Lam's tale woven out of family memories of Vietnam

Greg Quill, Toronto Star
April 26, 2012

T here's nothing about Vincent Lam's tidy demeanour that hints at an obsessive nature.

No mysterious smiles, no inexplicable outbursts, no sudden gestures mar a cool, calm surface. When he speaks, it's with purpose and precision, with clinical earnestness, an almost solemn conviction that he'll be perfectly understood.

And with just enough bemused humility to suggest he's not used to being examined.

He'd better get used to it.

Vincent Lam

Lam, 37, is on his way to literary stardom. With the publication of his first novel, the robust, violent and richly embroidered Vietnam War-era saga The Headmaster's Wager, the young emergency-room doctor and 2006 Giller Prize-winner — his collection of short stories, Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures, promised what his second literary opus has delivered in one mighty stroke — is poised to take his place at the very centre of Canada's literary tribe.

"I know I have the capacity to be obsessive," said the London, Ont.-born, Ottawa-raised Lam, the son of Chinese expatriate émigrés from Vietnam, in the boardroom of his Toronto publisher this week.

The Headmaster's Wager began taking shape in his 15-year-old imagination, already loaded with family stories about his rather notoriously defective grandfather — "a smart, capable man who lost all his money to gambling, drink and women in the Saigon demi-monde during the war" — Lam explained.

"When I get drawn into things, I become very engaged," he said. "Luckily my obsessions — medicine and writing — are socially acceptable."

Lam's other obsessions — bicycles (he has 8), BMWs (a mint, low-mileage1988 M3 recently replaced a 1989 325, which he restored himself) and rustic furniture (a 16-seat dining table for his cottage which he built from recovered cedar) — are less compulsive, less dangerous than his grandfather's, he said.

"I've never been afraid of trying something because I've never done it before. I think it through. I persist."

Lam's grandfather — or parts of him — are reinvented as the novel's central character, the irresponsible and charismatic Percival Chen, who purposely dissociates himself from his Chinese background, and from the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong, his former home, by setting himself up as the administrator of an English-language school in the Chinese district of the southern Vietnam city that became the unified nation's capital after the end of the war.

"None of that exists any more," said Lam, who wasn't even born when his story takes place. "The Chinese community in Vietnam has been effectively dispersed, and everything has changed.

"But I always felt attached to that world through the family narrative. They don't dwell upon it, but it is the kind of myth that's at the centre of every family."

Twenty years in the making, and 5 years in the writing, The Headmaster's Wager, big and bright as it turned out to be, wasn't intended to be a major opus, said Lam, who lives with his wife — also a medical doctor — and their three children, aged 7, 4 and 2, near Toronto East General Hospital, where he still works part-time.

"At various times I imagined it being a small book. But as I worked on it, it became apparent that what I wanted to say about the Chinese experience in Vietnam at that particular time wouldn't fit unless the book was much bigger.

"What complicated it for me was that as I took in all these family stories, I was growing up in Canada, in a completely different world," he said.

"Though they were part of my family narrative, and I felt attached to the world they evoked, I couldn't access the physical reality of it."

Like the medical student one of his University of Ottawa colleagues described as "incredibly focused and tenacious … (putting in) hours of study to ace everything . . . and pushing to get the grades and medical school interviews," Lam, the novelist, sought out the Saigon that was just beyond his reach in today's Ho Chi Minh City with similar determination.

"I didn't know enough (about his grandfather's Saigon), and I didn't realize how severely lacking in knowledge I was still I started digging into the novel.

"So, I went twice to Vietnam, for a few weeks at a time. I read everything I could get my hands on — about 100 books, novels, histories and peripheral memoirs that were often excessively descriptive, which, of course, was very useful to me. I interviewed family members, talked with former teachers at my grandfather's school.

"All this information slowly drifted down like sediment. Finally I felt I knew enough to get through."

He found the experience disorientating, nevertheless. The Vietnam he knew through his parents' memories and his own research was vastly different from what he discovered — "a place that was barely recognizable."

Lam's own world is changing, too, though he's holding to the ground the literary artist and the medical practitioner have in common, he said.

"Narrative is presented to you in medicine, and you have to work with it, while in writing you use narrative to create problems that have to be solved.

"Both disciplines require nuts-and-bolts knowledge — science in medicine, craft in writing — and a similar synthesis of skills, as well as intuition.

"But the division of my time and energy comes with certain stresses and tensions," he added.

"I find it very hard to think of giving up one calling for another, because I enjoy both, and they're part of who I am."

But writing has been a passion from a very early age. As a teenager, Lam won a short story competition from the Young Writer's Development Trust that allowed him to attend a Queen's University writers' workshop led by author Jane Urquhart.

And when he names the writers he most admires — David Mitchell, Michael Ondaatje, Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Ernest Hemingway, Peter Carey, David Malouf — he smiles for the first time during our time together.

"Right now I write full-time," he said. "There's no other way."

© Toronto Star 2012