Andrew Lam's Perfume Dreams

Nha Magazine, Q & A, Thuy Vo Dang Posted: Sep 18, 2005

Andrew Lâm’s first book, Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora, is a timely contribution to the growing body of literature by and about Vietnamese Americans. Perfume Dreams is a compilation of Lâm’s writings on the Vietnamese and Vietnamese Diasporic experience. The book deals with a range of issues from the generational tension between parents and children in the U.S. to the repatriation of Vietnamese refugees in Hong Kong. While this is his first book, Lâm is not new to writing. He is an associate editor for Pacific News Service and has written many short stories that have been published in magazines and anthologies, including Watermark: Vietnamese American Poetry and Prose. He is also a regular commentator on National Public Radio.
Lâm writes himself into each story, like a native informant who must contend with the contradictions of being both inside and outside the story, the subject and the reporter/writer. In Perfume Dreams, Lâm places Vietnamese Americans at the fore of the “contemporary global novel” and suggests that Vietnamese from the Diaspora have learned to negotiate the experience of loss with the plunge into a “cosmopolitan future.”

Author Maxine Hong Kingston says, “Andrew Lâm writes with the honesty of a true journalist and the feeling of a born storyteller. On his many journeys between Viet Nam and the U.S. He sees first-hand the global consequences of war. Perfume Dreams is a meaningful book for our times.”

Here, Lâm reveals the experiences that shape his work.

NHA: Can you tell us a little about your background?

AL: I was born in Saigon and came to the U.S. at the age of 11. I had a particularly privileged childhood—went to French school, lived in a villa, had chauffeurs, servants, and visited or lived sporadically in many parts of the country during the war since my father was a general who got transferred a lot—Sa Dec, My Tho, Vinh Long, Da Lat, Da Nang, Nha Trang, Hue, Vung Tŕu.

NHA: You are a journalist for Pacific News Service, commentator for National Public Radio, and short fiction writer. Can you tell us how you got started in journalism and writing?

AL: I started writing in 1989 and just got lucky. The first short story I wrote was published in Transfer magazine while I was studying Creative Writing at SFSU. I was going for my MFA—but even before I finished, my current boss, Sandy Close, asked if I wanted to write for her news service. I initially said no—I wasn’t really interested in a career in journalism. I didn’t even read the paper on a regular basis. But a classmate, a journalist who had introduced me to Sandy, kept pushing me to write essays, so I did. I wrote a piece about Christmas in Viet Nam and it ran in a few newspapers and I got a check. I was stoked. I wrote another piece about boat people and it was picked up by a few other newspapers, and I got hooked. Next thing you know, I’m traveling to Hong Kong as a reporter reporting on boat people facing repatriation and then to Viet Nam to write about the end of the Cold War. I’ve been traveling everywhere ever since. I don’t think that’s how it normally happens for many journalists who have to intern, work the city or obituary beat, etc. But like I said, I was pretty lucky. I started off running.

NHA: You majored in biochemistry at UC Berkeley. Why did you decide not to become a doctor or engineer like so many other young Vietnamese growing up in America?

AL: I was a biochem major because I was essentially afraid of my mother and didn’t think for myself! My parents did pay for my tuition when I was at Berkeley the first couple of years so I felt I owed them. But I wasn’t really happy in the sciences and was doing exceedingly well in the humanities—French, psychology, political science, Asian American studies, etc., which I had to take to fulfill my prerequisites. I didn’t get it then: that I should go into the arts and not the sciences. I matured kind of late as far as writers go—as far as being an adult goes, to be honest. It was only after I graduated and worked in a research lab while studying for my MCAT that I thought: shoot, I hate what I’m doing! I hate killing mice and studying their cells. I was taking UC extension courses in fiction writing and the words were just pouring out of me. And the teacher said: “Apply to creative writing grad school at SFSU. You’ll get in. You’re talented. You’ve got to go.” I didn’t’ believe her—I didn’t even take more than two English classes at Berkeley. Why would I get in? I sent two short stories that I wrote and that was it: they took me. I was one of the two Asians in the entire graduate program the two years I was there.

NHA: What inspires you to write? What do you enjoy most about writing? AL: I love writing. I think I always did even before I wrote. I have always been a bookworm. In Viet Nam I read Vietnamese and French books. I read Vietnamese kung fu epics and I read Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables even when I didn’t understand more than half of it. I must have fancied myself a writer even then but didn’t admit it to myself. I started out writing, or so I thought, because I felt the Vietnamese story is not understood in America, and that there is still this whole history—mine to be exact—that is not part of the written language in English. And I function mostly in English. So I wrote what I knew. But it started to change over the years. I fell in love with the act of writing, with writing as an art, with the English language and its malleability. So now I might still write about Vietnamese experiences but I am more interested in structure, effects, literary device. In other words, I’m interested in writing as an art form. What I enjoy most about writing is watching a story take shape and develop a life of its own, and when a character does something that totally astounds and shocks me—it’s as if I’m watching from a distance and having no influence on his or her free will. It’s quite lovely when that happens. And of course, when a piece of writing is done, and done well, there’s no other feeling like it in the world: I feel really, really happy. I’m like Tom Cruise at Oprah’s interview, jumping up and down on the couch, feeling as if I’m in love.

NHA: Have your experiences as a Vietnamese refugee affected your writing?

AL: I suppose it has. I mean losing an entire country and a way of life was a shock to the system. It changed my whole destiny as a human being, I think. I feel I am so informed by that experience and forged by it such that I am ready to deal with anything: losing the love of my life, traveling to Cambodia and interviewing [members of the] Khmer Rouge, roughing it in Burma. In some odd ways, having lost everything makes me more free. I once backpacked through Europe with my girlfriend and lost my backpack—[it was] stolen at Gare de Lyon. Instead of going into panic, I laughed and used my jacket as a bag. She thought I was crazy.

NHA: Can you tell us a little bit about the kinds of stories you write?

AL: I write all sorts of stories, but I think I’m pretty much at this point pigeonholed as a Vietnamese American writer who writes about all things related to Viet Nam and the Diaspora. But my interests vary: Hong Kong cinema, Cambodia’s struggle toward peace, Thailand’s Muslim unrest, SARS, the environment, and even the cosmos—I’m riveted by what we discover so far among the stars. But yes, my short stories are mostly about adapting, dealing
with the past and often from the point of view of Vietnamese Americans. And yes, my essays often are personal, and they’re about how I feel about the world, and what identities mean to me, and so on.

NHA: In many of your short stories (“Show and Tell,” “Slingshot,” “Grandma’s Tales”) you use the voice of Vietnamese American youth to tell poignant tales of Vietnamese refugees who learn to negotiate their new lives in the U.S. Why do you choose these particular voices and how much of your own experiences are reflected in your characters?

AL: Well I suppose I feel close to young voices. Plus young people have a way of changing the English language to cater to their feelings—not grammatically correct, but sing song and musical. And I think young people are more honest about how they feel. And they tend to feel strongly. My later stories involve more mature people, and the energy is different. I think all my experiences are reflected in my characters—but I don’t think you can decipher a linear biography from my fiction. They can be pretty weird or surreal. And I am not—I hope.

NHA: Why do you choose to write fiction, particularly short stories? What are some of the possibilities or limitations of this genre?

AL: I like short stories because many of my favorite writers write them. One of my profound experiences was from reading short stories. So I thought if I love reading them so much I should write them. It’s a very difficult art to make it just right, but I love a good challenge. I think writing novels are actually a bit easier because you are given more space. But in short stories you have to create a whole universe and a believable one at that. Also, I have short attention span. I want to write a novel though, after the collection is done.

NHA: In what ways is journalism different from or similar to fiction writing?

AL: Journalism is to fiction writing what architecture is to abstract painting.

NHA: Your book, Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora (Heyday Books) is due out in October. Can you tell us a little bit about this book?

AL: It’s a collection of my personal essays, a compilation of my best work that has to do with identity issues, with boat people, with Viet Nam, with the new generation in Viet Nam, with the Diaspora, with Vietnamese in America. And it’s about my relationship with the war, my father, the past, my mother. It’s about me spilling my guts.

NHA: What makes the Vietnamese Americans distinct from other immigrant groups?

AL: I think unlike other Asian groups who have come to the U.S., Vietnamese came en masse and did not just trickle in. Entire clans picked up and went. I have my entire clan in America now—more than 100 people. Immigrants from other Asian countries, or for that matter, any other country, came as individuals or at most, as single families.

NHA: Writer Richard Rodriguez (author of The Hunger of Memory) wrote the foreword to Perfume Dreams. What is your relationship to Rodriguez and his writing?

AL: He was my mentor and is a very good friend of mine. I learned from him that one can be literary even in journalism. It gives me hope to stay in journalism rather than just work as a fiction writer only.

NHA: In the book, you paint an alluring image of a new breed of Vietnamese transnationals who are able to navigate between cultures, between countries, and particularly between languages. This cosmopolitan group seems to differ drastically from the first generation who fled Viet Nam and continue to be “owned” by their past. Can you give us your view of this exiled generation’s struggles? How can the younger, more cosmopolitan Vietnamese Diasporans connect to or understand their elders’ experiences?
AL: The new group tends to be younger and they have the ability to override their historical burden, or more likely, [the burdens] of their parents’ generation. They are versatile in terms of moving from one culture to the next, one language to the next. My cousin, for instance, whose father was incarcerated in a re-education camp for 13 years, went back to Viet Nam [he grew up in France] to work for the French embassy in Ha Noi. He married a Vietnamese woman but otherwise is as French as any French person. He bought a house in SaiGon, speaks French to his kid, goes to France every year, has relatives in the U.S., speaks English fluently as it’s part of his job, and functions well in every sphere he’s in. He is not bound by the past. I think it would have been impossible for his father to come back and have that nonchalant attitude about his relationship to Viet Nam. His father would never have been able to carry a formal or friendly conversation with communist officials face to face as there would have been too much vehemence between them. On the other hand, it’s been my general observation that the new generation who come back to Viet Nam to work do not fully belong to Viet Nam either. Their circle of friends are people with the same diverse background as their own. They are in Viet Nam but they fly out anytime they wish. Their relationship with their parents is harder to put a framework around. You can have someone who understands fully what his or her parents went through, but that doesn’t mean that person is going to remain politically or morally directed by that experience. I think in some way, those who go back to work or volunteer in Viet Nam seem to be dealing with their past in a very active way: they participate in contemporary history, and think they can help change Viet Nam in their own ways. If anything, some feel that by staying away and protesting you are being idle—so far very little changes can be had by criticizing and flag-waving.

NHA: In one of the pieces in the book, “Notes of a Warrior’s Son,” you present a poignant image of a Vietnamese ex-general (your father) who must deal with the harsh reality of downward social mobility and the loss of authority in America. You also reflect on the family turmoil during your early years in the U.S. which gives nuance to the often one-dimensional representation of the rags-to-riches Vietnamese immigrant story. Why do you think it is important to tell this side of your family’s story, despite your mother’s reprimand to keep the “family secrets” hidden?

AL: I tell my family’ s story because I believe that it’s an American story. I don’t feel complete as an American unless my Vietnamese past is bridged with my American present. When I was younger, I sometimes pretended to be American born. In high school I pretended sometimes that I was just like everybody else. But I also felt like I was cheating myself of the complexity of who I truly was. The struggle of my family in America is worth telling besides—it adds to the fabric of American stories. I also believe that the only way for you to be understood in America is to speak up, to tell stories, to testify. If you don’t speak up, no one will—or worse, someone who doesn’t know your story will make stereotypes about you. If you don’t tell people what happened to you, nobody will know and you will remain invisible in the American imagination.

NHA: Your stories include some high-profile events, such as the 1991 Good Guys shooting where four young Vietnamese American men held the store hostage resulting in much bloodshed. Using this event as a point of departure, you reflect on the young men’s actions and your own position as a Vietnamese American man who has “made it,” so to speak, to complicate the issue of immigrant assimilation and the model minority stereotype. Was this your intention when writing the story? Why did you choose this particular event to focus on?

AL: I wrote about it because no one in the media seemed to understand the boys’ stories or motivations. Misunderstanding, in fact, was part of the reason why the siege turned so deadly. For instance, they were Vietnamese Catholics and the cops brought in a Laotian monk to negotiate. Their father, who they respected, asked if he could talk to his kids and the cops said no. I think the event might have had a different outcome if the parents got to their kids. But on a larger scale, the fact that these kids were confused and misdirected was not explored—they were thought of as gangsters and they were not. They were kids who were still ruled by the loss of the war through their father’s losses, and they were trying, in their own perverse way, to win that war for the old man. They wanted helicopters to fly back to Viet Nam. They wanted to shoot Viet Cong. I felt like I had to explain it to the American readers, how the war still claims casualties long after the battles ended.

NHA: In several places in the book, you describe yourself as the less-than-ideal son. Your relationship with your father is rendered in painfully honest terms, alternating between tenderness, deep respect, sharp criticism, and even confusion. Your father appears as a prominent character in your life and work. What are some things you have learned from him? And how does he regard your work as a writer now?

AL: I am not a Confucian-bound person. I find Vietnamese sense of obedience stifling. You obey and say “yes, father, yes, mother,” and you don’t really speak up. It really affects kids when they go to school too—you don’t raise your hand even when you know the answer. The top down, non-communicative ways in which Vietnamese deal with one another is not my style. I disagree with my father all the time. But on the other hand, it was he who first taught me the principle of democracy— that oppositions are allowed, that one has the right to express his opinion, regardless of Confucian ethos. I think without really practicing that democratic principle Viet Nam will not have a chance to become a truly expressive, democratic society. As for why I write about my father, it has to do with the fact that he was so central in that war, a key player in that theatre, and writing about him and my relationship to him is inevitable if I were to talk about Viet Nam, the war, and its aftermath.

NHA: You have written many articles on the Vietnamese American communities in California. What are some significant moments in Vietnamese Diasporic history?

AL: Too many to count, but I’ll say that there are four stages: exile, immigrant, citizenship, global citizen. We went from being dispossessed in 1975 to becoming immigrants with green cards to citizens who vote. And then after the Cold War ended, we traveled back to Viet Nam and became highly mobile.

NHA: In an article reflecting on the Vietnamese Diaspora after 30 years, you said: “Today, years after the end of the Cold War, the borders are porous and jumbo jets have shrunk the oceans. With new communication technologies—desktop publishing, cell phones, Internet, VCR and DVD—a Vietnamese living abroad can generate and disseminate his own media and connect to his far-flung clan.” How are these exchanges affecting both Viet Nam’s influence on its Diaspora and vice versa, the Viet Kieu influence on Vietnamese society and culture?

AL: I think with technology we can affect back and forth. For instance, the last three years or so I’ve been getting emails from Vietnamese in Viet Nam who read my work and are exchanging ideas with me in English. That never happened before. Viet Kieu on the other hand, have influenced Vietnamese radically: you can escape, or emigrate, and have a different life altogether, different name, different language, citizenship—it’s a radical idea that only the last two generations have accepted. For four thousand years, it’s pretty much sedentary, unless you count taking over South Viet Nam from Cambodia and Champa.

NHA: After 30 years, young Viet Kieu writers are beginning to get critical acclaim for their work (for example, Aimee Phan, le thi diem thuy, and Monique Truong immediately come to mind as three up-and coming writers). What is your assessment of Vietnamese Diasporic literature to date and its future? AL: I think it’s still quite young. It’s good to see so many new and fresh voices. I felt all alone when I started out writing but now I’m in good company. But it’s still a freshman class of writers, myself included. We still have a long way to go. But I’m optimistic.

NHA: Who is Perfume Dreams’s intended audience and what do you hope your readers will get from this book?

AL: I think both Vietnamese and non-Vietnamese Americans can read it and feel somehow there’s a connection. I don’t think I wrote with a particular reader in mind. I wrote what I saw and felt and hope that it’s enough to connect with others. What I hope readers will get out of it is that war really is terrible and there’re all sorts of consequences when one belongs to the losing side. But there’s also marvelous transformation as well.

NHA: What you are working on now?

AL: I’m working on a collection of short stories and it’s almost done. Hopefully it’ll be published next year. N

Andrew Lam’s Calendar:

Thursday, September 22 at 5:30 p.m.
Andrew Lam will discuss and sign copies of Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora. The event will be moderated by Sandy Close, executive director of New California Media Project. Asia Society of Northern California, 500 Washington Street, Fifth Floor, San Francisco, CA 94111
Registration at 5:30 p.m.; program at 6:00 p.m.; post-event reception at 7:30 p.m.
Cost: $12 non-members, $7 members, $5 students. Call (415) 421-1762 to reserve a space.

Wednesday, October 5 at 4:00 p.m. .
Reading and book signing by Andrew Lam, author of Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora.
UC Berkeley, Institute of East Asian Studies Conference Room, 2223 Fulton Street, 6th Floor, Berkeley, CA 94720.
Free and open to the public; for information, call (510) 642-3609.

Thursday, October 13 at 7:30 p.m.
Reading and book signing by Andrew Lam, author of Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora.
Cody’s Books, 2454 Telegraph Avenue, Berkeley, CA 94704.
Free and open to the public; for information, call (510) 845-7852.

Sunday, October 16 at 3:00 p.m. .
Vietnamese-American Literary Art Festival, featuring a reading and book signing by Andrew Lam, author of Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora, and other Vietnamese-American writers, poets, actors and musicians. Proceeds benefit the Friends of Hue Foundation (
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Library, 2nd floor, 150 E. San Fernando, San Jose, CA 95112.
Cost: $20 suggested donation. For information, call (408) 691-6489.

Thursday, October 20 at 6:00 p.m. .
Andrew Lam will discuss and sign copies of Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora. The event is co-sponsored by the Crowe Collection of Asian Art and is part of the Gilbert Lecture Series.
Reception at 6:00 p.m. in the Texana Room of the DeGolyer Library; lecture at 6:30 p.m. in the Stanley Marcus Reading Room of the DeGolyer Library.
Southern Methodist University, 6404 Hilltop Lane, Dallas, TX 75275.
Free and open to the public; for information, call (217) 768-2946.

Thursday October 27 at 7:00 p.m. .
Andrew Lam will discuss and sign copies of Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora. The event is co-sponsored by the Asia Society and NYU’s Asian/Pacific/American Studies Program and Institute.
The Asian American Writers’ Workshop, 16 West 32nd Street, Suite 10A, New York, NY 10001.
Cost: $5 suggested donation. Please RSVP at (212) 494-0091.

Wednesday, November 9 at 7:30 p.m. .
Post-war Literature Conference, featuring Andrew Lam, author of Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora, and Tim O’Brien and Wayne Karlin.
University of Hawaii, Manoa,

Friday, November 11 at 7:00 p.m. .
Reading and book signing by Andrew Lam, author of Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora.
Barnes and Noble Booksellers, Kahala Mall, 4211 Waialae Avenue, Honolulu, HI 96816.
Free and open to the public; for information, call (808) 737-3323.

Tuesday, November 15 at 7:00 p.m. .
Reading and book signing by Andrew Lam, author of Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora.
A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books, 601 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94102.
Free and open to the public; for information, call (415) 441-6670.

Andrew Lam’s trip to Southern California will be announced in late October

For more information, or to schedule an event, contact Anissa Paulsen, Director of Education & Outreach, at (510) 549-3564 ext. 316, or by emailing

For review copy requests or to schedule an interview with the author, contact Zachary Nelson, Marketing and Publicity Director, at (510) 549-3564, ext. 309, or by emailing

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