Like nearly everyone else who wins this award, my initial response was disbelief: my first thought upon hearing the phone message to return a call from the NEA was that a friend was playing a prank. I've tried twice before, without success, and the entries are so numerous and so good, luck surely plays some part. Of course I'm grateful and delighted to be included in such prestigious company, and I hope to use this fellowship to do some research traveling and free up more time to continue with my novel-in-progress.
He lay in his hospital bunk perfectly straight for hours on end, imagining himself embalmed, laid out as if on display in a mausoleum. He would not say a word. His tongue felt out of place, like an extra limb. The Vietnamese woman in the t-shirt and loose black pants - a slip of paper pinned to her shirt identified her as a nurse - came by every day in the morning and afternoon to change his dressing and tape down the plastic tube that ran from a jar into his arm. "How are you?" she'd say in Vietnamese. "Have you eaten rice yet? Did you land in Zone C? Do you want me to bring your nephew over?" When she asked the questions, she bent down, hovering inches from his face. She smiled, radiating cheer. In answer, he slowly turned his head to the right, wincing as the stems of the chicken feathers in his small pillow pinched his ears. His neighbor was a young boy who always had his legs under a tented bedsheet. The boy would try to catch his eye, but Trinh always looked at the boy's stained mattress. Then the nurse would walk around Trinh's bunk, idly tapping his feet with the pen she carried in her pants' pocket, and ask the same questions on the other side. Trinh would turn his head to the left. His neighbor to that side was a tight-faced Chinese man. The man always had his arm resting on his forehead, so Trinh figured the man had a fever; they never looked at each other. The nurse would sigh, then walk around to other side of Trinh's bunk, tapping his feet with her pen. She would frown, wiggling her pen, then bend over to hover inches from his face and repeat her questions.
Each day the rows of patients across from Trinh sat up in their beds to watch the performance. The nurse would ask questions; Trinh would turn his head. Back and forth they went, asking and turning, always the same. In the mornings, with the sunlight slanting in from the slat windows and relatives ambling through the ward, clucking their tongues and pointing, the patients pulled for the nurse. "Grab his head," they'd say. "Twist his finger. Tell him to talk to his nephew." In the evening the slat windows were shut and the fluorescent lights crackled off and on. The relatives were not allowed in; the stench from the honey pots under their beds filled the ward. The patients, bored, changed their allegiance. As the nurse walked around his bed, back and forth, they shouted out encouragement to Trinh. "Here comes the cat," they'd say. "Left side. Plug your ears. Put a bandage over your mouth."
Then a white woman with UNHCR sewn into her t-shirt began to bring his nephew Duoc over in the mornings. She had blond hair stacked up in a bun. The boy's hand was encircled by hers; with his free hand he stroked the downy blond hairs on her arm. Trinh could not bear to look at him. The boy was not the flesh of his flesh. Yet he had survived the journey well. The sunburn gave his skin a healthy glow. The nurse had given him a spinning top painted to look like a girl in a conical hat. The sight was infuriating.
Every morning the white woman brought the boy. Every morning Trinh turned his head away. His neighbors lost patience. "He's your nephew," the patients shouted. They sat up in their bunks, craning their necks like chickens. "Say hello to your nephew, old man," they said. "Are you a brick?" Trinh rubbed the gauze dressing around his head and stared straight into the fan blades rotating above. "A pig's heart," the patients said. They pointed him out to their relatives. He could feel their eyes on him, but still he would not speak to Duoc. One morning Duoc stood with the white woman at the foot of his bed. Trinh heard him say he was going to live in the Zone F longhouses until his uncle felt better. The patients clucked loudly as the boy walked away, rubbing the white woman's arms. "Pickle-hearted old man," the patients said. Trinh heard them. He drew up his pillow around his head, and the words went away.
The next morning he ate his rice gruel spooned in by the pretty girl from Binh Tuy and looked up at the whirling fan on the ceiling, and he felt his face fold like an accordion. The girl drew back. She put the spoon in the bowl and excused herself. "My breakfast," he called out. "I'm not finished." Everyone looked up. Trinh could not control his voice. It was louder than he had intended; it cracked. The white woman with UNHCR sewn into her t-shirt came running down the hall, followed by a Vietnamese orderly. "OK," the white woman said. "OK. Take it easy. You're absolutely fine. It's perfectly natural. Let it come, Mr. Trinh. Let it come all you want." She bent over his bunk and told him to breathe naturally, but he was diseased and couldn't stop crying.
In the late '70s and early 80s, I was a Peace Corps Volunteer and then a UN relief worker, teaching English in Malaysia. The experiences I had overseas are the factual basis for my novel Saviors (Harcourt-Brace, 1999), and they play a large part in my short-fiction collection How the Water Feels, which is due out from Southern Methodist University Press in fall of 2002. Currently, I'm working on a second novel titled The Africa Variation, which is set in Burundi, Africa, where my wife and I lived for a short time in the mid-80s. I teach in the MFA program at California State University-Chico.