Catfish and Mandala is a picaresque, a family history, an immigrant’s confession, a travelogue, an enthnographic study. As much as this is Pham’s memoir, it’s also a panorama of late twenieth-century Vietnam, a country still divided, still recovering from the war and languishing now in poverty, reliant on tourism and agriculture for survival.
The story goes like this: Pham emigrated from Vietnam to the Bay Area along with his family—in an improbable escape late one night in a fishing boat—when he was a boy. Along with that story is that of Pham’s sister, who, as Pham leaves home, grows estranged, moves out, goes missing, and resurfaces following a sex change. (Though he ends up taking his life soon after.) Pham, the oldest son, is the beneficiary of the family’s many sacrifices, a status for which he is grateful and resentful. Now, he writes from a place of confusion; he has graduated with a degree in engineering but has realized that is not what he wants. He wants to be a writer, he tells his father—who doesn’t understand. Meanwhile, Pham decides to return to Vietnam with a hand-me-down bicycle and ride from Ho Chih Minh City to Saigon, trying to understand where he comes from and who his people are.
If there were some kind of screening process for memoirs—and I guess you might say there is, with contemporary publishing houses—this one would get through every time. (Or I would hope so.) There’s so much here. The best sections are those Pham relates while he’s traveling the national highway through Vietnam. He is a camera, as the documentary filmmakers used to say, recording the inns, the teas, the foods, the bus drivers, the shopkeepers of many of the rural villages along the way. He records the kindnesses granted him and the animosities thrown at him, his flat tires and his bouts with stomach viruses, plaguing him from meal to meal.
During this journey Pham must negotiate a language and a system of manners that are no longer familiar, now that he is an other. In fact, Pham’s otherness is a source of uncertainty and unpredictability. It both threatens him and confers on him a special status. Typically, he is mocked as a Viet-kieu, a traitor, an outsider. Sometimes, he attempts to pass as native Vietnamese, especially when his otherness might inspire violence or retribution. Some Vietnamese resent him and refuse to acknowledge him; some—mistaken that he is rich and powerful—overcharge him, manipulate him. Some ask him to take them with him back to America.
I don’t want to force the book into binaries. But Pham exists in Vietnam and in America with a “hyphenated identity.” He is both this and that, neither this nor that. As a narrator, he’s interesting because of his uneasy position between these binaries. There is no salvation to be had, here. There’s no conversion. Pham demonstrates, compellingly, the problem of being of two places, the problem of being of two (or more) minds.
Forgive me. Let me digress. It’s much less interesting to read someone who’s trying to resolve that problem. The problem is interesting enough. This is something I’m trying to understand how to articulate. This is something I’m trying to avoid doing in my own writing. It’s not that I distrust epiphanies (though I do, at least mine: they’re always temporary; they never stick.) But the resolution in a memoir is ultimately idiosyncratic. For some it’s food, for others it’s therapy, for some it’s God, and so on, but it’s not reproducible. It’s private.
I might be willing to read about it—if you’re St. Augustine.
A literary autobiography dips in quality, fails as art, I think, and becomes more like self-help, more like how-to, when it becomes too much about a solution, a resolution of the narrator’s problem(s). I think of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. I’m sure a round-the-world trip to Italy and India and Bali would do me wonders of good, too. Maybe I’m being persnickety. I just don’t want a call to action in my memoirs. I don’t want a method. You’re eating better? Thinking clearer? You’re trying to live life every day? You’re acknowledging the infallible grace in all things? Good for you.
But what about me? the little reader says. I don’t want a guru. I want a story.
Anyway. Back to Pham.
So it’s not about binaries, not really. Accordingly, the book vacillates structurally between another binary, between the past and the present. Pham will describe his life in America before his journey, a move meant to inform the journey with a particular history. Likewise, the journey informs the backstory; we see from what, and why, Pham might be running. This is suggestive of the way the past always infringes on the present, always encroaches. Pham seems to imply—I can’t remember if he ever says so directly—that the Vietnamese are people with a long memory. He seems to imply that, for Vietnamese immigrants, it’s impossible to live fully in the present. You are always measured and measuring yourself against a family’s history, a country’s expectations, a people’s ethos. The Vietnamese are hard-working, the Vietnamese are proud—Pham both shakes his head at the stereotypes and struggles to escape their hold over him. In the book, the past and present become entangled—ensnarled, really—and Pham cannot separate them.
This seems to me as it should be.
We carry the past with us as we move forward to the future. Because this is a book about immigrants, it is imbued with the notion that one must do for oneself, that one must lift oneself up into a higher class, a better life, and so on. This is indeclinable. For many Asian immigrants, the route goes through a profession. You become a doctor, or an engineer, or something similarly lucrative and demanding. This is the American ethos that Pham is struggling to understand. He has been elected to something he might never have chosen for himself. But he’s trying, also, not to forget where he came from—another kind of ethos. And it is no direct route for him, finally. Nor is it for most of us. This book winds the way a highway winds, from one place to another. It happens in memories and it happens through encounters with the new: our lives are constantly being adjusted and readjusted as we remember what we have forgotten and forget what we have learned and encounter what we are unprepared for.