Tag Archives: boat people

Leaving Las Vegas (after fleeing Vietnam)

I think that Vu Tran’s impressive debut novel, Dragonfish (2015) is “genre-blending” rather than “genre blurring.” It is a detective story in the noir subgenre of trying to find a troubled, enigmatic woman. I would not label Vietnamese refugee (ca. 1977 by boat) Hong/Suzy (born in 1953) as a “femme fatale,” but Robert, the (white) Oakland policeman (born in 1955, I think) who is the narrator, will never get over his ex-wife, who left him after eight rather manic-depressive years. There is the tortured romance angle (Hong’s second and third marriages). The novel is also a ghost story and alternates between Robert’s trips to Las Vegas to find and/or avenge her, and a long account of a horrific nine-days at sea between Vietnam and Malaysia that Hong wrote for the daughter whom she took with her. (“Refugee narrative” is another of the genres juxtaposed in the book.)

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Her first husband, back in Vietnam, had been a captain in the AVN air force, who was shipped north for prolonged “re-education”/torture, and returned after being diagnosed with advanced and terminal cancer. He did not want their daughter to remember him dying and dispatched them on the nearly fatal boat trip, one that was fatal to several other passengers. On the Malaysian island that has been made into a refugee camp, mother and daughter watch a brutal 31-year-old former AVN soldier and his very handsome young (7?) son. (The wife/mother drowned on the boat in which the other four successfully fled.)

In America the father (Son/Sonny Nguyen) and son (Jonathan Nguyen) prosper, though the father is a heavy drinker and high stakes gambler. Jonathan runs some restaurants and tries to minimize damage all around, including to Robert, who learns that Son had thrown Hong down a staircase and decided to go rough him up. By the end of the novel, the reader will believe that Jonathan tried to protect Jonathan.

There are hired , though Son has plenty of muscles in his own bullish body, plus a Vietnamese best friend of Hong’s, “Happy,” who has become a Las Vegas casino dealer… and who also tries to protect Robert. And I have failed to mention that Hong abandoned her daughter, Mai, after a year or so living with her late husband’s uncle (“great uncle” in standard American usage, though Tran has him referred to as “grand uncle”). Mai grew up to be a professional poker player.

I find it hard to believe that she has no memory of her father from her last year in Vietnam (when she was five years old, the same age as the author when he and his mother escaped by boat to Malaysia; his father, who had been a air force captain, had left before he was born) or of the surrogate father and his son (Son and Jonathan), each of whom saved her life while all were in the Malaysian refugee camp. I find it even harder to believe that the terminally traumatized Hong could write so smooth a narrative of her life in Vietnam, Malaysia, and California with the daughter whom she abandoned after all the travail of saving her and getting her to America. (Written to Mai, who has not seen her for two decades, it comes in three installments, including two pages at the onset of the book.)

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(2015 photo by Jeffrey Beall from Creative Commons)

Oddly, I find the Saigon-born (ca. 1975) author’s narration by the white cop more credible than that of the Vietnamese refugee. (In a NPR interview he said that “I didn’t have to fight to get that [Hong’s] voice out.”)T his somewhat amuses me given all the huffing and puffing about “appropriation” of “the other,” which is never applied to nonwhite writers writing of/about white characters. Yes, I recognize that though Vietnam-born, Tran is not a woman, either, and I really would not want the long narrative in the broken English of Happy’s dialogue. Moreover, the recollections of Malaysian exile are quite interesting. And the melancholy of Robert’s quixotic Las Vegas crusades and the atmosphere of Las Vegas are very convincingly conveyed by Tran. (BTW, he grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, apart from any Vietnamese American enclave. He teaches creative writing at the University of Chicago.)

 

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

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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.

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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