Winning Always Involves Sacrificing: Talking with Dickson Lam

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Dickson Lam’s dazzling debut memoir, Paper Sons, which came out in March from Autumn House Press, traces Lam’s journey from a teenage graffiti writer growing up in a housing project in San Francisco, to a high school teacher working with underserved youth. As Lam does his best to unravel the tangled threads of violence in his family’s past, his richly rendered narrative pulses with life as he explores what we owe to one another, if we’re ultimately destined to repeat the mistakes of our parents, and whether there can be such a thing as redemption.

Alison Hawthorne Deming, who selected Lam’s book for the 2017 Autumn House Nonfiction contest, cited the way that Lam combined memoir and cultural history, the quest for an absent father and the struggle for social justice, naming traditions in graffiti and Chinese culture: “This is an important book, beautifully crafted, rich and poetic images and juxtapositions, that offers insight and compassion for a nation struggling to make sense of its immigrant nature.”

Lam, whose work has appeared in the Kenyon Review Online, Hyphen magazine, and The Rumpus, teaches at Contra Costa College in San Pablo, California. Recently, he and I spoke about the writing advice that transformed his approach to his book, the role of taggers in the graffiti hierarchy, and the duty of a memoirist.

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The Rumpus: Paper Sons is very much the story of your family, and the trauma that stemmed from your father’s abuse of your sister. But the book opens with another scene from your life—the story of Javon, a high school student who was a victim of gun violence. Did the impetus for the book begin with Javon’s story?

Dickson Lam: I knew the book was going to be about my father, about what he did to my sister. I knew that was the heart of the book. When I started writing, my sister and I had just made the decision not to speak to my father. I had seen him just a few months before, and we had started to build a relationship. I was thinking about possibly being his caretaker in the future. So it was a huge shift, and I couldn’t really talk about it with my sister—she wasn’t bringing it up. The book became a way to try to process the feelings of this major shift in my life.

When I first started putting pen to paper, I started with the beginning of my childhood memories and worked my way up, to my early thirties. Originally, I began the book with the earliest childhood memory of my father, but that didn’t work. There was a lot of trial and error.

Eventually I wrote the beginning as it stands now. I started with a small thing—Javon’s photo in my classroom, and then I started writing about his murder, and the responsibility I felt for what happened to him. Later on I ended up making a timeline and realizing all these connections between his story and my story. I realized that I went to see my father just two months after Javon was murdered, and the last time I had seen him prior to that, I’d been fourteen—the same age Javon had been when he first started in my classroom. But when I first started writing about Javon and about teaching, it wasn’t at all connected to my family’s story. There wasn’t anything in those early pieces about me as a teenager, only me as teacher. I was compartmentalizing spheres of my life instead of mixing them together.

Rumpus: That’s so interesting, because those two through-lines end up syncing together in such a powerful way.

Lam: But when I started writing this book, I wasn’t writing about any of that—not the teaching, not the chess, not the graffiti.

Especially not the teaching. There’s just so many clichés when it comes to narratives about teaching. Dangerous Minds, Freedom Writers—I just didn’t want to get anywhere close to that. In those stories, the outsider comes in and doesn’t know how to connect with the students, and then the teacher finally figures it out and the students are changed forever. But I’m a person of color and I grew up in a similar way as many of my students, and in this story, I’m the one who needed saving.

Rumpus: How did the material about your teaching eventually end up making it into the narrative?

Lam: I remember a real turning point when I had a workshop at the University of Houston with Mat Johnson. Mat hadn’t really liked this story that I had submitted. He said that the Dickson he knew wasn’t present on the page. So we met after class, and he shared some tricks and strategies that he uses to make sure that he’s bringing his whole self to the page. I remember going home and thinking, Okay, let me forget about writing and the literary world. What am I interested in? What am I passionate about? Chess, hip-hop, graffiti, teaching, and martial arts—I wrote those five things on a Post-it and stuck it on the wall by my desk. I’d go back to that list for inspiration and think about how to weave those passions in. Asking myself, am I describing this room from a bland perspective, or am I really bringing in my personal worldview? It started opening things up for me.

Rumpus: That makes me think of something Tony Hoagland said in a workshop once, about how there are so many aspects of material reality that haven’t yet made it into poetry. There’s so much that’s ripe for literature that’s not yet represented on the page. In this book, you’re bringing so much of life that I haven’t yet seen in memoir onto the page.

For example, the workbook of self-defense techniques that teachers are given at Robeson Rivera, with the list of various moves that teachers can use to escape the hold of a student: The Hair Pull Release, The Two Hand Wrist Grip Release, the Back Choke Release. The way the marker feels in your hand the first time you go tagging. These details are so powerful on their own, but they also do a tremendous amount of work. For instance, in the last chapter, “Hope You Solve,” where you juxtapose bits of advice from chess manuals with the story of the end of your relationship with your father.

Lam: Most of the book, I wrote over the course of six or seven years. I had the essence of those stories out there in some way. But that very last chapter was written at the end, and I started from scratch. I allowed the chess to come in. Once I had the title of that chapter, it really came together. So many of the stories in that last chapter have to do with movement. My father moves back to San Francisco, my sister leaves. People are coming and going. It’s tricky to use a metaphor like chess. It’s such an oft-used trope. I challenged myself to say things only an “insider” of the game would know.

Rumpus: I also loved that chapter about teaching your students how to play chess, and the lines about how their minds won’t consider a variation that begins with losing their strongest piece.

Lam: It’s really counterintuitive when you start to play chess. You’re taught how much the pieces are worth, as if this is all there is to winning. The idea of giving up your strongest piece—it involves a lot of trust in the game that my students, students of color, just didn’t have. Many of them felt powerless in life, and holding on to their strongest piece probably gave them a sense of security. But winning always involves sacrificing.

Rumpus: I couldn’t help but reading your own story into that section. As a kid, you always fought back, but as you grew up, you had a different relationship to your own vulnerability. And the more vulnerable you become on the page, the stronger you seem.

You do so much great work with metaphor and juxtaposition in the book—like the chapter that alternates between passages about graffiti writing and traditions of naming in Chinese culture.

Lam: I can’t think of many literary books that have discussed graffiti in a meaningful way. The only one I can think of was The Fortress of Solitude. The language was really beautiful, and while part of me felt like I couldn’t top it, that book didn’t represent my own experiences as a graffiti writer. Something was missing.

I wanted to add something fresh and new to the conversation. When I worked on those passages, I pushed myself to make the details engaging and interesting for someone who’s well versed in that culture. Finding the detail that someone from my community would appreciate. I wrote those graffiti sections for graffiti homies. That was my test—if they could read it and get something new out of it.

Rumpus: You capture many details so beautifully—the sensation of wiping away layers of dirt and dust with every stroke of the marker, the process of choosing RANK as your new graffiti tag, the way that taggers introduced themselves to other writers by asking “What do you write?”

Lam: That’s one of the parts that I’m most proud of—being able to put that material out into the world. It says so much about what it was like to grow up in San Francisco in the early 1990s. At every school, you could find taggers. It was a huge community, but we were at the bottom of the graffiti hierarchy. People tend to appreciate the kind of graffiti that gets you into art school, but tagging is laughed at, mocked, which made writing about it that much more satisfying.

In the chapter titled “What’s in a Name?,” my friends and I go to Ghost Yard, a dump full of run-down old buses, covered with tags of writers from years ago. They were our graffiti ancestors, but their tags weren’t read anymore.

You’re taking all these risks to write, but it’s this transient, temporal thing. Your writing is constantly erased or goes unread, and you have to continuously be active for your identity to exist. If you don’t exist, you don’t mean anything. There are so many parallels to the writer’s life. You put so much work into a book, and yet it only really exists when it’s read, when it’s activated by a reader.

Rumpus: I’ve heard you say that you wouldn’t have written this book without your sister’s explicit permission. Not all memoirists would take that stance. How did you navigate that process?

Lam: I told myself in the very beginning of the writing process that I would only publish the book if she approved. I was really torn about it, and procrastinated for a long time before I talked to her. I thought, maybe she’ll say no, and then I’ll have thrown away four years of writing. And I thought, well, if she says no, then it’ll just be a different book. A father-son story. And then we talked and she gave me an unconditional green light. She said, “It’s your memoir, write whatever you want.” That freed me as a writer. Before I told my sister about the book, I was also avoiding the story of what my father did. She gave me the permission to explore that.

Rumpus: You’ve been teaching for some time now, starting with your initial experience at Paul Robeson and Diego Rivera Academy, June Jordan School for Equity, the classes you taught in graduate school, and now at Contra Costa College. How have your sensibilities as a teacher changed over time?

Lam: When I was teaching high school, I wasn’t writing my own stories, so I would tell stories orally instead. But my pedagogical approach hasn’t changed. It’s still discussion-oriented, student-centered. I usually start off every class with a journal entry. I ask my students to spend ten minutes writing about their own experiences. It’s a shame that narrative writing and literature is so devalued in college, especially in the composition classroom. Nowadays, you can go to college and never encounter literature. There’s more of an emphasis in composition to teach nonfiction, because people feel that prepares you more for the rest of your academic career. But I’m working on creating a memoir class. The students at Contra Costa have so much to share.

Rumpus: Toward the end of the book, you talk about your duty as a memoirist to uncover what you would wish to hide. What have been the effects of that now that Paper Sons is out in the world?

Lam: It’s definitely scary—you don’t know what your family’s reactions will be. For me, so far so good. It was a little awkward at the book launch party. My mother and my stepdad Willie were there, and I happened to read something about my mom. I looked up and my mom was making a face, so I turned the other way so I couldn’t see her anymore. The laughter from the audience melted the tension.

I think the biggest impact has been on my sister. Her journey hadn’t felt complete yet. But when the book was published, she wrestled with what it meant that her story was alive in the world. The combination of the book coming out and the #MeToo movement has been really inspiring for her. She actually came to the launch party here in Oakland from out of state.

My initial reaction when my sister told me she was coming was that I needed to change what I was going to read. And then I checked myself. She made a conscious choice to be out here. The heart of the book is that my father molested my sister, and that’s the reason she’s coming to the reading. I realized that she wanted me to name those things. Later she told me that there was a moment during my reading when she thought, Oh shit, he just said that out loud. And she checked in with herself and then she was surprised to find herself thinking—he said that, but it’s okay. I’m alright.


Jessica Wilbanks is a nonfiction writer based in Houston. Her first book, When I Spoke in Tongues: A Story of Faith and Its Loss, is about her journey to reconcile her lack of belief with her love for her deeply religious family, and will be available from Beacon Press fall 2018. To learn more, visit her website or find her on Twitter. More from this author →