Notes: 2018 + Beyond
Author: Dao Strom
Shortly before taking on this editorship, I spent two months at an artist residency in Iceland. I’d been dreaming of this trip for years, dreaming of Icelandic vistas, but also of being someplace faraway and–for myself–disconnected from history as I knew it. History as I knew it being: an American citizenship via war-related refugee exodus from Vietnam. What would it be like, I wondered, to stand on a land mass that has not been subject to any major wars, that has no indigenous people (if you don’t count the “hidden people” perhaps) who were unduly colonized, where no bombs have been dropped, no genocide conducted, where the average number of homicides committed per year is an inconceivably low single-digit number? I wanted to know if it would feel different, for my body, in my body, to be in such a place, because I’d only ever been in geographies rife with histories and identities derived out of a continuing relationship with violence, namely the violence of one power—one body or group of bodies—dominating—attempting to erase—others.
In that northern place, what I encountered (beyond the natural vistas that quite literally took my breath away) was also the obstacle within myself—that would resist. Identity is a thing we each carry inside us, and mine had formed along particular grooves: namely, the identity of being a person of displacement, of certain invisible traumas, of resistances, of (admittedly) an adherence to the very conditions I also wished, and lamented being unable, to relinquish.
This habit of holding onto, of–even–being fortified by, wounds that have defined and divided one, is, I might venture, still very Vietnamese.
Thus I would find myself in that northern town on the edge of the Greenland Sea—with the snowy ridges of the Westfjords across the water as a view that greeted me each morning—poring over photographs of death, quite literally, in the imagery of piles of bodies, mostly brown bodies, documentary photographs from the Vietnam/American War era that I was trying to reference or make some use of in my own art process, while other artists around me were doing things like painting landscapes and chasing the dance of aurora borealis in the night skies. Their easy absorption into those wholly reasonable delights brought into sharper relief, for me, my own depression, to say it plainly. The juxtaposition inside me: that version of me that wanted (has wanted for years) to simply let go and enjoy the light; and the part of me that still feels, to what I will admit may be obsessive or at times unhealthy degrees, compelled to wrestle with layers of darkness I also understand have wrought both the strongest and most tender aspects of my being.
There is a tension to inhabit, no doubt, in being of history seeking to be free of history.
My mother fled Vietnam in 1975 as a war widow, with two small children in tow and no idea where or how her life would unfold next. In America she met and married a Danish American man, an immigrant who had come to America in his early 20s, by choice; he had told his mother in Denmark, two years of travel and then he would come home, and then never did. He died on the southern coast of Oregon nearly fifty years after his voluntary exodus from Europe, having never returned even once, not even to visit. In my adolescence when I began to realize the extent of my family’s displacement from their places of origin, I became aware also of the emotional cost of displacement, through observing my parents.
My mother never returned because—and for a time this was politically true—she couldn’t, as it would’ve been dangerous for her to return. That I understood. But my stepfather’s choice to never return, even to the old mother wishing to see her son again, felt to me like a harsher, in a way more self-violent, incomprehensible decision to have made in one’s life. I couldn’t understand it and yet I understood that this condition, of never-return or never-going-to-return, united my parents, and had also critically informed our—their children’s—way of being. Growing up, we were told adamantly that the past didn’t matter, that you could leave it behind. My parents wanted us to be free. Of whatever and however their own pasts had pained and bound them. I understood this, even as I felt the chasm that attached to it. I understood that my mother’s agreeing with my stepfather not to speak to us in Vietnamese when we were children was part of this choice. And, as angry as I’ve been at times toward these circumstances that cut off certain aspects of our Vietnamese heritage, I also understood: these choices were part of my mother’s survival, and hence our survival. In our family we grew up without religion, without traditions, without second languages, also slightly apart from the larger Vietnamese American and multicultural communities that existed in other parts of California. This does not mean we embraced a standard white American culture either, however. We grew up in a rural white community, with my parents frequently disparaging of our uneducated neighbors and their lack of class. Our family was different, its own entirely unique formation: this elasticity of being American was what we were encouraged to embrace.
What my Vietnamese and Danish immigrant parents were vying for, I see now, was a clean slate, and an ideal way of being in a global world: they were vying for a strength in separation, and independence, an ideal of the integrity of isolation. I say ideal, because of course being an island is also impossible, with its own complications.
Iceland is an island, the youngest land mass on the planet, in earth terms fairly recently formed from a volcanic eruption under the ocean. It was named, in fact, not for the presence of ice, but for the word for island – ísland – and there is something preserved on islands, no doubt, or by being island-like amid the chaos of the rest of the world and its mad histories. But/and so: maybe I carried something of this island-dream, so to speak, with me on my trip to Iceland, type-casting it as a place where I could remove or try to loosen myself from history’s grasp. But then to find myself in that remote northern place poring over photographs from the Vietnam War and pondering again the seemingly interminable legacies of war and colonialism—says what it says. On my last few days at the residency, I was lent a collection of (frozen) dead birds another artist had collected (kills from her cat) and I set about trying to photograph the bird-bodies next to my fragments of war photographs. This was an oddly intimate, tender, frustrating process, truth be told, as the handling of real bodies brought added weight to the material I was working with, both physically and abstractly. On one of those nights, as my partner and I were leaving the studio to walk back into the icy world outside, a bird flew into the building as we opened the door to exit. Encountering a live bird after having spent hours with the dead ones startled me—it felt like a message. The bird flew around inside the building’s stairwell, and we waited until it found its way back out the open door. Later, someone else told me that in some cultures it is believed, when a bird flies into your house, it means the ancestors are visiting.
I sat once in a living room in Bellevue, Washington talking with a friend of my mother’s, the son of Nhat Linh, an influential writer from the South Vietnamese period. Nhat Linh was famous in the 1950s for founding what was known as the “Self-Reliance Literary Movement” and then martyring himself in 1963, with a dose of cyanide, in protest of the Diem regime’s corrupt rule of South Vietnam during that potent decade. This writer’s son, an old man himself now, seated on a couch in a suburban lakefront house in Bellevue, told me that he saw this—both my and his generations’ time—as the most “exciting” time to be Vietnamese, as it was a time like none other in the past 1000 years. He was referring to the exodus of the late twentieth century, initiated on April 30th, 1975 with the Fall of Saigon and the dissolution of South Vietnam as an entity separate from—trying to stand independent (another island-attempt) of—the North. I was surprised to hear him speaking of it not as wound, but as opportunity, exception. “Never before,” he emphasized. For a thousand years the Vietnamese fought wars in their land, on their own soil, waging against invaders and themselves, but never in all of that time did the Vietnamese ever leave Vietnam. We were a people attached to soil as identity, identity as soil. That is, until April of 1975. Since then, some 2 million of us have left. And then to be spread out and scattered, all over the globe. “It is a new time. It is the first time for the Vietnamese people,” said this writer’s son.
In the identity equations that occur for people like me, I accept the label that I am Asian American, as well as Vietnamese American, or that I am both Vietnamese and American; or I might more finely say, I am Vietnamese diasporic even more so than I am either Vietnamese or American. We can argue the names of things forever, sometimes a little futilely, it seems to me. But the word diaspora: I will say I favor this word because it locates itself within the tenuousness of identity, within its changing-ness, in the middle of the action of going out from one place to another while carrying within one spora (the etymology of which connects to “scattering, sowing” as well as “sprout”) from the originating point. It is a word that claims distinctness even as it inhabits out-of-place-ness, other-ness, transience. As accurate as they are, words like refugee and exodus still suggest there is a refuge or an ideal place behind one or yet to be found; similarly, words like immigrant and emigrant locate their vantage point in the places one has left or is trying to enter: this suggests that one’s assumption of identity—or loss of it—relies on belonging (or non-) to the past place or to a new place. Home is one shore or another, through the lens of those words. But diaspora adheres to no geography, diaspora carries its place-ness, as well as its across-ness, its possible seed-ness, within the word itself. It is a mutable embrace of identity that does not posit an outcome. To me it is the perfect word for knowing where you came from but not needing—at least yet—to adhere to a physical or single geography to belong where you presently belong.
(In-progress still from multimedia project, 2017, by Dao Strom / Video Credit: Kyle Macdonald)
I think that Vietnamese—and Southeast Asian—diasporic storytelling today is at a critical juncture, and still evolving. I’ve taken up space here to express my own diasporic viewpoint, but I do so merely as a starting point—and in hopes that the dialogues and stories we share within this space may continue to blossom, mutate, surprise, contradict, change, and move, and challenge, and nurture us. I am an advocate for multiplicity, nuance, for many definitions, many ways to define and dismantle, the ideas of identity, Vietnamese or otherwise, we may have arrived at by this point. I know that I am Vietnamese in so much as I know where I was born and what the historical events that dictated my geographies. But there are too many individual voices in this diaspora to easily sum up what this diaspora is or should be. As I look toward what I wish to cultivate in my editorship of this space, my hope is that we may recognize the basic shared equation of where we came from and why, but also see that beyond that, truly, the field is open.
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.