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'Wild Dances' puts consequences of a long-ago, faraway conflict at center

Astra House

Wild Dances, William Lee Adams' page-turning, tragicomic memoir, deftly combines two seemingly divergent themes: a harrowing coming-of-age story of a biracial Vietnamese-American and his "queer and curious journey" to become the bespoke authority on Eurovision.

The title alludes both to Adams' irrepressible outlook and the winning song performed by Ukrainian singer Ruslana in the 2004 Eurovision contest. Adams' runs the popular wiwibloggs site and YouTube channel that closely tracks Eurovision. By ingeniously weaving improbable and conflicting forces that make up his personal history, Adams affirms a resilient idea of home that yearns to transcend space and time.

A London-based journalist with degrees in experimental psychology and Southeast Asian history and politics, Adams has always gravitated toward subject matters close to his heart. His 2008 interview of Nobel Prize winner Doris Lessing for Time magazine eerily echoes the post-Vietnam War trauma experienced by his parents. In some way, the British-colonized landscape of 1920s Rhodesia where Doris Lessing grew up was analogous to the conservative, homophobic Atlanta suburbs where Adams' family lived in the 1980s. Just as the inhospitable South African milieu somehow gave Lessing a respite from her parents' "monstrous legacy," the oppressive Southern atmosphere endowed Adams with a fearlessness that set him toward his chosen destiny.

Sketchy but "official" family narrative indicates that Bob, Adams' father, was a medic with the U.S. Air Force who met his mother Tuyết, an ostensible widow with a young son, John, in Saigon during the Vietnam War. After Bob left South Vietnam and returned to Atlanta, Tuyết joined him there in 1973, leaving her son in the care of relatives in Vietnam. The two later married and gave birth to three children, of whom Adams is the youngest.

In the 1980s, Bob sponsored several members of Tuyết's extended family, who were allowed to leave Vietnam and resettle in the Atlanta suburbs. There was a tragic development, however. John, who arrived in the U.S. 10 years after his mother, had contracted a serious illness in the intervening period that turned him into a quadriplegic with the mind of a 3-year-old.

Adams loved John deeply and became his brother's steadfast protector. Wild Dances may arguably represent the author's "Rosebud" as it harks back to the playful choreography — based on a medley of old television theme songs — that Adams devised as an 8-year-old to entertain his incapacitated brother and traumatized mother, whose anger and abusive behavior were triggered by her cultural isolation and the staggering toll of caring for John.

Additionally, the silence in which Adams' parents "tucked away so many memories [he] wondered if they'd lived their own lives at all," contrasted with the violence and rebelliousness exhibited by Adams' neglected older siblings, made home life a living hell. While extolled as a savior by Tuyết's Vietnamese relatives, Bob worked long hours as a hospital nurse and rarely made himself available to his own family.

In most instances, Adams' inborn showmanship represents an offensive strategy to enhance self-defense. This paradoxical approach has served him well since his adolescent years. Realizing early on that "living boldly and honestly [as a gay person] may win more people to your side than cowering on the sidelines," Adams openly challenged his high school tormentors who "threw food at [him] like [he] was an animal." He writes: "I'll turn my rear to them, shake my tail, and ask them if they're enjoying the view. They often end up feeling embarrassed."

Adams' intuitive embrace of "whimsy and fun" also guides his career trajectory. Leaving his post as a Time correspondent when sensing his editor's unjustified disdain for "quirky" subject matters, Adams eventually finds his element in Eurovision.

It's not hard to see why Eurovision — established by the European Broadcasting Union during the Cold War era to promote international goodwill — resonates deeply with Adams. Notwithstanding its glitzy excesses, Eurovision affirms LGBTQ visibility and provides an inclusive, if at times chaotic, forum for both propaganda and resistance — despite its ostensible ban on songs with political messages. Eligibility standards regarding national identity and geographic location have been construed broadly to benefit countries with sparse population and/or lesser visibility — thus a non-resident artist can be invited to perform with any qualified ensemble from a participating country. Contestants can perform in English, or in any actual, as well as invented, language.

Wild Dances hits shelves May 9, the same day as the launch of Eurovision 2023 in Liverpool, as the United Kingdom has been chosen to host the competition on behalf of war-ravaged Ukraine, which won the 2022 contest. Visual artists will showcase art installations and performers will sing songs celebrating Ukraine's resilience. Similarly, Wild Dances upholds the notion of sanctuary and peace as a challenging but worthy endeavor.

For Adams and his family members who still live out the consequences of a long-ago and faraway conflict, remembrance and erasure, past and present, love and resentment, guilt and responsibility, are complex, shifting dualities. Adams' continual desire to bridge these contradictions also makes me think of Emily Dickinson's Wild Nights — a poignant poem about the rapture and comfort of reaching safe harbor, of being as one with the beloved: 'Were I with thee / Wild Nights should be / Our luxury / Futile – the winds / To a Heart in port / Done with the Compass / Done with the Chart! / ... Ah – the Sea! Might I but moor – tonight/ In thee!"

Thúy Đinh is a freelance critic and literary translator. Her work can be found at thuydinhwriter.com. She tweets @ThuyTBDinh

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Thúy Đinh