diaCRITIC Eric Nguyen reviews The Land South of the Clouds, Genaro Kỳ Lý Smith’s newest fiction novel.
Genaro Kỳ Lý Smith returns to familiar territory in his second book, The Land South of the Clouds. Readers of his previous book, The Land Baron’s Sun, will be acquainted with many of the subjects here: the Vietnam War, the loss of homeland, and even a character, Lý Loc, the elderly patriarch based on Smith’s grandfather who sees his old ways of life dramatically changed when the Communists come to power. But whereas Smith’s first book largely focused on life in Vietnam in the aftermath of war, The Land South of the Cloud explores what life is like for those who left.
The book opens up in Los Angeles. It is June 1979. The Iran hostage crisis is only a few months away and so is the release of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now in American theaters and ten-year-old Long-Vanh is watching his mother, Vu-An, leave as her husband, Wil, sleeps. “You can tell them I’m dead,” she says before asking Long-Vanh to keep her departure a secret and boarding a cab. Torn between loyalties, Long-Vanh races to his sleeping father but is interrupted by the unexpected return of his mother. It was a practice run, she says, before telling him again, “Don’t tell your Dad.”
Needless to say, Long-Vanh lives in an uneasy household. His mother wants to return to Vietnam, where her father Lý Loc is imprisoned in a communist re-education camp. Meanwhile, his father studies for a degree by day and works as a college janitor by night; he is also having an affair. Long-Vanh’s family is disconnected. Life outside the house isn’t that great either: Long-Vanh is bullied for being biracial and the people of Asia Minor, a fictitious neighborhood of Los Angeles, are not that kind to the newly arrived Vietnamese. Still, his family—including Vu-An’s sister Pham Thi and her family—tries its best to form a small community. Until one night, after a violent tragedy, Long-Vanh’s mother does disappear but without a promised warning to her son. What unfolds—as the book alternates between the 1970s in Los Angeles and the 1990s as Long-Vanh travels to Vietnam—is the struggle between the present and the past and an exploration of identity as Long-Vanh tries to find his mother and uncover her reason for leaving so suddenly.
The Land South of the Cloud is frank in its depiction of being biracial in a country that often sees only black and white when it comes to race. Like the nameless narrator of James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, Long-Vanh isn’t so much as straddled between two worlds of race as alienated by them. Unlike Johnson’s narrator, though, Long-Vanh can’t pass as one race or the other. The result is an experience marked by both outsider status and shame. For Long-Vanh this means being treated as an anomaly at worst or an exotic object at best. As a child, he is called a “yellow nigger” by other Vietnamese kids. As an adult, Long-Vanh notes:
Women were always curious about my kind, and they wanted to know what it was like to sleep with someone like me. To them, I was something of a curiosity, someone they could lay claim to, like a token, and say, “I’ve slept with one of them.”
Long-Vanh is never truly comfortable with who he is.
His mother inhabits a similar type of anxiety. To her, Long-Vanh is a reminder that she, like him, does not belong in either post-Vietnam War Vietnam or America. In Vietnam, she is disowned by Lý Loc for marrying a black man. In America, in one of the book’s most jarring scenes, she is verbally attacked and spat on by teenage boys. To cope, she creates a private world in letters from her father and conversations with her sister in their mother tongue—something she withholds purposefully from her son to the detriment of their relationship. Even as Long-Vanh tries to reconnect with his Vietnamese heritage, she reprimands him. In one instance, after Long-Vanh has a dream of his grandfather, Vu-An demands: “Don’t dream about him. You were too young to remember him. So don’t dream about him.”
Between these two characters, there’s a claustrophobic quality to the story. Indeed, there’s no mistake in the author’s allusions to the Iran hostage crisis, which becomes emblematic of these characters who are essentially stuck: Long-Vanh is stuck in a society that refuses to recognize him as more than a curiosity, Vu-An is stuck in a country that is never hers. In this way, the mother and son have much in common: a certain racial pain and anger at society. Smith writes this plainly and clearly.
Indeed, The Land South of the Clouds is an angry book—one that is justifiably so. There’s a rawness to the emotions the characters experience and an aggression in the telling that is at times uncomfortable as it lays bears the racism that plagues society. In one scene, Long-Vanh sits his girlfriend down to give witness to the racism he has been through. She “curls up into a ball and cries” as her whole body shakes. This only makes Long-Vanh feel the need to tell his story more urgently: he grabs her “by her shoulder and [tries] to turn her over so that she could look at [him].” Smith’s book is akin to this scene: direct and necessary—a wholly honest book about race in America.
It is also an insightful exploration of the generational gap between first generation immigrants and the 1.5 generation—the experiential gap between those who lived through the war and had to be severed from their past and those who barely witnessed all this pain. Vu-An seems to withhold memories of the war from her son because she wants to escape its pain, but at the same time, Long-Vanh wants to know more, as evidenced by his dreams—captivating surrealistic passages where Los Angeles floods and becomes the Mekong River—and his fascination with Apocalypse Now.
At the core of The Land South of the Clouds is the story of men and women trying to find a place to belong and the love they deserve. That story, well-executed by Genaro Kỳ Lý Smith, should be enough to grab readers. It is his balance of the philosophical, the surreal, and a striking social critique that makes this novel powerful and much needed in the conversation of race in America.
Buy the book here.
The Land South of the Clouds
Genaro Kỳ Lý Smith
Eric Nguyen has a MFA in creative writing from McNeese State University and BA in sociology from the University of Maryland. He has been awarded writing fellowships from the Lambda Literary Foundation and Voices of Our Nation Arts (VONA).
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