The DVAN staff recommends some of their favorite reads by authors of the Vietnamese diaspora. This list includes traditional and experimental novels, a graphic novel memoir, and stories for children, written by authors ranging from the “1.5”-generation to contemporary emerging younger writers, writing in the U.S., Canada, and Australia.
Fish In Exile by Vi Khi Nao
Recommended by Dao Strom
Fish, exile, undercurrents of fish sauce, loss, damaged love, dissociation, disconnection, grief. On the surface this is a book about a couple grieving the death of their two children; a very universal grief. But, it is also a book about exilic and diasporic grief, about the unique flavors of Vietnamese sorrow, buoyed on a heavy foreboding of water—the couple at the novel’s center, with their unusual names, Ethos and Catholic, have lost their children via a drowning accident. I love this book for its exquisite, surreal commands of language, for its endearing-grieving characters, for its ability to inform about the emotional experience of diaspora without ever mentioning Vietnam or geopolitical facts, and for its commitment to its own syntactical rhythms and idiosyncratic perceptions: I love, especially, an unexpected involution of form the novel performs at a certain point, proving itself as its own transgressor. A novel written by a truly genre-fluid poet.
Vietnamese Children’s Favorite Stories by Trần Thị Minh Phước
Recommended by Terri Le
A children’s book for all ages encompassing recognizable and even new stories/legends/folktales that highlights Vietnam’s rich history and culture. Read it with family, your children, or just for fun (and for the child-like spirit in you) to learn about age-old superstitions and traditions.The book also includes beautiful illustrations by veteran artists Nguyen Thi Hop and Nguyen Dong. DVAN’s Accented Producer, Philip Nguyen lends his voice in his reading of “Legend of Bánh Chưng and Bánh Dầy” followed by a great conversation with author Trần Thị Minh Phước! For a sneak preview into what to expect in the book, check out this video →
The Gangster We Are All Looking For by lê thi diem thúy
Recommended by Julie Thi Underhill
lê thi diem thúy crafted her 2003 debut novel The Gangster We Are All Looking For with grace, as a writer of poetry and prose. In this masterful work she renders loss as it tastes, feels, and sounds, including the longue durée of grief. Her details are exquisite, with tenderness isolated even as the house falls down. She also brilliantly captures the hidden spaces (and thoughts) of childhood. Everything feels real. The author was born in Phan Thiết in 1972. Fleeing post-war conditions, lê left Việt Nam by boat with family in 1978, lived in Malaysia in a refugee camp, and resettled in the United States. While writing this novel she returned to Việt Nam for the first time in 20 years.
Vu Tran’s debut novel, many years in the making, is an example of why slow writing can be the best literature. He lures us in with the recognizable tropes of the crime novel, only to subvert these ideas into a gorgeous, haunting meditation on the traumas of war, displacement and immigrating to this unwelcome country. The choices he makes for his characters and plot feel both surprising and perfect. Many Vietnamese American novels attempt to create the horrors and despair of a boat refugee escape, but Tran’s take surpasses all of them. You should also search for the image of dragonfish. It will give you nightmares, I promise.
The Unwinding of the Miracle by Julie Yip-Williams
Recommended by Monique Truong
Julie Yip-Williams began her memoir at the age of 37, after a diagnosis of Stage IV colon cancer, but her book is not about dying. It’s a book about living, bravely and beautifully, and preparing for what comes next. Yip-Williams identified as ethnically Chinese, as her family also did when they lived in South Vietnam. After surviving a treacherous exodus by boat, they and infant Julie came to the U.S. as refugees. Legally blind, she excelled academically, became a lawyer in NYC, married, and had two daughters for whom her book was written. Take a moment and listen to the podcast “Julie” that she recorded with her editor. I know you’ll want to spend more time with her.
The Best We Could Do is monumental — Thi Bui’s graphic memoir has inspired not only me, but also all of the students who I’ve taught this book to in my classes since I started teaching. This portal into Bui’s life dives masterfully and intricately into how sacrifice and silence permeate the multigenerational homes of diasporic refugee families. As she nonlinearly traces her origin story across the ocean through spatiotemporal boundaries and interweaves her personal history with that of her parents against the grain of outdated Vietnam War narratives, the reader is urged and encouraged to delve deeper into their own. Time travel while intergenerationally healing with The Best We Could Do.
Everyday I read a few pages of Ru by Kim Thuy before I begin to write. I absolutely love this book and how it is written. Ru is short; the language clear, direct and most poetic. Ru is narrated from the perspective of a Vietnamese professional woman, from an old establishment family, who left Vietnam by boat and became a refugee in Canada in the late 1970s. Each sentence adds layers of evocations that capture with acute precision what the narrator articulates as her “empty identity.” The narrator describes herself as “dark” as she remembers being already in the shadow of others in Vietnam. Once a mother herself, she comes to a deeper understanding of her own mother and better comprehends the meaning of love. This book is beautifully and powerfully written.
The Sympathizer is eye-opening to me in the skillful ways Viet Thanh Nguyen navigates the complex politics among Vietnamese people while affirming his equal position with the Western readers in his representation of refugees. There are many things I love about this book: the plot, the dark humor, the language. I have read it at least 5 times from cover to cover and still discover something new every time I pick it up. This book has a fascinating sibling being its sequel, The Committed, and I highly recommend them both. Both novels make important and unique contributions to literature in many ways: the use of absurdity and black humor to depict traumatic experiences, the ability of the protagonist to comment with confidence on world politics and beyond the experiences of Vietnamese people.
It’s hard to overstate the significance of Vivian Pham’s book to the burgeoning field of Vietnamese Australian literature. For one thing, it is the first novel ever written which captures an important time in our history in this country, and set in Cabramatta which is the epicentre of the Vietnamese diaspora here. For me personally, its impact was profound because it freed me of a huge burden I had been carrying about needing to write a book like this myself. When I read the first version of the book at the end of 2017, it felt like kismet: that all of my work in relation to writing and literature development over the years had led me to that exact moment. Vivian was still in high school by the way, which is another astonishing part of this story – she wrote it as a ‘novella’ through a program run by Story Factory in Sydney (based on 826 Valencia’s model). Within a week after I binged on the book, I drove to the office of a literary agent I knew and put my copy of the book in his mailbox. Not long after it started a bidding war between three major publishers – and the rest is history. Vivian has just been named winner of The Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Australian Novelist Award.
This was my first foray into Vietnamese American poetry. Vuong’s collection taught me to be courageous in aesthetic and political experimentation. The collection is a contemplation on gender, sexuality, and race in the ongoing afterlife of war. One of many features of Vuong’s poems that I am still thinking through is his insistence on photographic clarity and re-representation. The Vietnam War—through the deployment of military journalists, photographers, and archivists—has produced an entire institutionalized canon of Vietnamese photography marked by American exceptionalism and imperial domination. In the governmental archives and mainstream news outlets, the Vietnamese are depicted as hapless and hopeless victims in need of rescue by the benevolent and paternalistic U.S. nation state. Night Sky With Exit Wounds works through and against this normative narrative by offering alternative visions of Vietnamese life and subjectivity that are ephemeral and evade the fixating snap of the camera shutter. One can feel this photographic impulse on the very cover photo of Vuong’s poetry collection: he has the title of Night Sky With Exit Wounds cover the eyes of his mother and aunt—creating a sense of anonymity and depersonalization—and he chooses a photo of himself as a young kid wearing a shirt that says “I Love Daddy.” Yet, nonetheless, there is no father figure present in the photograph as Vuong complicates notions of presence and absence across generations.