Spring Books: The past is always present in Philip Huynh's Forbidden Purple City

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      During a stint in Toronto, a little over a decade ago, Philip Huynh resumed writing fiction. This sustained literary effort, his first after becoming an attorney, featured a struggling actor recalling his father’s dashed dreams in Vancouver, where Huynh himself was born.

      The subsequent success of that story, “The Investment on Dumfries Street”, winner of the 2011 Open Season Award from the Malahat Review, bolstered him. The concept for an entire volume occurred later, after the publication of “Gulliver’s Wife”, which earned Huynh, who’d wanted to write since age 7, a nomination for the 2013 Journey Prize.

      A collection, he remarks now, was a chance to explore different voices, experiences, and backdrops. “The throughline, certainly, of all my stories is the fact that I’m of Vietnamese heritage,” Huynh says to the Straight at an East Van café. “Vietnam is the prism through which I see the world. But at the same time, I started thinking about just putting together the complexity and diversity of this community writ large.”

      The Forbidden Purple City, his debut book, includes the aforementioned stories and demonstrates superb range and craftsmanship. Huynh reveals the inner cargo of whole lives in these nine works, writing as absorbingly about drug trafficking and abalone diving as he does about dislocation and love.

      Portraying Vietnam, he notes, can carry expectations about conflict and escape. “Strictly speaking, my stories aren’t about the war, at least not directly head-on. But certainly the psychic consequences of that impinge on the day-to-day lives of my characters,” Huynh says. “The past for me isn’t just about the war or about loss, or about loss of country, but it’s also in the things that are cultural.”

      The idea that the past is always present prevails. Named after imperial ruins in Hue, the title story, longlisted for the 2018 Journey Prize, reflects on erasure and legacy as old friends organize a concert for Vancouver’s Vietnamese community. In “Toad Poem”, a retiree faces the disconnect between memory and reality upon returning to the Vietnamese city of Hoi An, after years abroad, to compose a verse honouring his parents.

      Scars from 21st-century history inform these pages as well. The stellar “Turkey Day” follows a Vancouver-raised lawyer in New York, amid personal and professional strife, and his search for a turkey to celebrate Canadian Thanksgiving in the wake of 9/11. (Huynh, then employed as an attorney and settled in Lower Manhattan, was evacuated from his apartment when the World Trade Center towers fell.)

      Of the narratives, Huynh divulges “a certain sentimental attachment” to “The Tale of Jude”. Inspired by the author feeling like an outsider at a private school he attended in Winnipeg, the plot unfolds the surprising relationship between a scholarship student and a wealthy female classmate.

      Huynh acknowledges affinities between some stories and his own life. But despite having lived in or visited all the locales depicted, Huynh, who currently resides in Richmond, isn’t drawn to autobiography. Fiction allows for entry into “the actual lives and selves and the sensibilities of the characters,” he says. “I’m just much more interested in exploring different people.”

      He submitted the manuscript of the book to the Asian Canadian Writers’ Workshop in 2015 and was a cowinner of its emerging-writer award. At that point, however, the collection lacked “Mayfly”, one of the published version’s strongest offerings. Riffing on a piece Huynh wrote years earlier, this iteration details a Caucasian youth’s immersion in a Vietnamese gang and the illicit marijuana trade in the Lower Mainland.

      As Huynh writes, “Stealing pearls and stereos from unsuspecting civilians was easy. An enemy’s grow op, though, was a different game, one you weren’t yet allowed to play. You heard about their fortifications from the homies who made it back from a grow-rip, sometimes with their blood trailing on the carpet. There were pit bulls to be wary of, both animal and human.”

      Creative undertakings, according to Huynh, operate with individual logics. Weeks or months can be spent developing characters before he starts a project. Material comes to him from their respective motives and dynamics. The immigrants and their descendants here have “a unique way of orienting themselves with the past. Some of them just want to forget about the past and move on with their lives,” Huynh says. “For others the past is this huge mystery that they want to have uncovered.”

      Home remains a place and a state of mind. The Forbidden Purple City itself, the 19th-century royal complex once central to Vietnamese culture and today part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, serves as a potent metaphor. No one knows “what it really did truly look like, particularly the grand interiors of the emperor’s home,” Huynh continues. “I think that’s an interesting symbol of what home is, and the efforts to which my characters try to re-create this sense of home.”