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