“A Good Scent from A Strange Mountain”
by Robert Olen Butler
utler’s collection of short stories recounts the experiences of Vietnamese Americans living in Louisiana. Each of the twelve stories is told from one character’s perspective with the topics centered on cultural differences between Vietnam and the United States. As an American reader, I was struck by how the Vietnamese American characters view America as both outsiders and insiders, lured to the country for the promise of a better life. The dichotomy of wanting to both immerse themselves in the new culture and salvage the remnants of where they originated is palpable. The struggle to assimilate breeds psychological effects and generational conflicts.
In one notable story, a young woman is grieving the death of her great grandfather and takes in his beloved parrot named Mr. Green who only spoke to her grandfather and resented the presence of anyone else. As the woman adapts to the bird, she replays memories with her grandfather, particularly his view of women’s limitations. While he felt a deep devotion to the girl, he saved some information and activities only for her brothers, simply due to their gender, and relegated her to the background. The boys didn’t value the traditions or respect their elder’s preferences. Now living in America, the woman has adapted the custom of female empowerment and struggles to love the memory of a man who didn’t see her as a fully capable person as a result of her womanhood. As the bird ages, he begins plucking out his own feathers, stripping his skin of protection. The woman watches the bird deteriorate just as she watched the final days of the grandfather who only loved her as much as custom would allow.
The longest story in the collection, entitled The American Couple, features a group of game show winners vacationing in Puerto Vallarta. The Vietnamese American couple buddies up with an American couple, both men having served in Vietnam from opposite countries. While the females relate on surface-level matters, having little in common, the men engage in a silent battle, struggling with military baggage long since buried. The wives witness sides of their husbands unknown to them, and the Vietnamese couple reach a breakthrough that elevates their waning connection. The story explores the possibility of a new environment surfacing old wounds and exposing truths difficult to keep hidden.
Butler’s collection won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1993. Having served in Vietnam as a translator, Butler fell in love with the country and its people. This collection surfaces American stories from the shadows of literature. Butler writes thoughtfully and carefully, paying homage to the people and culture and staying knitted to their American reality
“I can speak these words and perhaps you can see these things clearly because you are using your imagination. But I cannot imagine these things because I lived them, and to remember them with the vividness I know they should have is impossible. They are lost to me.”