Monday, July 16 , 2018, 3:33 pm | A Few Clouds 73º


Susan Miles Gulbransen: ‘Catching Shrimp with Bare Hands’ Captures Family History

An old Vietnamese proverb says, "The frog dies because of its big mouth." Local resident Luong La remembers those words of warning as a young boy when the Viet Cong were taking over his family's Mekong Delta farm hut demanding to be fed.

Had his mother refused the men, even though she barely had enough food for her children, she could have been considered a traitor or spy. If so, saying the wrong thing would put the family in tragic jeopardy.

When freshman Michelle Robin met her husband-to-be, senior Luong La, at the University of Washington, little did she realize that the unusual and moving stories he told about growing up during the 1960s and ‘70s would affect her life and give her an unanticipated career.

“He would tell stories at the dinner table,“ she says over coffee on a warm September day. “even about small things when he was growing up as the son of rice farmers in the Delta. I told myself, ‘Boy, I need to write these down.rsquo; My husband is a story collector.”

And write she did. That was the easy decision. From there Michelle Robin La faced the usual dilemmas and obstacles common among writers but also some unusual ones while learning to write in the voice and culture of someone so different.

After Robin finished her Ph.D. in chemistry at UCLA, she found a job writing about science and technology. During that time she also took writing courses at UCLA.

When they moved to Santa Barbara, she attended the Santa Barbara Writers Conference. Eight years later, in addition to "seed" years of thinking about it, she published Catching Shrimp with Bare Hands: A Boy from the Mekong Delta (Viewport Publishing, 2015).

“At first I had the idea to write the book like a Vietnamese version of Huckleberry Finn. Before long I realized that the Vietnam War was what his stories were really about, those years when South Vietnam lost and the Viet Cong took over.”

It took her some time to capture the Vietnamese point of view and write it in an English that conveyed the sense of the Vietnamese language and thinking.

“I had to understand the cultural differences, the jargon, names, different meanings of same words, importance of accents on letters. I also worked hard to translate and keep the flavor of what was being said.”

Early critiques of the book made her realize that she sounded more like a soccer mom telling the story instead of a young kid who loved to catch shrimp and chase birds with a slingshot while a cruel war waged around him.

“Some criticisms,” she adds, “were based on our culture and what we here in the U.S. might say or think, not taking into account what Luong and his family were going through. I was not the voice of that boy from Vietnam, so I had to lose my Western perspectives, my own childhood memories as a Swedish-American girl in Minnesota.”

Another thing she learned was how to ask the right and considerate questions, not easy when someone is looking back on horrific times. She tells of one such incident.

“Many of these were painful memories, like the time Luong saw neighbors take his pet dog, kill it, and then eat it. He still feels guilty for not giving the dog more food and keeping it safe, but what food they had was meant for his family, not enough to feed a dog, too.”

Sometimes her questions brought up old memories, ones that he and his family had hidden deep inside.

“I had to ask questions that caused pain. It made me feel guilty to watch him, his mother or siblings go through that. I also learned questions couldn’t be random and repetitive. Often I had to wait because it can take time to get memories back again.”

The Las and the people around them lived in constant fear of the Viet Cong, whom they called “Mystery Misters.” Such an incident happened when one of La’s close playmate’s father was accused of being a traitor. The boy had to watch the beheading of his father.

In another session La’s mother recalled an emotional scene of watching a woman accidently step on a grenade and die. Once his mother regained her composure after recalling the terrible incident, she said that it was good to be able to tell such memories without fear. She found that talking out loud was a way of letting go of the past.

Stories like these made Robin La realize the difficulty of not only hearing about the incidents but then writing them out.

“In life things usually happen quickly, like the story of the woman stepping on the grenade. Even telling of them takes a short time, but writing about them can make you stay in the moment for days.”

When it came to publishing the book, Robin La took an independent route.

“My husband asked me not to publish the book in the traditional method because he wants control over the story. He also wants it to be his Vietnamese story, not what a publisher might change or alter by dropping Vietnamese accents on the letters or changing the meanings of words to something different,” Robin La said. “He wanted the story told from his perspective, not one that would accommodate what a publisher might think American readers want to read.”

They decided to start their own company, ViewPort Publishing, so they could keep the story the way they wrote it.

Robin had an editor friend vet the manuscript. Several friends read through it before she finished the final draft. An artist friend did the graphics, which included La's mother's photos from an album that she managed to carry with her on the boat when escaping South Vietnam.

Several other relatives who now live in the United States also lent family photos for the book. All this adds to Robin La as a good writer and the book as a good read.

Catching Shrimp With Bare Hands was released earlier this year to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon April 30, 1975.

Looking back at her experience, Robin La says, “I often felt like the frog in another Vietnamese proverb, the one sitting at the bottom of a well thinking the sky was the size of a platter.”

When Luong La read her final manuscript, he said, “It's like reliving my past. I had finally managed to climb up and see a little more of the sky.”

Noozhawk columnist Susan Miles Gulbransen — a Santa Barbara native, writer and book reviewer — teaches writing at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference and through the Santa Barbara City College Continuing Education Division. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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