“My watch reads ten o’clock,” opens Thuan’s Chinatown, a novel that displays a writer in full play with language and story-telling. Her narrator begins a two-hour interior monologue that is the bulk of the novel. She is on a stopped train in the Métro in Paris. Her twelve-year-old son is asleep against her shoulder. An unattended duffel bag has raised the uncertainty of a bomb. Most passengers have disembarked, opting for other ways to their destinations. Along with three others, the narrator sits. Her mind wanders through the jumble of experiences, emotions, and places she continues to live. At times, these are overwhelmed by the larger world, with forays into the massive emigration of Vietnamese to France, the collapse of the USSR, and the effects of such events on ordinary lives. She is thirty-nine, Vietnamese, a writer, and currently teaching in France.
Much of her wandering revolves around two men. There is the twenty-three year relationship with Thuy, who is of Chinese heritage. The Vietnamese prejudices against the Chinese are overwhelming. Despite their power, however, at the age of sixteen she falls for Thuy, “bewitched by the goon boy of Bejing” her classmates taunt. He and her relationship with him are soundly rejected by everyone she knows. Her family refuses to acknowledge his existence. She hasn’t seen him since their son was born. Vinh visits his father, but she has avoided contact for twelve years. Even so, she misses Thuy horribly, enough for him to dominate her thoughts.
I don’t want to write about Thuy. I spend a lot of effort not to write about him. Writing to me is not an act of reminiscence. Nor is it an act of oblivion. Not until my last novel will I know why I write. Not until my last novel will I be able to understand him. My last novel will be dedicated to him. Thuy is a mystery. I have loved him as a mystery, the mystery to end all mysteries.
In contrast, there is “the guy”, a Frenchman whose children play with Vinh, who calls her, who rides the Métro in the same car, who has been to Vietnam twelve times, once sitting beside her on the plane, who enjoys the affection of all her friends and wedding-planning by her family, and who supports her in everything she does. He talks about anything and everything from eating snakes to diarrhea pills. He fills her space. For all that and for how much the guy occupies her thoughts, she holds him at a distance. Perhaps because he is an open book.
Underlying both relationships is Chinatown, a space, an idea, a way of life, but unlike the other spaces where she has spent her life … Hà Nôi, Sài Gòn, Leningrad, Paris, buses, airplanes, and trains … it is a place to be avoided. Its very existence defines what it is to be Vietnamese or French or everywhere needing something mysterious and forbidden. Parisians, however, complicate this with their variation on the prejudice, one that casts an entire continent as a Chinatown:
[T]he Parisian assumes the whole of Asia are ethnically Chinese, the whole of Asia speak Chinese, the whole of Asia have Bejing-style soup and Bejing-style roast duck for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
The narrator is strong and able to make decisions against many of the prohibitions, customs, and stories told by those around her without positioning herself as a victim. Perhaps the biggest underlying pressure she faces is that she is a writer from Vietnam. This affects how she is or can be read on two fronts, neither literary. Her earlier novel, Made in Vietnam, has family and acquaintances reading to find themselves in her work. She includes two sections of a novel-in-progress entitled “I’m Yellow” in her meditations. She feels compelled to argue to herself that neither of the two main characters can be read as Thuy or herself. She insists, to herself, the main character, who lives in a world of train-hopping about the country, cannot be read as Thuy, nor can either of his two girlfriends be read as the narrator. It is clear that she doesn’t want to have the reduction of fiction to a representation of reality affect what and how she writes, but it is an ever-present threat. Perhaps doing so would also uncover the mysteries of her own life.
In a similar vein, the French further circumscribe the narrator’s writing and how it is read. Paris appears to be a haven from the prejudices suffered by the narrator for loving the Chinese Thuy, but the literary world throws her into Chinatown in a way she hadn’t experienced:
[I]n Paris, I’ve come to know that other authors had great artistic traditions to back them up, whereas those from Vietnam, Laos, or Cambodia were only seen as representative of the numerous wounds of war and poverty.
Thuan is writing from great artistic traditions as she teases out issues of choice and uncertainty, and follows the eternal presence of two men in constant contrast as her narrator sorts through her life and the cultural and temporal spaces these issues occupy. She does so as a writer’s writer, acutely aware of the accumulation and arrangement of the details that give life to her novel, and of the novel’s structure and its language, with repetitions of words, sentence structures, emotional states and images, all working with a rolling momentum as her narrator sits locked within her own constraints of a two-hour frame and an aesthetic that foregrounds the mysterious.