I've got a vested interest in this book because Simone Sapienza used to be my lovely student and b) he was one of the three people who started Gazebook Sicily. Gazebook Sicily was a photobook festival by the sea in Sicily. For three straight years, that's how I began every september.
It was free and, if you're looking for a model on how to organise a photobook festival with food, drink, music and free access to talks and portfolio reviews and all the rest, well Gazebook might be the one. So because of that I kind of love Simone. That and quite a lot more including the fact that he's a brilliant photographer and human being.
Charlie Surfs on Lotus Flowers is a book Simone published last year. It's avisual stream of consciousness through Ho Chi Minh City, through Vietnamese capitalism and all its contradictions. It's a mix of still-lifes, portraits made in a pop-up studio. backdrop heavy street images, and disjointed fragments of the alienation of everyday life. How do you manage to live in a country with such a history, and such a present and so many contradictions, Simone is asking. How do you make sense of it all.
You can read a really good review of the book here.
And here is my short video review of the book.
I got the book just after reading The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen. The Refugees is a collection of short stories about the lives of Vietnamese refugees living in the United States, about people who left Vietnam after the end of the war there or in the late 1970s.
It's a book about people who are living between two worlds; one is the violence, dysfunction and tradition of Vietnam during the war years, it's a world where people are at ease with themselves and their families, where they own the dysfunction around them, where religion, family, food, community and the contradictions and psychosis that accompany those things are internal to their lives.
And then they get to America and everything changes. A simulacrum of family, community is built into their new lives but it's built on quicksand, it doesn't quite take; the dysfunction is not familiar.. Attempts are made to recreate the old life through political organisations but without the unifying sense of place of Vietnam, these are just deluded and corrupt.
In one story, the main character#s mother has a shop selling groceries to Vietnamese migrants. She faces the challenges of making money from customers who question every price, who wonder why it's more expenensive than back 'home', who are in denial about the deaths of their missing family members, and who threaten to blackball the mother's shop if she doesn't pay money to fight the Communists back home. The mother knows what will happen if she doesn't pay. She resists, but can't resist enough. In the end, she pays money that she knows is at best a waste, for a futile cause.
And as she pays, she realises that the old life, the life in pre-Communist Vietnam, is over, that she lives in America now. And with that, she gives her son, for the first time ever, a $5 bill to spend as he likes. He goes to the local shop, a shop run by Sikhs, and he looks in wonder at the comics, at the sweets, at the chocolate. 'While the clerks chatted in a language I did not understand,' the final line reads, 'I hesitated, yearning to take everything home but unable to choose.'
And that is what Charlie Surfs on Lotus Flowers is about! It's a wonderful book.
Buy the book here.