Image from the artist Dinh Q. Lê’s installation “Crossing the Farther Shore”, exhibited at Rice Gallery in Houston, TX in 2014
This article appeared first in slightly different form on the De-Canon blog on 11/10/17. It was compiled in response to the Ken Burns’ documentary on “The Vietnam War” that aired on PBS in September 2017.
“Vietnam” = 7-Letter Word
A couple years ago, I went to see a reading at Powell’s bookstore on Hawthorne, in my hometown of Portland, Oregon. The reading was for the debut novel of another author I’d been in shared circles with for years, through an organization called Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network (DVAN).
At Powell’s that night, myself and the friend I’d invited were the only Asian people in attendance and there were not more than fifteen people total in the audience. The novelist (whom some readers of this blog may already be quite familiar with), a university professor specializing in topics having to do with cinema and the Vietnam War , showed a montage of clips from famous American movies depicting the Vietnam era, then went on to critique the dehumanizing representation of Vietnamese (and other Asians) in such movies. The scene he read from his novel satirically depicted said dynamics. It was discomfiting, a little, to witness this presentation being given in front of a small crowd of mostly white people, but I was glad to see it being done. In the audience was at least one Vietnam veteran, who seemed eager to connect on the topic of the war, its wrongs especially. The thought occurred to me that the literary subject matter of Vietnam tended to attract this demographic—the same I’d encountered when my own first novel came out more than ten years earlier—boomer-aged and psychically wounded, usually white, men, and that both our groups, refugees and veterans, our perspectives, struck me as somewhat sad and marginalized.
This was, however, some months before this particular novel would go on to win a prestigious literary prize and the author a year later awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant. This was also before the topic of Vietnam and its contextual war was thrust back into mainstream media consciousness with the September 2017 debut of Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novick’s epic 18-hour documentary titled “The Vietnam War.”
After the reading at Powell’s, we went to a nearby bar, myself and the novelist and my friend, and the American vet came with us. At some point in the bar I took note of the scene at our table: the middle-aged white man seated there was doing most of the talking, while the three brown people at the table kept quiet and listened. I remember feeling a little guilty for who we were—refugees turned into fairly successful, privileged immigrants—in relation to his experience: working class boy pulled into a demoralizing war, life and fate altered irrevocably at the behest of men more bureaucratically powerful than he. As he expounded on U.S. government corruptions and conspiracies, and the horrors of war he had experienced, the burden of his trauma and his sense of victimization as a war veteran were plain. There was no room for us—the Vietnamese people at the table—even to speak to each other that night, because the white man’s trauma was taking up so much space in the conversation.
The irony occurred to me, that although the Asian bodies at the table housed direct connection to the history he was referencing, he asked us few questions, showed little interest in our personal stories. He seemed simply to need a Vietnamese audience.
This is not an exceptional situation. As a Vietnamese American writer of the “1.5 generation”, I have encountered many American veterans of the conflict in Vietnam. At readings, American vets have handed me manila envelopes full of documents they felt the need to educate me with. At a folk music festival in Oklahoma I performed at once, a Marine came up after my set and said, “I think your music can provide healing for men like me.” I have found these moments to be both touching and, at times, presumptuous. I’ve been befriended by men who were – either or both – veterans or conscientious objectors of the war in Vietnam; I’ve been privy to less welcoming sentiments, as well. And, no doubt, I feel for these men and what they suffered due to a war that was, to so many degrees, horrific and criminal. It also does not escape me, as a South Vietnamese person who grew up as a refugee and immigrant of the 1970s/80s in California, my potential position in the narrative of their pain.
To know oneself as both catalyst and foil in a narrative of America’s national (and prevalently male) trauma of the late 20th century—can be a tricky position to occupy.
And so I have stood back, in many instances, and stayed quiet. I have done my best to listen and receive. Being a naturally reserved person, not readily inclined to verbal self-disclosure, this has perhaps been the easier path for me to take. But I’m also aware of an underlying equation in this dynamic: one in which the Vietnamese body in question (read: brown, ‘other’-ed) remains in the position it has always, already, been—that of receptacle and catalyst for the psychological and emotional processes of non-Vietnamese, often white and male, Americans. For better and worse. In these cases what the white veteran seems to need from someone like me (not me uniquely or specifically, but someone of my body type and skin color) is a form of acknowledgment, even gratitude, toward his traumatic experience in Vietnam, and/or acknowledgment of his efforts toward retribution, his wrestlings with his own darkness and demons.
Let me be clear here in saying: my critique of the emotional habits of (some of) these men is by no means intended to diminish the reality of their traumas. That reality—of being pawn or witness or player in a grave disaster—is no doubt immense and lasting. And I see that what these men may be seeking—what I assume all of us who’ve suffered variations of war trauma ultimately seek—is a reaffirmation of our humanity, after having faced the inhumanity of, not just the great demon of war itself, but also, quite possibly, the blurry evidences within ourselves: what war drives people to do to other people.
Part of that recovery involves, no doubt, sharing our stories with one another.
Like other Vietnamese Americans, I anticipated the Ken Burns/Lynn Novick documentary on the Vietnam War with both hope and trepidation. Maybe America is ready, I thought, for the narrative to shift. Maybe, just maybe, I thought, we need to address and let heal the white man’s trauma (our national trauma) before it can be time to give other traumas (read: implicit problem in this thinking of non-white and multicultural narratives as subcultural narratives) their due.
I felt some hope after attending a preview screening event of the Burns/Novick documentary and hearing the filmmakers speak about representing the complexity of the history, its contradictions and need for a multiplicity of viewpoints; but I was less heartened by reading things like the New Yorker article titled “Ken Burns’s American Canon” (which tacks as more of a cult-of-personality piece on Burns than any address of substance on the subject of the war in Vietnam), in which Burns is quoted as saying he at first didn’t see the need for including many Vietnamese viewpoints in the documentary. It was only on Novick’s insistence that this aspect was developed as much as it was.
That the Vietnamese perspective—and, notably, South Vietnamese—has been repeatedly erased or simplified in the “American” narrative of “Vietnam” is nothing new, really. Even my son’s dentist (an immigrant from Vietnam) remarks to my son, upon hearing he is studying film in college, that she hopes he’ll make films that represent “us” better than has so far been done. Part of the narrative we’ve been telling each other, for decades now, includes an awareness of our own problematic silences and invisibility. (And: how much power we have—independent of the larger societal system this problem exists within—to change the terms of our representation and visibility may be a longer topic for another discussion.)
What I will focus on here is small: just a step toward what I call “de-canonizing” the spectre of Vietnam. Here, I am gathering a few of our voices in one space, simply to point to the presence of those voices at the larger table, so to speak, on the discourse of the “American” narrative surrounding “Vietnam”.
I compiled the list below initially for a blog post on the literary web resource De-Canon.com, back in November 2017. It is a list of articles written by Vietnamese American and Southeast Asian diasporic writers in reaction to the Burns/Novick documentary, and relating more generally to Vietnamese representation in American/western culture and forums. In this list you’ll recognize the contributions of this blog’s publisher, of course, a writer and academic who has been quite prolific – over many years – on writing/re-writing the diasporic Vietnamese narrative; as well, articles by lesser known names in our diaspora, who have been equally as busy over the past few decades. If you can take the time to plug in your headphones and listen for a spell, you’ll also find some great discourse happening, for instance, in the “roundtable discussion” hosted by Saigon Broadcasting Television Network at the link below, and many nuanced stories available on Thanh Tan’s Second Wave radio show.
The list below is by no means exhaustive, nor does it claim or aspire to be a fully dimensional representation of Vietnamese American or Southeast Asian diasporic perspectives: it is just a starting point. This list has room to grow, certainly; so please send me your additions if you have them.
To summarize for now: For many Americans “Vietnam” has been a moniker for a whole hellish debacle of American experience, and/but it is also the name of a country and a people. This is to say: we are at this table, too, and have been here all along. Perhaps you overlooked us, or perhaps you didn’t realize, due whatever your perception of us, that we were – and are – speaking the same language as you. Or perhaps you couldn’t hear us through all the other voices at the table.
IN RESPONSE TO THE BURNS/NOVICK DOCUMENTARY ‘THE VIETNAM WAR’ :
Nguyen, Duc. “The Vietnam War and being on the “wrong side” of HIS_Story”, Medium (10/14/17).
Worra, Bryan Thao. “In remembering Vietnam War, more stories of Lao refugees deserve to be told”, WHYY (10/12/17).
Nguyen, Beth. “A Refugee’s Review of ‘The Vietnam War’”, KQED Arts (10/10/2017).
Le, Anh. “Ken Burns’ Vietnam Documentary Misses Mark”, Vietnam Full Disclosure (10/10/17).
Phan, Aimee. “Ken Burns’ ‘The Vietnam War’ offers same narrative, with little perspective”, SF Chronicle (10/3/2017).
Tan, Thanh. “What Do Vietnamese-Americans Think of ‘The Vietnam War’?” NY Times (10/3/2017).
Le Minh Khai. “The Absence of South Vietnam in “The Vietnam War” and in the American Consciousness”, (09/26/17).
Le Minh Khai. “The Soundtrack of the Vietnam War”, (9/12/17).
Bass, Thomas. “America’s Amnesia”, Mekong Review.
Video/Audio Broadcast :
Saigon Broadcasting Television Network: “Viet-Am Voices on ‘The Vietnam War’: A Roundtable Discussion” (with Duc Nguyen, Trinh Mai, Steve Le, Linh Kochran, Quan Nguyen, Jason R. Nguyen, 10/25/17).
Second Wave Podcast: An American Story That Begins in Vietnam, Hosted by Thanh Tam. A new podcast from Seattle’s KUOW Public Radio and PRX follows Thanh Tan as she uncovers how a war that ended decades ago is still affecting the Vietnamese community.
Related Perspectives from the Diaspora :
Do Nguyen Mai. “From Beneath the Shroud of Silence: How Tommy Le’s Death Shifts the Focus for Vietnamese American Political Involvement”, diaCRITICS (10/10/17).
Nguyen, Viet Thanh. In “Vietnam Redux”: Letters to the Editor, NY Times (09/29/17).
Nguyen, Viet Thanh and Hughes, Richard. “The Forgotten Victims of Agent Orange”, NY Times (9/15/17).
Nguyen, Viet Thanh. “The Great Vietnam War Novel Was Not Written by an American”, NY Times (5/2/17).
Nguyen, Beth. “American Stories Are Refugee Stories”, LitHub (5/1/17).
Bui, Trang. “Eight Writers Share Their Must-Read Books from Vietnam and the Diaspora”, Words Without Borders (4/28/17).
Nguyen, Viet Thanh. “Vietnamese and Vietnamese American Lit: A Primer from Viet Thanh Nguyen”, LitHub (2/10/17).
Nguyen, Viet Thanh. “The Prophecy of Martin Luther King, Jr., from Vietnam to Iraq”, LitHub (4/4/16).
Gustafsson, Mai Lan. “The Warlore of Vietnamese Bargirls, Part 2”, diaCRITICS (10/29/15).
Gustafsson, Mai Lan. “The Warlore of Vietnamese Bargirls, Part 1”, diaCRITICS (10/26/15).
Nguyen, Viet Thanh. “Our Vietnam War Never Ended”, NY Times (4/26/15).
Print & Online Publications
Mekong Review is a quarterly literary journal publishing fiction, essays, reviews and poetry from Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia.
(Re)Collecting the Vietnam War, The Asian American Literary Review, Vol. 6, Issue 2 (Fall 2015). Special issue of the AALR focused on “Cartographies, Historiography and Nomenclature, or Forty Years into the Aftermath.”
Dao Strom is the Oregon-based author of two books of fiction and the hybrid-forms memoir We Were Meant To Be a Gentle People + music album East/West. She has a bilingual poetry book forthcoming in 2018 with the Hanoi-based Ajar Press. She is co-founder of the collective art projects She Who Has No Master(s) and De-Canon, and editor of diaCRITICS.