This luminous debut novel follows a young woman from her childhood in Vietnam to her life as an immigrant in the United States – and her necessary return to her homeland.
As a child, isolated from the world in a secretive military encampment with her distant mother, she turns for affection to a sympathetic soldier and to the only other girl in the camp, forming two friendships that will shape the rest of her life.
As a young adult in New York, cut off from her native country and haunted by the scars of her youth, she is still in search of a home. She falls in love with a married woman who is the image of her childhood friend, and follows strangers because they remind her of her soldier. When tragedy arises, she must return to Vietnam to confront the memories of her youth – and recover her identity.
An inspiring meditation on love, loss, and the presence of a past that never dies, the novel explores the ancient question: do we value the people in our lives because of who they are, or because of what we need them to be?
We started to plan our escape. Exactly what prompted our decision, I wasn’t sure, only we didn’t like that the old black and blues on our bodies didn’t fade completely before new ones were pressed on top of them. We started to fear that if we stayed, our skin would eventually turn a dark purple, an ill-fitting shade for us both. Boyfriends would be nearly impossible then. The beatings, different in the way they were administered and in the reasons why, looked the same on our skin.
After having gone out with my soldier, I confirmed to the little girl that our camp wasn’t completely isolated. When we broke out of the camp, we would follow the river upstream to town. There was a market and a shack with a mean boy as a guard. I didn’t think he would let us stay there. We would have to beg or sell lottery tickets until we had enough for a bus pass to the city. Unlike in our usual games, we didn’t think about the what-ifs, the endless ways we could fail. Failure to make it out of the camp: get caught, get lost, or starve. I feared a great number of things, but voicing them was useless. The little girl was set on leaving.
I didn’t tell the little girl what my soldier had said about me moving away, even though it had been on my mind ever since. I had thought myself perfectly content until another option was presented to me. The United States seemed a contradictory place, where a girl my soldier once knew had gone, where he too wanted to go. It was a place that made one person’s dream and shattered another’s, my soldier had told me. Half of me believed in running away from the camp with the little girl, but the other half wanted to go to New York more than anything.
At the camp, time didn’t seem to move forward linearly, instead scattering itself all around us. Everything was horizontal. In the morning, I ate breakfast and studied at my desk. In the evening, I followed the little girl around. At night, I fell asleep next to Mother while she worked on her laptop. I’d forgotten how many birthdays I’d celebrated since I’d been here. I didn’t know my age.
All I knew was I didn’t want to be a girl forever. I wanted to know the adult loneliness my soldier talked about. There were occasions when he would treat me as an equal, a friend. Unlike Mother, he had never yelled at me or assumed my ignorance. A mutual understanding eclipsed our relationship. I knew he shared with me things he wouldn’t talk about to anyone else, even other adults. He valued my intuition. It was a gift, he had said. Though I didn’t know what he meant, I promised myself I would nourish and strengthen it.
In New York, I knew from my soldier that there were many tall buildings. One floor added on top of another and the buildings grew vertically until they reached the sky. There would be a sense of time passing.
Though I longed for something new, anything other than the camp, I continued to participate in the little girl’s plan. If anything, I was more enthusiastic than before. Usually, it was the little girl who could create anything with her mind. This time it was I who talked wildly about our journey as vagabonds. The knowledge that I didn’t have to carry out the plans freed me. It was then that I first became aware of her as an entity outside myself who could be deceived and manipulated.
We were standing in front of the brick wall, where the little girl had waved to me for the first time. We hadn’t played this game in a long time—pretend to build our own protected city. That night, we began to stack the bricks in the same way the little girl had shown me when we became friends. I told her the story of the silhouettes again and again, embellishing details and smudging facts. She was captivated. I even suggested that one of these women was her mother.
She bit her lips as she worked. Then she stopped and frowned in a way that made her whole face crumble. When I saw that she was shaking her head, I quickly corrected myself. I didn’t want to take it too far.
“Maybe it wasn’t her. Could be anyone,” I said.
“No, it’s her.” She shook her head again as if to empty her thoughts.
“What if it’s not?” I said.
“I want to see her. I want to go there,” she said and sat down on the wall we’d made.
“If that’s what you want.”
“Will you come with me?” she said, not looking at me.
“Anywhere.” I said.
It seemed like the sky could not get any darker, but it did, as if the light was drained out of it. The little girl asked if there were no sun ever again, would I miss it? I told her of course, I would. I would miss anything I couldn’t ever have again. We couldn’t see well in the sudden blackness so we looked up at the stars. I tried to make out the little girl’s face. The sky had wrapped her up in its millions of shimmering lights. I reached out my hand and touched her face. She was as cold as night.
A few months after the shopping trip, Mother showed me a photo of her friend in a newspaper. One side of her face was dented. Where her eye was supposed to be was a smear of skin oozing pus and blood. Her good eye was wide-open, staring right at me. I dropped the newspaper to the ground and ran to the bathroom. I looked in the mirror and pulled on my cheeks. Everything was intact. When I came out, Mother was sitting on the floor, looking at the photo. She tilted her head left and right alternately.
“She used to be my secretary. She was also a talented singer,” Mother said. She covered her face. “I hardly recognize her. Come here.”
I lay down on the floor and put my head in her lap.
“The article says she was found unconscious on the street. They knew the news would reach me. It’s not safe here anymore. I’m making arrangements for you to go to the United States. When it’s right, I’ll join you.”
I started to cry. I was afraid of losing her again. She petted my temple, scratched my back. Her touch felt alien.
“Is she dead?” I asked.
“No. That’s the punishment.”
On the news, India conducted three atomic tests despite worldwide disapproval. Pakistan responded with five nuclear tests. In the US, Clinton ordered air strikes against Iraq. A gay student was beaten to death. Vietnam dealt with the occasional protests from dissatisfied peasants and non-Party intellectuals. Corruption plagued and inhibited the country’s socio-economic advancement. Mother had taught me how to be callused to the tragedies of the world, or at least act as if I was. Nothing seemed important compared to the picture of the young woman, which invaded all aspects of my imagination. Whenever I closed my eyes, everyone I’d ever known had a bloody face, smashed teeth, broken jaw bones that jutted out and then were bent backward by an invisible hand to puncture their throat. Yet danger in my mother’s mouth was more like a violent film than anything real. Danger was the idea of running away with the little girl. Danger was the pleasure and shame I felt when my soldier’s gaze was on my back the first time I tried on a bra.
Life went on normally while Mother silently searched for ways to send me abroad. I developed an irrepressible rage around animals, who I used to love. I had the urge to grab the necks of stray dogs and squeeze them. I kicked my pet chicken when she tried to get near me so that I wouldn’t do worse things to hurt her. I hated anything that was helpless and weaker than myself.
That appetite for physical harm was so strong that I went to the pond one day by myself. It was barely morning. The sun had just broken through the sky. I crept out of bed so that I wouldn’t wake Mother. In the foyer, yellow and orange dust pirouetted around in elaborate patterns. I opened the door and left. Overcome by fear and excitement, I’d forgotten to put on shoes. It was better that way. I didn’t want anybody to ask where I was going. The pond was north of the community’s kitchen and next to the dumpsters. Adults had warned me never to swim there. The water was extremely toxic from years of being the dumpsite for oil and a medley of liquid waste from the kitchen. It was incomprehensible how fish still survived there. Nobody would eat fish from that pond.
I crunched up my pants to above my knees and inched toward the syrupy water. When the water was up to my thigh, I stopped walking. I could feel many fish around my ankles. They were not afraid of me. Maybe if they bit me, I would grow hideous scales on my legs. I reached down to catch them. They were fast, dispersing as soon as my hand shot down into the thick water. I couldn’t see anything so I waited until they came back. They always did, circling my legs rapidly. After a while, my whole body was soaked and itchy. Still I didn’t catch any fish, but I kept trying, growling to myself. I must have been making noises out loud.
“Hey, kid,” someone said.
I didn’t know how long he had been standing there by the kitchen’s back door. His apron was as ragged as the rest of his clothes. He was smoking a cigarette.
“What are you doing, kid? You won’t catch any fish that way.” He came toward me and threw his cigarette in the pond. I’d been caught. I decided that not saying anything would be my best way out.
“I wouldn’t recommend eating them either. They’ll make you sick. Unless you fry them really well. I mean, you need to fry them down to the bones. Then you can eat them.” He bent down and rolled up the cuffs of his pants. “I’ve been that hungry before. I’ve been so hungry once I ate a cockroach. I guess these fish can’t be any worse.”
“You ate cockroaches?” I couldn’t help myself.
“Not cockroaches. A cockroach, kid. There’s a big difference. Hang on.” He scurried off toward the kitchen and came back a few a minutes later with a colander in his hand.
I felt the water beat harder against my waist as he came toward me.
“What did it taste like?”
“Oh, not much really. A bit like licorice.” He submerged the metal colander into the water. “Now we wait.”
When he pulled the colander out, two little fish were flopping inside. Their bones were visible through their skin.
“What do you want with them?” he said.
“To make them die.”
“Kill them you mean. And then cook them?”
“Listen, I can’t take any part in that unless it’s for a good cause. If you’re not cooking the fish, maybe we can say it’s mercy killing, okay? Okay. And it is. God, what a shitty pond. What a shitty life. Let’s put them out of their misery.”
We dragged ourselves out of the water. I scooped a fish up inside my palm. It didn’t struggle, its heart throbbing lightly against my finger. The man pulled a cigarette from his shirt pocket and lit it. My fingers pressed in slowly against its slippery flesh. I smeared the dead fish on the ground between us. It smelled the way the pond did, but not any different alive than dead.
“Here.” He handed me the colander and looked away. I took the other fish and threw it back to the pond.
“One. I only wanted to kill one,” I said.
“You only wanted to rescue one,” he said.
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