Andrew Lam is familiar with many aspects of writing — he is the author of three books, a journalist, co-founder and editor of the ethnic news outlet New America Media, and teacher of journalism and creative nonfiction at San Francisco State University.
Molly Higgins: Please introduce yourself and briefly describe your literary work and career path to date.
Andrew Lam: I have written three books, two of them collections of literary essays, and the third a collection of short stories. The first book, “Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora,” a memoir written in the form of personal essays, won the Pen Open Book 2005 Award, and was short listed for the Asian American nonfiction award. The second is “East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres,” a collection of essays that explores the cultural impact of Asian immigration to America’s West. The latest, “Birds of Paradise Lost,” is a collection of short stories about Vietnamese boat people who survived their perilous journey in order to remake their lives in San Francisco, and it won the Pen West Coast/Josephine Miles Literary award and was a finalist for the California Book Award.
For eight years I was a regular contributor on NPR’s “All Things Considered.” I have and worked as a journalist and as an editor at Pacific News Service, which later became New America Media. I have contributed essays to many magazines and newspapers, including The Nation, Los Angeles Times Magazine, Mother Jones, National Geographic Traveler, Chicago Tribune, Baltimore Sun and many others.
In term of teaching, I have taught a few courses: advanced journalism writing for seniors in the journalism department at San Francisco State University, and I am currently teaching a graduate level creative nonfiction class (the Art of the Personal Essay) this semester in the MFA program at San Jose State. I have also over the years conducted several master class workshops at various universities and colleges in essay and short fiction writing.
I have given many speeches at various universities, including Harvard, Yale, Brown, UCLA and Stanford. I gave a commencement speech at UC Irvine in 2013 School of the Humanities and was given the School of Humanities Medal in recognition of distinguished contributions to the humanities. Obama gave the commencement speech there in 2014.
I have been the subject of a PBS documentary, “My Journey Home,” which aired nationwide in 2004.
And I am a co-founder of New America Media, an association of ethnic media nationwide.
MH: Your writing takes several forms — you have three books published, you contribute to the Huffington Post, and you’re senior editor with New America Media. Does your work as an author inform your editing and vice versa? How?
AL: One set of knowledge does lend to the understanding of another. For instance, I reported on refugees for years, and when writing a short story about a refugee in San Francisco, as in the case of “Birds of Paradise Lost,” I understand the political, social and emotional implications from A-Z. What they all have in common is an innate sense of compassion and empathy for those less fortunate. Having been a refugee and homeless and stateless once, my instincts are speaking for the voiceless, rooting for the underdog. That informs all that I do, be it working as an editor, writer, journalist or radio commentator.
MH: Can you describe your work at New America Media? And, more generally, its role as a media organization?
AL: New America Media is the country’s first and largest national collaboration and advocate of 3,000 ethnic news organizations. Over 57 million ethnic adults connect to each other, to home countries and to America through 3,000+ ethnic media outlets, the fastest growing sector of American journalism. At this point I am more or less part of the brain trust of the organization, having worked there for25 years. I am an editor there as we produce relevant content for our ethnic media partners, especially in crucial issues related to aging, education, healthcare and immigration reform. I come up with story ideas and work with particular writers/journalists to create relevant contents, but I also pick stories from our ethnic media partners to showcase their good work on our site.
We also put together briefings on important and relevant issues — Obamacare, scams in ethnic communities, immigration reforms, voters rights, etc. — so that there’ll be a more informed citizenry.
MH: How do you think your personal identity influences your writing and/or the diversity of your readership?
AL: In my autobiography class in the San Francisco State University creative writing program, I read my first essay out loud. The assignment was, “Why did you want to become a writer?” I talked about the Vietnam war. I talked about childhood memories. The falling bombs. The bravery of men and women. My parents’ struggles and fears. My own sadness. My longing to return to those bomb craters filled up with monsoon rain where children, who survived the battles, laughed and swam. “After all these years, I want to dive into that water,” I wrote. When I finished reading, there was this strange silence. The entire class looked at me in awe. The professor wept. The piece somehow reached the writer Richard Rodriguez and the editor of Pacific News Service, Sandy Close. They took me to tea. They more or less offered me a job as an op-ed writer. I started to travel the world, started to write about my past, my history and the Vietnamese Diaspora. And it resulted in “Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora,” which won a Pen award. In any case, it was all unexpected. And it started from a heartbreak. It is no wonder my first book is a book of literary essays exploring that space between being a refugee and an American, between private sorrow and public intellectual exploration of one’s own circumstances in the world. I would say the majority of my work springs from that.
MH: You’re being interviewed by a librarian, for an audience of progressive Asian American librarians. What are your thoughts on libraries and their place in building diverse communities?
AL: When I was a poor refugee boy growing up at the end of Mission Street, where San Francisco ended and the working class of Daly City began, I took refuge in the libraries on weekends and in the summer. It was a cool place, literally, and I could read all the books I wanted. Though I regretted that I knew no librarian there personally, I had appreciated those countless hours of silence and reading. I wish I had met an Asian librarian who would point me to significant, meaningful authors who wrote stories that might mirror my own — post-war, growing up poor, immigrant, etc. As an author, I especially appreciated librarians who reached out to me to set up readings at their colleges, etc…. I always connected with audiences who showed up at libraries, as they are serious readers and have found librarians to be kind and receptive to my work.
I just wish that more author series were part of their work, especially where writers of a certain ethnicity come to a place where more of his/her own demographics — student population, local population — are significant and are looking to hear work from authors whose stories reflect theirs. A library to me is no longer a place that serves just as archives of books, but it can also be a place that reflects contemporary arts and cultures, and the more activities that reflect that, the more relevant it remains in our times.
MH: What advice would you give young professionals, especially those from diverse backgrounds, who are interested in a career in journalism (or writing generally)?
AL: A decade ago my answer would be easy: find internships with magazines or publishing houses that you admire and work your way up the ladder to understand how journalism or publishing world. The world of writing has transformed radically since then, and some would say, unraveled. It is true that the writing profession — a career — is so much harder to maintain given the state of the journalism institution and to lesser extent the state of publishing. It is oddly a great time to publish — that is, if you don’t care for doing it for free. Huffington Post usually doesn’t pay unless it’s an assigned story. But you’ll get a lot of eyeballs and public play. Exposure on social media gets attention for some artists but the career — making a living out of it — is much harder to fathom these days.
I think to make it a career you’ll need more skills and talents than mere writing. You need to know your audience, pick the right topic and theme and ride the wave, that is find a way to make yourself marketable. A writing career, after all, is different than a writing life. You can farm and write or you can teach and write. But a career seems to imply a regular income and making a go at being paid for your words, your articles. You need to be entrepreneurial these days to make it.
Editing assistance provided by Jeremiah Paschke-Wood.