diaCRITICS’ Vietnamese American Lit Series :: 2015 & Beyond

Opening statement by Dao Strom (Series Curator/Editor) and Viet Thanh Nguyen (diaCRITICS editor-in-chief) for diaCRITICS’ Vietnamese-American Lit Series, OUT OF THE MARGINS, launching in October 2015. We will feature literary work by a different author or poet each month.

Boat people illustration by Anthony Strom
Boat people illustration by Anthony Strom

In this monthly literary series, OUT OF THE MARGINS, we will be featuring the work of Vietnamese American and Vietnamese diasporic writers and artists. We’ll showcase work by some established authors, such as Bao Phi, Andrew Lam, Lan Cao, among others, as well as introducing some new, younger voices.

This forum is curated by Vietnamese American and Vietnamese diasporic editors and readers. We make this distinction to make clear that this is a space in which we define ourselves for ourselves. And here, in this shared space, we gather together some of our (scattered) voices and endeavors.

And what does it mean, to be a Vietnamese American or Vietnamese diasporic writer in America in 2015? What does it mean to write from this location – in culture, in time, in identification? Is it different now – and (how) should it be – than it was 30 or 40 years ago?

The Fall of Saigon—that initiating event of cataclysm and consequent “re-birth”—is now 40 years behind us, the war in question four decades “over.”

When we first landed, and for many of us coming of age in the late 1970s and 80s, no model of specific being, of how or what we could or would become in our new setting, met us. Many of us were greeted as pity-cases in bad secondhand clothing, or as “gooks” and primitives. Americans believed we ate dogs, and they did not know what to do with children like us in schools. Many of us fought or cried our way through our school years and learned how to navigate, at the least, two faces. The 1980s became a decade during which we selected our clothes with care, some of us, so as not to appear “fresh off the boat,” though some of us literally were. We grew up with Rambo, Platoon, Apocalypse Now to inform us what our place of origin had reaped on and for American men. We accepted that Mr. Miyagi, maybe Jackie Chan, and (unfortunately) that dopey rendition of a Chinese foreign exchange student in John Hughes’ 16 Candles, were some of the only brown-skinned Asian characters with names that we would see in the Hollywood depictions we grew up on. We absorbed those crude stereotypes, even as we toiled to get past them. We learned indebtedness and shame and the expectation of gratitude. We gleaned the easy tropes of model minority-ism that would supposedly pave our way. We understood: the war was over. Look at all of your success stories!

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In more serious and devastating ways, however, we also learned the consequences of invisibility and the hard realization that the true dramas of many of our actual lives would never make it to the surface.

As one of our own poets iterates: “VIETNAM IS NOT A WAR” [1] — expressing the frustration of identity many of us have encountered in our hyphenated, diasporic, post-1975 citizenships, an identity that has defined us only so deep, that marks us as products of a wound, yet still denies the full calamity of that wound.

The reality of a cultural identity is complex and contradictory, no doubt. Yes, we are/were of that wound; and yes, too, we are so much more than you have been willing to see, of that wound, from it, beyond it, aside from it.

So the goal here really is simple: to enter into the stream of American literature, art and culture as we are — no less, no more, and all. To make a space where the full nuance and scope of our experiences, imaginations, and perceptions may have their place.

Dao Strom, Series Curator/Editor & Viet Thanh Nguyen, diaCRITICS editor-in-chief


[1]  The line “VIETNAM IS NOT A WAR” is a reference to a poem by lê thi diem thúy, “shrapnel shards on blue water,” which is excerpted below. You can find the poem in its entirety (among others by the artist/poet) in this electronic chapbook published by The Drunken Boat :

…i tell you all this
to tear apart the silence
of our days and nights here

i tell you all this
to fill the void of absence
in our history here

we are fragmented shards
blown here by a war no one wants to remember
in a foreign land
with an achingly familiar wound
our survival is dependent upon
never forgetting that vietnam is not
a word
a world
a love
a family
a fear
to bury

let people know

let people know

let people know
but a piece
we are
so much

Born in 1972, novelist and performance artist lê thi diem thúy escaped from Vietnam by boat in 1978 with her father. They passed through a Singapore refugee camp before settling in Southern California. Her best known performance-work is Red, Fiery Summer, which alludes to the bombing of Vietnam by U.S. forces. Red Fiery Summer and The Bodies Between Us have both been presented at the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Vineyard Theater in New York City, among other venues.  lê thi diem thúy is the author of the novel, The Gangster We Are All Looking For (Knopf, 2003).

Series Editor Bio:

Dao Strom is a writer and musician based in Portland, Oregon. She has published two books of fiction, Grass Roof, Tin Roof and The Gentle Order of Girls and Boys. Her hybrid forms memoir + album project, We Were Meant To Be a Gentle People + East/West, releases in October 2015. Her work has received support from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Nelson Algren Award, a James Michener Fellowship, the Oregon Arts Commission, and the Regional Arts & Culture Council (RACC). She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She was born in Vietnam and grew up in the Sierra Nevada foothills of northern California.

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