Between Two Worldsby Maria McLeod
Fake House: Stories
(Seven Stories Press, 2000)
In his first collection of short stories, Fake House, author Linh Dinh explores and exposes the politics of identity, carving a window into a landscape where borders not only divide the geography, but also define one’s relationship to the world, to others, and ultimately, to one’s self. Twenty-one stories in all, twelve set in the United States and nine in Vietnam, Dinh writes mostly in first person from the voices of an eclectic group of characters. A few examples include: a white lawyer considering a mail-order Asian bride; an American female virgin having sex for the first time; a Vietnam vet from Kentucky, revisiting Vietnam; and an ex-Viet Cong amputee whose daughter, a prostitute, supports him. Dinh’s stories often depict a person sitting on a fencepost between cultures, navigating the terrains of insider and outsider, empowered and disenfranchised.
A Vietnamese immigrant, Dinh writes from both sides of the border, literally and figuratively. Born in Saigon in 1963, Dinh fled to the United States in 1975. Twenty-four years later, in 1998, he returned to Vietnam, where he now lives and writes in the new Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City. Perhaps it is this experience crossing and inhabiting countries and cultures that fuels his skill for examining the tensions between sexes, races, cultures, and classes. From the Ninth Parallel separating North and South Vietnam to the politics between sex worker and client, to the relationship between tourist and native, Dinh takes his reading into many dark houses and turns on the lights.
Keenly aware of how his characters see and are seen, Dinh’s most successful moments expose the complexities of how one defines oneself. Take, for example, one of Fake House’s earlier stories, “The Ugliest Girl,” set in the United States. The story starts, “My consciousness begins with the fact that I’m an ugly girl.” And then, two paragraphs later:
At a party, should there be another ugly girl in the room—perhaps someone only half as ugly as I am—it would be me who would be embarrassed. I would be embarrassed for her because as soon as she sees me, I become her mirror. By being there, I expose her, interfere with her attempt to pass. My presence would ground her.
These lines speak to the book’s premise. That is, consciousness is formed when one becomes “self conscious” and, therefore, aware of whom he or she appears to be in relationship to others. It is within that social context that Dinh’s characters are either further oppressed or struggle to emancipate themselves.
Yet not all of the stories in Fake House tell a “story,” or a linear narrative, of their characters’ triumph or demise. One piece, “10 × 50,” consists solely of a roster: a series of 10 Asian names accompanied by brief descriptions of each person. Similar to a list of ultimately impersonal “personal” advertisements, “10 × 50” emphasizes yet another form of objectification. Isolated from the other stories in Fake House its meaning might be lost. Within the context of the book, each odd compilation of details (i.e. “wears padded bras,” or “said to have a tiny penis”) begins the making of a life as defined by another. Written in third person, and largely unflatteringly, the descriptions alert the reader to the unbalanced power and resulting struggle between definer and defined, subject and object.
On the opposite end of “10 × 50” are stories that move the lens up close, focusing on the perverse or sexually mundane moments of a life. Such scenes are unflinching, cutting a wide slit through which the reader is able to view the politics of a character’s circumstance or, as the case may be, demise. Known first for his award-winning poetry (Drunkard Boxing, Singing Horse Press), Dinh’s language is lyric and deft. He is sometimes serious, even philosophical, while at other times the tone turns comic. “A Cultured Boy,” for example, tells of a 19-year-old woman who loses her virginity. The young woman’s identity is closely linked with her sexuality, the lens through which others perceive her. Seriously yet playfully, Dinh toys with the power lovers both maintain and lack over one another, as illustrated by the woman’s recollections of her lover’s body after he has rejected and dismissed her:
What is a penis? A silky stem, a paperweight, a pliable turd, an addendum. Something ancient, a dinosaur, a sage. It did not feel like it belonged to his body. Krazy Glued, it would snap right off with one hard yank. The head was shaped like the blade of a shovel, something to excavate with, or the reed of a saxophone.
In this excerpt, the woman is responding to her lover’s deceit regarding his intentions. After they have sex, he no longer wants to maintain contact. Dinh, however, reverses their roles. In “A Cultured Boy,” the young woman undermines the phallic and defining power her lover has over her, emasculating him with a very few words. She becomes empowered precisely as she discovers the means to redefine herself.
Ultimately, Dinh’s characters are made real through the specificity of their circumstance, the complications of a life within their position in the cultural/historical continuum that shapes both fictional characters and living individuals. In most entertaining fashion, he forces his readers to consider larger issues of humanity. Refusing to root his stories in one character and one set of experiences, Dinh turns the mirror upon his reader, begging the question, “By whose standards, and in whose eyes, do we define ourselves?”
MARIA MCLEOD is a poet, freelance writer and documentarian.