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.
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.
Though all the stories in this collection are about Vietnam, six are written by Vietnamese now living abroad. Three of these six are characterized by the double vision, the bi-culturality (of homeland and new land), that Christopher identifies as characteristic of Vietnamese exile narratives: Nguye^~n Qu'i DDu+'c's "The Color of Sorrow," Andrew Q. Lam's "Dark Wood and Shadows," and Nguye^~n Ba' Tra.c's "The White Horse." In this last story, the main character "lives in two worlds: his soul is in America, but his spirit shuttles back and forth between America and his homeland way on the other side of the globe" (224).
Critical discussion of Nguye^~n Qu'i DDu+'c's Where the Ashes Are and Jade Ngo.c Quang Huy`nh's South Wind Changing. Concludes that these recently published works by younger writers are, in their dual focus on both Vietnam and the U. S., like the exile narratives by older writers that the author reviewed in The Viet Nam War / The American War. Because these younger writers (particularly DDu+'c), however, must struggle more to maintain their Vietnamese identity, Christopher sees them as representing "a transitional period in Vietnamese American literature, poised between exile literature and immigrant literature." She finds South Wind Changing "less complex and less interesting than DDu+'c's narrative."
Fourteen life stories based on interviews with Vietnamese refugees now living in theU.S., most of them in Santa Clara, California. The stories document childhood experiences and the effect of the war and resettlement in the U.S. The arrangement is chronological as this list of section titles suggests: Hearts of Sorrow; Vietnam: Childhood, Youth, and Character; Vietnam: Sorrows of War; Vietnam: Sorrows of Liberation; Flight to Freedom; America: Heartache Beneath Success. In a final section, the author reflects on his methods. The narrators included are ordinary Vietnamese from the north as well as the south, not well-known political and military leaders--a soldier, an automobile mechanic, a teacher, a civil servant, etc. The accounts are fragmentary, not complete life histories, but they are rich in detail and movingly document the effect of war on individual lives.
A continuation of When Heaven and Earth Changed Places (See below). The story of the author's life from 1970 when she arrives in the U.S. to meet her husband, an aging construction worker whom she met in DDa` Na(~ng, to 1989-92 when she makes trips to Vietnam to see her relatives and oversee the work of her philanthropic foundation, East Meets West. Less about the war than Heaven and Earth and more about the cultural and spiritual conflicts that the author, a peasant woman from Qua?ng Nam Province, must face as she tries to adapt to an odd assortment of American men, all losers weird enough to make anyone worry about bad karma. Given the author's bad luck with American men, her emphasis on reconciliation between Vietnamese and Americans is impressive. Sections describing her successful financial deals ("Finding the American Dream" is the title of one) have a boastful ring and resemble accounts by other immigrants.
Autobiography by a woman from a small village outside DDa` Na(~ng. A moving account that reveals how the conflict was a civil war that tore families apart. The author helps the Vie^.t Co^.ng until she is wrongly suspected of helping the Republicans and is raped by two VC guards sent to execute her. While working as a maid in Saigon, she is seduced and made pregnant by her Vietnamese employer. Dismissed by the employer's wife, she survives by peddling goods and obtaining American boyfriends. Eventually an older American, a civilian employee of a construction firm, marries her and brings her to the U.S. The story ends in 1986 when she makes a return visit to Vietnam and is reunited with her family. An important work because it reveals how the war affected a peasant family from the countryside of the central region. (Most exile narratives are written by members of the educated elite from urban areas).
See Section XI for full annotation. Seven of the 38 selections in this collection are by Vietnamese exiles.
Not available for review, but judging from newspaper reviews, this is an intriguing account. The author's father was a leading communist revolutionary, at one point North Vietnam's ambassador to the Soviet Union. Raised in the South by an anti-communist aunt, the author developed anti- communist views and worked for the South Vietnamese Army. She married an American Navy pilot and in 1969 moved to the U.S. where she became a spy for the CIA in exchange for her family's rescue from Saigon.
Five of the 12 stories in this collection are written by Vietnamese living in the West, including Mai Kim Ngo.c's "In the Recovery Room" (See below).
Lying in bed in an American hospital, an old man about to be operated on speaks to his son-in-law, a writer, about his (the old man's) first sexual experience, which was with a prostitute on a sampan in Hue^'. He contrasts the earthiness of this experience--the smell of sweat, the dirty blankets--with the clean and sterile bed on which he now lies. Nearing the end of his life, he he feels out of place in the cold, antiseptic world of his son-in-law and daughter.
Considers various attempts to define the expression "literature in exile." Then outlines a framework for considering contemporary Vietnamese literature (of which, he says, the literature in exile is a part) based on "ego." His framework has four periods: 1. Period of the emotional or sentimental ego (1930-45); 2. Period of the citizen ego (1945-54); 3. Period of the intellectual ego (1954-75--in South Vietnam only); 4. Period of the historical ego (the period of exile since 1975).
The author's father, a civilian deputy to the military governor of the DDa` Na(~ng region, was captured when the whole family was visiting relatives in Hue^' during Te^'t, 1968 . The author, only nine years old in 1968, tells his family's story, including that of his father who spent 12 years in communist prison camps before he was released in 1980. Both the author and his parents eventually came to the U.S.
An account by a woman from an upper class northern family of her and her family's experiences from the author's birth in 1940 to the fall of Saigon to the communists in 1975 and the family's move to the U.S. Early chapters describe life in the North during the war with the French, her father's gradual disenchantment with the revolution, and the family's move to the South in 1954. Later chapters describe her loveless marriage to a Vietnamese, her business deals with the Americans (She ran craft shops, steambaths, and laundries on American bases), and her stormy relationship (married then divorced) with Michael, a Captain in the U.S. army. The author, often without much self-awareness, reveals contradictions: her father wants a revolution but not if it threatens the privileges of his class; she criticizes the Americans but goes to them because she wants to make "big money."
A somewhat rambling autobiography by a woman whose life was full of contradictions. She grew up in a Francophile Vietnamese family near Saigon but as a young woman helped the communists fight the French for a year and a half. Though not a strong supporter of President Ngo^ DDi`nh Die^.m, she married a man who became director of the government-controlled Vietnam Press. Eventually she helped her husband import Honda motorcycles while she ran a laundry for GI's. She and her family moved to the U.S. when her husband lost his leg in a terrorist bombing. Author is the older sister of Nguye^~n Thi. Thu-La^m who wrote Fallen Leaves (See above). Together these two accounts reveal the struggles of upper class women to bridge cultures and survive in a male-dominated society. This work provides ample evidence of the corruption that pervaded the Die^.m regime and the governments that followed.
Not available for review, but from Reny Christopher (personal communication) I've learned this book contains works by 37 younger generation writers--art work and photography as well as stories. Sections are titled "Exodus," "Elegies," "VietnAmerican," and "Homecoming."
Argues that recent fiction by Vietnamese women living abroad deals with two themes: exile and home. Stories of exile reveal how women suffer from both the dehumanizing effects of American life and rigid Confucian ethics (no second marriage for widows, for example). Stories of home portray it as both a painful loss and important strength.
Describes two groups of Vietnamese exile writers in the U.S., a "1975 group" who arrived after the communist victory and a group who came as "boat People" beginning in 1977. Writers in the first group regret the past and lament the present, including the loneliness, competitiveness, and hectic pace of American life. Those in the second group focus on the misery of life in post-war communist Vietnam.
Introduces the fiction of Tra^`n Die^.u Ha(`ng. Contrasts the idyllic portrayal of Vietnamese refugees in the U.S. media with the sad, frustrated characters, mostly women, found in Tra^`n Die^.u Ha(`ng's short stories--characters who find their traditional Vietnamese values crushed by the individualism and materialism of America. Unfortunately to my knowledge only one of her stories has been translated, a meditation on the difficulties of being a mother and a writer that does not relate, at least in any direct way, to the war or the exile experience (See Tra^`n Die^.u Ha(`ng, "Zenith: A Tale," trans. by Qui'-Phie^.t Tra^`n, Asian America: Journal of Culture and the Arts 1 [Winter, 1992]: 59-72).
Semi-autobiographical novel about a Vietnamese man who at the beginning of the novel is a professor in the U.S. He returns to Vietnam, joins the NLF, and participates in the struggle for liberation. He later becomes disillusioned with communism and escapes from Vietnam, returning to the U.S.
The story of Dung, 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 famly in Minnesota, but not with her fiance' who at the end of the book is still in Vietnam. Dung's separation from her fiance', which causes sadness, regret, and nostalgia, becomes a metaphor for the exile experience. For information on how to purchase, contact James Banerian, 5816 Trojan Ave., San Diego, CA 92115.
These are examples of a genre the Vietnamese call tu`y bu't, perhaps best translated as "literary essay." Vo~ Phie^'n is considered a master of this genre. In "Wrapping Clouds" he discusses the reaction of Vietnamese refugees in Minnesota to their first snowstorm. In "A Dream of Mars" he compares leaving Saigon for America with leaving the earth for Mars. In "The Key" he describes a refugee who has abandoned his 93-year old father in Vietnam. He left gold in a wardrobe for his father but forgot to leave the key! In a quiet, sometimes whimsical, and always thoughtful way, Vo~ Phie^'n expresses the sadness of exile. For information on the tu`y bu't genre, see Vo~ Phie^'n's Literature in South Vietnam: 1954-1975, pp. 180-185 and pp. 205- 210.
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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