In late 2004 and early 2005, I spent seven months on the eastern tip of Cape Cod. I was on a writing fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, a beautiful resort that empties during the off season, leaving a few thousand hardened, permanent residents and a handful of hopeful writers and artists. I came with dreams of finally finishing my short story collection, and with fantasies of becoming a published, even famous, writer. By the end of my seven-month stay, the dreams were dust and the fantasies had vanished. I was left only with the prospect of my own failure.
My gloom had something to do with the atrocious weather. I was a Californian, and while I spent much of my time in California in a room writing, or pretending to write, at least I had sunshine. I also had the option of going outdoors, and even though I rarely took that option, the fact that I could was psychologically reassuring. Provincetown, in contrast, was mostly empty, and for good reason. The fifth-worst blizzard in Massachusetts history fell on Cape Cod that winter, the snow was stacked to shoulder height, and insomnia decided to become my bedtime companion.
Just as bad as the bleak weather was how I spent several of those Provincetown months trapped within one short story, begun in 1997. I refused to let go of it, and it refused to let go of me. The drafts and plot twists accumulated along with my despair. I wasn’t sure that I would ever figure out what or who this story was about. If I had known then that I would not finish that story until 2014, after some fifty drafts—perhaps I never would have become a writer.
During that difficult period of struggle in Provincetown, I found solace in reading the short story collections of others. None was more influential than Edward P. Jones’s Lost in the City. There is nothing lost about the book. It is a clear, vivid, moving, and powerful collection about African Americans in Washington, D.C. As much as I admired many of the individual short stories, what was most important was how those stories cohered into something greater, into an entire book, into a collection about the collective life of a community. A complete world, invisible to so many Americans and foreigners who visit our nation’s capital and see only the white monuments and white memorials and white museums, leaving with a whitewashed sense of our nation’s conflicted, contradictory history.
Simply by focusing on the ordinary existences of African Americans, Jones was making a point about their humanity and his art. The stories are quiet and graceful, resonant with emotion and feeling, while my own stories felt bombastic and overwrought and far too complicated. In these stories, Jones had somehow understood the relationship between simplicity and complexity. His stories appear simple on the surface, but underneath each one is an immense, organic complexity. The balance is hard to achieve, even if it leads to something easy to read. I was only beginning to learn how to find such a balance in my own short stories.
The story I remember most from the collection is the first one, “The Girl Who Raised Pigeons.” The opening has what writers call a voice, so distinctive in its rhythm, so alluring in its specificity and its distance: “Her father would say years later that she had dreamed that part of it, that she had never gone out through the kitchen window at two or three in the morning to visit the birds.” I was pulled forward by the motion of the sentence, by the intimacy of the father and daughter, by the implications of the trouble and the love in their relationship. I wanted to read more, and I did.
The story’s opening paragraph ends this way: “He would not want to think that a girl of nine or ten could walk by him at such an hour in the night without his waking and asking of the dark, Who is it? What’s the matter?” Those two questions—“Who is it?” and “What’s the matter?”—are two of the most important ones that are asked in any story. Perhaps the third is “How does it end?” You’ll have to read all of “The Girl Who Raised Pigeons” to find out, but the opening paragraph lets us know that we can proceed with confidence that the story will end well—by which I mean it will end on the right note, not necessarily that there will be a happy ending. I don’t read short stories for happy endings. I read with the hope that the last note will ring somewhere in my rib cage and vibrate along my spine and echo within my mind. The notes from Lost in the City ring inside me still, all these many years later.
I remember “The Girl Who Raised Pigeons” with fondness partly because it is great, partly because it is first, and partly because my father had something to say about it. He saw me with the book, and we had just had a discussion about how, when we visited France the year before, and the border officer who checked our passports asked me if my father spoke English, I had said, “Not very much.” I was speaking of a man who could hear me. I was speaking of a man who had arrived in the United States as a refugee in 1975 and, with my mother, built a business on the limited English they had. Could I have done such a thing? Would I have known who to call, what to ask for, how to stand up for myself? All I knew was how to write, and only in one language.
My father hadn’t said anything to me then about my assessment of his English. But in recalling that moment, in the presence of Lost in the City, my father said, “I can speak English.” He spoke quietly. He was smiling, but the smile hid the hurt. Looking back as a parent myself, I can see he was occupying a position I know only too well: the father who supplicates himself before a self-centered child.
Then my father opened Lost in the City, read the title of “The Girl Who Raised Pigeons” and its opening lines, and translated them for me into Vietnamese. “See?” he said. “I can read this.”
Yes, he can.
“The Girl Who Raised Pigeons” can be found here.