Tag Archives: Saigon

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

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

©2011,2017