Another gripping and moving nonfiction tale by Andrew X. Pham—His father’s

I was not the only reader who was very impressed by Andrew Pham’s combination memoir of fleeing Vietnam as a child and returning and bicycling across it as a young adult: Catfish and Mandala won the 1999 Kiriyama Book Prize.

Pham’s Eaves of Heaven (nominated for a National Book Award) is a memoir in his father’s voice as written in English by his son. Thong Van Pham, lived in way too interesting times (to borrow from the Chinese curse): he was a child during the Japanese occupation, the son of rural gentry in northern Vietnam during the war for independence from French colonialism, drafted and later recalled to the South Vietnamese (ARVN) military.

Readers of memoirs by Americans (A Rumor of War) and North Vietnamese (Sorrow of War) who fought in the third of the elder Pham’s three wars have expressed considerable contempt for the skills and valor of ARVN troops. The senior Pham recalls great frustration at the corruption and failures of will and imagination of commanders (not least one who left his unit to be slaughtered), but also valor of some frontline ARVN soldiers (also see Perfume Dreams).

I wonder if his analysis of communist domination of the Viet-Minh fighting the French in the 1950s was as clear then as in retrospects, though I incline to believe that the US abandoning the government it had put in place (violating the Geneva Accords for a nationwide election, then greenlighting the coup against the Diems, greenlighting excluding Gen. Minh from the last RVN presidential election) was unthinkable to those who had fought on the American side of Pham’s third war.

The book ends after a stint in “re-education” prison before the Phams became boat people fleeing Vietnam (horrors covered in Catfish). Life in rural northern Vietnam during Japanese and French occupation and during the war of Independence, life in Hanoi before the French left, life in Saigon and in the ARVN, and in “re-education” prison are all vividly portrayed. The cutting back and forth seems distracting to me, though time and place for each chapter are specified. I would have preferred a chronological structure. Would the reader fail to notice the recurrence of brutalities, of fleeing and rebuilding, if the chronology was straightforward? I don’t think so.

The action scenes, notably a fight that an Algerian legionnaire forces a peasant into and the Vietcong attack on the paramilitary force Pham commands, are very vivid, as is the bitter taste of communist purges of nationalists within the anticolonial struggle of the early 1950s.

The book is not at all a rant. There are comic incidents, love stories, vivid characters, as well as the horrors of torture and battle. Pham recalls his mother (who died in childbirth at the age of 31) telling him that “the eaves of heaven had a way of turning in cycles, of dealing both blows and recompenses.” The balance seems to me uneven; to amend Wright Morris slightly: real losses and temporarily imagined gains.

©2009, 2017, Stephen O. Murray

[In addition to collaborating on this book, the Phams collaborated on translating Last Night I Dreamed of Peace: The Diaries of Dr. Thuy Tram.]

Returning to and bicycling across Vietnam

In many ways quite horrifying, Catfish and Mandala is one of the most gripping and moving books I’ve ever read. The book has a number of narrative lines. The author, Andrew X. Pham, bored with his work as an aerospace engineer, sets off to bicycle parts of the Pacific Rim. He starts on the GoldenGate Bridge and goes up the US coast. He flies to Japan and bicycles out of Narita Airport. He flies to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), takes his bike on a train to Hanoi and bicycles back. The perils of these eccentric trips are interesting, but within the realm of travel writing. So is the self-deprecation for such crazy ventures. The book is unlikely to encourage visitors (especially Vietnamese American ones) to Vietnam. And I don’t think I’ll be able to eat catfish in Southeastern Asia again (much as I liked it in Chiang Mai) after reading his description of the exuberance catfish have for scarfing down  fresh human feces.

That the trip shows “You can’t go home again,” because what is left there is unrecognizable&is a fairly standard a finding. The resentment by those who stayed for those who left is particularly acute in Vietnam, but this is a difference of degree, not of kind from other places from which people have left.

What makes this book exceptional is the juxtaposition of Pham’s reflections on his late-1990s bicycling around Vietnam with his memories of fleeing Vietnam in 1977, when he was 10 years of age. An Indonesian ship rescued his family just before their boat sank. They spent a long time in a refugee camp in Indonesia, an almost as disorienting a time sponsored by a church congregation in the American South, and more hard time struggling in San José, California. The family member who did not survive is an older sister who changed sexes in America. But in some sense, the survivors are also casualties, despite some material success.
Pham is obviously very resilient, both physically and emotionally and makes something of great value from painful personal history and difficult travel. He is harder on himself than on anyone else. He has great compassion for the Vietnamese he meets in Vietnam and for his elders among West Coast Vietnamese-Americans. It seems to me that Pham’s journey into the multiple traumas of his family’s experience yields insights of universal significance. His journey across space also provides considerable insight into the modern phenomena of dislocation: able to travel, but nowhere at home, he is regarded as a crazy alien in Vietnam and America (and Japan)… and as Vietnamese by white Americans and as American by Vietnamese.
This beautifully written and painfully self-revealing book deservedly won the 1999 Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize. It is certain to be one of the classics of diaspora literature. It is hard to imagine a reader who would not learn from the book, and I would not want to meet anyone who is not moved by its emotional force!

(I did not figure out where a mandala occurs in the text; perhaps the whirling bicycle wheels?)



(book’s jacket author photo)

At a Different Light bookstore appearance, clad in standard writer black, Pham said he started writing in 1992, while still an aerospace engineer. His year of bicycle travel cost roughly $4000 (so the Kiriyama $50,000 prize could fund 12 years? He may be resilient, but not that resilient!) He never had any writing classes, just the belief that in America one can be what one wants to be (and he loves America and would fight for America). He acknowledged that healing by confession and introspection is very Western and his parents are very Eastern.

His gay brother Phu said that, although their father is very proud of his author (now winner of a lucrative and prestigious prize), he hasn’t spoken to Andrew since the book washed so much family laundry. In public Phu told him that he doesn’t have any friends anyway, so why should it matter to him(!).

[Pham’s website records: “If I knew then what I know now, I probably would have never written Catfish and Mandala. It brought my parents considerable pain and created a silence between us that lasted four years.” That was followed by collaboration on what became The Eaves of Heaven and translating Last Night I Dreamed of Peace: The Diaries of Dr. Thuy Tram]

He also said that their mother denied ever having in any way been a brothel keeper (a fairly opaque insinuation in Catfish and Mandala). (I asked Phu if he or any of the other siblings has been to Vietnam. He said no, that although he was interested in visiting, it wasn’t at the top of his list of places to go.)

Andrew said that his two gay brothers had stable relationships and careers, while he and his other straight brother have managed neither.

©1999, 2017, Stephen O. Murray

An account/review of Vietnamese-American writer Andrew Pham and his short story collection Birds of Paradise Lost

Andrew Lam (1964-) is probably the best-known Vietnamese-American journalist. To two collections of essays, Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora (2005, which he characterized as a cri de coeur, and I found frustratingly repetitious despite some moving essays) and East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres (2010, which he characterized as “more celebratory than Perfume Dreams), he has added a collection of short stories, Birds of Paradise Lost.


The son of much-decorated Army of Vietnam Lieutenant General Lâm Quang Thi (1932-) Andrew Lam, his mother and sister were evacuated by air from Saigon two days before its fall in May 1975, followed (on a US Navy ship) by his father. Since then Andrew and his father have lived in the San Francisco Bay Area. The stories in Birds of Paradise Lost are set in San Francisco or the South Bay, with poignant memories of Vietnam. Unlike the author, many of the characters fled as boat people and spent lengthy times in refugee camps. Though his nuclear family did not have such experiences, he said that relatives were jailed by the communist victors in Vietnam or becalmed in refugee camps or lost at sea trying to escape.

He stressed that the stories are fictions, noting that he is not an elderly palm reader as is the protagonist of “The Palmist” or a teenage girl helping out in her mother’s restaurant as the narrator of “The Slingshot” is. Indeed, his background in Vietnam was more elite than those of any of the Vietnamese-American characters in his stories, with the exception of “Close to the Bone,” which focuses on a student/martial arts protégé of a former ARVN general who was successful in the US and is narrated by a gay son.

I often feel let down by the (non-)endings of short stories, particularly the prototypical New Yorker short story that stops rather than ends, and have added some of Lam’s stories to that cache, including “Close to the Bone,” which has a strong epiphany, but keeps going. I was also disappointed by the sputtering out of “Hunger,” a story with extreme material (cannibalism on a boatload of refugees from Vietnam), though in a way I can rationalize that the extreme drama was a one-time occurrence followed by more prosaic frustrations in a US housing project (Sunny Dale).

The story I like least, despite having a protagonist in whom I can believe, “Love Leather,” which opens the volume has an ending, though not one I find plausible. The reason I don’t much like it, however, is that it contains too much explaining, not enough showing.

The much-anthologized “Grandma’s Tales” has a fanciful ending, but its patent magic realism is pleasing. My other favorites, “Show & Tell,” “Slingshot,” and “Yacht People” have satisfying endings (the last of these the least, but good enough).

Aside from not having an ending, I find “Stand Up and Whistle” contrived (two characters with Tourette’s Syndrome at the Gerald Ford Presidential Library/Museum). I also find “Everything Must Go” rather contrived, though it has a tidy ending and not implausible characters, and “Bright Clouds Over the Mekong” (the only story not credited as having previously been published) very contrived, albeit with a plausible ending.

Most of the characters in all thirteen stories are of Vietnamese origin, a mix of those who came to America as adults and those who came as children (“generation 1.5). Some are nostalgic for the privileged position(s) they had in Vietnam. There is no consideration of why the evil communists won beyond US abandonment. There is no consideration of the views of ARVN fecklessness and unwillingness to fight that is a staple in the literature by Anglo veterans of the Vietnam War, nor of the utter failure of the RVN government to generate commitment from the populace or its soldiers below the rank of colonels. Two of the stories (Slingshot, Bright Clouds Over the Mekong) feature Anglo Vietnam veterans who remain besotted by Vietnamese women (seemingly to me in general, though doting on women owning and running Vietnamese restaurants in San Francisco and in the first instance the children as well as the female restaurateur) and Vietnamese food. The Anglos who do figure in Lam’s stories are seen entirely from the view of Vietnamese-American characters/narrators. I can suspend disbelief in them. Indeed, I can suspend disbelief more easily in the Anglo suitor in “Bright Clouds Over the Mekong” than I can that he is the former lieutenant of the Vietnamese American restaurateur’s most traumatic memories. And the only character (a walk-on) who was an opponent to American involvement in the civil war in Vietnam is regarded with contempt. The Anglo Americans not fixated on Vietnamese women and cuisine (no veterans of the war there) are little developed, more one-dimensional placeholders than characters with any nuance.

Andrew Lam (1).jpg

At an appearance at the San Francisco Public Library, Lam expressed frustration at being asked “Is that about you?” even asked (somewhere else) if he had a grandmother who returned from the dead (as the one put on ice in “Grandma’s Tales” does). I was reminded of Robert Stone’s observation (at a book appearance for his memoir Prime Green) that, these days, American readers think that writers are incapable of inventing anything (writing fiction), except in autobiographies in which everything is suspected of being fictionalized. I don’t know that Lam had the second frustration in regard to Perfume Dreams, but first-person narratives from minorities are consumed in part for their seeming promise of authenticity (recall the annoyances at Famous All Over Town by “Danny Santiago”).

Another work (a memoir) about the 1.5 generation (that is, those who came to the US as children) that Lam praised was I Love Yous Are for White People by Lac Su – who provided one of the many blurbs for Birds of Paradise Lost. The two that have most impressed me are Catfish and Mandela and The Eaves of Heaven by Andre X. Pham (who also contributed a blurb, as did Pulitzer Prize winners Oscar Hijuelos and Robert Olen Butler, plus ones from Maxine Hong Kinston and Aimee Phan (We Should Never Meet).

No one (had time to?) ask Lam about his literary influences, which is perhaps a first in book-hawking appearances in San Francisco.

I thought the most interesting answer he gave was to a question about the difference between writing essays and writing fiction. I had just read a 1 March 1940 diary entry from Italian poet/novelist Cesare Pavese proclaiming that “the balance of a story lies in the coexistence of two things: the author, who knows how it will end, and the group of characters, who do not. If the author and a protagonist become merges, as with a story in the first person, it is essential to increase the stature of the other characters who restore the balance. Therefore, the protagonist, if [s/]he relates the story himself[/herself] must be primarily a spectator” (giving Moby Dick and Notes from the Underground as examples). Lam’s stories with first-person narrators follow Pavese’s prescription for balance, but Lam said that a pleasure of writing fiction is not knowing how the story he is writing will end. I have heard other authors say that after setting up a situation and characters, they discover what they characters will do (that is, how the story will turn out). The disparity between Pavese and Lam may be less than it seems in that, using “Slingshot” as an example, Lam said that after reaching the ending, he went back an provided some foreshadowing “clues,” so that the finished product has more of the author knowing how it will end than the actual process of drafting a story. had (Another difference Lam mentioned was the lack of deadline for fiction in contrast to journalistic pieces, though there are writers of essays without deadlines and fiction writers with advances.)

©2013, 2017, by Stephen O. Murray

Out of Vietnam, Carrying Vietnam to America

Andrew Lam‘s “Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora,” primarily his own family’s, contains memoirs and reportage published between 1990 and 2005. Some of these (especially “Notes of a Warrior’s Son” and “The Stories They Carried”) are outstanding. Others are slight; “Two Passports,” is particularly disappointing, ending the collection with wistful whimpers rather than a bang.


Perfume Dreams is unsatisfactory as a book, because the basic lineaments of the author’s story—growing up in the South Vietnamese elite, the son of a lieutenant general in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, being evacuated with his family two days before the fall of Saigon (when he was eleven years of age, facing the loss of status in America, struggling with the English language and American culture, the father arriving a bit later, being deeply depressed, then rallying, earning an MBA and lifting the family to suburban affluence—are repeated and repeated and repeated.

The pieces reflecting on those experiences show that Lam could write a compelling memoir of the status roller coaster of his life and his relationships with Vietnamese in Vietnam and in the US. But he hasn’t.

Some of the pieces are primarily about experiences of others, most notably “The Stories They Carried,” which is a report from a Hong Kong refugee camp for Vietnamese “boat people,” most of whom were being sent back as “economic refugees” rather than political refugees. Lam’s own feelings as a privileged American citizen (exacerbating his survivor guilt) are very much a part of the piece, though it is primarily about the stories of suffering of those who fled Vietnam later than he did being ignored, disbelieved, and disrespected. “Viet Kieu” (Vietnamese-American visitors to Vietnam) is another very impressive piece that is primarily about others, but with the compassion of someone very well aware of his luck.

Although very impressionistic and open to suspicions about bias, Lam’s contentions about the fading of Vietnamese identity in Vietnam are interesting hypotheses.

I also have to grant that Lam produces some good hooks for his essays, for instance, this from “The Dead Travel”:

“‘Til death do us part,’ that age-old marriage vow, has to Confucian ears always sounded a little, well, noncommittal, In Vietnam, death is not the end of relationships, it only deepens them.”

(What follows provides insight into how ancestor worship works, although its primary focus is Lam’s maternal grandmother’s relationship to her dead husband, whose grave she tended and which she was very reluctant to leave to flee to America in 1975.)

As a book, Perfume Dreams is inferior to Catfish and Mandala (in which memoir is integrated into an account of a Vietnamese-American traveling through Vietnam), or Pascal Thwe’s From the Land of the Green Ghosts: A Burmese Odyssey, or the pair of memoirs by (Cambodian-American) Loung Ung: First They Killed My Father (about surviving in Cambodia, the daughter of a high-ranking officer) and Lucky Child (about humiliations in America, success in America, visiting family back in Cambodia).

The reflections on what it means to be a general in a war that ended in defeat and exile are insightful—and quite pertinent here and now. Lam expresses dismay that American representations of the war in Vietnam do not show any bravery or honor in the ARVN and its officers, showing a war between American troops and Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops.

Actually, the ARVN is not so invisible in American representations. Rather, its officers are portrayed as brutal (killing prisoners), corrupt (profiteering), and unwilling to fight (throwing away weapons and fleeing under any fire, like the Kuomintang army during the late 1940s). Decrying invisibility rather than hostility, Lam does not comment on the negative portrayal.

And this reader is not willing to take on faith that Lam’s father’s hands were clean. I don’t mean killing people, which is what soldiers do. The sentence that caught my attention was the recollection of his father calling in napalm. Lam’s relationship with his father seems too fragile to have candid discussion about war crimes—or whether his father was complicit in torture as well as involved (ordering) the use of napalm on his countrymen.

I would still rate “Notes of a Warrior’s Son” a five-star essay. My rating of the book is lower for its failure to attempt to integrate the slivers of journalism into a memoir, the repetition, and the thinness of some chapters.

(The book comes with blurbs by Robert Olen Butler and Maxine Hong Kingston and a quite useful foreward by Richard Rodriguez. Lam is a journalist, an editor with the Pacific News Service, who, like Rodriguez, frequently comments on “All Things Considered” on NPR.”)

Andrew Lam.jpg

(Lam at San Francisco Public Library with another, better book)


©2007, 2017, Stephen O. Murray

A Beautifully Wrought Memoir of Traumatizing Losses and Dislocations

The Betrayal: Nerakhoon” (2008) began with Laotian refugee Thavisouk (“Thavi”) Phrasavath tutoring anthropologist Ellen Kuras in Lao during the mid-1980s. She videotaped him and his family some then and later shot some more interviews with him. He got involved in editing footage of an interview of his mother.

Kuras felt that the movie needed footage of Laos. Since the US government is still attempting to deny it fought a war in Laos (dropping more bombs there than the total tonnage the US dropped during two world wars), film shot from the Nixon era, when Thavi’s father worked with the US military remains classified.

In the 21st century Thavi was able to revisit his birthplace and track down the two sisters who were left behind. (They were at her mother’s when the human-smugglers came and said “We’re leaving now.” Thavi had swum across the Mekong earlier. His father was taken away for “re-education.) There is some poetic footage of rural Laos both in the movie and in a DVD bonus short, and footage of very emotional reunions of Thavi and his sisters (one was 18, one three when he left, and the younger one was adopted and take far north within Laos).

Thavi recalls someone in his hometown asking where he’s from and not believing “I was born and grew up here,” though, unfortunately, that was not filmed.

Most of the documentary (which was nominated for an Oscar) was shot in the US. The denial of the war in Laos continues to justify any benefits for the Laotians who were left behind when the US pulled out (any similarity to Hmong who fought with the Americans is completely not coincidental).

The wife of the Royal Laotian colonel/liaison to the USAF and the eight children who made it to Thailand were eventually granted asylum in the US, taken from the refugee camp in Thailand, and dumped in a crack house in Brooklyn. Not an easy adjustment in their second relocation, with physical safety much less than in the refugee camp.

As the eldest, Thavi had to try to father his younger siblings in an unfamiliar and dangerous environment. And Thavi resented having to father a brood he did not create, etc. There’s a very major surprise that I don’t want to reveal. It is perhaps surprising that there is only one funeral in the movie’s story, but it was filmed very revealingly, both for showing the cultural tradition and the family dynamics.
Though not obtrusive, I realize that the editing by Thavi is really, really good. He may not have known what a jump-cut is, but without any technical training, he brought out dramas in what Kuras shot. Howard Shore provided music with some gentle chanting and poignant string-playing that enhanced the images and very candid interview footage.

The betrayal of the title is the US government’s betrayal of the Laotian officers who worked with(/for) it, but there is at least one other major, heartbreaking one shown. (And, perhaps, Col. Phrasavath’s targeting US bombs onto the part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail in eastern Laos [there is no question that Laos’s neutrality was massively violated by North Vietnam troops and supplies moving along it]).

The disappointment in the liberators (American, then Pathet Lao), the anguish of trying to get by in Thailand and less-than-welcoming America is somewhat familiar to me from the poignant autobiographical novels by T. C. Huo, Thousand Wings and Land of Smiles; and the difficulty of holding a large Southeast Asian family together in an American slum from Andrew X. Pham’s luminous memoirs Catfish and Mandela and The Eaves of Heaven; Uyen Nicole Huong’s trilogy Daughters of the River Huong, Mimi and Her Mirror, and Postcards from Nam; GB Tran’s graphic novel Vietnamerica; and Andrew Lam’s memoir Perfume Dreams and  collection of stories Birds of Paradise Lost. Perhaps such background, and other refugee stories such as “The Lost Boys of the Sudan,” made it easier for me to understand “Betrayal,” though what Thavi and his mother felt at various times over the 23 years of the movie’s gestation is probably clear enough. The DVD includes some newsreel footage on the US air war, a trailer, a stills gallery, and a commentary track.

©2010,2017 Stephen O. Murray


The third time is not always the charm (alas)

Amazon Crossing picked up Daughters of the River Huong, a 2005 small-press-published novel by Vietnam-born Houston attorney Uyen Nioole Duong (born in 1959) and reprinted it in 2011 followed a few months later by its sequel Mimi And Her Mirror. The protagonist of the first is Simone, the eldest great-grand-daughter of a king of Hue (the River Huong, which runs through the capital of the former kingdom is generally called the Perfume River in English) and his concubine. The second novel takes up the story of the traumatic escape from Saigon in 1975 of the second daughter, Mimi. Both have become very successful attorneys in the US.

I thought that the third volume of the trilogy, also published by Amazon  in 2011,  would move on to the story of Peter/Pi, the youngest child and wondered about Duong’s ability to create a credible male character. “Nam” in Postcards from Nam, however, turns out not to be the youngest child of the family that made it out, but a neighbor boy (a playmate of Pi’s who had a major crush on Mimi and listened reverentially to her piano practicing). Duong ducks the challenge of manufacturing a male consciousness, since the texts that start arriving (postmarked Bangkok: the back cover “Saigon” postmark is multiply wrong… and Duong uses “postdated” where she means “postmarked”) are terse even for postcard texts.


Mimi charged Nam with watching out for her grandmother who was left behind. He was unable to do that and had as hard a time as any of the boat people who made it alive to foreign shores. Mimi mobilizes her connections to find out what happened. Only readers of the previous book will know the parallel in her own fight from Saigon, or how important the grandmother who was left behind was to her.

An interview of the former RVN intelligence officer who ran boatloads of mostly Chinese refugees (payment in gold only) shows Duoing has some talent as a noir/detective writer, but Nam remains a wispy concept rather than a character. Knowing from Mimi And Her Mirror that Mimi revisits Vietnam on business, I find it difficult to believe that she would not stop in Bangkok and arrange a meeting with Nam (away from where he works…)

The book adds nothing to the reader’s understanding of Mimi. It indirectly tells a horror story of the fall of South Vietnam and of infighting and anomie among Vietnamese Americans.

The text is only 89 pages, followed by a ten-page blurb from G. B. A. Nash that quixotically defends the opening elaborate description of Mimi’s apartment/building (the mirror, apparently, was left behind when she sold her house for a loss…) and seems to me superfluous (padding).

©2011, 2017, Stephen O. Murray


A Dissatisfied “Model Minority” (Vietnam-born Attorney) Woman’s Midlife-Crisis and Earlier Traumas

Mimi and Her Mirror is the second of the “Fall of South Vietnam” trilogy written by Uyen Nicole Duong (born in VIetman in 1959) published by Amazon in 2011. The first was Daughters of the River Huong, which combines the story of a Cham concubine of a Viet emperor in the early 20th century with the story of Simone, her great- grand-daughter who bartered her body for exit visas from Saigon in 1975, and her life as a high-paid attorney in New York. Mimi is the Simone’s younger sister, whose airlifting from Saigon in 1975 was complicated (and traumatized) by an attempt to find and gather up her haughty maternal grandmother. After earning a communication/journalism degree from Southern Illinois (as did the author), Mimi went to Harvard Law School, and later picked up an LLM from Harvard and works for a large Houston law firm that is representing a company not unlike Enron that is bribing foreign officials. (The author also has a Harvard LLM but went to law school at the University of Houston and practices law in Houston). Amazon Encore also published a thin third volume, Postcards from Nam.

mimi cover.jpeg

I thought Daughters of the River Huong was uneven with some evocative and engaging writing alternating with some very clunky writing (in scenes set in Vietnam, France, and the US). I could manage the jumping around in time and place, and certainly used to it before taking on Mimi’s first-person narrative. Her imperious maternal grandmother plays an important place in her background and her memory (indeed, haunting Mimi’s American present), but the background in the Hue court is only alluded to here, so the second novel (1) is easier to follow than the first and (2) is richer for those with knowledge from the first one.

Alas, even with that knowledge, Mimi is not as nuanced and developed a character as her forebearers. The living members of her family play minor roles in Mimi and Her Mirror. The big mirror gets second billing for a reason! She gazes at her reflection a lot and muses. For a hotshot lawyer, her analytic skills seem to me to be anorexic. Being uprooted, passing through chaos at the end of the Republic of Vietnam, and making her way through the cold (not just in temperature) US educational and legal system, she recurrently repeats her resume (telling rather than showing her successes) to herself and the reader. She has hot sex with an Anglo lawyer who she learns is a “rice bandit” (Brad not only has a very rich Chinese wife, but has had a sequence of affairs with women of Asian descent and/or origin.)

There is a pretty standard ethical lawyer quandary along with the romantic/sexual confusion. The most riveting part of the book is the last day in Saigon. It has an anti-hero, a very scary villain, and confusion about how Simone has arranged the family’s transit. The Americans in Saigon are not blamed for anything. Mimi realized they were tired and trying to do their best and among the overwhelmed.

At SIU Mimi encounters an older Vietnam refugee whose vocation was to be president of the (extinct) Republic of South Vietnam He doesn’t altogether come off as a character, though Mimi never forgets him and invokes him very frequently in the rest of her memoir (Duong’s novel, that is).

Considering that Duong has experience of law school in general and Harvard Law School in particular, it is odd that her narrative tells a bit about Mimi’s accomplishments without showing anything (this is not the case for being alone at breaks at SIU, but is the case for the “paradise lost”/ Vietnam before the fall portions of the novel.

Duong overuses adverbs, sometimes repeating the same one more than once on a page. (“Incessantly” as a gross exaggeration particularly annoyed me.) The dialogue is hit and miss. Some of the supposedly spoken lines are very wooden and unbelievable, not least that from the ghost of Grandma Que, but also that of Mimi. The book needed a strong editor though an author with a better ear for how people speak would have made the need less glaring. But there would still be repetitions and overwriting to prune.

After a long stasis of middle-age dissatisfaction with the law firm and Brad and repeated memories of the Crazy Man, the ending seems a bit perfunctory—but only a bit. It is not unsatisfying or overly open-ended. (After all, it is only Mimi’s 40th birthday and she can burn bridges without giving up on river-crossings…)


©2011, 2017, Stephen O. Murray



A sort of Vietnamese Gone with the Wind

Many times while I was reading Houston attorney/novelist Uyen Nicole Huong’s Daughters of the River Huong, I felt like I was reading a (much) shorter and more multi-generational Gone with the Wind. There are tough (however feminine-looking) female survivors in the forefront. Though there is no analog to Rhett Butler, there is an Ashley Wilkes or too, conscientious but defeated. The first is the Nguyen prince who will become king Thuan Thanh. In the years around 1900 the kingdom of Annam with its capital in Hue is a French puppet in what is officially a protectorate but for all practical purposes is a colony. He plucks a boat-paddler from the River Huong (often called the “Perfume River” in English). She is not only a commoner, but is of Cham descent (the Kingdom of Champa ceased to exist in 1692). The “paddle girl” is remade into the Mystique Combine. If she were to bear a son who became crown prince, she could have been designated queen, but what everyone assumed was this son turned out to be female twins, Princess Cinnamon and Princess Ginseng.


The French Resident Superieur, Sylvain Foucault, finds Thuan Thanh both to expensive to maintain and insufficiently pliable, forces him to abdicate and ships him off to exile off the African coast on the island of Reunion. The Mystique Concubine takes the insignia of a queen mother and sets up a silk farm to provide for her daughters, the elderly eunuch who has protected her in court, and the servant who has taught her to read.

The Japanese occupation is largely passed over. Ginseng and a younger brother join the Viet Minh and wars against the re-establishment of French colonialism after World War II, captured, tortured and driven mad by the French.

Cinnamon’s grand-daughter Simone is forced by her parents to leave her grandmother’s palatial villa in Hue for a Saigon apartment. The ten-year-old Simone will get her parents and siblings out of Saigon before it falls to the communists (her grandmother refusing to leave) by marrying an American journalist 15 years her senior, Christopher Sanders (the closest to a Rhett Butler rescuer character in the novel, though far more diffident and who does not fathering a child with Simone).

Simone remains in love with André Foucault, the grandson of the French official who forced her great-grandfather off the throne and otherwise outraged the Mystique Concubine. Though André seeks forgiveness for his grandfather’s deeds (and attitudes), he is weaker than Ashley Wilkes, and succumbs to the seductive underage Simone, generating an immense load of guilt.

Simone borders on being a sexual predator on older men. There is no question that she is the one exercising agency, saving her family via Christopher and wrecking André’s marriage.

Simone eventually returns to Vietnam as a privileged American corporate lawyer and finds out what happened to her beloved grandmother (Cinnamon) and the great aunt she barely knew (Ginseng). She visits places she lived, and may yet rebuild her own Tara (her great-grandmother’s silk farm).

The sex in Uyen Duong’s novel is not much more graphic than that in Margaret Mitchell’s though notably more pederastic (with young women manipulating adult males, Vietnamese, French, and American). There is some remarkably bad writing in both novels, and multiple strong-willed women not merely surviving but prospering in Duong’s. Sometimes I was caught up in the narrative of catastrophes (geopolitical turmoil as it affected the matrilineal line (Cham inheritance, historically, was matrilineal, btw), sometimes I cringed at what these women did and at what happened to some of them.


I guess that, like GWTW, DRH is “chick lit,” though readers of English who are more interested in Vietnamese experience of colonialism (French), neocolonialism (American and Soviet), and civil wars from the perspective of defeated southerners (mostly those who escaped, but eventually there is material on those who were not able to get out) than in materially advantageous interethnic and interracial sexual relationships may also appreciate the book. The love story strikes me as a structural reversal of the diffident and pederastic sexual liaison in Saigon-born Marguerite Duras’s thrice-told tale of an interracial sexual relationship in the French colony of Vietnam (The Sea Wall, The Lover, The North-China Lover).

I’d have preferred the book to have started with the paddle girl rather than the successful attorney, and I guess that my suspension of disbelief as less willful for the parts set longest ago and in the present. I’m not sure I wanted more about the Simone’s parents, though I noticed that there was much less about that generation than about the preceding two and the present(-tense) one.

I am very grateful for the aid of genealogy and dramatis personae listings at the start of the book.

BTW Uyen Duong was 16 when airlifted out of Saigon in 1965 and has emphasized that she is not Simone, though she has experienced the cultural dislocations (and the American legal profession. The next volume of her trilogy, Mimi and Her Mirror, centers on Simone’s younger (by four years) sister Mimi, who also became an attorney in the US.


Unless you’re allergic to graphic novels, I recommend Vietnamerica

I liked the somewhat sardonic voice of the rather nebbish-looking narrator of Vietnamerica, GB Tran, who gave up on teachers and fellow students in South Carolina pronouncing Gia-Bao in a way not painful to his ear. GB was American-born, that is, “second generation” Vietnamese-American, without even childhood memories of Vietnam and wars there.


The graphic memoir he wrote and drew shows him struggling to learn about (never mind understand!) a very complicated history. Unremitting war against foreign armies (Japanese, French, American) and emigration by GB’s parents and older siblings made the Vietnamese life related in flashbacks difficult. The flashback-filled narrative is further complicated by the multiple marriages up the family tree (family trees are shown branching downward on the page) and by a lot of moves within Vietnam, as well as emigrations to France before the unification of Vietnam.under repressive communists.

One of GB’s grandfathers, Do Ty, was a an army physician for the Viet Minh, GB’s father was a teacher in South Vietnam, GB’s father’s younger brother, Vinh, was drafted into the South Vietnamese army, etc.

The characters have varying views in the present about the wars and the regime that followed. The ones who got out, including GB’s parents maintain some nostalgia for a world that no longer exists, some post-traumatic stress disorder from the dangers of the 1960s and 70s in Vietnam. GB portrays himself as having been just fine with his parents’ reticence about telling him about what they and other family members experienced in Vietnam before or after the 1975 fall of Saigon.

The family tree on page 62 is helpful for reminding the reader of who’s who—or some of who’s who in that there are a few important characters not on the family tree.


The drawings are engaging. The number of cells per page ranges from .5 (something extending to the facing page) to 12. My guess is that the mode is 7.

I have read a number of books written by generation 1.5, that is by writers mostly or entirely educated in the US who were born in Southeast Asia and fled as children, mostly with their parents. The parents seem to their children to be inscrutable — or at least very unwilling to talk about their past in any detail — and the narrators struggle to find out what happened and what the survivors felt. (For a female-centered graphic memoir see Thi Bui’s The Best We Could Do.)

There is less about growing up markedly different in America in Tran’s book than in some others written by members of the 1.5 generation. Though ego-centered, his book is about his parents’ and grandparents’ generation rather than what he experienced or remembers. What they experienced was very dramatic, and more fraught with danger than growing up in South Carolina was. Perhaps a memoir of what Tran remembers rather than elicits lies ahead. I hope so, though appreciating the need to find out where he came from in sociohistorical terms, not just geographical ones (though a map would have been almost as useful as the family tree is!)

(It’s odd that there are not (or none that I know of) memoirs by the first generation in that many of those who got out in 1975 were fluent in English. Jade Ngoc Quang Huynh (South Wind Changing) is close, having being 18 in 1975 and emigrating after “re-education”) by the communists).

©2011, 2017, Stephen O. Murray

Women continuing to have to eat bitterness in postwar Vietnam


A best-seller in the month or so in Vietname before it was banned in 1988, as the preceding two novels by Duong Thu Huong (1947-) had been, Nhng thiên đường mù then became the first Vietnamese novel published in English in the US, as Paradise of the Blind. Though a volunteer who served in the front lines in “the War Against the Americans” for seven year and a volunteer again in defending Vietnam from Chinese invasion in 1979, she was expelled from the Vietnam Communist Party in 1989, imprisoned without trial for seven months in 1991 (and again when Tiu thuyết vô đề was published abroad as Novel without a Name in 1995).


I read Novel without a Name first: it is a gripping autobiographical novel of her war experience. Much of Paradise of the Blind is set in the Soviet Union, the patron of the victorious communist regime in Vietnam. The backstory which looms very large is set in Duong’s native northern Vietnam province, Thai Binh, during the Viet Minh times, when brutal land reform modeled on Mao’s was instituted while the Viet Minh was fighting the re-establishment of French colonialism.

The parents of the novel’s protagonist Hang had a brief time of happiness until Hang’s maternal uncle Chinh returned in 1956. A communist zealot, he forbade his sister (Que) to associate with her husband (Ton) because of his class background (which was peasant with a small landholding, not rentier). A few years later the Special Section for the Rectification of Errors comes to the village and though she was a victim torn from her husband, because she is Chinh’s brother, Que was targeted for revenge.

Que became a street vendor and when her brother pops in again, now a mid-level official, he denounces her as a petty capitalist. It turns out that he is there to take his share of the sale of their parents’ house.

At the time (early 1980s) of the novel, Hang travels across the Soviet Union to Moscow, where her uncle is ill. The ideologue is involved in the black market and needs the help of his niece who is fluent in Russian.

Between the portrayal of corruption in the Homeland of Socialism (the USSR) and in victorious communist Vietnam, it is not surprising that the book was (and remains) banned in Vietnam. The fear and despair of Novel without a Name demystified the triumph of wars against France and the US and is, I think, of more interest to Americans as a view from the other side, where danger was also constant (but without being able to call in any air support) than wheres bitter tale of corruption in two communist states take place.

Duong_Thu_Huong-Ertezoute 2014.jpg

the author is 2014, Creative Commons photo by Ertezou

The stories of those on the winning North Vietnamese side who lived in poverty are even less upbeat than those of the losing (South) Vietnamese side who managed to get out to refugee status (or lengthy “re-education”). Sacrifices and hopes for a free Vietnam, capitalist or communist, were for naught and reading about the sorrows of war and peace is depressing. The mix of true-believer in communism uncle and pragmatic aunt recurs in Uyen Nicole Duong’s family saga (Daughters of the River Huong and Mimi And Her Mirror) and the (amoral?) familialism is also very evident in writings by the children of South Vietnamese émigrés, Andrew Lam, Andrew Pham, and GB Tran. Unlike Duong herself, her protagonist Hang eventually rejects her past (in the accommodations of her mother, uncle, or aunt), which is not to say she is relieved of the burdens of the past, including her laboring in the Soviet Union (I have not mentioned her romance with a sort of Bohemian there…)


As a record of the tumultuous and indirect road to modernity (and the ubiquity of corruption regardless of ruling ideology) the book is valuable, but it is easier to admire than to like. It adds a feminist twist to the genre of “the god that failed” narratives from just before the Soviet Union devolved into a post-ideological thugocracy, a trajectory Vietnam has been following.


©2011, 2017, Stephen O. Murray