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12.20.2010

Book Review: Quiet As They Come

Quiet As They Come
by Angie Chau
9781935439189

In "Come All Yet Asian American Writers of the Real and the Fake" Frank Chin accuses Asian American literature as being racist. As he points out: "they all write to the specifications of the Christian stereotype of Asian being as opposite morally from the West as it is geographically." Furthermore, Chin argues that Asian writers (successful ones such as Amy Tan), do not explore authentic Asian American experiences enough. Instead, he says, they play into racist, Eurocentric stereotypes: in this Asian America, the wives are quiet and meek, the men are misogynistic. "Asian culture," he says, is set up as "anti-invidiualistic, mystic, passive, collective, and morally and ethically opposite to Western culture." It's because they lack knowledge of history is the conclusion, and by denying historical truth, they become popular with the "assumed white audience."

This year has seen some very important literary works in the way of Asian American lit. Among them is Angie Chau's debut Quiet As They Come, a short story collection that follows the interconnected lives of an extended family and their post-Vietnam War lives in America. A story cycle of Vietnamese American refugees, the collection is saturated in historical context that perhaps gives the authenticity that Frank Chin is looking for. Her characters are sensitive yet strong-willed men who regret their own violence, women seeking to fullfill sexual desire that they left behind (or perhaps never experienced), girls dealing with bodies that are both odd and exotic. Perhaps the strongest characteristic of these stories is that Chau unapolegetically explores the personal lives of her characters without Eurocentric romanticism of the Orient.

In "The Pussycats," for example,  Kim Le, a single mother whose husband is a P.O.W. in Vietnam accidently walks her daughter into an X-rated movie. What results is an exploration of sexual desire left behind in a character that is neither weak nor passive. Instead her wants are recognizably human, no matter the race. In "Arcade Games" tomboy Michelle has sex with an older man in a pool hall while her mother is in the next room. "In The Season of Milk Fruit," (one of the strongest story in the collection, though it's hard to pick just one) a character talks to her unborn, out-of-wedlock son. Chau describes Asian American culture in its own terms, and refuses to compromise.

To any Vietnamese American, this book aches with moments of recognition. From mothers that complain about sun-damaged skin to pho for breakfast and cao gio. Obviously this is a book by a Vietnamese American for Vietnamese America. Yet these stories are so much more. For non-Vietnamese readers, these stories ache as well. Chau explores lost love, broken love, heartbreak, disappointment, among other universal themes in stories that show her skills for devastating silences comparable to the likes of Mavis Gallant ("Arcade Games" is reminscent of "Going Ashore") and Raymond Carver.

For example, from "Taps:"

"Kim looked around her bedroom. The objects looked familar--the bookshelf, the framed photos, the hanging ivy, the potted plant, the ticking clock. Everything was the same but nothing was as it was. THe woman who had inhabited this room, it was clear she was gone too."

Such silences, in fact, comes to be a defining motif in the collection: from the title story where a character keeps silent about his past as well as present to the silences between out-of-love couples in "A Map Back Into the World and Into Your Heart." Yet it is through her stories that major silences are broken. These are not story about Vietnamese Americans, but stories of them and from them.

Chau is a writer of frightening skill. Her understated stories pulls at the heart, yet remains unsentimental. Chau writes this book as if to say--We are neither good or bad. We're just like you. Frank Chin would be proud, or at least, less angry.

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