When I opened the package containing Dao Strom’s We Were Meant to Be a Gentle People (Paperdoll Works, 2015) I sliced the skin between two of my fingers. I bled very little on the side of the book. Later, when I was out of the rain, I opened the pages to find that a few drops had soaked along fore edge, a speck on the outer side, running the length beginning to end.
There is blood in Dao Strom’s book of words and images, matched with an album of music. With paragraphs slit and upended, set beside lyrics and clasped to photographs it is a nebulae of one woman’s memories, of family split between two countries.
Strom’s mother fled Vietnam with her child after the war. Her father remained. After years of living in America, Strom learned that her father was still alive after spending a decade in a series of Communist re-education camps. This tear between mother and father in the aftermath of the Vietnamese war forms an anchor to Strom’s memoir in voice and image, although presenting it in these terms somewhat undermines the prismatic cascade of documentation Strom pieces together, reaching back into her country of birth and assembling a collage of meta-historical and familial fragments.
In one early section Strom recalls a time she returned to Vietnam in 1996, travelling to the Champa ruins in Mỹ Sơn with a painter she met on a street in Hoi An. The painter took a photo of the young writer, the edge of the image blurred by his finger in front of the lens: “For me this picture says as succinctly as it can be said, what I feel needs to be said about our perceiving of history,” Strom says. “The young new object, incongruous smiling visitation placed in front of a falling-down and dis(re)membered past, mountains ever present in the distance, and, then, the acquisitor’s typical bungling of the whole view.”
There is violence in this phrase: dis(re)membered past, as if the act of forgetting or failing to accurately remember one’s history physically harms it; rips it limb from limb. “Sometimes parents will give their children mythologies when they can no longer stomach history,” Strom tells us near the beginning of the book’s first section, East. If there is damage in the disparity between those narratives of myth and history then it is one Strom attempts to patch up, reassemble, re(re)member. We are told that later in her life the writer returned to Mỹ Sơn, to the Champa ruins, on a marriage-saving trip – another tear to heal – and this time she brings a set of fake wings in tow. Her husband photographs her in these wings, a self-made myth, but one that is nevertheless dismembered all over again by her birthplace:
“At the Dalah airport the security officer sent me back to the airline desk to pay more tacked-on fees, and at Tan Son Nhut we were forced to buy our air tickets to Cambodia twice. These small harassments felt like tolls being exacted for something I could not quite put my finger on. Then I set my wings down in the Siem Reap airport. And they were gone when I turned back for them.”
While the images of a winged Strom stood alone in ruins, juxtaposed beside photographs evoking the Vietnamese conflict, paint a nomadic identity negotiating disparate landscapes and histories, they also tend to look like album-covers in waiting. The book is at its strongest when the focus is less directly – and less aesthetically – shone on Strom, and when the tension between dismemberment and reassembly is constrained in the writing itself. In ‘Origin Tale’, for example, paragraphs split and reassemble as Strom recalls a trip to Hanoi in 2014 during “Reunification Day”, or “The Fall of Saigon” depending on your perspective. The focus is on the city and the dismembering here is subtle, the change in logic of following sentences as they rip in half effectively disorientating.
One of the standout sections, ‘Fragments from the Encyclopedia of Censorship’, consists of numbered paragraph, mixing extracts from an academic text on censorship that names Strom’s mother as an example of the “Five She-Devils” of South Vietnam (itself a mythologising of her professional history) and Strom’s own charting of her mother’s work as a writer in Vietnam before the fall of Saigon (both a political dismemberment and reassembly). Strom’s biological father is likewise a compelling figure in the book, as is his divergent history from Strom and her mother following the events of 1975. While Strom’s mother relocated and remarried in the countryside of Northern California, Strom’s father was imprisoned for his writing, and it is between these two poles that the writer triangulates her position.
Triangles are peppered throughout the text, as a recurring motif of two lines diverging or two lines converging, and as a literal shape superimposed on images. In ‘A photographic autobiography involving nine geographies // or: (im)(e)migrant family in gold country // or: scattered triangulations from the diaspora’, triangles find their way across a flurry of contrasting photos of Strom, her family, and her two countries: America and Vietnam. As a motif in the writing it works well, but as a constant visual reminder of the theme of triangulation it is unnecessarily literal.
The album of music which accompanies the book, title East/West, could very well get its own write up, and I’m sure there’s an album review somewhere out there that flips the emphasis and treats the text as an extravagant lyric sheet. There are shades of White Chalk-era PJ Harvey in Strom’s voice and the shuffling guitars, especially on standout tracks ‘Ode to Mother(land)’ and the cover of ‘Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child’. Taken altogether the album is a weighty, mournful affair, and while I enjoyed sinking into it away from the book, I found it too prescriptive to listen to alongside the text.
The stain of my blood that ended up on the book was not evenly spread. It was visible in the first half but almost gone by the second. In the bath of East’s splintered documents, images, shapes and lyrics a touch of red held the border, but in West’s ordered paragraphs it had disappeared. Strom grew up in the US, and there’s a neat metaphor in the jolt that comes from leaving the colourful, sometimes chaotic mass of impressions in East and landing in the comprehension of West. Things may be easier to follow, but the familiar structures seem anaemic by comparison.
While not every shot from the scattershot of images, music, shapes and words that Strom fires hits its mark, the impressionistic whole of We Were Meant to Be a Gentle People is a dizzying text, marked with the blood of family, war and paper cuts.
Dao Strom is the author of two books of fiction, Grass Roof, Tin Roof (Mariner Books, 2003) and The Gentle Order of Girls and Boys (Counterpoint Press, 2006). She is also a writer of songs. About her 2006 fiction collection, The New Yorker said, “Quietly beautiful, Strom’s stories are hip without being ironic.” Her work has received support from the Regional Arts & Culture Council (RACC), the Oregon Arts Commission, the National Endowment for the Arts, the James Michener Fellowship, and the Nelson Algren Award. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop.
Thomas McMullan is a London-based writer. He has been published by Lighthouse (upcoming), 3:AM Magazine, The Stockholm Review, The Literateur and Cadaverine Magazine. His fiction piece, The photographer’s heap has previously appeared in Minor Literature[s]. He contributes to The Guardian and is currently seeking representation. http://www.thomasmcmullan.com. @thomas_mac