SAN FRANCISCO–“Dear Mr. Lam. I loved your essay, ‘The Palmist,’ but I can’t figure out what the main theme is. Is it dying and being all alone? My teacher suggests I read more of your writing… I’m glad I found you online…. Thank you very much for your help.”
The e-mail from, let’s call him, “Evan,” is not atypical. Students assigned my work sometimes reached out to me for help. “The Palmist,” however, is not an essay but a short story in my new collection, Birds of Paradise Lost. Its claim to fame is that it was read on PRI’s Selected Shorts a few years ago by not just one but two well-known actors: David Strathairn, who played journalist Edward R. Murrow in Good Night and Good Luck, and later by James Naughton of Gossip Girl.
But never mind all that; for Evan it is immaterial. What’s more important is to have the answer, the main theme, since his paper is due. And who better than from the author himself?
While it flatters me to know that some of my work is being taught in highschools and colleges, and that I have done my share in confounding the mind of students near and far, it never fails to astound me what some of these young people would do to avoid thinking.
A classic e-mail I got some years ago was from a young woman named Dao. Her message came with the word “HELP” in caps in the subject line.
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