In our last foreseen post of the In Memoriam series, Phong Nguyen, author of Pages from the Textbook of Alternate History, shares a smaller regret.
The first story I ever published, “Memory Sickness,” was accepted by Agni in 2005. The circumstances were unusual. I was visiting my grandfather—an English professor with literary ambitions of his own—who was suffering from many of the ailments of the very elderly: angina, dyspnoea, restless leg syndrome, and, within a month, congestive heart failure. He was always on an oxygen tank when we visited, and he rarely left the bed. We visited my grandparents regularly because we lived only an hour away and considered it a privilege to be able to familiarize our young sons with their great-grandparents, who seemed to be not only part of another generation but part of another world. My grandfather was born in 1919, an officer in World War II who trained pilots. He learned to fly a plane before he ever drove a car.
I got a call from a senior editor at Agni giving me the good news, and scheduling a follow-up phone meeting to talk revisions. This was positively the first time in my writing career that I had ever received good news, and I thought I was prepared to make any kind of sacrifice necessary to improve the story.
The next day, before I had the time to withdraw it from other journals, I received another phone call, this time from a literary contest, stating that “Memory Sickness” was their grand prize winner, and could they publish it in an upcoming issue of their journal? I told them I would call them back.
Since he was there beside me, I asked my grandfather’s advice. I told him that there were two journals that wanted to publish my work—one was more prestigious, but the other was more lucrative—and I had no idea what to do. I was a grad student who could have used the money for rent, food, diapers. I thought he would tell me to take the highest bid. But he said simply, “You made a commitment.”
There is no wisdom here. The significance of this moment was not in the answer, but in the asking. I return to this moment now and then: a brash young writer full of the importance of his modest successes, soliciting advice from a dying man. How vain and narcissistic I feel when I return there. The scale of his accomplishments—the war he fought, the children he raised, the legacy of teaching he left behind—dwarfed my own. Yet the pride I felt in my own miniscule achievement must have oozed out of me and stuck to the walls.
When I next spoke to the editor at Agni, he had already sent me detailed edits, and I had accepted most of them. One of the deletions, however, we debated for a long time before I eventually gave in. The line in question was a repetition in the story, at the end of the following passage: “Some sinners confess on their death beds. Some sinners confess on Sundays. The rest of us live with chronic pangs of conscience like migraines. All I know is that no one is guiltless. We make mistakes. Lord, we make mistakes.”
The narrator, Roth Chey, is Catholic, and he is talking about his experience as a child soldier during the Khmer Rouge regime. The “mistake” he is referring to is his choice to kill a fellow boy who would have turned him in for planning an escape. That last line “Lord, we make mistakes” is not rhetorical. It is a direct address to God. And if it was a dramatic usage, then it was earned. But in order to get the story published in Agni, I had to concede this line, and now every version of the story in print and online is without it. For a moment I contemplated giving it to the other journal to be its contest winner, but I did not. Do I regret it? No. I have larger regrets.
Phong Nguyen is editor of Pleiades and author of Memory Sickness and Other Stories. He directs the Unsung Masters Series, for which he edited the volume, Nancy Hale: On the Life and Work of a Lost American Master. Nguyen teaches fiction and American literature at the University of Central Missouri, where he lives with his wife, the artist Sarah Nguyen, and their three children.