What does it mean for Vietnamese Americans to be “beyond the war”? A featured writer on diaCRITICS for her new book, this is all i choose to tell, Isabelle Thuy Pelaud gives us a deeper look and insightful commentary on three Vietnamese Americans – Truong Tran, recently featured in Lieberman’s piece of diasporic poetry; Monique Truong, whose second novel was reviewed in diaCRITICS; and new filmmaker Mark Tran – and how they creatively engage with being “Beyond the War.”
For a full recording of both the discussion and the Q&A as well as pictures take a look at Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program’s page.
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On April 14, I had the honor of moderating a panel titled “Beyond the War: Vietnamese American Film and Literature Envision a New Homeland.” This panel explored Vietnamese American cultural production from those artists who might not have memories of Vietnam and others who wish to examine issues, https://dvanonline.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post-new.phpstories and genres that are not centered on the refugee experience. “In doing so,” a blurb publicizing the event says, “they add compellingly new layers to what it means to be an American”.
According to the organizer, the event was unusually well attended, by about 100 people. Welcoming remarks were made by Gina Inocencio from the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program and Ban Tran from the Vietnamese American Heritage Project. Staying close to the panel theme, I followed by first discussing briefly the pressure Vietnamese American writers and filmmakers encounter to authenticate themselves through the Vietnam War then introducing the three artists as individuals who tend to resist or ignore such expectations.
Monique Truong, author of The Book of Salt (2003) and Bitter in the Mouth (2010), read a carefully crafted introduction to her latest book and an excerpt from the book. The story is told from the perspective of a young woman with a rare condition that makes her associate words with the taste of particular food items. Truong Tran, author of Placing the Accent (1999), dust and conscience (2002), within the margin (2004) and four letter words (2008), read a section from four letter words that addresses the politics of language, writing and society in general. He used pornography as a metaphor for society’s ills, pointing that there is more pornography in politics than in pornography itself. He showed images of his artwork that responds to four letter words. Although I had heard him speak numerous times in San Francisco, his work took on a different dimension in Washington DC. I thought he was brave. Finally, Mark Tran showed a trailer for his movie, All About Dad (2008), that is about issues between first and second generation Vietnamese Americans. He stated that he created stories that are meaningful to his life.
Following their presentation, I asked the panelists questions that pertained to the theme of the event. Truong Tran said that for him good art resists expectations, and he purposefully works against mainstream pressure to deliver a certain kind of refugee story. He has hardly any memory of Vietnam and what interests him today is abstract art that, in part, contests such expectations and speaks of issues related to sexuality. He eloquently talked about the problems of claiming to represent an authentic identity and insisted upon the idea that a single story cannot possibly represent a group of people.
Monique Truong agreed with the poet and shared a “demoralizing” story with the audience to illustrate his point. After The Book of Salt was published and became a national bestseller and a recipient of numerous awards, she said she felt confident. Until one day she received an e-mail from the New York Times who asked her to write an Op-Ed piece in relation to a law proposed in Hawaii that severely criminalized the practice of eating dogs and cats. The editor of the New York Times asked her if she could write an essay that defends the practice of eating dogs! She was shocked that one of the very best newspapers in the country only saw her as a representative of a country where people eat dogs. One of her white colleague with similar interests and credentials was asked a few months later by the same paper to write a piece on the positive aspects of allowing dogs to be off leash in city parks. Because she is from Vietnam, she was asked to defend the value of hating dogs, and because he is white and recognizably American, he was asked to write about the value of loving dogs. In other words, a successful Vietnamese female writer with a law degree from Yale was called upon to represent the so-called “uncivilized” and the White male writer was called to represent the so-called “civilized.” The vivid reminder of her location as a minority in the national cultural terrain hurt her deeply.
Speaking about his movie All About Dad, young Mark Tran talked about the importance of believing in oneself and following one’s interest. His work focuses more on the immigrant experience than that of refugees, and the family tensions between first and second generation Vietnamese Americans. When I showed the movie to my Vietnamese American literature class last week at SFSU, Chinese and Filipino American students could relate to it. Vietnamese American students also loved it, as they rarely see themselves at the movies. They were also somewhat relieved that nobody died or was physically hurt. But my students were also concerned about his ability to make a living as a filmmaker because of the lack of mainstream interest for a story that neither speaks directly to the Vietnam War nor replicates Asian American stereotypes. As we shared a flight the next day, Mark said that four years after completing the film, he is still looking for funding to make his next movie, a follow-up to All About Dad. The story relates what happened after the parents pass away and the adult children return home and revisit memories of childhood and teenage years in the United States. He attributes the difficulty of finding financial support to the poor economic conditions at the moment.
The Q&A session was lively and people in the audience stayed until the end. A young woman insisted with passion that Vietnamese American experience and history were extremely important – Monique Truong and Truong Tran did not disagree but also stated that there are many other experiences associated with being Vietnamese American and they do not want to be restricted to only one. It should be all right for a Vietnamese American to be a fiction writer and write from the perspectives of people of different backgrounds. Another person addressed the future of Vietnamese Americans in regard to assimilation. I pointed to the difference between immigrants and refugees and noted that a large number of Vietnamese American texts turn to Vietnam as reference. The last question came from an older Vietnamese American man who said that he was glad that the artists on the panel were not preoccupied with survival and could talk about their feelings openly, but asked if they visited Vietnam and advised them not to forget their roots. All three reassured him that they had visited Vietnam, although they did not feel fully Vietnamese there. This is not something they can be blamed for.
After reading and discussion came the book-signing. Everyone seemed invigorated by the event. Toward the end of the evening a young white man came to Mark Tran (who was sitting next to me) and told him that his Asian American girlfriend shared similar issues with being bicultural (with her parents) and that he was trying hard to understand her struggles. Mark, who went to San Jose State University and grew up in the Bay area, did not answer that it was very nice of him to make this effort, but rather responded that his white friends were also feeling like a minority. This moment of miscommunication made me smile. Mark does not resist racism or the weight of the Vietnam War syndrome consciously in his work (although he does by virtue of the topic he explores) because he does not feel like a minority. At 26 and almost fresh out of college, he is not concerned with the forces he is working against. He does not seem to see them. This promising young filmmaker (he wrote the script of All About Dad when he was nineteen) needs the support of his community.
But I had other reasons to be smiling. Here I was at the Smithsonian, having spent all day at a museum with two artists whose works and ways of beings I respect highly, and having just moderated a panel framed around my book on Vietnamese American literature This Is All I Choose to Tell: History and Hybridity in Vietnamese American Literature (2011). The argument I made there about the relationship between Vietnamese American cultural production audience expectation was demonstrated by the artist stories and comments, and generated acute interest and debates. My work was relevant and I hope useful to the development of Vietnamese American cultural production on one’s own terms.
Isabelle Thuy Pelaud is an Associate Professor of Asian American Studies at San Francisco State University, and founder of the Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network (DVAN). Her first monograph, this is all i choose to tell: Hybridity and History in Vietnamese American Literature, was just published by Temple University Press. Her academic work can be found in Mixed Race Literature, The New Face of Asian Pacific America, Amerasia Journal, and the Michigan Quarterly Review. Her essays and short stories have been published in Making More Waves, Tilting the Continent, and Vietnam Dialogue Inside/Out.
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