from Shade and Breeze
by Quynh Tran
translated by Kira Josefsson
Shade and Breeze, Quynh Tran’s accomplished and widely acclaimed debut, is an unconventionally told story of a childhood. Revolving around a Vietnamese family of three navigating small-town life in Finland of the nineties, the novel plays out through a series of oblique yet intimately detailed tableaux.
Narrated from the perspective of a precociously bookish though in many ways naïve young boy, we follow his observations of the everyday world around him, in particular his mother, the entrepreneurial Má, and impulsive older brother Hieu. Fuelled by different motivations, the family unit is often tested, as its members grow in different ways.
Poignant and suggestive, Shade and Breeze is a novel about belonging and estrangement, and the supportive yet at times constricting bonds of family and community. In this excerpt, taken from near the beginning of the novel, Má sets up a new business venture, renting out films dubbed into Vietnamese to the local Vietnamese community.
Shade and Breeze, translated by Kira Josefsson, will be published by Lolli Editions in 2024.
from Shade and Breeze
THE FACE OF ANOTHER
A few days after the incident with Laura I heard Má talking on the phone. She was speaking in code, strange sentences: woman in the dunes, the face of another, equinox flower, and the week after a package arrived addressed to her.
On the kitchen table was a box wrapped in brown plastic tape. Sender: Sister Bao, a friend in Vietnam. The box contained eleven VHS tapes, among them Woman in the Dunes, Rikyu, The Face of Another, Equinox Flower. The tapes were banged up but the labels were new, indicating title, director, and year in neat script, even for Late Spring, whose damaged plastic case barely closed.
She watched the films over a short period of time, methodically and without pause.
Later, when she began renting the films to the Vietnamese in town, she’d sometimes be required to say something about them. She’d often focus on some tiny detail, for example when someone asked her about Late Spring and she honed in on the scene where Noriko and her father go to the theater: the masks, so beautiful, and frightening…
Sister Bao was an educated person and the films she had sent were strange—slow, often tragic—but as it turned out, this was not a problem. The phone rang incessantly. Má seemed level-headed about the whole thing, even when the film fans bothered her, whether early in the morning or late at night.
Film. Dubbed in Vietnamese. Word got around. The Vietnamese were famished.
They rang the doorbell.
Uyen showed up to rent Tampopo.
Ngoc Anh rented Late Autumn.
Cuong rented Ugetsu.
Thao was bedridden but absolutely wanted to see Tokyo Story so Má walked over with a hand delivery. Afterwards, late in the evening, Thao called, sniveling.
For some time every single film was rented out. No more movies to re-watch again, no lines to commit to memory, no soundtracks in the living room. Má was restless.
Hieu and I took it upon ourselves to go to the video store to rent films she wanted to see.
The first time at the video rental; the colors and smells. I quickly learned to enjoy the sharp odor of plastic that hit you the minute you stepped through the door. The VHS tapes were neatly lined up, shelves and shelves of them. It was like a library but with VHS tapes in shiny cases instead of books and newspapers. You were allowed to laugh and talk. Hieu called my name from a hidden corner and held up a movie with an almost naked woman on the cover. We walked around the store for a full hour and there was an intense, salty taste in my mouth that wouldn’t go away no matter how many times I swallowed.
With time we learned to ignore the sections for drama, action, comedy, horror, suspense, and documentary, because those never had dubbed movies. The foreign films section and the classics section adjacent to it—that’s where we focused our efforts, though it turned out there were only four Japanese films dubbed in Vietnamese in the store. We had no reason to come back. But then Hieu realized that it might not matter where the films had been made, so we tried twice more—first with a contemporary American love story, a blockbuster with Julie Delpy on the cover, and then a French classic from the 60s, both dubbed in Vietnamese—but both times she turned it off at the opening scene.
It took the Vietnamese a few weeks to watch the eleven films. They couldn’t resist. Not even Onibaba, where a mother-in-law and her daughter-in-law make a living by murdering and robbing samurais in the fields. The women, the silvery grass swaying taller than them; they can’t see much farther than a foot in front of them in their stakeout where they wait for the next victim. A sudden movement in the grass.
Several renters balked at the newspaper clipping that had been glued to one of the tapes: PRIMAL EMOTIONS & DARK EROTICISM. They said no thank you, this one was not for them. But a few days later they’d call to ask if they could come pick it up, immediately. They were added to the waitlist.
Film in Vietnamese.
They couldn’t resist.
Coffee dates, trying on clothes. Má and Lan Pham: you might say they took liberties.
What it had come to: Hieu was out with Laura, Má was taking a long shower, Lan Pham’s wooden clogs came across the plastic carpet in the living room and then through the foyer right outside our bedroom. She flung the door open without knocking. I was reading with one leg under the covers, the other on top.
Biology. I turned the book and showed her the spread about crows, it was a clumsy movement, my arms crossed at the wrists, fingers sprawled in a strange, unsteady grip. Lan Pham in the doorway, her face half-hidden by my book, one of my legs above the covers; the foot, the knee, the thigh, all the way up, the entire leg on top of the covers. Crows, she said, and in the same breath, going to the kitchen: Your mother and I are going to the avenue for a little coffee at the café.
I sat up on the edge of the bed, focusing on that single spread: the crow, the nearly pitch-black jackdaw, the black and white magpie, the large raven, the rook, the Siberian jay; and the nutcracker, quite rare. A matte, gray light through the quivering blinds.
Má had finished showering. The two of them were in casual, barely audible conversation; a murmur which now and then increased in volume and broke through the din of rummaging and scraping, the snapping of their compacts and lipsticks.
Lan Pham’s piercing voice.
You’re matching, it’s important to match!
she said, and:
What a lovely afternoon for a little coffee at the café!
They walked, shoes on, to the kitchen to fill their water glasses, then swiftly retraced their steps to the bedroom where they were going through Má’s closet—no, not that one—and when it seemed like they’d finally made up their minds they stepped onto the balcony to check the temperature, just to be sure, and thank God that they did, what a lucky strike, because it turned out they’d dressed far too warmly! High sun and blue skies and the two of them on the balcony pointing at one lightly dressed woman after the other. Their giggles were so ferocious that Má bent over, she bent her knees—a curtseying gesture—and lightly supported herself on Lan Pham’s arm. It was a strangely warm winter day.
Later Má came into the hall wearing tights and a long, red cotton dress.
Lan Pham, enchanted: Yes, yes, that one!
They emptied their glasses and left.
I put on my brown lace-up shoes and ran into the elevator. I stood between them and we watched each other in the mirror, squinting in the sharp fluorescent light.
Lan Pham’s uneven teeth.
Má’s red dress, flickering, red lips.
I inhaled their sweet perfumes.
She had come out of the darkness, Lan Pham. It had started with phone calls; fumbling conversations of few words, the phone cord snaked along the arm, in and out of Má’s hands. She was just going to call Lan Pham, in passing. Lan Pham, who had worked as an interpreter. Lan Pham, in youthful makeup, in studs and leather, her heart-shaped sunglasses on her smoke break, at the card table, across from Mr. Tèo. Worldly Lan Pham, who had left Vietnam to go all the way to Norway, and finally had moved to Ostrobothnia. That time she’d come to assist us. The girlfriend. Now she was back.
It was as if the rekindled friendship with Lan Pham had unlocked something in Má. She moved through the rooms with unusual ease. She talked to Hieu and me about trivial things: the weather, the neighbors, what was on TV.
One day she asked if I might be interested in coming with her to visit Auntie Tei Tei after school. Má was in a good mood that morning. Her hair was newly blow-dried and she nodded to the beat of the music from the TV. She cocked her head and said that Auntie Tei Tei had become addicted—to film.
Was this a mission?
Má turned her gaze from me and returned to her chores, still smiling.
I packed my school bag.
All day I walked around thinking about Auntie Tei Tei.
Ghiền phim . . .
Auntie Tei Tei and her family came to Finland the same time we did, she’d always been part of our life. But this day would be the first time I truly saw her, in a way that hereinafter allowed me to distinguish her from other Vietnamese adults. She was shy. She rarely spoke. She was several years older than Má. I knew she lived in Kråkholmen, in one of the high-rises by the tracks where a slow, loud train stacked full with timber passed by every day.
We went immediately after school.
Auntie Tei Tei’s husband opened the door. His quivering mustache: the mightiest mustache in the family, grizzled and thick like a painter’s brush. He offered us soda with ice and lemon, I got a big glass. Má said no thanks and immediately marched into the living room where Auntie Tei Tei sat in the armchair, relaxed, arms open. One of the Japanese films. It had just started, she said. Má crouched next to the armchair. They somehow looked peaceful, the two of them.
Auntie Tei Tei with her lethargic gaze.
She’d become addicted and we were here to take the movie from her—she was in on it, it was all above board, but before turning it off she wanted to show us a scene.
She sat up straight, hands resting on her knees. Then her husband scoffed behind us. I turned around and saw him leaning against the door frame, arms crossed. A little smile. He knew the scene. Má and I knew too. We had seen the movie several times. The End of Summer. Auntie Tei Tei signaled to us to pay attention.
Two men and one woman at a table in a bar. The woman gets up to take a phone call. The men stay seated. One, who is already smoking, is about to light the other’s cigarette. They’re tense, they’re skittish with giddiness. As he lights his friend’s cigarette—two hands on the lighter—the flame erupts, incredibly tall, the flame takes over the entire screen, an impressive flame, very tall, powerful—macabre!—but nobody in the room seems to notice. The men take a first drag on their cigarettes. They order three drinks for their table.
Auntie Tei Tei chuckled in her armchair. Má laughed, too.
Following this scene with the men and their cigarettes, Auntie Tei Tei turned it off. Her eyes had tears in them. She tried to smile, and Má asked why she was crying. Auntie Tei Tei replied that she wasn’t crying. She put the VHS in a plastic bag and we took the bag home. Her husband had been concerned, he’d asked us to come, Auntie Tei Tei would stay up all night, just sitting there, in front of the movie, he’d said it would be good if we could come and free her.
Free her! From a movie!
On the way home I asked Má why Auntie Tei Tei had been crying. She didn’t respond, and when we were almost there I asked again.
Why had Auntie Tei Tei been crying?
Má did not answer this time either.
The End of Summer wasn’t even a particularly sad movie.
Was it the music?
Was the music sad?
I knew so little about Auntie Tei Tei. I’d been told that she had incredible stamina for work, that they’d called her a robot out in the forest, that first summer when they were out picking blueberries.
The End of Summer.
Má and I had freed her from the film.
Months of movie rentals. Hieu had been tasked with chasing down the money owed by Loc. A slowly accumulated debt. Loc had seen all the movies but he hadn’t paid for a single one and now he finally had the money.
It was a long afternoon. Hieu was away for several hours and came back without the money. Loc hadn’t been home. Má looked confounded. She asked Hieu to repeat what he’d just said.
Nobody was home.
Loc was supposed to be home. Just hours prior Má had talked to him on the phone and he told her he would be home all day. Perhaps Hieu had gone to the wrong house, rang somebody else’s doorbell. Má decided to go on her own. It was, after all, to her the debt was owed. She selected her clothes carefully, she took her time, it was getting dark by the time she left, she took the elevator down, but before she’d left the building Hieu opened the apartment door and yelled down the stairs so the entire hallway echoed. He was asking her to come back up.
And now here they were, at opposite ends of the hallway. Má in jacket and shoes. She still looked confounded, curious almost, something lively about her mouth.
And Hieu began telling his story.
He took a long time explaining it.
Loc had been at home. Hieu had been given the money in a small envelope that he brought to the supermarket.
First he’d been winning.
He was winning at first.
What did he win?
Má waited patiently, up until the mention of the slot machines, when her eyes silenced him. She got the broom. He fell to his knees and stayed like that, for a long time, on his knees, while Má beat him with the handle of the broom. He escaped at first, it was as though he could predict where the strikes would land and she missed, but then: a strange gleam in her eyes, she raised the broom almost all the way to the ceiling, geared up, then hit his bare arms with every strike. He held his breath, tensed up each time, did his best not to make a sound. He was frozen in place, standing on his knees, halfway up on his feet. I stood in the kitchen, watching him crumble. He slithered. He lay with the back of his head pressed against the closet and Má hit him over the legs.
She beat him until he whimpered. Then she went to her bedroom and Hieu lay motionless in the foyer. It wasn’t before me he had been kneeling, but he had been kneeling also before me.
A few months. Then Má rewound the movies and put them in a new, brown box. The VHS tapes were to be returned to Sister Bao. One final phone call and the business closed. With time the Vietnamese people stopped coming, but whenever I spotted one of them on the street or heard someone say an unfamiliar Vietnamese name I pictured them flocking to our house, standing downstairs once more, yearning. Their cheeks flushed and aflame.
Skugga och svalka
Norstedts (Sweden), 2021, Förlaget (Finland), 2021, 259 pages.
English edition: Shade and Breeze, Lolli Editions, 2024 (translated by Kira Josefsson).
Foreign rights: Norstedts Agency.
We are grateful to Lolli Editions for permission to publish this translated extract.
Winner of Svenska YLE’s Literature Prize, 2021; the Runeberg Prize, 2022 (Finland); and Borås Tidningen’s Debutant Prize, 2022 (Sweden).
Quynh Tran grew up in Jakobstad in Finnish Ostrobothnia and now resides in Malmö. He is a graduate of the acclaimed Biskops Arnö Writing School. Shade and Breeze (reviewed in SBR 2022:1) was his literary debut. Tran took part in SBR's Emerging Voices event in 2022.
Kira Josefsson is a writer and translator working between English and Swedish. The winner of a PEN/Heim grant, she translates contemporary Swedish fiction and poetry, and regularly writes on US events and politics in the Swedish press.