Editor’s Picks: Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Top Ten Most Critical

I had this idea for a blog on Vietnamese/diasporic arts, culture, and politics sometime in the early spring of this year. I knew it wasn’t something I wanted to do on my own, and part of the fun of managing the blog has been seeing all the different ideas, viewpoints, and discoveries of the writers. Looking back over the hundred or so posts that we’ve put up since May, it’s clear that there are a lot of contenders for an end of the year top ten. Julie and Bao have already picked many of them, so for the most part, I ruled out the posts that they chose with two exceptions that are so strong I think they bear being on multiple lists.

Julie Thi Underhill's 'Democratic Kampuchea's Genocide of the Cham'

Those would be Eye Level: The Photographs of Jamie Maxtone-Graham, where the images of everyday people in all their stark ordinariness really speak for themselves, and Julie Thi Underhill’s Democratic Kampuchea’s Genocide of the Cham. This post set the all time record for the most hits in a single day, and vaulted immediately into our all time top ten. The post brings up issues that are fundamental to any discussion of what “Viet Nam” or “Vietnamese” might mean, which to my mind involve far more than any feel-good ethnic or national sentimentality or affirmation of identity and culture. Instead, the post shows how questions of power, domination, imperialism, genocide, and ethnic discrimination and subordination course through the history of Viet Nam and the Vietnamese and link them so intimately to minorities and neighbors.

Another set of noteworthy posts highlighted artists just doing their own unique thing. I’m glad we had a chance to promote their work to this audience. Nora Taylor’s ‘Hanoi Eclipse: The Music of Dai Lam Linh’ —a documentary by Barley Norton is a fun read and makes me want to see the film. Order it now! Dao Strom’s rock paper salt : the art work of christine nguyen highlights artwork that has little on the surface to deal with ethnicity or nationality and everything to do with stark beauty. Anhvu Buchanan’s Thao Nguyen – A Role Model of the Indie Music Varietydoes the same thing, although in this case letting us hear the power of a voice and a sensibility.

Sometimes we dealt with artists who wouldn’t easily fit into a Vietnamese niche. Lien Truong’s Maggie Q: A New Nikita deals with an actress whose pan-Asian blurriness seems well-suited for an age in which certain kinds of (beautiful) Asians can be super-sexy and super-marketable. Then there’s Harvey Pekar, who Dan Duffy profiled on his passing. Pekar doesn’t need our support, given how established he was as a creator of comic books and graphic novels, but it’s important to point to a white guy doing a pretty good job of talking about Viet Nam, and race, and war, and poverty. There’s not too many of them.

And of course we sometimes dealt head-on with Vietnameseness, whatever that means. Thuy Vo Dang’s What’s in a name? On food names, full names, and Vietnamese names nailed a fundamental issue for Vietnamese Americans, and probably Vietnamese in all western countries. Our names can be a funny and difficult thing.

Now generally I would refrain from talking about something that I haven’t seen, and while I haven’t seen the film Để Mai Tính/Fool For Love, I have a feeling that Lee Ngo’s reading of its gay politics is correct. I’m surprised that Empowerment or Exploitation? Sexuality in ‘Để Mai Tính/Fool For Love’ hasn’t drawn more response. From everything I’ve ever seen in Vietnamese pop culture–movies, rock bands, music videos, comedy skits–to say that a movie like this offers a “positive” gay role model isn’t saying much, as Lee points out. Queer representation still has a long way to go in Vietnamese culture, although I was stunned when my devoutly Catholic father told me over the holidays that he supported the repeal of don’t ask, don’t tell. But he drew the line at gay marriage, which reassured me that he hadn’t changed that much.

The last but far from the least, The Stupid Go Volunteer. The Smart Sit Criticizing. Vu Thi Quynh Giao’s post is by far the most controversial one we have published. Read it carefully. I think some readers saw the picture of Ho Chi Minh and the slogan “labor is glory” and literally saw red. But the essay itself is actually rather critical of revolutionary politics and ideology, especially as manifest among the college students that Giao knows well. The way I read it, she was trying to move beyond the politics of us-and-them, good-and-bad, in order to look at the ambiguous place that Vietnamese youth, especially the educated set, occupy in a society that’s ostensibly Marxist but is oh-so materialist. Overseas Vietnamese and non-Vietnamese have to learn how to listen to them, since these are the people who are going to run Viet Nam in a couple of decades.

–Viet Thanh Nguyen


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