Le thi diem thuy’s (according to her, she likes her name in lower case) The Gangster We Are All Looking For is not so much a biography but a collection of vivid poems beaded together to form a succulent narrative. Although the book is a work of fiction, she borrows events from her real life (her assimilation to American life and the deaths of her brother and sister) to weave a powerful and moving tale of overcoming adversity and sorrow.
le’s background as a playwright is evident in this novel as she crafts tremendous scenes portraying the hardships her family endured. Using simple but eloquent sentences, the majority of her paragraphs are no more than five or six sentences long. Like clipping along a fast current, this style enhances the back and forth time and location shifts as she writes about her life in Vietnam as well as her life in America. She prefers to paint the scenes with dramatic imagery rather than deliver a straightforward approach,
He would gaze beyond a person’s shoulder as though watching storm clouds gather on the horizon. Neither holding the clouds back nor inviting them on, his eyes merely took in their approach. More than once I have seen people talking with him turn around to see what was behind them.
As a Vietnamese writer, I understand and relish what some may describe as an over-dramatic style of writing. The Vietnamese language is inherently flowery so when writes this Vietnamese English, I appreciate its complexity as well as its simplicity. For example, she doesn’t just write about war, she allows the reader to partake, to suffer and more importantly, to imagine what war was like for her as well as her family.
Ma says war is a bird with a broken wing flying over the countryside, trailing blood and burying crops in sorrow. If something grows in spite of this, it is both a curse and a miracle. When I was born, she cried to know that it was war I was breathing in, and she could never shake it out of me.
A good writer knows when you can show more then tell: show. And does this wonderfully.
Even though the theme of the book is centered around tragedy, the book doesn’t bog you down in pity or deep reflection. Structurally, it reads more like a fairy tale and an adventure novel. By telling the story in brief, fragmented spurts, it keeps the reader’s attention and builds tension along the way. As each scene unfolds, I found myself quickly turning the pages. Her words, like morsels of good food, made me want to consume more.