A successful Washington lawyer, who escaped long ago during the fall of Vietnam, receives bizarre hand painted postcards that lead her to discover the terrifying past of a former playmate.
The DC “successful-immigrant-cum-Miss-Yuppy-Lawyer” finds she can no longer escape her own past, as she solves the haunting mystery of “Postcards from Nam” (Amazon Encore).
Fourteen years after her escape during the fall of Saigon, the first postcard arrives, signed only “Nam” and postmarked Bangkok. The card’s images painted in red and black marker show chaos, aggression, anger, and anguish.
“Dear Mi Chau” – the Vietnamese name Mimi abandoned when she arrived in the US at age 16 — “Are you alone there? I am alone here. I always want to take care of you. Love, Nam”.
Mimi/Mi Chau couldn’t recall anyone named Nam, and feared a stalker.
The next card said, “Mi Chau, why can’t the sea be like your velvet long hair? Love, Nam”.
She was moved by his fine artwork and words. “The men I dated in America had forgotten the beauty of words,” Mimi notes in this resonant novella.
Still, she’s alarmed until finally she remembers a neighbor who played in their Saigon alley. Nam was “a beautiful boy”, so nice and shy that he could not look her in the eyes.
“My memory of Nam is like that small gush of wind, brushing against my arm and then quickly vanishing, leaving upon my skin the sensation of baby hair…”
He had promised to always take care of her, and later her elderly, aristocratic grandmother. Mi Chau and her schoolteacher parents had to leave behind Grandma Que as they fled Saigon in a US cargo plane “resembling a cold, gray shark.”
“In America, I often wiped those haunting images from my mind with a will to forget, a will so strong it felt as though I could structure and engineer my own rebirth,” Mimi says. “American became my reincarnation.”
She becomes eager to bring her childhood protector to America for his own reincarnation, and launches a “Help Nam Project”.
“I was determined to overcome my engineered amnesia about Vietnam that way,” Mimi vows. But “Like Vietnam, the mentioning of Nam plunged me into reverie, nostalgia, and unexplained sadness.” Unexplained?
She becomes infinitely sadder when she explores Nam’s past. When he finally managed to escape from Vietnam as a “Boat Person” in 1980, he was brutalized by pirates, abandoned at sea but rescued, and then replayed the horror in Thailand. Will he engineer his own resurrection?
Mimi pieces together his history through fascinating characters including “Uncle Dien – aging former bureaucrat, skilled intelligence officer, savvy businessman, Samaritan with who-knows-what-secrets stored-in-his-heart”; “Kiki”, a Thai version of Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea”; and a chain-smoking attorney at the US Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights, now the Human Rights First organization in Washington.
One character, her little brother Pi, simply disappears from the book.
However, a “baby brother no bigger than a genseng root” that her mother miscarries, Mi Chau is made to carry in a ginseng box out of a maternity ward filled with screaming, filthy, impoverished women.
“I held the ginseng box as a symbol of all the sufferings, losses, gains, insights, confusions, and real or surreal impressions of a young girl, absorbed in one day.”
Nam’s history is just one of the numerous horrendous experiences endured by Vietnamese “Boat People”.
Although Mi Chau’s journey from Vietnam and transformation into a very American Mimi is one of the best possible refugee experiences, it certainly has its own difficulties. Their two experiences are as different as they are emblematic and real, although fictionalized.
“All I ever want to do is to set free two lovebirds who sing, tell, and cry the tales of Vietnamese immigrants,” writes author Uyen Nicole Duong in her dedication of “Postcards from Nam”.
Her novella, which reads like a poetic memoir — and at times like straight reportage — is dedicated “to Vietnamese Boat People and my alleys of childhood.”
Duong is on a prestigious Fulbright Fellowship for 2011-2012 to research human trafficking in Southeast Asia, and propose measures to combat the global problem.
Her many accomplishments also include earning an advanced law degree from Harvard; working as a lawyer in DC, Texas, and Southeast Asia; serving as the first Vietnamese American appointed as a judge in the United States; and becoming a self-taught painter, focusing on l’Art Brut (“raw art”, a term coined by French artist Jean Dubuffet.)
Raw art may be the art form of Nam’s postcards, but “Postcards from Nam” approaches literary art.
For more info: Uyen Nicole Duong’s “Fall of South Vietnam” trilogy also includes “Daughters of the River Huong”, which has been used in Vietnamese studies courses at Yale University and San Jose State, and “Mimi and Her Mirror”. Like Mimi, Duong now lives in Houston.