It was only fitting that on my recent trip to Washington, D.C., I found time to finish a marvelous book by my former colleague Angie Chuang.
Fitting in that Angie is a D.C. transplant, having left behind a stellar career as a reporter at The Oregonian and transitioned to full-time teaching of journalism as an associate professor at American University.
Fitting in that I started the book before Lori and I stepped aboard for our cross-country journey and then finished it on the return flight to Portland, wrapping the literary experience around a dinner with Angie, her boyfriend Jeff, and Tracy Jan, another former Oregonian reporter now working in Washington.
Let me tell you, Angie’s book, “The four words from home,” is a marvelous read. And I say that not because she is my friend, but because it is a deeply reported, elegantly written book, characterized by cultural insight, self-examination and stark honesty.
Because I know Angie and her work so well, and because we share the common experience of growing up in ethnic households in the San Francisco Bay Area, reading the book felt intensely intimate, almost as if I were in the same room as she described one experience after another.
“The four words from home” is a memoir of two families, spanning continents and bridging cultures in the years following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
One family is the Shirzais, a family of Afghans and Afghan Americans, some still living in the countryside outside Kabul and others living in Portland, Oregon, as first-generation immigrants.
The other family is the Chuangs, Angie’s mom and dad, first-generation immigrants from Taiwan, raising Angie and her younger brother in the East Bay suburbs.
Angie is the bridge. As a reporter for The Oregonian, she is assigned to “find the human face of the country we’re about to bomb” and winds up traveling to Afghanistan to tell the story of a Portland professor, Daoud Shirzai (a pseudonym), who is the patriarch of a family split by geography and the old and modern ways.
Along with photojournalist Stephanie Yao Long, Angie spends a couple of weeks with the Shirzais in Kabul and at their ancestral home in rural Shinzmaray, immersing herself in their world as best she can while abiding by cultural traditions that often separate men from women.
It’s a precarious time to visit, given the strong anti-American attitudes among many Afghans spawned by the war. But Angie more than muddles through, thanks to wearing traditional clothing, learning basic Pashto and bringing a reporter’s eye for detail and search for meaning to every situation.
As a male, I especially appreciated the instances where Angie writes about the Shirzai women, both those still living a traditional, encumbered life in Afghanistan as well as the younger ones living modern, less-restricted lives in America. She renders a touching portrait of women bound by love and support for each other and their desires to marry well, no matter if choosing a mate in the traditional way or daring to break custom by going outside the family’s ethnic group.
There are countless comparisons to be made between Portland and Kabul, but the third leg of the stool rests on Angie’s other perspective — that of a Chinese immigrant family striving for success in the San Francisco suburbs yet being torn apart by divorce and mental illness. With compassion and honesty, Angie writes about the breakup of her parents’ marriage and the breakdown of her father’s mental health.
The family tries to maintain a respectable outward appearance as Angie heads off to Stanford and her brother to U.C. Berkeley, but her father loses his job, becomes despondent and increasingly displays erratic, angry behavior that Angie traces back to her childhood days.
It makes for a brittle dynamic as Angie boards the plane for Kabul, seeking to know a family of strangers better at the same time her own family is disintegrating. Upon her return to the United States, she visits with her newly divorced mother. The two of them travel to Taoyuan, her mother’s birthplace, to spend time with her mom’s parents and Angie experiences something of a rebirth.
A family reunion with aunts, uncles and cousins follows in Southern California and Angie emerges with a fresh appreciation of each generation’s challenges and the cultural traditions that connect them despite differences in time, place and personality.
In sum, a fellow author writes: “Chuang takes us on a compelling journey where the discovery of identity and places reveals the complexity of family, belonging and home.”
The intertwining narrative of events in Portland, Kabul and Taoyuan, combined with enduring memories of San Francisco, makes for a compelling read.
And did I mention elegant writing? Here’s an excerpt:
“For the past five years, I had been fixated on emotional walls. The Shirzais’s, each step bringing me closer to the inner sanctum of their lives and their story, even into the rooms that symbolized their most closely held loss: Mohammed. And my own family’s, as Mom, Kelley, and I desperately bricked over the dark and messy rooms of my father’s illness, just as we ignored the unfinished renovations in our house. We were finally, tentatively, just starting to remove these barriers, one brick at a time.
“But what about my own walls? The ones that were mine and mine alone? In Daoud, I saw myself: using his work in Afghanistan to remove himself from the painful realities of the family he had raised, from relationships with women when they got too demanding, as he would say. How had I used journalism to build my buffer zone, using work as an excuse to avoid family, and prevent relationships with men from progressing.”
Angie’s book was years in the making, published in 2014. It took me longer than it should have to get to it, but the wait was totally worth it. Reading it while traveling to and from the two cities where Angie has most recently resided — and where I live and just recently visited — was a special experience.