Audrey Chin, the South-East-Asian author of As the Heart Bones Break, a novel about Vietnam’s wars and the aftermath, defends her right to write about a Vietnamese man and his search for identity. Provocative and passionate, this essay asks the important questions – Who can claim to be a Vietnamese artist? What makes for an authentic Vietnamese work?
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The unasked question simmered — “Who are you to write about it?”
I was attending a session on Malaysian writing at the Singapore Writers Festival. The panellists were three authors — an American woman, a Singaporean man of Indian ethnicity and a Malaysian of Indian ethnicity who left the country twenty years ago. All three wrote in English. Amongst the audience were “real” Malaysians from the countries majority ethnic group who wrote in the national language. There were also ordinary readers, checking the authenticity of the works against the appearance and credentials of the authors. That background unease, the simmering question… it couldn’t be helped.
Finally, the American woman attacked the issue head on. “It’s fiction,” she said. “The question is does it read well, does it work?”
As a Singaporean and female author of As the Heart Bones Break, a Vietnamese story spanning 60 years of the country’s recent history and one Vietnamese man’s life, I too have been asked that question. Unlike the American woman, I’m unwilling to dismiss the challenge implied in it.
Must one be Malaysian to write a Malaysian story? Or Vietnamese to write about the Vietnamese resentment about American involvement, the subsequent regret over the Communist victory and the rest of it?
It’s a question which begets more questions.
Who is qualified to tell a story authentically? The outsider looking in with fresh eyes? The insider screaming to be let out? The one standing at the margins – part of but not quite?
If indeed one must be Vietnamese to tell a Vietnamese story then who is Vietnamese? Is it a question of self-identification? Are there boxes that must be ticked? Born in Vietnam? Born of Vietnamese parents? At least one Vietnamese parent? What about the minority ethnicities? The Chinese-Vietnamese community? What about someone like myself who speaks, reads and writes Vietnamese, lived in Little Saigon for ten years and visits Ho Chi Minh City at least once every six weeks? Someone who nonetheless hasn’t a single Vietnamese gene in her DNA?
I can only defend my own particular position. Unlike Vietnamese-American authors Andrew X. Pham and Andrew Lam, I wasn’t born in Vietnam nor did I experience the war and the loss of 1975. Unlike Angie Chau, Aimee Phan and Monique Truong, I didn’t grow up with the sense of “other” and of “displacement”. But like them, I too have heard the silences, I too have lived with the denial and the need to leave it all behind to build something new.
“I never saw a dead body,” I have been told by a husband who lived his first 28 years in war.
“He was the kindest and gentlest of men,” I have heard my sisters-in-law say about a father-in-law who was a Viet Minh guerrilla and an aficionado of fighting roosters and fighting fish.
“What I admire most about my father is that he’s never spoken about it, all the things that happened to him in re-education,” my nephew says.
I have shopped in the Little Saigons of America and at the Big Market in new Saigon. I have walked down padi bunds to worship at family graves and crowded myself into smoky underground tea-rooms to soak in the nostalgia for Trinh Cong Son and Pham Duy
Viet Thanh Nguyen, DiaCRITIC’s editor writes about the fluidity of artists’ identities, the communities they come out of, the ones they claim to represent and the ones they must unfetter themselves from to find their own voice.
I claim simply the right to write what I know.
They are mine, the bones of the story I finally set on paper. Here is a bangle for a very tiny wrist, my belated wedding gift when finally my husband and I set foot in Vietnam in 1990. It was my mother-in-law’s wedding bangle, the only thing the family had of value to give to their foreign sister-in-law after 15 years of Communist rule. There is the ID card and bank book that became worthless after April 30th 1975. There is the picture of my husband and his adopted father, the South Vietnamese man who worked in the French Civil Service. I do not have a picture of his blood-father, the Viet Minh guerrilla. These artefacts form the skeleton of the story – two men, the best of friends but on opposite sides politically; a woman with space in her heart for both; the child in between; the missing bits… They are the skeleton of Vietnam’s recent history too.
In any case, it’s not about me. The proof of my claim to authenticity lies with the readers.
One Vietnamese reviewer of As the Heart Bones Break wrote, “As a Vietnamese, I love the differing points of view on the war and life as immigrants in the US. .. I see all the people I know around me in these characters.” However, another Vietnamese reviewer said some of the characters in American had been painted as “caricatures of their former selves, bitter and vengeful old men and women, unwilling to accept the cards that fate had dealt them.”
Which of them is right?
Once the words are sent out into the world, they take a life of their own. As the Heart Bones Break is finished and sent out. What the world will make of it is no longer my concern. But I am still a daughter-in-law of the Vietnamese Diaspora, a wife and mother of Vietnamese seed. That does not change. As the Vietnamese know, when I die, it will be at the family altar of my husband’s line that my memorial photograph will hang, not in the home of my birth family. That’s being insider enough I guess; the ultimate acknowledgement.
Audrey Chin is a South-East-Asian writer who has been a daughter-in-law of the Vietnamese diaspora for over thirty years. As the Heart Bones Break, her latest novel featuring the life of a South Vietnamese man and his family over the last sixty years was launched and sold out at the 2013 Singapore Writers Festival in November.
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