Angie Chau’s Quiet as They Come is a luminous debut. It compels in the quiet force of family dramas tinged with transnational traumas. Chau often shifts from first person to third, granting readers various entry points into her characters, but all stories revolve around an extended family of Vietnamese refugees, who have settled in the Northern California Bay Area to start new lives. The first story, “Hunger,” immediately sets the tone for the challenging obstacles that these individuals will face, especially on the level of their class bearings. Chau will perfectly render the tragedy that a group of children face in the limits of their financial capital as so many must share just one delicious pizza slice. In “The Pussycats,” Chau will cleverly employ the challenges of learning American culture through the lens of a mother’s desire to placate her child. In this case, the daughter wants a kitten. The title refers to a porn theater that the mother accidentally takes her child to, as she had thought that the movie was literally about cats. While the premise is at first funny, Chau’s story resplendently shifts in tone and approach as we come to understand the mother’s alienation, as her husband withers away in a Communist re-education camp in Vietnam. Thus, the potent erotic force that she beholds on screen, while initially horrifying and disgusting to her, is also paradoxically attractive. We see how much she misses her husband, how the letters that he sends to her become lifelines to the future she believes she might still be able to salvage. “Everything Forbidden” sets up a different familial trajectory. In this case, a mother is suspected of beating her daughter after strange bruises are found on her daughter’s back. What the social worker comes to discover is that the daughter had received a traditional folk-medical treatment given to her directly by her mother. However, when the mother discovers that her daughter may have implicated her in abuse and didn’t explicitly refute that claim, she comes to understand the perils of love and guardianship. These first three short stories are really a gateway into the others, as families both grow and disintegrate under various strains. Mysteries that appear in one story are addressed in others and we see children as they mature and must bear the burdens and traumas of the parental generation. In the final story, one of the young children in “Hunger” is now practically fully grown and has accompanied her mother back to Vietnam. She reveals, “ ‘I’m sorry but I’m glad there was a war. Really, I just can’t imagine living like this’” (184). Her attitude here is one that regards Vietnam through the lens of one who finds it less civilized, but the statement also demonstrates how little she understands of her parent’s generation, the ones who retain memories of their perilous flights from Vietnam. The readers are, of course, privy to much of this knowledge, and so we continually see how characters speak to each other, but cannot fully communicate their needs. Chau thus showcases the very perils of the immigrant experience, as the chasm between parents and their children widens to the point that one’s own family can seem strange and otherworldly. A brilliant, if understated book, and one that can and will certainly be adopted in the classroom.
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