Kien Nguyen: Key-en When
Kien Nguyen talks about his grandfather, the inspiration for his first novel, The Tapestries
I was six days old when my grandfather first told me his life stories. I was lying in a small bamboo cradle suspended by ropes from a high
wooden beam. From the window, the summer sky shone like an
inverted ocean, motionless except for a few distant clouds. Hummingbirds
fluttered over the garden fountain, then disappeared into
the pomegranate trees.
While the ceiling swayed he would speak to me in a melodic tone, always with the same introduction: "During the winter months, the Perfume River was chilly, especially at dawn." In my recollection, the world of my grandfather was simple, irregular, and deliberately void of anything material. No photo albums or mementos helped illustrate his tales, only his soothing voice, flowing in the river of his memory.
At times, my grandmother would join him. In the background, she would pluck the strings of her lute and sing Vietnamese folk songs. Between the two of them, my childhood was filled with wonder. I could always close my eyes and allow myself to be transported back to a time when my grandfather was a child. While in the rest of the world, children grew up with fairy tales, I lived in my grandfather's stream of consciousness, feasting on his thoughts, feeling his emotions, and absorbing his legacy.
When I was older and able to retain some of the plots, we ventured into our garden. By that time, the trees had been replaced with rose vines on white trellises. The hummingbirds had moved on, and the new tenants were butterflies. No matter what direction I looked, the sky would be drenched in a sea of ocean blue, forever concealing its secrets.
I was at the age when everything seemed complicated, and giving something a name only added to my confusion about its nature. I could not understand why a dog would be called "dog" and a cat "cat." The stories took longer for my grandfather to tell because of my endless questions. But with great patience, he always explained them to me in meticulous detail.
This state of communication between the two of us was heightened as time passed, because of my love for him as a storyteller and also because of his zest for living. I remember the excitement I felt the first time we waited together for the midnight cactus to bloom. I marveled at the sight of the plant's tender buds and the way they reached for the moonlight with long, tapering, and delicate sprouts, uncurling like tendrils of a fern. To purify the air, my grandmother had lit sandalwood bark in a copper urn nearby. Listening to my grandfather, I could almost see the music of his voice swirling in the smoke. But the endless wait was impossible to endure. Before long, I fell asleep on his lap.
Late into the night, I was awakened by a strong scent of perfume. I opened my eyes. The moon seemed to shine through a layer of rice paper. The sandalwood had burned out. We were still in the garden, but now the wind was softer and almost liquid with humidity. At first I thought it was the moon that had the smell like the inside of a temple. But then I saw the blossoms on the cactus. The outer sheaths that had once been pinkish were now red-vermilionlike blood flowing over the white petals. I remember the very moment when the moonlight became a part of the flower's pistils. I watched as the entire tree emitted an iridescent glow. My grandfather was silent. And when the fragrant mist disappeared, all of the white petals withdrew into the plant. The brief courtship between the moon and the flowers was over.
Living with my grandfather, every day was a surprise. I never knew what his next lesson would be. It could be a story he read from an old book, or a tale he told of his own experience, or my likeness that he embroidered in one of his tapestries, or a discussion of the plants and herbs in the garden.
In the morning, he would wake me before the sun rose to go to the pond where the lotus plants thrived. I can still feel the cold sand under my bare feet as I ran a few paces ahead of him, carrying a child-sized teapot. While he collected the morning dew from the lotus leaves, I would hunt for tea that was hidden deep inside the blossoms.
For a long time I didn't know how the tea got there. I imagined that the plants manufactured their own tea, or perhaps it was placed there by a water nymph for the taking. Years later, it dawned on me that my grandmother had been putting the tea leaves inside the lotus buds the night before, so that they could marinate over night. Even after the mystery was solved, the enchantment lingered in me whenever I reminisced on those days. Like a child looking for Easter eggs, I would run from flower to flower, searching for my treasure, disappointed each time I found an empty bloom.
When he had gathered enough water off the leaves, and my little pot was one-third full, we returned home. Outside the kitchen, my grandmother had prepared a terra-cotta stove with burning coals, ready for his ritual. It was his own ceremonious way to pay respect to the higher power of nature. As the water boiled, its steam became a thick mist, erasing all that was real around me. A new setting would emerge, narrated by his voicea world that had once belonged to him, a world that he now handed over to me. After telling me a story, he would ask me to repeat it over and over again. I did not know whether it was a test to see if I was listening, or his way to keep the past alive.
Grandpa, I never forgot you or your story. Wherever you are, I am still listening.
Copyright © by Nguyen-Andrews, LLC
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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