When I lived in west-end Toronto back in the late 80s and early 90s, I met many of the so-called “boat people” the Vietnamese who managed to flee their homeland in hopes of finding refuge in North America. Aside from Toronto, many chose to start a new life in British Columbia, as Mr. Huynh’s parents did. It was only a matter of time before the refugee’s children or their grandchildren began to tell their stories in their adopted language. Philip Huynh’s The Forbidden Purple City is a collection of short stories, and they reflect his generation’s experience of being born and growing up in Canada. As such, they are a refreshing perspective on their culture (past and present) that many of us are not familiar with, nor have we read much of the literature resulting from their diaspora.
In just under 300 pages, Mr. Huynh’s nine stories are longish, and all are entrancing reading. I found in each story, there was a little secrecy, a little holding back of information from the reader so you felt as if the narrator was deliberately trying to be vague. For instance, in Turkey Day, the narrator (Mr. Chau, a lawyer) maneuvered events so that he ends up eating in the same restaurant his girlfriend Haejin is scheduled to be having a meal with her parents (he was not invited). He takes along Nga, a pretty young client who wants her marriage annulled due to psychological abuse. However, we don’t know why he wants to do this or what his intent is. Is it to make his wife jealous? To discern her true feelings?
Haejin arrived before our order did. She came in through the entrance ahead of her mother and father and stared at me from the threshold, the whites of her eyes widening like spilt milk just as on that morning the previous month. I could tell from her expression that it took all of her willpower not to turn around, to proceed normally. They were seated across from us, in my plain view.
Her parents looked kindly, both in baseball caps, a little frumpy from cross-country travel, not the stern ogres that Haejin had made them out to be. They owned a flower store in East Vancouver. I grew up in the same neighbourhood, though my path never crossed Haejin’s, not until I was at UBC studying law and Haejin was studying fine art at Emily Carr.
Our chicken arrived. “You were right,” said Nga. “I didn’t know how hungry I was.” She dug into the chicken wings.
I could tell that Haejin was straining to ignore me while talking to her parents, while I was distracted by the crackling of Nga’s incisors through crispy skin and into bone.
“You’re not eating,” said Nga. “Still hungry?”
“Not really,” I said. “My fiancée is sitting behind you, with her parents. Well, almost fiancée. Don’t turn around.”
“What do you mean ‘almost fiancée’?”
“I proposed to her last week.”
“She rejected you?”
“Not quite,” I said. “She said she would think about it.”
“What type of ring did you get for her?”
“I didn’t have a ring.”
“How could you propose without a ring?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “It was spur-of-the-moment.”
“So why are you not over there?” Nga gave a little nod of her head when she said that, to indicate the table behind her.
“I wanted to meet her parents, but Haejin refused. So here I am. With you.”
Nga nodded. I grabbed a chicken wing and we ate in silence. I paid the cheque when it came.
Nga and I were the first to leave. When I walked by Haejin’s table, she tightened her lips in abject scorn.
Curious, isn’t it? The reader wants to know what will happen next. Will they make up? Will he forget Haejin and develop a relationship with Nga instead? Compelling short story writing at its best.
Gulliver’s Wife is a story about a Vietnamese mother and wife who assists her son’s teacher, Mr. Gulliver with some of the other Vietnamese children in his class, much to the consternation of her husband, Thuong, a slightly intimidating man whose demeanour is only made worse by jealousy. In the excerpt that follows, Mr. Gulliver has brought Thuong’s son home after a tutoring session.
“This is my home,” says Christian. Paul follows him down concrete stairs to the back door. Thuong answers the door wearing an unfortunate wife-beater. He has to crane his neck to meet Paul eye to eye.
“Did Tommy send you?” says Thuong, then notices Christian. “Where did you find him?”
“I’m his French teacher,” says Paul.
Thuong smiles. “I’m a teacher too. Well, almost. I study economics.”
Thuong rubs the dressing on his arm. His eyes are red and slightly bulging, and Paul thinks at first that Thuong is drunk, but his stare is too steady and lucid. With the look of murder, but lucid.
The last sentence sets the scene for a tension-filled ending to the story.
I enjoyed every story in The Forbidden Purple City, for they are written from a viewpoint that is refreshing to read. While written by an author who was educated in western schools, there is still a strong, inherent element of a connection to Vietnam, and it is a Vietnam that we Westerners are generally not familiar with. When we hear the word “Vietnam” we immediately think of the war, but there was an ancient culture there long before Vietnam was colonized by Europeans. In other stories, a man returns to Hoi An in his retirement to compose a poem honouring his parents. Two teenagers, ostracized in a private school, forge an unlikely bond. A son discovers the truth about his father’s business ventures and his dreams of success. A young bride, isolated on a remote island with her new husband, finds community in a group of abalone divers. Highly recommended reading for lovers of the short fiction genre.
“A brilliant debut.” — Lee Henderson
The Forbidden Purple City by Philip Huynh
Goose Lane Editions
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