My second book of the challenge (158 pages) is The Gangster We Are All Looking For, a novel by le thi diem thuy (she does not capitalize her name). She published this book in 2003, but I had known about her as a writer before that, because we lived in the same area—Western Massachusetts. Last month, I also had the opportunity to take a one-day master class with her, which was excellent.
In her master class, thi talked about the structure of her book, which is a novel in the form of five chapters. It is the story, seen through the eyes of a child, of coming to America as a refugee—the narrator, her father, and four “uncles.” The novel takes place in San Diego, with one chapter and part of another another in Vietnam. It’s also the story of run-down apartments and a brother who died. I bought the book many years ago, but it reads as very timely given the surge of refugees and migrants throughout the world and here in the US.
The language is spare and beautiful, with many unusual phrases and descriptions. Here is an example: “When my mother looked at my father’s bare feet she saw ten fishing boats, two groups of five. Within each group, the second boat ventured ahead, leaving the others (84).”
Another description: “I trail behind them, the tip of their dragon’s tail. I am drawn along, like a silken banner on the body of a kite (82).”
I found myself drawn in to the story right away, and followed the narrative during the first four chapters. The final chapter, perhaps because of its subject, something traumatic, was harder to follow.
I’ve found myself interested in autofiction recently. I’m not sure this would fall under autofiction, but the author did also come to the US as a refugee in 1978 with her father and grew up in Southern California. The question of how autobiographical the novel might be was also suggested in the final chapter. The narrator said:
It was known that my parents had a daughter who lived on the East Coast, somewhere near New York. Some people heard that she had run away and some people heard that she had simply gone away. That was many years ago and now the rumor was she was writing stories. No one had read them and no one had met her. They imagined that her English was very good (148).
Regardless of the degree of “auto,” here are some of the things thi said in the masterclass last month, to all of us writers:
- You have to create a new framework
- You have to find the impossible framework
- Your job is to write something new
- Your being is distinct from anyone else
- As a writer, you are summoning on to the page: you are asking something to come closer.
- You are asking to be worthy of what the characters are carrying.
- The work doesn’t care if it’s not working or what you need from it.
- The work is separate from your need for it. You need to separate your own need in order to make your own course corrections.
- It can hold more, but not more than what you are willing to risk
- Forms do have their logic.