Jim Ott's Blog

This blog is a collection of columns I've written for Bay Area News Group newspapers serving the East San Francisco Bay region.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Student writers learn to tell the truth

This column was published in the Tri-Valley Herald and Valley Times in February 2009

Although I’ve enjoyed a long career in banking, I’ve also been teaching English in the evening at Las Positas College since 1997. Teaching allows me to share with young people the importance of good writing in one’s career and in the workplace.

But teaching also provides a chance for me to foster an appreciation for all types of writing, including journalism, poetry, and fiction.

One of my favorite assignments is when my students read a personal essay whose narrator, I tell them, is a young woman who was a student in my class some years ago. The narrator, Celia, was born in 1969 in Vietnam to a Vietnamese mother and an American father.

Celia’s story is compelling. She begins with her memory of “two things about Vietnam, two sounds actually.” The first sound is the upright piano in a bar in Saigon where her mother worked. The second sound is the beating of helicopter blades, “an overpowering sound of fear and salvation,” she writes.

Celia writes in the first person, and we soon discover she is writing not to us as readers, but to the father she never knew. She writes that when she watches movies about Vietnam, she imagines catching a glimpse of her father “in the sunglasses, laughing. There you are.”

The essay explores both the emptiness a young girl can feel growing up when she doesn’t know her father, and the issue of mixed race and identity. She asks, “Am I an American here? Am I Vietnamese? These are not easy questions.”

At one point she expresses what it’s like to inherit the eyes of her father, but the features of her mother. She sees herself as “beautiful, perhaps, sort of Asian. I'm a little white, but not enough. The mind loops and repeats and seeks to make me Caucasian or Asian, like a slide projector automatically adjusting and re-adjusting to bring into focus a multi-dimensional image.”

In another passage, we find Celia looking into a mirror to “respectfully subtract my mother, piece by piece, distilling my face down to what is only white, only you, so that I can picture you.”

As we read, we encounter the horrors of the Vietnam War and realize through subtle language that Celia’s mother, who at 16 fled her village after her parents’ death, became a prostitute in Saigon in the final years of the war. Celia came along before her mother started using contraceptives.

We encounter as well Celia’s realization that in spite of years of a mother’s reassurance, it is unlikely her mother ever knew the “handsome and considerate” young man who was Celia’s father.

“All my life you have been just on the edge of my world,” she writes, “in the shadow of the yard in the snapshot where I ride my first bicycle, just beyond the tree at Christmas where you’ve thrown torn and crumpled paper to make room for new toys.”

I ask my students to write a few paragraphs in response to the essay, to share their feelings about Celia and any parallels or differences to their own lives, as well as what we might learn about writing from the well-crafted prose.

Invariably, the students are moved by the narrator’s story. And when I finally tell them that I am the author of the essay, they are stunned.

Yes, the story about Celia is fiction. Her father? Well, he’s me. After all, as I tell my students, I gave her life.

Why the charade? Because Celia’s story illustrates more powerfully than hours of lecture that as writers we have the privilege and duty to tell the truth about life. The joy of being a writer means we are not limited to the confines of our own tiny lives. In fact, we’re not doing our job unless we explore and portray the collective experience of what it means to be human.

This is what bestselling author Tim O’Brien talks about in The Things They Carried, his 1990 masterpiece about serving as a soldier in Vietnam. He writes that “story-truth is sometimes truer than happening-truth.”

Good fiction is about telling that truth, and as my students learn through the words of Celia, our own circumstances as writers should never get in the way of that mission.

1 comment:

she said...

had me hook, line and sinker.

wonder if your students were upset the way i found myself upset at being fooled; played

like that.

and now i will spend the next several minutes contemplating truth..

and what i should hit you over the head with next time i see you

well crafted!

love, ~s.