Reviews / November 2012 (Issue 19)

History through Literature: Mỹ Việt: Vietnamese American Literature in English, 1962-Present

by William B. Noseworthy


Michelle Janette (editor), Mỹ Việt: Vietnamese American Literature in English, 1962-Present, University of Hawai'i Press, 2011. 250 pgs.

The advantage of studying literature set in a historical frame is that it not only enlightens the human experience, but it also provides a method of reconnecting to the past, bridging gaps and ruptures and leading, ideally, to a better understanding of history. As Michelle Janette writes in her introduction to Mỹ Việt[i]: Vietnamese American Literature, 1962-Present, the anthology "challenges the hegemony of conservative ideology as the only Vietnamese American ideology." As such, Janette's work fits well within developments in the study of Vietnamese history and literature, as many scholars in the field have recently sought to reconsider the hegemonies of the past. Such reconsiderations include Liam Kelley's perhaps politically controversial but historically grounded assertions that the days of early Vietnamese/ethnic Kinh[ii] culture were certainly not as separable from Southern Chinese culture, as histories have claimed.

Indeed, the relatively simplified, yet accessible, construction of an unified Vietnamese history, wherein the Vietnamese people slowly but surely fought off all foreign invasions—from the Han dynasty, the American-Vietnamese War, the Khmer Rouge and the Sino-Vietnamese conflict (1979)—has been challenged in the past decade by scholars such as Keith Taylor, Li Tana, Momiko Shiro and Anthony Reid and Nhung Tuyết Trần. Vietnamese poetry and literary essays in translation have also found new life in publications by the New Formalism Poetry Publishing House (Nhà Xuất Bản Tân Hình Thức), put out by the accomplished poet and editor Khế Iêm. Janette's work contributes to these trends in Vietnamese Studies (Việt Nam Học), by collecting pieces, which read together, flesh out the nuances and multiplicities of a population that includes Vietnamese sojourners (Việt Kiều), overseas Vietnamese (Việt Hải Ngoại), refugees (tỵ nạn), deportees (người tống khứ) and Americans with Vietnamese roots (Mỹ gốc Việt). This brief summary only begins to touch upon the momentous effort Janette has undertaken by putting all these voices together in one place.

To compile the canon of Vietnamese literature would be a difficult task. Such a collection might begin with traditional six-eight verse (lục bát), then move through Huỳnh Sanh Thông's classic translation of The Tale of Kiều, Nguyễn Nguyệt Cẩm and Peter Zimoman's translation of Vũ Trọng Phụng's Dumb Luck and end with the poetry of Khế Iêm. On this timeline, the works presented in Mỹ Việt would fall somewhere near the end. Janette's anthology represents one of the more rigorous samplings of Vietnamese American works to date and includes several somewhat surprising additions. Perhaps the most interesting of these are selections from the late Nguyễn Cao Kỳ's Twenty Years and Twenty Days (1976), Trần Văn Đôn's Our Endless War Inside Vietnam (1978) and Bùi Điệm's In The Jaws of History (1987). Together these pieces may represent an old guard of writers who were highly educated, relied deeply on international connections and although often critical of American foreign policy, were also occasionally the lifeblood that pulsed through the Saigon regime. Even though each selection provides points that are historically debateable, they add value to Janette's collection through complex arguments presented as rich, descriptive memoir.

While the narratives of Nguyễn Cao Kỳ, Trần Văn Đôn and Bùi Điệm can be appreciated for their subtle rhetorical examinations, the contributions of Nguyễn Văn Vũ and Andrew Lam should be read side by side for the stark contrast in their authors' personal experiences. The excerpt from Nguyễn Văn Vũ's At Home in America, first published in 1979, is a real life recounting of the American dream. It finishes with a true dream ending, although one that may even be disappearing for established Americans, let alone immigrants: the right to have a mortgaged home. Not one that is fully paid-up, mind you, simply mortgaged. Originally written in 2005, Andrew Lam's "The Stories They Carried" offers a much different view of the Vietnamese American experience, and it ends with Lam's critique of the reality of the American Dream: "Recoiling from our idealism, we Americans tell ourselves 'homeless' is now an inherent part of the New Disorderly world and something out of our control."

A disorderly world out of control is not, however, only a complaint by contemporary conservative political elites, but also, as so many of the pieces in Janette's Mỹ Việt demonstrate, the reality of much Vietnamese American history. Drug abuse, homophobia, racism, starvation, ideological persecution, sexism, gang life and the destruction of war and trauma are all reflected upon in Janette's collection, perhaps in hopes that the expression of these experiences will be therapeutic for both authors and readers.

As the collection moves forward in history, the literary approaches seem to shift, becoming freer and progressing towards a mode Janette terms "testimonials." In the concluding portions of the Mỹ Việt, we encounter poems including selections from Trương Tran's first collection placing the accents (1999), Mộng Lan's Song of the Cicadas (2001), Barbara Tran's In the Minah Birds Own Words (2002) and Kim Anh Lieberman's Breaking the Map (2008). The anthology concludes with a previously unpublished selection of Qui Nguyen's play Living Dead in Denmark and Khan Ho's previously unpublished short narrative "It Was His Story."

In the end, Janette has undertaken a quite difficult task in Mỹ Việt—one that not only involves being fair to the experience of history, but also moving beyond "the master narratives of war and immigration." And taken together these pieces do manage to offer an important, multi-faceted and deep understanding of Vietnamese history. But Janette also argues that these writing "represent some of the best writings in contemporary American literature." They certainly offer a very strong representation of Vietnamese American literature. While some may argue that Mỹ Việt is simply too small to encompass the entirety of Vietnamese-American literature, the volume, perhaps, at least represents a sampling of the best of the best.

[i] Mỹ refers to America. Việt refers to Vietnam.

[ii] Kinh is the formal Vietnamese word used to refer to ethnic Vietnamese. Less formally, Việt is used.

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