Genaro Kỳ Lý Smith’s debut book, The Land Baron’s Sun, is difficult to categorize. It’s poetry for sure, but each poem is also a narrative that stands on its own very much like a short story. Additionally, each story can be linked together as part of a larger arc that can be read as a novel. This all is problematized by the fact that the book is based on Smith’s grandfather, the title character Lý Loc, and the Vietnam War. Confidently, The Land Baron’s Sun plays with the lines between lyric, fiction, biography, and history. This is, however, not to the detriment of the book. Indeed, its mixing of genres speaks to the fragmentation and displacement of lives that are the inevitable results of the war.
The book starts with the peaceful lives of Lý Loc, a land baron in South Vietnam, and his seven wives. The prologue, “In This House of Snails,” captures the family’s wealth and carefree lifestyle. Here, food is plentiful—“the wives speak of the garden’s lush growth—/how they will have abundance/during the monsoon season”—and so is the gossip. The poem and the book’s numerous flashbacks are nostalgic in tone and evoke pre-war Vietnam. Lý Loc, essentially a landowner of the elite class, is believed to “make the sun come down/and show its crown.” His wives—sheltered as they are—worry about the weather; they worry about sex and jealousy; they reminisce about love and think about “all the great things their child will do.”
This tranquility, however, is threatened by unrest throughout the country, and by the next poem, “View from the Veranda: An Elegy For Chan,” the mood in broken as Saigon falls “on a day too gray for April.” The family’s Chinese servant is abducted and killed. Ly Loc himself is arrested and brought to a re-education camp. The once intact family is scattered both in Vietnam and in the United States.
The Land Baron’s Sun is not that different from many stories about Vietnam and the displacement of its diaspora. What Smith does well, and what makes his work unique, is that he weaves the story of war and the diaspora with the history of Vietnam and its people. To Smith, Vietnam is not a war, it is a country with a culture and history. The war is a chapter, not the only thing of interest and certainly not the end.
In the poems, for instance, the War is seen as a natural point in the cycle of history. Smith frames the War as a mandate of heaven, the Chinese—and eventually Vietnamese—belief that the gods granted the right to rule and controlled dynastic changes. The Fall of Saigon is described as “columns of black smoke pyr[ing] and spiral[ing] upward,/informing Heaven our failure in keeping the kingdom.” In “Providence,” South Vietnamese President Ngô Đình Diệm sees the coup that will kill him and observes, “God sent men wearing uniforms from heaven/….sent them floating/to His cathedral to retrieve what He gave,/recoup Heaven’s losses to restore His home[.]” To Diệm, a Catholic, it is “an exodus/not found in the Bible, but one mandated by Heaven[.]” This metaphor echoes with succinct imagery in the next poem, “The False Flight of Angels,” where the speaker, an officer in the South Vietnamese Army, captures, tortures, and kills Việt Cộng soldiers. The speaker notes:
…I filled the South China Sea
with the bodies of angels whose wings I had clipped
and tied behind their backs in case God gifted His angels
with the providence needed to take flight once again
to fill our nightmares with their dizzying, havoc-driven patterns.
Smith inflates his war imagery with the fantastic and apocalyptic. The result is unlike anything seen in poetry about the Vietnam War. The war becomes surreal and frightening, but it also uses the vocabulary of Vietnamese traditions. Removed from this story is a focus on American involvement and the politics of the Cold War era. What is left is the emotional lives of the Vietnamese. In this way, Smith writes a wholly Vietnamese story.
This extends through his investigation of the war’s aftermath both in newly communist Vietnam and abroad. In “A Museum of Trees,” a repressed artist and his wife (one of Ly Loc’s wives) hang paintings in mai trees at night, so that when the flowers close their blooms at night, they “expose the paintings” though “no one looks up anymore.” In “The Land of Dead Children,” single Vietnamese mothers struggle to raise their mixed race children:
Every day [the children] go out, their hair brown or red, string or curly,
Afros their mother never learned to comb and treat or plait.
They go out with eyes green or black, skin freckled, tanner, noses winder,
and the only thing they have of their mothers’ are the eyes
Of interest, too, are the poems about the lives of those who migrate to the Deep South of America. In Port Arthur, TX, immigrant fishermen watch a “parade of boats brandishing burning crosses/to ward off the Negro and Asian fisherman,” an allusion to the Ku Klux Klan. In Ruston, LA, after refusing to convert to Christianity, a Vietnamese family find their garden uprooted and “words like gooks and slopes accompanied with go home spray-painted on [their] driveway[.]”
Of course, this last theme could have been explored more in-depth, but undoubtedly—one can hope—the author is already writing works about Vietnamese Americans in the South. (To date, this is an under-examined dimension in American literature, and only Smith’s book and Monique Truong’s Bitter in the Mouth comes to mind.) What we have here, though, is no small feat. Smith’s book amazingly packs the complexity of character and plot and the emotional intensity of poetry into a very condensed space. At the same time, it is rich saga and history of a place and its people. With The Land Baron’s Sun, Smith makes a remarkable debut that marks him as fascinating voice in American letters. It will be interesting to see what he will publish next.
Buy the book here.
Eric Nguyen is a writer from Maryland. He has a degree in sociology from the University of Maryland along with a certificate in LGBT Studies. He is currently an MFA candidate at McNeese State University and lives in Louisiana.
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