Category Archives: Identity

“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”?

The Art of Memory without Pyrotechnics: Vu Tran’s Intervu, Part 2

In December 2010, diaCRITICS managing editor Julie Thi Underhill wrote her first diaCRITICIZE about her dilemmas regarding ‘authentic’ belonging as Vietnamese American of Cham-French and Euro-American descent. She centered her bond with her childhood friend V., who she left anonymous to protect his privacy, lest their middle school conversations haunt him. Two months later, diaCRITICS editor Viet Nguyen sent Julie a note asking if V. was the writer Vu Tran who’d been selected as a 2011 finalist for the Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise, awarded to foreign-born individuals who have demonstrated outstanding achievement during the early stages of their careers. So Vu Tran is easily decoded from V. Not so clandestine after all. Busted!

Julie then requested the “intervu of all time,”  to continue their middle school tradition of puns, in honor of Vu’s recent accomplishments. Julie adds, “Since he is also the first Vietnamese American artist I ever knew, it also feels appropriate to give mad props to Vu for the inspiration he’s provided me during the twenty five (or so) years since he first awed me with his stories.”

This is part two of two. The first part was published, here on diaCRITICS, on June 6, 2011.

Vu in Marble Mountain, Đà Nẵng, Việt Nam, photographed by Julie, 2001

What do you think it means to have recognition as a Vietnamese-American writer, within this society? We do hear about the American war in Việt Nam as being a haunting of the American psyche. What does it mean to have recognition from within this society that’s still struggling over its ambivalence regarding the American war?

Oh god, that’s an interesting question. I don’t know if I’ve thought of it in those terms yet because for me, and this might be naïve, and it might be naïve or it might be this point in my career, but I’m only obsessed with the writing. I only focus on the work, and whether my sentences are good or not. And anytime I get recognition, I’m like, “Oh, you like it because you like the sentences.” I don’t always think about it in terms of, “Well, you’re liking it for political reasons.” I’m fully aware that that has a lot to do with it, but I am so obsessed with the writing of it, the art of it, that I don’t think about the identity politics involved in it, or the mistaken expectations. I don’t think about that. Maybe I should think about it more, I don’t know. But the recognition is good for me automatically, I mean, the thing that I automatically think when someone gives me something like this is, is that, “Oh, you like the way I write.” [Laughs]. I’m not so naïve that I don’t know that it doesn’t have something to do with, oh, he’s a Vietnamese American writer writing about that thing, you know.

Obviously, you wouldn’t be getting the awards and the recognition if you weren’t amazingly talented. So it’s definitely not tokenization, just to clarify. I was wondering, by that question, are you asked to perform acts of reconciliation by writing or being a certain way, as a Vietnamese American writer? Reconciliation for things that haven’t been sorted out yet in society. 

The honest truth of it is, I will only have a good answer for this once my book comes out and I start getting reviews. You know, I’ve done a lot of interviews in the last two or three years, and that stuff does come up. If you’re writing for a newspaper or you’re NPR, or whatever, it’s always nice to have a narrative to kind of apply to your guests. And that has been my narrative. They’ll ask me about how I came here. They’ll asked me how it’s been like growing up. And that’s also the narrative of this foundation [which just gave me the prize.] They’re all about recognizing the immigrant artist or scientist. And that narrative is a nice narrative in the United States, because we like to believe that we’re inclusive, and all those things. I guess there is a reconciliation aspect to it. I don’t know if I’ve experienced it enough yet to be really bothered by it, or to have a commentary. I know it’s there, though. If not for me, then for all the writers like me. It’s definitely there. I just don’t know how to answer that question because I haven’t experienced it directly yet. But in a mild way I have, in those interviews, those questions always come up. I know that it’s what’s most interesting, I think. I am more concerned with starting my career, and any recognition is good. That doesn’t mean I’ll just blindly accept it and not think about it, but all I’m saying is that it’s so hard to kind of like finish your book, and get your foot in the door of this industry, that I haven’t yet had time to really consider those things fully and articulate my own response to it yet.

Vu adding some Asia to Chicago, photographed by Julie in 2010

We can revisit this later after your book’s out, because I just think it would be an interesting thing to resist against, if we go back to the whole, “I’m not going to tell you.”

I never talk about my novel. But it’s apropro here. I have a scene in novel in the second chapter where there’s a Vietnamese character who says to the American character that you Americans like to think that we’re a melting pot and everything gets mixed up and everything. Yeah it gets mixed up, but it’s more like vinegar and water. Eventually different things will go back to the place and the people and the things like it. Which doesn’t mean that we don’t integrate, we obviously integrate. But at the end of the day, though, that melting pot idea is a bit of cliché. People want to belong. They just do, they want to belong. Whether its people who look like them, or think like them, of feel like them, or come from where they come from. People want to belong. And this notion that we can just wondrously and miraculously reconcile everything and to be this melting pot of goodness, just because there are a lot of biracial babies nowadays. That’s wonderful. But I feel the narrative is too tidy sometimes.

How do you think the critical reception of Vietnamese American lit has changed since you first began publishing stories? Do you see change or do you see a lot of the same?

It’s a lot more open in the sense that it’s open for everyone. More open, not completely. There are more diverse voices in contemporary American literature than there ever was. In terms of Vietnamese American writing, there are bigger names. Monique Truong, for example. There are other Vietnamese American writers, but even if you’re a reader that’s one of the only names that everyone knows. The others are still kind of not well known. I don’t know what to think of that. It has to be better now that there are more voices than there were. I’d like to see a Vietnamese American writer reach the status of [Kazuo] Ishiguro, who is not considered a Japanese English writer. He’s just considered one of the best writers out there. I’d like to see a Vietnamese American writer to reach the status of Haruki Murakami, you know, who’s very Japanese but also who’s not.

You’ve gotten a lot of recognition, including an O. Henry. What has really stood out for you along the way as being your true points of encouragement?

I think the O. Henry really opened a lot of doors for me. More than I’d ever thought it would, it really did. I was in Best American Mystery Stories. That helped a lot. I started getting published in a lot of different anthologies. The biggest thing has been the Whiting Writers’ Award. That helped me get a job here at the University of Chicago, which is another big accomplishment for me. I think those are the three or four major ones for me. I sold my book before the Whiting, but I think things like that helped me get my foot in the door in a lot of places. It helped me get job interviews. It definitely helped me get my job here. It put my name out there so people started asking me for stories, you know, things like that.

Vu, during his first semester teaching creative writing at the University of Chicago, photographed in Chicago by Julie, 2010

And the dream of all dreams would be the Pulitzer, I am guessing. 

I don’t know if that’s the dream of all dreams. We’re talking about the pinnacle, like what I would really want. I want the Pulitzer, of course I do. I definitely want the MacArthur Genius Grant. I want all that shit. Trust me, I do. But I would like to be at a certain point in my career where people like Thom Yorke are saying, “Yeah, I read Vu’s novel the other day.” When other artists that I hold up to that kind of esteem are engaging with me on that level, I think that would be what I would like. Because then that means you’ve already won the Pulitzer and the MacArthur. [Laughs]. You’ve reached that level where they can mention you in an interview with like Pitchfork or something, and the readers will know what they are talking about.

When you won the [$50,000] Whiting [Award], I remember thinking, “I’ll bet Vu’s parents are happy he’s a writer now.” I always think of you when I have Vietnamese American students whose parents don’t want them to do anything other than—well, for them, it’s often doctor or lawyer. For you, it was more like running the family business. Do you have any words of wisdom for those Vietnamese American students who are not pursuing art or cultural production when they really want to be, because they have a sense of familial obligation towards recovering whatever the losses were in trying to give the family a good life through immigration? Because you broke away from that expectation and said, “No, I’m actually gonna write.”

The way I would say it is that first of all, art will satisfy you in a way that a good job at a corporation might not always do. Art will satisfy you because you are engaging with something that comes out of you in the truest way. And number two, I think art will help you understand the world better than, I think, any other form. One of the things I always tell my students about why people who read books are always going to be smarter than other people—any book, novel, whatever—is that when you read a book, you are basically engaging with how someone else interprets the world. And when you engage with others interpretations of the world, you inevitably compare it with your own interpretation of the world. And that comparison is how you become smart and more importantly how you become wise. Because the hardest thing in the world is to articulate yourself, you know? The hardest thing in the world is to articulate how you feel. And art helps you do that because you see how other people articulate themselves, whether its through filmmaking, music, painting, or with words. And that is why art makes you wise and makes you smart. And that’s why you should pursue it in any way that you can. Whether it’s a hobby or something professional. And that’s something that making $100,000 working for Lehman Brothers will not necessarily give you. It might, but I don’t think in the same way that a good book, or writing a good book, can.

What are your own strongest motivations to write? What is continuing to motivate you to have this be what you want to do?

There are so many answers to that. One of the answers is, it’s all I’ve ever wanted to do and if I didn’t do it, I wouldn’t feel like myself. I feel like I would lose my definition of myself if I stopped writing. Because that’s literally—you know this—that’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. So that would be a part of it. The other part of it is ego. I want to feel special. I want to feel great. I want to think of myself as accomplishing something great. And for me, writing is the way to do that. And I think the third reason is that I love art in all senses. I love all kinds of art, right? And when I engage with something that is spectacular, the feeling that I get from it. You know what it’s like when you hear a great new song or a great new band, or if you see a great movie. It’s like this overwhelming sense that the world is great. Even if it’s something that was depressing. But if it’s beautiful, it’s just so wonderful, that feeling. And to be able to try to create that, so that someone else can feel that way. That’s as good a motivation if anything, because that takes care of the first two things, you know. It fulfills the ego thing.

Because you feel grateful that you could produce that for someone.

Yeah. But it also legitimizes my idea of myself, that I could do that. Here, I want to read you something real quick. It’s from a story called Carcassonne by William Faulkner. You really have to read it, but I’m just trying to remember this one sentence. It’s about a poet. It’s only about a five page story. But it’s about wanting to be an artist. The story is about being an artist, and wanting to “create something tragical and austere.” And something else. I can’t remember the exact quote, but when I get it I’ll send it to you. [Julie’s update: “I want to perform something bold and tragical and austere”.]

What do you think are the social or political responsibilities, if any, of a creative writer?

I have to agree with Faulkner. I think the artist’s only responsibility is to his art. If there are any other responsibilities that become more important than the art itself, then whatever they were trying to communicate will not come out the way it should. So politics doesn’t even matter if the art is not the most important thing. Hemingway’s leftist books, when people were expecting him to write from that point-of-view, that was when he was at his weakest. I think that’s true. Faulker’s quote is, “I would steal from my mother for my art. Ode on a Grecian Urn is worth more than any number of old ladies.” [Laughs.] “Ode on a Grecian Urn is worth more than any number of old ladies.” I don’t know if I would go that far. But I don’t think he would either. I think he’s trying to make a point. It’s that the art’s paramount.

What do you think the value is, in our society, of the creative writer?

Number one, I think that storytelling—and I know this is my bias with literature and with fiction—but I think storytelling will never die. Whatever form that it is, storytelling will never die. And you always need stories. If it’s just the story you tell to your loved one, at the end of the day, about the day you’ve had. We all need stories. That’s how we also hold onto our past. But the other value, I think, of art and of creative people is to expose people to new ways of seeing the world. And I think creative people are the best at doing that. Corporations aren’t going to do that. They’re not going to show you a new perspective that doesn’t make them money. If the old perspective keeps them making the money they’re making, they’re not going to change that perspective.

The world is always changing. As much as it stays the same, it changes. Contexts change. And creative writers, I think, or creative people, are some of the few people in society who can constantly bring those changes to light. Seeing things in a new way, I think that’s necessary. Otherwise everything would be boring. It wouldn’t just be wrong if you keep on making the same mistakes. It would just be fucking boring.

Vu and Julie, at the wedding of friends in Greenfield, Wisconsin, 2001

Julie and Vu, after brunch at the Thai Temple, Berkeley, California, 2009

Julie Thi Underhill has known Vu Tran since they were in sixth grade in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. After a twenty-five year friendship, Julie deeply appreciates Vu’s role in her life as friend and inspiration, since influencing and critiquing one another’s writing and visual art in middle school. Vu was the first and only peer reviewer of Julie’s poetry, which she began publishing in ninth grade. In 2001, they undertook a study and travel trip together to Việt Nam. They’ve remained close throughout middle school, high school, college, university, and beyond, despite a few moments of tension in middle school, including Vu’s infamous tripping of the airport security alarm in Dallas/Ft. Worth, on the way back from a gifted/talented field trip to NASA in the late 1980s.

Julie is a managing editor for diaCRITICS, and a writer, photographer, and filmmaker. She’s previously written for diaCRITICS about her ‘authenticity’ as a Vietnamese-American, Democratic Kampuchea’s Genocide of the Cham, Isabelle Thuy Pelaud’s launch party for this is all i choose to tell, a preview of UCLA’s VSA culture show tribute to Tam Tran, and a preview of the first San Francisco Diasporic Vietnamese Film Festival.

Vu Tran’s short stories have appeared in many magazines and anthologies, including The Best American Mystery Stories 2009, the 2007 O. Henry Prize StoriesA Best of FenceThe Southern Review, and Harvard Review.  He has also received honors from Glimmer Train Stories and the Michigan Quarterly Review, and is a recipient of a 2009 Whiting Writers’ Award and a 2011 Finalist Award for the Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise.  His first novel, This Or Any Desert, is forthcoming from WW Norton.  Born in Saigon, Vietnam and raised in Tulsa, Oklahoma, he received his MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he was a Teaching-Writing Fellow, and his PhD from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where he was the Glenn Schaeffer Fellow in Fiction.  He currently teaches creative writing at the University of Chicago.

Vu’s short story Vespertine appeared online last year at FiveChapters.

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 are your favorite Vietnamese American authors? Do you feel that Vietnamese American writers are asked to perform acts of reconciliation for the U.S.-reading-public? Why or why not?

The Art of Memory without Pyrotechnics: Vu Tran’s Intervu, Part 1

In December 2010, diaCRITICS managing editor Julie Thi Underhill wrote her first diaCRITICIZE about her dilemmas regarding ‘authentic’ belonging as Vietnamese American of Cham-French and Euro-American descent. She centered her bond with her childhood friend V., who she left anonymous to protect his privacy, lest their middle school conversations haunt him. Two months later, diaCRITICS editor Viet Nguyen sent Julie a note asking if V. was the writer Vu Tran who’d been selected as a 2011 finalist for the Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise, awarded to foreign-born individuals who have demonstrated outstanding achievement during the early stages of their careers. So Vu Tran is easily decoded from V. Not so clandestine after all. Busted!

Julie then requested the “intervu of all time,”  to continue their middle school tradition of puns, in honor of Vu’s recent accomplishments. Julie adds, “Since he is also the first Vietnamese American artist I ever knew, it also feels appropriate to give mad props to Vu for the inspiration he’s provided me during the twenty five (or so) years since he first awed me with his stories.”

This is part one of two. The second part will follow, here on diaCRITICS, on June 8, 2011.

Vu Tran

Vu Tran was born in 1975 in Saigon, Việt Nam. After emigrating by boat to the U.S. in 1980, he was raised near Tulsa, Oklahoma. He decided to become a writer in first grade, and his literary oeuvre has since included multiple genres. Since 1998, Vu’s short stories have appeared in The Best American Mystery Stories 2009, O. Henry Prize Stories 2007, A Best of Fence, The Southern Review, and Harvard Review.  He has received honors from Glimmer Train Stories and  Michigan Quarterly Review. He received the 2009 Whiting Writers’ Award and is a 2011 finalist for the Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise.

Vu received his MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he was a Teaching-Writing Fellow, and his PhD from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where he was the Glenn Schaeffer Fellow in Fiction. He currently teaches creative writing at the University of Chicago. His first novel, This Or Any Desert, is forthcoming from W.W. Norton. 

Recently I had the honor of speaking with my childhood friend Vu about his immigration, influences, distinctions, responsibilities, motivations, and the necessity for creative people in any given society.

diaCRITICS noticed that you’re a 2011 finalist for the Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Literature. One stipulation of the award is that you are foreign born. When and why did you immigrate to the US?

My dad was an officer in the South Vietnamese Air Force. So when Sài Gòn fell, everyone who’d worked with the Americans or the South Vietnamese Army had to leave. So my dad and his two brothers had to hightail it out of Việt Nam. And my mother was I believe four months pregnant with me, when my dad left. He left and finally made it to the United States, but it took us five more years.

Vu with his older sister Mai and their mom, Sài Gòn Zoo, 1977

I can’t imagine how hard it must have been for my mother. Basically at the time she thought, I may never see my husband ever again. And my father had never met me, you know. I was born after he left. So I didn’t meet him until I was five. My mother heard that there were boats leaving Việt Nam, and she, I think with gold, she bought passage for me, my sister, and her. And story goes we left early early in the morning when it was still dark outside. I remember hiding in somebody’s house, in a room, and I remember eating dried shrimp. I remember liking the dried shrimp. From there to the boat, you had to creep in the dark at night, and every time they said “Get down” you had to go into these trenches, you know, for farming. It was a farmland, I think, right by the coast. That’s what we must have done. We must have traveled all the way to the coast, from Biên Hòa, which is right outside of Sài Gòn, right. And so that must have been a long trip. I don’t remember the trip. But we stayed, we hid somewhere. And then that night there was this long trek from where we were to the boats. And it was across land, and we had to constantly duck down into trenches.

Anyway we got on the boat. So what happened is that as soon as the boat was full, they basically drew up the anchor and left. And there were some people who drowned, who tried to swim for the boat and couldn’t make it. We were headed for Singapore, but we were blown off course and ending up making it to Malaysia, and staying in Pulau Bidong for like six months. And from there my dad sponsored us and that’s why we came to the States. The day was September 12, 1980, is when we arrived in Tulsa. My dad picked us up from the airport. That’s when I came here and that’s why. Basically to reunite with my dad, otherwise we wouldn’t. There was no other way.

How did you end up in Oklahoma?

A Catholic priest sponsored my dad. Most Vietnamese go to California, you know, L.A., Orange County, or they go to Louisiana or Texas. We had a Catholic priest. When my dad came to the United States, a Catholic priest in Kansas City sponsored him and my uncle and they went and lived there for a while. I forget where, in Kansas. But then they moved to Tulsa, where they settled. But yeah, it would have been very different if I had grown up in California.

What was the transition like, to go from the refugee camp to Oklahoma?

I think the hardest adjustment was meeting my dad, who was essentially a stranger. I remember like the first night or two, we were all sleeping in the same bed, and I was really afraid of my dad. I mean, I was five days before turning five. I had no idea who this man was. And I must have gone through a frightening experience, or something. It was weird to suddenly be living with this man I didn’t know. And actually for like many many years—I forget this—for many years I still felt that my dad was an outsider in the family. Like I knew that he was my dad, and that we were a family. Rationally and intellectually I knew—I never thought I was not his son. But there was always this weird sense that he was not one of us. Weird, you know. I don’t know when that went away. I don’t know how old I was. But I remember for most of my young life, maybe even until nine or ten, every once in a while I’d think of my dad as an outsider. It was really weird. But I think that’s the only adjustment I remember having to make.

I remember not knowing English. I went to kindergarten and said, “What the…? I don’t understand anyone.” So I literally remember learning English. I gotta say how lucky I was to come here right as I was starting kindergarten. I had already been to kindergarten in Việt Nam. But here I was starting on time. It’s amazing that it aligned so neatly that I came here right in time to do that. Because I can’t imagine being like my cousins, you know, coming here, starting school in the 8th grade, at that age. Can you imagine how hard that could have been? And my uncle who came here when he was 17, oh my god. I was incredibly lucky. Now that I think about it.

Vu with his parents, his brother Joseph, and his sister Mai, celebrating Mai's First Communion, in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma

Have you ever speculated how life would have been different if you’d have grown up in a place like California?

Here’s the funny thing. Anytime I think about how my life would have been if I had grown up elsewhere, like California or even Việt Nam, I always think of it in terms of writing. Because that’s the only thing that fucking matters to me, you know? Like would I have been a writer if I’d grown up in Việt Nam. I don’t know. I don’t think I would have, honestly. I wouldn’t have been exposed to writing in the same way, or to books in the same way, I don’t think. Had I grown up in California, I think I would have eventually engaged with books. I think my sensibility would be a little different. Maybe I still would have felt like an outsider in California, I don’t know. But I definitely think feeling like an outsider in Tulsa definitely informed me as a young writer.

Did you know that a lot of my stories in eighth grade, ninth grade, and tenth grade, they were always about people who went into alternate worlds? It was really weird. I wrote a story about this man who traveled in a train, and when he would travel into the train he would move into this alternate world where his wife was still alive. And the only thing he would take back from that world was his wedding ring. I constantly wrote stories like this. A lot of it had to do with how much I loved the Narnia chronicles—The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe—and that idea of entering another world through a wardrobe. I love that idea of an alternate world. And I have to imagine that was, that had something to do with me feeling outside of things. But everyone feels like an outsider when they’re in high school, and middle school. So that was my outsidership.

When and how did you realize that you wanted to grow up to be a writer?

First grade. It was one of the prefab classrooms at Lynnwood Elementary [in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma.]  And I was in my reading group with, I think, like seven other kids. And our assignment was to write a story. And I remember writing a story where at the end the character wakes up and the whole story was a dream. You know one of those really awful cliché endings. I don’t remember anything else about the story but that, but that was when I knew I wanted to be a writer. I guess I must have been about six. And it’s strange—I’ve never for a second wanted to do anything else.

Vu in blue, age six, approximately when he decided to become a writer, Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, 1981

Who were your earliest literary influences, the people that kind of blew your mind?

Oh, you remember this. Jules Verne was my first favorite writer. I loved Jules Verne. Who else did I really love? I loved Greek mythology. In elementary school, there was this great collection of watercolored Greek mythology books, and I learned Greek mythology by reading those books. I checked out all of them and read it.

So what were the stories like that you were writing as a kid? How would you characterize the kind of writing you were doing by eighth or ninth grade?

I wouldn’t call it magic realism at all, I know that, because that’s something completely different. They were always grounded in real reality, but there would always be fantastic elements, like a man going into a train and going into an alternate world, or whatever. Honestly they were always kind of dark, they were always noir-ish. I think I’ve always loved that element, you know. It was usually a male protagonist who was confused. And they were always, I think, very sentimental in some way. I remember loving surprise endings—most kids do. I think I became a much better writer when I stopped writing surprise endings. I think that’s a mark of immaturity. There are people who can do it really well, and maturely, for the most part. But at that time, there was always some magical element.

When I got to college, I would always write these dark and violent stories, like badly violent. They were badly written, first of all, but they were overly violent. I don’t know, maybe I was watching really violent movies at that time. Or thought that I would sound more mature if I had violence and I had cursing, that I could sound more adult. More mature. But in high school, the stories were more sentimental and fantastic. In middle school, I wrote a lot of fairy tale retellings, that kind of fantasy.

Vu and Julie, front and center, with classmates at South Intermediate High School, Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, 1991

Some outsiders—Vu, Matt, Jesse, Julie—in Broken Arrow High School, 1993

"Excellence doesn't just happen!" Julie made this photo of Vu in 1993, in 11th grade AP English, but really in an alternate world, a vutopia of some kind

So what’s the first piece you ever published? 

My first published story was the story called Solomon’s Dream. It was in the Antioch Review in 1998. It was about a Catholic priest in Biên Hòa. I was 22, is that right? That was the first story I ever sent out to get published. The other story was an honorable mention in a magazine and they published it. So the first two stories that I ever sent out got published. And I didn’t get published again for another five years. [Laughs]. Even though I had sent, god, so many stories out. So I got lucky my first two times, then nothing for like five years.

Who are your influences now?

I love Peter Carey. Gabriel Garcia Marquez. John Fowles. Alice Munro. Tim O’Brien. [Vladimir] Nabokov. I love Raymond Chandler—great crime fiction. There’s more that I am forgetting.

Do you think that there is something particular about being a refugee that makes imagining home and being home very crucial? Does being a refugee call into question the idea of home?

I’m writing a bit of a crime novel right now. It’s a noir novel, right. The thing about noir fiction is that it’s usually about people who are always looking for something and knowing that they’re not going to find it. And to the degree that at some point they just are in that default mode, and obviously with noir fiction that’s like a dark worldview and a dark approach to living when you constantly feel like you are looking for something even though you don’t know what it is. I feel like in some ways being a refugee is kind of like that. Because home will never really be home. Because the home that you grew up in is not home in the sense that it is for everyone. Because you belong there only because you are physically there and you are raised there, but it really doesn’t belong to you in the same way it belongs to someone who white and American, and was born and raised there with white and American parents, right. And your other home, the home that you were taken from, will never be home to you in the real sense, either, because you didn’t grow up there. So it’s like, you know, when people say they are looking for something, if they’ve found it, then they have it—they possess it. But I think with us, as refugees, even if we find it, it’s not really ours in the same way as it is for other people. It’s not like finding a lost key—oh my god, I found my key, now I can open the door.

It sounds like there are continuities from your early work to now, in a way. But how do you think that your stories have evolved, conceptually and formally, since you first started writing, seriously?

This is really funny. I was really into the Harlem Renaissance, and into African American literature. Like I loved Toni Morrison. I loved John Edgar Wideman. And I read the Harlem Renaissance. Ralph Ellison—Invisible Man is still one of my favorite novels. But the earlier Harlem Renaissance like Jean Toomer—Cane, and shit like that, aw man, I loved that stuff. I wrote like that. I was trying to appropriate their lyricism. But I was also trying to appropriate their politics. Basically a lot of my characters were Asian American characters with African American themes of racism and shit like that. It was so bad. But I really aped Faulkner for a long time. I tried to write like Faulkner. And then I think, in Iowa, I realized that every sentence didn’t need to be like a fucking poem. I didn’t have to try so hard. And I really pared down my language a lot. I wrote with more subtlety, I think. I would say that college is when I really began writing seriously. From there and then into Iowa, I tried to write with more subtlety and I really pared down my language. It used to be, I tried so hard, I was so ambitious, I would do all these tricks and it didn’t work then, but it was adventurous. And I think in the last eight years I’ve been trying to reclaim that adventurousness, if that makes any sense. So it’s like learning the rules. I started off not following the rules very well, at all, because I didn’t know them. And then I learned all the rules. And in the last eight years I’ve been trying to distance—trying to kind of exploit the rules, and move beyond them. Does that make sense?

Yes, it does.

And also trying to write more genuinely. I feel for a long time I was writing about ideas that weren’t really my true ideas. Not that I stole them, but like, I don’t feel they came from a sincere and true place.

Do you think that’s age, and having more life under your belt? Or do you think it’s something else that’s allowed you to do more of that?

I think it’s a natural thing. I think that you become a better writer when you’re writing from a place that’s actually your own. I think most writers, unless they’re brilliant, they’re not writing well unless they’re writing from a true place. If they’re appropriating someone else’s ideas and their concerns, it just doesn’t work. The reader will know that. I think when I started writing from my own place, I think it showed, my writing was just better.

What did it look like to be writing from your own place?

I think for a long time I was writing stories about Việt Nam and thinking I had to write about a certain kind of displacement—I had to write from a certain point of view. But those were all ideas that I had gathered from other books I’d read, and other people I’d talked to. I felt like that wasn’t my own personal sense of displacement, you know. So for example I would write about a character who was coming back to Việt Nam and I would imagine that character from the point of view of someone else coming back to Việt Nam. It wasn’t my own point of view. For some reason, I always kind of stayed away from myself. And then I remember, I think the first story that I wrote that I felt was truly me was, like this, I feel embarrassed. It was a love story, a novella I wrote, for an ex-girlfriend. And I wrote it over Christmas in 2001. And I finally felt myself actually writing myself into the story. And it’s not about writing autobiographically so that it’s suddenly yours now, but like literally putting myself into the way that he would respond to things and into the way that he would see the world. Does that make sense? And it showed. I think it worked. That novella is the first story I wrote that I felt was truly mature, because I was writing from a place that was solely my own place. I know that it’s almost a generic way to describe it, but I think it’s the best way I can do it.

That absolutely makes sense. How do you think textures of memory inform and shape your writing? How does memory configure into the way that you write?

It probably figures into the way that everyone writes. Oh my god, Kazuo Ishiguro once explained memory in a really good way and I forgot how exactly he put it. That there’s a difference between nostalgia and a glorification of the past. I think the way memory ends up being a texture in my story is always in tone. I’ll explain it this way. You know Wong Kar-Wai, right? You watch a Wong Kar-Wai movie, and there is a tone of romanticism at its most lush, right. It’s about love, but really the thing that makes his style uniquely his own is that tone of memory in all of his work. It’s nostalgia but it’s also sadness for something that is gone forever, that is not retrievable. I think that’s the thing about memory, is that you can be nostalgic about it, but you’re inevitably sad about it because you know that you can never recreate the past. You can try to, but you can’t. And that tone comes through in a lot of my favorite books and movies and music. Music especially. I think that’s the texture of memory that I have. Sometimes it’s more literal. I have a lot of retrospective narrators who recount the past from the filter of their present point of view. But I think more than anything it’s just that tone. That tone of sadness that you really can’t reclaim the past.

Vu, fifth from left, in 1996 with family on his first trip to Việt Nam since fleeing as a child

It seems like war ends up being a predominant theme in the writings of Vietnamese Americans, sometimes even as an act of resisting that the entire sense of Vietnamese-ness not be reduced to the war. As some have said, Việt Nam is a country not a war. Do you feel that the war, as a topic, has been an important aspect of your own writing? And why or why not?

You asked about my evolution as a writer. That was one of the themes I felt that I had to write about. I’m glad you asked this, because that was the missing part of what I was trying to explain. I felt when I wrote about war, I was writing it from the perspective of what I thought people expected me to write, that war. At this point I feel that writing about the Việt Nam war is so difficult, not only for me, but for all writers, least of which Vietnamese American writers or any Asian—any immigrant writer coming from a war-torn country. I think the thing about war is that if you write about it from the sense that war is awful, that war is hell, and all those kinds of clichés—war being the defining feature of that character’s identity, makes it less interesting, at this point. If you can somewhat make the character in that narrative go beyond the context of war that’s when it becomes much more interesting. Because there are so many ways you can say that war is awful and it makes people suffer. Romantic relationships make people suffer. The IRS makes people suffer. You know what I mean? I don’t know how much you can say about that idea of war being awful, but whatever is communicated, I feel, needs to come from that individual character, not just from the idea of war itself. Does that makes sense?

It’s been interesting to watch Vietnamese American writing—the people who are taking it up—find their own way to write about or to not write about war. Which is one thing I like about The Gangster We Are All Looking For by lê thi diem thúy. There are traces of war, but that’s not what the main protagonist is struggling with, in particular. She’s struggling with the repercussions of the displacements and separations, and all that. 

Here’s the thing is that when you write about war—if you grow up in America, or grow up in the West, and you read war literature, especially Việt Nam War literature, you’re reading primarily white writers. And quite frankly, they’ve written the best literature on war, I think, the most interesting literature. But the perspective that they are imposing, the perspective that war is this outlandish, this unique experience. Whereas if you are writing from the Việt Nam perspective, you know, that we’ve had centuries of war. That we’ve always lived with this. That this is just a fact of life, right. And if you write from the western perspective, inevitably there will be something that is disingenuous about it. You’re treating it as if it’s some kind of alien creature. But it is the fabric of our culture that we’re always at war. So saying that war sucks is like saying that Việt Nam culture sucks. That’s not even an argument after a while. That’s not even remotely interesting. I don’t know yet how to write about it, to be honest with you. I just know the ways that I don’t want to write it. Or the ways that it’s been written that I don’t like to read. What it should actually be or how I should write it, I’m not sure I know yet.

You said that you think that a lot of the best war literature has been written by non-Vietnamese writers. Do you think that those same writers have that disingenuousness about the war? How could they manage to write it well if they are disingenuous?

I’ll take Tim O’Brien for example. I feel that The Things They Carried is not about the Việt Nam war after a while. In that chapter How to Tell A True War Story, the real title of that piece is How to Tell A True Story, you know. It’s really about the act of writing about one’s experience, and so it goes beyond the war in that sense. The war is kind of like a context for him to talk about these things. I feel like writers like him aren’t necessarily disingenuous at all. I think a writer like Robert Owen Butler, his story collection—I once loved that book a lot, and now I don’t, I really don’t like it. I’m not one to question someone’s motivations, or whatever, but I feel like reading his other work now, I realize that a lot of the voices in that story collection, it’s ventriloquism. It’s not writing from a brutal, raw, honest, and true place, it’s ventriloquism. It’s appropriating someone else’s rawness. And I kind of resent that collection now. But I feel like that’s what I was doing for a long time. The same thing that Robert Owen Butler was doing. Because I was on the outside of it as much as he is. Even though he was there and he was a translator. But I feel like I’m as much of an outsider as he is. And I felt like for a long time I was doing the same thing he was.

Do you think that the publishing industry attempts to pigeonhole the ‘ethnic American’ writer, and, if you’ve ever felt it, how has this affected you?

I think it does. And you know, I hate, I’ve never liked when people talk this way. They’re pigeonholing us. I don’t like feeling like a victim of anything, you know. But I do think it’s true. When I was trying to publish my book, when I first was looking for an agent, my first agent that I worked with extensively, he read a story of mine and he loved it. But it was the one that was most obviously about the war. He kept telling me—he literally said this, Julie—“Can you have more of the war stuff in your other stories?” Because I didn’t. You know, I was purposely not trying to write about the war. And he was telling me that you should. And in many ways, the story that he liked was my best story, I still think. So maybe he’s making a point here, you know, I shouldn’t just be so offended by it. I ended up still writing a collection of stories—there was only one story with anything directly about the war, and in the other stories any time war is mentioned it is only in passing. And my collection got rejected by fifteen different people, fifteen different houses in New York. And it could have been they just didn’t like them. But I really think a lot of it had to do with their expectations. This is a collection about Việt Nam, and there are no pyrotechnics here. Where are the pyrotechnics? There’s nothing here. It’s like, you know, lonely sensitive people, you know, having a hard time connecting with one another. Why the fuck would we want this collection?


We want some people dying and shit. You know. And that’s what my novel, in a sense, is about. My novel is about a white American police officer who marries a Vietnamese woman who immigrated from Việt Nam. And one of the reasons their marriage doesn’t work out is that she never tells him shit about Việt Nam. And he wants it, you know. He wants her to tell him all these things, but she doesn’t. In a sense, I want to fucking deny readers that, because it’s not what we are, you know.

So you do see or believe that this interest in the war has overdetermined how people want to read your writing, you think? Maybe even that Vietnamese character is you, saying, ‘I’m not going to tell you anything!’

Yeah, yeah, I think it is. Well the another thing is, I don’t know these things. I don’t. It’s like, you want to hear from me? I don’t know it. I grew up in fucking Broken Arrow, Oklahoma! I don’t know about people getting their brains blown out in war! I don’t know about that shit. I’m as ignorant as you are. Why should I be telling you this stuff just because I was born there? Or because my parents are from there? I’m not an expert on it. And I’m too lazy to do the research!

[Laughs]. Do you feel that even in the way your characters can still remember the place, if they are from Việt Nam, do you feel that your work is inherently transnational? I mean, do you think there is a transnational element to your writing, where you are able to be in multiple spaces at once, and keep the conversation going?

Yeah, I think that’s probably inevitable at this point, you know. I have this joke with my friends—every once in a while I’ll say, ‘You mean I’m not white?’ [Laughs]. Because, I mean, I feel as much as white American as I do a Vietnamese person. So I think in my novel right now, I think you are absolutely right. I have a character in there who is 28. And he came to the States with his father from a refugee camp when he was about six or seven. That’s me. But the white American police officer is me, too. So it’s very transnational. The plot of the novel is he’s going back to Las Vegas to find his ex-wife for her new Vietnamese husband, right. So he’s entering a Vietnamese community that he is unfamiliar with. That’s me. Every time I engage with the Vietnamese community, I’m as much a stranger as he is. I am privy to stuff that he isn’t, because I grew up in a Vietnamese family. But I am as much as stranger as he is. So yeah, it’s all those things. Those perspectives are inevitable at this point.

Do you think it might be a condition of a diaspora to be looking to interpret or revisit the past, in particular, in whatever form that it is? I’m thinking also of artists in exile from Europe, in their own diasporas, as well. I’m just wondering how much the past is part of that feeling of being dispersed or in exile from home.

I really do think that this is that way for everyone. I think everyone feels it. Diaspora obviously refers to those of us who are physically not in the country that we grew up in or were born in. But in a more metaphoric sense, I feel everyone goes through that, everyone experiences that. When you are an adult, you are no longer the child that you once were. That is a displacement. It is. The most vivid memories that you’ll always have will always be the memories that you have between the ages of four and twelve probably, between four and seventeen. And those memories will always be more vivid than the rest of your life, probably. But you will never be that child or teenager again. You are now forty or fifty years old. So you will feel displaced. That really in a metaphoric sense will be no different than someone who is physically removed from the country they were born in or grew up in. I think politically speaking it’s a little different, it’s more obvious that you’re displaced in that way. So if you are obviously like us, you are ethnic, our displacement is more heightened because there are immediate expectations for us from people that we meet, you know, that are different.

It's Not a Through Street, It's a Vu Street, photographed by Julie, Berkeley, California, 2009

Part two will continue on June 8, 2011, here at diaCRITICS.

Julie Thi Underhill has known Vu Tran since they were in sixth grade in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. After a twenty-five year friendship, Julie deeply appreciates Vu’s role in her life as friend and inspiration, since influencing and critiquing one another’s writing and visual art in middle school. Vu was the first and only peer reviewer of Julie’s poetry, which she began publishing in ninth grade. In 2001, they undertook a study and travel trip together to Việt Nam. They’ve remained close throughout middle school, high school, college, university, and beyond, despite a few moments of tension in middle school, including Vu’s infamous tripping of the airport security alarm in Dallas/Ft. Worth, on the way back from a gifted/talented field trip to NASA in the late 1980s.

Julie is a managing editor for diaCRITICS, and a writer, photographer, and filmmaker. She’s previously written for diaCRITICS about her ‘authenticity’ as a Vietnamese-American, Democratic Kampuchea’s Genocide of the Cham, Isabelle Thuy Pelaud’s launch party for this is all i choose to tell, a preview of UCLA’s VSA culture show tribute to Tam Tran, and a preview of the first San Francisco Diasporic Vietnamese Film Festival.

Vu Tran’s short stories have appeared in many magazines and anthologies, including The Best American Mystery Stories 2009, the 2007 O. Henry Prize StoriesA Best of FenceThe Southern Review, and Harvard Review.  He has also received honors from Glimmer Train Stories and the Michigan Quarterly Review, and is a recipient of a 2009 Whiting Writers’ Award and a 2011 Finalist Award for the Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise.  His first novel, This Or Any Desert, is forthcoming from WW Norton.  Born in Saigon, Vietnam and raised in Tulsa, Oklahoma, he received his MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he was a Teaching-Writing Fellow, and his PhD from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where he was the Glenn Schaeffer Fellow in Fiction.  He currently teaches creative writing at the University of Chicago.

Vu’s short story Vespertine appeared online last year at FiveChapters.

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 are your favorite Vietnamese American authors? Do you feel that Vietnamese American writers are asked to perform acts of reconciliation for the U.S.-reading-public? Why or why not?

Nhi T. Lieu’s The American Dream in Vietnamese

Another new book on Vietnamese American culture! Check out Nhi T. Lieu’s groundbreaking book, available now. 

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I can’t actually review this book, since I wrote the blurb that appears on the back. So instead, I’ll just quote myself: “Nhi T. Lieu insightfully demonstrates how important popular culture is to the self-fashioning of Vietnamese Americans. Her ground-breaking book validates what many Vietnamese Americans demonstrate in their everyday lives: that the pursuit of leisure and the rituals of entertainment are as crucial to community formation as political advancement and economic empowerment.” And I mean it!

The book is an enjoyable read and covers topics of interest to both academics and non-academics–Little Saigon, beauty contests, Paris by Night, the idea of diaspora, the influence of war on Vietnamese American culture. I highly recommend it.

What’s more, the book comes out an opportune moment, only months after Isabelle Pelaud’s this is all i choose to tell: History and Hybridity in Vietnamese American Literature. A new generation of Vietnamese American scholars is beginning to make its mark.

–Viet Thanh Nguyen

In her research on popular culture of the Vietnamese diaspora, Nhi T. Lieu explores how people displaced by war reconstruct cultural identity in the aftermath of migration. Embracing American democratic ideals and consumer capitalism prior to arriving in the United States, postwar Vietnamese refugees endeavored to assimilate and live the American Dream. In The American Dream in Vietnamese, she claims that nowhere are these fantasies played out more vividly than in the Vietnamese American entertainment industry.

Lieu examines how live music variety shows and videos, beauty pageants, and Web sites created by and for Vietnamese Americans contributed to the shaping of their cultural identity. She shows how popular culture forms repositories for conflicting expectations of assimilation, cultural preservation, and invention, alongside gendered and classed dimensions of ethnic and diasporic identity.

The American Dream in Vietnamese demonstrates how the circulation of images manufactured by both Americans and Vietnamese immigrants serves to produce these immigrants’ paradoxical desires. Within these desires and their representations, Lieu finds the dramatization of the community’s struggle to define itself against the legacy of the refugee label, a classification that continues to pathologize their experiences in American society.

Nhi T. Lieu is assistant professor of American studies, Asian American studies, and women’s and gender studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

256 pages | 20 b&w photos | 5 1/2 x 8 1/2 | 2011

Table of Contents

Introduction: Private Desires on Public Display

1. Assimilation and Ambivalence: Legacies of U.S. Military Intervention

2. Vietnamese by Other Means: The Overlapping Diasporas of Little Saigon

3. Pageantry and Nostalgia: Beauty Contests and the Gendered Homeland

4. Consuming Transcendent Media: Videos, Variety Shows, and the New Middle Class

Conclusion: Transnational Flows between the Diaspora and the Homeland


Trâu, Cọp, và Trí Khôn Con Người – Buffalo, Tiger, & Human Wisdom

What do a tiger, a buffalo, and a farmer have to do with being Vietnamese?  Read on and find out!

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

Viet Nguyen, editor-in-chief of diaCRITICS, had earlier criticized what it means to (not) be Vietnamese, and challenged the notion of authencity.  He mentioned some markers that people use to determine Vietnameseness: phở, fish sauce, Khánh Ly, etc.  The list can certainly go on so where does one draw the line?  What does being Vietnamese include?

Viet was also right in asserting that these are the wrong questions to ask because ethnic identity is amorphous, changing from individual to individual. Anyone can claim any identity, whether others believe it or not.   What we should be asking instead are the “Why” of being Vietnamese.

Why do Vietnamese people do/believe in the things they do?  These questions are more exploratory and will often lead to a better understanding of the Vietnamese identity because they attempt to look at Vietnamese people from the inside out, rather than outside in.

When we ask these questions, though, we inevitably run into Truyện Cổ Tích.  Truyện Cổ Tích are the folklore, legends, and tales of Việt Nam that reveal and explain our mores and day to day lives, like the one about the origin of the Vietnamese people.  Truyện cổ tích  literally means ‘old collected stories’ and some of the stories we tell today will, in the future, be old and explain again why it is that Vietnamese do the things they do now.

Until that time, we hope you will enjoy this feature where we will present English-translated truyện cổ tích so you can catch a glimpse of why it is Vietnamese.

Trâu, Cọp, và Trí Khôn Con Người – Buffalo, Tiger, and the Wisdom of Human

This original piece by Julie is available for your non-commercial creative use.

Long long ago before any can remember, when animals and humans still talked with one another, there sat a bird in a tree watching a farmer struggle to lead his water buffalo with ropes tied to its horns.  Bemused, the bird said aloud to itself, “I wonder why the rope is tied to the horns?  Why not lead the buffalo by the nose-nose-nose?”  The farmer understood the wisdom in these words so he pierced the buffalo’s nostrils and from that day on, led the buffalo by its nose.

Meanwhile, a tiger was sitting in the cool shade at the edge of a pond, admiring its golden coat of fur. This was part of its daily ritual for the tiger was quite proud of its spotless appearance and thought itself not only the most beautiful creature but also the strongest.  By now, it was nearly noon and the tiger was hungry. It came upon the farm hoping for an easy meal but stopped at the spectacle of the hard-working duo of farmer and buffalo streaming with sweat as they pulled a heavy plow through the mud.

His curiosity tinged with greed but as is the nature of cats, he couldn’t help but say first, “It’s so strange Buffalo…you toil for this puny human and let him lead you by the nose, but you are so much bigger and stronger! Why do you listen to him?”

The water buffalo was undisturbed.

“He may be small, Tiger, but he has wisdom,” said the buffalo, flicking his tail in the direction of the farmer.  “Ask him and he will show it to you.”

Wasting no time, the tiger approached the farmer, whose face darkened at the sight of sharp fangs and long claws. Tiger said to the farmer, “Buffalo tells me that you have something called wisdom that makes even a great creature as he obey you, will you show it to me?”

“I’ll…I’ll have to g…go and fetch it,” the farmer said, trembling.  “But I don’t dare leave seeing how hungrily you eye my buffalo.  If you allow me to restrain you…say…tie you to that tree over there, I’ll gladly go and get my wisdom to show you.”

Tiger hastily agreed, for he so wanted to see this thing called wisdom and the hunger was becoming quite unbearable.  The farmer proceeded to tie the tiger to the tree with several spans of rope and ran off.  When he returned, he carried with him only a torch, the fear on his face had disappeared.

“You call that wisdom?” the tiger demanded.  “What nonsense!  Now untie me so I can get my meal.”

Tiger bared his fangs, as if to make the point clear, but the farmer said nothing and lit the tree on fire before leading his buffalo away.

The tiger howled and flailed wildly but the ropes held fast.  The flames bit deep, the rope charred.  Finally, Tiger managed to free himself and ran back into the dark of the jungle.  It was a long time before he would emerge again and what a sight he was!  Great black stripes now marred his golden body, burned into his fur by that thing called wisdom.

Buffalo saw the tiger and laughed.  He laughed so hard that he fell over and broke his front teeth on a rock.  Thereafter and always, water buffaloes have no front teeth and tigers stay deep within the jungle, not wanting others to see their shameful black stripes.

Read versions of this story in Vietnamese at Vietfun, at e-cadao.
Listen to it in Vietnamese at nhaccuatui.

by Bảo Nguyễn and Julie Nguyễn.

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 heard this story before?  What memories does hearing this story bring up?  What do you think it says about the Vietnamese people?

Bearing the Weight of History – the Story of a Young Chăm Woman in America

At diaCRITICS, we center a cross-ethnic and transnational approach, as fifty-four ethnicities live within present-day Vietnam and as the Vietnamese diaspora has resettled on five continents. Yet the ethnic minorities of Vietnam, and their communities abroad, are often forgotten. By featuring those in the Vietnamese diaspora whose identities and histories are less well known, we highlight the importance of de-centering Kinh (ethnic Vietnamese) assumptions about what is “Vietnamese.” Here’s an in-depth, courageous, and self-reflexive discussion about Chăm culture and history, centering a Vietnamese Muslim Chăm woman. This was originally published by the Cultural Quest Foundation and reprinted with permission.

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“I am a Chăm” 

We met a young woman in San Jose, California, who wore a scarf over her head, which identified her as a person of Islamic faith. But she spoke perfect Vietnamese. A Vietnamese Muslim – Wow – what a rare site! We asked her more questions and were curious about her background. “I am a Chăm,” she said, looking keenly at us for our response. She wasn’t sure if we knew what a Chăm is. 

Viet’s Twin Civilization

Probably all Vietnamese with basic formal education in Vietnam would know about “người Chăm,” the native people of Central Vietnam. The Chăm people were said to have a glorious culture built on Hindu and Islamic faiths. Tháp Chăm (Chăm temple ruins) are famous historical relics, the largest of which at Mỹ Sơn is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Chăms were brave sea-faring people. They traded with cultures all over Southeast Asia. Their language belongs to the great language family of Malayo-Polynesian, whose origin stretched from East-African Madagascar to the Pacific Islands.

In terms of cultural development, the Việts and the Chăms started out on a parallel course that mirrored each other like hands of the same person. Coming out of the stone age, the Chăms developed a sophisticated iron-based technology, called the Sa Huỳnh culture, while the Việts in north cultivated the bronze-based Đồng Sơn culture. The Chăms were a sea-faring people while the Việts, coming from the Austro-Asiatic language family (cousin to Khmer language), thrived on agriculture. The Việts imported Han-Chinese intellectualism for their societal development, while the Chăm society was built on Hindu intellectualism. The Việt’s family was patriarchal and male-centered, favored by labor-intensive agriculture, while the Chăm’s family—with the women being the community’s pillars and the men spending long months at sea—was matrilineal and women-centered.

Even the Việt’s myth of creation holds vague references to the Chăms as well. The myth talked about the angel Princess marrying a dragon Prince to create the first one hundred children who became the peoples of Southeast Asia. The angel princess, whose name was Âu Cơ, was the descendant of Thần Nông (the God of Agriculture) who supposedly lived somewhere in the Yangtze River region. The Dragon Prince, whose name was Lạc Long Quân, came from the sea. After the children were born, the couple split up, with half going with their mother back to the inland region and other half followed their father to live by the sea. The myth said that modern Việts came from the stock that went with mother Âu Cơ. That explained the Việt proclivity toward agriculture. But what modern people came from the group that lived with father Lạc Long Quân? Who else but the sea-faring Chăms, of course!

Brothers no more

Hardly anyone outside of Southeast Asia knows about the Chăms today, because the Việts had wiped their nation, Champa (“Chiêm Thành” in Vietnamese) off the world’s map since the fourteenth century. There is a deep conflict within the Vietnamese cultural consciousness about what they had done to the Chăms. On one hand, they railed against the Chinese for trying to take over their homeland, originally in the Red River delta in today North Vietnam. On other hand, they did the very same thing to the Chăm by taking away the Chăm way of life and country.

This conflict is especially strong among the South Vietnamese who lost their country to North Vietnam in 1975. The Vietnamese refugees often say among themselves that the brutal Vietnam War and the subsequent loss of South Vietnam is a karmic retribution for their ancestor’s unjust actions. It was also ironic that the Việts’ new home, America, the land of dream and opportunity, was also built upon a bloody legacy at the expense of the native peoples. Human civilization seems to be full of savagery, and the Việts contributed their own dark chapter in their relations with the Chăms. 

“Don’t call me Chàm”

Our first meeting with Vân Anh did not get off so great. Off the bat, Vân-Anh, she politely stopped us from calling her “Chàm,” a sound with a falling tone. “We are Chăm” she said. “Chàm is derogatory to us.” Chăm sounds a bit like ‘chum.’ For those thinking that fussing over a tiny diacritical mark is bordering on insanity, we want to remind them that in the tonal Vietnamese language tone is everything. “Má” (rising tone) means mother, but “Ma” (flat tone) means a ghost. “Tướng Không Quân” means an Air Force general, but “Tướng Không Quần” means a general without pants. Getting the wrong tone can get you into a lot of trouble.

That was how we got into trouble with Vân-Anh for calling her a “Chàm”. Honesty, we never heard of the word “Chăm” before. All historical texts we learned used the word “Chàm.” We were a bit irked by Vân-Anh’s demand for different term. We never meant any disrespect and didn’t like someone telling us to stop using a historically honored word. But when we checked the internet on the proper term to call the Chăm people, sure enough, “Chăm” was indeed the term that Chăm people call themselves. The early score: Vân-Anh 1, CQF 0.

Opening a big can of worms

The discovery of a thriving Chăm community on the internet pleased us. We were taught that the Chăm culture had been totally destroyed. So we organized a talk on January 9th, 2011, for Vân-Anh to tell us more about her family and culture. We didn’t have a great turn out, as many of our Việt friends admittedly were uncomfortable with the cross-cultural discussion that we attempted. “You are opening a very big can of worms,” professor Trương Bổn Tài, a supporter of Chăm culture, reminded the group.

Honestly, most Việts don’t want to talk about this issue. “Why stir up the past?” one friend said. But Vân Anh reminded us that the legacy of maltreatment of the Chăms is not of the past but the present. Even today, some Vietnamese still refer to the Chăms as “mọi” (savages), cow and pig worshipers, and cast them as an inferior race.

Other Việt friends are uncomfortable with the idea of speaking ill of our own forbearers. In the Confucian tradition, doing such thing amounts to being ungrateful if not a sin. But the fact of the matter is Vân-Anh is a Việt, Chăm culture is a part of Việts’ greater cultural landscape, and most if not all South Vietnamese have some trace of Chăm ancestry in their blood due to generations of intermarriages. So it is only right and necessary to hear what Vân-Anh has to say and what her Chăm community has experienced. Furthermore, as children of the same Mother Earth, we all have the power and the responsibility to ease any the historical burden and make it better for the future generations, just by understanding. So with this intent, talking about the difficult past legacy may turn out to be of much greater service for our ancestors than looking the other way.

Another worry we had was that the heavy historical topic would result in more bad feelings. Good intentions often beget disasters. Even Vân-Anh was nervous and she insisted on a low-key invitation-only crowd. Academic discussions on Chăm-Việt relations in the past have been known to end up in fiery debates or cold resentments. At the outset, we looked naive for doing this program. If scholars could not enlighten Chăm-Việt relation, how could a group of rag-tag non-experts like us do any good to a far-gone tragedy?

But we weren’t interested in scholarly truth. We were interested in Vân Anh’s personal truth. A part of our motivation to form Cultural Quest Foundation comes from the belief that every person holds an important truth about his or her own culture and history, worthy to be told and shared. The most valuable source of history is the eyewitnesses, not the books. We become truly ignorant of our history when we don’t listen to our elders and neighbors, not when we don’t get enough history units. So when Vân-Anh accepted our invite to tell her story, we were delighted to give her the center stage and used scholarly information only as backdrops. That was exactly what we did and we weren’t disappointed. At the end of the program, all attendees felt satisfied, hopeful and appreciative of her sharing.

14th century map of Đại Việt (Vietnam) and Champa

Strategic Cultural Misunderstanding

The golden age of Champa took place in the early centuries of the modern era along side with the rise of other great Hinduist worshiping centers such as Angkor in Cambodia and Bali in Indonesia. The Chăm temples were adorn with curvaceous Apsara dancers conjuring a time of elegance, grace and transcendence. Important Chăm cities and towns were named after Hindu Gods, such as Indrapura (Đà Nẵng) and Vijaya (Quy Nhơn), as professor Arti Nigam, an Indian psychologist, pointed out during the forum.

The Khmer and Chăm Hindus had one of history’s most interesting love-hate relationships. While the Chăms worshiped God Shiva, the Khmer honored God Vishnu. Like a classic sibling rivalry, they fought each other like enemies and then helped each other like best friends. After the Việt invasion in the fourteenth century, Chăm Hinduism declined and gave way to Islamic intellectualism. Some Chăms became Buddhists much like the Khmer. Chăm society became culturally fragmented, by which some people hung on to the Hindu faith, while others followed the newer Islamic trend.

The most famous story between the Chăm and Việt during this time was that of Princess Huyền Trân, the daughter of Viet King Trần Anh Tông. After decades of conflict, King Trần Anh Tông and the Chăm King Chế Mân signed a historic land-for-peace deal. In this agreement, the Chăms would cede to the Việts two provinces and the Chăm King would marry the beautiful Việt Princess, thus joining two kingdoms into one family.

But the Việts did not keep their side of the deal. After King Chế Mân died, the Việt king ordered an attack on the Chăms to retrieve his daughter, because he feared that Princess Huyền Trân would be burned alive in the Chăm king’s funeral pyre as dictated by Chăm custom. That attack turned out to be the first shot in the Việt campaign of Nam Tiến (southward expansion) that eventually annexed all of Champa and part of Khmer Kingdom into Vietnam’s territory.

The story of Princess Huyền Trân captured Việt imagination for the ages. It has a dramatic cast of characters including a powerful Việt king also a loving father, a courageous and lovely princess, and a barbaric enemy who would sacrifice an innocent woman, not to mention the man who would lead the Princess’s rescue was rumored to be her own former lover.

But unbeknown to most Việts today, there is another side to this story. Apparently, Princess Huyền Trân was never in any danger of being sacrificed. According to Chăm custom of the time, only the Queen could choose to sacrifice herself in order to empower the throne for her descendants. To do so, she would have needed approval from a ruling council, in case she was needed to rule the country. Sacrifice one’s life for a greater cause was nothing new nor undesirable in either Việt or Chăm culture at the time. It was the queen’s choice to sacrifice herself. But Princess Huyền Trân was not the queen, but the King’s concubine, albeit an important one. There was no way she could die from Chăm custom.

Cultural Survival at Stake

The West never got to know Champa, except for what little Marco Polo had wrote about this fabled kingdom during his brief visit to the Chăm seaport Singapura (Hội An). By the time Western countries arrived in large numbers in the latter centuries, Champa was already relegated to archeological and historical curiosities. French colonization that stopped Việt expansionism came too late for the Chăms, as it could only help to save the Khmer kingdom instead. As the Việts pushed southward, the once seafaring Chăm people moved farther south and then into Cambodia with the largest number living in a land-locked community called Kampong Cham.

Once both Hindus, the Khmer (now Buddhists) and the Chăms (now Muslims) lived peacefully side by side, guided by each of their own gentle religion. But then the Vietnam War came and followed with the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror. Untold number of Chăm were killed in the seventies for the crime of being non-indigenous. Ironically this time, it was the Vietnamese communists that went into Cambodia to get rid of their fellow communists, the Khmer Rouge, and saved the whole country from total annihilation.

In the twenty-first century, the threat of physical persecution has lifted, but the struggle for cultural survival is more fierce than ever. Like all indigenous cultures, the Chăm culture faces a direct assault from the pop culture which sways young people away from traditional values. Vân Anh’s generation must deal with the difficult task of redefining what it means to be a Chăm in today’s complex globalized world.

Khmer Chăm women visit the site where large number of Chăms were killed during the Khmer Rouge reign of terror (1975-1979)

Indifference toward being different

In central Vietnam today, small Chăm villages still remained. Vân Anh grew up in one of those villages near Phan Rang (formerly Panduranga). She spoke fluent Chăm and Vietnamese. Her community was Islamic. They prayed and worshipped Allah and carried on a proud culture, personified in traditional dances, rituals and family’s heirlooms and relics. Invisibility seemed to have been a good thing for Vân Anh, until she came to America in the post 9/11 era. Islam is viewed with deep suspicion here. Yet, she could not part from her head scarf that stands for her faith and integrity. Many people wanted her to take off her scarf, including some family members, for her own good in order to blend in with the hair-obsessed culture of America. But refusing to conform to societal norm may be an easier way for Vân Anh to cope. It may give her a tough day at work, but offers her better sleep at night.

Flanked by international visitors, Chăm villagers stand next to their makeshift mosque in Kampong Cham, Cambodia

To be able to dream is a success

It does not take much to realize that Vân Anh carries a heavy burden of history on her shoulders. Yet we never heard Vân Anh talking about violence and revenge against the Việt or anyone else. On a practical level that’s a good thing because she’s got too many identities to afford to let any of them be at war with each other. She is a Chăm, a Việt, a Muslim and an American—a quad-cultural identity. Her cultural interest is in neither Chăm nor Việt or American alone, but in how much all cultures have in common and bring richness to her spirit. Her interest in Islam is very intense.

She started a non-profit group, Moonlight Humanity, to help the poor in Southeast Asia. Given that her Chăm people in Cambodia and Vietnam live in abject poverty and in much isolation from the world, she dreams of an ambitious plan to build schools, dig wells, finance new businesses, and construct mosques and community centers. So please visit her group’s website to learn or contribute.

Starting an ambitious charitable organization at a time of global economic downturn may seem unwise, but it would be a mistake to dismiss her vision. We need to be reminded of who Vân-Anh is and where she came from. She is a Chăm, the people with a glorious history and persistent sense of survival. As a Chăm, she is still here, growing and thriving, rather than succumbing to hatred and despair. For any human being who could come out of a genocidal history and still be able to dream big, not for one but for many, that is a success—a big success.

Ultimately, as human beings, each of us are only responsible for our own dreams. The reality is often created by the collective dreams of many. There is nothing wrong with Vân Anh dreaming of a better life for her people. But her dream could only come true there if other Việts, Muslims, Americans, and people in the world also share her dream for the Chăm people to get what they’ve deserved all along—dignity, security and respect.

Cultural productions

“Why are old Vietnamese songs so sad?” a listener once asked. Many old Chăm and Việt songs tend to be very sad because they were not written for the mere entertainment value. They are more like spiritual doors onto the sacredness of life, love and relationship. Losses and heartbreaks have the power to help us appreciate life more deeply than pleasantries. These songs are like fish sauce for the soul. Salty, yes, but they’re supposed to bring out the full flavor of your own humanity. Watch our video the Shame of Đồ Bàn (Hận Đồ Bàn) – Đồ Bàn being the former Cham capital near present day Quy Nhơn. It’s a very touching song! By the way, Quy Nhơn (the modern name for Đồ Bàn) means “returning to humanity”. See if this song does that for you.

Now listen to a part of the song Hòn Vọng Phu II (the Rock of the Waiting Wife II). The song is about a Chăm-inspired Vietnamese legend that celebrated the woman’s love for her husband. She waited for her husband, who was at war for so long that the weather washed away her flesh to leave behind her internal will in a form of a rock statue. Even mountains and rivers had to change their paths to yield to her desire and persistence. This song is spliced together with Chăm language in the first part and Việt in the latter. English subtitles are included. Enjoy!

Now listen to one of Vân Anh’s favorite songs. Làng Chăm Quê Em (My Chăm Village) is a song Vân Anh knew from her childhood. It’s about two young lovers of two different socioeconomic classes and religions looking to build a life together. The song, sung both in Vietnamese and Chăm, is performed by a famous Chăm-Việt singer, Chế Linh. Performers wear authentic Chăm costumes of white garb and red ear-tassels. The setting is in Cambodia’s Angkor Thom, which was built in 10th century for Hindu worship. During that time, the Chăms were also Hindus and had vast temples similar to the Khmer. Today, Cambodia is home to the largest population of Chăm people in the world. Enjoy this video from Vân Sơn Entertainment!

— Cultural Quest Foundation, the author, was formed in California in late 2008 as a non-profit, public benefit organization. The board of organizers consists of Tâm M. Đặng, Thái P. Nguyễn, Tuấn M. Nguyễn, and Brandon H. Nguyễn.

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