The last few years I’ve been working on two books, The Japanese Office and A Bungalow on the Mekong. I have also founded Spoonwiz, a network of independent writers, critics, bloggers, and food professionals. Many of my recent writings can be found on Spoonwiz.
A Culinary Odyssey: My Cookbook Diary of Travels, Flavors, and Memoires of Southeast Asia
This has been one of my favorite adventures. I had always wanted to write a cookbook based on my life experiences and my extensive collection of authentic recipes, painstakingly compiled and perfected over decades. In order to keep creative control as well as the meager profits of such an unprofitable endeavor, I had to successfully raise funds on Kickstarter and self-published the book. It’s now available in ebook digital format on Amazon, iTunes, Barnes & Noble, and Scribd.
As a restaurant critic and a passionate cook, I am very proud of this work which I believe is one of the very best short work on Southeast Asian cookery by a native-born Southeast Asian American, who has spent half of his life cooking, eating, living, and traveling in the region.
Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam
If I knew then what I knew now, I probably would have never written Catfish and Mandala. It brought my parents considerable pain and created a silence between us that lasted four years.
Burdened with the guilt of their hurt and shame, I roamed the country. I decided that I would never write about family or Vietnam again.
I turned my back on academic work, publishing opportunities, and a movie script contract. I refused to promote this book, hoping that it would simply fade away.
Over time, letters from readers have alleviated my sense of guilt somewhat and made me feel that, perhaps, all those years of sacrifices and hard work have not been entirely in vain and that, perhaps, my words have helped some people.
During the next two years, I backpacked around Southeast Asia, leading a nomadic existence, camping on beautiful islands, renting palm bungalows, riding a bicycle. And I wrote A Theory of Flight: Recollections, a non-fiction collection of essays about life, love, loss, flight, and travel, which I believe are my best and purest work. The word “Vietnam” is not used anywhere in the text. It is a work free of war, race, country, identity, and family. It’s now available in ebook digital format on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Scribd.
Three years of traveling, bicycling, and living in Southeast Asia among ordinary folks in the manners and conditions of their lives gave me a fresh view of life and writing. I came to understand and accept that I must continue to write about the things that moved me, about the important, undocumented things that would be lost without my efforts.
In hindsight, this was the only road I could have taken to arrive at the place where I could write about my father’s life. This work began as an essay about the games my father had played in the countryside as a child. It only became a book through his generosity, dedication, and good intentions.
We spent four years emailing and talking to each other, often daily. At final count, our digital missives, when printed, numbered over a thousand five hundred pages. I spent about a hundred twenty days visiting and interviewing him. I needed to know everything, from what he wore as a child (whether his boyhood shorts had pockets) to the scents of the city at the moment his teenage heart broke.
This was our cathartic endeavor, a way to mend the rift that my first book created between us. It was not an easy project. Often, I was glad that we worked on different continents with an ocean between us.
The Eaves of Heaven was my father’s story, narrated from his perspective, in his voice. I told the things he wanted to reveal, in the way he wanted them to be seen. His primary fault was a tendency to omit in favor of humility or shame, certainly, not to fabricate. He had the final decision on what I wrote. It was his life and, without this concession, I would have neither his permission nor his cooperation. Moreover, few men would want to be in the unenviable position of publicly judging his own father.
I thank my father for everything, for his trust, for this opportunity to know him.
This work, the distillation of years of collaboration, has been my greatest pleasure and honor.
During the final draft of The Eaves of Heaven, my editor John Glusman approached me for advice on the diary of Dr. Dang Thuy Tram. He asked for a sample translation of some of the diary’s entries. As John is a friend and a brilliant editor, I obliged him and recruited my father’s help. Tram was from my father’s era. In fact, her family home in Hanoi was located a few city blocks from his. He understood her frame of reference and her usage of colloquial northern Viet.
After I had submitted our translation, John asked me why ours differed so much from the ones he received from other translators (I did not know it at the time, but he already had in his hands several completed translations of the diary and well as multiple sample translations from various authors).
We explained our word choices to John line by line. I also told him our step-by-step process.
For each diary entry, I made my own translation. My father made two translations: a verbatim version and an improved version, which was cleaner and more readable. I reviewed all three, mine and two of his. From this, I composed a poetic entry in the spirit of the author’s prose, taking liberal literary license where appropriate. That is, I gave her the prose which she would have written had she had the time and a little more training. After all, I felt that it was the least we could do for an unauthorized diary destined for posthumous publication. In fact, I felt absolutely that it was the decent and honorable thing to do.
My father read my composite version and gave feedback. I re-wrote the translation and resent it to him for another reading. Both of us were perfectionists so sometimes we went through several iterations for each diary entry.
When Random House and the Tram family offered us the translation, we initially turned it down simply because it was too much work and the deadline for our own book, The Eaves of Heaven, was quickly approaching.
We were neither academics nor professional translators. There was little to be gained.
My father pointed out that it was a thankless job. Surely, some people would criticize us for not giving a literal–and largely unreadable–translation. Others would criticize us for not taking enough artistic license and make the story more engaging–or perhaps, even worse, taking too much liberty with her words. And those who loved the diary would credit the author, certainly not us, the original translators who put so much skill and heart into the work. Moreover, we would not be credited when our version was used to translate the diary into other languages. I asked my father if anyone else could or would give Thuy Tram’s diary the respect and the beauty it deserve, and he replied that he didn’t think so.
We both had wept when we read her diary, so silly as it sounds, we felt it was our duty.
Even though Random House and the Tram family were very generous with their compensation, we knew that by the time we finished the project, we would be working at below minimum wage for the total time we invested in the project. By accepting this project, I also had to delay the publication of my own book by six months.
During the project, we had the assistance of Kim Tram, the author’s younger sister. She reviewed every sentence and scrutinized every word choice we made, on each draft. We were very grateful for her help. Certainly, with her explicit approval on every entry we translated and on the book as a whole, we felt we had fulfilled our task to the best of our abilities.
After Last Night I Dreamed of Peace: The Diaries of Dr. Thuy Tram was published, I received three translation offers, none of which I considered because in my limited experience, if there were one profession less profitable than writing, it was translation.
It has been a great honor for us to contribute to the preservation of Dr. Thuy Tram’s diary and the memory of her life. Last Night I Dreamed of Peace is and will remain my only translation work.
An Interesting Story About the Translation:
In the summer of 2006, I had a sporting accident that tore the acl and meniscus in my right leg. My knee contracted a MSSA infection during reconstructive surgery, resulting in a 45-day stay in the hospital with a painful IV stuck in my arm and three additional surgeries. The physical therapy was hideously painful, worse than anything I could have ever imagined, and it lasted months.
During my 45-day treatment, I stayed in a two-beds patient room and had several interesting roommates. One old man was carted into my room in the middle of the night. He had IV drips, tubes, and electrodes all over his arms and chest. There was an oxygen mask on his face. They had cut a hole in his throat and he had difficulty breathing. Sometimes, the phlegm, saliva, or whatever fluid would build up in his throat and he would wheeze and gargled as though drowning. He was so drugged out that he did not wake up, but his body went into convulsions. I spent all my days and nights listening to him and calling for the nurses to clear his airways.
In one lucid hour, he managed to scrawled out the email of his lawyer and the word “help”. I learned from the nurses that it was hospital policy that they would not operate without confirmation of funds sufficient to pay for services rendered. My roommate needed surgery a.s.a.p. or I would very soon see him carted off to the morge. I frantically crawled out of my bed on my one good leg, and in my hospital pajamas and crutches went searching for a computer with internet connection. A few emails and a day later, and everything was fine. Funds were confirmed. He was carted off to surgery, and his siblings were on their way to see him.
It turned out that he was the older brother of Lady Bolton, an American expat living in Vietnam. She told me she had helped Fred and Robert Whitehurst find the Tram family to return the diary of their deceased daughter.
She saw my name on my chart and in a leap of intuition asked me if I was the author of Catfish and Mandala. I did not wish to confirm this for I had left all that behind me. I had never once in four years introduced myself as an author since I landed in Asia. But it would have been unkind to deceive her, after all, I felt her brother and I had shared a sort of camaraderie in our dire convalescence.
When I admitted that I was the author, she claimed she was the person responsible for reuniting the Trams with the diary of their deceased daughter. She also mentioned that she had made a complete translation of the diaries. I told her that my father and I had been asked to come on the project. When I asked her if the publisher knew of her translation, she said she did not think so as she had a misunderstanding with the Tram family.
At this point, I felt a physical/temporal dislocation. What were the chances of two translators of the same very rare work meeting like this? I told her that although we had just finished the first draft of the diary, I would happily defer to her version (even though I had not read it). I felt that she had more rights to it than I did. I sent her my editor’s contact and told her to send her translation to him (I did not want to see it or be involved). I told my agent and publisher that we would gladly release them from all contractual obligations and that they may publish Lady Borton’s translation with my blessing and without any compensation to me.
For reasons unexplained to me, my editor called back a week later and said that he, the publisher, and the Tram family were aware of Borton’s translation and had decided to wait for our translation.
As for my knee, after years of therapy and regular exercise, I have come to admit that it is rather hopeless. I could ride my bicycle and swim, but I couldn’t run, not even jog to catch the bus. It is a devastating thing for a life-long runner. But I still keep hoping for medical breakthroughs and miracles, eagerly awaiting the day when meniscus replacement become available and affordable enough for struggling writers.
In the meantime, I am hard at work on the third and last book of my Vietnam trilogy,The Japanese Officer: An Indochine Love Story, an autobiographical novel based on my grandmother’s life.
A Most Heart-Warming Footnote
Frances FitzGerald (Pulitzer Prize Winner), who wrote the foreword to the translation, my editor John Glusman, who worked tiredlessly to put together the multinational project, and I all won the Guggenheim Fellowship in the same year after we finished the project.
It’s difficult to explain what a wonderful and reaffirming feeling it was for all of us.