For Poetry Month, Five Voices from the Vietnamese Diaspora

The Vietnamese diaspora . . . and poetry? Don’t know anything about that? diaCRITIC and poet Kim-An Lieberman gives us the breakdown on five Vietnamese diasporic poets to read in celebration of National Poetry Month.

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The 2011 National Poetry Month poster, designed by Stephen Doyle. Image courtesy of Poets.org.

As observed by bookstores, bookworms, and all kinds of bookish festivity across the U.S. and Canada, April is National Poetry Month. Enter the diaCRITICS poetry roundup! Recently, we featured a review of emerging writer Ocean Vuong, a review of experimental poet Hoa Nguyen, and new work by spoken-word artist Bao Phi. Here are five more contemporary poetic voices from the Vietnamese diaspora to fuel your reading list.

1. Two Shores / Deux Rives (Ronsdale Press, 1995)
by Thuong Vuong-Riddick

Two Shores - Deux RivesBorn in Hanoi in 1940, Thuong Vuong-Riddick moved to Saigon and then to Paris as a young adult before eventually settling in Vancouver, B.C., with her family. Two Shores / Deux Rives is an autobiographical sequence of poems arranged by chronology and geography into three distinct sections: “Vietnam,” “France,” and “Canada.” Like the title, the collection is bilingual, with each poem presented on facing pages in English and in French. Vuong-Riddick’s lyrics are pensive and understated, featuring clear narrative details with an ironic edge. In “The Whirlwind of History,” for instance, she comments on the naïveté of her Montréal university students regarding the concept of national tragedy:

…when La Crise d’Octobre 1970 exploded,
students told me:
“The most tragic episode of our history!”
I thought: “Only one killed!”

Vuong-Riddick offers a personal take on the political complexities and cultural cross-currents that defined 20th-century Vietnam. Great reading for history buffs, language learners, and anyone interested in a better understanding of Vietnamese immigrant experience beyond U.S. borders.

2. The Book of Perceptions (Kearny Street Workshop, 1999)
by Truong Tran, with Chung Hoang Chuong

Poet and visual artist Truong Tran lives and teaches in the San Francisco Bay Area. A member of the 1.5 generation, he came to the U.S. with his family at a young age. His debut collection, The Book of Perceptions, explores the complex emotional terrain of his first return trip to Vietnam. It also represents a creative collaboration with first-generation Vietnamese American artist Chung Hoang Chuong, a longtime educator and activist in the refugee community. Each poem in the book is stripped bare of punctuation, sculpted into a visually compact stanza, and juxtaposed with black-and-white photography from Chuong’s travels in postwar Vietnam. We are challenged to construct meaning from these pairings:

approach it as you will but do so
knowing that the line which
connects the perceptions to the
perceived is crossed with the line
of the needs and necessities and
there at the crossing are the
casualties fragments to stories
some still struggling to find the
beginnings

Together, Tran’s words and Chuong’s images form a sustained meditation on the disconnections–and reconnections–of diaspora, homeland, and identity.

3. Song of the Cicadas (U of Massachusetts Press, 2001)
by Mộng-Lan

Song of the Cicadas

Mộng-Lan is a multitalented poet, painter, photographer, and professional tango dancer currently residing in Buenos Aires. Like Truong Tran, she belongs to the 1.5 generation of early-childhood Vietnamese immigrants, and she also uses poetry to interrogate themes of shifting cultural identity. Song of the Cicadas, her first book, resembles a travel diary. Vivid sensory details evoke street scenes and postcard landscapes from San Francisco to Saigon. The poetic lines literally travel, too, in their placement and spacing across the page:

honey-moon light swoops over the valleys—————————————-
—————————————————upon the Đà Lạt mountains
like squadrons
a man buys two bunches of bananas in half a second————————————

Song of the Cicadas is crafted to achieve a graceful sense of balance. Parallels between distant entities—like the Long Biên Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge, or Vietnam’s colonial past and the present-day tourist’s itinerary—prompt us to consider how deeply and permanently “East” and “West” are intertwined.

4. In the Mynah Bird’s Own Words (Tupelo Press, 2002)
by Barbara Tran

A New York native, Barbara Tran juggles an eclectic dual career as a writer and a certified dog trainer. Her poetry collection In the Mynah Bird’s Own Words offers tightly honed and unflinching observations on how traditional Vietnamese culture has defined family, gender, heritage, and faith. In “Rosary,” a father anticipates his daughter’s wedding with resignation and regret:

He wondered how crowded her new home would be, how long she would have to live with her in-laws, how such a small child would bear a child. He knew she would find it difficult to breathe in the smog-filled streets of Saigon. He closed the trunk for her, knelt down beside her, pressed a bar of gold into her palm.

Tran’s artful poems blend to form one story (or perhaps a handful of kindred stories) about marriage and motherhood in a Vietnamese family. Though the stage is patriarchal, Tran puts her female characters in the spotlight. They are resolute survivors whose memories endure through war, dislocation, and generational change.

5. Borderless Bodies (Factory School, 2006)
by Linh Dinh

Linh Dinh‘s writing is unmistakable. Raw, transgressive, darkly humorous, politically charged: from prose to verse in both Vietnamese and English, he jolts readers right out of their comfortable seats. Dinh’s third book of poems, Borderless Bodies, tackles physicality and materialism in contemporary popular culture using explicit body-related symbols like prosthetic limbs, artists’ models, and sex dolls. In “Menu,” unexpected use of the word “meat” conjures the visceral nature of female objectification:

Talcum powdered meat.
Meat arrayed with trinkets.
Meat back lit by red strobe lights.
Meat photographed from below.
Meat admiring self, photographed from below.
Touched up meat universally applauded.
Free ranging meat suddenly subdued.

An experienced translator, Dinh is also playing with glosses. The Vietnamese word “thịt” means both “flesh” and “meat” in English. The former is a familiar way to talk about human desire; the latter transforms erotic lust into something carnivorous and predatory. Dinh does not let us take vocabulary for granted. His poems force a more vibrant, more dangerous language.

Several anthologies also highlight Vietnamese poets in the diaspora, including Watermark: Vietnamese American Poetry and Prose (coedited by Barbara Tran) and From Both Sides Now: The Poetry of the Vietnam War and Its Aftermath (featuring almost all of the folks named above, plus many other noteworthy poets of Vietnamese heritage like Christian Langworthy, Bao-Long Chu, lê thi diem thúy, Trinh T. Minh-ha, and original diacritic Richard Streitmatter-Tran). For broader historical context, check out An Anthology of Vietnamese Poems from the Eleventh through the Twentieth Centuries, translated and edited by the late great Huỳnh Sanh Thông.

Kim-An Lieberman hails mostly from Seattle and holds a Ph.D. in English, specializing in Vietnamese American literature, from the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of Breaking the Map: Poems. More info at her website.

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4 Responses to For Poetry Month, Five Voices from the Vietnamese Diaspora

  1. kalieberman says:

    P.S. Shout-out to poets in our midst! diaCRITICS Anhvu Buchanan and Julie Thi Underhill are fabulous poetry people, too.

  2. These are going on my to-read list.

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