CHILDREN OF WAR The Gentle Order of Girls and Boys By Dao Strom Reviewed by Marianne Villanueva
The troubled legacy of the Vietnam War has given birth to some great American literature—Tim O’Brien instantly springs to mind—but only now, in the first decade of the twenty-first century, are we beginning to hear from the American children of the Vietnamese who came to this country after the fall of Saigon: writers such as Linh Dinh, a master of witty and subversive narratives; Christian Langworthy, who first came to widespread attention with the publication of his heartbreaking short story “Mango” in the Penguin anthology Charlie Chan is Dead, vol. 2 (2004); Monique Truong, whose novel, The Book of Salt (2004), conjured the slyly subversive voice of a Vietnamese live-in cook in the employ of the American expatriates Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas; and Dao Strom, whose first novel, Grass Roof, Tin Roof (2003), was widely praised by, among others, the Washington Post, for writing that was “stunning: powerful yet modulated, impressionistic yet substantial.”
Most striking in these recent novels and short stories are the absence of generational sagas and a general tone of cool, understated irony. Strom’s writing, in particular, seems strangely still about the chaotic events of the Vietnam War and the ties of history and culture that bind Americans and Vietnamese: in her new book, The Gentle Order of Girls and Boys, the passions of the Vietnam era seem very distant, perhaps even irrelevant. These young writers seem to be turning their backs on the quaint storytelling flavor of earlier Asian American narratives.
The Gentle Order is a collection of four novellas, each told from the point of view of a different Vietnamese American woman, each of whom is at a different stage of cultural assimilation. Mary is a film student in San Francisco, unable to rid herself of a lingering attachment to her ex-roommate, Kenny. Darcy is Mary’s sister, a struggling musician who, after a brief sojourn in New York, returns to California because “she had no better plan.” Leena is a young woman whose husband, Trevor, has taken her home to Texas, where Leena is surrounded by “wives of her husband’s Texas colleagues” who “lived by rules of etiquette Leena couldn’t yet grasp.” Sage is a young woman with a four-year-old son, whose father she lives with but isn’t sure she loves.
To varying degrees, the women are attracted to the idea of leading different lives, which will take them away from “the vapor of melancholy”: Mary sees California freeways as “open veins of surging metal energy” and feels a pull, “something like oblivion”; while Sage imagines a “new life of self-containment and gentle attention” for herself and her son—“something purer and larger.”
Hovering at the edges of two of the women’s lives is Su Heng, a Vietnamese woman from an earlier generation. Su Heng is the mother of Mary and Darcy: she fled Vietnam with them after the American pull-out from Saigon. Her story, a mere interlude, is sandwiched between the stories of Mary and Darcy and those of Leena and Sage. Interestingly, it’s in Su Heng’s interlude that we are introduced to the lone male voice in this chorus—that of Christian, Su Heng’s American-born son, and the youngest in the family. It’s from Christian that we learn of the mystery of this woman, who doesn’t think her children need “to know too much, honestly.”
[T]here were parts… she would probably tell no one, ever. For instance, there had been a first husband; also a lover before and during her time with the second husband. The lover was her eldest daughter’s real father: such were Su Heng’s secrets. In the years to come she would adopt the habit of claiming she couldn’t remember things, in order not to have to share too much.
In a family dominated by women, Christian idolizes his secretive sisters, whose “eyes sparkled with a light that was almost silver.” In America, Su Heng has acquired a third husband, a Caucasian who is strangely peripheral to the family’s existence:
He was large and infrequently there. When he was there, he gave the house a different feel, somehow—day was defined by his absence… and night by his presence (the house became warm, yellow, glowing, with all its spaces and objects properly utilized.)”
Sadly, America seems to have transformed Su Heng into a woman who “rarely opens” the door to her apartment “because she is afraid of letting in insects, the noise of her neighbor’s rap music, and (so she says, with a frown) barbecue smoke.”
Apart from this interlude, we don’t see the women interacting with each other, and the book sometimes feels as though it hangs together by only the thinnest of threads. What really joins the disparate sections together, more than ethnicity, circumstance, or family relationships, is the sensibility of Dao Strom, who imbues her slight narratives, thin in actual events, with layers of metaphorical meaning. She devotes many leisurely pages to dissecting her heroines’ thoughts and emotions. Her voice has a surface brittleness, a kind of laconic flatness. Her women are self-contained, able to read men with a cool efficiency. They seem refreshingly unconcerned about issues of identity. Instead, their main concern seems to be a shared obssession to define what they feel at any given moment.
Each of the characters seems to be waiting, like the sleeping princess in the fairy tale, for a moment that will release her from immobility. Mary waits and hopes for “letters from far-off places.” Accomplishing simple tasks makes Darcy feel “humble and dutiful.” Leena rationalizes her husband’s frequent absences because “some men would always need to be absent from somewhere.” Sage, after listening to some Americans complain, sounding “petulant and ungracious,” has decided that “she would not complain.” All recognize desire as “precarious, beautiful,” but “dubious.”
Nothing terribly conclusive happens in any of the sections. The book’s movement—plot is perhaps too inelegant a word for what Strom has in mind— is furthered, rather, by an undercurrent of tension, by Strom’s uncannily precise layering of thought and feeling and landscape. The question is not whether the characters will fall in or out of love, or whether they will succeed in forging even a tenuous connection with the seductive young men who glide through these pages, but rather, as one character puts it, on whether they will become “capable of thinking as others thought, whether [they] agreed with them or not.” There are times when the reader feels like giving these women a fierce shake, if only to free them of their exquisite sensibilities.
Doubts flicker in and out of each woman’s consciousness. Each is, in her own way, an actress, and the stories revolve around the moment when she stands back and becomes aware that she is acting in a self-appointed role. Mary, recalling that “a classmate had once called her Machiavellian because of how, during one film project, she had been rather aggressive over securing the better equipment for her group,” cannot restrain herself from feeling “a little proud.” Sage allows that she has made “an alluring fortress out of herself, laughing while retreating, opening herself” to one man or another.
But these characters are acutely aware of their detachment: “Mary did not eat or sleep much during these months, nor did she spend time with any friends who weren’t also film people. Nor did she really have a love life, just random incidents and temporary interests.” Says Sage, of her relationship, she feels “dislocated from the presumed stability of a history between two people.” They find it “easier, in their dealings with most people, to refer to each other by the terms that provoked the least amount of curiosity or suspicion: husband, wife.”
Early in the book, Darcy confronts an intruder in her apartment. Although most people would react to such an incident with fear, Darcy is somehow too refined for that. Instead, she merely stares at the intruder, “waiting for action.” Because Strom so resolutely refuses to make any drama out of her heroine’s (unspoken) fears, the incident of the intruder remains only an incident. Darcy goes on to muse calmly about other things, one of them being her past life in New York City: “As she saw it, this was her biggest accomplishment to date: deciding she did not want to accomplish anything in particular there.” It is on the basis of such simple but acutely felt realizations—of what they desire or do not desire; or of what they know or do not know they desire—that these women measure their successes and failures.
Of the four narratives, Leena’s is perhaps the most familiar and transparent. She “has long been in the habit of presenting herself as innocent.” In reality, her husband met her while she was working as a “hospitality girl”—a prostitute—in a hotel in Ho Chi Minh City. She sees men’s
“lust and even their violence in a vulnerable light, for she had seen how they would forsake much in the pursuit of a little bit of pleasure; how even the strongest could be swayed by characteristics that to her were just a given: an appearance of softness, simple prettiness, the willingness to surrender.”
Crushingly lonely, she is nevertheless coolly observant of American vulnerabilities: “For most Americans, devastation occurred intangibly and was usually emotional and petty, rather than physical or large.”
Strom’s America is a restless landscape, one in which people “far more fast-minded and assertive” than her heroines hold sway. But, in their own inimitable, stoic ways, her women wield their own weapons: their thoughts, which they guard fiercely, revealing to the reader, if not to their companions, their ability to dissect, with the precision of a surgeon’s scalpel, the precariousness of other people’s assumptions.
Marianne Villanueva is the author of the short story collections Ginseng and Other Tales from Manila and Mayor of the Roses: Stories. She also coedited an anthology of Filipino women’s writings, Going Home to a Landscape.