Aimee Phan on ‘Reeducation’ — An Interview with Sunny Woan

This author interview with Aimee Phan, conducted by Sunny Woan, first appeared in Kartika Review‘s 13th issue, in Summer 2012. Woan observes, “After the critical acclaim both We Should Never Meet and Reeducation have received, Aimee Phan is en route to becoming the leading luminary of Vietnamese American literature.” We couldn’t agree more. diaCRITICS has been watching Phan’s work for a while, featuring reviews of her beautiful, complex, and carefully-crafted writing, and additional writings by Phan. As Woan writes, “Phan’s books are memorable, resilient against the passing of time, and her writing style positively vivid.”

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Aimee Phan

I started reading The Reeducation of Cherry Truong (St. Martin’s Press, 2012) on a Friday evening and could not put it down until I finished it. Then immediately, I contacted my circle of reader friends to recommend the book. Reeducation exceeded my expectations. Initially I wasn’t sure whether it would transcend the Asian family sagas we read throughout the 90s. Well, it does. Why? Characters like Kim-Ly, for starters. She comes to life right off the page, flaws, biases, fierce love of family, survival instincts, and all. What’s more, to reconcile three generations, multiple continents, disparate histories, and colliding family values precipitated by marriage would have been a daunting task on any writer. For Phan, the craft seems effortless. Her stories resonate with sincerity. I grow fond of her characters; I empathize with them, even the ones who do harm.

We Should Never Meet

Aimee Phan has been quite the rising star. Her debut collection of short stories, We Should Never Meet (St. Martin’s Press, 2004) was named a Notable Book by the Kiriyama Prize and a finalist in the 2005 Asian American Literary Awards. Reeducation will no doubt earn deserving accolades as well. Her writings have appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, Guernica, The Rumpus, and The Oregonian, among others. She was awarded the 2010 NEA Creative Writing Fellowship and currently serves on the faculty of the MFA Writing Program and the Writing and Literature Program at California College of the Arts. Phan earned her MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she won a Maytag Fellowship. After the critical acclaim both We Should Never Meet and Reeducation have received, Aimee Phan is en route to becoming the leading luminary of Vietnamese American literature. From her works “Miss Lien” and the title story in We Should Never Meet to characters like Cherry Truong and her brother Lum in Reeducation, Phan’s books are memorable, resilient against the passing of time, and her writing style positively vivid.

The Reeducation of Cherry Truong

SW: How did you come across the title of your novel? Why is “reeducation” so central of a theme?

AIMEE PHAN [AP]: Cherry somewhat naively believes that if she just learns “the truth,” if she is able to uncover all of her family’s secrets, she will be complete. She will be able to repair her family and move on with her life. But she acts under this assumption that there is only one truth, when there are in fact many. I think the intention behind the reeducation camps in Vietnam—these prison camps that South Vietnamese loyalists were forced to suffer through in order to survive in Vietnam—operated under similar misconceptions. If only the South Vietnamese perspective could be corrected—if they could only understand the Communists, then we could all live together as one country and attain peace. But instead, I think the reeducation camps turned into this symbol of everything the South Vietnamese feared about Communists: forced labor, propaganda, brainwashing. So the title was my way of working around these notions of truth and misunderstanding, how they continue to bring together and separate people, despite their best intentions. 

SW: Your treatment of time/history with Cherry Truong’s family is amazing–that you can span decades and continents inside of a novel is credited largely to your novel’s structure. How did you come upon the structure of your novel? How did you know that was the right structure for your story?

AIMEE PHAN [AP]: This novel came together from several short stories and a novella I’d been working on over the years. They all centered on characters of Vietnamese descent dealing with familial relationships and pressures. It dawned on me one day that perhaps they were from the same family. Suddenly their relationships and connections became much more interesting and complicated. I come from two very large families. I have over twenty biological aunts and uncles. When you count the people they married and my cousins, the number of relatives triple. I wanted the novel’s structure to reflect the vastness and complexities of such a large, multigenerational family. I realized that while this was Cherry’s narrative about uncovering her family’s history, it was important to have other chapters narrated by family members who had differing perspectives and information that she didn’t have. So to alternate and interrupt her narrative with other, possibly conflicting, voices was intentional. And of course I worried that it would just look (and sound) like a holy mess. But seeing it all together now, this structure made the most sense, and I’m very happy with it.

SW: Did you feel any pressure to cut characters or certain narratives out of your novel? If yes, what got cut and why?

AP: No, though I had to remind myself more than a few times that Cherry’s narrative was central and I had to make her a priority. As a writer, I think you can sometimes favor one character over another to write, and Cherry was often low on my list. I realize now it’s because she challenged me the most. I think the other characters that only have one chapter to narrate could potentially feel sexier and more exciting because they didn’t have to carry the novel the way Cherry did.  But Cherry was the driving force of the book, and I needed her to be as compelling—if not more—than the rest of the narratives.

SW: One theme that Reeducation touches on is the concept of memory and perspectives. The Truongs and the Vos hold very different perspectives of the same memory and even while Cherry struggles to get a grasp on both sides’ memories and perspectives, she then loses a critical part of her memory herself. It isn’t clear whether the novel offers a reconciliation of these tensions, other than suggesting that truth is elusive. What were your intentions behind the exploration and development of this theme?

AP: Cherry begins the novel as sort of a naïve detective. She believes that if she can sort out her family’s past, uncover and understand why everyone is mad at her, then she can fix her family, and fix herself.  Many of the characters in this novel are haunted by their past—or obsessed with their version of the past and the people who betrayed them. And they all believe they are right. But as Cherry begins collecting these stories and perspectives, piecing together her family’s history, the result isn’t what she expected. So I do think her journey is one that many people can relate to. It’s growing up and realizing that the past is much greyer than we ever imagined it.

SW: In designing your novel, were there any activist objectives or motivations? If yes, how were they implied in Reeducation? If no, then what were your main reasons for writing Reeducation and what compelled or inspired you to write this particular story?

AP: I really did want to write about characters that felt sincere and important to me, characters that I loved as much as my family. I do find the Vietnamese Diaspora after the war to be an incredibly powerful narrative because I grew up absorbing these stories from my family. They mean so much to me, and I love the idea of leaving behind a book that will capture some of these impressions. It’s difficult to walk into a bookstore and realize that in the Vietnam section, the overwhelming majority of literature is written from non-Vietnamese authors. More specifically, it is written from the Western perspective. Whatever readers think, whether they believe me or not, whether they think I wrote a good book or not, at least I’m putting it out there. And I’ve tried my hardest not to write a story about martyrs, war victims or prostitutes.

SW: A general, broad criticism of Asian American women writers is their negative, arguably unfair representations of Asian American male characters. However, Reeducation offers a balanced treatment of its male characters. They’re flawed, but real and three-dimensional. Were you conscious of such characterizations when writing or did these male characters develop organically? On that note, have you received any criticisms of your male characters?

AP: They developed organically. I haven’t heard any complaints about my male characters, but there is still time. I do only have two male perspectives in the novel, so on a larger macro level I worried that the novel leaned too heavily with the women in the families. But I felt as close to the male characters as I did to the female characters in this book, especially Sanh and Lum. Their chapter, which comes near the end of the book, felt like one of the most important sections for me. They surprised me in ways that my women didn’t.

SW: You’ve said that “literature can have a profound impact on your social and cultural identity.”[1]  In what ways do you hope Reeducation impacts the social and cultural identity of Asian Americans? Of Americans generally?

AP: I hope my characters feel as vivid and complex as I intended them to be. I do not see them as types or clichés, as martyrs, war refugees, or victimized prostitutes. They lie, they betray, they love, they forgive. Just like many other human beings do. So I hope my novel can do what other excellent pieces of Asian American literature can do: contribute and complicate the Asian American identity.


[1] Source: http://www.asiaarts.ucla.edu/article.asp?parentid=16799 (last visited July 19, 2012).

Aimee Phan

AIMEE PHAN grew up in Orange County, California, and now teaches in the MFA Writing Program and Writing and Literature Program at California College of the Arts. A 2010 National Endowment of the Arts Creative Writing Fellow, Aimee received her MFA from the University of Iowa, where she won a Maytag Fellowship. Her first book, We Should Never Meet, was named a Notable Book by the Kiryama Prize in fiction and a finalist for the 2005 Asian American Literary Awards. She has received fellowships from the MacDowell Arts Colony and Hedgebrook. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, Guernica, The Rumpus, and The Oregonian, among others.

SUNNY WOAN is a corporate attorney working as general counsel for an international venture capital firm. In her spare time, she enjoys reading and writing fiction, cooking, and designing handbags. Sunny’s creative works have been published in Fifth Wednesday Journal, Blue Earth Review, SoMa Literary Review, Houston Literary Review, Identity Theory, among others. Sunny continues to serve as Managing Editor of Kartika Review, an Asian American literary journal she founded in 2007.

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About Julie Thi Underhill

Julie Thi Underhill is an artist, photographer, filmmaker, writer, historian, and doctoral candidate in Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley. She specializes in Cham studies, diasporic studies, memory studies, Asian American film/video, Asian American history, and transnational feminisms. She is a managing editor for diaCRITICS.
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