Vietnamese Perspectives on the War in Vietnam

X. Vietnamese Exile Narratives

In this section are narratives written by Vietnamese in the West. Written in English, sometimes with the help of a ghost writer, these works discuss Vietnam as much if not more than experiences in the land of exile. The introduction suggests how readings could be assigned to convey the variety of regional, gender, and class perspectives that are reflected in these narratives.

Discussion: Remembering Another Place

There is a song that when heard in Vietnamese communities from San Jose to Sydney seldom fails to bring a tear to the eye. It is called "Do You Still Remember or Have You Forgotten?" [Em Co`n Nho(+ Hay Em DDa~ Que^n?]. It was written by Tri.nh Co^ng So+n, who during the war composed and sang sad songs about love and the pain of war. He elected to stay in Vietnam after 1975, but Kha'nh Ly, the famous singer who sang his songs and was rumored to be his lover, came to the U.S. The song mentions favorite spots that singer and lover had visited together and then in each refrain asks: "Do you still remember or have you forgotten?"

Most Vietnamese exiles, at least those of Tri.nh Co^ng So+n's generation, have not forgotten. If an exile is "someone who inhabits one place and remembers or projects the reality of another,"1 then Vietnamese living abroad are indeed exiles. As explained in my Introduction, Vietnamese exile narratives differ from those by other Asian immigrants. Literature called Asian American is typically written by second-generation Japanese and Chinese who speak English as a first language and have learned about the "homeland" from their parents. All the Vietnamese exile writers listed in this section, however, are first-generation immigrants whose first language is Vietnamese. All of them focus as much (if not more) on life in Vietnam than life in the U.S., a fact that makes their works difficult to classify. If a Vietnamese exile writes a book that focuses almost exclusively on life in Vietnam, should this book be classified as an exile narrative? My solution has been to reserve this section-- "Vietnamese Exile Narratives"--for works that discuss maybe not exclusively but at least partially life in the land of exile. Citations with annotations for these works will be found here. Books written by exiles which focus exclusively on life in Vietnam are cross- listed in this section but their annotations will be found in other sections.

In the Viet Nam War/The American War, Renny Christopher suggests that this preoccupation with both Vietnam and America that one typically finds in Vietnamese exile narratives is caused by more than the fact that the authors are first generation immigrants. Vietnamese, she implies, are culturally conditioned to prefer a more communal perspective. She compares Euro- American narratives to Vietnamese exile narratives and finds the former to be preoccupied with America and Americans and with the "mythologizing and valorizing of personal experience" ; the latter, however--the works by Vietnamese exiles--are distinguished by their dual focus on America and Vietnam and by their "biculturality" and "communality" (2, 30-38). These different preoccupations lead to different views of the war: "While Euro-Americans tend to see the Viet Nam war as being 'about' America, Vietnamese refugee writers show it to be 'about' both Viet Nam and America, together." (36-37).

In their choice of content Vietnamese exile writers may be expressing a cultural preference for community. In their choice of form, however--autobiography, first-person accounts of private lives-- we see them adapting to Western individualism and the expectations of English-language readers. It is not surprising that the most completely fictionalized narrative of all those listed here--Vo~ Phie^'n's Intact--was written originally in Vietnamese for a Vietnamese audience. This avoidance of autobiography may result not from a deep cultural aversion to personal revelation but from years of writing under fear of censorship and imprisonment. Many Vietnamese have learned that heartfelt thoughts are often more safely expressed in the guise of fiction.

Some of the American works are written with professional assistance and most appear to be carefully edited and packaged for Western readers. The exception, as already mentioned, is Vo~ Phie^'n's Intact, the story of Dung (pronounced "yoom"), a young girl, who in the confusion surrounding Saigon's fall, gets separated from her family and fiance' and comes to the U.S. alone. Eventually she reunites with her family in Minnesota, but not with her fiance', who at the end of the book is still in Vietnam. Dung's separation from her fiance' becomes a metaphor for the exile experience--for the sadness, regret, and nostalgia that people who love their country feel when they must leave it. The reader understands this nostalgia because the novel begins with scenes that capture the charm of a peaceful Vietnam. In one scene, Dung and her fiance' spend siesta time together in her house. They only hold hands briefly, for they are proper young people, but they are intimate nevertheless. Time seems to slow down on this languid Vietnam afternoon. As the communist troops advance, quiet scenes like this one become rarer and rarer and finally exist only in memory.

Teaching Suggestions

Living in one place and remembering another--this, critics tell us, is the condition of exile writers. What is special about the experience of Vietnamese exiles is that their memory of this other place-- Vietnam--is bound up with their memory of the war. While they are still in Vietnam, Dung's friend Nguye^n tells her: "We can curse the war all we like, but it's the setting for love in our lives. It's our poetry and our dreams. Whether we like it or not, we're going to miss it" (88). The power of this under-appreciated book stems from its description of an ordinary girl pursuing rather modest dreams of love and happiness; and then the war intrudes, changing her life forever and leaving her dreams unfulfilled but not abandoned, strangely "intact," as the title suggests. It could be assigned with Bobbie Ann Mason's In Country, a story of an American girl whose plans and dreams, like Dung's, are affected by the war. Or Dung's nostalgia could be compared to Michael Herr's in Dispatches: "Vietnam was what we had instead of happy childhoods" (or with Philip Caputo's rejoinder: "Vietnam was what we had because we had happy childhoods."2)

These narratives represent a variety of regional, gender, and class perspectives. One could assign them in arrangements that would help students appreciate that within the common experience of exile lie a host of individual stories. For example, one could assign Le^. Ly' Hayslip's When Heaven and Earth Changed Places with Nguye^~n Qui' DDu+'c's Where the Ashes Are. Though the authors of these accounts are both from the Hue^'-DDa` Na(~ng area of central Vietnam, their backgrounds couldn't be more different: Le^. Ly' Hayslip grows up hard-scrabble poor in a rural peasant village; Nguye^~n Qui' DDu+'c grows up in a house full of servants, the son of socially and politically prominent parents. Despite their different backgrounds, both writers struggle to reconcile their lives in America with their love and concern for Vietnam. Or one could keep gender constant while varying region and social class and compare Le^. Ly' Hayslip's account with those by Nguye^~n Thi. Thu-La^m and Nguye^~n Thi. Tuye^'t Mai, two sisters from an upper class northern family with very Francophile parents. Despite their very different social backgrounds, all three women become adept at dealing with Americans and in surviving in contexts usually dominated by men.

The essential sadness of exile, Edward Said observes, the "unhealthy rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home," can never be surmounted.3 We find this sadness expressed perhaps most poignantly in Vo~ Phie^'n's literary essays--in "The Key," for example. But as Said and others have pointed out, exile also makes possible originality of vision. "Often it is when we journey," Marguerite Bouvard writes in her foreword to Landscape and Exile, "that we see the most clearly, both the places we have left, and the new and strange places of arrival" (x). These exile narratives demonstrate the truth of these statements.



1. Michael Seidel, Exile and the Narrative Imagination (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1986) ix.

2. Philip Caputo, Means of Escape: Memoirs of the Disasters of War (New York: Harper Collins, 1991) 13.

3. "Reflections on Exile," Out There: Marginalization and Contemporary Cultures, ed. Russell Ferguson et al. (New York: MIT Press, 1990) 357.

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