Category: Arts

Ghost Author

Immigration Stories That Will Belong to America

By Ghost Author, Sep 10, 2013 11:38 AM

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by Anna Challet

Birds of Paradise Lost
by Andrew Lam
Red Hen Press, 2013

For the refugees who left Vietnam on boats and in helicopters, the journey home has been long and strange, if home has been found at all. It has been almost forty years since the fall of Saigon, when Andrew Lam and his family left Vietnam on a cargo plane—a passage that would take them to Camp Pendleton and then to San Francisco. In the time since that passage, Lam has become an award-winning journalist and written three books.

The thirteen stories in Lam’s most recent collection, Birds of Paradise Lost, are populated by refugees of the Vietnam War who came to the Bay Area, as well as their children and friends—but each story is a world unto itself. Lam’s characters are haunted by what they have lost, transfixed by embers that still cloud the air with smoke. What Lam explores is the question of whether they can conquer the ghosts, or at least learn to live with them peacefully.

I met Lam about a year ago, when the collection was in its final stages of editing, and was immediately struck by his disarming sense of humor, with its mischievousness and sharp edge. His stories are informed by the country that he lost, but his lightheartedness buoys words that weigh heavy on the heart. With the knowledge that everything familiar can disappear all at once, he smiles with ghosts and laughs in darkness.

And if humor and loss are bound up in each other in Lam’s work, no story in the collection illustrates this better than “Grandma’s Tales.”

In “Grandma’s Tales,” the parents of two teenage children go to Vegas for a vacation, leaving the boy and girl with their grandmother—who promptly dies. In what seems like a natural move at the time, the kids decide to “ice” her:

She was small enough that she fit right above the TV dinner trays and the frozen yogurt bars we were going to have for dessert. We wrapped all of grandma’s five-foot-three, ninety-eight-pound lithe body in Saran wrap and kept her there and hoped Mama and Papa would get the Mama-Papa-come-home-quick-Grandma’s-dead letter that we sent to Circus Circus, where they were staying, celebrating their thirty-third wedding anniversary.

Now, Grandma has lived a hard life—she has endured three wars and the deaths of four children and twelve grandchildren. To survive all this only to be shoved into the freezer by her American grandkids may be the ultimate injustice. But then, in what seems like a natural progression, she rises from the dead, leaving a trail of water throughout the house. Our narrator, the male child, shows less anxiety than one would expect over this turn of events. Grandma refuses to wait for the parents to come home and give her a proper funeral, and she leaves to travel the world, planning to make a stop at her old home in Hanoi.

Lam never mentions anything about the resurrection having been a dream. We are both sure and unsure. Following Grandma’s disappearance, the family is in mourning:

While the incense smoke drifted all over the house and the crying and wailing droned like cicadas humming on the tamarind tree in the summer back in Vietnam, Grandma wasn’t around. Grandma had done away with the normal plot for tragedy, and life after her was not going to be so simple anymore.

They heard cicadas buzz when Grandma died—the cicada itself a bug of resurrection.

Grandma won’t stay in the freezer and wait for her own funeral, and Lam won’t be held captive by his own experience of Vietnam. He too does away with the “normal plot for tragedy.” He is not imprisoned by his own past or by the label of being an immigrant writer. His memories may provide the fuel, but each story is a very different flame—some burst with unexpected colors, while others are quiet and send up a trail of black smoke into the sky.

In the latter vein is the titular “Birds of Paradise Lost,” a story of self-immolation at the heart of the collection. The narrator’s best friend sets himself on fire in Washington, D.C., to protest Vietnam’s communist regime. The narrator and his adult son get into an argument over what the act meant, his son believing that his father’s friend must not have been “of sound mind” to do such a thing. After they exchange words in the car on the way to Thanksgiving dinner, the narrator, an old man, gets out of the car and walks alone down the twilight streets:

My son’s question plagued me. Where should love for country end and where should common sense begin?

Could I pour gasoline on myself and light a match? Should I? Why should I?

… A car approached. Its bright headlights woke me from my torments. I squinted and thought for a second that it was my son coming back for me, but it passed by without slowing. When it was gone, I felt so disappointed that I nearly wept.

What has it all meant—the leaving, the suffering, the sacrifice? Has it meant anything at all? The self-immolation of the narrator’s friend provides no answers, and the narrator is left wanting only to be with his son. It’s the tension of simultaneous belonging and alienation; the narrator chooses to walk away from his son, and yet longs for his son to come find him. He wants to stand with his friend who has seemingly given his life for his country, but he questions what the act even meant. Home is far away but his son is somewhere nearby. He must keep walking; he must learn to let go.

When I interviewed Lam about Birds of Paradise Lost for a piece in New America Media (the ethnic news organization where he is an editor and I am a reporter), he told me that he writes “with the confidence that these stories, written from the heart, will belong, in time, to America.” In this vein, Lam writes in English, which is his third language (after Vietnamese and French).

Lam’s readiness to “give” these stories to America stands in contrast to much of our public discourse on immigrants. In Lam’s stories, hearts may wander from one place to another when the only option is to survive, but the characters are fully engaged in building on top of the ashes. The most heartbreaking of these stories often involve the separation of parents and children; when Lam and his family left Vietnam in 1975, when he was eleven, they had to do so without his father, a general in the South Vietnamese army. Their family was reunited later that year. There is a depth of understanding in Lam’s stories about parents and children having to leave each other (both literally and figuratively), and about the joy and grace of their reuniting and moving on.

In many ways, isn’t this life as anyone might understand it? We leave, we come home, and we find home is not as it once was. We fear, we hold tightly to the people we love, we learn how to live a different way.

I am hopeful that these stories of America will soon “belong to” America as well.

Anna Challet is a reporter for New America Media in San Francisco. This review originally appeared on

Louis Nevaer

Mo Yan on Bullfighting

By Louis Nevaer, Oct 24, 2012 1:21 PM

In 2011, Chinese author and recent winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Mo Yan, was invited to speak before the Cervantes Institute in Beijing. Mo chose to speak about a Chinese view of something emblematic in Spanish/Hispanic society, namely bullfighting.

Stephanie Minasian

The Return of Art Program in Schools

By Stephanie Minasian, Apr 24, 2012 6:17 PM

Under the budget crisis, school districts across the state have asked students to put down their paint brushes and pick up No. 2 pencils for their standardized tests.

Peter Schurmann

Life on Oakland's Streets for Trilingual Korean

By Peter Schurmann, Aug 16, 2011 9:32 AM

It’s rare when the media looks into the personal history of a homeless person, but a recent article in the Korea Times does exactly that. The story that emerges takes readers from the halcyon days of post war Seoul to Tokyo police stations and finally to the back streets of Oakland, where Hae-ok Gye now calls home.

Peter Schurmann

New York Holocaust Center Highlights Korean Comfort Women

By Peter Schurmann, Aug 10, 2011 2:11 PM

New York’s Holocaust Resource Center is set to open its latest exhibit, which focuses on the sexual exploitation of Korea’s so-called “comfort women” by Japanese forces up to and during WWII, reports the Korea Daily.

Frances Kai-Hwa Wang

Resisting 'Slacktivism,' Remembering Vincent Chin, and Singing with Joe Reilly

By Frances Kai-Hwa Wang, Jun 24, 2011 11:48 AM

I recently interviewed for a job launching a new online literary magazine about literature and social justice activism. (The interview did not go so well, but...) What a great idea to link the glamour of novelists and poets with the purpose of social justice activism. This gives literature more weight and meaning, and gives activism more color and style.

Suzanne Manneh

Local Mexican Music Group Raises Funds for Music in Schools

By Suzanne Manneh, Jun 6, 2011 10:25 AM

The San Jose-based Grammy Award-winning Mexican music group Los Tigres del Norte will be playing a special concert June 16 at the San Jose State Event Center Arena to benefit arts and music programs in local schools, reports Univision

The concert is being organized by the Mexican Heritage Corporation of San Jose, which provides Mexican folklorico dance classes in San Jose schools and community centers.

Andrew Lam

Andrew Lam reading from East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres

By Andrew Lam, Apr 4, 2011 1:23 PM

Author Andrew Lam read excerpts from his new book East Eats West and discussed the unexpected consequences of the Vietnamese diaspora. He concentrated not only on how the East and West have changed, but how they are changing each other. Lam is an editor and cofounder of New American Media, an association of over two thousand ethnic media outlets in America. Followed by a film crew back to his homeland, Vietnam, he was featured in the documentary My Journey Home which aired nationwide on PBS in 2004. His book Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora won a PEN American Beyond Margins award in 2006.

Vivian Po

Chua Distorts Chinese Parenting, Says World Journal Editorial

By Vivian Po, Jan 18, 2011 10:41 AM

Ever since Yale law professor Amy Chua's article “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior" was published in the Wall Street Journal, an online debate has raged over whether the pressure Chinese parents put on their kids is a good thing. Now a local Chinese-language newspaper is weighing in.

Frances Kai-Hwa Wang

The difference a cool voice of authority (like Santa) can make beyond Christmas

By Frances Kai-Hwa Wang, Dec 20, 2010 10:30 AM

Last week, I went on a first grade field trip to Kensington Metropark. The naturalist assigned to our small group, Manfred Schmidt, took a few extra moments to learn to pronounce the beautiful names emblazoned on the children’s nametags (Indian names, Korean names, Chinese names, Greek names). He said by way of explanation that he was from Germany.

Andrew Lam

Fool For Love: Viet Kieu Movies Making Rounds

By Andrew Lam, Sep 16, 2010 12:11 PM

 Since normalization with Vietnam, trade between the US and Vietnam has been on the steady rise. What’s not been reported on, however, is the cultural exchanges between the Diaspora and its homeland.

For the last few years, ,any Vietnamese American filmmakers and actors have been going to Vietnam to make independent films on the cheap.

For Dustin Nguyen – known for his role in the series 21 Jump Street in the late 80s that jump-started the career of Pamela Anderson and Johnny Depp - the result is FOOL FOR LOVE (De Mai Tinh). The film, directed by a Vietnamese American from San Jose, Charlie Nguyen, is now a box office smash in his homeland, Vietnam.

It’s the story about the travails of earnest bathroom clerk Dung (Dustin Nguyen), according to, “as he falls in love and quits his job at a five-star hotel to pursue the affections of a beautiful lounge singer, Mai (Kathy Uyen).”

Mai, however, is being chased by a real estate tycoon. In order to finance his pursuit of love, Dung is forced to work as a chauffeur to a very rich but very gay businessman looking for male companionship.

Charlie Nguyen is from San Jose and the movie is opened to limited audience at Camera 12 Downtown last weekend. It’s sold out to mostly Vietnamese American crowd. It is also being shown in Dalas, Houston, Orange County and Atlanta, where there are sizeable Vietnamese communities.
Both Dustin and Charlie have made another movie in Vietnam in 1997 called The Rebel and it involves Vietnamese martial arts and it was also a box office smash in Vietnam.

See my review:

NAM Editor, Andrew Lam, is author of East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres.

Elena Shore

Five Songs Against Arizona

By Elena Shore, Jun 23, 2010 9:00 AM

A new kind of protest music is springing up in reaction to Arizona’s controversial new immigration law SB 1070, which makes it a crime to be undocumented. From corridos (narrative Mexican ballads) to hip-hop, artists are voicing their opposition to the law through music.

The Alto Arizona Campaign is holding a contest for original corridos against the Arizona law. Shakira visited Phoenix to speak out against the law. Rage Against the Machine, Kanye West and Sonic Youth are among a group of artists has joined a “sound strike,” refusing to perform in the state. There's a Facebook drive to get 1 million people to support a concert against the Arizona law. And Carlos Santana, Maná and Willie Nelson are among the artists currently recording songs in protest of the law.

Here's a sampling of five of the songs, from a corrido to hip-hop, that have been inspired by SB 1070.

1. Los Cenzontles: Estado de Verguenza
(a corrido written by Eugene Rodriguez)
"Arizona, state of shame, what have you done with your fear?
Instead of being known for your beauty, you are now famous for racism and hatred."

2. Back to AZ (Anti-1070)
(Hip-Hop artists in Arizona featuring DJ John Blaze, Tajji Sharp, Yung Face, Mr. Miranda, Ocean, Da'aron Anthony, Atllas, Chino D, Nyhtee, Pennywise, Rich Rico, and Da Beast)
"Today it appears much hasn't changed
They dress a little different but they act just the same
It's an all-out war on all with a brown face...
1070 is code for hate
We're still being oppressed in this day and age"

3. Talib Kweli: Papers Please
(written and performed by Talib Kweli)
"The same mentality that put blacks in graves
That leads to the 'master race'
is making Arizona a battle state"

4. Mexia: Todos Somos Arizona
(written by Mexia, son of Los Tigres Del Norte co-founder Hernan Hernandez)
"There's something wrong with that picture there
No lo puedo creer, no lo puedo ver, tu forma de ser es lo de ayer
And we’re Latinos on the rise like blood pressure yeah, trying to control us with fear.”

5. Louie Cruz Beltran: By the Time I Sneak Outta Phoenix
(a parody of the Glen Campbell song "By the Time I Get to Phoenix")
"Governor Jan can't you hear the voice of Ronald Reagan
When he said now it's time to tear down this wall?
Obama, don't just stand there, you've got to do, do something
Even Schwarzenegger, even he is appalled."

Ninoy Brown

A Dream Realized

By Ninoy Brown, Feb 10, 2010 6:34 PM

February 5, 2010, The New Parish in Oakland (previously known as Jimmie’s Nightclub) is filled with a diverse range of faces to celebrate and remember the life of Mike “Dream” Francisco. Three year old’s hit the floor rockin’ their best b-boy/b-girl moves along with veteran popper, Bionic Man. Older heads recollect their memories of chillin’ and mentoring the legendary graffiti writer, younger heads recall the pieces he created which inspired them to pick up a can, and his counterparts remembered the escapades.

(Via FOBBDeep)

Sandip Roy

The Homeless Ghosts of Calcutta

By Sandip Roy, Oct 31, 2009 1:10 PM

 Listen to this commentary on

Every day at dusk, I go around the house turning on the lights.

My grandmother did it. My mother still does it. It’s well-known that twilight is the perfect time for wandering ghosts to sneak into the house.

Haunted houses in India don’t have just one ghost. It could be a whole family. There are shankchunnis and petnis, ghosts of women unlucky in love who wear saris and pounce on eligible young men. Brahmodoityas are the ghosts of Brahmans, and might bless you or curse you. The skondhokatas are the headless ghosts of people who died in train accidents. They sound terrifying, but because they don’t have heads, you can trick them easily. But you have to watch out for the very dangerous nishi, who call people by name in the dead of night and lead them away, never to be seen again.

Inga Buchbinder

MJ Fever: A Swine Flu Derivative

By Inga Buchbinder, Jul 7, 2009 4:54 PM

 There has been a lot of hooplah in the news about MJ's--The King of Pop-- death. Journalists all over the country are digging up the ultimate source hoping to get an inside look into this man who we all know through his music but not in any other way.

Laura Goode

Notorious, or less than

By Laura Goode, Jan 27, 2009 10:16 AM

Suppressing my inner cheapskate, I dropped $11 at the Metreon last night to go see Notorious, The Notorious B.I.G. biopic that just came out for no apparent reason.  I've been aware of the film for longer than most because part of it (a very short chase scene, as it turns out) was filmed on my old block in Brooklyn (check out the link for more than you ever wanted to know about the Franklin Ave. shuttle, a relic of an MTA gone by that makes a brief cameo), much to my delight and that of my Prospect Heights neighbors.  The imagery of Brooklyn, my lover from another lifetime, was unfortunately the best part of my Notorious experience.  The street footage of Bed-Stuy-do-or-die is authentic; I could pretty much smell the familiar KFC refuse and blunt smoke every time the camera landed on the intersection of Fulton and St. James.