Pham, Andrew Catfish and Mandala

ISBN 13: 9780006552239

Catfish and Mandala

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9780006552239: Catfish and Mandala

'Jack Kerouac meets "Wild Swans".' The Times. A voyage through Vietnam's ghost-ridden landscape, at once a moving memoir, travelogue and compelling search for identity. Vietnamese-born Andrew Pham finally returns to Saigon, not as a success showering money and gifts onto his family, but as an emotional shipwreck, desperate to find out who he really is. When his sister, a post-operative transsexual, committed suicide, Pham sold all his possessions and embarked on a year-long bicycle journey that took him through the Mexican desert; around a thousand-mile loop from Narita to Kyoto in Japan; and, after five months and 2,357 miles, to Saigon, where he finds 'nothing familiar in the bombed-out darkness'. At first meant to facilitate forgetfulness, Pham's travels turn into an unforgettable, eye-opening search for cultural identity which flashes back to his parent's courtship in Vietnam, his father's imprisonment by the Vietcong, and his family's nail-bitingly narrow escape as 'boat people'. Lucid, witty and beautifully written, 'Catfish and Mandala' evokes a Vietnam you can almost smell and taste, laying bare the psyche of a troubled hero whose search for home and identity becomes our own.

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Review:

A great memoirist can burnish even an ordinary childhood into something bright--see, for instance, Annie Dillard's An American Childhood. So what about a really good writer with access to a dramatic and little-documented story? This is the case with Catfish and Mandala, Vietnamese American Andrew X. Pham's captivating first book, which delves fearlessly into questions of home, family, and identity. The son of Vietnamese parents who suffered terribly during the Vietnam War and brought their family to America when he was 10, Pham, on the cusp of his 30s, defied his parents' conservative hopes for him and his engineering career by becoming a poorly paid freelance writer. After the suicide of his sister, he set off on an even riskier path to travel some of the world on his bicycle. In the grueling, enlightening year that followed, he pedaled through Mexico, the American West Coast, Japan, and finally his far-off first land, Vietnam.

The story, with some of a mandala's repeated symbolic motifs, works on several levels at once. It is an exploration into the meaning of home, a descriptive travelogue, and an intimate look at the Vietnamese immigrant experience. There are beautifully illuminated flashbacks to the experience of fleeing Vietnam and to an earlier, more innocent childhood. While Pham's stern father, a survivor of Vietcong death camps, regrets that Pham has not been a respectful Vietnamese son, he also reveals that he wishes he himself had been more "American" for his kids, that he had "taken [them] camping." Catfish and Mandala is a book of double-edged truths, and it would make a fascinating study even in less able hands. In those of the adventurous, unsentimental Pham, it is an irresistible story. --Maria Dolan

About the Author:

Andrew X Pham was born in Vietnam in 1967 and moved to California with his family after the war. He lives in San Jose, California.

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