Literary Hub

Viet Thanh Nguyen on What David Wong Louie Meant to Him at 20

David Wong Louie’s first book, Pangs of Love: Stories, was published in 1991. Books by Asian American authors are now released at least monthly, but back then, the emergence of a new Asian American author was a significant event. Twenty-seven years later, I can still clearly remember seeing the book on a table in the University of California, Berkeley, bookstore and buying the first edition hardcover with great anticipation. I was 20 years old, and discovering Asian American literature and Asian American studies had transformed me. I had arrived at Berkeley the year before, having just read Amy Tan. At Berkeley I quickly read Maxine Hong Kingston, Frank Chin, Gish Jen, David Mura, and Le Ly Hayslip. Soon I would begin work on an honors thesis on Asian American literature, which would be the seed for my doctoral dissertation, my first book, and eventually my entire career.

All this is to say that when I picked up Pangs of Love, I did so as an enthusiast, a young scholar, and a fervent convert to the Asian American cause. I also approached the book as a beginning writer, an awkward human being, and an incipient professional Asian American. It was out of this morass of my own artistic and political passions and confusions that I read Louie’s stories. To my testy 21-old self, overly confident about my convictions and my way of seeing the world and literature, Pangs of Love was a confounding read. The stories were beautiful. I could see that much. But what were they about? Why was there an otter in a climatologically controlled tank in a sushi restaurant? Why were so many of the men so forlorn? What exactly were these pangs of love? I understood what the words meant, but what did pangs of love feel like, especially to someone like me, who had no understanding of how the people in my life loved me and what it meant, in turn, to love anybody?

My 20-year-old self was not ready—emotionally, aesthetically, or politically—for Pangs of Love. The book was too wise, too experienced, too insightful, and too mature for me, the earnest campus revolutionary with delusions of becoming a writer. I wanted an Asian American book, but Louie’s book was and was not an Asian American book. It featured some Asian American characters and some Asian American themes, like the forlorn men who were poor lovers, ineffective fathers, and comic losers, who were also explored by Kingston, Chin, and Jen. There was the haunting presence of the communist revolution in China and the cryptic fable about the building of the Great Wall. There were characters with names like Edsel, which seemed very Chinese American to me, given that I had Chinese American friends named Wilson and Bonaparte.

But even as Louie’s stories were about Chinese Americans, they were also often about things that were not purely Chinese American. For example, the opening story, “Birthday,” features Wallace Wong and his refusal to leave behind the “Chinese stuff” of his life and personal baggage. Wong is also a Chinese American who runs an Italian café. The stuff of ethnicity and culture, and how they mix, are inseparably intertwined with Wong’s masculinity and his love for a boy whom he sees as a son even though the boy is not his son. These themes of what it means to be a father, to be a son, and to be a lover circulate throughout Pangs of Love, and while these are universal experiences that Louie renders with grace and subtlety, he also insists that being Chinese American inevitably inflects these experiences.

But sometimes balls are just balls and otters are just otters. Aren’t they?

At 20 years old, I got the Chinese American angle, and maybe because I was focused on the Chinese American angle, I did not fully appreciate, as I can now, all the other angles Louie explores at the same time. Writing a short story with a multitude of angles is very hard, as I eventually discovered when I took up the writing of a short story collection that took 17 years to complete. Two of the angles I did not appreciate so many years ago were the absurd and the comic. Rereading Louie’s stories, I finally understood that they are often quite funny and sometimes weird, in a good way, like the otter story. In this story, “Bottles of Beaujolais,” the climatologist attempts to seduce a woman who is fascinated with the otter. When the climatologist cuts himself while amateurishly attempting to slice sushi, his paramour squeezes the blood from his hand into a bottle of “saki” and transforms the liquor into “beaujolais.” Then they drink their new cultural hybrid before running off in a taxi with the otter. That’s pretty weird.

The literary critic in me says that the otter stands in for the other, who is always present in Louie’s stories, which are so often about the anxiety of being other. Racially, culturally, nationally, but also being otherwise in the sense of being personally alienated from those whom we love or should love. But perhaps I should not read too deeply. After all, in “Social Science,” literary critics like me get the satirical treatment. In this somewhat sad and somewhat comic story, a mysterious academic seeks to buy the home and take the ex-wife of the academic protagonist, Henry. At one moment, Henry, “trained in grad school to penetrate the surface of literary texts,” reads the paper of a student who he believes has a crush on him, titled “How to Make Melon Balls.” But sometimes balls are just balls and otters are just otters. Aren’t they?

In these and other stories, the pangs of love are mostly about failed love, frustrated love, and disappointed love, of both the familial and erotic kinds. Family members confuse each other, both because family relationships are often confusing and because being Chinese American aggravates that confusion, given different expectations between immigrant parents and American-born children. In the title story of the collection, Mrs. Pang visits her successful son’s home while his friends, all men, are visiting. She asks her other son, “All the men in this house have good jobs, they have money, why don’t they have women? Why is your brother that way? What does he tell you? I don’t understand.” Ironically, her gay son is one of the few characters in the book who appears to be romantically successful. For almost everybody else in most of the book’s stories, personal worlds are collapsing or have already collapsed, leaving behind only the rubble of romantic relationships. “Love on the Rocks” is the title of one of these failed romances—boy, is it ever a failure, as you will discover at the shocking end—and it might have served as the title of the book as well.

In the rare instance when the romantic relationship works, something else is dreadfully wrong. Take “One Man’s Hysteria—Real and Imagined—in the Twentieth Century,” where the couple at the center of it seems reasonably functional. Unfortunately, the world around them is not, with the threat of nuclear missiles and atomic war hanging over them. Replace nuclear doom with climate catastrophe and domestic political turmoil, and the story’s malaise is completely up to date, down to how “during the past election, my wife and I voted for a full slate of eventual losers. Although this has been a source of considerable self-righteous chest-beating among our friends . . . it’s never been our belief that either major political party can save us.” Sound familiar? To the narrator of the story, who is also a writer who is writing the story, the potential end of the world and the dismal state of the domestic can be confronted with poetry and writing. The writer hopes, foolishly or not, that the act of creation, through art, can somehow mitigate the apocalypse.

As a writer, I think—I hope—that one of the things that writing does is help me prepare for death, to give me the wisdom that I need, or the illusion of it.

As a writer, I certainly believe in such optimism or foolishness. Rereading Louie’s stories affirms my sense that art matters and that writing matters, and that part of the evidence for that is how his stories read now as if they were written yesterday. They remain powerful, moving, relevant, urgent; and they persist in that way because of the author’s imagination, his capacity to tell a story, his wit and humor, his willingness to confront the darkness of the world and the twilight within ourselves. Not least of all, there is his way with words, as in the story “Inheritance.” The narrator says, “I remember a visionary piece of graffiti someone had scrawled in a library book: Our future lies in the hands of children,” where hands has been modified, through graffiti, to handguns. This was written before Columbine and the dozens of school massacres that followed. The story is uncomfortably prophetic, but the end of the world requires not just our terror and our mourning and our rage but also our words and what we do with them.

Louie gives us a final example of the writer’s task through a postscript from his own life, his essay “Eat, Memory.” For most readers, this was the first time we learned of Louie’s painful and long battle with throat cancer. The cancer and its treatment take away Louie’s ability to speak and to eat, two fundamental things that we take for granted, that give us pleasure and the ability to express our humanity. But if Louie cannot speak out loud, he can still write. And as a fellow writer, I looked at his essay in the way that I imagine a doctor looks at a patient. The patient’s humanity, needs, and suffering are there, of course. But the doctor has a clinical task to observe the body. Likewise, I was moved by Louie’s pain, but I also saw that such movement was enabled by Louie’s art, which was a pleasure to experience. That is one of the contradictions of writing, both for writers and readers—the use of the art to make beautiful what is horrible, to make us imagine what is unimaginable.

Sometimes the unimaginable is simply the pain of the person next to us. For the reader of Pangs of Love, Louie artfully renders the pain of his characters, whereas in “Eat, Memory” he does the same for himself, and in such a way that the essay could be another story from his book. The pangs in the essay are for the food that David Wong Louie, the author and the character, can no longer eat; the physical experience of chewing and swallowing that he no longer can do; and the sharing of meals that he can no longer participate in. And of course the pangs are of love, too, since food is so intimately wrapped up with family, with community, with love. His wife, for example, has to feed him for hours at a time by squeezing liquid sustenance through a thin tube. The memories of the meals they used to share and love are both distant and not distant. They attempt to re-create those memories by going to a new restaurant with their daughter, even though he cannot eat, even though other restaurant patrons stare at him and the tube poking from his throat. “In the photos of that night my daughter looks wretched. She was nine, and had entered the stage in which smiles for the camera are self-conscious, betraying little of what is going on inside . . . her eyes mirrored how the rest of the table felt: We wished we were far away.” This is the kind of tragic and absurd situation, featuring the awkward love between parents and children and lovers, that is exactly what Pangs of Love explores with such finesse, sensitivity, and empathy.

As a writer, I think—I hope—that one of the things that writing does is help me prepare for death, to give me the wisdom that I need, or the illusion of it. As I imagine characters in extremis, I know that I am tucking away this act of imagination for myself, for the moment when I meet the inevitable end. I want to believe that I can face my own terminus with as much grace as I can conclude one of my short stories.

As a writer who is a reader of Louie and his stories, my wish is that his art has prepared him. The only evidence I have, and most of us will have, are his words and his stories, about others and about himself. What unites us who read Louie’s work, as lovers of literature, as writers and as readers, is our shared belief in the necessity of art, in the persistence of literature, in the magical ability of imagined people to seem real through the conjuring found in the writer’s mind. If these people were not real in some way to us, why would we bother to visit and revisit them? What these visitations tell us is that lives end, but characters are immortal. Fiction lives on.

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From the foreword to Pangs of Love & Other Writings by David Wong Louie. Used with permission of University of Washington Press. Foreword copyright © 2019 by Viet Thanh Nguyen.

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