January 11–18, 2001
He Went Thataway
In Linh Dinh’s first short story collection, Fake House, the reader is introduced to a gallery of petty criminals caught in the midst of their daily gyrations, trying to dodge impending disaster. A Mütter Museum of human degradation and perversity, the book is redeemed by the weird humor of its ax-wielding guide. Half the stories take place in Philadelphia, the other half in Vietnam. Dinh spent 24 years in the U.S. before returning to Saigon, the city of his birth, in 1999. For 16 of those years, he lived in Philadelphia.
Fake House has been reviewed favorably by Kirkus, the L.A. Times, SOMA, and other primarily West Coast publications, where interest in Asian-Americana is greater than in the East, and his poem "The Most Beautiful Word" has been chosen by Rita Dove for inclusion in the volume "Best American Poetry 2000." Heady stuff for the roustabout you’d see at local bars with paint-smeared clothes.
I first met Dinh ten years ago, over dark pints at McGlinchey’s. He was looking for contributors to a new lit zine he was putting together called The Drunken Boat, and poet Molly Russakoff had given him my name. We became instant drinking buddies, endlessly yakking about literature and life over innumerable bowls of brown beer. We shared the view of the artist as a working class loner who rejects the ivory tower, writer’s workshops and MFA programs (poetry by committee). Dinh’s first break came in 1993, when he was awarded a Pew fellowship for poetry. He was able to give up his house painting job for a few years to concentrate on writing. Night Again, an anthology of contemporary Vietnamese fiction, was released in 1996. Drunkard Boxing, a chapbook of poems, came out in 1998.
In 1998, on his second trip to Vietnam, Dinh met his future wife, Diem; they now live in a 7-foot-by-11-foot room on the outskirts of Saigon. As he described in a recent e-mail, "It is air-conditioned, an essential considering how much I sweat in this weather. There is no hot water. No shower head. The toilet is flushed’ by dumping a bucket of water into it. The house is sandwiched in between two little alleys, two cul-de-sacs, and sometimes I stand just outside the front door, wearing only a pair of shorts, to watch our black dog run around. The first thing I hear every morning, right outside my window, is the sweet singing of a magpie and a man evacuating the phlegm from his throat. This man does this at 6 o’clock every morning and every morning there is fresh phlegm to be evacuated."
But Dinh does not let magpies or phlegm interfere with his production, as is evidenced by the steady steam of his poems, stories and translations being published.
He does not get to see the fruits of his labor, however, because books and journals sent to Vietnam are routinely confiscated, including his copy of Fake House. Dinh explains: "The laws here allow them to seize any cultural item, books, videotapes, cassettes deemed decadent or reactionary. When I went to the post office to pick up my book, the Cultural Item’s Censor saw my face on the back cover, looked at the inside flap for about three seconds (long enough to read the line A Vietnamese man transplanted to the United States visits his homeland’), then started to fill out a form called Receipt on Goods Being Kept.’ I went back to the post office two more times but was unable to retrieve my book. In essence, the Vietnamese are not allowing me to read a book I wrote. I’m an author without a book!"
Dinh thinks that this unfortunate incident can be traced back to his days in the City of Brotherly Love: "If I’m decadent and reactionary — Communist jargon for being a free spirit — you can blame it on Philadelphia. A city that produced the Mummers, Holy Joseph, Sun Ra and scrapple has taught me that every man has a right to achieve his own madness. Anything short of that is a failure of the imagination."