peteg's blog - noise - books - 2011 11 16 DanaSachs TheHouseOnDreamStreet

Dana Sachs: The House on Dream Street

/noise/books | Link

I extracted this one from the ANU Menzies Library a few months ago, on the strength of Dana's translation efforts. Here she recounts her experience of living in Hà Nội in the 1990s, both before and after the U.S. normalised relations with Việt Nam in 1995. This memoir was published in 2000.

The strength of this book is that it is not at all abstract; it is essentially a romance, both with a place and a man, with the author eventually moving on from the man but retaining a fixation on the place. Some awkwardness ensues, and the American ending — the erstwhile couple both paired off with children — is not entirely satisfying as Phai's bride is so unclearly drawn, and his future so uncertain.

There were some strange echoes of my time as an AYAD: some days you really do need to say whatever, more's the pity. Dana didn't want to turn 30 away from home, whereas I was happy to, as it turned out. She had a student visa to study Vietnamese; she makes me wish I'd spent more time on that. Tết was a pretty dire time for me, partly because I was heading back to Australia for Peodair's wedding and also because my friends had all gone back home for the holiday; I guess the difference was that her family-of-sorts lived in Hà Nội, whereas no one seems to admit to actually being from Sài Gòn.

I found and still find troubling her familiar dismissal of time in non-Western countries, that "this is not real life", the suggestion your real life is going on elsewhere while you idle, something sometimes reassuring and othertimes vexing. Unpacking just this attitude could be spun out to book length.

I learnt some great slang here: "phở không có người lái" — pho without the pilot (without meat).

As observed by others, this book inexplicably does not include her interactions with Nguyễn Huy Thiệp. You can read something about that here, but there's got to be more.

This book deserves to be bracketed with the roughly contemporaneous Catfish and Mandala by Andrew X. Pham. Apart from the obvious difference in viewpoint due to the authors' genders and ethnicity, there is also a feeling that Dana is looking for an exotic home whereas Andrew still has itchy feet.