Weekend Reading: Catfish and Mandala
It seems that as memoirists, we are not historians, not even of our own lives. That is the job of biographers. Memoirs are our love letters and our letters of apologies, both. They hold our few gems, the noteworthy lessons of our journeys. -Andrew X. Pham
I write for a living and as such have had the privilege of meeting, mingling, interviewing, and having genuinely soulful discussions with many talented and inspiring writers; but there is only one who after reading his book, I felt compelled to write a note of gratitude to. That writer is Andrew X. Pham and the book is Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam.
The book is a deeply personal memoir of Pham’s year long solo journey on a bicycle, through the Pacific Rim and to his ancestral home of Vietnam. On his road trip he grapples with his own identity and history. Not only is it a bold and honest read, but Pham’s style of writing is both searingly beautiful and poignantly engaging. He drifts from past to present, just as we tend to do when reflecting on experience, and relays his most impactful childhood memories alongside engrossing tales of his present circumstance.
It’s the kind of book that stays with you long after you’ve put it down. In fact it wasn’t until a year after I read it that I realized it was perhaps the best book I’d ever read. It was then that I sought out the writer to personally write a note of thanks. I discovered that there were many, many others like me who had written virtually the exact same thing—a note to express how moving we found his memoir to be.
As it turns out, after the book was published there was discord within his family, and he posted this on his webpage:
“If I knew then what I knew now, I probably would have never written Catfish and Mandala. It brought my parents considerable pain and created a silence between us that lasted four years.
Burdened with the guilt of their hurt and shame, I roamed the country. I decided that I would never write about family or Vietnam again.
I turned my back on academic work, publishing opportunities, and a movie script contract. I refused to promote this book, hoping that it would simply fade away.
Over time, letters from readers have alleviated my sense of guilt somewhat and made me feel that, perhaps, all those years of sacrifices and hard work have not been entirely in vain and that, perhaps, my words have helped some people.”
His words were indeed profoundly constructive and thankfully he has gone on to publish several other works, each as wonderful as his first. But it is Catfish and Mandala that remains embedded in my heart and mind. I highly recommend you pick it up and let it take you on a voyage of your own. – Melany Zwartjes