In the preface to Blue Dragon, White Tiger: A Tet Story, Tran Van Dinh wrote, “Fiction is texturized by the Ying of imagination and the Yang of experience.” In 2019 Ocean Vuong told NPR’s Scott Simon, “I wanted to start with truth and end with art.”
These statements from writers across more than three decades of published anglophone Vietnamese diasporic literature capture the way Thuy Da Lam’s Fire Summer weaves experience and imagination, where concrete descriptions give way to dreamscapes. From the beginning, Lam signals that unusual things will happen to Maia, the main character, when she is greeted with a red banner bearing the message “Welcome to the City of Enlightenment” upon arrival in Ho Chi Minh City. Lam’s novel is a whimsical, if elegiac, perception-altering hero’s journey inspired by mourning and displacement, in which the dead roam throughout the country and former and would-be soldiers hide out in Cambodian borderlands. In Fire Summer, truth and art coexist, while imagination never quite overpowers experience.
Fire Summer begins with the political intrigue of counterrevolution in Vietnam, but it is fundamentally a quest narrative full of detours and discoveries. Maia, a twenty-three year old who left Vietnam by boat as a child with her father, puts her journey in motion when she returns to Vietnam in the summer of 1991 after her father’s death. The Independent Vietnam Coalition, a counter-revolutionary group from Little Saigon, Orange County, finances her trip with the provision that she pass on their message to her great-aunt E. Tien. Thinking of her father, a former ARVN soldier, she accepts the offer. While in Vietnam, Maia wants to return her father’s ashes to his homeland and look for her mother, or at least find out what happened to her. Her cover story is that she is researching the cultural significance of folklore inspired by Hòn Vọng Phu, a mountain face that looks like a woman holding a child and waiting for her husband, but it becomes much more than that. With the introduction of songs Hòn Vọng Phu inspired, Lam poignantly highlights the themes of “departing, waiting, and returning,” which reinforce both the structure and the significance of Maia’s journey. Maia returns just in time to attend her grandmother’s wake where she meets aunts and uncles who give her limited information about her mother, but she does not need their help because her mother eventually comes to her in dreams with “her cold slender hands, rough with salt crust, her tired eyes, her words, her smell full of the ocean. I am her daughter, Maia whispered, and aloneness washed over her–powerful, cold, and vast.”
As Maia seeks answers to her questions and tries to carry out her mission, she is accompanied by a young journalist from Hawaiʻi named JP (Jon Pōkiʻi) Boyden who is looking for his soldier brother who never returned from Vietnam, a Vietnamese chanteuse named Na whose father was an African American GI, and an orange kitten. Her progress is thwarted by a public security official named Xuan and his somewhat farcical cronies. In the course of her journey, she also interacts with workers and children, some with agent orange birth defects. All of these people, whether Vietnamese or ethnic minorities of Vietnam, help her along the way. She crosses paths with figures from the other side, including the dead and members of the Cao Dai Pantheon of Saints.
A mixture of languages, references, and literary inspirations strongly mark the text. There is a fair amount of untranslated Vietnamese and a handful of Hawaiian words. Those unfamiliar with Vietnamese and Hawaiian will still understand the story. For those who read either or both languages, the reading experience is enhanced. The novel is highly intertextual with copious references to and quotes from Vietnamese history, poetry and music, world-renown philosophers, and American music and popular culture. (Reference hint: Do a Google image search for the Cao Dai Temple in Tay Ninh and pictures from the temple’s interior to help visualize the action in a chapter called “Eyeball” in Part One). Readers may notice the influence of African American writers. Just as Toni Morrison’s character Beloved inhabits space, the dead in Fire Summer are physically present, and their ability to exist in the world pulls at the veil between the living and the dead. Lam’s homage to Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage comes through in her plot structure, philosophical investments, and motifs.
The back cover description states “she begins to understand what it means to love,” so the question is whether this love is patriotic, romantic, filial, or all of the above. The reader experiences Maia’s overpowering sorrow for what she has lost, a growing ability to accept serendipity, and disorientation as her journey becomes more complicated. Though Lam’s narrator requires omniscience to relate the stories of Maia, the dead, and the counterrevolutionaries, she does not feel the need to tell all, so readers must be prepared for the remaining questions the novel does not explicitly answer.
In the world Lam creates, strong emotions change reality. Due to the love that binds the living and the dead, the dead remain vibrant. To illustrate this vibrancy, the dead have the funniest, if macabre, lines. Water, invested with strong affect, challenges geography as in the example of the highland lake with a direct connection to the sea. The orphans altered by agent orange understand this when they tell Maia:
“The lake has no bottom, linking it to the sea.”
“It’s our longing for the sea.”
“It’s salty, full of tears of the living for the dead.”
Fire Summer provides its careful readers with lingering moments and images that will accompany them in their onward journeys. Don’t hesitate to slow down and reread when enjoying a particular scene or chapter. This approach will reveal layers of affirmations telling Maia she is following the right path and the beauty and wisdom of people who have suffered shining through on every page.
by Thuy Da Lam
Red Hen Press, $16.95
Janet J. Graham is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of English at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. She is writing her dissertation on Vietnamese diasporic literature.