An Interview with Angie Chau

Interviewed by Katerina Argyres

Angie Chau’s daring 2010 short story collection, Quiet As They Come, has been adopted for classroom curriculum at universities and high schools across the country–including at our own City College of San Francisco.

Finalist for both the Commonwealth Club Book of the Year and the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association Book of the Year awards, Quiet As They Come explores the lives of Vietnamese immigrants as they struggle to adjust to life in San Francisco. Three families share a house brimming with secrets, dreams, and desires. Some thrive while others are destroyed by the false promise of the “American Dream”.

Chau, winner of the 2009 UC Davis Maurice Prize in Fiction, has been published in many distinguished literary magazines. Her work has earned her a Hedgebrook Residency, an Anderson Center Residency and a Macondo Foundation fellowship.

Chau was born in Vietnam and traveled throughout the world before settling in California. She earned a BA in Southeast Asian Culture and Political Economy from UC Berkeley and a Master’s degree in English with emphasis in Creative Writing from UC Davis.

How old were you when you left Vietnam? Where did your family move to?

I was three years old when we left and four by the time we arrived in San Francisco.

In many immigrant stories, most people are caught in between two cultures and trying to find harmony with both. What was your experience of leaving home and moving to another country? Or if you don’t remember, what was it like for your parents or the rest of your family?

Your question is beautifully put and it’s an eternal question. How does one find happiness, balance, harmony, and live life gracefully? I think it’s a question that every individual struggles with regardless of country or creed. Maybe this question comes to the forefront in immigrant stories because the differences in cultural norms and tastes can be so striking when a person is uprooted from one country and put into another. It sets up tensions that are accessible for good storytelling if done right. In practical terms though I whole heartedly confess to picking and choosing what I like best from each culture, whether Vietnamese or Western, and selectively integrating what I like.

Are those experiences parallel to those in your book? Are the characters inspired by people you know?

The book is a work of fiction but of course it draws from life. It’s inspired by what I’ve lived, seen, heard, smelled, remembered, forgotten, dreamt about, run from, all of it… The journey of exile, of finding where you belong and where you can call home, is at once terrifying and exhilarating. This is some of what I wanted to capture in the book.

Why did you pick San Francisco as the setting for your book?

San Francisco is beautiful and complicated and full of interesting texture. It is also where we arrived when my family first came to America. It’s what I know.

What inspired you to write Quiet As They Come?

First off, it was reading really good books that inspired me to want to do the same. I wanted to contribute to the conversation and shift the dialogue. I wanted readers to get to walk in shoes they would not normally walk in. In this case the shoes happened to be Vietnamese refugees.

There’s a lot out there about the Vietnam War in books and movies but it’s almost unanimously from the perspective of the American veteran or the American politician. There was very little in the world of art or literature on Vietnamese families, the people most impacted by the conflict. This was a war fought in their country, the same homeland from which they had to escape.

I was inspired to write my book because I wanted to show a more nuanced image of the Vietnamese experience and not one that catered to the Western fantasy of it. I once heard that if you’re going to be a writer, you have to have a unique perspective to share and so this prompted me to take a stab at it. I wanted to offer something different for people to chew on beyond the stereotypes from Rambo or other war films. And yet after saying all this, I wanted it most of all to be a good book, readable, juicy, provocative, something you’d react to and you’d recommend to your friend. It’s not meant to be a moralizing tale or an after school special. It has meant a lot to me that Quiet As They Come is taught in English Lit courses at different universities and high schools. I want it to be an approachable book for interested smart readers. I hope that’s not asking too much.

Is there a message you want your readers to walk away with?

Come away with me. Enter the pages. Let’s laugh and cry together. I want you to see how we are different and yet so much the same.

How did you start writing Quiet As They Come? Do you have a writing process?

I quit my day job. I moved to an island. I used a paper and pen. Gradually it became a laptop. Then I let my imagination soar. That’s how I started writing. I wrote what I wanted to read. I created characters that I was attracted to or curious about. I used these characters to explore themes that I was fascinated by or wanted to dig deeper into.

For example, the title story, “Quiet As They Come” is one of the first stories I ever wrote. I wanted to explore what it’s like to be smart but not have the language skills to express yourself–a not uncommon dilemma that many immigrants are faced with and one that I eventually encountered in my own way when I moved to Italy in 2005. But we’ve all met them, former academics and professionals in their old country and driving a cab here or working as a janitor here.

If you have the intellectual capacity but people don’t get it because English is your second language, then are you still smart? Or how does your identity shift because of perception? It was a way to get at and raise questions regarding observation and knowledge of reality through story form. Back to the old, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”

Where/When do you usually write?

In the morning, in my home office looking out into the garden. Daily if possible.

Do you ever experience writer’s block? What do you do to help get rid of it?

I haven’t yet experienced writer’s block where I have no concept of what to write next or no words to express the thrust of the story. My challenge is usually working out the intricacies of the plot and subplot and varying agendas and how things will layer together to create the theater of the story. It’s akin to figuring out a puzzle, working through the labyrinth of endless possibilities or playing with a Rubik’s cube. It’s my favorite part of the job. The divine moments are when things click in place. It’s like being a thief hearing the ticking of the lock and all of a sudden treasures abound.

When getting your Master’s degree, what did you learn that you consider to be the most useful advice for young writers?

On my first day in my Master’s Program one of my teachers said to the class, “You should only be here if you can’t do anything else.” I would probably adjust it to, “You should only be here if you can’t imagine doing anything else.” That is to say if you want to give your life to writing and your goal is to be a published writer then you have to want it badly. It takes a lot of hard work, fortitude, and a true burning desire. There will be dejection and rejection and existential crisis and not much money. You’d make more money and have less gray hair selling cars or whatever else. So you have to want it so badly you can’t imagine doing anything else.

And lastly, Do you have any other projects you are working on that we can look forward to?

I am working on a novel set in Vietnam at the height of the American War from 1968-1975. If you’ve read Quiet As They Come, you will know a little of the story of about Kim and Duc. The novel revisits them before he was ever imprisoned and before she ever arrived in America as the single mother of two. I wanted to see what it was that made them so special. What was it about Duc that kept Kim committed and faithful despite all those years of uncertainty?

I wanted to explore how war and policy from worlds away impacts one family, one love relationship. Marie Colvin an award winning journalist I admire once wrote, “For my part, the next war I cover, I’ll be more awed than ever by the quiet bravery of civilians who endure far more than I ever will.” This resonated with me. This is a bad-ass who has covered wars in Chechnya, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe, Libya. This is a woman who has seen it all. And yet, this is her line, her truth, and I can see it. My novel is an attempt to capture this which puts so aptly, the “quiet bravery of civilians” who must endure the hardship of war day after day.

Katerina Argyle’s interview with Angie Chau will be published in our Spring 2013 issue.

Copyright © Katerina Argyle

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