Author Archives: Julie Thi Underhill

Paradise Shot — Norway in the World’s Arms


diaCRITICS contributor Trangđài Glassey-Trầnguyễn, a doctoral student in the United States, offers an overview of the Vietnamese communities in Scandanavia while reflecting upon the recent Oslo attacks by Anders Behring Breivik. Her emotions are poignant, after living in Scandanavia during a Fulbright year in 2004-05. “Of all the Nordic countries, Norway is home to the largest and most vibrant Vietnamese community. Oslo is indeed the ‘mecca’ of Vietnamese diasporas in Northern Europe,” Trangđài  explains. 

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Peace. Paradise. Both.

Paradise Found

I found myself [again] in Stockholm. The beautiful silence. The green forest. The silky breezes. Clear water. The bay. Blue sky. Pure air. The calmness of life itself. The intellectual Phạm Thị Hoài, during a conversation at her Berlin home, recalled how serene it was to drive in Sweden’s nature on a family vacation for hours, finding no soul in sight.

2004. Lappis, the dormitory adjacent to Stockholms Universitet. The dirt road leading to the Stockholm campus smelled of home, redolent of memories of the Mekong Delta, my birthplace.

1994-2004. Ten years in bustling-hustling Orange County, and I had forgotten what silence tasted like. There, in the silence of Stockholm, I found myself. I was coming home.

From bonding with nature to encounters with the Nordic people during my Fulbright year 2004-05, I embraced Scandinavia as heaven on earth, in spite of my difference in opinions on certain matters pertaining to the Nordic way of life.

It was my first time experiencing four-season weather. One of my lifetime mentors, Dr. Craig Ihara at CSU Fullerton, was afraid I wouldn’t survive. “Maybe she’d pack and go home prematurely” was his thought. It was not mine. Though the winter was cold and different, I was excited about it. The virgin snow that fell in early November 2004. The dramatic clouds with silver lining and ethereal colors at dawn and dusk. The nakedness of trees, bare and dormant. I did not survive my first Nordic winter. I embraced it.

I flung open the large windows to my room every morning, letting the biting air in, pure and piercing. I did yoga. Maybe that was the trick. I embraced winter. Winter embraced me. I didn’t get sick. To my surprise, some of my colleagues at Stockholms Universitet –  Viking men towering over me – were under the weather. They caught a cold or something else.

Summer is the most celebrated season of the year. The sun is the reason. But the sun was no novelty to me. After all, I had spent my first two decades in tropical Vietnam.

Vietnamese in Norway

Not every Vietnamese shares my embrace of the Scandinavia, especially the first-generation immigrants living in this region. This land is too cold, too quiet, and too void of Vietnamese life for some of them.

The number of Vietnamese living in the Northern countries is substantial, though much lower compared to the figures in North America, Australia, or Western Europe. Of all the Nordic countries, Norway is home to the largest and most vibrant Vietnamese community. Oslo is indeed the ‘mecca’ of Vietnamese diasporas in Northern Europe. The estimates are 25,000 in Norway, 20,000 in Sweden, 14,000 in Denmark, and 6,000 in Finland.

When they meet, those young Vietnamese students in Nordic countries mix Vietnamese and Scandinavian tongues. In Upsalla, May 2005.

Some Vietnamese immigrants there might think that life in any Nordic country is the same. Tuấn Bá Cao, a Vietnamese immigrant, observed that “The policies on minorities and immigration in the Nordic countries, including Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland, are quite similar. I often wonder why they are not one Nordic country, as it is not easy to find differences between them.” (Translation mine. Original: CHÍNH SÁCH đối với người Thiểu Số và Tỵ Nạn tại các quốc gia Bắc Âu, gồm Đan Mạch, Na-Uy, Thụy Điển, Phần Lan, không khác nhau. Lắm lúc tôi tự hỏi tại sao họ không là một nước Bắc Âu khi khó mà tìm được sự khác biệt của họ.)

While Tuấn’s perspective might have stemmed from the similar life style and some shared histories of the related countries, his observation does not account for the distinctively different trajectories and developments of the various Vietnamese populations in Northern Europe.

During a November 2004 group dinner in Malmo, Sweden, some Vietnamese expressed admiration for their counterparts in Oslo. D., an entrepreneur, exclaimed how you can’t find even one Vietnamese professional in Sweden, but you can find several in any field in Norway, doctors, lawyers, you name it. “Only if we were like them,” he said. “Or like the Vietnamese in the U.S.,” his friend Khánh, also a business man, added.

In October 2004, I conducted an oral history interview in Stockholm with Father Thadeus Trần Chánh Thành, the chaplain for Vietnamese Catholics in all of Sweden and Åland, an archipelago in the Baltic Sea. As a boat person, he had first-hand experiences about the immigration processes in the Nordic countries. He recalled how the Princess of Norway, upon learning about the plight of the boat people, came in person to the refugee camps and helped set up the admission of the refugees to her country. Sweden, however, did not take in the Vietnamese refugees because of her support of North Vietnam during the war, and mostly admitted ethnic-Chinese Vietnamese after the 1979 Sino-Vietnam war when the government of Vietnam purged ethnic Chinese en masse.

The Vietnamese community in Oslo seems to be a frequent visiting point for their ethnic fellows in other parts of Europe. Micae Nguyễn Hữu Xuân Điềm, an exchange student from Vietnam, commuted from Rome, Italy, to Oslo during his years abroad, and spent a few weeks during summer to help with Catholic Youth Camps. He spoke of how generous the social benefits are in Norway, making it possible for some frugal elderly immigrants to spend the six winter months with their families in Vietnam.

The large number of Vietnamese in Oslo makes it more possible for the group to establish a formal social structure, and sustain regular activities that have not been possible for Vietnamese immigrants in the rest of Northern Europe.

Paradise Shot

I think it is cheating to visit Scandinavia during the summer only. You must live through the long winter with little sun and skip through the bursting spring to appreciate properly what summer brings. And though the other three seasons have their own charm and boon, the Nordic people are vested in heliolatry. A hint of summer, and people put on their bikinis to attract the sun. I am never quite sure if the sun comes out for them, or they summon the sun.

Water is omnipresent in Scandinavia - both a charming asset and a natural cooling device during summer.

With or without heliolatry, summer is the most beautiful and fun season in the Nordic countries for many. The celebration of long sunny days can’t ever be emphasized enough. Tourists make their way to Scandinavia in waves during the estival months. That’s when they can have it to themselves, as the locals are spending time away from the big cities like Oslo and Stockholm, enjoying their summer homes or family vacations. Peace!

Then came Anders Behring Breivik. The news took me asunder. It was almost unreal to decode the news stories inundating the media, from print to reel, from traditional to virtual. It was the more shocking to witness the Breivik attacks planned and executed during this time of the year. A nine-year plan.

It is such a cruel act to take the lives of others in this way on any day of the year, but it might be even more cruel because summer has always been associated with sweet times, friendship, family visits, vacations. It is like shooting at a couple on their wedding day. Or a child entering her summer garden. When I lived in Lappis for parts of summer 2005, all my corridor mates went home during summer. They came home and re-experienced childhood flavors.

The author (in light teal shirt) and her corridor mates at Lappis celebrate a late summer tea in 2005

What am I to make of this? It took me days to gather my thoughts for this essay. I was unsure how to approach it. I struggled to put my thoughts into words. I felt violated. It was my home, too, that part of the world. If challenges enrich a person’s perspectives, Scandinavia with its own challenges had enriched me. I took a journey to the North, and there, I [was] transformed.

Reflecting on the Nordic experience, Tuấn thinks that “The kind and humane nature of the Nordic peoples are evident, even though the opportunities for upward mobility amongst the minorities are not as open as they are in the U.S., Australia, or Canada. Reservation is a dominant trait here.” (Translation mine. Original: Bản chất hiền hòa và nhân ái của dân Bắc Âu không thể chối bỏ được, cho dù CƠ HỘI TIẾN THÂN của người Thiểu-Số không được dễ dàng như ở Mỹ, Úc, Canada etc. Bảo Thủ là bản chất của họ.)

Analyzing the recent attacks in Oslo, Tuấn said, “The Breveik event is a result of anger in a small group of native locals towards immigrants who had taken advantage of their generosity and caused social discordances. The fear of losing the ownership of their country.” (Translation mine. Original: Biến cố Breveik là kết quả của sự TỨC GIẬN cuả một nhóm nhỏ của người bản xứ đối với giống dân thiểu số  đã lợi dụng lòng nhân đạo của họ để rồi gây rối loạn xã hội của họ. Sự lo sợ BỊ MẤT CHỦ QUYỀN ĐẤT NƯỚC của họ.)

The Nordic people are polite, quiet, and reserved. Vietnamese immigrants I talked to during my sojourn there often asked how I deal with the violence so prevalent in the U.S. Peace is such an ideal, Sweden prides itself on 200 years of unbroken peace. Phan Hiển Mạnh, a Malmo businessman, told me how a Stockholm postcard prompted him to come to Sweden. He was a stateless person in East Germany, hiding from police raids, running around all the time. He was tired. And saw a postcard of Stockholm. And he wanted that life. He wanted that peace. He crossed the border, entered the refugee camps in Sweden, and almost ten years later, he was admitted.

Peace. It is a dominant trait. It is what touched me the deepest during my year there.

Snow la nuit

Norway in the arms of the world

While the recent shooting has been the focus of world’s news, I do not want to associate Norway with just that. It has been a koan to compose this piece. What approach is appropriate? What useful perspective can I bring? What other conversations can be forged besides the white supremacy, anti-immigrant tirades, anti-diversity volleys, global security, personal responsibility, xenophobia, anti-Muslim violence?

Several issues came to the surface with the onslaught of the Oslo shooting. Islam in Europe, Muslim immigrants in Europe, multiculturalism, ethnic diversity, armed security, civil freedom, white supremacy, etc. But I think the one thing that really surfaced for me, and it keeps resurfacing, has been pain. I don’t know if writing all of this makes the pain less or more. But writing it, it felt like I was swimming/drowning in the water myself, like the victims and/or survivors at the moment of attack.

Before the Breviek moment, I did not know that I would come back to the Nordic countries with a different sense of belonging. That one of my homes has been disturbed. That peace was challenged.

I know that the tension is there, not just for extremists like Breviek, but for people from all different walks of life and from all sides of the society. It is not comfortable for a native, I suppose, to feel excluded in their own land when two immigrants carry on a conversation in a different language. Multiculturalism has several limits. So does human tolerance. But it is the opportunities that we have today – the opportunities to be in each other’s back yard, the opportunities to taste someone else’s space without having to inhibit that space, that make all the tension meaningful, or useful.

Human movements are never one-way, but multi-directional. Over 500 Danes are living in Vietnam today. 22,000 Danes visited Vietnam in 2008. In January 2005, Sweden suffered a great loss when hundreds of Swedes were caught in the Tsunami in Thailand. The Nordic people can be found all over the world. And a fraction of the world can be found in the Nordic lands.

I take pain personally. After all, how else can we manage it? Or grow? But I also believe in human solidarity. It is important to remind ourselves, in the shock of the Breviek tragedy, that there are countless other good-will Norwegians who stand up for the belief in ethnic diversity and inclusion.

Norway has entered the twenty first century – again, this time by itself, in 2011 – with this tragic event. The country as a whole has a chance to have an open and direct conversation with the world about its perspective on the most pressing matter of our time: immigration and integration.

The Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo will carry another layer of meaning, now that the domestic peace has been disturbed. The quietness of Norway has been pierced. When the Norwegians observe a moment of silence in honor of the lost lives today, they will heed a different kind of silence. But they will do so in the condoling arms of the world.

New and renewed conversations stemming from this event will continue to dominate the global discourses in the immediate future. But where is the conversation leading us? The answer depends on how we continue to forge a peaceful, equitable, and meaningful co-existence for all. Each and all of us.


Trangđài Glassey-Trầnguyễn is the only scholar to conduct multi-lingual oral histories and research on the Vietnamese diasporas in the U.S., European countries, Australia, and Vietnam since 1998. She is the very first researcher to collect extensive bilingual interviews with Vietnamese Americans in Little Saigon, and has published hundreds of works – both critical and creative – in Vietnamese and English. In 2004-05, she was accorded an exceptional-ranking Fulbright full grant to study the Vietnamese in Sweden. She is also the recipient of numerous awards and recognitions for her artistry, scholarship, and cultural works. She holds a graduate degree in anthropology from Stanford University, and is working on her doctorate studies. 

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 did you feel about the recent attacks in Oslo? How are immigration and integration recurring conversations for diasporic communities around the world?

Dinh Q. Lê’s ‘Erasure’ Opens in Australia


Acclaimed artist Dinh Q. Lê, the first Vietnamese name to have a solo show at Museum of Modern Art in New York, is well-known as a fine arts photographer whose woven photographs interlace history and memory in a visually complex and emotionally compelling way. Yet for his powerful statements and meditations he uses not only photographs but sculpture, installation, and video— for example, The Farmers and the Helicopters, among many other projects.

Here diaCRITICS contributor BoiTran Huynh-Beattie — a researcher, curator and art historian in Australia — reviews Lê’s first solo show in Australia, Erasure. By chance, the exhibit occurs just as Australia is revisiting its relationship to the many ‘boat people’ who have emigrated from Việt Nam. Compellingly, the exhibit also gestures to Australia’s history of ‘boat people’ immigrants from Europe, who colonized Australia. And photographs, again, play a significant part in the meaning of the show. We truly wish we could be in Sydney for this!

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On entering the installation, the DVD projection of a burning sailing vessel flickering on a huge screen immediately grabs the viewer’s attention. A timber path meanders through the dimly lit space, above thousands of abandoned photographs scattered face down on the floor forming a ‘sea’. On top of this sea of photographs floats an old wooden fishing boat, broken in half among some rocks. The viewer must stroll along this path, intuitively avoiding the sea but there’s no fear or panic, just an uncanny silence from the lost identities in the photographs. The viewer’s curiosity is aroused to pick up and turn over some photographs; and in doing so, participate in an interactive component of the project.

In Erasure, Dinh strings many of Australia’s political issues into his own personal history. The video of a burning nineteenth century vessel refers to European settlement in Australia; prompting the notion that Australia’s colonial history and the arrival of migrating Europeans as “boat people”. The wreckage of a small fishing boat lends reference to the tragedy off Christmas Island in December 2010, evoking memories of a familiar nightmare for many Vietnamese boat people in their exodus between 1975-1990. As a boat person, Dinh has been searching for his family’s photographs because they could not be carried during their escape. However, he has failed to find any and instead, has purchased thousands of abandoned photographs, from second hand shops in Ho Chi Minh City, which in his words to Margaret Throsby, “became my surrogate family.” These many thousands of forsaken photographs and their chaotic appearance in this installation represent the lives of refugees who perished at sea during their desperate journey to freedom.

Erasure is Dinh Q. Lê’s first solo show in Australia, and was commissioned by the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation (SCAF). When Gene Sherman, Chairperson and Executive Director of SCAF met with Dinh two years ago at San-Art independent artist space in Ho Chi Minh City, she did not think that the opening of Erasure in July 2011 would coincide with the interminable refugee debate that rages in Australia. In June 2011, SBS Television put to air a three-episode documentary, Go back to where you came from in which six ordinary Australians embarked on a 25 days journey, to experience something of what refugees and asylum seekers have to go through. The documentary put these Australians into refugees’ shoes and widely opened a gate for more compassion. The book launch of Boat People two days before the opening of Erasure was also a good connection to the theme.

Dinh Q. Lê and Dr. Gene Sherman, the founder and Executive Director of Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation

The smartly designed catalogue is small but has a wealth of information, with a preface by Gene Sherman, outlining her own family’s migration from Apartheid and her artistic interest in the establishment of SCAF. The interview with Dinh Q Lê by Dolla S. Merrillees, General Manager and Artistic and Educational programs of SCAF answered many questions about Dinh Q Lê and his art practice. An essay in the catalogue by Zoe Butt says it all, about the political circumstances involved with Australia’s “inherited historical phobia of the ‘Other’”, about the ugliness of forced migration as an inevitable consequence of world wars, and about the mapping of collective memories that had already faded into the past.

Viewers who expect to see colourful and exciting images might be disappointed with Erasure. Instead, this installation poses the question again and again, whose “happy moments” in those abandoned photographs, which would take onlookers to phantom the ‘Other’s’ lives. Dinh’s works always reserve space for the audience; everyone can find him or herself in his works. The artist conceptually interlaces various layers of historical accounts with social and current issues, such as migration, consumerism, and collective identities.

Dinh’s works have never been shown in Vietnam. However, he said during his recent discussion with Margaret Throsby, “Sàn-Art independent artist space is part of my work”.

The audience for 'Erasure,' in Sydney, on July 12

— Dr. Boitran Huynh-Beattie has worked with the Australian National University, Melbourne University, and the University of Wollongong on different projects related to Vietnam’s Diaspora since 2005. She is also an independent curator and art researcher. She was the project curator of Nam Bang! at Casula Powerhouse 2007-2009.

More about the artist 

Dinh Q Lê was born in Hà Tiên in 1968. His family escaped by boat and then settled in 1989 in the US where Dinh completed his education; he obtained MA in photography at School of Visual Arts, New York in 1993.  Dinh Q Lê  has been included in most prestigious biennales and triennials around the globe, to name a few: the Bienale Cuvée in Austria in 2009, the 2nd Singapore Biennale in 2008; the 5th Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art at Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, Australia and the 6th Gwangju Biennial in 2006; the 50th Venice Biennale in 2003.  Dinh Q Lê  is the first Vietnamese name to have a solo show at Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 2010. He is the co-founder of The Vietnam Foundation for the Arts in Los Angeles and Sàn Art in Ho Chi Minh City. For his work and efforts in cultural programs, he was awarded the Prince Claus Award in 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! Have you ever seen Dinh Q Lê’s work? What did you think? What is your favorite depiction of the Vietnamese boat refugee experience? Anything to recommend, in any form?

The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly: Michelle Ton Reviews Three Films


In descending order, diaCRITIC Michelle Ton reviews three films shown at the 5th Biennial Vietnamese International Film Festival during April 2011 in Orange County and at UCLA. Borrowing the title of the 1966 Italian epic spaghetti western film directed by Sergio Leone, she is generous with her praise and brutally honest with her criticism as she lays out one example each of the good, the bad, and the ugly. Spoiler alert!

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Yikes. A solid 4 months have gone by and I’m just now reviewing some of the films I was able to see at the 5th Biennial Vietnamese International Film Festival. My lack of timeliness can partly be chalked up to being consumed with preparing for my Master’s Comprehensive Exams, but mostly to spending time contemplating how to review some of these films in a constructive fashion (i.e. how to rephrase “It sucked and I can’t believe I drove all the way down from Los Angeles during rush hour for this.”).

A worthy exercise, indeed. Let’s begin on a high note, though, shall we?

The Good — Antoine

Laura Bari, Canada, 2010

Documentaries are hard to make. Actually, good documentaries are hard to make. Anyone can make a boring doc with tinkly piano music, and many do. Documentary filmmaking is wholly difficult in that it’s a constant juggling act of how to be educational (Latin root word for documentary is “docere” or “to teach”), how to be ethical towards subjects, and most of all, how to be entertaining for viewers. The appeal and power of a documentary lies in its eloquence in serving not just a social purpose, but an aesthetic one as well, which is why many fail when they take themselves to the task.  Prima facie, a documentary concerning the life of a visually impaired little boy is a subject that has the dangerous potential to evoke a staggering amount of thematic contrivances and tacky aesthetics; the tearful talking-heads. The hand-me-down triumphing over adversity discourse. The calculated but entirely predictable dramatic musical cues that beckon our tear ducts for a release, all in service to remind us of our humanity, for making us feel good about feeling bad.

But, this is not the case with Montreal-based filmmaker, Laura Bari, and her documentary Antoine.

It is indeed a film about a boy who’s been blind since birth, but Bari’s treatment of the subject is all at once one of the most engaging, inventive forms of blurring the boundaries of fiction and reality in documentaries to date.

5-year-old Antoine Hoang spends part of his time as a gum shoe, driving around town in search for clues about a one Madame Rouski’s whereabouts who has melted into the water, according to one of her voicemails she leaves on Antoine’s mobile. And it’s up to Antoine with the aid of his two lovely assistants, Maelle and Julietta, to solve this mystery once and for all. When he’s not playing detective with his classmates, Antoine spends this time going to school, painting, reading, playing, and learning Braille reading and typing techniques.

Antoine and his playmate/assistant, Julietta

Safe to say, it is not Antoine’s handicap that distinguishes him from his classmates, but his highly active and wondrous imagination and creativity. From the opening scene, you immediately recognize him to have a spirit and a mind unlike other children. Bari begins her documentary with an opening shot of Antoine hunched over his Braille typewriter, the blinds are closed and the room is bare except for Antoine and said typewriter. He begins to furiously tap away, creating a list of his “memories and non-memories.” In hushed voice-over, Antoine whispers to us: “I remember when I was in my mother’s belly and I remember when I was in the incubator as well.”

His non-memories? “What the incubator was made of…my retina detaching…my eyes ending up at my fingertips, my ears, my nose, my mouth. Since that day, I’ve been searching for the thread that connects my ideas.”

The documentary can’t help but be special as Antoine himself is very special. However, credit must be given to Bari and her talent for deft editing, film composition, and technical orchestrations of illusions to access and simulate Antoine’s unique perspective. Antoine’s inflections, gestures, and behavior are poetically observed and is all at once poignant, charming, and illuminative. Inspired by his imagination, Bari recreates a compelling, engaging reality using the elements of Antoine’s invention.

The Bad — Saigon Electric

Stephane Gauger, Vietnam/USA, 2011

Kind of like all those other terrible dance films, but this one has ribbons. And not that much dancing actually.

Awww. Mai wants to be a ribbon dancer and make her mama proud. The girl is in her teens, working class, and she’s strong-willed. She’s all alone in Saigon, but she’s got a dream, folks.

BUT, she has problems: her ribbon dancing ain’t all that great, so instead of training and practicing, she bides her time until her next audition by hanging out with misfit locals with their own big dreams and mediocre hip hop moves.

But oh no. The rec center where they hang out and practice their lackluster dancing has plans of being demolished by real estate developers. Luckily for them, a curmudgeon old man with an unlikely heart of gold steps in and purchases the property, saving it from destruction. In the end, our intrepid hip hop troupe, “Saigon Fresh” compete against Hanoi’s “North Killaz” in a hip hop dance competition and THIS time the South prevails! Not only that, Mai goes on that second audition of hers and totally aces her ribbon dancing routine.

Awwwww.

Trite or preposterous devices (ribbon dancing? Really?), leaden acting, and clunktastic dialogue are acceptable in a dance movie, but bad choreography is not, and it’s during the dance scenes that Saigon Electric fails. The style here is neither fun or fresh. In the battle sequences, rival dance crews borrow elements from stepping, break dancing, and popping. The problem is that the routine is amateurish, underwhelming, and poorly conceived.

I am not impressed

All dance movies end the same way, with a training montage that builds toward the final dance-off that will secure our hero a win at said dance-off or prize money for med school or the like, or the grudging respect of the admissions officers at the exclusive ballet academy. The trick is to show enough of the training process so we can understand what our protagonist is learning, but not so much that the audience isn’t surprised and impressed by the brilliance of the resulting number. The dance sequences in Saigon Electric shirk this time-honored storytelling.

But then again, the film’s director Stephane Gauger has claimed that Saigon Electric is less a dance movie, and more so a drama.

Well, in that case: Saigon Electric is a tiresome, platinum-hearted movie with an uninspired inspirational message. Life is simple for the courageous. Our poor little girl wins in the end because she sticks to her principles and is true to her vision—yes, she is really going to become a ribbon dancer. She’s been dancing every night in her dreams, so who needs practice? How tender she is, how dewy-eyed, and passionate. Saigon Electric is all about underdogs and dance realism—where poor kids use dance to gain a foothold in a world that seems to bear some relation to our own.

My tub of popcorn had more depth.

The Ugly — Don’t Look Back

Nguyen-Vo Minh,Vietnam, 2010

Don’t Look Back is a half-baked, underachieving little movie that stands out for its egregious shoddiness, ludicrous plot, and objectionable acting/writing.

During a press conference, director Nguyen-Vo Minh (whose first feature was the yawn-inducing 2004 movie Buffalo Boy) stated that Don’t Look Back is his “commercial film” where he used it to “experiment” with this “genre.”

And what genre would that be exactly, I wonder?  The “hideously bad, Art-aspiring, incompetent filmmaking” genre?

Several months ago, I wrote a diaCRITICS piece praising James Nguyen’s F grade film Birdemic for its epically bad filmmaking executions. I praised James Nguyen for the film’s many, MANY (but memorable) imperfections; I praised him for his cinematic ignorance; I praised him for his sincerity. Everything about Birdemic was bad. And everything about Don’t Look Back is bad. And yet, why are my sentiments about each movie so vastly different?

Simple. It’s because Birdemic turned out to be a fun, campy, cult-classic kind of bad movie, whereas Don’t Look Back has a miscalculated, desperate solemnity feel to it, and is too ineptly artsy and too unpleasant to be laughed off. In this case, a director’s sincerity actually works against him.

Don’t Look Back is inspired by the Greek mythology of Orpheus and the death of his wife, Eurydice, where after being allowed to bring her back from the Underworld, violates the condition of not looking back as he walks in front her during their journey back to earth. (She ends up disappearing for all eternity this time.)

Nguyen-Vo’s film tells the story of an aspiring modern dancer (sigh) who wins the heart of some two-bit saxophonist with a conspicuous cut-rate toupee. They inspire one another in their respective arts—her dancing to his saxophone playing—which make for some cringe-worthy, exasperating, WTH? moments in the movie.

But before they get to really revel in this romantic affair, she discovers that he’s a ghost and the nightclub where he plays at is actually a meeting place for the dead who get to return from the beyond thanks to the evil, capitalist proprietors (such moustache-twirlers) who are able to somehow facilitate their return back into the world. All for a monetary price, of course.

Club of the Dead

Anyway, blah blah blah, saxophone ghost dude is disappearing back into the great beyond and disappears even faster when his girlfriend looks back him. Or something like that. I don’t know. My memory is a little fuzzy either because it’s been so long since I’ve initially seen the movie or perhaps that I didn’t retain anything from this movie for reasons that have already been discussed.

Such a vast, colossal, redeem-less wasteland is this Don’t Look Back.

Did I also mention there’s modern dancing in this film? Awful.

— Michelle Ton is a Eugene V. Cota-Robles Fellow in the Department of Film, Television, and Digital Media at UCLA. She lives and works in Los Angeles.

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 is your favorite film centering the Vietnamese experience, or made by a Vietnamese filmmaker in Vietnam or the diaspora? Anything to recommend, in any genre?

Carina Hoang’s ‘Boat People’ — Short Stories, Life-Long Memories


In 1979, in a wooden boat crowded with almost 400 people, Carina Hoang escaped Vietnam with two of her siblings. She is now a doctoral candidate at Murdoch University in Perth, Australia. On July 5, Hoang had a launch of Boat People: Personal Stories of the Vietnamese Exodus at the Library of New South Wales. By editing this book, she aims to put a human face on the 1.5 million people to flee Vietnam, between 1975 and 1996, by seeking refuge in neighboring countries. One-third died en route, at sea or in camps. 

Guest diaCRITIC blogger Boitran Huynh-Beattie—a professor, curator and art historian in Australia—reviews this new collection of stories edited by Vietnamese-American-Australian Carina Hoang. 

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'Boat People' edited by Carina Hoang

On 5 July 2011 in the cold winter of Sydney at 6 pm, an audience of around 80 people came to the book launch at the State Library of New South Wales. They were captivated by the two speechesone told by the editor, Carina Hoang, and the other, Mr. Talbot Bashall, one of the contributors. The book Boat People consists of 31 short stories by Vietnamese boat people, and nine stories by non-Vietnamese staff that work in various refugee camps in South East Asia.

Vietnamese refugee boat | Photo courtesy Talbott Bashall

It is a heavy book, not only by weight (256 pages of 21 x 29 cm) but also by historical, emotional and political accounts. All the refugees’ stories come from their experiences as boat people and describe the assorted encounters of their journey; be it frustration, humiliation, rape, or joy, hope and resilience. Stories by non-Vietnamese convey a widened context to the international public response regarding the boat people issue that emerged in the late 1970s and up to the 1990s.

The book is very elegantly designed, in which narratives and images are intermingled that communicates from the heart. The second last story is about Nhan Thi Mong Ha, a young girl who died at the age of fifteen and was buried on Kuku Island in Indonesia. Due to unexpected circumstances, her family could not go back to the Island in a planned trip, but her mother wrote the deceased daughter a letter and asked Carina Hoang to burn it at the graveside. When I reached the end of this story, my curiosity led me to an attached envelope. Inside was a copy of the letter in Vietnamese that after reading I could not hold back my tears.

1982 Desk Diary of a Refugee Camp in Hong Kong

Boat People is a well-researched book and interestingly informative. Hundreds of photographs from personal sources and from archives of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees are included. Mr. Talbot Bashall, for instance, who was the senior administrator of the Refugee Control Centre in Hong Kong, kept detailed diaries about his years in that post, and took thousands of photographs, some of which appear in Boat People.

Carina Hoang, editor of 'Boat People'

Carina Hoang is the book’s editor, who escaped by boat with her two younger siblings when she was 16 years old. After settling in the US, she resumed her studies and graduated with an MBA. She then embarked on another journey when she returned to Kuku Island, to search for the remains of her cousin. When she posted photographs of some graves she came across on her website, http://carinahoang.com/, many people in the Vietnamese Diaspora contacted her, and requested that she accompany them back to Kuku Island to visit the graves of their relatives, mainly people who survived the high seas but succumbed to disease and malnutrition. Carina Hoang also led the Vietnam Archive Boat People group on their first visit to Kuku Island, and is currently completing her PhD at Murdoch University in Perth, Australia, where she resides with her husband and daughter.

The foreword for Boat People was written by former Australian Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser (1975-1983), whose government was instrumental in accepting Vietnamese boat people into Australia in the second half of the 1970s.

This self-published book Boat People has been very well received and was chosen as “The Pick of the Week” by The Sydney Morning Herald on May 2011. Carina Hoang was interviewed by the Australian National Broadcast Radio and by George Negus on Channel 10. She was invited to deliver speeches at the Refugees Day in Melbourne and other Australian capital cities in June. Upon the requests, Boat People will be translated into Vietnamese by the end of 2011.

Publicity and interviews can be found here:

A national radio interview with Carina Hoang

An interview with ABC Radio National

ABC Radio On-Air Highlights

Voice of America News


— Dr. Boitran Huynh-Beattie has worked with the Australian National University, Melbourne University, and the University of Wollongong on different projects related to Vietnam’s Diaspora since 2005.


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 is your favorite depiction of the Vietnamese boat refugee experience? Anything to recommend, in any form?


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. 

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

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.

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! Did you like this short story? Why or why not?

“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”?