When I was an infant, my mom read novels aloud to me while my dad was at work. And when I was a young girl, I would tuck under the covers with my sister while our dad made up absurd stories about Raggedy Kojak (a pathetic Raggedy Ann doll that had lost its hair) and his faithful sidekick, Mousiestein. On the nights when our dad did not whip up one of his episodic tales, our grandpa sat on the side of our bed telling us exotic stories about his life as a sailor in Shanghai in the 1930s.
I was raised in a family that appreciated the imagination, and it’s no wonder that I wrote my first novel when I was ten, and half a dozen more by the time I finished college. But it wasn’t until I was 29 that I made a delightful discovery – the one thing more fun than diving into the depths of your imagination is taking your imagination out for a stroll in the real world.
I already had two “serious” (unpublished) novels under my belt when I moved to Vietnam in 1995 to teach English. Four years later, I was not only in the midst of my novel that is about to be published … I was living inside it. Inspired by Andre and Clara Malraux, a young French couple who looted a Cambodian temple in the 1920s, I had started The Map of Lost Memories, a novel about Irene Blum, an American woman obsessed with discovering the lost history of Cambodia’s ancient Khmer empire. As she traveled from Shanghai to Saigon to Cambodia in search of an elusive set of scrolls, so did I!
Hundreds of hours were spent at my desk in my little cave of a house in Ho Chi Minh City, tapping away at my laptop. But an equal number were spent out with Irene – traipsing through the back alleys of Shanghai in search of the reasons why Simone Merlin will not join our expedition; standing bewildered in Saigon’s Chinese district of Cholon, wondering how we are possibly going to keep the scrolls a secret now that Louis Lafont has become involved; viewing the Angkor temples for the first time after years of anticipation; and venturing up the Mekong River and into the jungles of Cambodia with the great hope of finally achieving what we had always longed for – she, the scrolls, and me, the publication of The Map of Lost Memories.
It was a strange feeling to return to Vietnam this past spring, since each place I visited was saturated with two sets of memories: those from my own life and those from Irene’s life in the novel. Each is equally real to me. Each has shaped my life just as much as the other. Was there any sadness in knowing that my experience in Asia with Irene could now be nothing more than a memory? A bit. But at the same time, I was already in the beginnings of a new relationship with Lena, an American woman born in Vietnam in 1937, who becomes a culinary anthropologist, studying and preserving Vietnam’s food culture, and feeding homesick soldiers during the war.
As soon as I arrived, I contacted friends in town and said, “I need an idiosyncratic house on the river for the last scene in my new novel.” The next thing I knew, Lena and I (along with my fiancé) had been invited to spend the day in a sprawling Thai villa on the Saigon River, owned by an “Irish aristocrat” and filled with ornate, mildewing European furniture. Then I told friends I needed an old French apartment for Lena’s confrontation with the man who stole her research, and lo and behold, we were taken back through the decades to a loft in the historic Catinat Building.
Each day Lena and I had a new mission, and we were succeeding until one day she informed me that she did not like where she lived. I understood her reasons, and I told my fiancé. The following morning, the three of us set off at dawn, walking the city until finally, behind the Marie Curie High School, we turned the corner into a dead end lane, and there, behind a fence, were three French villas in row. I knew, even before Lena whispered in my ear: “The middle one.” Once again, my imagination had found its way home.
Lena's house in Saigon