To get to my grandfather’s bookshelf we first had to remove the strata of life-giving impedimenta that had built up over the last twenty years: oxygen tanks, IV drips, a hospital-style care bed; a certified, handmade icon of Mary and the infant Jesus, a Mary-shaped bottle of Lourdes miracle water, and another icon of Mary and child – Vietnamised now, with black hair and dark, almond-shaped eyes, dressed in the traditional silk robes of pre-colonial, independent Vietnam.
The prize at the end of our work was significant, for me at least – my grandfather’s battered paperback copy of The Sound and the Fury. Of course, identical copies, mass-produced and in better condition, could be found in any English-language secondhand bookstore around the world, but this copy had a power the others hadn’t; it reified something that had long felt fraudulent. Like letters patent, the book granted me access to the intellectual aristocracy: I was not, after all, the son of IT workers, of destitute boat people become middle-class suburban philistines, but the grandson of a thinker, a man who had taught himself English by reading Fisher’s History of Europe and The New Economics: Keynes’ Influence on Theory and Public Policy and The English Constitution – and Faulkner and Greene and the King James Bible.
Not that the object of my search was pure vanity, or snobbery (though it certainly had more than a trace of both). Instead, it was a salve, a bandage over a wound that had threatened a cherished childhood dream – a fantasy that we’ll call universalism. In the grips of that fantasy I had believed that the school library was open access, that there were no borders in the life of the mind save those of capability and curiosity. But then, somehow, through a thousand and one little signs, I began to understand – and, more importantly, to feel – the distance between myself and the authors I took home with me to read alone in bed when the house was still and the lights had gone out.
I became plagued with the same question that dogs Ta-Nehisi Coates in Between the World and Me: who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? Who is the Faulkner of the Vietnamese? I might, as Coates did for a time, retreat into identity, into nationalism – the secessionist response. From here on, I will only read works by (Vietnamese/black/female/gay) authors; I will not seek safe passage through the library’s borders but instead fortify the barricades. But I was unwilling to pay the price of secession.
For one thing, I like Faulkner and Tolstoy; reading them, Yoknapatawpha County and Imperial Russia did not seem so far away, nor its citizens so different from me. Which, of course, is the allure of the dream – that from Shakespeare to Virginia Woolf, I have access to a universal consciousness, whose depth of thought and feeling, and whose capacity for love and shame and sacrifice mirrors my own. My grandfather’s copy ofThe Sound and the Fury meant all that to me and more – it meant I did not have to wake up from the dream, as I had begun to fear – that I could, echoing Coates, say that Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus – and Faulkner is the Faulkner of the Vietnamese.
To read the rest of this piece, visit Cordite where it was originally published.