Having written about Vietnamese diasporic literature for seven years (and having been a reader for much longer) I have noticed a great change. At one time, works by Vietnamese diasporic writers were difficult to find. It was only every couple of years that a major publisher would put out a novel by a Vietnamese American writer. Sometimes you’d find one or two Vietnamese American poets in an anthology of Asian American writers. But that isn’t the case anymore. Vietnamese diasporic voices are being published—by major and small presses, in the US as well as other countries. We’re winning prizes, becoming household names, innovating the forms we work in. At the same time, we have not yet reached what Viet Thanh Nguyen calls a “narrative plentitude.”
As I step into the editor-in-chief role at diaCRITICS, I wanted to take a moment to reflect on the idea of the Vietnamese (and Southeast Asian) diasporic story, particularly at this moment in time, and the role diaCRITICS (and our parent organization DVAN) has to play in expanding what we talk about when we talk about our stories.
I am writing this from inside the COVID-19 pandemic. We are, if not sheltering in place, then staying, for the most part, in one place.
As a child of refugees, I know how strange this is, how it is the antithesis of human nature: we—despite all our intentions—are a moving species, the movement in our bones.
I’m always surprised to find Vietnamese people in the places where I least expect them—that is, where I least expect us. I think I’ve felt this way for as long as I can remember. As a kid, the only other Vietnamese people I knew were from the local Vietnamese Catholic church or the local Vietnamese shopping center—and, of course, they overlapped. These two places became the only places where I expected other Vietnamese people, especially as there were really no others in our neighborhood.
So, imagine my surprise, when, in Head Start, I meet a Vietnamese girl in my class. The only other Vietnamese there. Of course, that was so long ago, I can’t possibly remember what we said to each other. But I can’t help but think it was something along the lines of “Hey, we’re the same!” in an exuberant child-like way.
That thought—Hey, we’re the same—comes with the surprise of hearing Vietnamese in the places I least expect it. On the train. In a bookstore. On the edge of New Orleans (Later I would learn that New Orleans has a large Vietnamese American population, but at the time it was news to me).
Did you know that the third largest minority group in the Czech Republic are Vietnamese? Or that, due to French colonial ties, Senegal has its own version of the chả giò called nem (from món nem)? Did you know that Iceland accepted about 30 to 45 Vietnamese refugees in the early 90s, some of whom still live there today?
From one place, we are everywhere. Dispersed. Diasporic.
A writer tells me I should write a “Vietnamese” story. Another writer tells me, ethnic stories sell and that I was lucky—I could just take things from my life and call it fiction. He, on the other, as a straight white man, had to get creative—had to pull a story out of thin air, make something of his own invention. He said this with a smile as if he complimented me, though we both knew that wasn’t what this was.
So, I write a story about a man, who, losing his lover to a hate crime, becomes a cannibal. There are no Vietnamese people in the story.
What is a “Vietnamese” story anyway?
It is war and ‘Nam and Viet Cong and Huey helicopters and Communism and Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi Jane and Cold War and Agent Orange and napalm and “Napalm Girl,” and “The Execution of Nguyễn Văn Lém,” and the burning monk at an intersection in Saigon and the Fall of Saigon and April 30th, 1975 and “White Christmas,” and “me love you long time,” and Full Metal Jacket and Apocalypse Now and Platoon and Good Morning, Vietnam and Hamburger Hill and The Vietnam War: A Film by Ken Burns & Lynn Novick and “Is Iraq Another Vietnam?” and Da 5 Bloods…
So many things. But none of it everything. Not even close.
Once, teaching freshman English composition in Lake Charles, a small town in Southwest Louisiana, a Vietnamese student comes up to me after class.
“You’re Vietnamese, too, aren’t you?” she asks.
Her eyes light up. Hey, we’re the same!
But we weren’t. Not exactly. I was from Washington, DC and had come to Louisiana to study creative writing. She, on the other hand, had lived in Lake Charles all her life and wanted to be a nurse. She had a Southern accent while people are surprised I’m a graduate student in the English department.
I could see how the threads of our stories went their own ways. I see the same thing when I meet an older Vietnamese man with a bag of groceries in his lap on the metro line in Seattle, when I chat with a Franco-Vietnamese friend on Facebook about his sudden move to Hội An to follow his dream and open up a café, when I overhear a Vietnamese mom telling her daughter in the bookstore to be quick—and only the books on her school reading list.
I see our threads separating and I want to know more. What is your story? I want to ask.
This is a Vietnamese American story:
“Klan inflames Gulf fishing fight between whites and Vietnamese”
Where are you from?
“Another racially charged incident occurred in April 1988. While high on PCP, then-17-year-old Wahlberg assaulted a middle-aged Vietnamese man on the street, calling him a ‘Vietnam fucking shit’ and knocking him unconscious with a large wooden stick. Wahlberg attacked a second Vietnamese man later the same day, punching him in the eye. When Wahlberg was arrested and returned to the scene of the first assault, he told police officers: ‘I’ll tell you now that’s the mother-fucker whose head I split open.’ Investigators also noted that Wahlberg ‘made numerous unsolicited racial statements about ‘gooks’ and ‘slant-eyed gooks.’”
Where are you really from?
“Vietnamese Americans worry Newsom’s coronavirus remark could spur anti-Asian backlash”
But where are your parents from?
“Vietnamese American college student says teacher asked her to use English-sounding name”
To say nothing of what “Vietnamese” means. For when we talk about “Vietnamese” and “người Việt” we are often talking about the largest ethnic group in Vietnam: người Kinh. Doing so, though, ignores the diversity of Vietnam.
Vietnam is the home of ethnic Chinese and Chams and Montagnards and over 50 other distinct groups.
What about their stories?
Why can’t a Vietnamese story be about a Vietnamese shopkeeper who solves mysteries with her cat? Why can’t it be a story about a Vietnamese superhero whose evil enemy is also Vietnamese (both named Nguyen, no relation)? Why don’t we (at least in the US) see stories about Vietnamese people falling love? Falling out of love? Staying contently in a relationship in suburbia and having couples therapy? Why don’t we hear about Vietnamese people in space?
A white male writer tells me I shouldn’t write about Vietnamese refugees. Tells me it isn’t my story to tell. Perhaps I have no talent for writing (I am paraphrasing, of course). You should do something else.
So, I write an entire novel about Vietnamese refugees.
So what does this all mean?
As I take over the editorship at diaCRITICS, I want to remain cognizant of the fact that we have a lot of stories and that those stories don’t always get told. I want to remember that—because of a war—people often limit their idea of what is a “Vietnamese story.”
It means that diasporic Vietnamese (and Southeast Asian) diasporic storytelling (and art), is still young—even after all these years. It means, we are still fighting against preconceptions of what “Vietnamese” is and of what stories we can tell, what we’re capable of. It means we have a lot more to say, each of us, that many people haven’t heard before—not for a lack of our saying but because their lack of listening.
Which is to say, fellow Vietnamese and Southeast Asians: keep on doing what you’re doing, and we’ll keep on doing what we’ve been doing—“highlighting art, literature, and stories from writers, artists, and culture-makers of the Vietnamese and Southeast Asian diaspora, on and from all shores.”
Eric Nguyen is the Editor in Chief for diaCRITICS.