Since the 2004 publication of her acclaimed short story collection We Should Never Meet, Aimee Phan has proven herself as one of the most talented Vietnamese American authors writing today. After such an impressive literary debut, readers have eagerly awaited her first novel, The Reeducation of Cherry Truong. About this latest book, diaCRITIC Cam Vu writes, “What Phan has done in this novel is work within the parameters of ‘Vietnamese postwar experience’ and yet turned it into an opportunity to expand beyond the tropes of speaking for the voiceless or elucidating the opaque-ness of the difficult past.” Previously, diaCRITICS has featured Aimee Phan’s reflections on selecting a cover for this novel.
In her second major publication and first novel, Aimee Phan has written a complex story centered around the postwar refugee experience as it comes to the understanding of young Cherry Truong, the socially shy and academically inclined American-born daughter of Sanh and Tuyet Truong. Beginning the novel in 2001, Cherry is set to begin medical school at the University of California Irvine and her family is abuzz with the promising social cache of a medical conferral from an esteemed Southern California institution. But while the novel departs from one central character, Cherry, it quickly unfolds into a story about family politics that are irreparably marred by the cruelties of war and the cold calculations of refugee flight. The Reeducation of Cherry Truong traces both sides of Cherry’s family shuttling temporally and spatially between Saigon, Paris, and Southern California as the author takes on the perspectives of Cherry’s far-flung relatives.
The novel early on rehearses several themes that could have easily turned it into a standard narrative about refugee life. Perhaps it is still too early for Vietnamese centered narratives in the West to not be marked by the refugee experience, but it nonetheless can be frustrating to imagine that only a select lot of themes can serve as the vessel for moving forward Vietnamese subjects and their perspectives. What Phan has done in this novel is work within the parameters of “Vietnamese postwar experience” and yet turned it into an opportunity to expand beyond the tropes of speaking for the voiceless or elucidating the opaque-ness of the difficult past.
There is refugee melancholy, the demoralizing diminishment of social status in transition, the emasculation of patriarchs in a new context, the changing dynamics of parent and child hierarchies and in an environment of complex race relations in the global west, there is a peppering of model minority angst posed against the threat of a Vietnamese cultural underclass. However, after laying the groundwork for the context of Cherry’s family–her mother’s in Southern California and her father’s in Paris–the novel begins to do the most interesting work which is to unravel the myth that family loyalty and family love sustains the refugee during times of hardship. This myth isn’t necessarily propagated in contemporary Vietnamese diasporic literature – Nam Le’s short stories about Vietnamese refugee life and le thi diem thuy’s The Gangster We Are All Looking For as well as the fiction of Linda Lê in France have torturously detailed the emotional tolls that family members have exacted upon each other. Rather, Phan’s Cherry Truong takes the myth that family is the backbone of refugee life as it is proselytized by elder Vietnamese to their children and grandchildren and puts it to the unflinching scrutiny of truth and history. As Cherry digs through neglected letters and the reader follows various characters’ actions and words, the choices that led to how one part of the family ended up in Paris and another in the U.S. comes to light. Perhaps, for Cherry, she can finally understand why all the adults in her life have always been so unhappy. Won’t the truth shed light on it all?
In this work, the author has deftly taken the socially accepted wisdom that it is the victims of history whose stories are most worthy of retelling, whose truths must be understood and she exacts a different moral imperative. From Cherry’s perspective, as the first American born child of a long-suffering parents, she comes to realize that the imperative is not so much to rescue history, to preserve it, but to question what value the true past can serve, if one can, after so many convoluted conspirings, even parse out the truth. When considering the affections and feelings of one family member to another, where does the true sentiment lie? Does the true feeling live in the words said by one to another, in the secretive words written out in letters, in the actions of individuals over time, in the feelings those actions elicit? In light of the many betrayals and tribulations that befall the characters in this novel, Phan is able to make a different statement about postwar life than the one that has so readily been given to reading audiences since the end of the war. After suffering the not uncommon chasms that can befall mothers and adolescent daughters, Cherry is taught by her somewhat ego-maniacal grandmother Kim-Ly Vo that “Motherhood does not turn you into some benevolent goddess. We have the same flaws we were born with.” And so it seems, Phan has denuded her refugee characters of the over-determined qualities of eternal sacrifice or selfless generosity, and instead allowed them to exist as complex individuals with internal motivations that cannot so easily be grasped.
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As evidenced in her first work, We Shall Never Meet, Phan here too shows a wonderful ability to lend dimensionality to adolescence. Her younger characters are people learning to comprehend the processes of adults around them while at the same time trying to be in league with them. Cherry, her brother Lum, and her cousins in Paris are remarkably resilient individuals learning how to love imperfect parents and learning how to understand themselves perhaps apart from the lessons they were raised with. Phan is less generous in providing dimensionality to her older characters such as the patriarchal womanizing grandpère Hung or the perpetually scheming and rarely sincere grandmother Vo. If there is a strong critique to be made about her characters, this would be it. And then again, sometimes in life there are those individuals whose walls never come down, even under the careful hand of the omniscient author.
Cam Vu earned her doctorate in American Studies and Ethnicity at USC where she focused on cultural work in the Vietnamese diaspora. Her book project focuses on affects in diasporic communities. Among other things, she loves to write about food.
Aimee Phan grew up in Orange County, California, and now teaches in the MFA Writing Program and Writing and Literature Program at California College of the Arts. A 2010 National Endowment of the Arts Creative Writing Fellow, Aimee received her MFA from the University of Iowa, where she won a Maytag Fellowship. Her first book, We Should Never Meet, was named a Notable Book by the Kiryama Prize in fiction and a finalist for the 2005 Asian American Literary Awards. She has received fellowships from the MacDowell Arts Colony and Hedgebrook. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, Guernica, The Rumpus, and The Oregonian, among others.
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