Short story alert: ‘The Voice of My Father’ by Nghiem Tran

Nghiem Tran’s ‘The Voice of My Father’ (from Harvest Issue Two) is a boat story told unconventionally. Tran writes not from the point of view of the survivor but from the point of view of his impatient son; it is the son’s thoughts and actions that initially dominate the text. When the survivor asks his son to translate his recollections, the son tells him that he doesn’t have the time, thinking of all the email and TV he has to catch up on, and the survivor’s story, like the survivor himself, ‘sit[s] quietly’. What happened on the boat is revealed, almost coincidentally at first, in chunks of italicised, broken English:

The boat driver give every adult a 20 litre can of water. Everyone bring their own food. Usually sticky rice or a dry rice mix, look like ‘Rice Bubbles’.

As the son continues to work on his father’s story, these chunks of text become weighted with significance:

The Malaysian police not let us land at first…

‘What do you mean, “at first”?’

‘They pushed us back onto the boat and tried to send us away.’

…I stare, unfocused, at the short sentence on the computer screen. It was all my father’s English could muster to describe the landing. Its brevity belying the pain on his face.

 Like many boat stories, what happened to the survivor is so beyond the common experience, it almost feels Biblical, and readers may have difficulty relating to him. Tran mirrors this difficulty in the son:

His measurements and numbers suddenly compute and I am reminded of those South American prisons shown on TV. Those crowded little cells with a toilet in the middle. No privacy or even a plastic seat. I know I should be disconcerted that I can more easily picture crowded South Americans than my parents among Vietnamese. But I’m not. Instead I just think of the stained porcelain seat in the middle of each cell.

Slowly revealing the survivor’s tale through the eyes of another character, one who occasionally, like the reader, fails to understand, Tran offers the reader enough space to find their own connection with the events on the boat. He asks for, rather than demands, a response; his story, told simply, is one of the most moving Vietnamese boat stories I have encountered so far.

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