About the Author

Camilla Gibb

Books by this Author
Mouthing The Words

Mouthing The Words

also available: Paperback
tagged : literary
More Info
Sweetness in the Belly

Harar, Ethiopia

The sun makes its orange way east from Arabia, over a Red Sea, across volcanic fields and desert and over the black hills to the qat- and coffee-shrubbed land of the fertile valley that surrounds our walled city. Night departs on the heels of the hyenas: they hear the sun’s approach as a hostile ringing, perceptible only to their ears, and it drives them back, bloody lipped and panic stricken, to their caves.

In darkness they have feasted on the city’s broken streets: devouring lame dogs in alleyways and licking eggshells and entrails off the ground. The people of the city cannot afford to waste their food, but nor can they neglect to feed the hyenas either. To let them go hungry is to forfeit their role as people on this wild earth, and strain the already tenuous ties that bind God’s creatures.

A hundred years ago, when the city’s gates were still closed at night — the key lodged firmly under the sleeping head of a neurotic emir — the hyenas were the only outsiders permitted access after dark. They would crawl through the drainage portals in the city’s clay walls. But the gates are splayed open now, have been for decades, a symbol of history’s turn against this Muslim outpost, a city of saints and scholars founded by Arabs who brought Islam to Abyssinia in the ninth century, the former capital of an emirate that once ruled for hundreds of miles.

For all the fear they inspire, though, if a hyena must die, one hopes it might do so on one’s doorstep. Pluck its eyebrows, fashion a bracelet, and you are guaranteed protection from buda, the evil eye. Endure the inconvenience of having to step over a hideous corpse baking in the African sun all day, but be assured that by the following morning, thanks to hyenas’ lack of inhibitions regarding cannibalism, the street will once again be licked clean.

As every day begins, the anguished cries of these feral children grow dim against a rising crescendo of birds quibbling in the pomegranate and lime trees of the city’s courtyards. And then the muezzins call: beckoning the city’s sleeping populace with a shower of praise for an almighty God. There are ninety-nine of them within the walls of this tiny city — ninety-nine muezzins for ninety-nine mosques. It takes the culmination of the staggered, near-simultaneous beginnings of a hundred less one to create the particular sound that is heard as Godliness in Harar.

* * * * * * *

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.

“Oh, you ca’n’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”

“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.

“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll

Part One
London, England

Scar Tissue

On a wet night in Thatcher’s Britain, a miracle was delivered onto the pockmarked pavement behind a decrepit building once known as Lambeth Hospital. Four women standing flanked by battered rubbish bins looked up to a close English sky and thanked Allah for this sign of his generosity. Two women ululated, one little boy, shy and tired, buried his face in his mother’s neck, and one baby stamped with a continent-shaped mole tried out her lungs. Her wail was mighty and unselfconscious, and with it, she announced that we had all arrived in England. None of us had hitherto had the confidence to be so brazen.

I was one of those four women. I trained in this God-forsaken building, a gothic nightmare of a place, a former workhouse where the poor were imprisoned and divided — men from women, aged and infirm from able bodied, able-bodied good from able-bodied bad — each forced to break a daily quota of stone in order to earn their keep. Adjacent is the old infirmary, which once had its own Register of Lunatics, among them a woman named Hannah Chaplin diagnosed with acute psychosis resulting from syphilis while in residence there with her seven-year-old son Charlie, some eighty years ago.

I don’t share this history though I’ve moved within its walls. In the places I have lived, the aged and the infirm and the psychotic are not separated from the rest of us. They are part of us. I don’t share this history, but as a child, I did see a Charlie Chaplin film in a cinema in Tangier through the smoke of a hundred cigarettes. I sat cross-legged between my parents on a wooden bench, a carpet of peanut shells at our feet, the audience roaring with laughter, united by the shared language of bodies without words.

Amazing that humour could ever be borne of this place. The building now stands condemned, slated for demolition, and I work at South Western, a hospital largely catering to the poor from the beleaguered housing estates in the surrounding areas: the mentally ill, the drug addicted, the unemployed white, the Asian and Afro-Caribbean immigrants and the refugees and asylum seekers, the latest wave of which has been rolling in from torn parts of East Africa, principally Eritrea and Sudan.

Many of these claimants avoid the hospital, overwhelmed or intimidated as they are by the agents and agencies of the state — the customs officers, police, civil servants, lawyers, social workers and doctors — with their unreadable expressions and their unreadable forms. I know this, because they are my neighbours. I encounter them in the elevator, in the laundrette, in the dimly lit concrete corridors of high-rises on the Cotton Gardens Estate. I’ve lived in a one-bedroom council flat on the fourteenth floor of one of these buildings since the autumn of 1974 — compensation for the circumstances of my arrival.

My white face and white uniform give me the appearance of authority in this new world, though my experiences, as my neighbours quickly come to discover, are rooted in the old. I’m a white Muslim woman raised in Africa, now employed by the National Health Service. I exist somewhere between what they know and what they fear, somewhere between the past and the future, which is not quite the present. I can translate the forms for them before kneeling down and putting my forehead to the same ground. Linoleum, concrete, industrial carpet. Five times a day, wherever we might be, however much we might doubt ourselves and the world around us.

I was not always a Muslim, but once I was led into the absorption of prayer and the mysteries of the Qur’an, something troubled in me became still.

close this panel
The Beauty of Humanity Movement

A Note of Grace
Old Man Hung makes the best ph? in the city and has done so for decades. Where he once had a shop, though, he no longer does, because the rents are exorbitant, both the hard rents and the soft—the bribes a proprietor must pay to the police in this new era of freedom.
Still, Hung has a mission, if not a licence. He pushes the firewood, braziers and giant pots balanced on his wooden cart through the streets of Hanoi’s Old Quarter in the middle of the night and sets up his stall in a sliver of alleyway, on an oily patch of factory ground, at the frayed edge of a park or in the hollow carcass of a building under construction. He’s a resourceful, roving man who, until very recently, could challenge those less than half his age to keep up.
When he is forced to move on, word will travel from the herb seller, or the noodle maker, or the man delivering newspapers, to the shopkeepers along Hàng Bông Road who make sure to pass the information on to his customers, particularly to Bình, the one who is like a son to him, out buying a newspaper or a couple of cigarettes in the earliest of morning hours, returning home to rouse his own son, Tu, slapping their bowls, spoons and chopsticks into his satchel, jerking the motorbike out of his kitchen and into the alleyway, and joining the riders of three million other motorbikes en route to breakfast, at least forty of them destined for Hung.
His customers, largely men known to him for a number of years, are loyal, some might say dependent. He is loyal and most certainly dependent. This is his livelihood, his being, his way in the world, and has been ever since he first came to apprentice in his Uncle Chien’s ph? shop at eleven years of age.
It was 1933 when his father sent him from the rice fields to the city, getting Hung well out of the way of a mother who cherished him least of all her ten children. She’d kept him at a distance ever since a fortune teller had confirmed her suspicions that the large black mole stretching from the outer corner of Hung’s left eye to the middle of his cheekbone was an inauspicious sign. Tattooed with the promise of future darkness, the fortune teller had decreed.
Hung had come to his Uncle Chien with no name other than “nine,” denoting his place in the birth order, becoming Hung only in Hanoi, under the guardianship of his uncle, a man who neither subscribed to village superstitions nor could afford to turn help away.
This morning, Hung has set up shop in the empty kidney of a future swimming pool attached to a hotel under construction near the Ngu Xá Temple. It has taken several attempts to get his fire started in the damp air, but as the dark grey of night yields to the lighter grey of clouded morning, the flames burn an orange as pure and vibrant as a monk’s robe.
Some of his customers have already begun to slip over the lip of the pool, running down its incline with their bowls, spoons and chopsticks, racing to be head of the queue.
Hung works like the expert he is, using his right hand to lay noodles into each bowl presented to him, covering these with slices of rare beef, their edges curling immediately with the heat of the broth he is simultaneously ladling into each bowl with his left.
“There you go, Nguy?n. There you go, Phúc, little Min,” and off his first customers shuffle with their bowls to squat on the concrete incline, using their spoons and chopsticks to greet the dawn of a new day.
Ah, and here is Bình, greeting him quietly as always, bowl in hands, never particularly animated until he’s had a few sips of broth. Although he is well into his fifties, Bình is a man still so like the boy who used to accompany his father, Ð?o, to Hung’s ph? shop back in the revolutionary days of the early 1950s. The world has changed much since then, but Bình remains the same mindful, meditative soul who used to pad about after Hung, helping him carry the empty bowls out to the dishwasher in the alleyway behind the shop.
“There you go, Bình,” Hung says, as he does every morning, dropping a handful of chopped green herbs into his bowl from shoulder height with exacting flourish.
“Hung, what happened to your glasses?” Bình asks of the crack that bisects the left lens.
Hung, loath to admit he inadvertently sat upon them last night, shrugs as if it is a mystery to him too.
“Come”—Bình gestures—“let me fix them for you.”
Hung dutifully unhooks his glasses from his ears and hands them to Bình’s son, Tu, who is waiting beside his father with his empty bowl. Tu tucks them into his father’s shirt pocket, and Bình shuffles left, making way for his son.
Tu, just twenty-two years old but so full of confidence, greets Hung with more words than Bình ever does and waves his chopsticks left and right as he tries to calculate the size of the pool. This is very much like him—Tu loves numbers in a way that seems to pain him. He used to teach math at a high school, but he has abandoned that recently in favour of entertaining tourists. Hung is not sure all that foreign interaction is good for the boy, but he trusts Bình is monitoring the situation.
Hung indulges Tu with a challenge this morning: “I’d like to see you calculate the pool’s volume in terms of the number of bowls of ph? that would be required to fill it.”
Tu grins as he manoeuvres his way carefully across the pool, holding his bowl right under his nose, the steam rising like incense smouldering in a temple to bathe his face.
Hung has taught Tu, Bình and Bình’s father, Ð?o, before him that you can tell a good broth by its aroma, the way it begs the body through the nose. And ph? b?c—the ph? of Hanoi—is the greatest seducer, because of the subtle dance of seasonings that animates the broth. It is not just the seasonings that make ph? b?c distinct, it is provenance, a lesson Hung would happily deliver to anyone interested in listening.
The history of Vietnam lies in this bowl, for it is in Hanoi, the Vietnamese heart, that ph? was born, a combination of the rice noodles that predominated after a thousand years of Chinese occupation and the taste for beef the Vietnamese acquired under the French, who turned their cows away from ploughs and into bifteck and pot-au-feu. The name of their national soup is pronounced like this French word for fire, as Hung’s Uncle Chien explained to him long ago.
“We’re a clever people,” his uncle had said. “We took the best the occupiers had to offer and made it our own. Fish sauce is the key—in matters of soup and well beyond. Even romance, some people say.”
It was only with the painful partitioning of the country in 1954 that ph? went south; the million who fled communism held the taste of home in their mouths, the recipe in their hearts, but their eyes grew big in the markets of Saigon and they began to adulterate the recipe with imported herbs and vegetables. The ph's of Saigon had flourished brash with freedom and abundance while the North ate a poor man’s broth, plain and watered down, with chicken in place of beef as the Party ordered the closure of independent businesses like Hung’s and a string of government-owned cafeterias opened in their place.
Terrible stuff it was, grey as stagnant rainwater in a gutter. Those who are old enough to remember it thank Hung for getting rid of the mouldy taste in their mouths. Kids of Tu’s generation probably can’t even imagine it. Tu was born just before the government’s desperately needed economic reforms of 1986, when the market was liberalized in order to alleviate starvation and independent ownership once again became a possibility. Only then could the true potential of ph? be realized.
The challenge for Hung now has less to do with the availability of ingredients than with the need for restraint. Hung sees himself as a guardian of purity, eschewing bean sprouts and excessive green garnish in accordance with northern tradition. They may well have opened their doors to the world, but that does not mean they must pollute their bowls. An b?c; m?c nam, they say—eating as in the North; clothing as in the South—something so fundamental must be respected through deference to tradition.
Hung is a man governed by such principles rather than any laws, particularly those ones keenly enforced by the police that are of greatest inconvenience to him and those he serves. When the officers come to ticket him for trespassing or operating without a licence after he has had the peace of setting up shop in the same location for a few consecutive days, his customers will be forced to run off clutching their bowls, sloshing broth against their freshly pressed shirts, losing noodles to the pavement, jumping aboard their motorbikes and lurching into the day.
Hung’s crime is the same every day, but sometimes the police are in more of a mood to arrest a man than fine him. “Where did you relieve yourself this morning?” an officer in such a mood had asked him a few months ago.
Hung had shaken his head. The question made no sense. “Where did you pee, old man?” The officer raised his voice, threatening to arrest Hung for resisting a police officer if he didn’t answer the question.
Hung reluctantly pointed toward a patch of grass and asked, “Has peeing now been declared a crime?”
No, but that very patch of grass, as he was no doubt well aware, was the consecrated site upon which the Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs would soon be erecting a new monument to honour the revolution’s martyrs and devotees. And so Hung was promptly arrested for insulting the Communist Party, which is to say, the only party there is.
Hung considered that night behind bars, lying on concrete and pissing into a communal bucket, mild punishment compared to the previous time he’d been charged with insulting the Party. Then, they had disciplined his mouth by punching out most of his front teeth with the butt of a rifle.
“Why this waste of money on statues?” he shouted after Bình had paid the bribe to release him from prison the second time. “Why yet another monument for the revolution? It’s been fifty years of this. Oh, if they could read the insults in my mind . . .”
“They used to claim they could read minds,” Bình said, and off they wandered, mumbling together like two old men despite the almost thirty years between them, two old men who had indeed once believed in the Party’s telepathy.       
Hung serves the last man among today’s early shift of customers and looks over at Bình and Tu, the younger still making calculations in the air with his chopsticks, the elder concentrating on his bowl. He wonders whether it isn’t time for Tu to marry. He hopes Tu’s mother, Anh, is giving this matter some attention; if not, Tu may well be the last in this family line Hung will serve.
The comforting clatter of metal spoons against ceramic is suddenly interrupted by a booming voice that floods the bloodless kidney, bouncing from side to side. Noodles slap against chins and silence falls. “What the hell are you all doing here?” a man yells, stepping down in heavy workboots. “I’ve got a project to supervise. I’ll have you all arrested if you don’t pack up and leave immediately!” He smacks a crowbar repeatedly against his thick-skinned palm.
Bình rises to his feet and all eyes turn toward him. “Sir, you have to smell this,” he says, nodding at the bowl in his hands.
Hung feels a hot rush of pride fill his cheeks. Bình really is a son to him, if not by blood, then certainly through his devotion. What is blood without relationship, without life shared, in any case? Hung has come to believe it is little more than something red.
A hush vibrates around the pool as the foreman steps toward Bình and demands to know their business. This is private property; what are they all doing squatting here like it’s mealtime on some communal farm?
“This is Hanoi’s greatest secret,” Bình says, his eyes lowered in deference. “Seriously. You have to know. It will change you.”
Despite the threat of the rusty crowbar, despite his familiarity with the pain such an instrument can cause, Hung knows this is his moment. He shuffles forth across the concrete in his slippers. He holds his own bowl under the foreman’s nose, steam rising to envelop them both. His customers inhale as if sharing one set of lungs. No one makes a sound as the foreman licks his lips and takes the chopsticks Hung offers. The foreman thrusts those chopsticks to the bottom of the bowl and lifts the noodles into the air, creating a wave that plunges the herbs to the bottom before they float back to the surface, infusing the noodles in the broth, just as every mother teaches her child.
The foreman proves he is just like every mother’s son. He leans over the bowl and inhales as he lays the noodles back down to rest in the broth, then clutches a few strands between his chopsticks and raises them to his mouth. The construction workers stand around the rim of the pool, watching their boss in silence. The foreman slurps broth from the spoon, lifts up a few more noodles with his chopsticks, curls them into his spoon, picks up a thin slice of beef, lays it on the bed of noodles, tweezes a piece of basil from the broth and places it on top of the beef, then puts this perfectly balanced combination, this yin and yang, into his mouth.
And then he grunts.
“I see what you mean,” he finally says to Bình, handing the bowl back to Hung.
“Bring your bowl tomorrow. Tell your men, too,” Hung says quietly, squinting at the workers on the rim. His left eye is clouded over; his right discerns the outline of a row of men. “Half price for them,” he says, “free, of course, for you.”
“I’ll pay you full price,” says the foreman. “Just as long as you and your customers are out by seven.”
“Yes, sir,” says Hung, shuffling back to the fatter end of the kidney to extinguish his fire. He feels a tremor of nervous laughter rattle beneath his ribs. He dares not look over at Bình. He smiles into the fire, sharing the victory with its embers instead.
It is not yet half past six—still plenty of time left to serve the latecomers who have just arrived, which Hung does now with good humour and renewed concentration, laying noodles and beef into each bowl with his right hand, pouring ladlefuls of broth over top with his left, his rhythm as even and essential as a beating heart.
Hung recognizes each man by the state of his hands: the grease moons under the nails that mark a mechanic, the calluses of one who works a lathe, the chewed nails of a student writing exams.
But then whose lovely hands are these amidst this parade of manly paws? The delicate hands of a woman who has, improbably, never engaged in manual labour. And the bowl. Shining. Translucent. Porcelain.
He looks up. The young woman before him is a classic beauty with delicate, balanced features, and although she is not one of his regular customers there is something familiar about her face.
Perhaps Bình sees it too, for he coughs in that moment and pulls his son away by the shirtsleeve—no time for gawking, time to get to work.
“You’ve come to me for breakfast before?” Hung asks, turning his attention back to the young woman before him.
“No,” she says, revealing herself a foreigner with just one word. Her black suit and crisp white shirt also set her apart; she is dressed like a serious businesswoman, and those teeth—white as the snow that used to fall on Quyeˆ´t Mountain when he was a boy, straight as the pines that crowned it.
“Maybe I knew you when you were a child?”
“I don’t think it’s possible, sir. I grew up in the U.S. But perhaps you knew my father—Lý Van Hai.”
“Lý Van Hai,” Hung repeats. The name is not entirely unfamiliar to him, but it is a sound far away, a temple gong ringing in a distant valley.
“He was an artist here in the fifties.”
Hung stops the movement of his ladle. Wait. Who is this woman? And what does she want? Does the government now employ beautiful young women with foreign accents as spies? Has she been hired to trap him, all these years later, to have him admit some collusion with the men of the Beauty of Humanity Movement?
Hung straightens his back, ready to defend himself, when he suddenly sees all the colour drain away from her face.
This girl is no spy.
“I’m sorry,” she says quietly. “I know this must seem like it’s coming out of nowhere, but I heard you knew many of the artists back then, and I’ve spent a year searching and nobody knows anything and I just . . .” Her voice evaporates and her shoulders slump. “I just hoped that maybe you knew him.”
Hung clears his throat. He does not know what to say. The professional businesswoman has transformed into a girl defeated. A girl in search of her father. “A Hanoi man, was he?”
She glances up, turning Hung into a frozen portrait of a man holding a ladle in mid-air. She looks so vulnerable—her eyes shining like rare black pearls, a slight tremor to her chin—her face far too revealing.
“He grew up in H?i Phòng, but he moved here to train at the École des Beaux Arts in the late 1940s,” she says.
It has been decades since a beautiful young woman has looked at him in such a way. Not since Lan, the girl who used to raise her eyes to him for answers. It is almost unbearable. If only he could offer this young woman—and himself—some relief. But he cannot honestly say he remembers anything about Lý Van Hai, except perhaps that combination of short syllables.
“His name is vaguely familiar,” says Hung, leaning in closer.“What else can you tell me about him, dear?”
“He was sent to a re-education camp in 1956.”
“So many of them were,” Hung says quietly.
“He was in good company then.”
“Oh, he would have been, yes,” Hung says. “Some of the very best.” He feels the urge to tell her just how good, to boast about the poetry and the essays and the artwork the Beauty of Humanity Movement produced, the fearlessness the men he knew had displayed in the face of opposition, the reach and inspiration of their work.
“Come again,” he says to the young woman instead. “Perhaps I will remember him.”
She pulls a business card from her pocket and hands it to him.
Hung squints at the English letters and bows his head respectfully, not recognizing a single word.
Tu sits behind his father on the seat of the Honda Dream II as they head back toward the Old Quarter after breakfast, wending their way through the congestion of motorbikes, bicycles, cyclos, pedestrians, cars, wooden carts and back-bent widows peddling food in baskets hanging from bamboo poles, blazing a trail through air thick with diesel fumes and morning fog.
“You’ve never seen her before?” Tu shouts, as his father slows down to turn a corner.
“I told you—no,” Bình yells over his shoulder.
“But what do you think she was doing there?”
“No idea,” his father yells. “Strange morning.”
Strange indeed. Auspicious even. Tu’s father seems possessed with the strength of the new moon—look at his victory over the foreman this morning, after all. Although his father is a naturally reserved man, Tu has seen him overcome his inhibition when it counts. It is their job to protect Hung, particularly now that he is getting older. Hung’s eyesight has deteriorated recently, his movements have become stiff and slow; it pains Tu to realize that Hung is no longer the invincible street warrior, but a man showing the vulnerabilities of his age.
Tu squeezes his father’s shoulder affectionately before hopping off the back of the bike in front of the Metropole, Hanoi’s finest hotel, once the finest in all of Indochina. He skips up the steps and enters the lobby. The giant potted palms, chandeliers and ceiling fans keep the grand colonial air of the place alive. Phuong, Tu’s best friend and partner in capitalist adventure, stumbles in just after him, looking foul-tempered with the stink of late-night karaoke. He has neglected to shave and his lips appear glued together. Phuong has clearly not been fortified with the bowl of ph? that is vital for one’s daily performance.
“You missed some real drama this morning,” says Tu.
“I’ve had quite enough drama of my own already this morning,” says Phuong.
Phuong is the driver, and Tu, because of his better English, is the guide, but together they are the A-team employed by the New Dawn Tour Agency in their matching company T-shirts and knock-off Chinese Nike Shox Jungas with soles the colour of ripe mango. On the job, Phuong goes by the name Hanoi Poison, Hanoi P for short. He says it’s for the benefit of the tourists who can only seem to spit his real name, but the truth is it’s his rap name and he’s planning on becoming a famous rap artist. Phuong has solid musical training behind him, a growing reputation and many, many fans, but most of all, he’s got talent. He tries to mess with Tu’s name as well—Tu-Dangerous, TaTu—but Tu is not interested. “I’m old-fashioned that way,” he says, “leave it be.”
Tu met Phuong a couple of years ago when they were both teaching at the high school in Јo ´ng Ða district. Tu was twenty years old and had just made the depressing discovery that loving math was a very different thing from loving teaching it. He was dreading the thought of the next forty-five years until retirement, but when he thought of the drudgery his parents had endured in their early working lives he was overcome with guilt.
Bình and Anh had been employed at the Russian KAO factory for years, dutiful proletariat manufacturing Ping-Pong balls for a pittance. Tu’s father had worked with celluloid, his mother had tested for bounce and Tu had had a cardboard box full of misshapen white balls to play with as a child. But in the 1980s, the bones of the Soviet Union began to rattle. Soviet aid ran out and the factories began to close, leaving Vietnam friendless and hungry and in trouble. And so began Ð?i m?i—Vietnam’s very own perestroika—the economic reforms that allowed a free market to develop and have since changed all of their lives.
Tu’s father now has endless carpentry work. He employs two assistants, four skilled woodworkers and an apprentice, but still, with so much construction going on he must say no to jobs on occasion. Despite his enthusiasm for private enterprise, Bình is still more craftsman than businessman.
Tu’s mother, meanwhile, had knocked on the doors of every one of the new butcher shops that opened in the 1990s until she found one proprietor who was obliged to listen because he came from the same village as her mother. The story is now legendary in their family. “Tell me nine ways to prepare pork for Tet and I’ll consider hiring you,” the butcher said. And so Tu’s mother recalled the pork dishes they used to eat during the holidays at her grandmother’s house. She described the sensation of her teeth collapsing through fried rice paper into the soft ground pork middle of a spring roll, the crisp saltiness of pig skin fried with onions, the silk of the finest pork and cinnamon pâté coating her tongue, the soft chew of pork sausages, the buttery collapse of pig’s trotters stewed with bamboo shoots, the ticklish texture of pig intestines resting on vermicelli and the fill of sticky rice, pork and green beans boiled in banana leaves. Just when she was about to falter, she remembered how her father used to reminisce about the dishes his mother made for Tet during his boyhood in Hu?: pork bologna, fermented pork hash, pig’s brain pie . . .
The butcher raised his finger. “You’re hired. Stop there before I fire you.”
Tu did not have to do time in a factory: he grew up in a world where he was free to choose a career for himself. What right did he have to complain about his teaching job? But then he’d met Phuong, a part-time music teacher a few years older than he who taught classical dàn ba 'ˆu two days a week. Phuong, moping in the teachers’ lounge, had called theirs a thankless profession. This had unleashed a sympathetic torrent from Tu, marking the beginning of an illustrious friendship.
Phuong had the spirit and imagination of an artist and entrepreneur, enough to inflate the dreams for two. By the end of that school year, once Phuong had lobbied Tu’s father for consent, they had both submitted their resignations and registered for a diploma course at Hanoi Tourism College.
You are the Ð?i m?i generation, the instructors at the college told them, the children of the renovation, the future of Vietnam—a future that depends on opening even more doors to international trade and relations. Tu feels the elation of being poised at the vanguard of the future as a proud, fully fledged, nationally accredited tour guide shaking the hands of the world.
Tu’s English might be better than Phuong’s, but Tu knows that in many ways it was Phuong who taught him what foreigners really want. Tu prides himself on being an excellent memorizer, and initially relied on the vast and readily accessible number of facts stored in his brain. He has memorized, in particular, The Big Book of Inventions, so if a tourist comes from, say, Norway, he can impress him by asking, Do you know the invention for which Norway is most famous? The aerosol spray can.
The tourist will then turn his blue eyes to his companion and say, Really. I had no idea.
In 1926 by Mr. Erik Rotheim, chemical engineer, Tu might add.
He also attempts to wow with statistics—a communist education encourages such things—the land area of each administrative division in the country, for instance, the number of university graduates from various faculties, the lengths of the Mekong and Red rivers and the Great Wall of China.
It was Phuong who pulled him aside one day and said, “When they say really, it actually means that is very boring.”
“Really?” Tu asked.
Tu believes it is shared wisdom like this that has made them the A-team. But he is still learning, and perhaps that is what he likes best about his job. No pain, no gain, as the Americans say.
This morning, he and Phuong are escorting a middle-aged Canadian couple to some nearby villages. Tu likes the Canadians, even if their most exciting invention was only the garbage bag. (Really. In 1950 by Mr. Harry Wasylyk of Winnipeg, Manitoba.) They are generally kind, though it always amuses him how they introduce themselves with variations of: Hello, nice to meet you, we are from Canada, see the maple leaves sewn onto our knapsacks? Our country might be right next door, but it’s a world apart from its southern neighbour; in fact, we offered refuge to a great many draft dodgers who did not believe the Americans should be in Vietnam—horrible, horrible war, horrible, horrible U.S.A., horrible, horrible George Bush, and Iraq, now don’t get me started on Iraq . . .
Yes, yes, Tu will nod and smile, because he does not want to speak a truth they will find complicated or disagreeable. This is what is meant by saving face. The war was a long time ago, well before Tu was born, and besides, in his opinion, an opinion shared with most of his friends, everything great was invented in the U.S. Blue jeans, for example. And Nikes and Tommy Hilfiger. And MTV and Nintendo and the Internet. And furthermore, the Vietnamese beat the Americans; they don’t go around boasting about it, but it’s true. It wasn’t like the Chinese, crushing the Vietnamese for a thousand years, or the French who tortured and killed for decades, making the Vietnamese slaves in their own country and taking every decision out of their hands.
While such thoughts might fly around like a Ping-Pong ball inside Tu’s head, none of his clients would ever suspect it. Tu works hard to impress them with his good nature and exemplary customer service, and is ever-ready with his New Dawn smile.
Today’s Canadians are from Quebec, the first French Canadians Tu has ever met. “We too were colonized by the French, as I am sure you are aware,” he said when he met them in the lobby yesterday, attempting to establish some common bond.
Their reaction had caused Tu to spend most of last night in an Internet café. Today he hopes to redeem himself with sensitive insights into their unique history and culture. He will need to, because Phuong, green with hangover, does not look like he will be of any particular help.
Tu is indebted to his friend for changing his life, and he considers Phuong a brother. He envies him like a brother too. Phuong is taller and leaner, but it’s not Tu’s fault he inherited his father’s slightly bowed legs. The baggy jeans fortunately help disguise this. And at least both his eyes are real; there is no danger of inheriting his father’s glass eye. Tu doesn’t have nearly as white a smile as Phuong’s, his upper teeth having been stained from taking antibiotics when he was a kid, but again—not his fault. And his hands? A little small, but surely more than made up for by the size and enthusiasm of his penis, as his future wife will discover.
Currently there are no candidates for that job. An introduction through family is always best, and even if Phuong prefers random girls for himself, as Tu’s honorary older brother, he introduces him to girls from time to time.
Last Christmas there was this one girl Phuong kept chatting about, and while Tu was interested at first, the more stories about her charitable work that Phuong recounted, the less interested Tu became. By the time Phuong finally introduced them, Tu was expecting someone with a shaved head in a flowing saffron robe who had no interest in romance or other worldly (i.e., carnal) matters. Instead, he was introduced to a cute girl dressed as one of Santa’s helpers. She was wearing a short, fuzzy red-and-white miniskirt and her hair was tied into flirty Japanese-schoolgirl-style ponytails underneath her floppy Santa’s hat. Tu suddenly felt very shy. He felt other things too, but very shy was perhaps second on the list.
It was Christmas Eve and the three of them were standing among two thousand other Buddhists facing St. Joseph’s Cathedral with its blazing neon-blue manger. There were balloons and streamers and ribbons of fake snow floating through the air above, a rainbow of coloured lights beaming off the top of the church and music blaring over giant loudspeakers on the church steps, but all Tu felt was the fuzzy warmth of the girl’s skirt as she stood wedged between them, all he smelled was her perfume beyond the plastic scent of her clothes, all he felt, suddenly, was her hand on his hand, her head on his shoulder, all he heard was her whispering in his ear, “You can kiss me, you can touch me, if you’d like.”
Tu was shocked: there they were wedged together in the crowd when she turned toward him, barely an inch between their noses, and took his hand and placed it on her breast, which was like a perfect brioche from a French bakery, the nipple like a hard raisin. She then slipped her hand down between them and, although she had no room to manoeuvre, she managed to rub his penis through his jeans. In thirty seconds he erupted, making a sound like a small sneezing dog.
He never saw the girl again. He tried to call her the next day but her cellphone number didn’t even exist. It was only then that he asked Phuong, “That girl, she wasn’t . . . — Phuong, you didn’t . . . did you?”
“Merry Christmas, my friend.”
Tu had been extremely embarrassed about the whole thing and wondered if this is what Phuong had meant when he referred to her “charitable work.” Still, he does savour the memory of it and dream of the meal that will come when he marries, because if he ever does get that close to a real girl, he will certainly be marrying her, although he doesn’t want to marry that kind of girl, he wants a quiet and traditional girl, one he can introduce with pride to everyone in his family, one who will belong among them, for she will come to live with him and his parents as tradition dictates, because Tu is the first-born and only son.
Above all, his future wife must show great respect to Old Man Hung. The old man is patriarch of their family in a unique and complicated way, beyond blood. Tu’s father has known Old Man Hung since boyhood, since before he was Old Man and was just Hung. He is he one who kept Grandfather Ð?o’s flame burning, holding it close through decades of poverty and war, and waiting patiently for the day when he could share it and pass it on.
Old Man Hung has been present at every important occasion of Tu’s life. From his birth to every Tet holiday to his graduation. Given how much the old man seems to have aged over the past few months, Tu worries the remaining occasions are numbered. He means no disrespect to Grandfather Ð?o, but on such occasions, and even in the day-to-day, Tu feels Hung to be more of a real grandfather to him than the legendary poet whose image sits enshrined on an overturned crate inside Hung’s rickety old shack on the shore of a manky pond.
Introducing a girl to Old Man Hung would be the ultimate test of her moral character. Hung is poorer than poor, and the wrong girl would be put off by the association and might begin to worry about the security of her future. Even if Tu is ashamed by the old man’s poverty himself at times, the truth is, Tu is looking for someone who is a better person than he.
Mr. and Mrs. Henri Lévesque have just entered the lobby, putting an end to this introspection. “You’ve slept well?” Tu asks. “Had a satisfactory breakfast? You have enjoyed some of the amenities of the hotel such as the free Wi-Fi? You have your camera in your bag there? This is our driver, Phuong, and he will be taking us to the ethnic minority craft villages this morning. First in our journey, we will be crossing the Red River via one of the city’s three bridges. The Red River comes to us from China through the Honghe Autonomous Prefecture in Yunnan Province and runs in a southeasterly direction for a total of 1,175 kilometres before emptying itself in the Gulf of Tonkin.”
Really,” mumbles Phuong, as he leads the couple down the steps toward the van.
Hung pats his shirt pocket. The young woman’s business card is nestled there alongside Tu’s, which the boy insists Hung keep on his person at all times. He indulges Tu with the solemn promise to do so, even if he does find the implication somewhat patronizing.
Hung uses all his strength to push his cart through the streets toward the Hàng Da Market, where he will visit Bình’s wife, Anh, at her butcher stall. She is very good company, always up for a bit of conversation over a calming cup of jasmine tea, but there is a particular urgency to his pace this morning: he hopes the business card might reveal a clue. His desire to remember something, anything about this girl’s father feels so acute it could lead a man to fanciful thoughts, if not outright fabrication. He needs to work with the few pieces of information he’s been given.
When Hung tires of pushing his wooden cart, he turns it around and pulls it, his arms stretched out behind him like the yoke that harnesses an ox. He can feel the road rough against the sole of his left foot; time once again to replace a slipper. Fortunately, being far from fashionable, these black vinyl slippers are cheap. He remembers a time in the not-too-distant past when everyone wore them and had no choice. For a few years they were the only shoes you could buy in the government shops. One was rarely lucky enough to find the right size or a matching pair, but since everyone faced the same predicament, people were always prepared to engage in a frantic yet good-natured exchange in the street.
Such communality is rare these days. Now Hung passes a new shoe shop every day, where shoes with prices marked in both dong and U.S. dollars hang like ripe fruit. The streets of the Old Quarter shine with imported merchandise, where not long ago they only gave off the fumes of disintegration, the smell of rot. At times the glare seems far too bright.
Hung grinds to a halt in front of the market. He has overexerted himself and needs a moment of rest. He lifts the biggest of his pots from his cart and inverts it, plunking it down with a hollow boom on the sidewalk. He plants his bottom firmly upon it, his legs spread wide apart, and waves to the sugar-cane seller, gesturing for a cup of juice. He rests his knees on his elbows and rubs his eyes with the heels of his hands. What a dramatic and emotional morning it has been.
Seeing Bình rise and approach the foreman had cast him right back to those heady days in the early 1950s when Ð?o and the circle of artists and intellectuals who gathered around him would congregate for breakfast in the shop Hung had by then inherited from Uncle Chien.
Bình, tiny then, would sit on a low wooden stool at his father’s side, looking terrified of splashing his white shirt as he bent his head over his bowl and tried to manipulate a pair of long chopsticks between his small fingers.
Ð?o and the other men completely failed to notice the boy’s travails, consumed as they were with news of the liberation struggle and engaged in heated debates about the future of Vietnam. After abandoning his bowl, little Bình would sit patiently beside his father, who was alternately scribbling in a leatherbound notebook or arguing a point by jabbing the air with the burning end of his cigarette.
Hung, alone, saw the boy. And Bình’s invisibility gnawed at his heart.
“Come,” Hung said at last, drawing Bình away from the table. “There is a bird nesting above the frame of the door.”
The boy padded through Hung’s backroom after him, where Hung pointed to the nest wedged under the eaves.
“Are there babies?” he remembers Bình asking.
Hung had crouched down and encouraged the boy to climb up and sit on his shoulders. Hung tottered upright, pinning the boy’s calves against his chest. “Can you see inside?”
“There’s a blue egg,” Bình said, his voice full of wonder. “When will it hatch?”
“I tell you what,” Hung said. “We’ll have a look every day until it does.”
One night, Hung took a pair of ivory chopsticks, sawed off their tips and sanded them until they were nicely tapered and polished. He pulled Bình out of the inferno the next morning to present these to him. The boy held them in one hand and clutched them against his chest as he walked back to the table unnoticed and resumed his seat. The glow in Bình’s eyes as he turned the chopsticks over in his hands and admired them from all angles had given Hung the sense, for the briefest of moments, of what it might feel like to be a father. He had felt it again this morning watching Bình rise to address the foreman: that same proud flicker of paternal love. Age is doing its inevitable though, and reversing their roles; the son is now defending the father.
How gentle and selfless Bình has always been. How bold and idealistic was his father. But perhaps the politics of a time determine the disposition of a man; perhaps a revolutionary is only a revolutionary in revolutionary times. Hung cannot say with any certainty what makes a man. But he certainly knows what breaks one.
Perhaps the poor girl who turned up unexpectedly this morning knows something of this too. If Lý Van Hai was among the men who used to frequent Hung’s shop, he is unlikely to have met a happy end.
Right, he says to himself, slapping his thighs. Time to tell Anh about the girl and the ghost who is her father. Hung presses his palms into his knees and pushes himself upright with a groan. He really is getting old. He has begun to wonder what Buddha has in store for him in the afterlife, whether it be reincarnation as a bull or a bug.
Hung offers the bird seller a thousand dong to watch his cart. The bird seller bargains for double. Hung passes over a greasy wad of small bills, then makes his way unburdened toward a pink pyramid of stacked pigs in the far corner of the market.
Anh waves a large blade in greeting. She puts the knife down and wipes her bloodied hands on her white smock before delicately taking the business card Hung holds out to her by the edges. She does not read English either. They need someone of Tu’s generation to translate. Anh calls over the fishmonger’s son, but he shakes his head: he was in a boat as a boy, not a classroom.
The district propaganda broadcast is reaching its peak as the business card is passed from bloodied hand to fish-scaled hand to muddied hand throughout the stalls of the market. A voice backfires like an exhaust pipe through the loudspeaker, spluttering the names and addresses of those who have neglected to pay their garbage collection fee or renew their motorbike licence or turned eighteen and failed to report for military duty.
Having heard his own name so many times, Hung is immune to this public shaming. He’s more attuned to the smaller sounds, the burps of nature. Frogs croaking their final days in pans of slimy water; birds twittering in their lacy cages. Despite all the years he has lived in Hanoi, Hung can still hear a canary sing above the propaganda broadcast, over the thrum and burr of engines and the orchestra of competing horns. He can still discern a note of nature’s grace.
The card is a stampede of fingerprints by the time it is returned to Hung, but someone has written a translation of the words on its reverse.
Miss Maggie Ly
Curator of Art
Hotel Sofitel Metropole
15 Ngô Quyeˆ´n Street
Luxury at the heart of Hanoi since 1901

close this panel
The Petty Details of So-and-So's Life

“I will make gashes on my entire body and tattoo it.
I want to be as hideous as a Mongol.
You will see, I will howl in the streets.”
-- Arthur Rimbaud, A Season in Hell

The Extinction of the Question Mark

A photograph. A single photograph. White borders blackened with the grease of family fingers groping at the only remaining evidence of themselves: a picture of a man kneeling on all fours in the dirt. He is drunk, he is thin, he is tired. He is Oliver Taylor, a man gazing at a camera like a bewildered animal caught in headlights, looking feral and fetal and altogether strange. It’s the middle of winter, but he seems to have adapted to the bitter cold. A white shirt hangs off his otherwise naked frame like a vestigial remnant of some earlier evolutionary stage; a time when business meant business and men wore suits.

They know he came from elsewhere -- emerged, devolved, transmuted from some earlier incarnation of himself -- because they remember when he lived in a house with a wife, two children, and a cat, and ate roast beef on Sundays and rice pudding for dessert. His wife was called Elaine, the cat called Frosted Flake, and they were those children -- Emma and Llewellyn -- Em and Blue for short.

They liked their roast beef bloody and dripping, and Elaine made the rice pudding with rich, flesh-toned condensed milk because that’s what Oliver’s mother had done during the war. Which war, Elaine never told them, even though they always asked. “The war during which your granny” -- that mysterious entity who lived on the other side of the ocean -- “used condensed milk,” she’d answer obtusely.

Emma and Blue grew up feeling as muddled about the history of the world as they did about their own ancestry. Having learned the futility of asking questions at such a young age, it’s a wonder the question mark didn’t become extinct. They fabricated answers to unasked questions in the rank and damp of the basement where they played “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.” They shared secrets and understanding as they crouched by the furnace with a face like a monster in the bowels of their house in Niagara Falls.

It was there that nine-year-old Blue pulled up his sleeve to show Emma the initials he’d carved into his arm with a homemade tattoo gun made from the broken needles of Elaine’s old Singer. Emma had turned away when he’d started to pull the needles downward through his skin the day before. She’d wanted to cry out but she didn’t dare because they were already in trouble. They often were. It was the middle of a Tuesday afternoon and they were hiding in a place infinitely superior to that space between a Formica-topped desk and a doll’s chair one was supposed to occupy in grades three and four.

Blue preferred wearing graffiti to scribbling it on bathroom walls. Emma preferred darkness to daylight. They both preferred being in the basement to most places above-ground, but it was there, on that day, that Emma stared at Blue’s baby-boy bicep and realized for the first time that she and her brother didn’t wear the same skin.

She’d thought they were identical. She’d thought they were both gap-toothed and lonely and saw all the same things, even though her eyes were grey and his green. She had no idea that while she was staring at the horizon like it was icing on a cake at the edge of the world, Blue was squinting in order to avoid staring directly at all that he saw.

But they had always been different. Emma was a round little pudgeball with the type of cheeks peculiar mothers fantasized about biting. She did somersaults on sticky sidewalks, pale limbs over paler skin; she was a tangled, translucent mass, a “Holy Christ, here she comes.” Her brother, on the other hand, was long and lean and getting longer every day, emerging from baby fat into boy-body with alarming speed. He had muscles as tough as straw, and was unconsciously troubled by his limitless potential for physical growth. He was cautious, doubly so, enough for both of them, his posture hunched and timid, his movements measured and deliberate against the clumsy backdrop of his sister tumbling head, belly, then knees over heels.

“It’s my first tattoo,” he declared proudly, speaking as if he’d just adopted the first strange animal in a bestiary he was planning on housing. Because theirs was a world without questions, Emma didn’t ask the obvious. She simply nodded and put her hand to his forehead to see if he had a temperature. She spent that night, and many nights that followed though, wondering if her little brother was afraid of forgetting his name. She wished she could forget hers. She was, after all, named after her mother’s childhood pet -- not a movie star or a war hero or a favourite aunt, but a bouvier -- a four-legged furry thing with a tail like a sawed-off carrot.

In secret defiance Emma had actually changed her name. She was Tabatha -- daughter of the good witch Samantha -- a pretty little blonde girl who lived in a happy suburban home where mischievous witches and warlocks turned up unannounced for tea and inadvertently distressed her poor mortal father with trickery designed to embarrass him in front of curtain-twitching neighbours.

She sensed Blue’s motivation to identify himself was different. Perhaps he was afraid of getting lost in the street. She pictured some kind stranger, a Jimmy Stewart look-alike in a suit and a white hat, approaching her brother and saying in a voice out of a black-and-white movie: “Why, you look lost, son. What’s your name, boy?” Blue would pull up his sleeve to consult his bicep then and the Jimmy Stewart look-alike would exclaim, “What the dickens?”

If it were the fear of being lost and not found that compelled him to etch a deep, dyslexic “LT” into his arm, she would have suggested a different set of initials. Ones that would lead you back to a house with a swimming pool, or a family with twelve kids, or a mother who would buy you skates and take you to hockey practice. Initials you might want to have monogrammed on a set of towels that belong in a house with a finished basement on some street with a name like Thackley Terrace.

Instead, there they were with Elaine and Oliver, all crammed into a tiny three-bedroom house in Niagara Falls, across the street from a restaurant offering french fries and chow mein available twenty-four hours, even though a big closed sign hung across the door at night because of lack of business. The house, a decrepit building that they’d bought for next to nothing, stood on the tawdry main street, sandwiched between a hardware store and a used-clothing store. In its previous incarnation, their house had been a pet food store, evidenced by the basement full of dog food that was part of the bargain. Before that, as Elaine and Oliver deduced on the basis of what lay behind the cheap drywall, it must have been a porn shop. The building was apparently insulated with mouldy copies of Penthouse.

close this panel
The Journey Prize Stories 21

From the Introduction
Writers select their most polished short stories to submit to journals. From what they receive, the journals' editors choose what they feel are the most surprising and gripping stories to publish, then winnow those published stories again to find those they consider most worthy of inclusion in a national anthology. That's when the packages show up in the Journey Prize jury's mailboxes – this year, filled with seventy-two nuanced, deeply imagined, and sharply written pieces of short fiction.
What a pleasure to read so many stellar explorations of a challenging literary form. What an education, too. And what a terrifying challenge to look at what the best literary editors in Canada consider the best stories, and to try to choose the best of those. The pleasure and education far outweighed the terror, but still it was daunting. Brilliant short stories can be brilliant along any number of metrics – realism or strangeness, elegance or blunt simplicity, tight plotting or sprawling authenticity. Comparison is fraught and dubious at best. All we can do, whether in the role of judge, teacher, or simply happy reader, is to consider what the writer was trying to achieve, how well he or she succeeded in that goal, and how excited the reader is about that success.
One terribly exciting success, in our opinion, is "The Last Great Works of Alvin Cale" by Daniel Griffin. This subtle and complicated story of art, love, and lust moves forward on the grim trajectory of death, but also draws haunting life from its central character, Skylar, and his admission to himself of all he truly feels, and longs for. His son's illness renews their relationship and their uneasy intimacy, full of envy, rivalry, and fierce affection for beauty. Griffin has taken on considerable challenges in portraying the working lives of artists, and has done so with amazing, and heartbreaking, force.
Adrian Michael Kelly's "Lure" is also a story about a father and a son, but Kelly's is an altogether different art, full of the simple intensity of a child's observation. Kelly doesn't trouble the reader with anything but the moment as the boy sees it. The drama inheres in a child's anxiety over pleasing his father, over the life of a frog, and the taste of a sandwich. Although "Lure" does have a climax of adult pain, it is the boy's perceptions and tensions that dominate, and it is to Kelly's infinite credit that this seems not a limitation but an illumination.
To continue with family stories, Sarah L. Taggart's "Deaf " is told from alternating perspectives of a mother and her young daughter, both missing a sense of so many things in their lives. The glittering percision of Taggart's language allows for both the humour of children bickering over ketchup and the quotidian tragedy of adults ground down by both hope and disappointment. Taggart never diminishes her characters' lives of canned tomatoes and Hungry Hungry Hippos, nor does she lionize them or excuse their bad behaviour. She just achieves that incredible literary summit of bringing them to life.
The gift in all of these stories lies in the adage of showing rather than telling. Particularly rich in this regard are those stories that immerse us in specific histories or geographies, making setting integral to and inseparable from the events and emotions of the characters.
Yasuko Thanh's "Floating Like the Dead" takes us into a little-known and painful chapter in Canadian history. Here, the few remaining inhabitants of a turn-of-the-century colony of Chinese lepers off the coast of b.c. spend the last of their days clinging to something as futile as hope. The limits of language, racism, and poverty have already defined their immigrant lives. Their alienation becomes complete as their bodies rebel and repel, and they are exiled to die in isolation. They must use their declining strength to battle a rugged geography they cannot beat. The forest is primeval and eternal and the western breezes across the Pacific can only remind them of the China of their youths. Thanh strikes that difficult balance between depicting bigger worlds and worlds within, and uses the resonances between the internal and external to subtle and graceful effect. This is a story of brittle beauty, which gives as much room to the unspoken as the spoken.
In "Highlife," Paul Headrick similarly addresses imminent death, the silences that precede it, and the sounds that surround it. A husband and wife, together for twenty-six years, become unglued from each other in the face of the husband's illness and the anger that consequently possesses him. He is a lover of music – an academic, a radio host, and a critic – making a pilgrimage of sorts to Ghana with his wife. He is looking to hear highlife music in its original context – buoyant life-affirming sounds – but he and his wife are largely silent companions on this trip; there is little he is compelled to voice aloud. Against the heat and confusion, the dancing bodies and the music, his life – and her life in relation to him – are coming to a painful end. In this case it is the contrast between internal and external worlds, the disconnect between them, that gives the story its poignancy, isolating the characters from each other and the world around them.

close this panel
Show editions
close this panel

User Activity

more >
Contacting facebook
Please wait...