“Sometimes people have said that I give voice to the voiceless Vietnamese. If you know anything about Vietnamese people, you know they are not voiceless. They are quite loud, whether it is in Vietnamese or English. Here is a reading list of some of the most important writing by Vietnamese and Vietnamese Americans, just to prove that we have not been voiceless. Most of the time we are just not heard.”
In retrospect, I would have made this a “Vietnamese American literature in English” list, because the two obvious oversights are Vietnamese American literature in Vietnamese and Vietnamese literature as a whole. I wanted to gesture at the Vietnamese literature that was important to me, but I am not a Vietnamese literary person. It’s not my tradition. So all kinds of important writers are overlooked, and partially that was because I didn’t want to give people an academic bibliography to which people could say, too long, didn’t read. Here you have 16 books that you can start with. That’s not too overwhelming. And if you like them, as I have liked them, then you can start looking at all the Vietnamese literature in translation that exists out there, only a Google search away.
And of course, you who know more than I can comment here or, even better yet, on the LitHub site with your recommendations of the writers and books that I did not cite.
VIETNAMESE AND VIETNAMESE AMERICAN LIT: A PRIMER FROM VIET THANH NGUYEN
Bjbklao Ninh, The Sorrow of War
Widely considered to be the most important novel of the North Vietnamese soldier’s experiences, this is one of the great war novels of the world.
Quan Barry, She Weeps Each Time You’re Born
This novel expressed what I asked for in my nonfiction book, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War: fiction’s need to depict the power and the cost of empathy.
Thi Bui, The Best We Could Do
A graphic memoir of a South Vietnamese family’s refugee experiences and their settlement in California. Painful, moving, and gripping.
Lan Cao, The Lotus and the Storm
An epic about the shattering impact of the Vietnam War on one family, and connecting that war to America’s misadventures in the Middle East.
Duong Thu Huong, Novel Without a Name
She is Vietnam’s most widely known dissident writer, who was exiled for writing books like this, which reveal the postwar failures of communism.
Le Ly Hayslip, When Heaven and Earth Changed Places
I teach this memoir regularly, and it retains its power as a page-turning account of a young South Vietnamese girl caught up in the war and its aftermath.
Thanhha Lai, Inside Out and Back Again
A novel in prose-poems about a refugee child’s life in Alabama, this book won the National Book Award for young people’s literature.
Andrew Lam, Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora.
Lam is the cultural ambassador-par-excellence between Vietnam and the United States, and these essays prove it.
Nguyen Qui Duc, Where the Ashes Are
One of the earliest Vietnamese American memoirs. Read this book and go to Duc’s bar Tadioto in Hanoi, the hippest spot in town run by a man who knows everyone.
Andrew X. Pham, Catfish and Mandala
Pham bicycled across Vietnam in the early 1990s, when the country was very poor. Catfish and Mandala is an excellent account of what Vietnam looked like then, on the cusp of moving from communism to capitalism.
Bao Phi, Sông I Sing
Bao Phi is an angry, radical poet, and I love angry, radical poets. He’s also a spoken word slam champion, and you should really catch him live—but the poems grab you from the page as well.
lê thi diem thúy, The Gangster We Are Looking For
A spare, lyrical novel about a young girl who flees Vietnam and grows up in San Diego, struggling to understand herself and her war-marked parents.
GB Tran, Vietnamerica
A dazzling comic book account of a family shattered by the Vietnam War, their struggles in the United States, and the difficult return to Vietnam. Visually stunning.
Vu Tran, Dragonfish
A burned-out detective goes looking for his Vietnamese ex-wife in the dim, violent world of Las Vegas in a hardboiled detective novel that crosses with the refugee saga. This one kept me up to finish it.
Monique Truong, The Book of Salt
Truong discovered that Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas had a Vietnamese cook. This poetic novel is the imagined life of that Vietnamese cook, caught up in colonialism and a witness to the development of modernist literature.
Ocean Vuong, Night Sky with Exit Wounds
Ocean Vuong is the Walt Whitman of Vietnamese American literature. Lyrical, expansive, sexual, provocative, he sings of the Vietnamese body and of Vietnamese history.
Originally posted on LitHub.
Viet Thanh Nguyen’s novel “The Sympathizer” won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. His short story collection “The Refugees” comes out in February.
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