My tale about the fall of Saigon, my escape under fire, and the discovery that I had no home when I got back to the U.S. underlines a quality that misfortune brought out in me. I wasn’t consciously aware of it until I began writing Last of the Annamese and discovered the same characteristic in the characters that drive the story in that novel. I termed myself and these characters “scrappers”—people who won’t accept defeat and go on fighting and surviving.
Several days ago, I heard Angela Duckworth, the author of a new book called Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, interviewed on NPR. Her definition of grit during the interview precisely matches the quality I’ve been calling scrappiness. I’ve ordered the book, and it has arrived. After I’ve read it, I’ll tell you what I think.
What made me a scrapper was my childhood. At age six, I discovered that my parents weren’t going to take care of me; I was going to have to take care of myself. The resulting resilience served me well while I put myself through college, working twenty hours a week. It was key to my survival during the fall of Saigon. And it kept me going during the AIDS crisis when I was caring for men dying of the disease.
Most of all, being a scrapper got me through the worst time in my life, when I came back to the U.S. in 1975 after the fall of Saigon. Physically ill and a psychic wreck from Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI), I found that the home I so yearned for didn’t exist. I had nothing but my own bedrock resources to get me through. It was up to me. I was alone and had to fend for myself.
The grit saved me again when I cam down with lung cancer a few years ago. The disease very nearly killed me, but I fought back with all I had. Despite maximum radiation and chemotherapy and the surgical removal of the upper lobe of my right lung, I insisted on going on living. I made it. I still have sneezing spells, a cough, and low energy, but I’m back to working hard. I’ve even resumed weight lifting.