Lê Thi Diem Thúy, author of the highly praised novel The Gangster We Are All Looking For, is coming to the campus of the University of California at Riverside next week to attend Writer’s Week.  The event, sponsored each year by UCR, “now unfolds in full force with 40 presenters, authors, agents, and publishers to celebrate our 30th anniversary of stories, poems, images, and words of and for Inlandia and the West Coast at large,” writes event director, Juan Felipe Herrera.  The Inlandia to which he refers is a clever term suggested by Herrera to represent the Inland Empire encompassing Riverside and San Bernardino Counties. 


Subsequently, the term has been employed by editor Gayle Wattawa as the title of a collection of stories, plays, and essays showcasing poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, and other literature by such renowned authors as Joan Didion and Raymond Chandler.  Over 80 writers are represented in the anthology, with material ranging from Indian stories and early explorers’ narratives to pieces written by local authors.

UCR and the surrounding region delight, and take great pride, in the event that has, in the past, hosted celebrated writers such as Allen Ginsberg, Ken Kesey, Joyce Carol Oates, Robert Pinsky, and N. Scott Momaday.  This year, Nobel Prize winner Wole Soyinka and California’s Poet Laureate Al Young will attend and speak at the university that offers the only Bachelor of Arts Degree in Creative Writing in the University of California system.  Thúy will speak about her novel that has been selected as the theme book for students in the College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences.

The Gangster We Are All Looking For, based loosely on Thúy’s own childhood experiences as a refugee, is a fictional memoir of the Vietnam War.  Far from a blow by blow account of the horrific struggle endured by Vietnamese boat people, the novel conjures up childlike daydreams embroidered with threads of an American girl lost in the delusion of poverty, floating on a phantom raft of vaporous memories of a life far removed across the waters. 

Her novel uses water throughout the story to illustrate the separation the unnamed girl experiences as an innocent left upon the shores of a great empire.  Unforced, the reader enters a world of social diversity through the eyes of a young girl feeling her way through the touchstones of American culture as a blameless, simple pilgrim. 

Lê Thi Diem Thúy, pronounced lay tee yim twee, was cited by the New York Times as one of its “Writers On The Verge,” and has received acclaim for her novel  from major publications such as the Boston Globe and the Los Angeles Times.  She describes her writing as a “sideways glance” at historic events, and strives to reveal “impressions leading up to rage.”  In Gangster, she uses unique, evocative language as a sharp awl to carve vivid impressions of life in the immigrant alleys of San Diego.

“During the day, the sun beat down hard on those streets, warping the sensations, muting the sight and sound and feel of everything.  The chants of children skipping rope in the alley beneath an open window seemed to come from miles away.”

With minimalist style and an honest vibrant use of language, Thúy pencils in a landscape of bleak despair with the hopes and desires of collective humanity.  She has succeeded in joining the foreign with the familiar and the disinterested with the concerned.  Gangster illustrates the voiceless issue of global abandonment of children in dire circumstance with tacit imagery, holding the reader close without moralizing or lecturing.  Although, some callously push the novel aside as a veiled memoir, or simply characterize it as another coming of age tale, it is neither.  The Gangster We Are All Looking For is a poignantly disturbing link to ourselves.

UCR’s Writers Week continues through Feb. 14th.