Getting “Lost”

The son of a Vietnamese family rocked by war, Andrew Lam grew up amid the Bay Area’s vibrant immigrant bricolage, which has shaped the region’s cultural boundaries as well as his work as a journalist, activist, and author of fiction. In his latest book, Birds of Paradise Lost (Red Hen Press), Lam’s short stories trace the contours and conflicts of migrant life in the post-Vietnam War diaspora—through characters who span borders, generations, and a broad social spectrum. Read “Show and Tell,” from Birds of Paradise Lost, here.

Michelle Chen: You’ve been a journalist, a radio commentator, memoirist and now, fiction writer. Why the genre shift?

Andrew Lam: I have been a fiction writer right from the start. The trouble was that I could never make a living writing fiction so got into journalism by sheer luck—a classmate at my MFA creative writing program introduced me to essayist Richard Rodriguez, who was editor at Pacific News Service. He hired me to write commentaries and news analyses.

What can fiction do that non-fiction can’t? It can get into the secret lives of people, reveal their inner thoughts and yearnings, and get closer to the human experience and beyond. I can be a lot more versatile writing fiction—speaking in a voice of an old man or an angry teenager or a traumatized woman. I can embody their lives in a way a journalist can’t. Birds of Paradise Lost was cathartic for me to write, as I got to really let go of my own ego, live someone else’s life, and get at the core of their suffering.

You introduce an earlier book of yours, East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres, with a description of the imaginative space “between East and West, between languages, between memories and desires.” For me, the phrase “writing in two hemispheres” evokes a cultural or geographic divide, but also the supposed division between the emotional and rational. What is the essence of a hemispheric outlook from your perspective?

It is both regions of the brain as well as the conflict between East and West. It struck me early on that a lot of people feel they have to choose between A and B when really they should be trying to balance opposing ideas. When I wrote East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres, I was chiefly thinking about how to build bridges between dissimilar sets of values. Mine, after all, is a world complicated by memories, ambitions, and displacement—and it refutes simplification. At home, I speak Vietnamese and French. In the office, I speak English, my language of choice. Americans celebrate birthdays. The Vietnamese celebrate death anniversaries. In Vietnam, I bowed to teachers and never looked them in the eye. In America, my math teacher told me I was “shifty” when I didn’t look at him directly. Such are the strange bearings for those of us who lurk between East and West, between languages, between memories and desires. However, where the two hemispheres over-lapse, is where I learned and relearned how to mediate opposing ideas and to bridge disparate viewpoints. It is barely charted territory, and fraught with contradictions and tensions, but fun and exciting as well.

Your characters in Birds of Paradise sometimes embody stereotypes—of Vietnamese refugees, queer Californians, and lonely but assimilated “successful” immigrants. But they also subvert and challenge those stereotypes. How do you lure people with the familiar and then spring the strange on them?

I am sometimes asked about what kinds of “literary devices” I employ. But I don’t think in terms of technique or try to play on stereotypes or any social construct. I leave a lot of assumptions and theories at the entrance to the fiction world. When I hear a voice—as in the girl in “Slingshot” who speaks in a particular way, or Bobby’s voice in “Show & Tell”—I feel like I have to tell that story. When a scene moves me, I live with it until characters are born. Usually, I don’t even know what the story is about; I have to listen hard until it’s revealed.

Once I know my character really well, it is as if she’s playing out her life in front of me and I’m simply recording it. I do, however, fine tune and play with themes or add a certain quirkiness in subsequent drafts once I get the core of the story down. I hone the characters’ decisions and gestures. But I never set out with the idea that characters should be “strange.” People are strange. Inner life is a labyrinth and a mystery—those who have experienced war and exodus have already inherited a whole world of strangeness, traumas, and sadness.

Some of your characters are patently unlikable but still sympathetic, like the teenager who accidentally fires a slingshot at the man carrying an urn of ashes, or the ambitious young woman who trades her dignity for a good deal at a yard sale. Do these characters, and the ambivalence with which you present them, relate to your work as a journalist who deals with real people in the community?

The fact that many of these characters exist at all has to do with my innate sense of empathy for those who suffer great losses. But empathy does not mean I cry for them. I learned quickly that you don’t cry for your characters or no one will cry for them. You let them cry when the time is right, if at all. Sometimes they laugh with tears, but whatever they want to do, they will do—that’s what makes characters believable. Really, the best you can do in fiction is to understand that characters have a certain amount of free will. They might do things that shock and embarrass you, things against your belief. But you have to let them do it.

As for why I incorporate certain things like cannibalism and self-immolation, I think it has to do with my limitations as a journalist. In that form, I can’t really get to the horror and sadness of something like a man watching his wife being killed on a crowded boat or refugees starving to death. I can’t fathom their helplessness unless I inhabit their skin. But in fiction, I can be there, on the boat, to record some of the horror by claiming omniscient understanding, and therefore claiming to know the survivor’s yearning and hope in the aftermath.

How does growing up the Bay Area color your view of migration and the immigrant experience?

I grew up in a city where 110 languages are spoken on any given day, Asians are the majority in K-12 classes, the Chinese New Year’s parade is mainly attended by non-Chinese, and the Gay Pride parade is attended by more straight than gay people. It is why I wrote East Eats West. In such a diverse place, I grew up confident that my voice, my perspective, my experience—my Vietnameseness—is an indelible part of the American story, even when mainstream media doesn’t acknowledge it. In the Bay area, lives influence one another and cultures are mixed and blended in so many ways. I think it’s marvelous—from food to religion, agriculture to music—the whole world comes here. The result, for those who can transgress the borders, is a rich, diverse and cosmopolitan life.

How have the rise of new media and the globalization of technology affected the way you think about migration and cultural interaction?

Once upon a time leaving home meant not seeing it again. Now you can watch your homeland news or movies online. You can chat with grandma on Skype or Google Hangout, and talk to relatives across the world for free. Ties with a homeland are stronger because migration is no longer a one-way fare. The number of people who travel through San Francisco’s airport in a single year exceeds the population of California itself. In a way, one needs to develop multiple affiliations to make sense of it all. We talk of diversity as a cultural phenomenon but we barely explore pluralism as an individual experience. I believe the most exciting contemporary literature incorporates this “internal diversity” aspect of the human experience. I’m thinking of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, Kazuo Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans, and that incomparable book The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje as prime examples.

It’s become almost a cliché to write about the “clash of cultures” when younger people in the Asian diaspora return “home.” What aspect of the so-called “homecoming” is most misunderstood—both by members of the diaspora and by others?

The notion of home is also not fully explored, so “homecoming” is a bit of a misnomer. Am I going home when I go to Saigon, my birthplace? Where is home? Is it rooted in geography or beginnings? Or is it in us? When I lost my first lover and became a writer, I thought of myself as someone who became exiled twice—first from Vietnam, then from the country created by the two of us.

Going back to Asia, there’s always a certain amount of strangeness for me. There’s that familiarity: I know quite a bit about Asian culture and have traveled much throughout Asia. There’s that sense of understanding of how a society functions beyond the cosmetic. Yet in Vietnam, I am both a stranger and an insider. I understand the language and the culture, but I don’t quite belong. My individualism is so strong that I end up standing out, being outspoken, and my humor is more West than East.

How does your work as a journalist and activist—particularly around the issues of race, war, and social justice—influence your creative storytelling?

You might be surprised to know that I don’t play the activist at all in fiction. As an essayist, I speak up on various issues of our times—discrimination, war, violence against the dispossessed. But in fiction, I realized early on that you can’t make your characters lecture people or else they’d commit suicide or turn into puppets.

The best I can do is provide the background—people who fled from Vietnam to the U.S., life in a run-down restaurant, someone living in a black-dominated neighborhood—and let the characters live out their lives. It’s a simulation in which I am constantly surprised by what these characters do next. When I write fiction, a different part of the brain takes over. I enter a dream world. I drop my own morality and my penchant to sermonize. The result is always unexpected—i.e., they fall in love with someone who shot their spouse, or shoot an urn full of their own father’s ashes.

If you were to give one book to someone who just arrived in this country, what would it be?

Trickster Makes This World by Lewis Hyde. It can be a little too intellectual for some but the message is this: You can be a trickster and rewrite and realign the borders, the rules, and the demarcation that tells you who you are suppose to be. You can move toward the center with cunning and art. And transformation is possible, not just for the self, but for society as a whole, when you cross those lines.

Andrew Lam is an editor at New America Media, an association of over 2000 ethnic media organizations in the U.S. He is also the author of two previous books, Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora, and East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres.

“Home in Time of Displacement” (Chicago Release)

Join us in the Chicago release of “Home in Time of Displacement”, an anthology by Undocumented Writers at the Chicago Freedom School!

We hope to share our anthology to open up a space for stories, ideas, and experiences of home and displacement, whatever that may mean to you.

All are welcome and we encourage a space of listening and affirming each person’s unique journey.

Light refreshments will be provided as well as bus cards for youth.

We will be asking for donations to the Chicago Freedom School. Any amount you are able to contribute is important and will give back to sustaining youth programming.

There is an elevator at the back entrance on S. Holden Court (Please note: The front entrance on S. State Street is not wheelchair accessible). CTA stop: (Red Line) Harrison.

Who We Be: A Book Reading and Conversation with Jeff Chang & KQED

MACLA / Movimiento de Arte y Cultura Latino Americana presents author and cultural critic Jeff Chang, and the launch of his new book Who We Be: The Colorization of America.

Race. A four-letter word.

The greatest social divide in American life, a half-century ago and today.

In this period, the U.S. has seen the most dramatic demographic and cultural shift in its history, with what can be called the “colorization” of America.

But the same nation that elected its first Black president on a wave of hope—another four-letter word—is still engaged in endless culture wars.

  • How do Americans see race now?
  • How has that changed—and not changed—over the half-century?

Join MACLA, KQED and Jeff Chang as he reads from and discusses his much-anticipated book, Who We Be: The Colorization of America (St. Martin’s Press, 2014).

From the dream of integration to the reality of colorization, Who We Be remixes comic strips and contemporary art, campus protests and corporate marketing campaigns, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Trayvon Martin into a powerful, unusual, and timely cultural history of the idea of racial progress.

Event Schedule

5:00-7:00 pm: Art-making with Culture Strike
7:00-8:30 pm: Book reading and panel discussion with Jeff Chang, KQED, and CultureStrike staff

About the Author

Jeff Chang is the executive director of the Institute for Diversity in the Arts + Committee on Black Performing Arts at Stanford University.

Named by the Utne Reader as “one of the 50 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World,” Jeff Chang has been a USA Ford Fellow in Literature and a winner of the North Star News Prize.

His first book, Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, garnered many honors, including the American Book Award and the Asian American Literary Award. He was the editor of Total Chaos: The Art and Aesthetics of Hip Hop.

His upcoming projects include Youth (Picador Big Ideas/Small Books series), and a biography of Bruce Lee 2014 – 2015: Celebrating 25 Years of Innovative Latino Arts & Culture (Little, Brown).

He was a founding editor of ColorLines magazine, and a co-founding member of the SoleSides hip-hop collective, now Quannum Projects.

Born of Chinese and Native Hawaiian ancestry, Jeff was raised in Hawai’i where he attended ‘Iolani School, a school that many have described as “better than Punahou, for whatever that’s worth.”

He lives in Berkeley, California.

About the Panel

Yahaira Carillo is the Managing Director of CultureSrike, an organization and network of artists, writers, filmmakers, musicians, and other cultural workers who fight anti-immigrant hate by bringing out the stories of migrants and creating counter-narratives about migration.

For the past few years she has also been a visible and outspoken advocate for the passing of the DREAM Act and led the Kansas/Missouri DREAM Alliance.

Edward “Scape” Martinez is a multidisciplinary artist and writer. Born to Puerto Rican immigrant parents, Scape grew up in the Bay Area, and has been involved in graffiti art since the 1980’s.

Since then he has pushed the boundaries and definitions of graffiti and street art.

His first book, GRAFF: the Art and Technique of Graffiti, is an international bestseller. In 2009 he began public speaking engagements to discuss his unique perspective on art and creativity.

Julio Salgado is the co-founder of His activist artwork has become a staple of the DREAM Act movement.

His status as an undocumented, queer artivist has fueled the content of his illustrations, which depict key individuals and moments of the DREAM Act movement.

OC Weekly’s Gustavo Arellano, KPCC-FM 89.3’s Multi-American blog and the influential journal ColorLines have praised his work. Salgado graduated from CSU Long Beach with a degree in journalism.

The Counterculturalists II: Rebels + Bohemians

FEATURING: Urayoán Noel, Carolina González and Manan Ahmed

The second event in The Asian American Writers’ Workshop’s Counterculturalists series highlights some of the rebels and bohemians of color who are often erased from histories of the left and the avant-garde.

Watch a clip from American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs, the new documentary film about 98-year-old Detroit-based Asian American activist legend Grace Lee Boggs.

Poet Urayoán Noel—author of In Visible Movement: Nuyorican Poetry from the Sixties to Slam—talks about avant-garde poet Pedro Pietri, the Nuyorican Movement co-founder who called himself a reverend, donned black robes and carried a large collapsible cross. (He died, he said, in the Vietnam war.) New School Professor Carolina González links together Puerto Rican labor activist Bernardo Vega and Afro-Trinidadian essayist C.L.R. James, one of the central intellectuals of post-colonial Marxism and the African diaspora.

Learn about the man Edward Said called “the shrewdest and most original anti-imperialist analyst of Asia and Africa”—Pakistani intellectual Eqbal Ahmad.

Columbia University Professor Manan Ahmed talks about this anti-nationalist scholar who was once tried for conspiracy to kidnap Henry Kissinger.

A Desert-bound Iceberg

From “The Price of Doing Business in Mexico” by Bobby Byrd.

Since 1985, writer Bobby Byrd and his wife Lee Merrill Byrd have published over 130 books from what he calls their “desert-bound iceberg”: a small independent press, Cinco Puntos Press, in El Paso that has focused on stories from the border, stories that dissect what a border means, and stories that challenge ideas of what literature and poetics of the border really are.

This includes Dagoberto Gilb’s Winners on the Pass Line, Benjamin Alire Saenz’ collection of short stories, Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club, which won the Pen/Faulkner Award for Fiction in 2013, and the graphic novel Pitch Black, by Youme Landowne and Anthony Horton, about a homeless man living in the tunnels of the New York subway system, which won the Jane Addams’ Peace Award and the American Library Association’s Notable Book Award.

Byrd speaks with poet Sesshu Foster about writing from and about the political and cultural space between Mexico and the United States, the plight of refugee children from Central America now facing deportation and detention here, and the stories that have inspired his work over the past 30 years.

Sesshu Foster:

Ten years before you and your wife Lee Merrill Byrd parented the press, Sandy Taylor and his wife Judy Doyle started Curbstone Press out of their garage, and Tree Swenson and Sam Hamill started Copper Canyon Press together in 1972.

  • Is starting a press like adopting a problematic child for a couple?
  • Is it crazy?
  • And what did running a press on the Texas/Mexico border demand of you?
  • Specifically, how have the books you’ve published been a response to being situated in El Paso?

Bobby Byrd: Lee and I didn’t know jack-shit about publishing when we started in 1984 and 1985.

We did know that we were unhappy. Both of us worked back and forth as technical writers at Fort Bliss (the nearby U.S. Army post).

It was the golden leash. We had three kids, a girl and two boys.

The boys, in 1981, had been in an terrible accident and were recovering, but their injuries really knocked us off kilter. We had to do something that made sense.

And of course, made money.


Good luck with that.

  • How do a poet and a fiction writer make money in El Paso, Texas?
  • A publishing company?

No chance in hell. But we were lucky.

Our third book out of the chute was Joe Hayes’ bilingual telling of La Llorona, the Weeping Woman. Nobody except fools on the border would dare publish it.


It’s a ghost story for kids about a beautiful but jealous woman who drowns her two kids.

For Jungian folks, it’s a Medea archetype.

But here on the border, it’s the cautionary story that literally every Chicano and Mexican kid (and white kids too!) grow up with.

Their parents and grandparents tell them if they don’t get back home before dark, La Llorona will grab them.

You can hear her at night when the wind is blowing—“Mis hijos, mis hijos, donde estan mis hijos!” Back then, it was a six by nine saddle-stitched duotone 32-page book.

That didn’t matter. It sold like hotcakes to schools, teachers, librarians, parents, and kids. It was a book whose time had come.

When we did [trade] shows along the border or in Mexican-American cities like Albuquerque and San Antonio, all the janitors hung out at our booth. (Still do, for that matter.)

We’re proud of that. It didn’t hurt that Joe makes his living telling stories at schools in the Southwest. He took it everywhere he went. It was always the favorite story.

He’d buy them by the box and would be reordering before we got back to the desk.

We’ve sold over 600,000 copies of La Llorona, and it continues to be one of our annual top-four backlist bestsellers.

I like this story of La Llorona. It demonstrates how we were to succeed, especially at first. And it taught us an important lesson: independent publishing is like writing. It’s an act of self-discovery. Lee and I just followed the path that opened in front of us.

Publishing, we tell people, is hugely intellectually stimulating. It’s opened up whole new worlds to our imagination. We’ve published books—children’s illustrated books, young adult books, graphic novels, adult fiction, and adult non-fiction—about homelessness on the New York Subway system, Native American books, books on the Jewish experience in America, books from the very diverse country of Mexico, many other types of books.

You’ve been in El Paso since 1978 thereabouts, eh. El Paso offers a special vantage of the U.S./Mexico border, and through that locality, through that dimension, also a view of the relationship between the U.S. and Mexico. Can you describe what that seems like to you? (In a word! Or not.)

How has it changed? And by “it,” I mean many things—El Paso, the border, the relationship between U.S. and Mexico?

I know you’ve attended demonstrations across the border in Ciudad Juarez protesting impunity and violence, so you’ve been looking at the terrain and the situation on both sides.

In fact, your press publishes Mexican authors, including the poets of the Taller lenateros, Paco Ignacio Taibo II, Subcomandante Marcos, Amalia Astorga and others.

Cinco Puntos Press, if I can put it this way, looks at the border from both sides.

Cinco Puntos functions as a cross-border organ, facilitating looking both ways across the line, communicating not merely bilingually, not only transnationally, but across time and culture and political silences as well.

What do you think of the waves of deaths of border-crossers in the desert and the politicization of refugees from Central America? What should people on the coasts or in the hinterlands appreciate about it, or know about it?

I like that metaphor, thinking of Cinco Puntos “as a cross-border organ, facilitating looking both ways across the line.” I might have to steal it. Ha!

I grew up in the South. Memphis, to be exact. I never went to school with students of color, at least as far as I knew. But my friends and I were lucky.

We were educated by black music. I write about this some in my new book of poems, Otherwise, My Life is Ordinary.

The older I get, the more I realize that my experience of growing up has really prepared my mind and heart for living here on the U.S./Mexico border. El Paso is a Mexican-American city.

And we learned here that “the other side” is not really the other side. It’s part of who we are as fronterizos.

The learning curve for the wider culture is extremely difficult and dangerous.

And this is what I learned growing up in Memphis, and it’s what writing, music, and all the other arts teach us as well.

Meanwhile, we read the news about the young people making the very dangerous journey (truly, in fear and trembling) from Central America to here.

We read about the national hysteria accompanying their arrival on our border.

And we read about how the border patrol and the other agencies continue to militarize and “harden” the border between “us” and “them.”

As publishers and writers, we continue with our work; and as citizens, we get out on the street and say our say.

I’m proud of how El Paso—from elected officials to our citizenry—has responded to this so-called crisis of migration. We understand that this is not truly a political issue.

Living here on the border, raising a family here, writing here, publishing here, growing old here—Lee and I have learned this place is not so much the border between Mexico and the U.S., not the border between Spanish and English, but it’s the border between the rich and the poor.

It’s a human and moral issue.

FOR WEB CPPBYRDS aug 2010 (11)

How has your work with authors directly related to immigration issues and/or the border?

Let me answer in this way, with one of my poems. “The Gavacho in the Photograph” was published in my book The Price of Doing Business in Mexico.

Resources and Tools for Innovative Ideas

In addition to spreading new ideas through our work, we believe that artists can and should take leadership in helping others cultivate new skills. Today’s culture is all about repurposing and remixing, and that’s why CultureStrike is committed to sharing as many tools as possible.
Below are some resources we’ve developed through our own work, as well as ones by partners that we couldn’t help but share!

5 Easy Art Projects for Your Pro-Migrant Events
Our Executive Director Favianna Rodriguez and Events & Artist Projects Manager Julio Salgado put together this great video and how-to guide for the National Day of Dignity and Respect in 2013, but the tips they offer are great for any action at any time of year! Watch the video and download our PDF guide.

Make Your Wings

Planning to join public events, marches and rallies for immigration reform? Bring your wings! This template provides instructions to make your own pair of butterfly wings out of recycled cardboard. Basic art supplies required, including tempera or acrylic paints, a cutting blade, 6 feet of scrap fabric, and access to a printer that can print tabloid size (11 x 17 inches). Best done with friends—throw a wing-making party! Download the PDF guide. (Note: This file is 25 MB so it may take a few minutes to load.)

Making Waves: A Guide to Cultural Strategy
This guide from our friends at The Culture Group explains the concept of cultural strategy, and includes historical examples and practical steps to bring the theories and concepts to life. We use Making Waves in our Knowledge Lab workshops and highly recommend it! Download it from The Culture Group.

Learning Library
Popular education is an excellent way for cultural workers to exercise our minds as well as our talents, and can help us advance our own art practices and the movements we’re a part of. Below are some articles and reports that have helped CultureStrike develop our vision, and we hope will inspire you as well. Check back as we’re sure to add more!

“Culture Before Politics,” Jeff Chang and Brian Komar, The American Prospect, December 6, 2010

“Change the Culture, Change the World,” Favianna Rodriguez, CultureTime Reports, April 1, 2013

“Jeff Chang on Hope, Change and How Culture Can Shape Politics,” interview with Jarmilah King, Colorlines, October 17, 2012

Culture Matters: Understanding Cultural Strategy and Measuring Cultural Impact, a report by The Culture Group, August 2013

“CultureStrike: In the Heart of Arizona,” Elizabeth Mendez Berry, TCG, August 22, 2013

“Spoiler Alert: How Progressives Will Breakthrough with Pop Culture,” Tracy Van Slyke

“Printmaking with Favianna Rodriguez” (video), KQED Arts, August 29, 2014

“’Migration Is Beautiful’ Documentary Upends Negative Views About Immigrants And Illegal Immigration,” The Huffington Post, January 15, 2013
“Artist Statement,” Favianna Rodriguez and Tina Vasquez, Bitch Magazine, 2013

Have a resource you’d like to see shared? Send it to, and if it’s a good fit, we’ll post it here!