It was an ordinary weekday afternoon in 1998 when my father arrived home earlier than usual from his English language class. After taking his shoes off at the door, he quietly marched down to the living room and slammed his briefcase down on the dining table. His most-valued item at the time, the Redhouse Sözlüǧü English-Turkish Dictionary, slipped out of the briefcase and landed on the floor with a thud. Mum rushed out of the kitchen, her palms pressed against her chest, to ask what had happened.
“I was in the middle of giving a presentation in class and this Vietnamese arsehole made a stupid comment. We had an argument and the teacher asked us to leave early,” my father replied. As a thirteen-year-old dealing with her own share of school-related dramas, I soon lost interest in my father’s problem with his classmate.
Two decades later, I heard my father recounting the incident to his friends as they were gathered around a rakı table. “Our teacher wanted us to give a presentation about an important event in our country. I got up in front of the class to talk about ’77 May Day in Taksim Square.” My father paused, sipping on his rakı and water. “I was talking about how the security forces shot at the protestors when the Vietnamese student—who had been sitting in the corner quietly the whole time—started laughing. I asked him what his problem was, and he shouted out that Communists deserved to be crushed to death. I lost my temper.”
As his daughter, I knew why my father was so outraged by the comments of his classmate, a fellow immigrant to Australia. However, as a left-leaning Asian Studies graduate with connections to the Vietnamese community in Sydney, my response was the opposite of what he expected.
“Baba, your heroes were his villains,” I explained, before telling him that many members of Sydney’s Vietnamese community were still traumatised from the war.
The turbulent history of Turkey between 1960 and 1980 is defined by escalating political tensions between the Islamists and the secularists, which resulted in a string of military coups. People’s lack of trust in the democratic institutions led to the emergence of new ideological conflict lines and further polarisation, which ended up controlling every aspect of civic life. The 1970s saw the flourishing of pro-Soviet left-wing movements; meanwhile, the nationalist right-wing explicitly defined itself as anti-Communist. Many people died during the street clashes that often took place between the members of various political organisations.
As a farmer’s son studying at university, my father was drawn to the left-wing student movement which was ruthlessly oppressed and fell victim of the state’s witch hunts, imprisonments and executions. My father wholeheartedly believed that the elimination of poverty and social injustice would be achieved through creating a socialist state. Like many others, he eventually paid dearly for that belief.
On May 1st 1977, around 500,000 socialist demonstrators peacefully gathered at Istanbul’s famous Taksim Square to celebrate Labour Day when bullets rained down on the crowd from a nearby building. As the bombs went off and armoured vehicles started rolling down towards the protestors, Taksim Square was turned into a warzone. Thirty-six people were killed. Even though my father was not at the scene, the incident left a huge mark on him and a generation of student activists who today are called “the ‘78ers.”
Until we moved to Australia in 1997, my father had never met a single person from Vietnam, but knew about the Viet Cong from left-wing publications he had read. In fact, Ho Chi Minh and the resistance he led was an inspiration for many within the Turkish left-wing movement. In our home in Sydney, I borrowed a book from my parents’ bookshelf entitled direnme savaşı (The War of Resistance) by Nguyen Duc Thuan. It recounts the story of his imprisonment in the Con Dao prison, which was operated by the U.S. forces at the time. It was rare for such a book to survive since, under martial law in Turkey, being in possession of a censored publication could easily land you in jail. More often than not, activists would burn books in the furnace so as to not get caught during house raids conducted by the state security forces. Somehow, miraculously even, this book managed to travel all the way to Sydney.
I was thirteen years old when my parents made the decision to move to Australia. They realised that the constant political unrest in Turkey was not going to end any time soon and raising a family there had become too difficult. Our move provided me and my sister with better education, healthcare and future opportunities, yet the guilt of benefitting from our parents’ displacement always followed us around. Where I went to school in Western Sydney, I was exposed to the world in a way which wouldn’t have been possible had we stayed in Turkey. It was during a history class, for example, when one of my Vietnamese-Australian classmates warned me that I should call the city “Saigon,” not “Ho Chi Minh City.” At lunch time, as she and I sat behind the canteen walls slurping instant ramen, she told me the story of her parents escaping on a boat after the fall of Saigon and arriving in Sydney via Malaysia.
One day on the train, I was reading Nguyen Duc Thuan’s book when an elderly Vietnamese man sat across from me and smiled. The moment his eyes landed on the cover of the book, the smile froze on his face. Despite the Turkish title, he probably recognised the writer’s name and saw the picture of a Vietnamese man behind bars. I apologetically put the book in my bag and stared out the window for the rest of the trip to avoid his gaze.
A few months after this incident in 2003, I was at Bankstown station with a group of Vietnamese-Australians on their way to protest SBS TV for airing the state-controlled Vietnamese news program Thoi Su. Standing on the edge of the platform, I watched them hold signs with messages along the lines of “No Government Propaganda.” I pictured my father holding the same sign, despite standing on the other side of the political spectrum.
“War Years” in Viet Thanh Nguyen’s short story collection The Refugees, is loosely based on his family’s life in America. Reading it had a profound impact on my understanding of the diasporic Vietnamese experience in relation to my father’s argument with his classmate. Set in a family-owned shop named New Saigon Market, and narrated by the family’s thirteen-year-old son, it tells the story of a refugee Vietnamese family trying to make a living by selling staples to the Vietnamese community of San Jose. Their peaceful existence in the new country comes to a halt when they are confronted by Mrs. Hoa, who tries to blackmail the family matriarch into contributing money for the training of guerrillas to topple the Communist regime back home. When the mother resists giving her hard-earned cash for what she considers a lost cause, Mrs. Hoa accuses her of being a Communist sympathiser.
What draws me to this story is how the Vietnamese American experience runs parallel to my family’s, despite our seemingly profound cultural and ideological differences. It wasn’t difficult for me to relate to the narrative of displaced people building a life in a strange land, while trying to come to terms with loss, trauma, and the memory of what was left behind. This is especially evident when the narrator says:
I knew the basics of our history as well as I knew the story of Adam and Eve: the Communists had marched from North Vietnam in 1975 to invade South Vietnam, driving us out, all the way across the Pacific to California. I had no memories of the war, but Mrs. Hoa said others had not forgotten.
What we call the Turkish diaspora is made up of culturally, linguistically, and ideologically diverse groups such as Kurds, Armenians, Alevis and political activists who have all experienced loss and displacement in different ways. For my father’s generation, this narrative includes military coups, torture, and blacklisting. Just like Mrs. Hoa, whose personal war continued long after losing her husband and two sons in the actual war, my path has crossed with dozens of people still actively involved in various political movements in Turkey despite living in Australia for decades.
As a teenager I would go with my father to events aimed at raising money for the families of the political prisoners in Turkey. By going to such events and hearing stories, I eventually collected enough “data” to reimagine what being a Turkish revolutionary was like in the 1970s. In my mind, they were mostly young men in grey turtleneck sweaters with bushy moustaches like Stalin, who held their left fists up in the air during marches. As I read War Years, I saw the same traits in the narrator:
When she mentioned the guerrillas, I imagined them to be unshaven, mosquito-bitten men with matted hair wearing ragged tiger stripe fatigues; living on rainwater, wild boar, and aphids; practicing hand-to-hand combat skills by bayoneting jackfruit.
That night, when my father expressed his anger at his classmate at the rakı table, I couldn’t help think of how Mrs. Hoa would have behaved if it had been her sitting in that classroom. Probably, she would react to my father’s presentation the way his classmate did. It is also more than likely that Mrs. Hoa and my father would bond over their overlapping experiences such as doing menial jobs while trying to raise a family in a foreign land.
In her famous TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story,” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie argues that sticking to just a single narrative about people or places creates stereotypes and overcoming prejudices requires people to understand alternative narratives as well. I agree with this theory and strongly believe this is especially important in a country like Australia, where misunderstandings between diasporic communities often take place because we all hold onto cultural and historical contexts which clash. What they had in common was that my father and his classmate were both oppressed by regimes they did not support; but since they never exchanged their personal histories, the incident was boiled down to being a “an ideological difference” and never resolved.
In 2015, I told my parents over the phone I was going on a trip to Southeast Asia. When my father found out that Vietnam was one of my destinations, the excitement in his voice surpassed mine. It would be May and the streets of Hanoi would no doubt be decorated with flags and flowers to commemorate Ho Chi Minh’s birthday.
Once I arrived, I kept in touch with my parents via e-mail and sent them photos. My father sent short but intense replies, asking me if I had seen the Tiger Cages or whether the Vietnamese socialist model had worked for the villagers. I was visiting Ho Chi Minh’s stilt house when I got caught in the rain and purchased a cheap umbrella from a street vendor standing at the door. I held it with one hand while using the other hand to photograph Ho Chi Minh’s study from outside the window. The next day, my umbrella couldn’t resist against the torrential rain and broke, but I couldn’t bring myself to throw it in the bin. I kept the umbrella in my suitcase and carried it around in Cambodia and Thailand. When I arrived home in Sydney, I put it in a box under my bed and forgot about it.
Last year, when I was packing my house to move, the umbrella revealed itself once again. I took a break from boxing away my past and sat on the floor with the broken umbrella on my lap, reminiscing about the day it broke and how it has become a symbol of how stories overlap. I had been roaming around the Old Quarter of Hanoi with the floppy umbrella while it poured heavily; by the time I took refuge at a nearby coffeehouse, I was completely soaked. But I was greeted with a towel and seated across from two young men in the middle of a chess game.
As I was drinking my iced-coffee and watching the game, one of the men turned around and observed me for a few seconds before asking me where I was from. It was a question I had heard a dozen times that day, which I always answered as “Australia” to make it quick and uncomplicated. Realising that the rain wasn’t going to ease any time soon and I had time to spare for a conversation, I told him I was, “Turkish from Sydney”—and his face lit up.
I expected a deluge of questions about Australia, but was dumbfounded when he told me he admired Aziz Nesin, a legendary Turkish writer whose books were long blacklisted in Turkey. Until his death, Aziz Nesin had written hundreds of satirical pieces criticising the state and the civil service. In a deeply fragmented country like Turkey, a personality such as Aziz Nesin was either loved or hated and for my parents, it was the former. In 1993, he was the target of an arson attack by an angry mob. My parents and I had watched the TV footage of Aziz Nesin emerging from a building engulfed in flames, but the fire had left 33 people dead most of whom were artists and writers. Finding out that an intellectual who was relentlessly arrested, blacklisted, and attacked in my country was popular in Vietnam was a delightful surprise.
“He wrote about Turkey, but it is remarkably similar to the problems we have in Vietnam,” said the young man. The rain stopped and I finished my drink, but I didn’t want to leave the coffeehouse without a good chat. I moved my chair next to his and ordered more coffee and croissants to share. We spent the entire afternoon chatting about the good, the bad and the ugly side of our countries and shared a few laughs—and I wished my father was sitting with us at the table.
Deniz Agraz is a Turkish-Australian writer and former ESL teacher. Her work has appeared in ABC Lifestyle, SBS Voices and Meniscus Journal.