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Severed Ties: An Interview with Dickson Lam

Dickson Lam talks about cultural memory, cross-generational trauma, and familial separation in his new memoir Paper Sons.

By Jean Chen Ho

I read Dickson Lam’s memoir Paper Sons under the assumption that some part of the book would address the legacy of his own family history as descendants of a “paper son”—one of the scores of early 20th-century Chinese immigrants who creatively circumvented the Chinese Exclusion Act through forged documents and falsified family ties. This wasn’t the case, and I was wrong to ever expect such an eponymous, linear move; Lam takes on a much more expansive, searching approach to the tenuous family ties such as the kinds invented by those early Chinese Americans, mining his memories to ask how his father ended up “only on paper, on a form for free lunch, on public housing records, on a family tree assignment…a check in the mail.”

Paper Sons by Dickson Lam. Autumn House Press, April 2018

When Lam was ten, his father left the family behind in San Francisco to move to Minnesota, ostensibly for a better paying restaurant job. Though as a child Lam craved his father’s presence, soon enough the fact of Bah Ba’s absence became the everyday reality that no one—not Lam’s mother, who was busy covering up an extra-marital affair, nor Lam’s two older siblings—seemed to question anymore.

So what prompts the writer to make these inquiries as an adult? Reckoning with a devastating secret: Lam learns that his sister had been molested by their father when she was a girl. Once revealed, this information forces Lam to question everything he thought he knew about his father, and to face up to the things he doesn’t know.

Paper Sons, which won the 2017 Autumn House Nonfiction Prize, is an inventive, voice-driven memoir that deftly combines narrative prose in the confessional mode, various poetic forms, linguistic translation theory, Chinese and Chinese American cultural history, Asian American studies, a graffiti crew’s raison d’être, and even a bit of speculative fiction. I spoke with Dickson Lam over the phone for this interview.

Jean Ho: How did you start writing this book?

Dickson Lam: I never thought I’d be a writer, never had dreams like, I’m gonna write a book. I was going through this stuff with my family, learning things, and [I thought] writing about it could be a way to process. I couldn’t talk to anyone in my family about it, so this was a way to deal with it.

I didn’t really understand how hard it would be to write a book. I thought, I’ll buy a book about writing, I’ll read it, and I’ll write the book. I thought it would take a year. But then that one year turned into seven.

You write in several different modes. Besides the “traditional” memoir/confessional narrative, you often situate your particular experience within a cultural and historical context, whether it’s placing your family’s story within Chinese American migration and social history, or your past as a graffiti writer as part of a discussion on race, poverty, and street art in 1990s San Francisco. Tell me about the choices to insert information that weren’t necessarily directly a part of your story. Did you have to do a lot of research?

I don’t think there’s anything in the book that I didn’t already have some sort of familiarity with, before I wrote the book. All the stuff about Chinese history, Mao, Richard Aoki, [the] Asian American Movement—I’d known about all that before, so I only had to do research just to make sure I had my facts down. But it was already in my background knowledge.

There’s a story in the book where I join a tagging crew called 3F [Fresh Fillmoe Funk]. When I was trying to research the San Francisco tagging scene, looking for images to jog my memory while I was writing, I came across this blog on a guy’s personal website about 3F. I liked the effect of having outside information bolstering the story, making it a bit more complex. So I started thinking about me, as an Asian American kid, joining this all-Black graffiti crew, and it reminded me of Richard Aoki, who joined the Black Panthers, and I wanted to see if I could somehow fit that story in.

Then I started seeing more connections. The stuff about Mao, Chinese history and culture, made sense because the book is trying to answer the question of what it means to be Chinese American. What does it mean to be separated from your “homeland,” or not even thinking of it as your homeland, but the ways it can still influence and impact you. I wanted to play with that. So I have a father who visits once a year. That made me think of how that’s not a new, or an uncommon thing, among Chinese immigrants. I wanted to give some context to my personal story.

What was your path to publication?

I started by getting an agent, but he didn’t have much luck. He did two rounds of submissions, maybe about twenty-five editors. We got some positive responses, but no sale. Something I heard from a couple editors is that they didn’t like the narrative structure of the book. The book is not chronological—it asks the reader to make a lot of jumps, sometimes on the same page. But the structure was something I really liked, so I didn’t want to budge on that.

I think about it like this: You spend so much time working on a book, it’s sort of like climbing a mountain, and you expect to have an amazing view at the top, but all you get is a parking lot when you’re looking down. It’s kind of sad! That’s how I felt for a while. It was even hard to work on something new, feeling like I had to climb yet another mountain.

I parted ways with the agency, and started submitting on my own to different contests and presses. Then it won the Autumn House contest. Now that the book is published, and I can see people’s reactions to it, it makes me feel like this is worth it. It’s encouraging. I’m trying to start thinking about what I can do next.

How did you piece together your memories, taking into account different family members’ stories? How did you recreate these moments?

I think every memoirist has to come to terms with their own set of guidelines with doing that. Certain people think there’s hard and fast rules. Everything has to be factual. But actually, it’s not factual. For example, when we write dialogue [in memoir]. It’s made up! No one remembers word for word what happened to you that one day in third grade. But some people feel like, no, I do, I remember exactly. Well that’s great for you, but does that mean the rest of us aren’t allowed to write a memoir? That doesn’t make sense to me.

For example, there’s a story in the chapter about the apartment where I grew up, when I was trying to get my mom to sign a form for me to go to a different high school. That moment in my memory is mostly clear: I have a form, I need to get my mom to sign it. But in terms of what else was going on in the room—did my brother say something, did my sister say something?—that’s more fuzzy. In that story, I wrote that my dad called. But did he call right then? Or was it that night, or the next day? I don’t remember, but I gave myself artistic license. I combined those memories into one scene.

One of the big questions the book is wrestling with is how much compassion and empathy we extend to people who have abused us. So there’s a few times when the narrator asks himself, “Why do I consistently try to paint my father as a human figure? Did I just sell out my sister because I’m trying to live out a father-son fantasy?” It’s really interrogating why there’s this drive to understand the father as somebody who’s a complicated, flesh-and-blood human being.

In workshops when I submitted earlier stories, people asked, Who is this father? What’s he about? And I didn’t know. I didn’t really think that much about him. I know what he did to my sister. Writing the book, I knew I had to paint him as fully human, but how could I do that if I wasn’t talking to him? I couldn’t get to know him, so I had to try to imagine it.

The official family story about why he moved to Minnesota in the first place was that the restaurant cook job there paid more. The salary there was twice as good. When I think about the timeline of when my father left San Francisco, it was maybe a year or two after he started abusing my sister. So I started speculating: Could that be another reason he left? To remove himself from her?

I had to think about him in these other ways that I’ve never had to in my life, and be sympathetic. To try to imagine things from his point of view. Though, as I started making these moves in writing the book, I also started feeling like I was spending so much mental energy trying to humanize him that it started being weird, because the point wasn’t that I wanted to write my father into a great person. He was a pedophile.

Ever since that visit to Minnesota, I haven’t spoken to my father. It’s been almost fifteen years now. Part of [the reason for] writing the book was to try to get him out of my system.

In the book, you inserted some of your father’s emails directly, without parsing them for the reader, and the effect to me was quite haunting. As I read the email he sent to you and your siblings, seeking reconciliation, I was of two minds. A part of me felt like I got a real glimpse into how he couldn’t understand why his family was so cold to him. It doesn’t make sense to him that he’s the guy who’s left out, and he sees himself as the victim. On the other hand, I felt like I saw directly into his narcissism. He has an entire narrative built up about how much he’d sacrificed, and now he feels entitled to the family’s unconditional love and support. I thought it was a very compelling choice on your part.

For me, before that email, all my interactions with my father were really quick, short. When he called, usually he would say, Is your mom there, and I would give the phone to my mom. That was it. Whenever he visited, I wouldn’t really talk to him. He would just be in his own world, or take off to go gamble.

I had no idea what he thought about or who he was. So when I read the email from him, I was totally shocked. I felt like, Who wrote this thing?! Part of me didn’t even believe he wrote it. At the time I even thought that maybe someone else wrote it for him.

Seeing this email in his second language—and it’s pretty articulate about his feelings—I felt confused. I didn’t know who my father was in Chinese, or in English. I realized what made it easier for me to distance myself from my father, and to help my mother lie to him all those years [about her affair], was that I didn’t see him as fully human, someone with emotions.

You present the reader with another version of the email, but with redacted words throughout. Would you call it an erasure poem? What was your intention there?

I’m not a poet, but that piece came out of a class I had with Jen Hofer. She’s so amazing. Just so wise and brilliant. In that class we talked about translation, which I’d never thought much about, because I’m not really fluent in Chinese. She exposed us to different types of translation: not only translation for accuracy, but other kinds. So there’s a kind of translation where you’re trying to get to the hidden meaning of what someone’s saying. That’s the idea I was trying to get at with the erasure poem of my father’s email.

That process led me to think about not only what he’s trying to say, but what I feel about this email. I was trying to write about my speculations, creating an “ideal Bah Ba,” given that I knew he’d abused my sister. My ideal version of him is someone who owns up to betraying the family. He’s sorry, and he wants to try to get this family back. He doesn’t want to be the reason the family fell apart.

The portrayal of your sister reads very honest, and loving. Was there anything surprising that shifted in your relationship through writing the book?

My sister then, when I started writing the book, is different from my sister now. Before, she didn’t want to talk about these things. She didn’t want to talk about my dad. It was too raw. Since then she started seeing a therapist. I think she thinks of the book as a part of her journey, too. How this can be an opportunity for her to find power, so that she can face what’s happened in the past, and not be shaken by it.

When the book was coming out, I had a book launch planned, but I didn’t even think about inviting her. She was living in a different state. But she saw it on my Facebook, she talked to her husband, and they decided to come. That’s when I started getting nervous. My first reaction was, I have to change what I’m going to talk about. I didn’t want to put her on the spot. Then I thought: My sister’s grown. She knows what the book’s about, and she decided to get on a plane. And she didn’t come all the way out here so I can read a story about graffiti. I knew I had to do the real stuff.

At the book launch, I said the heart of the story is about my father abusing my sister. We talked afterwards, and she said that when she heard those words come out of my mouth, she got tense, because she’d never heard that said in public. But after I said it, nothing bad happened, and it was actually the opposite. She felt like things were going to be okay. It was a powerful moment for her. That was the most surprising thing. It made me happy. Really, without the book, we would’ve never talked about this. We would avoid it, we would sit there with all this and it would come out in other ugly ways.

(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)