Kill Your Darlings, in partnership with the Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network (DVAN), recently presented its first ever showcase of Vietnamese writing. It was a rare opportunity to amplify the idea of Vietnamese writers and writing in Australia literary publishing.
I felt immensely privileged to be co-editor of the Vietnam Showcase, given my own preoccupation with what it means to be Vietnamese—and how this aspect of my identity is a wellspring for my own literary impulses. My involvement with diaCRITICS is driven by this same impulse as well as my desire to contribute an Australian perspective to a global conversation which we’re all a part of.
Reading through the wide range of submissions we received, I felt both moved and humbled by what was shared with us from writers at all stages of their careers. We received over 50 submissions from Australia, Vietnam, the United States and beyond, from which we chose two works of fiction and a feature essay incorporating memoir, history and culture.
Considered together, the submissions revealed something of the complicated nature of what it means to be Vietnamese, and the restlessness of diasporic existence. Indicating something of the geographic spread of writing we received, we chose one piece from Melbourne and one from Sydney, the two largest centres of Việt Kiều life in Australia. The third story comes from Việt Nam itself. We were limited to choosing works in English rather than tiếng Việt, so we were pleased to be able to publish a short story by a writer who has lived in and experienced Hà Nội, whose literary translator is based in Sài Gòn/TP.HCM. The story is published in both languages.
‘Hai, Ba’ by Casey Nguyen is an open-hearted exploration of second-generation adult life, how our relationships with our parents evolve over time, and how we learn to live with our adult bodies. Meanwhile, Lucia Tường Vy Nguyễn‘s playful and insightful essay, ‘Dear Dairy’ also examines the body, diving into dairy and in doing so brings in complex meditations on race, gender and culture. Finally, Nguyễn Thúy Hằng’s ‘In A Grossly Boring Town’ (‘Ở Thành Phố Chán Ốm’) has been translated by Dương Mạnh Hùng of Bar de Force Press. It’s a surreal and unsettling tale from the Old World which shows how bodily questions of existence are universal preoccupations, pondered upon in the centre, a topic of concern as it often is for those of us living in the margins.
You may have noticed that all three selected pieces are by writers who share the same surname, Nguyễn. (In Anglophone countries, we put the surname last, but in tiếng Việt surnames always appear first.) To use the American English pronunciation of Nguyen, we’ve come up with a win-win-win situation for this Vietnam Showcase. Personally, I’ve long been surprised by how little Vietnam’s most common surname has appeared among the ranks of Australian writers, but maybe this showcase suggests that that’s about to change.
Huge thanks to artists Kim Lam for her illustration on ‘Hai, Ba’ as well as Jill Trần and Nhung Đinh for their illustrations of ‘In a Grossly Boring Town’. Finally, thanks to KYD editor Alan Vaarwerk for leading the development of the Vietnam Showcase and being such an excellent collaborator on this milestone project.
– Sheila Ngọc Phạm, Contributing Editor (Australia)
My birthday cake had disappeared. Perhaps it was in the fridge. Or someone had thrown it out.
‘Dude, what are you talking about—you ate the whole thing.’
I regard the fallen soldiers—the empty bottles of soju toppled on their bellies, the blown-out shell of a pasta pot, the red pools of sauce coagulating on the dining table of our Airbnb cabin. In all the fog, I recall the purple carcass of my taro birthday cake from the night before, stuck with candles and oozing cream from the spongy layers that had been unforgivingly beaten in by my fork. And my friends, whom I had so tenaciously informed of my lactose intolerance, witnessed my drunken one-woman show of finishing off the whole damn thing.
To write off love as pain is axiomatic, but in the case of myself and dairy, such a cliche is true: the aftermath of my cake consumption was a painful one. When I became vegetarian four years ago, going cold-turkey off every kind of meat threw my old carnivorous habits into limbo. I no longer ate meat, and in my Vietnamese parents’ household, I hardly ever ate dairy either. My mother has kept the fridge stocked with soy milk since my infancy, partially due to anxieties from her family’s risk of high cholesterol and heart disease, and in cooking my family use coconut milk. It was always margarine, never butter—despite the fervent love of butter left in the hearts of many Vietnamese after the French occupation. This stark absence of animal products in my new diet prodded a new diagnosis of that stomach ache and bloatedness I had previously attributed to mere gluttony. I discovered the cause after attempting to eat an entire Chicago deep-dish pizza. Evidently, I don’t do things by halves.
In his book Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer states that a commitment to vegetarianism, or veganism, is often an unspoken divorce from one’s heritage. And indeed, a similar rift seemed to appear at first between my plate and many of my family’s traditional dishes: phở is a bone-based broth, nước mắm a fish-derived sauce, and my father remains a longtime sceptic of the worth in buying salad-only bánh mì rolls. Out of habit, he still offers me the steaks and meat-based soups he cooks sometimes. But the women in my life are a different story.
Ethical vegetarians associate the production of meat with emotional distress, and in South-East Asia, meat has historically been hailed as primarily a man’s food, cultivated on lands gnawed away by chemical agents and chewed up by impoverishment and imperialist warfare over the past two centuries.
In the wake of violence, perhaps these Vietnamese women can best resolve the discord between gentleness and violence by making music instead. I hear it in the kitchen. When community and social networks are cited as critical factors in maintaining a vegetarian diet, I am fed by these women’s lives: my grandmother and her stir-fried eggplant, the underground women’s network I stumbled upon who prepared braised tofu and mock-meat dishes to sell for charity, the ladies at my local Vietnamese bakery in Padstow, who created a pie with vegetable filling as an alternative to their popular meat pies just for me.
I open my mouth, and let myself be nourished.
To make my grandmother’s dish, slice an eggplant vertically into thin strips and lay them on a baking tray. Drizzle with olive oil and roast on high for ten or so minutes. Once roasted, empty the eggplant strips into a pan and sauté until soft. Pour in a tablespoon of soy sauce. Add a teaspoon of brown sugar. Sauté until caramelised, and garnish with spring onion.
My grandmother lives in Western Sydney, somewhere in the concentrations of Việt kiều diaspora across Bankstown and Cabramatta. These spaces are peculiar culinary microcosms in themselves—with roadside vendors who wheel out their homegrown produce (without a permit in sight) and unassuming family restaurants that serve plant-based food (đồ chay) at a fraction of the price offered in the gentrified inner west. These cadastral spaces in sprawling Sydney are marked by vectors of immigrant language, immigrant food cultures, and a reputation of violence traced in both the displacement and resettlement of refugees in white settler-colonial Australia.
Visual artist Matt Huynh archives this history in his interactive comic Cabramatta, a time capsule of his upbringing in the suburb as it came into its own as a ‘Vietnamese ghetto’ and Australia’s heroin capital in the 1990s. The proverbial ubiquity of adolescence’s ‘awkward phase’ is meant to be consoling, but, as one of the panels in Huynh’s comic reads, Vietnamese teenagers in Cabramatta bore the additional ‘brunt of Australia’s ‘multicultural experiment’.’ ‘So much of the official record on us weren’t recorded by us—memoirs of police detectives and politicians, news clippings from dominant media, fictionalisations in film and art that often center white experiences,’ he says. We open our mouths, and ask if we may speak.
Almost thirty years later, it is cruelty-free food that brings me out west, back to Cabramatta.
Vietnamese food is ethical primarily in the sense that no part of the animal goes to waste. The body is carved up resourcefully to feed many mouths, parsed along its tendons and sinews a document not only of a family’s recipes, but of a nation-state’s adaptation to a diet of scarcity. This ethos informs the soft sculptural works of Vietnamese-Australian artist Truc Truong, who inflates and moulds pig intestines that she has cleaned with salt, wine, and vinegar. Her mother taught her how to clean them. ‘[In school] I’d learnt to check what was in my lunch box before taking it out after making the mistake of telling my classmates that my family ate intestines for dinner,’ she says, reflecting on her childhood in Adelaide.
So too exists a rift between East and West on the pathology of lactose intolerance. ‘As with much of the psychological database, the literature on vegetarianism is largely drawn from Western cultures, leaving the cross-cultural generalisability of the literature open to question,’ writes psychology professor Matthew B. Ruby. With the exception of Caucasians, most people—most land mammals—struggle to produce the enzyme necessary to sufficiently digest lactose, yet lactose intolerance has been framed by Eurocentric discourse as a bodily defect. In historically ‘less-milking’ communities like those of East and South-East Asia, milk was recommended as a laxative or a purgative. I once found myself in the Swiss Alps draping bread and potatoes in bottomless cheese fondue at Christmas, and that evening, when it became evident that the Lacteeze pills had most certainly not worked, questioned whether I would even make it to New Year’s. I hear high alpine terrain is dangerous, but probably not for this reason.
When I became vegetarian, however, I felt cradled by the maternal softness of those who cooked for me—even my soft, soft grandmother, whose only comment on a chef’s procedure of humanely numbing a crab in ice before killing it to cook was, ‘what would you do that for? Just stab it through the heart!’
Such words were spoken by the same woman who abstained from meat for a month for the sake of good fortune, just so Buddha could grant my sister her first job. The rules of vegetarianism are nuanced, often pliant and never universal, and I don’t blame omnivores for finding this tiring. Perhaps one of the only universal experiences in consuming food is a delicious kind of violence in relishing it as some strange, hedonistic destruction: breaking bones, tearing leaves, cracking shells, slicing hearts—though preferably artichoke for the vegetarians, rather than animal.
To find the underground vegetarian women’s network, take a drive down the idle morning roads of Bankstown to a double-storey suburban house with a makeshift kitchen installed out the back. Walk in and greet the older woman behind the table. ‘Chào bác’. ‘Hello con,’ she will respond, and gesture to the đồ chay. Collect the boxes of braised mushrooms, cá kho tộ, sliced gluten vịt, lemongrass fried tofu.
There was no collective name for this group of women who prepared boxes of đồ chay (vegetarian food) to sell and donate their profits to local Buddhist temples. Operating like a meatless drug den for lack of a food permit, this network—that was once only promoted by word of mouth and accepted patrons only within particular hours—has now dispersed.
These women all call me ‘con’. I speak Vietnamese mainly with my elders, never my peers. Any other honorific sounds alien to someone who is forever a child at the dinner table. The word feels like home.
‘Con đói bụng không?’
To take note of, and commemorate: the folded duck pancakes from Loving Hut in Bankstown, whose shopfront is flushed in saffron yellow; the mushroom and vegetable buns from A-One Bakery across Cabramatta Station, white cheeks aglow under the glass of its street-facing bain marie; the Asian vegan supermarket paradise that is Cabramatta’s Zen Gardens; the elderly retired gentleman in Bankstown, whose homemade banana bánh tét is second to none.
To enter the pedestrianised Freedom Plaza in Cabramatta, cross the threshold of the Pai Lau gate, a red ornamental arch gilded with Vietnamese, Chinese, Laotian, Cambodian and English inscriptions. Pass under the scroll that reads, ‘The World is For Us to Share and Respect’. Does this moral aphorism extend to animals too? I used to commute to Cabramatta to learn how to drive, and would buy steamed buns for the train ride home, or forage in Zen Gardens for some frozen dumplings, hotpot ingredients, or thick slabs of tofu.
After building his own tofu factory on the outskirts of Paris in 1909, the Chinese intellectual and political anarchist Li Shizeng delivered a series of presentations for the French dairy congress on the benefits of drinking soy milk. Soy milk’s oldest reference exists as a Chinese stone inscription from AD 25-220, during China’s millennia-long rule over Vietnam. As ‘an indigenous foodstuff with a presumed pattern of local consumption’, soybean milk initially emerged as a by-product of making tofu in China. The hegemony of Western ‘power cuisines’ established in the 19th century, which privileged fresh cow’s milk as a virtuous good, still complicates the racial dimensions of contemporary discussions on ethical eating. This dietary determinism—‘you are what you eat’—has historically purported that ‘the races which have subsisted on liberal milk diets are the ones who have made history and who have contributed the most to the advancement of civilization,’ as Rachel Laudan writes. The height of Western civilisation’s advancements indeed soars above us, raised on the bodies of (non-white) slaves, menial labourers or displaced civilians. A family like mine, that has lived through poverty and war, would understandably cling to the pleasures of abundant meat and all its trimmings. The famed American biochemist Elmer V. McCollum lauded cow’s milk as a determinant of societal success, claiming that:
Those people [of Asia and the Tropics] who have employed the leaf of the plant as their sole protective food are characterised by small stature, relatively short span of life, high infant mortality, and by contended adherence to the employment of the simple mechanical inventions of their forefathers. The peoples who have made liberal use of milk as a food, have, in contrast, attained greater size, greater longevity, and have been much more successful in the rearing of their young. They have been more aggressive than the non-milk using people, and have achieved much greater advancement in literature, science, and art.
I would not blame these supposed high mortality rates in Asia on deprivation of this miracle drink. Rather, I would blame (at least in part) its aggressive celebrants, the imperialists who claimed its ports to introduce Laughing Cow cheese, Bretel Beurre, canned pate, coffee and the baguette—a cross-cultural marriage that birthed bánh mì thịt and cà phê sữa dá, but also blessed Asia with a new milk: opium, the so-called ‘Milk of Paradise’. Flowers stop wars, but they also start them.
Many of my family photos from my childhood are situated around a birthday cake. Young cousins seated at the table with a ring of adults behind. These photos document my enduring love of the durian birthday cake from Jenkins Cake Shop in Bankstown, whose glass shopfront is dotted with fluffy tops of bánh bông lan coddled in parchment paper. The durian birthday cake is made of vanilla sponge layered on cream and ripe slices of durian meat. On top is a crown of strawberries, pineapple pieces and melon balls, encircling a cursive ‘Happy Birthday’ that is iced in the same red and green as the bakery’s neon sign. This cake has never been ravaged by a drunk woman’s fork, but neatly cut by someone who has fed me every other day of the year. My family have given me cake and with it, they have gifted me notebooks and the stories to fill them.
to kill: giết
to write: viết
to fix: sửa
Such a tonal language is cleft by minuscule difference. In the southern dialect of Vietnamese, you could mistakenly hear ‘to write’ for ‘to kill’ because the words sound almost identical. In an unfamiliar voice, you could mistake milk for a fix. I try to improve my pronunciation with every year that passes.
It is my birthday in a month though, and I accept that there will always be growing pains.
This piece was first published in Kill Your Darlings.
Lucia Tường Vy Nguyễn is a writer and arts worker living on unceded Dharug and Gadigal land. Her writing explores dichotomies of control and chaos in diaspora languages and virtual arenas. She has been featured in Runway Journal, University of Sydney’s Philament Journal, and Digital Artist Residency (in collaboration with BIPOC-focused collective Close isn’t Home). She currently works in communications for 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art.