On Dickson Lam’s ‘Paper Sons’

Lam’s memoir eloquently paints a portrait of immigrant experiences in a city that is superficially welcoming, but deeply hostile.

Dickson Lam
Memoir | 246 pages | 6” x 9” | Reviewed: Paperback 
978–1–938769–28–3 | First Edition | $17.95
Autumn House Press | Pittsburgh | BUY HERE

It’s rare to find a work that so eloquently paints a portrait of the life of another, through rich and deeply textured writing that both captures and preserves life’s multiple dimensions in a two-dimensional work of art. Dickson Lam’s memoir, Paper Sons, achieves that often elusive goal in a way that invites the reader not only into the homes of the author and his family, but also into the experiences of immigrants in a city that is often superficially welcoming, but deeply hostile.

Lam’s memoir opens with a story of youth born into a world of harsh realities, full of struggle, yet seeping with strength. Piercing memories are conveyed first through a single word or brief phrase: “DRUNK,” “EAR PICKER,” “RED BEAN SOUP,” then developed into a rich and complicated tale of familial conflict, secrets, and personal redemption. Readers travel both backward and forward with the author, to China, to Hong Kong, to the North Beach housing projects, and through the streets and buses of San Francisco. Writing of childhood hurt through adult eyes, Lam shares vivid recollections of neglect, retribution, and senseless violence. Lam illustrates life’s complexity, in part, through lessons learned from Mao and Malcolm X, red bean soup and Superman cake, bros and homies.

We learn about the life of Javon (aka WAGA), a student of Lam’s and of the streets, who was remembered as having wanted “to be an engineer,” but who, in reality, was failed by life and by circumstance. We learn about the lives of Willie (“the father I had to kill”), of Lam’s father Bah Ba (of whom Lam’s “first memory […] was when he dropped [him] into a toilet”), of Lam’s mother (who “[a]s a child growing up in Hong King, […] hadn’t lived with her father, either” and who “had fashioned a home resistant to aging” while “feeding a family of five with only a couple of hundred bucks a week”), and of Lam’s sister Ga Jeh (who was “trying to take care of her little brother”). We learn of hurt through single words and phrases deceptively full of raw emotion: ASLEEP, BOSS, PRESENTS, many more. Single words, like a single oar, that convey a river with banks overflowing of pent-up feelings and potential.

“We all have a balloon,” John said, “that we fill up with our hurt. If we don’t deal with that hurt, one day the balloon pops, and everything in it spills onto others.”

Lam’s memoir keeps the reader on the outside looking in — wanting to ask questions, to learn more — but leaves her content with personal glimpses shared through a patch-worked collection of moments in time. While the memories (including those Lam would have preferred to “dispose of”) are shared in pieces, together they weave a rich blanket made of tightly woven threads. Where some fray, the strength of others keeps the blanket of Lam’s life strong, positive, and forward-focused.

Lam’s voice is powerful, unwavering, and perceptive. Much like his younger-self who reasoned,

“I wasn’t stealing. I was liberating[,]”

Lam’s work crystallizes the lived experiences of youth brought up amidst injustice, inequity, and, despite everything, relentless resilience. The voices of Lam’s students are an equally strong testament to the author’s powerful presence.

“I don’t know what got into Mr. Lam this year, but he don’t play no more.”

The reader knows what happened. Lam has triumphed, persisted, and overcome.

JENNIFER SCHNEIDER is a staff book reviewer for The Coil. She resides in the United States, but is an educator who works with students all over the globe. She has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember. Her work takes on a variety of forms and has been published in various journals. For Jennifer, teaching, researching, and writing provide an opportunity to impact tomorrow by narrowing gaps in education, equality, and justice today.