Documenting Language and Archive in Vietnamese Diasporic Autobiography

Film still from No Crying at the Dinner Table by Carol Nguyen
Still from “No Crying at the Dinner Table” by Carol Nguyen.

Through the first-person aesthetic, filmmakers like Carol Nguyen (Every Grain of Rice, 2017 and No Crying at the Dinner, 2019), Julia Huynh (Chúng Tôi Nhẩy Đẩm ở Nhà [We Dance at Home], 2017), and Adele Pham (Nailed It, 2019) use stories in the past of refugee parents and communities, Vietnamese culture in the homeland, and the postcolonial experience in the host countries to explain the present experience. Aside from the story lines, these filmmakers express the residual past in the present through the mingling of languages and the use of archives to define their positionalities in the host country. In this essay, I will explore the documentation of the Vietnamese diaspora’s histories in autobiography documentaries that are rooted in family and community stories.

“The return of the subject” is how Michael Renov describes “the new autobiography” filmmaking movement[i]. It isa the combination between essayism and documentary, or public histories drawn from personal histories, that redefines the dominant narrative of nationalism. The national narrative tries to control by suppressing alternative histories in the process of structuralizing representation through stereotypical images. These works are self-representation but they also represent the people that have not been represented. The first-person in the autobiography shows the construction of personhood by the multiple interactions within the family and community. These self-representations attempt to interject the absence in history due to the violence of displacement that forces silence to become the survival strategy in the new land to suppress the trauma. Diasporas alternation histories can only be told when only the subjects can open up with any entrusted member of the communities

In Not Like a Native Speaker (2014), Rey Chow examines language as the site of memory transmission. Language creates the milieux de memoir, “the communal experience of memory that preserves and transmits culture.”[ii] However, in the postcolonial experience, the assimilation of colonial culture makes language the contested site between the transmission of dominant culture and minority culture. Vietnamese diasporic films witness the mingling and contesting of Vietnamese and English in the transmission of narratives between generations within a family or a community. The encounter of languages in the postcolonial experience in second-generation Vietnamese diaspora’s films, though acting as the form to deliver the stories, make visible and audible the anxiety of losing history and heritage. By representing this encounter of languages on the screen, artists inscribe their histories in their mother tongue in the very interactions of languages themselves and reclaim the narrative spoken by the Western media.

Every Grain of Rice from Carol Nguyen on Vimeo.

In Every Grain of Rice, Carol Nguyen tells her family story by evoking rice culture (the founding narrative of the Vietnamese culture) as a mediation on narrative. While Nguyen’s voiceover in English is the conversation between her and the audience (along with other cultural objects such as rice, traditional dishes, incense, the family dinner), the Vietnamese language is an audible cultural object, rather than the main narration of the film. Toward the end of the film, she injects a voiceover of her mother in Vietnamese, telling Carol how she watched her mother cooking rice. This single-line voiceover conveys the transmission of stories between women/mothers in different generations through the image of watching each other cook rice.

Rice acts as a cultural narrative of the Vietnamese identity, the role of women, and the organization of a family in the patriarchal Vietnamese culture. Carol Nguyen depicts the imagination of her Vietnamese heritage in the historic material of rice and cuisine. Also, she shows the image of the immaterial culture of rituals, such as the gesture of praying the ancestors, collective memory of a family meal, the sound of language, and the mother who speaks the language. Speaking English is her present reality, while cultural representations reside in the past memory. The Vietnamese language here is deliberately used as one of the heritage items that Nguyen is burdened to carry on throughout the process of assimilation in the settler country.

No Crying at the Dinner Table from Carol Nguyen on Vimeo.

While in Every Grain of Rice, Carol Nguyen tells the family story by herself, in No Crying at the Dinner Table, she lets each member tell their own stories. In this film, Nguyen stays behind the camera and speaks an accented Vietnamese intertwined with English words, while her parents speak an authentic Vietnamese, also intertwined with English. Only a Vietnamese viewer can notice that, with her sister, Carol speaks a Canadian English while still addressing her Vietnamese name, “Hiếu.” Carol’s parents also address Carol in her Vietnamese name, “Xuân.” Both names are translated into English subtitles as Carol and Michelle. The sister speaks to Carol and the parents in English.

Unlike her previous film, where  language is carefully structured, the mingling of languages here inhabits naturally in the interactions cultivated by the relationship between the artist and the subjects as family members. These interactions demonstrate the complex relationship with languages within an immigrant family. Other than the untold history of family members that can only be heard in a comfortable relationship with the artist, the encounter of languages here unveils a public history of the postcolonial experience within diaspora families.

According to Rey Chow, “From the experience of language as a foreign object with which the colonized must wrestle in order to survive, the colonized is arguably more closely in touch with the reality of languaging as a type of prostheticization, whereupon even what feels like an inalienable interiority.”[iii] Languages in Carol Nguyen’s films juggle between Vietnamese and English, detaching the mother tongue from self-identification and become prosthetic objects to substitute every communicative gap of one by another. Not forcing a complete singular comprehension of the film (different viewership experiences depend on the knowledge of the languages), Nguyen employs Vietnamese to do the histography of the Vietnamese diasporas in a settler nation by portraying how memories and languages operate within her family.

TRAILER: Chúng Tôi Nhẩy Đầm ở Nhà (We Dance At Home) from Julia Huynh on Vimeo.

In Julie Huynh’s Chúng Tôi Nhẩy Đầm ở Nhà (We Dance at Home), the Vietnamese language totally takes over the narrative. English is a substitute as in Huynh’s subtitle, or in the English introduction of her father celebrating Tết (Lunar New Year) in a Canadian college. The filmmaker may have control over the narrative of the film, but she instead creates a platform for her parents to tell their stories. In an email exchange with Huynh, she says that she does not want to interject the film with other narration voices, particularly in English. Her parents trusted her to tell their stories, and Vietnamese is the most comfortable language for them to communicate with her during the interview. The parents’ comfortableness with language to tell their stories demonstrates that language and how the stories are told are as crucial as the narrative itself when doing histography.

The language employed to tell the story is capable of determining which story the subject wants to tell and tell whom. Huynh also titles the film in Vietnamese with English translation in the parenthesis, rather than having an English title. According to Huynh, she initially had the Vietnamese title in the parenthesis, then she switched the title as a gesture to make a statement of her identity, along with adding diacritics on Vietnamese words to the subtitle. From this note, Huynh tries to act as an agent, or a moderator, to transmit stories that the parents told her to settler audiences. Yet, she acknowledges that she can never fully capture the Vietnamese of her parents’ stories in English. The anxiety and comfortableness of her and her parents in the use of languages reflect Renov’s “return of the subject” that is uncertain and unstable about if one should tell their stories to whom and how. These stories are only revealed in a particular circumstance and in the relationship between the subjects and the artist. The history here does not necessarily try to explain an ethnic story in the Griersonian tradition (John Grierson is considered the father of the documentary genre, for which the British state educated their citizen about their colonial lands, such as Canada and Australia), but a conversation between the parents and their child. Writing the history of the Vietnamese diaspora through autobiography, these filmmakers reveal the structural linguistic anxiety and do histography in Vietnamese to counter the dominant narrative in the host country in the attempt to define their positionality.


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