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Viet Nam Generation Journal & Newsletter

V3, N4 (January 1992)

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Fiction: Vietnamese Exile Writers

Renny Christopher, English Department, California State University at Stanislaus

There is a growing body of fiction in English by Vietnamese exile writers. The most striking thing about these writers, taken as a group, is their desire to keep their pasts alive in the present. Rather than writing about experiences of assimilation in their new cultures (whether the U.S. or France), they focus on the past. For this reason I call them "exile writers" rather than "immigrant writers." Their works should be required reading for any American interested in the war shared by the U.S. and Viet Nam.

Tran Van Dinh's first English-language novel, No Passenger on the River was published in 1965 (NY: Vantage Press), but it is his second that I want to address here. Blue Dragon , White Tiger: A Tet Story (Philadelphia: TriAm Press, 1983) is a novel about biculturality and identity, about the penetration of Western culture into Viet Nam, about one Vietnamese man negotiating his own identity, and his country's, and coming to find that, ironically, he can only be "truly Vietnamese" in exile in the West.

Offering a self-image that counters Western orientalist images of Vietnamese is Dinh's project. He presents Viet Nam and Vietnamese culture unmediated by Western stereotypical perceptions; even while he is striving to translate that culture for a Western audience to understand, he refuses to alter or adulterate his own perceptions of his homeland. The characters of the novel contradict themselves and each other, their lives are too consumed with the very conflicts of "east vs. west" in the form of trying to adapt Marxism to their Confucian society, for them to be seen as stereotypical inscrutable Asians of the type who usually appear in Viet Nam war fiction.

The novel's main character is Professor Tran Van Minh, who is suspended between two cultures. As the novel opens in 1967, he is living in the United States, teaching at a college in Massachusetts, having been away from Viet Nam for most of his adult life. By the end of the novel, Minh will have participated in the National Liberation Front's struggle for liberation, and in its triumph in 1975, but he will have become disillusioned, and decided that, "Only with freedom can I be a Vietnamese, can I appreciate the Vietnamese culture, wherever I may be" (310). He turns the revolution against itself with his decision to leave, saying, "I shall remain independent and free, according to your advice, respected Uncle Ho" (305).

Minh's quest throughout the novel is a quest for identity. His identity is never singular, but always multiple. He is Professor Tran Van Minh in both America and Viet Nam, but he is also the poet Co Tung (a pseudonym meaning "Lone Pine Tree").

This novel will seem a little alien to most American readers, operating as it does on fate (in the persons of the three women in Minh's life), and with a narrative style that some readers may find annoying. But it is a deliberately crafted, carefully constructed novel with a didactic purpose; it will repay the careful reader well. (It's become one of my favorite novels on the war).

This Side, The Other Side, by Minh Duc Hoai Trinh (Montrose, CA: Occidental Press, 1985) is a novel in English by a writer living in France. It is an interesting novel that displaces the political conflicts of the war onto familial conflicts and reconciliations.

According to the biographical information appended to the novel, Trinh, the daughter of a mandarin, was born in Hue. She was involved in the war against the French, then went to France in 1953 to study journalism. In 1964 she returned to Viet Nam as a journalist, eventually going to Paris to cover the peace negotiations from 1968-74, after which she became a professor at the Buddhist University Van Hanh. She now lives in Paris, and was once president of the P.E.N. Center of Vietnamese Writers Abroad.

Like Tran Van Dinh, Trinh's class attitudes inform her writing. The main character, Bui, is a peasant from a village near Hue who is seduced by a middle-class man who takes her to Hue and educates her, then leaves her, but provides for her by sending her to a friend, the widow of an ARVN general, in Saigon. Bui becomes a bar girl (but not a prostitute), and with her earnings is able to bring her family to Saigon, but on a trip back to Hue to exhume the remains of Bui's father, Bui's mother and younger brother are killed during the Tet offensive of 1968. Although Trinh has made the main characters of her novel peasants she presents their opportunity to move into the middle class as a positive event that almost makes the war worthwhile. Trinh's novel is a romance; her notion of peasants and peasant life is a romantic one, as can be seen in a scene where Bui and her mother and other peasants work to empty a fish pond for a wealthy woman, in which the tireless peasants work with unflagging cheer.

A parallel plot to Bui's story is that of her brother, Thuong, who has been drafted by "the other side." Thuong, the peasant, is the communists' ideal man, but Loc, the son of the middle class, while devoid of socialist fervor, is the humanitarian who takes care of Thuong when he suffers bouts of malaria (58). It is Loc, who, after Thuong's death in the Offensive, eventually meets Bui and her surviving siblings, and takes Thuong's place as their older brother and protector.

Thuong dies and Loc is wounded in the Tet Offensive of 1968. Loc becomes a Hoi Chanh (a defector). He finally finds a sense of belonging when he meets Thuong's now-bourgeois family in Saigon. Loc has unsuccessfully tried to become a peasant; Thuong's sister Bui and her family have successfully made the transition to middle class. Trinh clearly sees upward mobility as the only possible direction, and, in her analysis, this makes communism an impossible system for Viet Nam.

This Side, The Other Side is, by Western standards, not a very compelling novel. The characters are flat, point of view shifts appear from nowhere, and the writing seems simplistic. It's a romance, in both the Vietnamese and Western senses of the term. Nonetheless, it is interesting for the apolitical way it deals with the subject of the war.

Vo Phien was a professor of literature and a publisher in Viet Nam, a prolific author and the winner of the Vietnamese National Literary prize. He came to the U.S. in 1975, and is the founder and editor of Van Hoc Nghe Thuat, a literary journal published in Vietnamese. Three of his stories, as translated by Huynh San Thong, Phan Phan, and Vo-Dinh Mai, appear in the collection Landscape and Exile , edited by Marguerite Bouvard (Boston: Rowan Tree Press, 1985).

"A Spring of Quiet and Peace" addresses the issue of adjusting to the new climateliteral and figurativeof America. The story begins with a nostalgic scene portraying the "peanut-husking bee" at Tet "[b]ack home" (1). A second section describes the narrator's current situationliving in Minnesota, where it is sub-zero and snowing. The physical landscape of America disrupts his cultural landscape; he fears he will not be able to celebrate Tet under these conditions.

The narrator constructs the alien landscape of America as a barrier to the preservation of his traditional customs. This sentiment is typical of Vietnamese exile literaturethis narrator wishes to preserve his culture, and adapt it to his new landscape, rather than to shed it like an old skin and assimilate to a new culture.

He experiences further cultural dislocations when spring finally comes, and young women sunbathe nude or nearly-nude. He also sees more painful paradoxes, when he meditates on what the arrival of spring will mean to him, not only without Vietnamese cultural markers, but also without the war, whose absence allows him real freedom.

The tone of this story is one of grief for all the things lost in exile, things that the wonders of the new land can't compensate for, and, most of all, the damage inflicted on the human soul by a feeling of rootlessness. To be in exile is, for this narrator, to be "outside the circle of all cares and concerns;" no longer a member of his old culture, and not yet a member of the new.

"The Key" is a wrenching story that speaks of the ties that continue to bind the exiles to their home country, and the regrets that the refugees will carry with them for life. The narrator hears a story from a man who tells of his family's decision to leave behind his senile 93-year old father. The family has left money and valuables locked in a wardrobeany family member who does not get out will use this wealth to care for the old man, or if all family members escape, neighbors will be given the wealth and asked to care for him. But the man discovers, when he is on his escape boat out at sea, that he has mistakenly taken the key to the wardrobe with him. Those left behind will have to smash the wardrobe, which will disturb and upset his elderly father.

The key thus becomes the symbol for the regrets the refugees carry. Because the refugees cannot return home, they have no second chances. All their actions are locked into permanence, irrevocable, unmalleable. The key, rather than symbolizing the possibility of openings, of new beginnings, symbolizes for the exiles the closing, the locking up of their past. The past has become unreachable, except in memory. The refugees can play their scenes of regret over and over in memory, but cannot reach back through the locked door of exile to right what they perceive to be the wrongs they have done.

It is interesting that, despite the fact that Phien writes in Vietnamese, and publishes in Vietnamese-language magazines in the U.S., his stories are marked by phrases like, "in my country....". Phien, like the Vietnamese exile writers who publish in English, seems to be trying to reach a Euro-American audience, and educate them about the place that he still considers to be "my country"Viet Nam. Phien, like many other exile writers from many countries, is isolated from his native language. At least one other writer wants to reach an English-speaking audience. Tran Dieu Hang, a writer who has published Vietnamese-language novels in the U.S., has told me that she wants very much to publish in English, but feels she can only write effectively in her native language. A scholar at Schreiner college, Qui -Phiet Tran, is writing a study of Tran Dieu Hang's work. His study is being written in English. Who knows how many writers of their generation may be in the same position?

But there is now emerging in the U.S. a generation of young Vietnamese American writers who have grown up in America, but who carry the heritage of the Vietnamese experience of the war. Elizabeth Gordon is one of these; she is the daughter of a Vietnamese mother and a GI father. Her story "On the Other Side of the War" appears in the anthology Home to Stay: Asian American Women's Fiction (edited by Sylvia Watanabe and Elizabeth Bruchac, Greenfield Center, NY: Greenfield Review Press, 1990). This story focuses on the question of American racial identity. Gordon's is really a very slight story, although clearly the product of a talented young writer. If she continues to write, she may produce a very interesting body of work.

There are others who are writing, and perhaps publishing on a local level (for example, two writers in my area, Lucille Hanh Clark and Hue-Thanh Bergevin, are both publishing in campus publications and both working on novels). Someday soon, we will see a new generation of Vietnamese exile writers at work.

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