Memories of my Grandfather – for Wattpad
Vincent Lam, August 2012
Often when I am asked about my new novel, ‘The Headmaster’s Wager’, I am asked about my memories of my late grandfather. This does not surprise me. After all, I have written a book in which the protagonist, Percival Chen, shares many characteristics with my grandfather. Percival is the headmaster of an English school in wartime Vietnam, as was my grandfather. Percival lives most of his adult life in Vietnam but is ethnically Chinese, and this is crucial to his sense of identity. In addition to being a successful educator and entrepreneur, he is a gambler, drinker, and womanizer. All of these qualities in Percival are inspired by my grandfather. I choose that word carefully – inspired. The book is a work of fiction, and is not ‘based upon’ my grandfather’s life. It does not memorialize him or recount his actions or memories. Instead, it picks up on a thread of his life, and an era he experienced.
What role, then, have my memories of my grandfather played in the writing of this book? How should I best answer questions about memory?
I can begin with my own memories, or their absence. I was seven months old, a baby in Canada, when Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese Army in April of 1975. My only experiences – an inference, because of course I have no recollection – of the world were a Canadian autumn, winter, and the first part of a spring. I knew nothing of tropical Asia. I cannot refer to memories of the Vietnam War.
The main plot events of my novel take place during that conflict, which is recent enough that many people who were alive then are still alive now. Many people do presently have memories of that period, whether they were Vietnamese civilians, combatants of some stripe, or later fled the country as refugees. There is another layer of recollection: for many people in western countries, the war was a touchstone for protest, a cultural focal point of the 1960’s and 1970’s, and was part of their experience of that era. Further, millions of people who have never been to Vietnam or attended a protest would have memories of the news coverage of the war.
By the 1980’s, with hostilities ceased, Vietnam poorly governed by a Communist regime, and desperate boat people occasionally in the news, the words ‘Vietnam War’ had become a loaded and painful cultural reference in North America. I vaguely recall the growing understanding as a child that Vietnam, the place from which my parents came, was a place which provoked in westerners feelings of shame, anger, and sadness.
My first distinct memory which has to do with Vietnam is this: One day, I was riding my bicycle in my quiet suburb, and a car pulled up alongside me. The teenagers in the car yelled, “Go home, you fucking gook!” cruising alongside, taunting me. After some time, the car roared away. I stopped, heart pounding, hands seized on the handlebars. Then, I thought: the gooks were the North Vietnamese. My family lived in South Vietnam. My family is not even Vietnamese, they are Chinese. That’s the wrong racial epithet.
In interviews, I am often asked of my book, “How much of this is true?” I feel somewhat at a loss for an answer. So, I say a few small, simple things – that much of the back story of the character is the same as my grandfather’s, and that most of the events are invented. I say that I have tried to be faithful to the parameters of the war’s history, and yet certain things have been shifted in time, or altered in their particulars.
These answers feel inadequate.
I feel I could equally say, “None of this is true. It may rhyme, but it’s not the same poem.” I could support that. Or, I might say, “All of it is true. It is full of scenes and dialogue which I plucked from imagination, and those are the mostly deeply true ways for me to express how I really feel.” There is another argument I could make.
Let us return to memory. I am asked, “Did you meet your grandfather?”
“Did you ask him about your memories of Vietnam?”
The answer is, “Yes.”
I am asked, “What memories do you have of your grandfather?”
I give various answers, all honest.
Also, this comes up from time to time, mostly from journalists – who place great faith in the eyewitness account, “You write about the Vietnam War, and the Cultural Revolution in China. But you did not live through those events. How did you write about them?” Here is an implicit question about memory, ‘If you did not remember these things, how did you conjure them onto the page?’