“Linda Vista, with its rows of yellow houses, is where we eventually washed to shore. Before Linda Vista, we lived in the Green Apartment on Thirtieth and Adams, in Normal Heights. Before the Green Apartment, we lived in the Red Apartment on Forty-ninth and Orange, in East San Diego. Before the Red Apartment we weren’t a family like we are a family now. We were in separate places, waiting for each other. Ma was standing on a beach in Vietnam while Ba and I were in California with four men who had escaped with us on the same boat.”
This litany of place names and apartments opens lê thi diem thúy’s novel, The Gangster We Are All Looking For (Alfred A. Knopf). lê thi diem thúy (pronounced lay-tee-yim-twee) was born on January 12, 1972, in Phan Thiet, the capital of Binh Thuan province. Phan Thiet, a coastal city set at the edge of the South China Sea, is 100 miles east of Saigon.
In 1978, when lê was six, she and her father, much like characters in lê’s novel, stepped into the South China Sea and left Vietnam. Three months after they began their journey, lê and her father arrived in San Diego.
This is how the narrator describes the trip: “Along with other people from our town, we floated across the sea, first in the hold of the fishing boat, and then in the hold of a U.S. Navy ship. At the refugee camp in Singapore, we slept on beds side by side and when our papers were processed and stamped, we packed our few possessions and left the camp together. We entered the revolving doors of airports and boarded plane after plane. We were lifted high over the Pacific Ocean. Holding on to one another, we moved through clouds, ghost vapors, time zones.”
Before lê and I talked — she from her home in Massachusetts — I read her novel. I also read reviews of the novel, all of which gave lê’s work unqualified praise. Often, while I absorbed the five chapters that make up The Gangster We Are All Looking For, I had the sense that the narrator, a girl who shares many of lê’s real-life experiences, was speaking to me out of a dream. The voice that delivers the five chapters addresses the reader in quiet, hypnotic tones. The voice is musical and delights in sonorities, in watery rises and falls. So that I was not surprised, as I asked questions and lê answered, that I felt rather pleasurably spellbound by her voice over the telephone.
I wondered what lê might have known about America before she arrived here. “Before you came to America, did you have an idea of America in your mind?”
“No. I had none. America didn’t exist, and Americans didn’t exist for me.”
What did she remember of her life before San Diego?
“My grandfather. My mom’s father. I was quite close to him. He was a fisherman. He had a fleet of boats, probably three, that went up and down the coast. They would deliver things. I remember his arms. His arms were very strong. He was a big-boned man. He had a certain kind of stature.”
lê and her father were sponsored by the International Rescue Committee (IRC). “The organization,” she said, “placed us in a studio apartment on 36th and University with other Vietnamese refugees — all young men my father’s age, whom I referred to as ‘the uncles.’ My father felt this wasn’t a good environment for me. He brought this up with our caseworker at social services, and the two of them decided that I would live with her and her family in Spring Valley until my mother arrived. She was a French-Vietnamese woman married to an Anglo-American professor at San Diego State. She was a wonderful person. I lived with her and her family for two years.”
I was curious as to the nature of lê’s early memories of San Diego.
“Some of my earliest memories of San Diego have to do with a new scale of space. I was amazed by the momentum and how big and fast things were. I was amazed by parking lots, by the amount of concrete. I remember one of my first experiences inside a gym, it was probably first grade, and maybe it was raining and the kids had PE inside the gym. They were running in circles indoors. I remember thinking that was very wrong. Because it was so claustrophobic. I remember that the space felt both big and enclosed. I had grown up in a beach town in Vietnam and was used to having a sense of horizons and playing outside. Even in the rain.
“I was amazed by supermarkets. Amazed. Amazed at how much stuff was in them. And how many of each thing. And all lined up so pretty.”
American food, lê didn’t like when she first arrived. “No,” she said, “I didn’t like the food at all. The woman I lived with made me Vietnamese food to bring to school. I would eat rice and certain Vietnamese dishes at lunch, and then I slowly took to American food. I remember going to a picnic and deciding I would like pickles. I decided I would. And I did.”
“Did we smell funny to you?”
“Just very clean, in a strange way. You couldn’t smell the smell of the person. That struck me as strange. It still strikes me as strange. In Vietnam, a grandparent will kiss a child by sniffing the child. They nuzzle. You sniff each other, you nuzzle each other. The sense of smell there is much different, and sniffing someone is a mark of affection.”
lê lived in Spring Valley for two years and went to Spring Valley Elementary School. “The principal was Hawaiian and wore Hawaiian shirts. Holly Hobby dresses were big, and I think that they asked us not to wear them because the girls were tripping on them. Every day we had a different game on the playground, like Monday was makeup day and Tuesday was toes day — you stomped on each other’s toes. Wednesday was wedding day. I don’t know what Thursday was, but Friday was flip-up day. So that if you wore a dress, you had to wear shorts underneath. I loved that.”