Category Archives: Vietnam

Lists of Discovery


Do cars stop for you at intersections? Can you tell when a papaya will ripen? Is Heineken your beer of choice?  These question may seem innocuous but to Nhu Tien Lu, they were huge discoveries about Vietnam.  Read on and learn the varied nuances of Vietnamese life through Nhu Tien Lu’s senses as she has many of her assumptions erased after spending some time in the country.  

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

The most wondrous aspects of living in another country are those learning moments when you realize that things that you just assumed to always exist, unspoken cultural rules that you thought were natural and constant, are in fact neither natural nor constant. So this is my list of several of the common assumptions I had, having been raised in America, that no longer apply to my everyday life in Saigon:

  1. That vehicles will stop, or attempt to stop, for pedestrians, particularly if you’re in a crosswalk.
  2. That there will be a crosswalk.
  3. That if you walk on the sidewalk, you will not have to step aside for motorcycles to pass.
  4. That motorcycles will carry a maximum of two people, and not be used to move furniture, livestock, and other unwieldy objects of great mass.
  5. That buses will come to a complete stop to let you board.
  6. That restaurants will provide paper napkins, and won’t charge you for them.
  7. That prices on basic goods will not rise simply because New Year’s is a month away.
  8. That a dollar bill is worth a full dollar regardless of whether it is new or old looking.
  9. That prices quoted will not vary depending on whether or not you look like you know how much the prices should be.
  10. That people will rely on banks to deposit money instead of finding hiding places for gold.

However, it should be noted that the City, or thành phố, has its own quirks and rhythms as compared to the countryside, so here are a few of the things I’ve learned after  visiting my parents’ quê hương in Vĩnh Long and Quảng Ngãi these past couple of  weeks:

  1. That people can be most easily located by going to the neighborhood where they lived 30 years ago and asking for them by name.
  2. That no one moves, ever.
  3. That street names and addresses are never used to give directions.
  4. That rivers are a viable means of traveling from house to house.
  5. That most everyone has an orchard and a river running through their land behind their house, even if they cannot yet afford a squat toilet or a roof made of something more permanent than coconut leaves.
  6. That everything that I would normally consider to be garbage can be either repaired, re-used, or fed to the chickens, ducks, geese, pigs, cows and dogs in the backyard.
  7. That there are more than just two or three types of coconuts, mangos, durians and pomelos. Many, many more.
  8. That most people can tell, as casual knowledge, when a papaya will ripen, how  to pluck a duck, and if a mai tree will bloom in time for Tết.
  9. That there are more Vietnamese words for “rice” than I may ever be able to learn.
  10. That your parents, upon coming back to where they were born and raised after 30 years away, won’t ever look quite the same to you.

And lastly, on the flip side, there have also been behaviors and assumptions that I’ve never questioned as a part of my Vietnamese culture and upbringing, so the following is a list of the most common things that I take for granted in Việt Nam, but which I understand may come as a surprise to foreign visitors:

  1. That in the Vietnamese language, “you” and “I” cannot be said without knowing how old the person is in relation to you or what your familial relationship is. This is the reason you will be asked, within the first minute of speaking to someone, how old you are. If you are not asked, it’s because they already know.
  2. Additionally, “hello” and “thank you” and any other address to another person requires the use of “you” and hence the knowledge of how old they are in relation to you or what your familial relationship is.
  3. That the question, “When’s your birthday?” is actually asking for your birth year and answered by giving your zodiac animal.
  4. That Vietnamese is a tonal language, so that any slight inflection up, down, up and down, or down and up will mean the phrase Cai nay la bao nhieu could translate to “How much is this?” or “Jailkeeper, now shout ‘bag’ a lot!” Seriously.
  5. That you will be asked, by friends and strangers alike, how much money you make and how much you pay for rent, expenses, and that shirt you just bought. Likewise, you are expected to ask the same of others, which is how you will learn what fair prices are for meals, clothes, groceries, rent, and that shirt you just bought. (Essential when dealing with #9 from List 1.)
  6. That people you’ve just met will say, with great affection and frankness, “You are too fat (or skinny or short or dark-skinned).”
  7. That Heineken is the beer brand of choice for the Vietnamese communities in both Vietnam and the U.S.
  8. That politeness includes taking your shoes off at the door, offering tea with two hands, and waiting for the oldest adult to begin eating before you do.
  9. That families will reunite each year in recognition of the anniversary of their deceased grandparents, but will not celebrate birthdays.
  10. That you will honor your ancestors, and through them, your roots, by an offering of food and drinks. You will call them home on a waft of incense smoke, and it will taste both familiar and strange, and in this way, you will know you’re also coming home.

— Nhu Tien Lu

Nhu Tien Lu earned an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Michigan, and an MA in Social Documentation from UC Santa Cruz. Born into the year of the roaming horse, she has lived in 3 countries and 6 states thus far, and has worked in the fields of domestic violence, racial justice, and human trafficking. She likes to call herself a writer and social justice activist, but doesn’t really believe it yet. She is inspired by those who keep their hearts in their mouths, by her truly activist and artistic colleagues, and by writers who write through the darkness.

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! Share some of your own assumptions or discoveries about Vietnam.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More about the artist 

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

Please take the time to rate this post (above) and share it (below). Ratings for top posts are listed on the sidebar. Sharing (on email, Facebook, etc.) helps spread the word about diaCRITICS. And join the conversation and leave a comment! Have you ever seen Dinh Q Lê’s work? What did you think? What is your favorite depiction of the Vietnamese boat refugee experience? Anything to recommend, in any form?

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“…what I came to find

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

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

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

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

The ethics of the job

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

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

Truth and lies

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

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

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

Cultural issues

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

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

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

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

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

A recommendation and a few quibbles

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

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

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

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

Book Review by Chris Galvin

The Lotus Eaters

Tatjana Soli

Dec 21 2010

Paperback: 416 pages

Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin

ISBN: 978-0-312-67444-1

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

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

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”?

Nguyen Qui Duc: Vietnam Youth Organizing with Social Media


A dispute over the Spratly Islands spurs anti-Chinese protests in Viet Nam. Nguyen Qui Duc reports on video.

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

Truth is, I haven’t even watched this clip. A friend shared it with me and said it’s related to the two latest peace demonstrations/walks for peace/protests against China’s hostile activities in the South China Sea (on June 5 and 12, 2011). It features a diaCRITICS major contributor, Nguyen Qui Duc. I have 7 minutes left before I have to go filming, but I will definitely write a follow-up to the former one when I have more time between filming and theater, since I was there (and was quoted in Oanh Ha’s report on Bloomberg). For peace, of course. And nothing but world peace. You know what I mean.

Peace and love,
Hien Nga

Anti-Chinese protestor

Protestors at anti-China demonstration

[photos from http://yeuhanoi.multiply.com/journal/item/7938]

 full-time free soul, dreamer, bohemian, hippie, free-lover, transcendentalist; an artistic activist for feminism, gay rights, pro-choice, and freedom of speech; an absurd poet and a poetic absurdist, Hiền Nga believes in self-enlightenment, bicycles, rainbows, flowers, and hummingbirds.

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?

[Laughs].

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?