One of My Annotations from the First Packet in My MFA Program with Aimee Liu at Goddard College

Admiration, Envy and Resentment in Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Short Story, “Fatherland”

Viet Thanh Nguyen gives us entry into complex family dynamics when he opens the short story “Fatherland” with the statement, “It was a most peculiar thing to do. Everyone said so who heard the story, of how Phuong’s father had named his second set of children after his first.” This rumination leads immediately into the second born Phuong’s envious declaration that “her father’s other children were much more blessed.” In this single phrase you have an inkling of Phuong’s envy and resentment even though it is veiled in admiration. This is the inner conflict that gives us a tension strong enough to carry the story forward. The statement is delivered as an oblique observation that hints at the emotion behind it. Nguyen approaches the internal landscape of his characters in Fatherland via external physical action, reaction and observation. It is this approach that allows the necessary subtlety to affect readers without becoming cloyingly sentimental.

Based on letters and photos of the first Phuong sent home by the first Mrs. Ly we learn several things. Phuong number one is taller, fairer skinned, wears better clothes, has a better education and, thanks to a practice in pediatrics, is independent. Basically she’s everything that makes Phuong number two feel less worthy than the first. This is further reinforced by the fact that though the second daughter is intelligent enough to earn a degree in biology she works as a mere hostess in a restaurant. So Phuong number two has not been strong enough to break free of a sense of unworthiness in contrast with her sister. The reason for her poor sense of self comes directly from her father and becomes clear as we read, “He often compared Phuong to her absent namesake, which had cultivated both a sense of yearning for this sister and some undeniable jealousy.” (5) This statement shows that our point of view character has some self-awareness that may serve her later.

Nguyen further reveals how Mr. Ly values his first daughter over the second when stating that there are photos of only the first young woman. They are laminated, protected, even kept close at hand. By this readers are free to assume a few things. Since no photos of the second Phuong are mentioned, we assume there are none. Though Mr. Ly does take a photo as the sisters exit a Ferris wheel ride, Phuong two is cut out of the frame leaving only her older sister. The second daughter is a nonentity as far as her father is concerned and so Phuong two’s envy and resentment of both her sister and her father is believable. This remains at a subtext level until late in the story. The tension underlying the narrative at this point is not made entirely clear but we learn that the little sister has a secret. Phuong number one represents possibility for the younger woman. If given the same opportunities, could the less fortunate sibling accomplish just as much as her sister? There’s a kind of hopeful fantasy going on here that keeps the second sister from truly embracing her resentments. They remain at a slight remove.

Envy is born of admiration in this story though we find later that the first family’s success is a sham invented by the ex wife. The things that have produced the second born daughter’s yearning are for the most part unreal. However, her father’s apparent preference for the version of Phuong now going by the name Vivien seems quite real and is later reinforced.

There is some evidence that Phuong’s view of her father is already complicated when she observes him with pity but without respect. While the first family’s apparent success is not entirely true, they seem to have done well enough in their new homeland for the oldest daughter to travel. In contrast, the second family remaining in Vietnam has struggled through re-education camp and poverty. At one point Vivien acknowledges that she spent money on Phuong and her family because they have, “never been anywhere.” This indicates that Vivien has been more fortunate.

The most telling indicator of Phuong’s changing emotional landscape occurs after Vivien has left. By this time Phuong knows that her sister is not a doctor and that the first wife has been lying in her letters. Vivien sends a letter and photos back to her father and the second family. Through Phuong’s inner observations we see a new cynicism. We get glimpses of several passages in the letter that she feels show her sister’s hypocrisy. When Mr. Ly tells her to take the photos and have them laminated for an album she speaks from her truth for the first time, “What for?” Her father’s shock lets us know that this is not the norm he expects.

When a photo is taken of both sisters at the end of the visit, Phuong is finally present in the frame. She stands unsmiling beside her apparently happy sister in an ao dai that she was forced to wear. Here is where the movement from innocence to awareness is clear and where the possibility for freedom begins. When she finally burns the photos of her sister’s trip she is burning the illusions with which she masked her hope and envy. She has fully embraced her resentment.

Welcome to My Updated Website

Welcome to the new simplified website. As books, poems and/or articles are published you’ll hear about it on this page. Meanwhile I’m really enjoying working toward my MFA in Creative Writing at Goddard College. My advisor this semester is Aimee Liu. Her ability to get to the heart of whatever I’m working on and help me see the light at the end of the tunnel is extraordinary. And the best part is she does it with grace and intelligence. I feel blessed.

Going To Goddard for Grad School!

Dear readers, I’ve decided to go back to college and get my MFA in creative writing. For some time I’ve been unhappy with the editing process on Blue Truth. I feel there are gaps in my knowledge that are causing me to take missteps I no longer want to take. Because of the demands of returning for a graduate degree, I’m putting Blue Truth on a back burner for now. I will keep you posted with updates on my studies as I work toward a clearer understanding of how to write the best book I’m capable of writing. Thanks for all your support – in the past and in the future.

Fall Tomatoes and Mushrooms

Tomato Harvest Ripe & Unripe

A change in the weather meant that these babies needed to come in and ripen in my kitchen.

Today has been a day of harvesting. After bringing in the tomatoes we went mushrooming in the Olympic Mountains and came back with a bonanza of Lobster and Chanterelle mushrooms.

8 pounds of Chanterelles and Lobster mushrooms gathered this morning.

8 pounds of Chanterelles and Lobster mushrooms gathered this morning.

My Edits Are Painfully Slow So I Took a Poetry Break

Below are two poems I’ve been working on whenever I get sick of editing 350 pages of text.

Poet

I live on an inland sea
where daily
I hear the wheeze
and hack of herons,
long dactylic hexameters,
odd wracking convulsions,
sad tuneless songs
to lost sailors.
Like Odysseus –
a low down
drunk Cyrenian
who slopped
too many whiskeys,
inhaled too many
unfiltered cigarettes –
my pursuit is
beyond redemption.

I rope myself to a raft of pages
refusing to ballast my ears
against the muse’s song
calling from the same rocky knowing
that cast us all from paradise.

Saluting Aristippus for his belief in pleasure
I bend my back to the task –
unfurling poems,
turning them to luff
past the barrier reef of my skin.

***
My Strawberries Wild

Knee high wanton wilderness.
Seeded with rubies under foliage
like emerald umbrellas
pressing humidity hard into musk and loam
black with decay, the life giver.
What was relinquishes to what will be
the sweet fruition of possibility.
A strawberry forest cultivates wildness.
It is this chaos that gives a flavor
for life, for its ups and downs.
It is this juice that forces the drive
to over-reach, go beyond, burgeon.

The birds and I harvest together
each vying for our fair share.
But we are objective co-owners
of this manna. We cooperate,
co-habitate, celebrate our fortune.
The birds approve my constant hunger
as I husband each plant.
In return we are all blessed
with more and more offspring. And, too,
it’s me who tears out the tangle-foot quack grass
that thwarts each feathered farmer’s passage
on their journey to partake of forbidden fruit.

***

 

Now My Space Really Is Complete! It Has a Cushy Chair, a Dog & Her Bed, a Character Gallery & Most Important of All – a Plotting Wall!

Character & Plotting wall in my finished workspaceHere are a couple photos of the plotting wall in progress. All the visuals for composites of each major character are up where I can stare at them for inspiration. They’ll help keep my descriptions consistent, too. In addition, I’ve got a 7-foot strip of butcher paper tacked to the wall with a line that shows the way the plot climbs along its trajectory to the denouement then down into crisis in the last third of the book and finally up again into a peak moment before things settle down at the end. What I’ll do with the evolving outline is print it out, scene-by-scene, on small pieces of colored paper.  I’ll stick these up along the plot line visual where each event occurs within the novel. Then I can move the bits of paper around as I fiddle with the plot until it’s working the way I want it to.

Close-up of the character & Plotting Wall

 

 

My Writing Space Is Finished!

I finally have a room of my own again. It’s in the basement away from distractions and completely self-contained. I never need to come upstairs unless I WANT TO!

My newly remodeled work space. Lovely isn't it -- even without a chair, yet!

My newly remodeled work space. Lovely isn’t it — even without a chair, yet!

These blank walls will help me plot out my novels and move stuff around without losing track of time and date! I'll post photos as I begin to develop this handy tool!

These blank walls will help me plot out my novels and move stuff around without losing track of time and date! I’ll post photos as I begin to develop this handy tool!

One of My Poems Won 3rd Place in the 8th Annual Writer’s Digest Poetry Competition!

Hummingbird

Percussive wing song.
Throb of muscle and sinew.
Sweet tooth en plein air.
A cinnabar dash rises like fury,
strokes the weathered
verdigris of lamb’s ear
to paint cayenne and emerald
across a simple sage-blue sky.
Dragon’s blood shimmers
and morphs along prism cells
catching light. Hue and shade
as changeable as flight.

Tiny tyranny. Feeder in The Garden
whose tongue is a black snake
urging Eve with sugared words
to taste the apple’s blossom,
the pomegranate’s seed,
to open the world
with the nectar of knowing
all that the gods have hidden.