diaCRITIC Eric Nguyen reviews Dao Strom’s autobiographical multimedia project, We Were Meant To Be A Gentle People. This work is Strom’s most personal one yet, and ties together prose, songs, and images to create a memoir that sheds light on the life of an diasporic artist trying to reconcile her lack of refugee origin story.
Untraditional in its form and structure, We Were Meant To Be A Gentle People is, at first glance, an intimidating memoir. Add the accompanying photos, ambiguous overlaid triangles, and two EPs of songs, and one can easily be put off by this latest offering from Dao Strom. Indeed, it’s Strom’s first foray into creative nonfiction and multimedia art, a departure from her previous works of fiction—Grass Roof, Tin Roof and The Gentle Order of Girls and Boys. Despite this, readers of Strom’s previous literary output will find much familiar in We Were Meant To Be A Gentle People.
Like in her debut novel, there’s a mother who flees Vietnam after struggling against censorship; there’s the Sierra Nevada; a stern Danish stepfather; and a trip back to Vietnam. To say that Strom’s new project is a type of remix of her autographical novel is an apt description as she transplants her fiction into this new form and sifts the truth from the fiction. Indeed, there’s a confessional quality to the text as Strom lifts the veil from her previous work and shines a light onto her autobiography. Yet We Were Meant To Be A Gentle People is more than a confessional or a rewrite: it’s a portrait of an artist struggling to find her story and it’s perhaps the writer’s most personal project yet.
As someone who left Vietnam early in her life, Strom has no coherent account of escape or migration, or to use her words, no origin story. “I have no memory of the passage we made or the first home I was born to,” she writes. “Any inklings I may claim to have of this period are made up of witness and iconography and documentary and imagination and bias and hearsay and silence and inference. All those memories I belong to do not belong to me.” Recovering these memories, and recovering them accurately, is the impetus of …Gentle People. This despite a growing distrust of words, an irony that is not lost on Strom, a writer who earned her MFA at the Iowa Writers Workshop.
She writes, “To put it in oversimplistic terms: language is the reason we left.” It starts with her familial history. A writer in South Vietnam, Strom’s mother’s work was censored by authorities for being “indecent and immoral” along with the works of various Western writers such as D.H. Lawrence, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus. After she and her mother flee, it is also words that keeps her birth father imprisoned: “He had been locked up for the crime of words he had written and published, and he was now being ‘reeducated’ to speak and praise in the rhetoric of the state.” Fast forward to Strom’s present-day life and her suspicion of words is clear when she refuses to write about her brother’s suicide: “I won’t indulge the details of what happened. I won’t try to recreate them. I don’t know them truly, though of course I could take what I know and embellish it, dramatize it. Make it cinematic, epiphanic, as American stories tend to be.” Such a gesture, she writes, would be “careless.”
Strom concludes “language has its limitations. Language—from the very point we attempt to codify, capture, call it our own, or insist via our version of it—becomes potentially unreliable,” which is problematic in Strom’s search for truth through art: what’s a writer to do when the words she uses to tell her story are inherently unreliable?
Strom’s epiphany comes when she watches the singer Pham Duy on Pete Seeger’s short-lived show Rainbow Quest:
[…I]t dawns on me that all my own attempts at voicings, all this hanging out too long in the spaces between notes, sometimes even falling down and lying there, angry at my own inability to draw up the threads (that I knew lay) between them, all the legato in my own singing, all that time I was not making up anything new.
It’s the in-between spaces she’s been looking for all along—the space between notes, between fiction and nonfiction, between collective memory and personal amnesia—and one need not look farther than history to find it. …Gentle People, then, is less a product of creation than an act of assemblage.
From this starting point, Strom explores creation myths, word etymology, and historical documents in effort to find where she stands in the story of the Vietnamese diaspora. If Strom were a less capable artist, …Gentle People could easily read as a classic, stereotypical Asian immigrant narrative, with a protagonist dealing with the pressures to find a place in either Western or Eastern culture. Yet the multimedia aspect of the work denies such a simplistic reading.
Nowhere is this clearer than in her accompanying music. The eleven tracks offered over two CDs are stripped-down. Avoiding overproduction, these songs opt for classic Americana folk reminiscent of Lucinda Williams and Gillian Welch. But instead of the American South, the slow twangy guitars invoke the natural grandeur—the forests and the shores—of the Pacific Northwest and its history of westward expansion. One can describe her lyrics as naturalistic. In “Hell’s Gate,” Strom sings from the perspective of the land: “These hills of gold are all I have/to offer you, my men, my men/& gold you many find here & toil you will, my dears.” “Two Rivers,” which refers to the Willamette and Columbia Rivers, ends with the refrain, “my father, the fire/my mother the earth.”
In addition to references to the American landscape, Strom’s songs also call forth narratives from the Vietnamese diasporic experience. “Mother you once watched/a monk light himself on fire/in 1963…” she sings in “Ode to Mother(land).” “Origin Tale,” a lonely song led by acoustic guitars and strings, alludes to the Vietnamese origin myth while “On an Open Field” samples audio from an interview with Pham Duy over a dreamlike soundscape.
Strom, however, never asks listeners to categorize her songs as American or Vietnamese, East or West, despite her EP titles. Her songs are imbued with melancholy and longing that is characteristic of both American country music and Vietnamese folk songs. This is perhaps most present in her cover of “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child.” Originally a slave spiritual, the song is given a country western make-over with harsh, steely guitars chords and dueling vocals (Strom’s and Nial Nutter’s). The song exemplifies a clash of voices. As the track progresses, its sounds gather up to a crescendo—the lyrics of black slaves, the guitars of (white) country western music, the voice of a woman from Vietnam. At the end, these melodies slow to a stop as if the pain of each is too heavy to continue. Such an orchestration suggests that loss is what binds us—and maybe tears us apart—despite how we each express it.
Loss is at the crux of …Gentle People and what lies in the middle space she sought to explore. It’s an uncomfortable, and perhaps to some unsatisfying, conclusion when Strom writes “Sometimes I worry that peace is impossible, or that it does not matter, ultimately, whether we find it or not.” This, however, gets to the truth of her exploration of pain and loss: catastrophe happens. Some of us survive. Some of us don’t. There are no guarantees. There is no Narrative (with a capital “N”). What else can one say?
We Were Meant To Be A Gentle People is a beautiful memoir and a captivating cultural history about the stories we tell and the ways we may or may not survive our histories. It’s a haunting and challenging read that may not offer answers to anyone’s origin story (Strom’s or her readers’). But the best of art—and the most alive of writings—is not about answers so much as it is about witness.
Buy the book here.
Eric Nguyen has a degree in sociology from the University of Maryland along with a certificate in LGBT Studies. He is currently an MFA candidate at McNeese State University and lives in Louisiana.
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