Monthly Archives: June 2011

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s ‘Arthur Arellano’: A diaCRITICS Fundraiser


Our very own editor Viet Thanh Nguyen’s short story Arthur Arellano is up for an important prize through storySouth’s Million Writers Award. diaCRITICS managing editor Julie Thi Underhill explains how his award will help diaCRITICS, and how you, too, can do your part. 

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Viet Thanh Nguyen

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Arthur Arellano involves a man’s disintegrating marriage and borrowed liver, amidst the counterfeiting of goods and identities. My favorite line is: I’ve tried love,” Louis said, as if it were a kind of soft, malodorous French cheese. Poetic turns of phrase move the narrative arc from beginning to end, and it’s easy to see how storySouth could give such high honors to this tenderly and deftly rendered portrait of four people, including the Mexican-American namesake of the title, and Louis Vu, the son of Arthur’s liver donor.

Arthur Arellano was published this spring in Narrative magazine, a widely-read print publication and online library of new literature. It was then chosen as one of the top ten online stories of 2011 by storySouth‘s Million Writers Award, a competition which recognizes the best short stories published each year in online magazines or journals. It is probably the most comprehensive award given for online fiction in the United States, so it is no small honor to make the top ten in any given year.

However, Viet’s short story is currently competing against nine other stories. And if he wins the first place prize of $600, he is donating his entire award to diaCRITICS to fund the redesign of this very blog. He wins when you vote for him.

To read his story for free, you must sign up with Narrative Magazine, yet the process is rather simple and quick. Then you can read Arthur Arellano for yourself and vote on the story, if you’re so inclined. Readers and writers may vote one time for their favorite by clicking here. Time is of the essence, as voting ends soon, on July 6.

Although Viet might be better known around here as the editor of diaCRITICS, the author of the seminal Race and Resistance: Literature and Politics in Asian America, and an associate professor of English and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California, he is also a very accomplished fiction writer. His short stories have appeared in Manoa, Best New American Voices 2007, A Stranger Among Us: Stories of Cross-Cultural Collision and Connection, Narrative Magazine, TriQuarterly, the Chicago Tribune, and Gulf Coast, where his story won the 2007 Fiction Prize. He has finished his first collection of short stories.

For a taste, here’s the beginning of Arthur Arellano:

OF THE MANY unexpected things that had happened to Arthur Arellano, the transformation of his modest garage into a warehouse, stacked with boxes upon cardboard boxes of counterfeit goods, was far from the most surprising. Written on the boxes were names like Chanel, Versace, and Givenchy, designers of luxuries far beyond the reach of Arthur and his wife, Norma. Their presence made Arthur uneasy, and so it was that in the week after Louis Vu delivered this unforeseen wealth to the Arellanos, Arthur often found himself slipping out of his rented house at odd hours, stealing down the pebbly driveway past his Chevy Nova, and opening the creaky garage door to ponder the goods with which he was now living so intimately.

'Arthur Arellano' appeared in this print edition of 'Narrative'


Julie Thi Underhill is managing editor of diaCRITICS and a doctoral student and instructor of ethnic studies at UC Berkeley. She’s previously written for diaCRITICS about her ‘authenticity’ as a Vietnamese AmericanDemocratic Kampuchea’s Genocide of the ChamIsabelle Thuy Pelaud’s launch party for this is all i choose to tellUCLA’s VSA culture show tribute to Tam Tran, the first San Francisco Diasporic Vietnamese Film Festivalan exclusive “intervu” with writer Vu Tran, a radio interview between Isabelle Thuy Pelaud and Andrew Lam, and the Southeast Asian Women in the Diaspora anthology.

Viet Thanh Nguyen is a Los Angeles-based professor, teacher, critic and fiction writer, author of Race and Resistance: Literature and Politics in Asian America and numerous short stories in Best New American Voices, TriQuarterly, Narrative and other magazines. He is the editor of diaCRITICS. More info here. Read his latest story here.

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Reading the American War: Tatjana Soli’s The Lotus Eaters


To experience history through the lens of combat photographers. Tatjana Soli’s novel The Lotus Eaters explores the trials of being a war photographer during the American-Vietnamese war. Here, guest author and critic Chris Galvin gives us her take on The Lotus Eaters.

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On the surface, The Lotus Eaters is a war story and a love story. On a deeper level, the book delves into the ethics of journalism, the psychology of why people would want to photograph, write or fight in a war zone, the psychology of crisis, and issues of culture.  Though it is a fictional tale, Soli weaves in so many historical places and events that the novel is realistic and believable.

The central characters are three photojournalists; Helen and Sam (Americans), and Linh (Vietnamese), who work together, covering the conflict in Viet Nam. The book opens with the fall of Sai Gon, then takes us back to twelve years before, progressing until it takes up the thread where the beginning left off.

The title comes from the characters in Homer’s The Odyssey who travel to a far place, eat the fruit of the lotus and lose all desire to do anything but remain and dine on “the honeyed fruit”. The themes of forgetting one’s homeland, of becoming hooked on place, and of love and war as addictive drugs are touched on frequently throughout the novel. Characters each have their preferred fruit of seduction. For some, it is the war itself: “The war doesn’t ever have to end for us.”

Through characters who want to make a difference before they can consider going home, Soli examines the fine line between philanthropy and feeding the ego, and the difficulty of returning to safety and everyday life after living the horrors of war. She looks at problems of choosing between what one wants to do and what one should do; quitting for the good and safety of self and others vs. staying on for what could be the big career break; getting out before it’s too late vs. staying to see the end, pushing it to the limit, and risking everything.

As in real life, some characters become addicted to the fear and adrenaline, the challenge of going out on missions, getting the best photo or story and then one-upping themselves by getting an even better one. They each need to be the first one there on a scene and it’s never enough. Fulfillment comes only briefly when they’ve stared down death and come out alive. The country, the war and this need become synonymous for them. But for a few, the lure of Viet Nam goes much deeper. For Helen, “leaving was like dying”.

Linh is the other side of the coin, his main desire being to get away from the war. However, while the Americans have the option of going home to peace, he cannot escape; the war is in his country.  Linh too, has his lotus, but it is not so immediately obvious as those of the others.

Associated Press photographer Nick Ut looks at his iconic Vietnam war photo. Image Courtesy of the Associated Press.

“…what I came to find

Soli’s characters, like the real foreign soldiers and journalists who went to Viet Nam, have various reasons for being there. Some want to be heroes. Others are just doing a job, or don’t want to be there at all. Helen has layers of interconnected reasons. She arrives hoping to discover the truth about what happened to her brother, who had gone earlier. As a woman in what is considered a man’s place, she also has something to prove, both to herself and to others.  Very few women photographers went into battle zones, and weren’t welcome until they had proven their mettle. (It is interesting that the U.S. view of the war was decidedly macho, with the women who saw active duty mostly serving on the sidelines, while the VC they were fighting against had no trouble with the idea of women carrying heavy guns and slogging through the jungle.)

Some foreign correspondents were there hoping to make a difference, to portray the truth and help to stop the war, while others just dreamt of winning a Pulitzer.  Soli’s photographers represent both types. They risk their lives to be the first at scenes of mortal combat, some to get exclusive photos which might make the cover of Time or Life, others to capture the photo that will change the way people understand war.

Helen is looking for something more.  She is on a constant quest to see beyond the surface of the war and the people involved. She wants to know what drives the soldiers, and looks for those rare people who go deeper, who want to understand the local people and the land, who discover the “secret of place”. In seeking to find herself, she also becomes one of these people, a change from her initial view when she first arrives, of Viet Nam as merely a third-world, war-torn place for an adventure.

Catherine Leroy spent 3 years in Viet Nam as a combat photographer. Image Courtesy of 173rdairborne.net.

The ethics of the job

In the first chapter, Helen bats away a woman’s hand in order to get a picture of another who has just died, telling herself she’s earned the right to take the photo. It is here that Soli first introduces the moral problems of being a war photographer.

Soli compares them to vultures, swooping down when there is a kill. They revel in the perfect photo, “an incredible shot…a real tear jerker” then feel ashamed of what they’ve done. They must become jaded, unfeeling in order to get up close in the face of death. But is it possible to become so callous? What happens to those who do? Soli also questions the power a photograph has to enlighten and to create outrage against war. Does constant exposure to horrific images stimulate change or does it just deaden the impact? Is there any redemptive aspect to the capturing of such images?

Truth and lies

The issue of ethics is closely tied in with the question of truth in journalism. Part of the story of war is the belief that photos don’t lie. The author points out that they can and do:  the photographer chooses the subject, the angle, the lighting, and what’s in the frame to express a specific point of view, and to influence the impressions of those who will see the photos.  Photos of innocent villagers shot by scared Americans can appear to be photos of dangerous hostile forces. “Hard facts were difficult to come by.”

During the war in Viet Nam, the lies stretched all the way from the top down. One of the biggest ongoing lies, perpetrated by those in command, was that the US was about to win, even after it was obvious to everyone that it was futile. (Reporters who dared to tell the truth were criticized by the American administration and President Kennedy asked The New York Times to remove David Halberstam from Sai Gon for his truthful but negative reports. Furthermore, the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, used to give a legal basis for the war, was built on a lie.)

In the first chapter Soli works in the fact that the Vietnamese who were permitted to leave during the last flights out after the fall of Sai Gon were classified as “dependents of the Americans” and points out that in fact the Americans had been dependent on them in order to survive; all part of the lies of the era. This theme of lies is threaded throughout the book. There are lies to conceal intentions, lies to protect identity, big lies and small lies. Sam and Helen continually pretend to each other and indeed it is necessary, just for them all to make it through.  Sometimes, people know something is a lie, but they want so hard to believe that they ignore the truth.

Cultural issues

Even though the Americans and the ARVN (Army of the Republic of Viet Nam) were supposedly fighting on the same side, they were really two solitudes. Neither understood the other. They didn’t mix for the most part.  Many of the Americans viewed all Vietnamese suspiciously as the “other side”. Soli’s Vietnamese photojournalist, Linh, though he is working with Americans, always moves among them under a shadow of otherness.

Through Linh, Soli illustrates the difficulty of communication between people who don’t understand each others’ ways of thinking. To learn to truly understand a culture one has to see how it is rooted in the history and geography of a people and their land.

Linh sees the other photojournalists from both an insider’s perspective (as a war journalist), and the perspective of an insider looking at outsiders (a local watching the foreigners), which gives him a clarity the others don’t have: “Day after day, I go out with photographers who are tourists of the war.”

Towards the end of the book, one of the journalists muses that “the whole country remained a cipher”. Most of Soli’s Americans never get to know the people or the country. Those who mix in with local people, eat local food, “go native”, are viewed as weird by the majority, who are there only to do a job, or to be heroes for their own country. “Vietnam was nothing more or less than what they purchased during R&R in the bars and the streets of Saigon and Danang.”

American combat photographer Dana Stone was captured by the Viet Cong in 1970; his remains were never found. Photo Courtesy of babyloncartel.com.

A recommendation and a few quibbles

At first, I found myself distracted by a number of errors in the writing, including problems of style and grammar, and some misspelt Vietnamese words. However, Soli has done such a good job of researching, imagining and writing the story that these mostly receded into the background.

The book is written from multiple points of view. In chapter one, the author suddenly jumps to the thoughts of a different character several times, sometimes in the middle of a paragraph. In some cases it takes a few lines before the reader realizes that the author has made this switch. For the most part, the changes in the rest of the book are well handled with new paragraphs or chapters to mark them. Having Linh’s point of view in the story is refreshing, and Soli has written him as a very believable and well-developed character with a complex background, offering a view of the war from a local perspective.

This is a minor quibble, but a glossary might have been nice for the military terms. The book isn’t heavy on them, but still, I found myself flipping back to the beginning, looking for the first mention of LRRP, because when I came across it again two thirds into the book, I’d forgotten that the acronym stands for long range reconnaissance patrol. Some readers might be curious to know that LZ stands for landing zone, or exactly what a Claymore is (and if Soli had researched the definition, she would have known that they are never detonated by the pressure of a footstep, but remotely or with a trip wire).

Overall, I highly recommend this book.  It is accessible for readers who don’t normally care to read war stories, and includes perspectives not usually found together in the literature of the American- Viet Nam war. Soli’s attention to detail gives the story an intense realism. The huge amount of research that went into the novel is evident in these details and in the comprehensive bibliography. She also includes a shorter list of good suggestions for further reading. It would have been nice to see a few more works by Vietnamese authors on the list, especially since one of the three main characters is Vietnamese. There are over forty books included in her bibliography and recommendations, out of which five are by Vietnamese authors. This lack can’t be blamed on a paucity of such works in English, as there are many translations available.

Book Review by Chris Galvin

The Lotus Eaters

Tatjana Soli

Dec 21 2010

Paperback: 416 pages

Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin

ISBN: 978-0-312-67444-1

Chris Galvin divides her time between Canada and Vietnam. Her photos and literary non-fiction have appeared in Room Magazine, Khám phá Du lịch Việt Nam / Vietnam Tourism Review and Dac San Van Lang Boston. Her work is also pending publication in SPLIT Quarterly, Spezzatino, and an anthology, The City We Share. She is currently writing a book of essays about life in Viet Nam.

Please take the time to rate this post (above) and share it (below). Ratings for top posts are listed on the sidebar. Sharing (on email, Facebook, etc.) helps spread the word about diaCRITICS. And join the conversation and leave a comment! How do you feel about war photography being dominated by the Western gaze? Have you read the book? What are your thoughts on  Soli’s narrative through the eyes of combat photographers?

A Sensory Life: Andrew Lam interviews Monique Truong


Andrew Lam interviews Monique Truong about her novel Bitter in the Mouth. Listen to the interview here!

[before we begin: have you heard about our subscriber drive? win an iPod and other prizes!]

In earlier posts diaCRITICS has featured reviews of Monique Truong’s Bitter in the Mouth by guest authors, Thuy Dinh and Stephen Sohn. The novel is an interesting read about a Southern girl’s childhood and experiences with synethesia, a neurological condition that causes words to produce taste sensations. But here, writers and friends, Andrew Lam, author of Perfume Dreams and East Eats West, and Monique Truong, whose first novel was The Book of Salt, gives us an intimate look at Bitter in the Mouth.

In the New America Now interview, Truong gives us a glimpse into Bitter in the Mouth. She begins by reading a brief passage of the novel in a clear, calm voice.  Then, with questions from Lam, she opens up and converses about Bitter in the Mouth and its personal and creative background. From the intimacy between friends,Truong shares her experiences as a “Southern girl twice over,” being born in South Viet Nam and then relocated to Boiling Springs, North Carolina, as well as her career change from lawyer to novelist. Truong also gives insight into the development of the novel from an interest in synethesia and how she tries to weave in the sensory with the literary.  Moreover, Truong teases us and hints at an interesting turn of events, which diaCRITICS cannot not review.  So pick up Bitter in the Mouth and find out what it is!

Experience the interview and Truong’s reading excerpts of Bitter in the Mouth, here, at New America Media.

Please take the time to rate this post (above) and share it (below). Ratings for top posts are listed on the sidebar. Sharing (on email, Facebook, etc.) helps spread the word about diaCRITICS. And join the conversation and leave a comment! Have you read Bitter in the Mouth yet? Thoughts and impressions? What about the twist in the second part of the novel?

Comic Book Artist Thi Bui Battles GB Tran & Remembers Home


What happens when two Vietnamese American graphic artists get together? A battle to tell the story of the Vietnamese American experience through the medium of the graphic memoir. diaCRITIC Jade Hidle is on the front lines and reports on the interesting turn of events and introduces us to Thi Bui, an up and coming comic book artist.

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Back in February, I wrote a diaCRITICS review  of GB Tran’s graphic memoir, VIETNAMERICA,  which traces his parents’ escape from Việt Nam and his first visit to the country. (If you haven’t read Tran’s memoir yet, you MUST pick up a copy now!) Since reading and reviewing Tran’s book, I have been looking forward to seeing how Vietnamese Americans will continue to contribute to the comic genre and how that art form will open up possibilities for remembering and articulating our histories. Luckily, I didn’t have to wait long.

On newsstands now, Hyphen  magazine’s Bittersweet Issue features a collaborative graphic essay, “Double Crossings,” by Tran and Thi Bui, whose graphic epic, The Best We Could Do, is currently in the works.

A peek at "Double Crossings" from hyphenmagazine.com.

In her portion of the essay, Bui humorously illustrates how, upon reading VIETNAMERICA, she declared Tran her arch-nemesis for beating her to the punch of writing the first Vietnamese American graphic memoir. One of her panels in the essay imagines “challenging him to a duel on the rocky Scottish highlands.” But, then she realizes that her frustration with Tran parallels and perpetuates the long history of hostility among Vietnamese, that collaboration should trump competition. Tran’s half of the essay, like Bui, celebrates being able to share with her the complicated process of telling histories of war and immigration through the comic book genre.

"A duel on the Scottish highlands" from thibui.com.

Tran and Bui’s collaborative essay offers a glimpse into both artists’ storytelling talents, visual and verbal, as well as their perspectives on, and processes of, representing their families’ histories in an art form that, though diversifying, is still commonly associated with fictional tales of superheroes and other worlds. For more on Tran’s and Bui’s challenges and catharses in writing about real family experiences in this world, check out Hyphen’s web exclusive in which the artists interview each other.

Tran and Bui interview each other. Image from hyphenmagazine.com.

After getting a taste of Bui’s work, I was eager to learn more about her project, so I promptly ordered the first chapter of her forthcoming graphic novel, available here. In Labor, Bui narrates giving birth to her son in 2005, a visceral bodily experience that is layered with memories of her mother. This powerful connection between the body and memory collapses the divide between past and present, and is suggestive of how history-making is a continual process. Speaking to this point, upon the birth of her son, Bui writes, “family is now something I have created—and not just something I was born into.”

The cover of Thi Bui's "Labor." Image from thibui.com.

At a visual level, Bui’s illustrations are comprised of stark black lines that capture the stand-out images of birth—the placenta hanging from the doctor’s hands, for one, and the psychedelically exaggerated size of the doctor’s head when Bui gets hooked up to the drugs to induce her labor and dull her pain. Bui’s humor comes through, too, when she candidly illustrates herself learning to change diapers and breastfeed, the latter panel featuring drawings of large breasts that crowd around Bui and her newborn son.

The opening chapter of Bui’s comic book only makes me want to read more, and I eagerly await the release of the full text. If you’re like me, you can keep track of Bui’s progress at her blog, This is a Place to Think in Pictures, where she consistently updates the status of her work, complete with images of her sketches, drafts, and rewrites.

For all of you fanboys and girls out there, how do you feel about the role of Asian Americans, as artists and as characters, in comic books and films today? Who are some of your favorites? What are some of the problems and potentials of Asian Americans in the comics industry? Let us know in the “Comments” section below!

The Bittersweet Issue at hyphenmagazine.com

Also, don’t forget to check out the current issue of Hyphen, not only for Tran and Bui’s collaborative graphic essay but also Baii Nguyen’s photograph of environmental activist Nobuko Miyamoto, along with articles on everything from Asian American spoken word poetry to post-birth traditions, the trials and tribulations of college admissions, and the magazine’s regular film and music reviews.

-Jade Hidle

Jade Hidle is currently a doctoral student in the Department of Literature at UC San Diego. She aims to write her dissertation on Vietnamese-American literature, with a focus on how narrative structures map struggles of the body–miscegenation, disfigurement, skin color–and identity.

Please take the time to rate this post (above) and share it (below). Ratings for top posts are listed on the sidebar. Sharing (on email, Facebook, etc.) helps spread the word about diaCRITICS. And join the conversation.  Leave a comment and respond to Jade’s questions!

Andrew Lam reads at the Asian American Theater Company


Andrew Lam doesn’t need much of an introduction around here.  His two books, Perfumed Dreams and East Eats West, are widely read and praised.  Here we get to experience not only Andrew reading from his book but even a few seconds of him singing a familiar and very American tune.

[Before we begin: have you heard about our subscriber drive? win an iPod and other prizes!]

This reading took place at the Asian American Theater Company in San Francisco in October 2010.

Please take the time to rate this post (above) and share it (below). Ratings for top posts are listed on the sidebar. Sharing (on email, Facebook, etc.) helps spread the word about diaCRITICS. And join the conversation and leave a comment! What was different about hearing Andrew read from his book?  What did you think of his singing?  Do you and your family karaoke?

“Southeast Asian Women in the Diaspora”: A Book & Its Fundraiser


Art lovers everywhere, swoon! Here diaCRITICS managing editor Julie Thi Underhill features some beautiful and intense artworks, while telling the history and motivation for the forthcoming anthology Southeast Asian Women in the Diaspora: Troubling Borders in Literature and ArtWith less than two weeks left to go in their Kickstarter campaign, the Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network is seeking donations towards printing of the numerous color images in this forthcoming volume. Although the Kickstarter campaign’s goal is capped at $2,000, DVAN actually needs to raise $20,000 in order to publish the anthology. Their Kickstarter campaign ends sooner than one week from today, on June 22. Consider pitching in to support this long-awaited and much-needed project. As the first book to exclusively feature Southeast Asian women artists, Southeast Asian Women in the Diaspora will promote the visibility and visuality of diverse artists and communities that often remain underrepresented. 

[Before we begin: have you heard about our subscriber drive? win an iPod and other prizes!]

When I first read the call for contributors for Southeast Asian Women in the Diaspora: Troubling Borders in Literature and Art, several years ago, I was initially struck by the centering of women’s experiences and by the broad attention to many geographical areas of Southeast Asia. The editors sought work from women “who trace their ancestry to Viet Nam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Indonesia, Burma/Myanmar, the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei or East Timor.” Yet even more phenomenal to me was the attention paid to ethnic minorities in Southeast Asia, “like the ethnic Chinese and Indians throughout Southeast Asia, and the Mien, Hmong, and Cham.” Not only were multiple nationalities and ethnicities recognized by the call for contributors, but also multiple disciplines — the editors welcomed short fiction, poems, personal essays, and artwork addressing (but not limited to) “youth, generational difference, nationality, identity, gender, sexuality, and class.” Seriously. As I read the call, I thought, how wonderful and rare that these editors specifically address Southeast Asian women artists, with an approach that’s multinational, multiethnic, multigenre, and multidisciplinary.

That might seem to be a dizzying array of intersections, for some. But for me that call for contributions gestured to my own identity-blurring, border-crossing, and genre-defying experiences as a woman artist, of Southeast Asian descent, born and raised in the United States. Perhaps similar to the other contributors, I felt that the call for entries was written specifically with me in mind. I am mixed-race Cham American woman poet, essayist, and photographer, whose mother is from Việt Nam. I’ve long noticed how Southeast Asian women are centered so infrequently, in any context, and how Cham ethnicity is never really recognized or encouraged. And rarely are visual and literary artists of Southeast Asian descent brought together, with all genres recognized. So I didn’t want to miss out on this groundbreaking opportunity for inclusion, since exclusion often keeps us at a distance, as unsettling reminders of what American society may prefer to forget. As the editors write, “our voices make visible in part the enormous ruptures caused by colonization, wars, globalization, and militarization.” These phenomena all resonated with me. So I chose my strongest unpublished writing and photographs, waited patiently, and eventually received an acceptance letter for an autobiographical essay and three photos. In the end, the editors selected the best essays, poems, and artworks from among the submissions. The final manuscript totaled over two hundred pages from sixty-one contributors, mostly based in the United States but also a few from abroad.

Anida Yoeu Ali - Palimpsest (image from installation)

Gina Osterloh - Anonymous Front

Tiffany Chung - Bubble Shooter and Friends

In many anthologies, visual work seems like an afterthought, yet not for Southeast Asian Women in the Diaspora: Troubling Borders in Literature and Art. Viewing a slideshow of the images chosen for the anthology, I was struck by the power and energy of the provocative selection. Yet upon realizing that fifty-five color images would cost the editors $20,000 to print, I was admittedly crestfallen. Granted, color printing is necessary for accurate representation of visual artworks — even black-and-white photographs have warm or cool tones. Color printing, however, is very expensive. I wondered how the editors would raise the money to print in color, in today’s bleak economy. More importantly, would this important collection receive the attention it deserves? “Featuring both the visual and the textual, the anthology will be the first of its kind in showcasing the artistic imagination of Southeast Asian diasporic women,” editor Lan Duong writes. “The anthology offers a bold counter to the dominant images and static narratives in both media and academia about women in the Southeast Asian diaspora.”

Such an effort is long overdue. Many years ago, struggles over discipline and genre derailed this project’s predecessor, an earlier-conceived anthology of Southeast Asian women’s stories. In 1997, University of California Berkeley graduate students Isabelle Thuy Pelaud and Anh Bui received funding to collect written and oral stories from Southeast Asian American women across the United States. Through a Humanities and Social Sciences Research Grant from UC Berkeley, Isabelle and Anh traveled to Southern California, Minnesota, New Orleans, and Houston to interview women of Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotian, and Hmong descent, with a goal of publishing an anthology of these women’s stories. Due to a lack of consensus, however, this hope diminished. With their adviser Khatharya Um, they had strong disagreements over what constituted a “story.” As a political scientist, Khatharya Um wanted Isabelle and Anh to focus only on women’s experiences, not on their creative or literary productions. A student of English, Anh wanted to accept only creative and literary work. And Isabelle, a student of Ethnic Studies, wanted to center both experiential and creative work — “as long as the stories were told well,” Isabelle emphasizes. However, due to these deep theoretical and conceptual disagreements over which “stories” were viable and valuable, the Southeast Asian women’s anthology collection was shelved indefinitely, the same year it began. Meanwhile the cultural productions of Southeast Asian women continued to grow more complicated and nuanced.

Kou Vang - Forgotten

Lin+Lam - Unidentified Vietnam No. 18 (film still)

Tran T. Kim Trang - Kore (film still)

Since the late 1990s, the Southeast Asian American community has dramatically changed. The population has grown demographically and professionally, with more children earning a secondary education, more Southeast Asians becoming teachers and professors, and more artists and writers producing compelling work. Within this context, Isabelle earned her doctorate in 2001 then became a professor of Asian American studies at San Francisco State University. As a Vietnamese-Eurasian-American, in 2008 Isabelle founded the Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network (DVAN) to encourage and promote artists in the Vietnamese diaspora, eventually becoming its executive director. Since 1998 she had been working on her doctoral dissertation, which she published in 2011 as the first book to focus exclusively on the literature of Vietnamese Americans, This Is All I Choose to Tell: History and Hybridity in Vietnamese American Literature (Temple University Press). Despite these accomplishments, however, the abandoned anthology project was still stirring in her consciousness. “The stories that I heard during that trip with Anh had stayed with me,” Isabelle explains. “I was personally touched. It was clear to me that women carry a special burden, especially when it comes to sexual assaults, stereotypes, and taking care of the family.” Isabelle concluded that there remains a real need for the visibility of these experiences.

As the demographic and professional dimensions of Southeast Asian women artists had become more complicated, Isabelle had remained involved in both academic and artistic communities. As a professor, working artist, and executive director of DVAN, Isabelle was connected with an interdisciplinary network of scholars who value both experiential and artistic works. These conditions eventually summoned the opportunity for a successful collaboration. So twelve years after abandoning the anthology, Isabelle approached the women members of DVAN in 2009 and asked if they were interested in reviving and re-envisioning the project. “To my delight, they said yes,” remembers Isabelle. At that point, Lan Duong, Mariam Lam, and Kathy Nguyen came aboard as co-editors. As university professors and writers, they divided the work equally — the community outreach, the call for contributors, the reading and selection of works, the fundraising, the writing of the introduction, and the editing and formatting of the book. Recognizing the diversity of the Southeast Asian American community, the editors also chose to expand the scope beyond the original focus on women of Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotian, and Hmong descent. Isabelle explains, “We decided to enlarge the category to also include women from Burma/Myanmar, Brunei, East Timor, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand.” They intentionally broadened the parameters of to dispel normative notions of the region as an area delineated only by Việt Nam, Cambodia, and Laos — as “Southeast Asia” was known during the Cold War and American wars in the region, and as “Indochina” was once consolidated during French colonialism.

Ann Phong - Box of Water

Nalyne Lunati - Kranok

Quyen Truong - Nightmare

As I’d noticed during the call for contributions, the editors also specifically sought works by ethnic minorities and stateless peoples who emigrated from these countries, including the Mien, the ethnic Chinese and Indians, and the Cham. In scholarship and in popular discourse, these populations are frequently overshadowed (as are Cambodians, Laotians, and Hmong) by the comparative visibility of Vietnamese Americans. Granted, the Vietnamese represent the largest refugee cohort in U.S. history, whose frantic flight from Việt Nam in 1975 signifies the “first wave” of three waves of Vietnamese refugees to depart mainland southeast Asia and arrive in refugee camps and dozens of host countries around the world. The Vietnamese also bear the racial and ethnic mark of the name of the undeclared armed conflict – “The Vietnam War” – a moniker obscuring that the American war in Việt Nam crossed into Cambodia and Laos, and targeted more than the “Viet Cong” and “North Vietnamese,” as U.S. history puts it, when historians mention the war at all. Those who’ve emigrated from Southeast Asia as a result of warfare are far more nuanced than the label “refugees from the Vietnam War” would lead anyone to believe. Yet the cultural and historical complexities of Southeast Asian refugees are frequently lost, as “the war” in Việt Nam overshadows varied other identities and geographical origins.

Despite their presence in U.S. society and universities, and despite their flourishing cultural productions, Southeast Asians from any country or ethnicity remain underrepresented in the anthologies of American artists and writers, and even in collections of Asian American cultural productions. In addition, Southeast Asian women are even less visible. Isabelle elaborates upon this phenomenon. “Too often the stories of women are subsumed under the general category ‘Southeast Asian Americans,’ and thus problems of patriarchy and sexism tend to be overlooked.” So the editors counter this by including works that directly address what is often unspeakable, including “the traumas of sexual abuse and the horror of displacement.” In addition, Southeast Asian women are often hypersexualized and othered in movies and the media, frequently depicted as dragon ladies, prostitutes, and “bar girls.” The anthology hopes to counter these degrading stereotypes, as the multidisciplinary stories of Southeast Asian women “provide a sharp contrast to normative narratives and ideologies that have historically been constructed by the West and the nation-states of Southeast Asia,” according to the editors. In addition to speaking the unspeakable and countering the negative images of Southeast Asian women, the works in the anthology “reflect upon the ways that we negotiate with the past, we form and reform our fluid identities, as well as how we sustain memory and imagination in our present lives.”

Hong An Truong - Goes To Heaven

Melba Alba - God Bless America

Phuong Do - Self and Aunts

The editorial vision for the anthology is necessarily bold, and its goals emphasize the far-reaching impact of the collection. “By publishing their works and pushing the boundaries of literature and art,” the editors explain, “we want to show the global connections that bring such disparate groups of women together.” The editors hope that Southeast Asian Women in the Diaspora: Troubling Borders in Literature and Art will push future generations of women artists and students to articulate their own voices through essays, poetry, and visual art. As editor Lan Duong states, “For both aspiring and emergent artists, I would like for the anthology to inspire others to create and produce.” In addition, the editors hope that the book will be incorporated into academic curricula, because the current offerings are quite shortsighted. Lan emphasizes that she often cannot locate enough texts produced by women when teaching courses on Southeast Asians in the diaspora. “As an academic I see that women’s stories and ways of storytelling (through visual imagery and different forms of narrative) are not foregrounded enough in books and studies about women and the Southeast Asian diaspora,” she explains. In this regard, the editors hope that the anthology will strengthen Southeast Asian American Studies curricula in universities while promoting stunning works that are still largely invisible to the public eye.

As nothing similar has ever preceded it, Southeast Asian Women in the Diaspora: Troubling Borders in Literature and Art is a truly groundbreaking venture filled with admirable literature and art. The featured Southeast Asian women writers and artists include Melba L. Abela, Azizah Ahmad, Anida Yoeu Ali, Christilily Chiv, Tiffany Chung, Rachel Quy Collier, Thang Dao, Phuong Do, Reanne Estrada, Marsha C. Galicia, Tran T. Kim-Trang, Grace Kong, Marine Ky, Emily P. Lawson, Anne Le, Lin+Lam, Leakhena Leng, Karen Llagas, Phayvanh Luekhamhan, Nalyne Lunati, Heang Ly, Vi Ly, Pacyinz Lyfoung, Phet Mahathongdy, Mong-Lan, Pang Houa Moua, Anh-Thu Ngo, Anh-Hoa Thi Nguyen, Chau Nguyen, Debbie Nguyen, Gina Osterloh, Connie Pham, Aimee Phan, Ann Phong, Trần Tụê Quân, Jai Arun Ravine, Barbara Jane Reyes, Gayle Romasanta, Amy L. Sanford, Linda Saphan, Davorn Sisavath, Grace Talusan, Souvankham Thammavongsa, Kao Lee Thao, Angela Torres, Diep Tran, Linda Tran, Quyen Tran, Pimone Triplett, Hong-An Truong, Quyen Truong, Tran Mong Tu, Julie Thi Underhill, Kou Vang, Jenifer K. Wofford, Mai der Vang, Võ Chương-Đài, Chi Vu, Kao-Ly Yang, May Lee Yang, and Yer Yang.

Debbie Nguyen - darkgreen

Kao Lee Thao - Way of Life

Jenifer Wofford - Curtain Nurse

grassroots community effort spearheaded by DVAN on Kickstarter is generating some crucial funding, so it is only a matter of time and perseverance before the visibility and visuality of Southeast Asian women is realized in print and in color.  Yet this project still needs the broad support of those who understand the simultaneity and diversity of Southeast Asian women – in all our hues, values, accents, and inflections  – and who value an approach that’s multinational, multiethnic, multigenre, and multidisciplinary. As Lan Duong puts it, “For non-academics and non-artists, I think that the anthology presents another side of the aftereffects of war, displacement, and migration. The stories they tell are varied in their themes and imagery and collectively they portray how diverse Southeast Asian women in the diaspora are.” The volume is compact in terms of unifying so many writers, artists, and genres, and comprehensive in respect to the histories and geographies it covers. However, without community support to accrue the remaining $14,000, this compact and comprehensive anthology will never see the light of day.

Southeast Asian Women in the Diaspora: Troubling Borders in Literature and Art certainly needs your attention and support. And DVAN will definitely be accepting funds past the June 22 deadline. Yet the Kickstarter format makes things easier for everyone, so if a donation is possible in the next six days, please visit the Kickstarter page to support the anthology. There you can also watch a succinct video interview with three of the editors — Isabelle Thuy Pelaud, Kathy Nguyen, and Mariam Lam. You can also learn about the various incentives per donation level. Although DVAN will accept any amount of pledged support, contributions of $20 or more earn you a “thank you” in the anthology as well as other tiered acknowledgements. After June 22, donations are possible through DVAN’s website or with a credit card online. Make sure that you select DVAN (Diaspora Vietnamese Artists Network) to choose where you’d like to direct your donation. To donate by check, download the donation form here and send your check written to “Intersection for the Arts” (with DVAN in the memo line) to Intersection for the Arts 5M, 925 Mission Street, Suite 109, San Francisco, CA 94103, or P.O. Box 720053, San Francisco, CA 94172. Since DVAN has nonprofit affiliation, all donations (through Kickstarter and through DVAN’s website) are tax-deductible, regardless of method.

Although the original Kickstarter goal of $2,000 was met, you can still donate, since the project still lacks $14,000. Don’t miss out on the chance to show your support and earn a “thank you” in the book’s acknowledgements. After all, this anthology will make visible — at national and international levels — not only this incredibly talented group of artists but also the diversity of women in the Southeast Asian diaspora.

Julie Thi Underhill - Grandma

— Julie Thi Underhill is managing editor of diaCRITICS and a doctoral student and instructor of ethnic studies at UC Berkeley. She’s previously written for diaCRITICS about her ‘authenticity’ as a Vietnamese AmericanDemocratic Kampuchea’s Genocide of the ChamIsabelle Thuy Pelaud’s launch party for this is all i choose to tellUCLA’s VSA culture show tribute to Tam Tran, the first San Francisco Diasporic Vietnamese Film Festival, an exclusive “intervu” with writer Vu Tran, and a radio interview between Isabelle Thuy Pelaud and Andrew Lam.

Please take the time to rate this post (above) and share it (below). Ratings for top posts are listed on the sidebar. Sharing (on email, Facebook, etc.) helps spread the word about diaCRITICS. And join the conversation and leave a comment! What do you think about stereotypes and media portrayals of Southeast Asian women? Which artists and scholars best counter those notions, and how? Why are you most excited about the anthology?

Isabelle Pelaud’s “This is All I Choose to Tell”: An Interview


On the radio program New America Now,  Andrew Lam recently interviewed Isabelle Thuy Pelaud about This is All I Choose to Tell: History and Hybridity in Vietnamese American Literature, the first book-length study of Vietnamese American literature. Here diaCRITICS managing editor Julie Thi Underhill describes and reviews their fourteen-minute radio conversation. “But it is even better to hear them talk together,” Julie prefaces, “so consider this foreshadowing.”

[Before we begin: have you heard about our subscriber drive? win an iPod and other prizes!]

Isabelle Thuy Pelaud

In this radio interview with Andrew Lam, featured on New America Now, Isabelle Thuy Pelaud discusses her first book, This is All I Choose to Tell: History and Hybridity in Vietnamese American Literature, while explaining how Vietnamese American writers have challenged the demand to tell a “war story” through their literature. Isabelle shows how this reluctance on the part of Vietnamese American writers articulates their need for both privacy and resistance succinctly captured by poet and artist Trường Trần’s declaration, this is all i choose to tell, the phrase that inspired the first half of Isabelle’s book title.

To explain the origins of this phenomenon of choosing to tell only so much, Isabelle overviews the evolution of Vietnamese American literature in the past 30 years, in this interview and in her book. Nostalgia for the past underscores the first generation’s writing, usually framed within military historical accounts that reveal the writers’ ultimate ambivalence about “rescue” by the United States war determines so much of the narrative and meaning of these texts. However, the next generations of Vietnamese American authors, schooled through Asian American literature and ethnic studies courses, write with less concern about war and with more attention to identity. These second and third generation authors are notably concerned about what it means to be Vietnamese American. Isabelle’s analysis of Vietnamese American writers reflects a nuanced awareness of intergenerational differences, as each generations are proximate to (or distant) from war.

In the beginning of the interview, Andrew first asks Isabelle about her own identity — her background as a Vietnamese-Eurasian born in France, and her immigration to the U.S. at age nineteen — before delving into her Vietnamese American literary criticism. Although it might seem like a natural opening, Andrew’s choice to begin this way foregrounds Isabelle’s later observations about contemporary Vietnamese American writers’ attentions to identity. As the interview continues, Andrew asks Isabelle about the notion of hybridity, as it applies to Vietnamese American identity. Isabelle explains how her critical attention to hybridity counters the standard notions of assimilation (to Anglo-Saxon culture) to which the North American “immigrant narrative” is so often bound. Going back even further, Vietnamese culture itself has been heavily influenced by outside forces — Chinese, French, Russian which complicates notions of “purity” by affirming the long presence of hybridity within Vietnamese history and culture. As I listened, I considered how hybridity also occurred from the other direction, as a result of the conquest and assimilation of the Cham and other indigenous communities. Indeed Isabelle’s observations resonate with others’ understandings of Vietnameseness. Inter-ethnic and transnational, the dynamic of cultural “mixing” has been around for thousands of years in Vietnamese society.


Together Andrew and Isabelle look ahead to the next ten years of Vietnamese American writing. In doing so, they must revisit what’s truly different for the second and third generations. Isabelle foresees the continued challenge to resist the “war story” narrative. “Viet Nam is such a strong presence in the U.S.,” Isabelle cautions. This hypervisibility of “Viet Nam” as a war (not a country) puts much pressure on Vietnamese American writers to perform and reenact war stories, even when they have no direct experience or memory of war. Understandably, Vietnamese American writers are frustrated by this bounded framework of performativity and reenactment. On the other hand, Vietnamese American authors have already chosen to tell complicated stories decentering war, while expanding notions of who and what’s appropriate to feature in their writings. Isabelle points out, “Lots of texts don’t fit expectations of Vietnamese American writing,” including the works of Monique Troung, Linh Đinh, and Trường Trần. She also anticipates that certain topics, such as sexuality, will become increasingly less taboo to portray, an evolution which will counter the “holding back” of past generations of Vietnamese American writers, and even the withholding of the newer generations, who have “layers of vulnerabilities, from being refugees and the children of refugees.”

The interview ran on  June 10, 2011, on New America Now, the radio program of New America Media, founded by Vietnamese American journalist and author Andrew Lam. He’s guest blogged for diaCRITICS before, and we’ve printed his other conversations, including his April 2011 interview with Angie Chau.

Andrew Lam

Julie Thi Underhill is managing editor of diaCRITICS. She’s previously written for diaCRITICS about her ‘authenticity’ as a Vietnamese-AmericanDemocratic Kampuchea’s Genocide of the ChamIsabelle Thuy Pelaud’s launch party for this is all i choose to tellUCLA’s VSA culture show tribute to Tam Tran, the first San Francisco Diasporic Vietnamese Film Festival, and an exclusive “intervu” with writer Vu Tran.

Please take the time to rate this post (above) and share it (below). Ratings for top posts are listed on the sidebar. Sharing (on email, Facebook, etc.) helps spread the word about diaCRITICS. And join the conversation and leave a comment! Who is your favorite author of Vietnamese descent? Do you perceive these “generational” shifts in the writings of Vietnamese Americans? What do you think about this idea of “holding back”?