Books helped me gain independence. So it saddens me just a bit to see my son reading on his own.By Viet Thanh Nguyen
Do you remember when you learned to read? Like most of us, I don’t. Still, many people can take comfort in knowing that this event, beyond memory, involved our parents. The parents who took us to school, who read books to us at home, who could speak to us in a shared language. But in my case, one of the things I lost as a refugee, without even knowing it at the time, was a childhood where my parents would have read to me.
I came to the United States when I was 4, with my parents and older brother. Our language at home was Vietnamese, but somehow, by 6 or 7, I had learned how to read in English. My parents could speak English, but I have no memory of them reading to me, and if they did, they would not have been reading to me in English. It must have been my teachers who taught me, just as my 5-year old son’s teachers taught him. Earlier this year I went away for a week and when I came back, the little boy who I had been reading to for years was suddenly reading by himself.
Being a father makes me reflective, especially as I look at my son and remember myself at his age. Early in our American years, my father chuckled when I called the kitchen a “chicken” in English. He affectionately recalled for me how, when I was a baby in Vietnam, I saw the cows eating grass and called it “salad.” Like my father, I take pleasure in seeing my son learning a language, and through it, stories. I love the way he loves stories, the raw emotions he brings to them, the way he thrills to, or is terrified by, a powerful narrative. I know when a book is great because he cuddles up to me and asks to have it read to him again and again. The closeness a parent feels with a child, where boundaries are permeable, is mirrored in how a powerful story pulls a reader through a page and through the words and into the story itself.
The story of my parents involved crossing a different boundary, the border of this country. We lost many things at the border, beginning with our shared language. Growing up and seeing my parents struggle with building a life for themselves and my brother and me, I could feel our closeness dissipating along with my Vietnamese. The better my parents were at taking care of their children by working endless hours, the less time they had to spend with us. It was the classic immigrant and refugee dilemma — sacrifice yourself for your children and in the process sacrifice your intimacy with them.
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Books saved me from feeling alone. I love books so much that I gave my son, for a first name, a writer’s surname — Ellison. Ralph Ellison was not a writer of children’s books, but a writer of the big truths, of the frightening world, of the unknown interiors of ourselves. Children’s books, of course, deal with those things, too. Perhaps that’s why I didn’t like Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are” when I was 6 or 7. The story of a little boy lost in the wild, having journeyed there by boat and separated from his parents, seemed too much, in retrospect, like my life as a refugee. But my son loves Sendak’s book, and I love that book now, too. It was only as an adult that I could confront the childhood fears in it.
I first found the book in a public library. Books were not a priority for my parents, so we never had them in the house. I would go to the public library every week and stuff my backpack full of books, which were barely enough for a week. I never owned my own until high school. My son has a bigger library than I ever had. While my parents showed me they loved me by making sure that I always had enough to eat, I show my love for my son by making sure that he always has enough to read (as well as to eat). For me, the library was a second home, and I want my son to have his own home in my home.
By 11 or 12, I knew how to get to my second home by myself, on foot or on the bus. But in remembering that childhood library, what I also know is that libraries are potentially dangerous places because there are no borders. There are countries called children’s literature and young adult literature and adult fiction, but no border guards, or in my case, parents to police the borders and protect me. A reader could go wherever he or she wanted. So, at 12 or 13, I read Philip Roth’s “Portnoy’s Complaint” and Larry Heinemann’s “Close Quarters.”
All that stayed with me for decades from Roth’s novel was the infamous scene where a young Alex Portnoy masturbates with a slab of liver that will be his family’s dinner. As for Heinemann’s Vietnam War novel, the graphic depiction of how American soldiers brutalized Vietnamese people, including raping them, enraged me. I wanted revenge on Heinemann’s novel, until I reread it as an adult in preparing for my own novel, and realized he was right. Like Sendak, he wanted to show where the wild things are — inside of us. As did Roth. When I became a writer, I paid homage to both of them in my novel “The Sympathizer,” where the shocked child has finally become the writer willing to shock.
Crossing the border into confronting those wild things that I did not understand and that my parents could not protect me from was part of how I began the journey to adulthood and writing. Seeing my son reading, I realize he is taking one step further on his own road to independence, to being a border-crosser, someone who makes his own decisions, including what he reads and what he believes. Perhaps that’s why seeing him read on his own is tinged with melancholy. I remember my own loss and I sense the loss that is yet to come, when he is no longer all mine, as he is when he wakes in the morning and says some of the sweetest words I will ever hear: “Daddy, read me a book.”
Viet Thanh Nguyen, a contributing opinion writer, is the author, most recently, of “The Refugees,” and the editor of “The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives.”
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