Viet Thanh Nguyen is a member of PIVOT and the author of “Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War” and, most recently, the short story collection “The Refugees.”
The piece below was published in The Opinion Pages of The New York Times on May 2, 2017.
In 1967, Le Ly Hayslip, then known as Phung Thi Le Ly, was a teenager living and working in Da Nang. A peasant girl who had survived war and rape in her rural village, she had migrated to Da Nang to escape persecution from both Vietnamese Communists and anti-Communists. In 1972 she married an American and moved to the United States, and in 1989 she would publish her powerful autobiographical account of being caught between two sides, “When Heaven and Earth Changed Places.” In 2017, it remains perhaps the only first-person book in English about the experiences of Vietnamese villagers caught in the crossfire of the Vietnam War. In her life and work, Ms. Hayslip embodies my broad definition of what it means to be Vietnamese, an identity that includes those in Vietnam or in the diaspora, as well as those who write in Vietnamese or in other languages, in this case English.
I came across her book as a college student at Berkeley in the early 1990s. It moved me deeply, not only because it was a compelling memoir, but also because it was one of the few books in English by a Vietnamese writer. (Co-written, in her case, with Jay Wurts.) Searching for my own history as a Vietnamese refugee brought to the United States by an American war in my country of origin, I had not found much available to me in English, either in the original or in translation. The overwhelming amount of American writing about the war was by Americans, and it was, not surprisingly, about Americans.
There were a few exceptions. Tran Van Dinh was a former diplomat from the South, the Republic of Vietnam, who stayed in America and wrote two novels dealing with the Vietnam War, “No Passenger on the River” (1965) and “Blue Dragon, White Tiger” (1983). As a precocious child who read everything I could about the war, I came across the latter in the public library of San Jose, Calif., my hometown, and was puzzled by its anomalousness. Even then I knew that it was rare to find Vietnamese writers in the United States speaking about this war, or to hear any Vietnamese voices at all in mainstream America.
Immersed in the stories, feelings and memories of the Vietnamese refugee community in which I grew up, I was determined to tell some of those stories, for I knew that Americans as a whole knew very little about them. Only a small cadre of Americans believed that it was necessary and urgent to learn more about Vietnamese voices and experiences, without which a more complete American understanding of the Vietnam War would never happen. American ignorance of Vietnamese history, culture and politics helped draw the United States into a war and a country that it did not comprehend. This pattern of ignorance arguably continues today, both in terms of what Americans continue to ignore about Vietnam and what Americans refuse to know about the Middle East. Literature plays an important role as a corrective to this ignorance.
Thinking back to Tran Van Dinh, I wonder if he was lonely as the only Vietnamese novelist in America of his time. Now we have no shortage of Vietnamese Americans writing in English, as well as translations of Vietnamese-language literature into English. But a lack of knowledge that this literature even exists continues. For most Americans and the world, “Vietnam” means the “Vietnam War,” and the Vietnam War means the American war, with novels written by American men about American soldiers. While their experiences are important, they are hardly representative of the Vietnam War, much less Vietnam.
As the writer Le Thi Diem Thuy and so many others have said, time and again, Vietnam is a country, not a war. One need only read the short story collection “The General Retires,” by the masterful Nguyen Huy Thiep, to understand this. His stories reveal the complexities of postwar life in a disillusioned Vietnam, struggling to rebuild itself and to reconcile the hypocrisies and failures of Vietnamese people and the Vietnamese state with the noble wartime rhetoric of the Communist Party. At the same time, war defined a generation, and its consequences have shaped the generation after, as Ms. Thuy reveals in “The Gangster We Are All Looking For.”
This lyrical novel tells the story of a young refugee girl in San Diego whose family is haunted by the soldier father’s trauma and the death of her brother, lost in the refugee flight. Like much of Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American literature dealing with the war, her novel shows that war affects more than soldiers or men. The Vietnam War was not remarkable in killing more civilians than soldiers, and in turning millions of civilians into refugees whose experiences were much more traumatic than those of the many American soldiers who never actually saw combat. Vietnamese-American literature forces its readers to acknowledge that a narrow definition of war that features only soldiers is inaccurate.
Over and over, Vietnamese-American literature shows the war’s traumatic effect on civilians and refugees (Vu Tran’s gangster noir, “Dragonfish,” or Aimee Phan’s “We Should Never Meet,” about Vietnamese and Amerasian orphans, or Lan Cao’s “The Lotus and the Storm,” which connects the Vietnam War to the Iraq War, or Nguyen Qui Duc’s “Where the Ashes Are,” about the imprisonment of the author’s father, a South Vietnamese governor); its devastating reshaping of postwar Vietnamese life (Andrew X. Pham’s memoir about biking through the country, “Catfish and Mandala”; or Linh Dinh’s scabrous satire of economic corruption in Saigon, “Love Like Hate”; or Quan Barry’s “She Weeps Each Time You’re Born,” about a seer’s remarkable talent to feel the pain of survivors); its haunting presence in the diaspora’s second generation (Thi Bui’s powerful illustrated memoir, “The Best We Could Do”; or Dao Strom’s novel “Grass Roof, Tin Roof,” about a Vietnamese woman who marries an American man and the impact of the marriage on their children; or Bich Minh Nguyen’s memoir of growing up in the Midwest, “Stealing Buddha’s Dinner”; or Andrew Lam’s “Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora”); or its foreshadowing in the Vietnamese past (Monique Truong’s “The Book of Salt,” about the Vietnamese cook of Gertrude Stein and his encounter with Ho Chi Minh; or Duong Van Mai Elliott’s “The Sacred Willow: Four Generations in the Life of a Vietnamese Family”).
The list goes on. The literature by Vietnamese and Vietnamese-Americans is out there for anyone who knows how to use Google. But so many here and abroad would rather not know, or when a new Vietnamese author is published, would prefer to say, “At last! A voice for the Vietnamese!” In fact, there are so many voices, for the Vietnamese people are very loud. They just often aren’t heard by those who don’t understand Vietnamese, or those who would prefer to think of Americans when they hear the word “Vietnam,” or those who have room in their course syllabuses for only one Vietnamese book, as is still the case in too many college classes on the Vietnam War, even if that one book is as worthy as Bao Ninh’s novel “The Sorrow of War.” This book is not just a North Vietnamese war classic — it is a classic war novel of any time and any place.
As for the Communist Party of Vietnam, it, too, would rather not hear certain voices. Even Bao Ninh is silenced now, as is his great compatriot, Duong Thu Huong, the disillusioned northern veteran who was exiled for her disturbing postwar anti-Communist novels, books like “Novel Without a Name” and “Paradise of the Blind.” As for Vietnamese-American voices, while we are occasionally heard here — and then often forgotten — we are rarely heard in Vietnam. We are the losers, the traitors, the dissidents or simply the outsiders who see the nothingness behind a party that praises Communism while running the country as a capitalist dictatorship.
Like Le Ly Hayslip, we are caught between sides, Vietnam and America, Vietnamese and English, Communism and capitalism. As difficult as such a situation is, it is good for writers. The discomfort makes us write our stories, again and again, in the hope that we can change what people think of when they hear “Vietnam.”