I am impressed with Aimee Phan‘s writing. Her debut fiction collection, We Should Never Meet, which featured stories that are told with cinematic scope, leads readers back to the Viet Nam War period and lets them witness those forgotten victims who were the products of the war. Phan’s tightly crafted style allows her individual characters to create a coherent experience.
The book opens with a birth-delivering scene in Viet Nam, and then flashes back to the mother’s childhood, where Miss Lien (the young mother) used to play with her siblings on the family’s rice paddy. Phan jumps back and forth between the present and the past, but still manages to retain her readers’ attention through her simple and accessible writing. From the beautiful rice field to the midwife’s black-lacquered teeth, she effortlessly permits her descriptive style to come to live. As someone who was born and raised in My Tho, which is near the Mekong Delta, the first story, “Miss Lien,” is like a trip down memory lane for me.
In the next story, “We Should Never Meet,” Phan flies us to Los Angeles to introduce Kim, a con lai (Amerasian) orphan who is struggling financially to move out of Vinh’s place. Vinh is her ex-boyfriend, who is also an orphan, and a member of a small Vietnamese gang in Little Saigon. From one story to the next, Phan alternates her settings from Viet Nam to America, but her language is constructed in a clever way that each episode could be read alone or interlaced with one another.
Phan’s technique of telling a story out of sequence is both intricate and innovative. Her skills lie in the subtlety of the connectivity and the ability to flow from one scene to the next. She gets me scratching my head on how I should tell the stories if I were the writer. Should I start off with “Emancipation” where Mai graduates from high school, then move to her best friend Kim (“We Should Never Meet”), and then switch to her nemesis Vinh (“Visitors”)? After the American scenes, should I take readers back to Viet Nam into the “Gate of Saigon,” then to “The Delta,” and so on? That sounds like fun. I should do it when I have completely forgotten about the book, but to erase these unforgettable stories would take me at least ten years.