Andrew Lam's Birds of Paradise Lost captures the universal immigrant experience -- where versions of paradise are both lost and gained -- through the very particular experience of the refugees who fled Vietnam during the Fall of Saigon in 1975. Lam grew up in the American Vietnamese community of San Francisco and the experiences he heard about as a child (and some which he lived through himself) are the source of his storytelling, but it is his supple and daring imagination that turns the bones of the events into living and breathing portraits of love, sacrifice, sorrow, and endurance.
Lam's stories weave in and out of the insularity of suburban California, to the luxury of pre-Communist Vietnam to the horrors of the Communist invasion and the resulting Vietnam War, and then back to the United States again, to the Vietnamese communities built by immigrants and fostering so-called "first generation" Americans. As a first generation American myself, I know we children bear the weight (or wear the wings) of both where our parents came from and what dreams or fears brought them here in the first place. For Lam, the two forces meld into a perfect taking off point for searing, hilarious, and moving stories of what it takes to be an immigrant -- and to be the children of immigrants.
An older immigrant, skilled in working with leather, takes a job in a San Francisco S&M leather store; a waitress finds herself serving the American soldier who shot her husband in a field decades ago; a grandmother uses Karma to escape death and flash freezing; a gay man comes out at the funeral of a first generation American who has given the ultimate sacrifice for his family's adopted country. These are just a few of the unforgettable characters and scenarios created by Lam and given to us, his fortunate readers.
Lam crystallizes the tension of immigration -- the pull between wanting to hold onto the old world while needing to accept the strangeness of the new -- with sensitivity, beauty, and yet with a welcome lack of sentimentality or bathos. He celebrates the strength required to immigrate and then adapt, while understanding the price paid for such upheaval, often in scars that persist through generations. He also understands the complexity of the motivations of the immigrant. There is perhaps no greater optimism than the optimism of the immigrant and yet the fact of immigration is often founded not in hope but in fear: so many have come to this country in flight from horror and violence. How is it that immigrants can turn such potential for self-destruction into reincarnation, rebirth, renewal? They lose everything they know and are thrust into a world totally new and often quite bewildering. The weight of change is borne by the immigrants and then falls, like a gift, upon their children: against terrific and terrible odds, the next generation has been brought to a place of relative safety and opportunity. Now it is up to us to make good. Lam pays back whatever debt is owed with his terrific storytelling, built from the bones of desperation and filled in with the blood and muscle of struggle, conciliation, and hope.