Memories of my Grandfather
Vincent Lam, Wattpad
August 12, 2012
ften 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?'
Memory, some would suggest, may be akin to a film reel created by direct experience. With a film to run through the projector, one can see the film. Without the reel, where do the moving images come from? I suppose it's fair when I am asked, 'Where did the memories of your grandfather come into it?'
When I met my grandfather, he was living in a retirement home in Brisbane, Australia. He lived in a place that was as quiet, timid, and suburban as Saigon was raucous, wild, and filled with temptation. In his last years, my grandfather went to bed early in a tidy bungalow-style apartment, with a walkway in front, and an outdoors sitting area in back. The sitting area was especially pleasant, because it was partially enclosed by bricks that had gaps in them – so that the breeze and light could pass through. The apartments were like little motel rooms, each of them with identical doors and windows facing out onto a lawn. Over a span of several years, I traveled from Canada three times to visit my grandfather. On the first occasion, my grandmother took me to visit. They had been divorced for years, and she lived in New York City. On the second occasion, I went with my parents and sister. On the last occasion, he was ill with renal cell carcinoma. He had decided not to have it aggressively treated, and instead to focus on comfort care. During that illness, I stayed most of a summer with him, along with my uncle.
There, that sums it up.
Within that frame, is contained all of my actual memories of my grandfather. There is more detail within it, of course. My grandfather liked to go out for morning walks. He wore suspenders, and a hat. When he was sick with the kidney cancer, we worried about the amount of blood he pissed into the toilet bowl. In the afternoons, sitting at a small table in the back sitting area, we enjoyed the wonderful local tropical fruits of Queensland. On some evenings, we went out to eat in excellent Chinese and Vietnamese restaurants, at the invitations of family friends.
That's it – my actual memories of my grandfather consist of a series of quiet visits in Brisbane, a quiet city. Readers of 'The Headmaster's Wager' might ask, 'But what about your accounts of street fighting during Tet Offensive? What about the sights and sounds of Cholon streets after dark? What about the gambling dens and beautiful prostitutes?' Where did they come from? I have no direct memories of those places. My grandfather did.
What of my memory of being told about memories? I tried to ask my grandfather as much as I could, and sometimes this was revealing, but he was not a voluble storyteller. He did not paint the scenes. He told me how the price of a piece of land he had bought from an Indian for the school's expansion had been too high. He sometimes became irritated as he spoke about something my grandmother had once done. In a general way, he shrugged at the victory of the North Vietnamese, saying, 'Then it was all over'. He might change the topic or ask me to make tea. Sometimes he would talk for awhile, warming to a particular episode, only to get to a point where he began to look tired. I would change the topic.
There are only a few episodes of which I have a specific memory of my grandfather telling me about them. One stands out – it was an incident that took place in Hong Kong during the Japanese invasion in World War Two. My grandfather was part of an import-export business. Amidst the chaos, thieves broke into the storehouse. I couldn't tell you what was stored there. My grandfather found some men who were willing to help him – now I'm not sure who these men were. Along with my grandfather, armed with long wooden poles, they confronted the thieves and drove them off. They might have been stevedores. I've also forgotten what happened to the storehouse stock that was saved. The main thing I can picture is my grandfather, a young man, yelling at the thieves, backed up by his toughs. That is not my memory – it is what I imagine from being told of a memory. What do I actually remember? I remember my grandfather chopping one hand in the air as he told me the story, sitting ram-rod straight, reliving the emotions of fear and victory in the conflict. That's what memory is really like – intense in vision, lacking in pertinent details, with key explanatory components missing, and adamant about the purpose of the story.
I spoke to many other people, as well. I spoke to my father, as well as my aunts and uncles. They pointed out grandfather's omissions as a father, and fondly recalled his sporadic attempts at parenting. This is likely the substance of most children's memories of their parents. Some parents just have more on the positive or negative side of the ledger. He was not unkind, but he was distracted by his gambling and his love affairs, and so he was negligent as a father.
Teachers who had once worked with my grandfather spoke very highly of him. He had been a fair and kind employer. I asked them to describe his teaching techniques, his management style, but it was hard to pin down. Many said he was inspirational, that he had shown them how to be successful, but they could not say precisely how this had been conveyed to them. Students who had studied at my grandfather's school had similar appraisals. I asked some whether it bothered them that he was also somewhat of a man about town. They said that they vaguely knew of this, but it didn't concern them as they were his students. Unlike now, an age in which everyone feels free to criticize everyone else, more so if they are more rich, famous, or lucky, at that time being an educator still conferred some of the distance of respect.
If asked to describe memory, I think many people would instinctively agree with a suggestion that memory is like a movie - a sequence of events, ordered one after another. This sounds right, perhaps because we live in an age which is saturated with moving pictures on screens. Except, I think that's a little too simple. It is partly true, but I'm not sure that is all of what memory really feels like.
Think of a time you were really scared, and a time you remember being excited with joy. Likely these appear to you in a flash. They are images, of particular moments. You might recall the events that led up to that moment, but not as vividly as the moment itself. The things that came after that peak might also be remembered, but possibly not. There is a central moment of emotion that gleams with intensity. It does not run at a constant speed, like film reel. Instead, there is a central piece with great weight, and other surrounding incidents
I think memory is actually more like a pebble dropped into the water.
The impact of certain events disturbs the liquid surface of our lives, throws the droplets of emotion into the air, and sends ripples out in concentric circles which physicists would tell us continue forever.
How is it, then, that memory is related to a novel? If memories are at best vague, incomplete, and distorted, while words on the page are best when they are specific, coherent, and sharply rendered, are the phenomena of memory and that of a novel even related?
Before I ever met my grandfather, I had heard stories about him. Through these, his ripples had reached me. The Vietnam War was finished by the time of my first awareness of the world. Its pain, its confusion, and its dislocations rippled for years – and still do, through world consciousness. It is one of many wars and geopolitical events that have this effect, their waves intertwining and overlapping, smaller and smaller with the distance of time. By the time I met my grandfather, the reality of his own circumstances had changed entirely, and yet Vietnam remained important in who he knew himself to be, and how he understood his own history. For all of those people whose lives intersected his, there was no way for them to replay a film strip of his life, nor did it matter. What they knew was the way his ripples had pushed them, hard or gently from the water's surface.
A novel is like this in many ways. It is written with one word after another – each of these to be experienced in this order. Flashbacks and temporal dislocations notwithstanding, it is an exercise in linearity. Yet, it does not exist as a film strip. A week after reading it, a reader could summarize the plot. A year after reading it, a reader might remember some key characters, a poignant scene. Ten years later, the reader knows the way it made them feel. Like the memories which it may be related to, it is a pebble dropped in the water, ripples spreading outwards.