  la dictionnaire.

In that cultural monument,  they foresaw what was to come:  England and America and Russia and China would sweep them into the great dustbin of history, a repository of tourist kitsch and puzzling fashion choices.  Like a society woman in a shabby subway, the turn to language engineering was their way of clutching their pearls to their chest.


Still, the decline of French was a long way off.  And for a time, the French language became the great ambassadorial language of the modern age.  And there is a reason for that:  France had—and still holds—a vast empire that hopscotches through the continents of India, of Asia, of America, of Africa.  French is still the most widely spoken language in the world, mainly because of a deep colonial past in Africa, and it will remain a language spoken with gusto because Africans reproduce at a rate that makes the rest of the world uneasy.

I speak French but refuse to speak French.  It is one of the ways that my mouth is branded—a mouth not made mine, a thousand times unspooled.  I choose not to speak French because I want to erase a bit of this colonial past, as if I were a priest in a bare chamber involved in a tedious act of self-abnegation—with my hairshirt, my cat of nine tales, my breviary.  I will make myself clean.

cat o nine tales

But here’s a paradox:  I can’t stand to speak French to an American (the accent is just awful, the dog-like need to display facility—grating).  I can’t stand to speak French to a Frenchman (there is too much history there and I would rather make the French uncomfortable and deal with the fact that he has to speak to me in English—a comeuppance, of sorts).  The Canadians can hardly be said to speak French at all (at least a French I can understand).  I’ll speak to Africans (out of solidarity but only if I need directions).

The Vietnamese language was first transcribed by the Chinese over a millennium ago, when they occupied the land.  Later, a Portuguese priest named Alexandre de Rhodes arrived and translated the Bible, ensuring that the process known as Romanization would crystallize.  By the time the French arrived to begin their great colonizing project, a system was in place that would allow the native people to be easily exploited…that is to say, “educated.”


There is a double-edged sword to Romanization—all mighty Falls carry with them the sword and the rainbow:  Romanization meant that literacy spread to 95% percent of the population—a quantum leap over the mere 5% that could use Chinese letters.  And it is in the Romanization—the agent of oppression—that there came to arise a language of liberation.

I can deal with the change in spellings–the simplifications, which are simply an acknowledgment that we are all barbarians in our own way.  But I don’t know exactly how to feel about the loss of the circumflex, which is a hold-over from ancient conventions of spelling that are no longer relevant.  The circumflex is something iconic.

The circumflex always makes me think of the subjugation of my people through the act of translation. My mother always made me know about the circumflex, which she called the “petit chapeau”–a little hat; and my childhood was spent looking for it in every word.  For me, the “petit chapeau” was not a Western hat that dapper gentlemen wore but the conical hats that conjure the familiarity of rice patties and white egrets and peasants working in the muddy water.


The circumflex always seemed like such a powerful word to me as a child, because there was also that part of it that had to do with making a muscle, and all boys–small boys–want muscles. All boys are called upon to “flex.” Then, it makes me think of a camera–a Rolleiflex–in a sad Brasilian Bossa Nova. The song was written by Tom Jobim. The lyrics are about ingratitude. It is also about sadness and nostalgia. But chiefly it is about love, I think.

conical hat

The Parrot Should Be the New State Bird of California

There are parrots in my neighborhood—feral creatures who were once domesticated, tamed, and now free.  If you’ve never seen feral parrots, here is what you need to know:  They are loud mother-fuckers and they fly in great packs of emerald and vermillion, like thugs from a gang with outlandish colors.  If you have ever been in the presence of parrots like these, you will know it.


There was a time when feral parrots wandered all over Los Angeles.  I still remember them as a kid on the posh Westside, making their wild unmistakable ruckus.  It is one of my earliest memories in a refugee childhood where, somehow, through the grace of God and the whim of circumstance, I ended up in a good place with great schools and clean water.  This is not always the case with refugees, something my parents never let me forget.

I still remember playing in my back yard, smelling dinner, but resisting the urge to come in–the sky still had not darkened.  When one of those birds land, all of them land—and they stake out a tree or a telephone wire and, like a meeting of Shriner’s with little red Fez plumage, hang out in the arbor of their make-shift hotel lobby, yucking it up with their chums.

Photography of 2012 July 4th Parade hosted by Shriners in Charlotte NC

Those strange birds pretty much disappeared from the Westside at a certain point—a victim of the overexpansion of the city.  The Ballona wetlands, a marshland that served as a wildlife sanctuary–now covered in concrete, probably their resting place—is now stucco condos and strip malls…despite loud protest from conservationists.   The parrots have been displaced further east and their sanctuary has become the digs of new birds of passage:  tech workers and movie industry grunts who want to build their nests within striking distance of the seagull beaches.

I’ve long since left the Westside and my gritty new neighborhood to the East–Highland Park–still has some open spaces that haven’t been bulldozed.  There is Griffith Park—the largest urban park in the nation—that still is home to rattlesnakes and coyotes and cougars. There is the Audubon Center, nestled up against the hills and bounded by the freeway.  There is Eugene V. Debs park with its man-made reservoir.  And so when I moved to this area just a few years ago, I was surprised to suddenly see, to suddenly hear, these reminders of another time, another place.

Chicken boy is the emblem of the latest hipster transplants in Highland Park!

Chicken boy is the emblem of the latest hipster transplants in Highland Park!

There are 13 species of wild parrot that were brought from South America to the United States as pets.  Some speculate, that a major fire in Bel Air—that rich part of Los Angeles filled with sheiks and movie moguls—is the genesis of these creatures who were released into the urban-scape by their owners who saw no other way to save them in the face of natural disaster.

But to the people who live in my largely Latino neighborhood, the parrots are not the mascots of the wealthy, but metaphors of the immigrant spirit—its persistence, its hardiness, its collectivity.  There is a mural on a portal to one of our iconic stairways, upon which is painted the parrots that are supposed to be stand-in’s for the Mexicans, Guatemalans, Salvadorans that have come from further South to find their home.

This mural sits on the main boulevard and decorates the entry to one of the many stairways in our area. Can you spot the parrots on this mural?

This mural sits on the main boulevard and decorates the entry to one of the many stairways in our area. Can you spot the parrots on this mural?

I am personally tempted to see the parrot as a metaphor of immigration.  The first time I re-encountered the feral parrots–a huge convocation of them–was in the city of Orange, a picturesque little town, anchored by Chapman University in Orange County.  Orange County is the adoptive home to Vietnamese refugees and houses its largest population outside of the United States.  And it is on the bucket list of every Vietnamese immigrant to visit the Little Saigon that is only a twenty minute drive from downtown Orange.

I was also an immigrant of sorts:  I had  just returned to California after a few years in the Midwest and, to be confronted with this spectacle in such a place as Orange County, made me immediately realize that the parrots are some kind of a symbol not only of my own migrations across the continent but, also, of the migration of my people across the globe:  we are the exotic domesticated–the feral and the invasive—incapable of being caged.

But now I realize that this is just me reading into things—reading into things with the kind of chauvinism that centers myself upon the looking glass of myself.  After all, Los Angeles is not just the place where parrots thrive.  Neither is the Southland.  Rather, we find parrots all over California.  And indeed there is even a documentary about the parrots of San Francisco, which makes San Francisco parrots more famous than their thug cousins in Southern California…even though we are so much closer to the movie industry.

Cape-parrot_Poicephalus_robustus-flock_Photo-Colleen_Downs (1)

And so the parrot is really a metaphor of our great state—of migrants in general, whether they are Midwestern bohunks who come to become actors in the machine of the movie studios, or sheiks from Saudi Arabia who buy up mansions that they will demolish and rebuild in Bel Air, or Guatemalans who cross to the other side to find new homes, or Vietnamese who wheel through the world in search of a place to land.  The parrot is our great State Bird.