Tag Archives: Vietnamese American

A graphic memoir of a complex family in Vietnam and America

The front cover bills Thi Bui’s The Best We Could Do (2017) as an “Illustrated memoir.” Inside the jacket cover it is billed as a “graphic novel.” It is nonfiction, not a novel, and “illustrated” suggests a higher text:picture ratio than the book has. So, why not “graphic memoir”? There is still a bit of a problem with this description in that the book is based on the memories of the author’s parents as well as her own, not least in the escape from Vietnam parts.

Even the cover illustration with her parents and the three children who lived to emigrate from Vietnam is a simplification. The family history is very complicated in terms of class and political alignments, with ancestors (grandparents) in the Viet Minh as well as among those who fled from north to south when the country was partitioned at the 17th parallel in 1954. Her parents overshot Saigon and became teachers in the far south of South Vietnam.

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Thi Bui was born in Saigon in 1975, the year the communists overran what had been South Vietnam. Her mother was 30 and would be very (8 months) pregnant when they fled by boat, giving birth to the boy Tam in a refugee camp in Malaysia. Typical of the unnecessarily jangled structuring of the book (which begins with the author giving birth to her own son in New York in 2005), the order of birth (including of children who died as infants) is 1978, 1974, 1975, 1968, 1966, 1965.

The book frequently skips around in time and place. I have to say that a chronological ordering would have been more reader-friendly. I also have to say that I find the colors (a reddish sepia augmenting black and white and the background for land, sky, and water) wearying.

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(jacket photo of Thi Bui)

Still the stories of life in Vietnam and in America (initially, in 1978, crowded into a two-bedroom house in Hammond, Indiana with Thi’s mother’s sister and her husband and their five children, then in the warmer climate of California) are clear with more drama than anyone would want, but also some mordant humor. The book ends with hopes that her son (with her Caucasian husband, Travis) will live without the traumas of war and loss.

I’m not sure whether the reason I prefer Vietnamerica is that I read it first or because I’m man. Both books show and tell stories of complicated family histories, terrifying escapes, and difficult adjustments of Vietnamese refugees getting to the US

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

Thanks to Fred Gleach for calling my attention to this new hardback book (from esteemed artbook publisher, Abrams).

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

Vietnamese orphans before and after “Operation Babylift”

Aimee Phan was born in 1977 in Orange County, so had no personal experience/memory of “Operation Babylift,” in which 10,300 infants and children were airlifted from Saigon to the United States before the city fell to the People’s Army of Vietnam. The eight stories in We Should Never Meet, published in 2004 (when the author was 27) are about orphans and their caregivers. Four are set in Vietnam (three before Operation Babylift; the last with two orphans revisiting Saigon and a nearby orphanage and the Vietcong’s Cu Chi tunnels). The other four center on orphans resettled in Phan’s native Orange County, where the heaviest concentration of Vietnamese American live.

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Though Phan is not an orphan and was not born in Vietnam, the stories are convincing to me (unlike her, I was adopted, as some of them were) both about the chaos of orphanages in the final stages of the Republic of Vietnam and about the abandonment neuroses of those who had been evacuated and grew up in Orange County (whether in foster care or as adopted children). The white Americans who devoted time and resources to helping the children survive, both in South Vietnam and in the US, may sometimes be clueless, but are seen in the texts as well-intentioned. Bridget, a pediatrician who volunteered to go to a Saigon for two months, leaving behind her own two-year-old and husband in “Bound” is not ineffectual. She clearly saved lives, though just as clearly was delusional about being able to go back and continue her old life and now older family along with a Vietnamese baby boy. The last two stories in the book, “Bound” and “Motherland” end optimistically. The plane filled with orphans on which Bridget leaves makes it out (as one plane did not).

The most anti-American character in the book, Vinh, is also the most despicable, preying on other Vietnamese refugees whom he (and his gang) know do not trust police and are unlikely to seek their aid. For me “Visitors” was the most heartbreaking story in the collection. Vinh feels some regret for what he does, which undoes none of the damage to the refugee family(/ies) he victimizes (also in the title story in which another sympathetic Vietnamese character is attacked).

Kim, another recurring character, has wisely broken up with Vinh, but is relatively nihilistic and envious of Mai, the smart and accomplished girl who had been placed in foster care with Kim and Vinh more than once. Kim was adopted, but returned after a month, whereas Mai was kept by a pair of devoted foster parents, who did not adopt her and were taking in a seven-year old Vietnamese orphan when she went off to college (Emancipation).

The whole is more than the sum of the parts, but less than a sustained novel. There is much more I would like to know about various characters. I wouldn’t say that the stories lack endings (like so many New Yorker stories), but they tend to be somewhat open endings, cutting away from the uncertainties the characters feel and from closure. Each set of stories (those leading to and those leading from Operation Babylift) proceeds in chronological order, but the alternation does not work for me, though I could have read the four orphans in Saigon stories first and then the four adolescent Vietnamese orphans in Orange County ones. Having followed Phan’s ordering of chapters, I don’t know if the grouping would have enhanced coherence, but I think I’d recommend reading the 3rd, 5th, and 7th before reading the 2nd, 4th, 6th, and 8th (mindful that the 8th casts light on where the 7th left off, literally in midair).

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(jacket photo of author ca. 2004)

 

Phan’s first novel, The Reeducation of Cherry Truong, was published in 2012. It juxtaposes escape from and return to Vietnam with immigrant lives (of two families of refugees) in France and California with fractured chronology and two sets of letters as well as the main narration.

 

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

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.

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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.]

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.

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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.

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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

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