Monthly Archives: January 2011

DVAN’s Holiday Fundraiser—Reckoning with a Tour de Force

A managing editor of diaCRITICS remembers, in writing and in photographs, the holiday fundraising party celebrating the release of Isabelle Thuy Pelaud’s long-awaited book this is all i choose to tell: History and Hybridity in Vietnamese American Literature.

Originally I was supposed to fly to Seattle that night to visit my little sister, but I delayed my flight in order to attend something I just couldn’t miss, and to help with the silent auction. On January 14, the Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network held its first annual holiday party and second annual fundraiser in San Francisco. The night was an enthusiastic celebration of the release of Isabelle Pelaud’s book, this is all i choose to tell: History and Hybridity in Vietnamese American Literature. With a cover designed by artist, writer, and curator Viet Le, incorporating the exquisite artwork of Binh Danh, this book is not only groundbreaking but also an aesthetic treasure, much like the Vietnamese American literature described therein.

Honored by novelist Monique Truong as “immediately indispensable, exactingly researched, and beautifully written,” Isabelle’s volume represents a landmark achievement as the first book exclusively centering the literature of the Vietnamese American diaspora. The release of  this is all i choose to tell: History and Hybridity in Vietnamese American Literature is indeed a tour de force, and its reception created an air of festivity that set the mood for the evening.

Isabelle was first introduced by Elaine Kim (above,) UC Berkeley professor and acclaimed pioneer of the study of Asian American literature, who chaired Isabelle’s dissertation in the department of Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley. Elaine reminisced about her early impressions of Isabelle as a shy student newly immigrated to the U.S. from France, and expressed deep pride in watching Isabelle develop, throughout the years, into a nuanced scholar and author. Lorraine Dong, the chair of the Asian American studies department at San Francisco State, where Isabelle currently teaches as an Associate Professor, also remarked upon her respect for Isabelle’s work and its timely contribution to Asian American scholarship.

Then Isabelle (above) read from this is all i choose to tell: History and Hybridity in Vietnamese American Literature. These excerpts were situated within the larger context of her life story and her immigration to the United States. The audience learned that her mother was among the first Vietnamese to move to the U.S., where she lived in San Francisco before relocating to Isabelle’s birth country of France. In a lighthearted way, Isabelle offered anecdotes and insights as she read. She also thanked those whose support she’d received during the inception, development, and writing of her book, many whom were in attendance that evening. As in her daily life, Isabelle’s personal touches were warm and engaging, and her observations were profound and heartfelt.

DVAN members Lan Duong and Viet Nguyen (above) also presented Isabelle with a cake decorated with the book’s cover, in honor of her achievement and its impact on Vietnamese American studies.

The night also encouraged broader support for the writings and artworks of women from Southeast Asian descent. The silent auction of art, photography, and goods raised money specifically for the publication of DVAN’s anthology Southeast Asian Women in the Diaspora: Troubling Borders in Art and Literature. As expressed by contributor Quyen Truong, “By publishing their works and pushing the boundaries of literature and art, we want to demonstrate the global connections that bring such disparate groups of women together.” Editors Mariam Lam, Lan Duong, Kathy Nguyen, and Isabelle Pelaud (below) each eloquently spoke about the importance of this effort.

Throughout the evening, a slideshow featured visual works from this forthcoming collection of artists, and these images screened in the background as Isabelle and others read. She was followed by Jai Arun Ravine, Gayle Romasanta, Karen Llagas, and Andrew Lam (all below). Jai, Gayle, and Karen are all contributors to the forthcoming anthology, and Andrew has published Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora and East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres.

The readings were an important part of the holiday party and fundraiser, adding to both the festivity and the meaning of the night’s events. Behind the readers, the slideshow featured the compelling visual works contained within the manuscript-in-waiting. And by bidding in the silent auction of donated artworks and services, those in attendance also contributed generously to the future publication of Southeast Asian Women in the Diaspora: Troubling Borders in Art and Literature. At standing-room-only capacity, the reading and silent auction were both quite successful, and many attendees lingered until late in the night, including David Palumbo-Liu (below), Stanford professor and director of Comparative Literature. He is also the editor at Temple University Press who encouraged Isabelle to write her book.

DVAN concluded the night with a champagne toast to Isabelle—whose efforts inspired not only the inception of DVAN itself, but also the involvement of DVAN’s members and advisors, and the wisdom of her students, her colleagues, her teachers, and her reading audiences. The long-awaited release of this is all i choose to tell: History and Hybridity in Vietnamese American Literature allows us to celebrate the impact of a stunning achievement—the first book devoted exclusively to Vietnamese American literature. As James K. Lee (UC Santa Barbara) explains, “The poignancy of this benchmark is not to be missed.”

Yet the fundraiser also looked to the histories, memories, and identities of a broader community. The future publication of Southeast Asian Women in the Diaspora: Troubling Borders in Art and Literature is a crucial collaboration of Vietnamese Americans with other diasporic artists and writers descended from the sometimes-disparately-joined map of what constitutes Southeast Asia. This includes women of Vietnamese ethnic minority descent, such as the Hmong and the Cham, as well as those who trace their ancestry to Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Indonesia, Burma/Myanmar, the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and East Timor—whose stories, until now, have scarcely been told or visualized.

DVAN is still raising funds to cover publication expenses, since the collection is filled with quality color images requiring higher printing costs. And your donations are entirely tax-deductible. More importantly, you’d be supporting groundbreaking humanities work by Southeast Asian women in the diaspora. Fundraising efforts are ongoing, until the financial goals are met and the anthology is warmly welcomed within and beyond the Vietnamese diaspora, just as these publications by Isabelle Pelaud and Andrew Lam have been.

— photographs and commentary by Julie Thi Underhill, managing editor of diaCRITICS

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You Have to be Intimate with your Despair

Electronic voice: “This recorded call is from an inmate at a California state correctional facility.”

Dylan Rodríguez, Assistant Professor in the Department of Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Riverside, is a founding member of the Critical Resistance: Beyond the Prison Industrial Complex organizing committee.  Here is the conversation he had with Viet Mike Ngo through the prison phone, originally printed in the book The New Abolitionists: (Neo)slave Narratives and Contemporary Prison Writings.

Dylan Rodríguez: Mike, first introduce yourself to everybody.

Mike Ngo: My name is Viet Mike Ngo, and I’m a prisoner in San Quentin at this time, serving a life sentence for second degree murder. [Electronic voice: “This recorded call is from an inmate at a California state correctional facility.”] [Dylan and I] first got introduced through mutual friends; through the Patten College Program here. I met them because I felt that their politics were radical enough to really attack the program. So they hooked us up because we were both Asians, and there wasn’t really many Asians involved with the college program…who were radical in politics and in thinking, and that’s how we got hooked up, and I think its important because there isn’t a voice for radical Asian intellectuals and activists, and that was the main reason, main reason we got hooked up.

Rodríguez: Now Mike, one of the ways that people talked about you before I even met you was that you were somebody that was inspired by a lot of radical intellectuals, including prisoners.

Ngo: Most definitely. George Jackson shaped a lot of my political theories and helped mold them the way my thinking is today. And so my, our mutual friends also told me that you were involved, or liked a lot of George’s writing, and or were interested in this type of political activity. That was another reason we got hooked up.

Rodríguez: Who introduced you to George Jackson?

Ngo: That’s a good question. I can’t say one person introduced me to him, but it was a, it was a growth process for me. The more I got involved in trying to understand my environment, the space I live in, the more I got involved with the history of prisoners and the history of the politics involved in prison. That’s how I got hooked up with George. But it all comes from the will to understand your environment and to understand in a critical eye. Not just take it for granted and go with the flow. You have to be critical about the space you live in.

Rodríguez: What provoked you to start reading George Jackson to start thinking about your environment critically?

Ngo: The first few years after I got locked up, I wasn’t really involved with anything political….And so I fell in with a lot of the gangsterism that’s involved in prison; the cliquing and the racial segregation of prison make up. Then I got in school. Fortunately, when I first came into prison, they had the Pell Grants still available for prisoners. That’s where we were paid, or we were allowed to be involved in college programs in prison. And through that process, I got indoctrinated into critical thinking…just thinking in general, and history, and what have you. So that started my thinking process. Then I got here from Soledad. I got transferred from Soledad to San Quentin and they started up a program here. This is after the Pell Grants were shot down. So they started up a new college program that ran on a volunteer basis. And a lot of the students came from UC Berkeley, the T.A.s, the professors, and UC Davis, St. Mary’s College. And these teachers that were, at least to me, in my point, were a little more critical of history and about the United States’ part in history, in prisons too. And, so this made me think a little more and the book that really started kicking me off was Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. That’s when there was a time of my growing process that I really started being critical about everything I was taught, and it really opened up my eyes in a lot of things. Also, the church and religious [beep] entrenched in prison programs in California, and I got involved in this too, when I first got here, and this indoctrination process of religion, and how that co-opts or really stifles the way we think critically. And it really all came to a head [beep] at the major starting points of my political or my radical politics.

Rodríguez: Your movement from Soledad to San Quentin…[“Your call will be terminated in two minutes.”]…follows a lot of the movement of radical prison organizers from the sixties to the present….Including George who was of course assassinated at the place where you’re currently incarcerated.

Ngo: Right. That’s why George impacted my life so much, because when I was reading it, I was thirty-one; his age when he died, and I followed his footsteps and coincidently, I went through the same process he did. I first got sent to Soledad, did time there, I did some funk there, and then went to the hole there, and was in the same wing he was in. Then I got shipped here to San Quentin. It was really a lot of coincidences and a lot of eye opening things that really caused me to think more deeply about my life and my role here in prison.

Rodríguez: Do you think about yourself as trying to move in that same lineage, that same intellectual, political lineage as people like George Jackson and others?

Ngo: Most definitely. Although the context is different from then to now, I definitely, at least I hope I even fill the shoes of what that means. But yes, definitely, I want to create [beep] changes in prison. [Electronic voice: “Your call will be terminated in one minute.”]

Rodríguez: Mike, before I ask the next question, maybe we should hang up and can you call me back?

Ngo: I’ll call you back.

Rodríguez: O.K. Call me right back. [Break]

Rodríguez: Mike, you there?

Ngo: Yeah, I’m here.

Rodríguez: O.K. Good. So we just finished talking about how it is that you struggle to work within that same, within that same tradition, the same tradition of activism and radical, intellectual work that people like George Jackson W. L. Nolen and Yogi Pinell, who’s still up there in Pelican Bay, and all these other people, and you were saying how you’re in a very different context than those people were thirty years ago….Thirty years ago, there was a critical mass of prisoners, prisoners of color [“This recorded call is from an inmate at a California state correctional facility.”], black and brown prisoners especially, who were trying to educate themselves and were trying to mount both resistance and radical opposition to, not even just the prison regime, but to the structures of domination and oppression that define the United States. And you don’t have that anymore?

Ngo: Oh, it’s a total flip from the sixties and seventies. I still know some brothers here that were locked up then and they said they can’t even explain it themselves and they were involved with that process of this de-politicization of prisoners. They [beep] a lot of this process to the TV. Before, back in the sixties and seventies, we didn’t have TVs, and so people read. They read all the time, and during the political climate…

Rodríguez: Say, hey, Mike. Say that again to these students, man.
[both laugh]

Ngo: Do not watch TVs and read instead. But not just any reading. The readings that was going on in here were political reading. We were reading Mao. We were reading Marx. We were reading things that, thoughts that were contrary to the United States’ ideology. So it allowed us to be more critical of our space and where we live. And so when they brought the TV in, the books fell by the waste side. People don’t read anymore. And if they read, they don’t read anything about politics. They read about Jackie Collins and Sidney Sheldon. I mean, I’m trying to get the guys here to read, but they ask me for those books instead of others, and I try to throw my jabs and then shoot them something [beep]. But even then the reading level of my peers is really poor, and I don’t know how I can even start to tell them to read Marx or even George when they can’t read, or they can’t read well. So, it looks bleak, but at the same time, the people who are politicized, they’re very radical to me, I fell like they’re radical and they’re solid in their foundation, and I don’t worry about them switching in midstream….
But nearly everyone is ahistorical. They don’t want to look at history. And when they do look at history, they’re totally separated from it. They see no connection with themselves and history.

Rodríguez: One of the primary reasons that they might to abolish the Pell Grants for prisoners is precisely because of people like you.

Ngo: This is a great segue into what’s going on with me right now.

Rodríguez: Let’s talk about that.

Ngo: Me and about four other men here who are involved with the college program wrote a proposal, a very strong proposal, not even asking, demanding that we have freedom of speech in discussing issues in the program and what classes are taught.

Rodríguez: You had to write a proposal to ask for your freedom of speech in a college course?

Ngo: Right. Exactly.

Rodríguez: You know what? That sounds like the university too, actually. I should be quiet. [Ngo laughs.]

Ngo: So, these four or five guys who wrote this proposal asking for Ethnic Studies, more Ethnic Studies to be involved, asking to have freedom of speech as part of discussion on prison grounds and through correspondence, so we submitted this proposal to the volunteer facilitator in here and she disseminated it through the student body and it finally got to the administration. Well, the administration came and searched the five guys, four guys who were on this proposal cell, confiscated the personal letters their legal work, paperwork and then threatened to transfer us; threatened to retaliate against us for these, for the signatures on this proposal that we submitted. And this is, I don’t know if this is indicative of why they stopped the Pell Grants, but I know that historically, through the 1900s, that nationalist movements to get rid of imperialism in countries start with the leaders of the national movements being schooled in these [electronic monitoring beep] schools. So yes, I want the college program here, I want the Pell Grants to happen here, because it allows us to critically think of our environment and this process, it has a radical tint to it when we’re critical and it’s just so evident that the United States is not all peaches and creams.
[Both laugh.]

Rodríguez: But the point you’re making to me is very similar to the way that we would make arguments for things like Ethnic Studies departments and programs in the university setting in the free world, is that it offers us a space to actually struggle.

Ngo: Exactly. And it’s not all about how am I going to get a job. It’s a problem of how am I getting a job. It’s a process of how we shape how we get a job. It’s at the very foundation of our society. It’s not just about institutions and what kind of job can I [beep] paid.

Rodríguez: Right. [“This recorded call is from an inmate at a California state correctional facility.”]

Ngo: It’s about training how I can think and how this affects my life and those lives of people like me.

Rodríguez: So thirty years ago, you had radical kind of semi-underground political education circles between prisoners that was happening totally outside the sanction of the prison. People were kind of getting together passing literature around, they were having conversations on the yard, between their cells, stuff like that.

Ngo: Study groups. They had, we had study groups.

Rodríguez: It was the same thing on the outside too. There were people who were doing political education, community-based political education, student-based political education, high school, elementary school, all the way on through, right. And then that gets crushed when they start assassinating people, when they start…


Rodríguez: Exactly. Yeah. COINTELPRO, and everything else, and then the way that they reform the prison is they create these college programs, right. And it’s supposed to “domesticate” you.

Ngo: Co-opts you. It co-opts to [beep].

Rodríguez: Yet a few people like yourself and like others actually take advantage of the college space to create a new front of opposition and radical resistance on the inside, intellectually and practically, which is why it is that you’re facing this stuff now with the Patten College Program.

Ngo: Man, that’s what’s happening. We’re trying to break containment and we’re being retaliated against for it, and it’s indicative of how prisons administrations work, how prisons work.

Rodríguez: With you now where they’re threatening to transfer you is that the person or people who actually chose to report you were not even prison authorities, they were actually civilians.

Ngo: That’s right. See, this is a volunteer program. So the person that actually runs this program is a volunteer. Who is a graduate student at UC-Berkeley. She reported another professor to the administration saying that this professor on his own time is supporting my case against San Quentin and CDC of racial segregation. And so she reported this to the warden and then the warden banned him from coming in.

Rodríguez: So the warden would have never known this if this civilian volunteer hadn’t done the warden’s job for him.

Ngo: Exactly. Now, the warden has full trust in her and the program.

Rodríguez: The problem of the reform mentality is that you actually become more protective of the institution you’re trying to challenge and the institution itself.

Ngo: Yes. [“Your call will be terminated in two minutes.”] You know, the issue of reform is a complex issue, but yes, that is a side effect of reform and I don’t quite know how to address that. I’m still struggling internalizing what that means, reform and revolution. But yes, that is a definite side effect.

Rodríguez: Lets talk about your writing, how you envision, or how you would fantasize political connections between people like you, right, and then the people who might be listening to this interview in this classroom. We started corresponding and I started looking at your creative writing and your kind of political polemical writing. One of the grounds on which we’ve tried to form a political and personal relationship is through correspondence and through writing. So maybe we can talk a little bit about this struggle between the free world and the unfree world.

Ngo: Right, and our relationship, and how they interact. O.K. [“This recorded call is from an inmate at a California state correctional facility.”] I think on the individual level, I think we just have [beep] with each other. Not everyone in here has the same kind of…
I’m not at the same political level as others, so you can’t come in thinking that this is how prisoners are. You can’t stereotype prisoners to begin with, nor prisoners should stereotype people who want to get in touch with them. So just start off as friends, just people who write each other and get to know each other. But always be on a political tip, always ask questions and let them ask questions about you and what your role is and what do you do, and you know, and this automatically helps us to internalize how we are helping or hurting whatever cause or whatever lifestyle we’re trying to live.

Rodríguez: Well, Mike. You know what I’m thinking as you say that is that one of the strongest bonds that me and you have is the fact that we hate the state. When we actually get a chance to talk to each other in the visitors’ room, we’re always talking in hushed voices around those COs, because of what we’re saying to each other.

Ngo: Right.

Rodríguez: And I know that that’s the level at which I actually became your friend kind of immediately, was because I think we kind of sense from each other how much we hate this fucking country.

Ngo: Well, that was a big part of how we hooked up so quick.

Ngo: You have to read history and to understand the context that forms this place. Once you have a better understanding of that, then you’re going to say what we can do within the context of prison now, because it’s changed. So you can’t use the same methods as George did back then. You have to be more creative in trying to find new ways of promoting change. So, for those inside, always encourage, always help with the resources and what have you. With me, I started with writing. I felt my only weapon was writing; being critical about this place. Within my writing process I moved over to legal work, because I fell like that’s my next weapon. That’s the only thing I can do and do over and over again, and hurt the system. So, you have to be critical and for those on the outside, you have to think of ways to promote this critical thinking and create a thinking of how the people, how the organizations on the streets tackle the problems; social problems. By trying to change the laws by getting involved with politicians, by running for office, by having grassroots movement organizing. Those are ways of doing it….
We have to try to think outside of the box. That’s very important. I fell like I’m hurting these people because I thought outside of the box. What I’m referring to is that there are many policies and laws and just maybe conduce, the way we carry ourselves, we perceive that this is the way the law is. This is the way they enforce it. But if we think outside of the box and critique these laws and how they enforce it and these polices, we could try to pick out where these laws and politics are unconstitutional. This is how I’m hurting them now….
Language is very important in this because it helps form our mentality, our attitudes. If we always say we’re inmates and convicts, we always put ourselves in a power relationship that is legitimizing our captivity.

Ngo: They really don’t know what to do with me and my comrades right now. I mean, one minute they want to transfer us, another minute they tell us “we changed our minds,” because they don’t know what to do with us, because we’re thinking outside the box. We’re fighting. We’re actually standing up saying, “you know what? I have the right to challenge your policy, challenge the way you run things. Just cause you’re a pig and I’m an inmate doesn’t mean that I have to listen to what you say. That your word is law.”

Rodríguez: One of the themes that we’ve spoken to throughout this course is this notion Marilyn Buck articulates in one of her essays, where she used the phrase: “The right to struggle.” That seems a reflection of how reactionary the condition that we’re living in actually is, where people are not even talking about the right to eat, or the right to live, or the right to reproduce, or the right to exist. They’re talking about the right to struggle which means they’re talking about the right to struggle for those other rights. What you’re talking about, what you’re doing now, thinking outside the box, and acting outside the box is all actually above ground and perfectly legal stuff. And yet, people are having to fight just to do that.

Ngo: Hey man, the same things that the United States says about third world countries which have dictators, those are the same issues we’re going through here. It seems like they become more repressive when we try to exercise this right. Like with China and in Cuba, they say, “well, people can’t go out and speak their mind.” Well, that’s the same thing that’s going on here. We can speak our mind here, as long as it doesn’t threaten their security. Or it doesn’t threaten their ideology, or it doesn’t threaten their prisons. You can say whatever you want, but you can’t say it against them, basically. And so, yes, this right to struggle; we have to be able to voice our views, even if our views go up against those of our jailers.

I see my comrades sometimes. Like everyone, our energy is low. We lose hope sometimes and dwell in despair sometimes; a lot of times. But to me, I feel like you have to be somewhat intimate with your despair.
You have to understand it because it gives you a lot of strength; because once I no longer fear what these people do to me, I no longer worry about the repression they put against me when I struggle. When I exercise my right to struggle. So, I don’t want to dwell in my despair, but I have to be intimate with it ‘because some of my strength comes from this. So that’s what I can say about [beep]. If you fell like the odds are against you, that nothing ever changes man, that we’re fighting a mountain, always look at that and say, if that’s the case, we have nothing to lose. We have nothing to lose. And once you have that kind of mentality, these people start becoming aware of you, and you promote change this way. Yeah. That in itself is a win.

Rodríguez: I try to think the same thing; that the hope is actually in the struggle. It’s not even in the outcome.

Ngo: Exactly.

Rodríguez: It’s in the struggle.

Ngo: Exactly. [“Your call will be terminated in one minute.”] This is something me and my comrade talk about a lot. He thinks about strategies to hurt this place. And I’m cool with it because he knows the legal methods of doing it.

Rodríguez: Right.

Ngo: But I keep on [beep] that hey, you know, win or lose, it’s a process that we need to find some meaning to our lives. Me and my cell mate, my comrade that’s involved with this legal stuff that we’re doing, sometimes we sit at night, and after a hard week’s work where all our time is spent on research, typing things up, filing motions, doing 602s and the appeals and what we do in the future, sometimes we’re drained and we sit there in our bunks and we’re talking to each other of what our next strategy is. We ask ourselves, “Man, why are we even doing this?” And the answer we always get is that, hey man, we try to meanings of, right now, as it is, we think that we’re going to die up in here, because we have life sentences, the government isn’t letting no one out; that’s just the way it is.
So [“This recorded call is from an inmate at a California state correctional facility.”], so the things that we’re doing, we’re trying to show our peers, and those people who love us, man, that our life is not wasted. That at least if we die, we’re going to die trying to change this monster. And really, in essence, that’s where all our energy and hope and despair and all of that comes from.

Rodríguez: And that’s the thing that I think separates an individual like you, from quite a few people who are locked into the logic of trying to just simply obtain their freedom; not even to escape, but just to be released from captivity.

Ngo: In some of my dialogues with my peers, this comes up because I’m so intimate with it; so during our political conversations, it automatically comes up. And they’re kind of taken aback by it, because they aren’t intimate with it. They have hope that they can get out of here, and in the back of my mind, I do too, but at the same time, that can’t take away from what we need to do here because of our fear of what they might do to us.

Rodríguez: If we take what you say seriously, then prison abolition is the only viable option.

Ngo: To me, if you’re going to understand the context, if you read into the history, how can it not be? At the very least, stop any new building of prisons. Stop the inflow of new prisoners. Stop a moratorium or any kind of growth of prison, at the very least. And we could have a better understanding, a grip on this, of what’s going on. But we have to admit…this is a monster man. If people can’t see that, and they don’t, all I can do is, sometimes is just put my head down and run with what I have man, because I look around and see what’s around me, I mean, I lose confidence. I lose faith in what I’m doing because it seems like I’m the only one. I’m the only one, and it’s ugly. That’s why it’s very important to find a group of people; comrades man, basically. You have to find people who love you man, and that’s the biggest problem in here in prison. If we had more access to people who think and feel like us…
It helps us do the work. Because we’re so isolated in here and out there at least you guys have the opportunity to sit down and break bread with each other….With people who love and feel the way you do….That’s where you get your energy from. We get our energy from our despair and our hate and a lot of things that have to do with love too, and love of wanting to live. But it’s overwhelming at times; so you have to use whatever advantages you have; and for a free person, that is your advantage. So definitely utilize it. That’s something me and my comrades dream of. We dream of being around our family members, or even around just our comrades who love each other so that we can get some energy back. We could know that, hey, we’re doing this not so that we have more time outside of our cell, or phone calls, or whatever; we’re doing this because, man, our children, the lives of our children are at stake…the future.

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Doing Time Has Its Nightmares

Viet Mike Ngo, a writer, an activist, and a prisoner serving a life sentence, gives us a glimpse through the bars and into his head.

Viet Mike Ngo is a prisoner of the California Department of Corrections (CDC). He was incarcerated at age seventeen for the murder of a fourteen-year-old rival gang member. After allegedly engaging in “inappropriate activities” in the prison chapel, Ngo was prevented from participating in special programs, including religious activities.  Two months later, Mike Ngo filed a lawsuit against the CDC that went all the way to the Supreme Court where judgement was ruled (6-3) in favor of prison officials. Ngo is now a writer, activist, political educator, and continues his legal battles with the CDC over its racial segregation policies. He has participated as a guest speaker and lecturer in conferences, classes, and organizing sessions. Formerly housed in San Quentin, he is currently a prisoner at Avenal.

SAN QUENTIN, Calif. –– Peter slams the driver’s side door and storms toward the liquor store, mad about Junior calling him a beer gopher. “Don’t walk away mad, just walk away!” June yells out the window after him, laughing. Sitting in the back seat, Tuna and I smile at each other, shaking our heads. There’s never peace between those two.

Then Tuna’s smile leaks into a grimace. I know I have the same look even before I follow his eyes to the barrel of a nickel-plated revolver pointing in the driver’s side window: a rival gang member. We must be slipping. Reflecting off the barrel, a neon Budweiser sign flickers from a bad connection, like the rhythm of my heartbeat. This Bud’s not for me, I pray and look at the inside of my coffin: a two-door, hatch-back Datsun. The barrel nods. “Remember me?” says nickel-plate, then June explodes out of the passenger-side door as a white flash floods the inside of the car.

“Boom!” I bolt out of bed, kneeing the metal locker inches above my legs. Cursing my neighbor for slamming his cell door, I lay back down resigned. Escape in dreams is as futile as escape in reality — five gun towers and twenty-foot-high walls are my daily reminders of that truth.

I soak in my surroundings as the last images of the street fade. My cell: two beds, one on top of the other, a sink, a shitter, and two lockers — all inside a space eleven feet long, four and a half feet wide, and eight feet high. I crawl off the top bunk in the lifeless, gray twilight and get ready for work.

While I’m brushing my teeth, a nasal, female keen begins its daily, drawn-out announcement: North Block inmates have ten minutes to exit their cells and get to work or face the consequences. If given only one wish made good at that moment, a wish for a muzzle on the P.A.-system banshee would beat out a wish for a parole date. I grab my Walkman and a Neruda book and exit the cell as my cell-mate enters. My cellie greets me with a smile and a “Good morning.” I give a weak grunt and leave. I understand married couples have mornings when their partners’ presence is sickening. You can imagine how prisoners forced to live with each other must feel. Ducking and dodging the mental patients who double as prisoners — men who are still drowsy with last night’s psych meds — I make my way out of the musty housing unit.

As I walk up and out of the dungeon, the slate-gray, overcast sky reminds me of climbing out of the Datsun eleven years ago. That day anger, frustration, and, mostly, fear wrapped itself around a cold ball of lead in the pit of my stomach. If Peter hadn’t come out of the liquor store shooting, who knows what would’ve happened. As it was, nickel-plate retreated behind a car, shot back at Peter, and disappeared around some bushes, hitting nothing but the liquor store. On my way home that night, I promised myself two things: make nickel-plate regret not killing me, and never again get caught in such a helpless position. I should’ve known that by exacting vengeance on him, I would find myself in yet another helpless position — indefinitely. But instead of the back seat of a parked car and a drawn .357 Magnum, it’s now a recreational yard and five sniper rifles.

Three steps outside the housing unit, two guards are checking IDs, laundry bags, inmates’ destinations, anything and everything they want. They are yard cops and my immediate bosses. My job mainly consists of typing write-ups: records of rule violations by inmates. Since I am one of three clerks, my work load is minimal. The majority of the day I spend reading, writing, exercising-doing things that benefit me and not my oppressors, which is the main reason I vied for this job. There is only one drawback. In typing a write-up, I’m technically assisting in lengthening a prisoner’s incarceration, a fact I abhor and struggle with daily.

My bosses are in the middle of a joke as I check in: “You see the look on his face when I told him to get naked?!” This is a tactic used to intimidate prisoners deemed to have too much attitude. The official reason for the unclothed-body search is that the prisoner seemed suspicious, but the truth is, the guards didn’t like seeing the anger and frustration on his face when he was ordered to let his possessions be searched.

The guards smile at me and I return the same. My smile, however, is tempered with the knowledge that the unfortunate prisoner could’ve been me if I wasn’t their clerk. Between laughs, the taller of the two says the Squad has a write-up for me, then hands me a paper bag. The Squad is California Department of Corrections’ CIA, FBI, and DEA all rolled up in one. He winks and says, “Merry Christmas.” The bag is filled with items from the commissary that were confiscated from the naked prisoner: tobacco and coffee. He didn’t have a receipt to prove he purchased the goods. I reply with a hollow “Thank you” and head toward the office area, holding the bag and feeling like the driver of a getaway car after a robbery.

A few moments later, I pass another checkpoint. A guard is harassing an inmate for smoking in a designated smoke-free zone. His master-speaking-to-slave tone shifts to dog-in-heat-seeking-relief when a nurse walks by, heading to the infirmary and smoking a cigarette. Just as quickly, he is back playing the overseer speaking to the field hand. Ya know smokin da masta’s crops illega in dees here parts.

I round a bend and walk by the Adjustment Center, which is on my right and is better known as the AC. It is a squat block of a building decorated with barred windows. The AC houses a hundred of California’s most infamous prisoners and has a hundred cells and four miniature yards: the entire world for these prisoners. I don’t know what kind of adjustments occur in the center, but the few prisoners who exit its gates are often headed to the infirmary, if not the morgue.

To my left are four prison chapels: Muslim, Jewish, Protestant, and Catholic. These neat, white-painted buildings stand together facing the AC, looking like spectators at a lynching. I’ve always found the proximity of these buildings symbolic. Now if I can only figure out who’s praying for whom. Is society praying for the individual who has failed so miserably, or is it the other way around?

Through two swinging doors, I walk to a heated office where inmate clerks are busy typing. I sit down at my word processor, situated in the corner of the room, and scan the handwritten charge: possession of heroin. The hapless addict is facing an extra three months.

I put on my Walkman and begin transferring the handwritten text onto forms specific to the write-up charge. I’m hoping the music will take my mind off my part in giving another prisoner more time. It never helps. After every correction I make and every word I type, I become more and more ill. It’s as if I’ve swallowed something abominable. Worse: poison. Yes, I am killing myself. Every time I partake in this feast, where the powerful eat the helpless, a part of me dies. I feel sorry for the nearby clerks, who must see my agonized countenance. I glance up and see my pain on all their faces.

The write-up completed, I exit the office and head around a bend and down a slope to the Squad’s office. Climbing five steps, I press a buzzer and wait. A moment later, a Nazi stormtrooper appears in a CDC jumpsuit, collects my folder, and sends me off with an unholy grin. I now know how Dante felt leaving the Ninth Circle.

At the bottom of the steps, I stop and hang my head in shame. To my left is the spot where George Jackson was murdered. I bow. I ask the Soledad brother to forgive a brother-in-spirit who’s degraded himself by helping to lengthen another prisoner’s incarceration. My daily tug-o-war between principles and comfort continues. Am I compromising my beliefs? If I worked as a janitor in the prison infirmary or as a clerk in the warden’s office, wouldn’t I still be assisting the oppressors? But comforts win yet again.

I head for the recreational yard to sweat the disgust off my body. A crisp wind bites through my state blues, carrying with it a message from the dead: Don’t be too hard on yourself, lil’ brother. Your time will come and when it does, you’ll make me proud. I feel the shackles of imprisonment loosen on my limbs.

Floating by the first checkpoint on a euphoric high, I see a guard shooing away two homosexual prisoners as if they’re mangy mutts who’d gotten too close to him. My body feels like a dead weight once again. Descending two flights of stairs to the yard, I find a vacant picnic table and take off my denim uniform, all the while thinking that only flies and their offspring have picnics here.

Wearing sweat pants that I’d had on under my jeans, I run. I run from guilt. I run from reality. I run to escape. Thirty minutes later, I am on all fours, almost retching from exhaustion. The taste of shame a little less sharp in my mouth, I grab a seat on a bench and watch as demons chase other prisoners around the quarter-mile track.

My mind wanders. I hitch a ride with clouds drifting overhead. I see myself lying on their cottony softness, being transported to better times: I am in the uppermost compartment of a linen closet. Hiding behind sheets and towels, I find solace in the fragrance of washed laundry and darkness.

A booming voice over the P.A. system pulls me away from my childhood refuge. The yard is closed. I get dressed and shuffle back to the stairs with the rest of the herd, wondering if I will ever find peace in darkness again. At the top of the stairs, I stop. “Escooooort!” Death in handcuffs is flanked by flak-jacketed badges. I turn away from the condemned man and face the wall, a mirror image of the prisoners around me. I look to my left and see that a young Hispanic man with tattoos adorning his neck and face is reading his life line in the cracks on the wall. To my right, a long-haired, bearded white man, who reminds me of a short Jesus, is eyeing the ground, drooling for a chance to pick up the cigarette butts. I hand Jesus the brown bag filled with the loot that I’ve been carrying. He warily peeks inside, then hugs the bag to his chest as if all his earthly possessions are contained in it. I wonder what I look like in their eyes. They probably see what I see every morning in my pocket-sized mirror toothpasted to the wall: my father, a veteran who lost his country, and his dreams.

After a decade of incarceration, I still don’t understand the logic of having to turn away from death-row prisoners who are escorted from one part of the prison to another. Shifting slightly, I see the condemned man being led to the law library around the next corner, holding his legal work in hands shackled behind his back. There is a disciplined calmness in his walk and demeanor that triggers my memory. I saw the same aura surrounding Buddhist monks in my homeland — right before they set themselves on fire. Maybe the administrators don’t want us other inmates to see the indestructible human spirit on their faces because the chamber, chair, or needle is useless against such an opponent. “Escoooort!” Zombies scatter. Or maybe the administrators don’t want the condemned to see our faces. Since we are the ones who look like the walking dead, the misery of the condemned would be diluted by the knowledge that we’re all damned when we’re imprisoned.

Turning away from the burning monk, I melt into the stream of men heading back to the housing unit. The smell of cooking meat is heavy in the air-tonight’s dinner. I taste bile in my mouth. Ahead, the six-abreast herd of men is bottlenecked at a doorway one and a half men wide. After a few minutes, I enter a bustling morgue.

Five tiers and two hundred and ten cells — each originally built to hold one man but now accommodating two — stare me in the face. I’m reminded of a giant beehive where death has made his home. I follow the inching flow of rush-hour traffic around a corner and see the same monster: another five tiers and two hundred and ten cells. Finally, on the two-foot-wide stair that I’m sure was a fire escape in a prior life, I ascend in single file, along with the other hundred-plus worker bees.

There are men standing in front of their cells, some talking seriously, some laughing. Others are panhandling door to door for a fix of coffee or tobacco; many are showering, and many are still dreaming in a Thorazine-influenced sleepwalk. The buzzing of eight hundred men is almost insanity-inducing. I can understand why every so often a new booty climbs the stairs to the fifth tier and, instead of stopping, continues over the railing, his scream lost in the cacophony.

When my father and our family joined the crowd at the U.S. embassy’s gates during South Viet Nam’s collapse in 1975, I wonder if in his wildest nightmare he imagined a future like this for his son. I wonder if he believes that by cheating his fate — sure imprisonment for his anticommunist views — he may have angered the gods to such a degree that fate, crawling out of the shadows of time, finds my flesh much sweeter. I try to imagine what his life would’ve been like if he had stayed in Viet Nam. Could it be much worse than my life now? I snort and laugh. After twenty-five years of Americanization, I still can’t shake my cultural superstitions.

On the narrow tier, I have to squeeze by two youngsters in deep conversation. “I would die for you, homeboy!” I hear one say to the other. Gangster bonding. Words I lived by for much of my life. In hindsight, I recognize what a hollow truth that was. It’s not that I wasn’t willing to die for my homies — I was; and, in a sense, by serving a life sentence for killing a rival gang member who threatened them –I am. The hollowness about it was that I was hollow. Under my silent and fearless exterior, which I mastered by practicing the philosophy that men are like rocks — hard and emotionless — I was empty inside. It was as if a chain hung around my neck with a heavy medallion of nothingness attached to it. And instead of the chain resting on my chest, it sunk into my chest cavity, banging into ribs and organs, rattling with my every breath. I have an impulse to correct the young Al Capone: I would endure nothingness for you, homeboy! But I don’t. Gangster etiquette.

Once in my cell, I flip on the radio. As I peel down and get ready for my shower, I hear there’s been another school shooting. I don’t know if I’m more disgusted with the waste of human life or with the media circus sure to come afterwards. Probably the latter. The greater waste is when death becomes entertainment for the living. I can already hear the grave voice of a commentator asking, “How can we as a community not see the signs that lead up to such a tragedy?” They should’ve used their ears instead of their eyes. The clink, clink, clink of chain and nothingness against ribs is unmistakable. Even under the maddening din of blaring speakers, slamming gates, screaming whistles and alarms, I can still recognize its hollow ring. It’s most noticeable at night, when I’m counting stars on a moonless ceiling and everyone’s asleep. The ringing reminds me of chimes on the front porch of my childhood home. Coming home from elementary school, I would find the house empty. And no matter where I went in the house, even the farthest bedroom, I would hear those chimes ring. I’d even go into the bathroom and close the door, but still I would hear those chimes. After a few years, the ringing became part of me.

Along the tier and down a flight of steps and I’m at the watering hole. It’s crowded: twenty-eight showerheads for eight hundred men. Fourteen showerheads are reserved for blacks, the other half for the rest of the population. The Old South is alive and well in California prisons. C&D air is blowing through a door twenty feet away, and puddles of foul water lie in wait on the ground: a fungus minefield. How many more of these showers must I endure to get clean? I hold my breath and submerge myself in inhumanity.

I get in and come out quickly, but not quickly enough. Someone has mistaken the towel and boxers that I hung up for his own. I walk back to my cell naked and wet. While I’m toweling off in the cell, my name is blared through the loudspeaker. I have visitors. I forgot that this is the time of month my parents pay their respects. My family has two altars for paying homage to dead family members: one is on the mantel above the fireplace of our home; the other is in the visiting room at my prison.

Mom and Dad are sitting at a knee-high table, hunched over vending-machine food. They seem to be praying like they do at home in front of the fireplace, bowing to pictures of my grandparents and making food offerings. Instead of the sharp scent of incense, cheap perfume chokes the air. They greet me with smiles that fail to reach their eyes. We sit and my mom begins telling me about life being too hectic at her age; about trouble with the in-laws; about my nephew being old enough to walk and talk and ask why his uncle is in prison. I feel like a ghost hearing her thoughts as she kneels in front of the fireplace. Next to me, my dad sits silently, eyeing the people around us who remind him of dead Americans he once knew.

Two hours pass quickly. Visiting hours are over. We get up and my mom starts to cry. I hug her and am still amazed that her head only reaches my sternum. I wonder how a woman of her small stature can carry such enormous loads of suffering. She fled her homeland to save her husband from imprisonment, only to find imprisonment waiting for her son in America. I stroke her trembling back, trying to soften her pain, remembering the way she used to comfort me as a child: humming my favorite lullaby while passing her gentle hand through my hair. I hear the same lullaby and realize I’m humming it to her. She looks up at me with tired eyes in tears, telling me that she’s ready for her picture to be placed on our mantel, but that she holds off eternal peace until the return of her son. My dad pats me on the back and repeats, “Hang in there. Hang in there.” I look into his eyes and get the feeling that even though he’s looking at me, he’s addressing himself. It’s as if he believes that the life sentence I’m now serving should be his and that if he survives his guilty conscience, then I will survive my sentence. I pull away and disappear in a sea of tears and farewells. In the strip-out area, I wait in line to let a stranger look into my body cavities.

Back in my cell, I take my mind off my problems by reading a book by Neruda. Blood has fingers and it opens tunnels underneath the earth. How did a Chilean poet describe an experience that only a Viet Cong could know? Pondering yet another of life’s ironies, I let Pablo’s words, the clinking chimes, and the occasional toilet flushing, whisper me to sleep. I’m in the back seat of a parked car. It’s not a Datsun but a military jeep. There is no laughter, although Peter, June, and Tuna are in their usual places. Instead of leather jackets and dress slacks, we’re wearing green military fatigues. A bead of sweat slithers down the back of my neck and then down my spine, leaving goose bumps in its wake. There is fear in the air that is thicker than the sticky heat surrounding everything. This is not California. I’m wondering why Peter isn’t leaving to buy beer when I realize we’re not at a liquor store but a road block. I see a group of armed Vietnamese soldiers, dressed in military fatigues different from ours, approach our jeep. Something is definitely not right here, yet everything is eerily familiar.

My boys file out of the jeep, and I’m about to do the same when the barrel of an AK-47 pounds my chest, knocking me backwards onto the seat. The barrel eases into the driver’s side window and nods. Remember me? The words do not come from human lips. I have a picture of something that crawls on its belly and lives in shadows. In a voice not my own and filled with resignation, I answer, Yes. Boom! An intense, burning pain digs into my chest. I look down and see a smoking hole leaking blood and, next to it, a name tag. TU DO, it reads. My father’s name. I look up and see my father’s face staring back at me in the rearview mirror. I gag.

Bolting out of bed, I knee my locker and grab my throat, not wanting to swallow my tongue. On the P.A. system, a nasal female voice is in the middle of a drawn-out threat.

~Mike Ngo

originally posted on New America Media.

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Double Trouble: Hồng-An Trương’s Visual Archives (Part II)

Viet Le introduces us to the visual artist Hồng-An Trương and her compelling work–part 2 of 2.

This is the second installment on Hồng-An Trương’s Adaptation Fever video series. This segment outlines It’s True Because it’s Absurd (3:00) and  Explosions in the Sky (Dien Bien Phu 1954) (3:00).

Sporadic Diaspora

For diasporic subjects, the gaps between official history and individual memory are immense. But what constitutes history and memory, home and exile? The eternal process of looking and not seeing oneself reflected, refracted constitutes loss, liminality. In mining visual archives of black and white colonial postcards and grainy celluloid footage, nostalgic and horrific, Trương suggests that things are not so, well, black and white.

Coming of age in the shadow of 1990s multiculturalism, Hồng-An Trương makes work that destabilizes fixed notions of nation-hood and identitarian politics. She examines how subjects are varyingly constructed and interpellated through religious and state institutions. Speaking of Adaptation Fever, Trương states,

“I was looking at Catholicism in terms of it being a very obvious and powerful process of colonization, and an irreversible part of the war. At what point does colonization become not objectifying. I was thinking about it in the context of politics and the wars, and Catholics who stayed in the North and what their sympathies are because we assume that all Catholics left and moved to the South.” I wanted to break down what we think about Vietnamese politics and identity. (Võ 2009, italics mine)

Adaptation Fever is informed by many migrations: colonial movements of laborers, clergy and colons; the 1954 internal exodus of Vietnamese (largely from North to South Việt Nam) after France’s defeat and withdrawal from its former colonies; and more recent resettlements.

Truth or Dare

Its True Because it’s Absurd also features a female voice recounting a personal narrative: a retelling of a true story Hồng-An Trương’s mother told her about witnessing a child playing with a gun shoot his mother accidentally: “ . . . I was standing there holding your hand. She was standing next to me holding a baby and the baby fell . . .”   The background sound drones; in the distance, soldiers can be heard. The processed voice speaks in a measured cadence, belying the measured distance of recollection and its unreliability. The voice sounds like a ghost in the machine.

It’s True Because it’s Absurd opens and closes with a black-and-white shot of a dirt road between rice fields— soldiers hidden in the roadside foliage suddenly appear and march; the footage rewinds and they are again invisible. In between this looped footage, the viewer sees planes dropping rations; close-up footage of urban streets during wartime—debris and dirt, children staring vacantly with their packed possessions, their home vacated; a young man lying bloodied on the street, still alive with a woman crouched next to him; smiling children playing with a gun; two identically dressed women in front of a political sign. One cannot tell exactly what year, what decade this is, only that it is wartime. Instead of literally mirroring and doubling images, the images are uncanny, full of doubles. Let’s revisit them: two parallel rows of soldiers, visible then invisible; two children with their tongues sticking out playing stick-up; two women in white hats and outfits, their gaze blocked by sunglasses.  “Do you remember?” the disintegrated voice asks again and again. This is the way memory works: it loops back upon itself, mental images replay, rewind, become distorted. She says, “I remember it later, afterwards . . .” Trương’s mother is perhaps the sole bearer of these memories, not the artist, not the woman who got shot by her child. All of the details have been forgotten; the documentary footage sutured together forms another recollection, both imagined and real. What is the truth and what is fiction? And do we dare unearth the “truth”? The initial site of shock and trauma is later reconstituted in memory, reconstructed verbally and visually. The forgotten past suddenly appears, like the anonymous soldiers once hidden in the thicket.

Darkness and light. In  Explosions in the Sky (Dien Bien Phu 1954), a black screen suddenly reveals white explosions, an artillery cannon hidden in the thicket shooting heavenward. The white blasts become strobe-like as the tempo of the soundtrack picks up, a Vietnamese cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s 1966 smash “Sounds of Silence.” The familiar, haunting melody and lyrics become unnerving. “Hello darkness my old friend . . .” Written as a song about youthful alienation, it was subsequently claimed by an American generation as an anti-Vietnam War anthem, although that was not the songwriter’s original aim (Kingston 69). For this flower generation’s Vietnamese counterparts, the song embodies the ambivalent legacy of the American War in Việt Nam—the smoky mental image of dimlit Sài Gòn bars blasting American songs, American and Vietnamese soldiers memorialized by Hollywood war epics. Trương’s use of popular culture—particularly music—has a more somber cadence and affect than Nguyễn Tan Hoang’s campy/poignant use of found footage and war-era songs sung by an exiled Khánh Ly or French love songs covered by Thanh Lan in videos such as PIRATED! and Forever Linda! The Vietnamese lyrics anonymously sung in Explosions in the Sky are not a direct translation of the original “Sounds of Silence”: “Từng người đi qua bóng tối đêm/cùng cầm tay đi bước với nhau . . . ” I imagine South Vietnamese soldiers—perhaps my then-fresh faced uncles who have since survived reeducation camps—half-lit by fire strumming this song in Vietnamese, their voices echoing in the dark. The half-life of longing and loss. “Hello darkness…” Their voices make me homesick, but I don’t know where home is. Perhaps homesickness is “the process of looking for family members and not seeing oneself there.”

Their voices echo to the present in the small living rooms (altars of memory and incense) in Little Saigons all over the world. Their voices echo to the grainy distant past, flashes of brilliance then void. The past, indeed, is a distant colony. The French lost the 1954 Battle of Điện Biên Phủ to the Việt Minh, leading to the demise of its colonial empire and the bifurcation of Việt Nam into North and South (Berndard 469). The dividing line of history and memory is blurred. The ever-present past is not represented by a barricade of specific images but by an abstract barrage of black and white—flickering ghosts.

Again we are looking at the night sky. Voices echo; desire and void. I cannot bear to look at Trương’s sky. I am heartbroken. The artillery fire—darkness and light—rends gaping holes in sky; it slow burns constellations in my mind’s eye. We suture what remains, the gaps immense.


More on Trương’s work can be found here: and

Việt Lê

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Double Trouble: Hồng-An Trương’s Visual Archives (Part I)

Viet Le introduces us to the visual artist Hồng-An Trương and her compelling work–part 1 of 2.

In this two-part blog entry, excerpted from a longer anthology essay, I will briefly introduce Vietnamese American experimental filmmaker and writer Hồng-An Trương’s series of video shorts entitled Adaptation Fever (2006-07)—comprised of four videos. This first post discusses The Past is a Distant Colony (9:00) and A Story in the Process of Self-Alienation (5:00). The second installment details  It’s True Because it’s Absurd (3:00) and  Explosions in the Sky (Điên Biên Phủ 1954) (3:00).

“As a viewer, I’m constantly looking for my family. For me, the process of going through the archives, there’s always the process of looking for family members and not seeing oneself there.” (Võ)

–Hồng-An Trương[1]

A forty-something tender-eyed friend tells me about constellations and his family, his parents who died during wartime. I imagine him as a child with the same eyes gazing with his mother and father at the night sky, orbs glowing. Darkness and light. As an exiled adult, he couldn’t bear to look heavenward in the dark, the memory of loss unbearable, a black void. He too is looking for his family, himself; they cannot be seen, found—they are forever lost in the dark. At night he dreams of gaping holes in the undone sky which he tries to suture together with thread—the gaps immense.

Hồng-An Trương’s artwork also suture the gulfs in memory and loss, desire and void. National and personal memory, historical trauma, and colonial desires are undone, stitched together—the gaps immense.  In these works, the past is ever-present in archival black and white, darkness and light—French colonialism, the American war: crisp white linen suits, somber Catholic tunics framed by white hands, white artillery sparks in a black sky. The legacy of Enlightenment and Cold War discourse upon “dark-skinned” people remains spectral, stereoscopic: carte postale Paris, camouflage and colons. Dark jungles and wide white boulevards, black robes and white heat. For Trương, the process of locating oneself, dislocating the gaze of colonialism and the Hollywood machine is an ambivalent one, a process of endless deferral.


Mirror, Mirror

The Past is a Distant Colony is formally striking in its symmetry—uncanny archival images of French-occupied Việt Nam mirror each other, framed by black borders. Dealing with the formation of colonial subjects and their ambivalent subjectivity, the video features panning shots of benediction, mass, and ecstatic gestures and smiling faces at what seems to be political rallies or celebrations.

The “true” visual center of The Past is a Distant Colony —“a thin demilitarized zone between opposing images” as Việt Nguyễn describes it—is void. Moving images mirror each other on the periphery—East and West, North and South Việt Nam. Desire and void, darkness and light. The legacy of the “scopic regime” of Enlightenment rationality, a singular Cartesian worldview, with its overarching mono-focal vision of civilization’s grand vistas is disrupted, doubly troubled (Jay 1988).

The verbal soundtrack for these disconcerting images are two women speaking intermittently in Vietnamese and in French, with minimal subtitles. The refusal to translate is important.

The female voices reflect a double consciousness—a stereoscopic, stereophonic, perhaps schizophrenic subject. The final sequence spoken in Vietnamese and subtitled in English reads, “We are constantly moving towards/ but never quite reaching/ is some sense of union with the ultimate being,/ a constant revelation./Like looking in the mirror at someone who is me/ who is not me” (italics mine). This doubling, mirroring speaks of how colonial (and religious) subjects are formed as well as the process of disidentification. Postcolonial theorist Franz Fanon has written about how the colonized mirror the actions and agendas of their colonizers. Yet the mimicry is imperfect, the mirror’s reflection refracted, distorted. In the mirror’s gaze, there is misrecognition.  . . . the process of looking . . .  but never seeing oneself there. For psychoanalytic theorist Jacques Lacan, the mirror stage is a crucial stage in establishing the formation of the ego, of distinguishing the imaginary from the Real. But what is real and what is fantasy in the colonial imagination?

Alien Nation

The dream-like vignettes of A Story in the Process of Self-Alienation opens with low-angle camera shot of a lone mysterious woman sitting on pavement edged by grass and a nondescript institutional edifice, her black hair obscuring her face. Her outstretched hand, rested above her left knee, slowly gestures. One is not certain where she is located in time and space—is she a seventies’ radical? Later a female voiceover details a Vietnamese parable about two twin brothers, a young woman, and ill-fated love (and betel nuts!). Intermittent subtitles translate this oration, interspersed with clips of crowds marching and parading. A Vietnamese tune is sweetly, sadly sung. The singer reveals that it is a song sung by classmates about farewell. Perhaps the mysterious woman is waving goodbye to the past, the present, to herself. Both the story and the song hint at the nightmare of separation.

Perhaps the process of self-alienation is a hallmark of both colonization and capitalism. Racialization is a process of alienation, whether in late empire or in late capital. Racial subjects are marked as other, alienated from themselves, from community. They are alienated from a sense of worth. Self-alienation becomes a by-product, whether in the name of work or the worker, whether under the cultural logic of socialism or capitalism (or any combination thereof—think China or Việt Nam).

Karl Marx has famously written about alienation—workers’ estrangement through labor and capital. Political scientist Robert Tucker notes that the young Marx’s original focus on the inward clash between man and himself shifted to the outward clash between capital and labor: “Self-alienation was projected as a social phenomenon, and Marx’s psychological system turned into his apparently sociological mature one” (175, italics mine). The psychological ravages of self-alienation become multiplied—again, note the video’s crowd shots—institutionalized. From the individual to the institution, from the psychological to the sociological, the course of estrangement is relentless. A Story in the Process of Self-Alienation is a fractured narrative—a love story, a bittersweet swan song—about late empires.


[1] For an insightful discussion of Hồng-An Trương’s Adaptation Fever, please refer to the online artist interview by Võ Hồng Chương-Đài. Thanks to Võ Hồng Chương-Đài for her generosity and friendship.

Check this blog soon for the second segment on Hồng-An Trương’s work! In the meanwhile, more on Trương’s work can be found here: and

Việt Lê

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Free Tickets to Banana 2: Conference on and for Asian American Bloggers

Into blogging? Asian American? Then Banana 2 is the event for you. Check out the press release and video below for the 2nd conference on and for Asian American bloggers. At the end of the post are instructions on how you might win two free tickets to the event if you’re a diaCRITICS reader!


LOS ANGELES (Jan. 10, 2011) — A most wanted list of Asian Pacific Islander American bloggers from across the country will participate in BANANA 2 on February 26, 2011, from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. on the back lot of CBS Studios in Studio City, Calif.

BANANA 2 is a follow-up to the inaugural convening in Nov. 2009 co-hosted by Lac Su, author of I Love Yous Are For White People (HarperCollins, 2009) and Steve Nguyen, a television/film producer and head of the’s Los Angeles division, who enlisted the help of a small group of bloggers and community activists to produce an event highlighting and amplifying the online voices of Asian Americans.

“We are excited to have a talented group of established and up-and-coming bloggers from the APIA community at this second annual gathering to share their voices, knowledge, endeavors  and visions with others ñ bloggers and non-bloggers, APIAs and non-APIAs,” said Su. “All of the bloggers expected to attend have unique views of their own community, and will share their progression as an APIA blogger.”

The conference will provide an opportunity for bloggers and their readers to build a stronger community by beginning conversations and building relationships beyond the conference. Conference panels will include topics on using blogs and social media to create meaningful social change, working with businesses and corporations and defining the role of Asian American bloggers.
The first gathering featured bloggers from Angry Asian Man, Minority Militant, 8Asians, Neaato (Network of Entertaining Asian American Talent), Hyphen Magazine, Mochi Magazine, Channel APA, Bicoastal Bitchiní, AArising, Antisocial Ladder, Nikkei View, VisualizAsian, Kimchi Mamas, Asian Pacific Americans for Progress, DVAN (Diasporic Vietnamese American Network), bigWOWO, and Sepia Mutiny.

Conference admission is $20 per person. Participants will be able to register online at now until Feb. 25, 2011. A complete schedule of panels and presenters will be announced in late Jan. 2011.

A list of articles, posts, photos and video related to last year’s gathering is available at the end of Gil Asakawa’s blog post at You can connect with BANANA 2 at and at


To enter, go to, select this blog (diaCRITICS) from the menu, and submit your name and contact information. The entry deadline is Jan. 25.  The passes are just for conference admission and
don’t include travel or lodging.

Dark Tourism to Pulau Galang

Many will be familiar with the name Pulau Galang, a tiny Indonesian island just south of Singapore that housed an Indochinese refugee camp between 1975 and 1996. The island is in my thoughts because I just finished working on a book chapter, co-authored with Boitran Huynh-Beattie, on the evolution of the forgotten camp into an “accidental museum” of the Indochinese boat people crisis. While the traces of the camps in Malaysia, Hong Kong and elsewhere have virtually disappeared, Pulau Galang is unique in that it has been preserved more or less in the state in which it was left after the last of the 145 000 refugees to pass through there had departed.

For former refugees, especially those who left family members in the disturbingly large cemetery there, or who lost them at sea on the way to landfall in Indonesia, Pulau Galang has become a kind of pilgrimage site. A trickle of curious visitors, mostly coming from Singapore, also passes through the island, which receives about 1200 guests per month. The local business association, including some former camp officials, were quick to grasp the opportunity to encourage refugee visitors and other tourists to come to the island. They represent a rare source of income in this economically stagnant, forgotten corner of the Riau archipelago. Former camp staff have turned the old administration centre into a somewhat weird and wonderful museum of camp life, and have made other small attempts to “script” it as a tourist site, such as pulling rotting boats up into a formation below the old camp centre, and erecting English signs.

Hanoi has reacted in a rather excessive way to the coming into being of this humble museum. The Vietnamese government asked Jakarta to tear down a monument commemorating the “thousands who perished on the way to freedom” which had been erected in 2005 by a group of refugee visitors led by Sydney newspaper editor Luu Dan. Jakarta complied, and local authorities knocked out the inscription, leaving behind the startling image of a centreless monument. More recently, Hanoi has asked that the camp be closed down entirely, and suggested that it be turned into a resort!

I  visited the island in 2002 when I was living in Singapore. It was an eerie and surreal experience. Walking through the old hospital, I saw one room with beds piled on top of one another to the ceiling. In another, thousands of yellowing medical files sat in teetering piles on the floor. The old protestant church was in ruins, while the Mahayana Buddhist temple and the Catholic church had been beautifully restored. Many of the former barracks were rotting away into the jungle, and Vietnamese signs for hairdressers and cafes were still legible. The cemetery was perhaps the most memorable part of the experience. The “naive” or unprofessional artwork adorning the headstones was powerful and pathetic at the same time. What really reduced me to tears was reading a misspelled inscription to a lost family member roughly scratched by a childish hand into the drying cement.

One of the key questions posed in our paper was around the semiotics and ethics of transforming Pulau Galang into a venue for what is called in the literature “Dark Tourism”, i.e. tourism to sites of death and suffering. All of the refugees we interviewed who had visited Pulau Galang were positive about the way the heritage value of the former camp had been recognised and preserved by the local administrators. They were also positive about the idea of non-refugees being educated in the history of the Vietnamese boat people by the experience of visiting the island. Some did hint however that they felt there was a contradiction between the bullying and exploitation they suffered at the hands of Indonesian officials at the time, and the totally different local attitude (in some cases in the minds of those selfsame bullies) about the value of the former camp as a heritage site today.

For my part, I am concerned at the sensationalisation of aspects of the camp’s history that I feel has gone on in the process of marketing it for dark tourists. Chinese Singaporean and Malaysian visitors, for instance, are treated by tour guides to a gory narrative about the deaths and suicides that occurred on the island. The place has gained something of a reputation for being haunted, and some go there expressly to seek information on winning lottery numbers from the spirits! Others go to the Quan Am temple to pray for boy children.

The “museum” created by the local amateur curators is also, for me, quite chilling in the way it invokes the nightmarish bureaucratic logic of camp life. The display of photographs of former internees and their identification tags shocks more than informs, and at first glance it is troublingly reminiscent of the display in Cambodia’s Tuol Sleng death camp (another example of a dark tourist site that is routinely misinterpreted by visitors because of the strategic way it has been curated). I had to pinch myself to remember that the vast majority of those in the tiny identification photographs on the walls of the old admin centre on Pulau Galang had in fact been happily resettled.

Perhaps most disturbing of all is the way the meaning of the site’s history risks being diluted in the way it is presented to casual or “non purposeful” dark tourists. The Batam business association, who run the site, seeking to placate Hanoi, have proposed removing “Vietnamese” from the signs announcing Pulau Galang as a “Vietnamese Refugee Camp”. The prospect arises here of the island losing its historical meaning, and being presented to visitors merely as a generic site of human suffering, trauma and death.

While it seems hard to imagine the island completely losing its assocation with the war and subsequent events in Vietnam, the fact that the marketing of the site is taking this direction is far from ideal. One suggested antidote would be to negotiate with local Indonesian officials for former camp internees and their children, especially those with some experience in museology, to have more of a formal role in the curating of the site.

Ashley Carruthers

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