I was supposed to write about a Phong Nguyen story for yesterday’s blog, as I was traveling up to the University of Central Missouri, at Phong’s invite, to do a reading. I’ve written about writers on their birthdays before, and while I’m not the best at keeping track of that, I would like there to be themes to this blog, or at least occasions for me to pick certain writers. I’ll keep an advanced eye on birthdays on FB, figure out the release dates for forthcoming collections, and if Rand Paul has any short stories, I’ll be sure to cover one the day of the Idaho primary.
Sadly, I couldn’t find Phong’s books anywhere in my house, my office, or in the book bunker (I’ll explain the book bunker one day), and I looked everywhere. I have both of his collections, Pages From the Textbook of Alternate History and Memory Sickness, the former I taught in my Contemporary Fiction class the semester it came out and Phong visited MSU (spring 2014), but the latter I’d never gotten to. When my search came up empty, I spent the day with Wendy J. Fox, which was great, and when I visited Warrensburg yesterday, picked up another copy of Memory Sickness, leading us to today’s entry.
I’ve chosen the title story, “Memory Sickness,” for a couple of reasons. I do like discussing title stories, firstly, because they often represent the story collection as a whole (or at least should), and if I can focus on the title story, and thus the book title, maybe I can also nail down its theme, its thesis. I chose the title story today, though, because it’s the first story in the book, which is important, as the stories that follow (or at least the four to five that I’ve read) are all connected, building off that first story; it’s a novel-in-stories, of sorts, so it seems wise to start at the beginning.
And what a premise it is that “Memory Sickness” incites. We start with a young boy, Roth Chay, sitting in a sex ed class, junior high. The boys are snickering at all the funny words, all the strange photos on the overhead. Even more hysterical for these young lads is that the girls are in the room next door, only it’s not next door, it’s one of those big classrooms with the carpeted accordion divider that’s stretched out to bifurcate the room—the boys can hear the girls’ filmstrips, and vice versa. The scene takes me back to my own sex ed day in Catholic school—yes, there was only one—where we were bused up to the Museum of Science & Industry and given the presentation there by some neutral professional. The worst part was, our teacher, Sister Marie, and the other eighth grade teacher, Mrs. Szcepanski, were also in the room, and I felt so bad for them, especially the nun, having to deal with us tittering little jackasses as we cackled at a pencil drawings of naked, hairy people. That’s the scene that starts Nguyen’s book, his collection, a scene that ends with the teacher—a P.E. teacher—taking the stomach panel off a plastic woman’s torso to reveal her inner organs. Her sex organs.
Nguyen would have had me there, inspiring a return to that most uncomfortable day in Hyde Park in 1986. Instead, Nguyen moves on to the real story, as Roth Chay declares, “I was eleven when I witnessed my first execution.” The kid sitting in the sex ed lecture is new to America, just months, if not weeks, removed from a stint with the Red Khmer in Cambodia (the story is set in the early seventies). Nguyen’s greatest moment is to have the kid compare this plastic lady torso, opened up like a box, to an actual person he’d seen executed in his village, the soldiers shooting him then cutting him open so his guts spilled onto the dirt. What a tremendous set of images, teamed with the irony, this kid supposedly getting the education of his life, but really, he’s seen things that nobody, including the gym teacher at the front of the room, could imagine. Even better, the author doesn’t go for something cheap, the narrator experiencing some sort of breakdown, lashing out; instead, Nguyen’s protagonist just sits there, makes note of the comparison, and moves on to dealing with a smart-ass American kid. Desensitized, to say the least.
The rest of the story chronicles this boy’s integration into the American school system and community, how a kid his age who has presumably killed people, his own people, deals with the American suburban lifestyle. The rest of the stories, in turn, focus on different characters in the town, adults and kids and friends and foes, all accommodating this new quartet of foreign boys in their communtiy. It’s a book about orphans, displacement, and adjustment, and it’s really wonderful.
It was nice to hang out with Phong Nguyen on his own turf yesterday, to give a reading for his students. Even better, I got to read with Trudy Lewis, whose story “The Bones of Garbo” I reviewed on Monday, whose book The Empire Rolls I published with Moon City Press. Glad I was able to pick up another copy of Memory Sickness, too—they were selling copies at the café where we had lunch, conveniently—as it’s a great book. One day I’ll find my original copies of Phong’s books, and then I’ll have two, both autographed. There are worst things, supporting a writer like Phong, doubly so.