Tag Archives: Linh Dinh

Andrew Cox Interviews Linh Dinh


Andrew Cox has a most thorough interview with Linh Dinh where the frank conversation covers topics from technology to poetry and takes us through Dinh’s perspective on the State of the Union.

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“I’ve always been interested in so-called losers, because that’s the general human condition, if not now, then soon enough.”

Why did you start State of the Union?

In 2005, I taught a writing course called State of the Union at Naropa University, in Boulder, CO. I’ve also taught this course at the University of Montana and University of Pennsylvania. I wanted the students to address the crises afflicting our nation. It’s certainly not easy to make sense out of what’s going, especially since there’s so much disinformation and propaganda out there.

State of the Union is my attempt to track, through images and words, what’s happening to this country. The project has also forced me to spend much more time in the physical world, as oppose to sitting in front of the computer.

Like most of us, I was living a mediated life, I was living mostly through the computer, but, with this project, I’ll walk for miles though the streets, looking and hearing, and sometimes asking questions. Before I started, I had become alienated from much of my home city. I had forgotten the names of the neighborhoods, places I had known as a housepainter.

I was also tired of being an inhabitant of the poetry ghetto. Poets are entirely invisible and irrelevant in this society. As America collapses, poets have nothing to contribute to the general conversation. Few have anything to say, and the ones who do are ignored in any case.

I was tired of being published in books and literary journals that no one reads. My political essays, then, are my attempt at reaching a bigger audience, a more general audience. I want to use all of my skills as a writer to address people who would not likely read my poems. I’m particularly happy that my latest piece, “Mare Mere,” is being run by both CounterPunch and Dissident Voice, since it has elements of the prose poem. It is 2/3 political essays and 1/3 poetry. I’ll try to write more in this vein.

Why do you think poets are ignored? Is it worldwide or just an American phenomenon?

Conditioned by the car and television, we value speed above all. We want everything to be fluid and accelerated. We don’t care about quality, just quantity. It doesn’t matter what we eat, we just want to stuff ourselves as fast as possible.

Poetry is too slow for this culture. The poets themselves are also to be blamed, however. Dodging life instead of confronting it, most of them are ridiculously feeble. They think the ideal life is to be on campus forever, with a break once a year to go to their much-anticipated convention. There, they can suck up and screw down.

Da Vinci said, “A man who looks forward to spring is looking forward to his own death.” To always look forward, then, is to be forever dissatisfied with the present, but that’s the culture we have, we’re always looking forward to next year, next week, next hour, we can’t stand this present second. Our culture doesn’t just anticipate death, it’s living it!

In short, a people who will not reflect and who can’t stand silence will not read a poem. Though this has become a worldwide phenomenon, it’s much more advanced in certain places, like the U.S., for example, where we’ve reached a psychotic state. We hate our own mind, frankly. We don’t want to hear it speak.

Notice how people must turn on an electronic device soon as they enter a room, be it TV, stereo or computer. Sometimes all three are turned on simultaneously. Without these surrogate voices, we’re lost. What I’m talking about goes way beyond poetry, obviously. What I’m trying to get at is the reverence and courage that allow you to hear yourself and other people not just more clearly, but at all.

A quick observation about Vietnam. I went back in 1995, 1998, then stayed for 2 ½ years starting in 1999. While there, I could observe it shift towards the American model, which is all distraction all the time, where serious thinking is drowned out by nonsense, titillation and trivia. Wearing T-shirts with weird or actual English, many people started to listen to loud, recorded music, watch mindless TV and lust after brand names, though few could afford them.

None of this is necessarily bad in itself. I mean, a stupid T-shirt is just a piece of underwear with some moronic writing on it, and I enjoy a good soccer match as much as the next guy, but this rising pop culture was helping to mask many, many serious problems.

There was prostitution on practically every street. In factories, workers were being abused. Likewise, the servants in middle class households. I’m not even against prostitution in itself, only the poverty that forced many young women to become whores.

Top Communist officials became obscenely rich, bought many properties and sent their kids to Western universities, while the poorest sold their bodies and begged. However, with this loud music, exciting soccer matches, constantly flickering TV and many sexy photos, intimate or blown up, it was no longer necessary to arrest serious writers and thinkers. As in America, the Vietnamese intellectual has become irrelevant.

When you first left the office and computer how did you feel getting out into the physical world?

The office sounds so grand! Well, I have a little room with a desk and a tiny bed. I didn’t snore ten years ago, but now I do, so my wife and I sleep in different beds, in different rooms.

In my so-called office, there’s some food stored in the corner: a case of tuna, one of instant noodles and several bags of rice. We don’t have much room, so every square foot must be stacked with something. Where I work, then, where I’m typing this, is more survival bunker than regular office.

If there’s a nuclear explosion or meltdown, my wife and I could lock ourselves in this rat hole of a room and survive until Jesus, Allah or Buddha, whoever’s truly biggest, meanest or asskickingest, knocks on the door to say, Hey, everything’s OK, you can come out now!

By definition, a writer or artist must work in isolation. He must be removed from the world as he writes, paints or whatever, but a writer must also be among other people so he can have something to write about.

My first book, Fake House, was populated mostly by losers, the types I was surrounded with, and with whom I worked and drank. Of course, some of the characters were more or less me. I was a total loser, financially, socially and erotically. I was an embarrassment. Still am. I couldn’t get any of anything.

You asked about the media. Well, the media is all about getting stuff. It’s about having all of your natural and unnatural appetites fulfilled. It’s about whooping it up, partying, fucking and spending, but real life is not anything like that. Well, you might have a few highlights here and there, fondly remembered, but most of the time, it’s incredibly hard just to get by. Just to maintain your basic dignity, you have to exert yourself like crazy; you have to be a physical and mental athlete just to get by.

My first book, Fake House, was dedicated to “The Unchosen.” I’ve always been interested in so-called losers, because that’s the general human condition, if not now, then soon enough. We will all lose, but there’s also dignity and strength in losing. I came from a losing society, South Vietnam, and I’m experiencing a collapsing culture right now.

Anyway, I’ve always been a wanderer, a walker. As a kid in Saigon, I walked all over. When I lived in Italy and England, I’d go to many strange cities, towns and villages and just walk. This project, then, is an intensification of an impulse I’ve always had.

The only time in my life when I didn’t walk was in high school. I lived in San Jose and Northern Virginia then. These two places are heavily car-dependent. I hate them, frankly.

The computer is very addictive. I have never been addicted to the TV, for many years I didn’t even have a TV, but with the computer, I became sort of a screen addict for the first time.

My site, State of the Union, gives me a clear reason to leave the house, so that’s a good thing. I can walk out without going to the bar. I don’t drink a fraction of what I used to.

When you’re among people, you’re always surprised. You think you already know how they look and talk, but you’d often be wrong. People are always inventive because they’re restless, bored and exhibitionistic. They also like to have fun. Packaging themselves, they’re always refining their acts. They’ll come up with the weirdest way of putting on a hat, for example, or of conveying the simplest message.

What surprised you the most when you first started documenting the homeless? What surprises you now?

I’ve lived in cities most of my life, so the homeless is nothing new. There is a lot destitution and squalor in Saigon, where I was born and spent my early childhood, and where I returned to live for 2 ½ years as an adult.

When I moved to Philly in 1982, I saw many homeless living in the subway concourse, and I remember seeing hundreds of homeless in Tompkins Square in New York in the mid 80’s.

Before I started my State of the Union project, I never talked to the homeless, however. It is enlightening to hear people’s stories. I don’t want to generalize too much about the homeless, but it is amazing to observe how tough and resilient these people are. On their faces and bodies are evidences of the very difficult lives they’ve endured, even before they became homeless. Many of these people look beaten up, because they have been. In Vietnam, too, you see these types of faces and bodies.

“Home” is such a physical and emotional necessity. While most of us still have roofs over our heads, I’d say that many of us are emotionally homeless. At best, we are dwelling in emotional halfway houses, or emotional bunkers, with many cans of expired tuna in a corner.

Now, I’d like to shoehorn an umbilical cord mooning monologue about home: I was born in Saigon and have lived there as an adult, but to call that home would be a stretch. I’m most familiar with Philadelphia and do identify with it, but I can’t deny feeling elated whenever I could leave it, if only temporarily.

I was calmest and happiest when I lived in Certaldo, Italy, population 16,000, but I could barely speak the language and didn’t have to make a living there. With the exception of San Jose and Northern Virginia, I’m fond of all the places I’ve lived in, including Norwich, England, and Missoula, MT, but, as Camus said, and I’m quoting from memory and probably butchering it, “He loves all women, which means he loves none of them.”

My mother is from Hanoi, so I can still fake a fairly convincing Hanoi accent, and several times I’ve caught myself thinking, while in Hanoi, “It’d be beautiful to die here,” but of course I’m not dying to live there, so that’s not really home either. I’m OK with being home/less. I’m happiest when I’m on a train, though of course, I’m also anxious to get off.

You said many homeless people have been beat up. Who is attacking these people?

Tyrone, a 45-ish black man who was on the streets for nearly a year, told me he was beaten up by three teens. He showed me stitches on his forehead. A thirty-ish white guy was almost stabbed with a box-cutter by a white, drunken girl, walking with a group of friends. She slashed his bag. The story sounded a bit outlandish, but everything else he said was plausible. He said black women treated him the best, and, sure enough, a young black woman gave him a bag of McDonald’s food while we were talking.

In Richmond, a white former nurse, Tony, also said that black women were the kindest to him. As if on cue, again, a black woman gave him an apple not even a minute later. Tony related how a Mexican homeless man was hit with a stick as he washed his clothes in the river. His attacker was some black guy, maybe another homeless dude. This Mexican guy had a big gash on his head but didn’t dare go to the emergency room because he was illegal. Knowing Tony had been a nurse, he asked Tony for help. Tony looked at it and said it would heal eventually, so that was that.

If you’re lying on the sidewalk, you’re going to be vulnerable, obviously. That’s why so many of them sleep during the daytime, because it’s safer that way, with many people walking around. Even when you’re not attacked, it’s impossible to get a good night’s sleep, obviously, because of the weather, the noise and because you’re lying on cardboard.

Some of your pictures feature images of advertising. What do you think about the relationship between marketing and the homeless?

Much of photography is used to seduce. It sells you on a fantasy so you will buy the product. The glamorous advertising images and catchy slogans serve as an obscene contrast to what’s actually on the streets.

The last time I was Vietnam, in 2001, I often saw the slogan, RICH PEOPLE, STRONG COUNTRY, on government billboards, but this was still old style Communist propaganda. With their heroic, broad shoulders and determined figures, always depicted from below, the Communists sought to inspire, but Capitalism is all about seduction.

On American TV, there’s an ad that shows a famous football player, first in uniform, then stripped down to near total nudity. These female hands then dressed him in slacks, shirt and tie. Only at the end would you discover that this is actually a car commercial!

In any case, photography plays a central role in this come-on economy. There’s photographic seduction everywhere you turn. The system will strip you and leave you with a very cool photo, and it won’t even be yours to own, son, you can only look at it! I’m trying to capture this swindle in my photos.

In your writing you are critical of the spread of casinos. Why?

Casinos are perfect emblems of our non-productive economy. A lot of money changes hand in a casino, but it produces absolutely nothing. Factories are being abandoned in cities and towns across America, but casinos are spreading all over. Fools and crooks who support casinos say they bring jobs, but casinos are net losses in every community.

Do you ask for permission before you photograph anyone? Do you explain what you are using the images for and if so, what is a typical reaction?

If I can get away with sneaking a photo, I’ll do that. Generally speaking, I don’t want my subjects to pose or even be aware of my presence, but since I carry a large camera, this is not always possible.

From each photo, you can generally tell whether I’ve engaged my subject. Sometimes I offer people a bit of money, usually just a buck or two, to take their photos. I gave $10 to a Camden woman, however, so she could buy cans of Sterno for her tent.

In Detroit, I also gave an old man 10 bucks because he was in such bad shape. He said he needed this money for a prescription. Whenever I visited the tent city in Camden, New Jersey, I’d bring 24 large cans of beer, though I’d end up drinking three or four myself. I’ve also bought food for the homeless.

When I talk to people on the streets, I do tell them I’m writing about the economy. Most know full well the economy is in horrible shape and will get even worse, and most of them don’t mind talking to me about their dire situations.

Once, I saw a young woman who was raving and extremely dirty, she even smelled of urine, but as soon as I talked to her, she became sane and radiant. Not to exaggerate but she became shockingly beautiful. I bought her something to drink and lent her my cell phone so she could call a friend in Baltimore to pick her up in Philadelphia.

As an artist, you’re always a kind of vulture when you’re around people, you’re always trying to make use of what they say, how they look or who they are, and since art is always subjective, a kind of distortion, you’re always deforming people to suit your purposes. Although art is always, in this sense, an exploitation, it is also a kind of tribute, and hence, of love. Sometimes I can barely stand how magnificent and beautiful people are.

You mentioned bringing beer or food with you sometimes. A common stereotype is the homeless asking for money or holding a sign by the freeway just want it to buy drugs and alcohol. How accurate is this stereotype?

Well, there are soup kitchens. In Camden, I went with a group of homeless to a very clean and dignified soup kitchen. People sat down at these long tables and were served by volunteers. When this homeless couple left a bit early, I asked them, “What happened? Didn’t you like the food?” The woman was a deaf mute, so only the man answered. He said, “Yeah, we liked it fine, but now we’re going to a second soup kitchen!” Another guy told me, “You have to be a moron to starve in Camden.” The problem is, many of the homeless are at least slightly crazy. Though some started out mentally ill or deficient, I’m sure many more became that way from having to live on the streets.

There’s a guy who wandered around the shopping mall in downtown Philadelphia. His pants were falling apart and sagging. You could literally see his crotch. My wife actually tried to give him a belt, but he wouldn’t take it. He wouldn’t even take cash. He never said a word, not one word, so maybe he couldn’t talk at all. Every now and then, you’ll run into a homeless person who won’t even take money.

In any case, I bring beer to the tent city in Camden because I figure, why shouldn’t these people have a beer? Also, I’d not be so welcome if I didn’t bring beer!

The tent city in Camden, New Jersey has made headlines in the past but I think many people would be shocked to hear tent cities exist in American. Some news reports said the type of people there would surprise you. What was it like when you went there?

It was orderly and safe. In the summer, you could smell the shit in the honey bucket, but it wasn’t terribly dismal. Sure it was bad, but people were making the best of it. They’d hang out in the center, talk and laugh. Sometimes people would fight, they’d scream at each other, but I was there maybe ten times and never saw any violence. I’d hear about violent episodes, however, but these were very rare.

In any case, the rest of Camden was much more dangerous. Jamaica, the head guy of the tent city, kept everything under control. Later, I’d hear from someone, living in another Camden tent city, that Jamaica would charge people a nominal fee to live in “his” tent city. I don’t know if this was true, but I did notice that Jamaica sometimes hoarded some of the beer I brought. Whatever. He was the “mayor” of that place, and a lot of the people I talked to seemed genuinely grateful to him. Rex, 76 years old, told me Jamaica carried him on his back to the hospital. Hardly anyone had a cell phone there, so it wasn’t like you could easily call 911 if there was an emergency.

One time I went there and it was, like, 5 degree out, and there was a huge snowstorm, and this kid, maybe 22, was freaking out. We were standing around the fire, trying to warm ourselves, and this kid was raving because he couldn’t take it anymore. I lent him my cell phone so he could call his mom. He started to beg her to let him come home. “I’ll do anything you want me to do, Mom! I can’t take this anymore.” Jamaica said he’d put the kid on the Greyhound, and he apparently did, because I never saw that kid again.

That tent city got too much publicity, so the city government finally shut it down. It didn’t do anything but chase the people out and put a chain link fence around that plot. As for all the newly displaced, a private organization did take them to a motel, where they could be cleaned up, groomed then assisted in finding a job or housing.

The official unemployment rate of Camden is 25%, however, so I’m sure many of these folks have ended up on the streets again. As for other tent cities, I’ve seen people living in tents or makeshift dwellings in a few other places besides Camden. There must be dozens across the country.

American cities are outlawing sleeping or camping in public. In many places, dumpster diving is also illegal. One should remember that during the 1929 Depression, much food was destroyed even as the nation starved!

In Hawaii, Santa Cruz and elsewhere, you can’t sleep in your own car, and in San Francisco, you can’t even sit on the sidewalk. These cosmetic measures are designed to mask our accelerating economic collapse. And yet, despite all the evidence, the mainstream media trumpet daily that the recovery is here.

To close, I want to quote Texas Congressman C. Wright Patman, as recorded by the great Studs Terkel in his 1970 oral history of the Great Depression, Hard Times, “A dictatorship could spring up here over night, if this country got so bad. If another Depression came, we’d have a revolution. People wouldn’t take it any more. They have more knowledge. The big ones, they’d be looking for somebody that’d have the power to just kill people, if they didn’t agree. When John Doe begins to get up, they’d just go down and shoot him.”

Well, that depression is here!

Linh Dinh is the author of two books of stories, five of poems, and a just released novel, Love Like Hate. He’s tracking our deteriorating socialscape through his frequently updated photo blog, State of the Union.

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Poor Richard’s Rise


Linh Dinh argues that it’s time for the United States to be a real democracy again and not a warmongering global superpower. He’s one of our most provocative Vietnamese diasporic writers, and diaCRITICS is not only about what happens in Viet Nam or in the Vietnamese diaspora. diaCRITICS is also about what Vietnamese and Vietnamese diasporic writers and artists think about their world.

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Linh Dinh

July 4th, I wandered down to Independence Hall. There were soldiers in dress and battle uniforms, a high school marching band, many beefy bikers and a handful of svelte beauty queens, including Miss America, Teresa Scanlan. In front of the National Museum of American Jewish History, more than thirty Falun Dafa drummers, all female, performed a measured dance. Nearby, Sri Chinmoy followers sat under a portrait of their God stand-in, with these words emblazoned on their float:

America, America, America!
Great you are, good you are,
Brave you are, kind you are.
O my America, America,
Your Heaven-Freedom
Is earth’s aspiration-choice.
With you, in you
Is God-Hour’s Victory-Voice 

I saw a fake, many gunned Navy ship and, in front of the Library Company of Philadelphia, a real armored personnel carrier. Over a gorgeous transom, a marble Ben Franklin stood, draped in a toga, but no one gave this eminently sensible man a gander. Native or foreign, everyone was more interested in climbing inside the ass kicking killer transporter for a souvenir photo.

Armored Personnel Carrier

Seen often these days in civilian contexts, on streets, in ballparks and malls, soldiers and military hardware are there to remind us that we are in many wars at once, or, rather, we’re in one open-ended, bankrupting yet somehow necessary mother-of-all-wars, because the enemy is always near. That terrorist could be standing next to you, or maybe he’s you, buddy! That’s why the government must shove its hands into your hair and down your panties, brief or Depend adult diaper. Got a problem with that? Tough shit.

Half a block away, I ran into another Ben Franklin. Standing next to a faux Betsy Ross, this impersonator was being interviewed by a television crew. In an increasingly fake America, where even wood pulp has become an ingredient in pancakes, muffins, salad dressings and fish filets, it’s appropriate that an imposter should dish up mcnuggets of jive wisdom to an audience of post literates.

Ben Franklin being interviewed

What would the real Franklin make of our horrible mess? You can’t say he didn’t warn us. Poor Richard, “Buy what thou hast no need of, and ere long thou shalt sell thy necessaries.” Since over half of our tax revenues goes to service wars past and present, America is worse than broke. Unable to pay her bills or maintain basic infrastructures, she’s leasing her freeways and parking meters to foreigners.

She may even invite China to build a 50-square-mile “technology zone” in Idaho. As Lt. Gov. Brad Little explains, “Idaho’s the last state that should say we don’t want to do business with Asia. Asia’s where the money is.” According to the Idaho Statesman, this complex will be a “fully contained city with all services included,” and the Chinese are attracted by Idaho’s “low cost for doing business,” and “because of the lack of infrastructure here, which means it has more opportunity.” You read that right, an American state is now pitching itself as underdeveloped, cheap and ready for foreign capital and expertise. By selling us everything, including pre-infected, spy ready computers, China has so many of our depreciating dollars, it might as well buy itself a private Idaho. Of course, this will be spun as a great opportunity. As Indigent Dick already warned, “The second vice is lying, the first is running in debt.”

As I write this, Obama and the Republicans are still haggling over whether to tax our wealthiest just a tad more, or to starve and shortchange the rest of us even worse, but what’s not being discussed is America’s monstrous war budget, though this is the main cause of our national bankruptcy, actual and moral. Since endless war fattens our richest, America will continue to commit mass murders on a vast scale, even as she destroys herself in the process.

Americans are planning two mass protests in Washington DC against the military industrial complex. One, Seize DC, will start on September 11th, and the other, organized by October2011.org, will start on October 6th, the anniversary of the invasion of Afghanistan. Unlike all recent American protests, which tend to be no more than sign waving parades lasting but a few hours, weather permitting, these two protests are meant to go on until the authorities yield to their demands. As October2011.org articulates, “We will NONVIOLENTLY resist the corporate machine by occupying Freedom Plaza until our resources are invested in human needs and environmental protection instead of war and exploitation.”

A precedent comes to mind. In 1932, destitute World War I veterans and their families descended on Washington to demand an early payment, roughly $1,000 per soldier, of a promised bonus. Estimated between 20,000 and 40,000 people, they lived in abandoned buildings, tents and shacks for nearly three months until routed by federal troops. Four marchers were killed and over 1,000 injured. Though these Americans had no radical aims, though they didn’t seek to change or even upset the system, their government responded to their pitiful plea with deadly violence. Four years later, however, the veterans’ demand was met after a similar protest.

A more radical protest was mounted the Poor People Campaign in 1968. According to Marion Wright Edelman, it was Robert Kennedy who had come up with the idea, “I had been working with Robert Kennedy on poverty in Mississippi, and he told me to tell Dr. King to bring the poor to Washington. To make them visible.” Though King organized it, he never saw it to fruition, for he was assassinated a month before Resurrection City was erected in early May on the Washington Mall. On June 5th, Robert Kennedy was also assassinated, then on June 24th, federal bulldozers wiped out this encampment of 5,000 people. Mission accomplished! Who says the United States is not decisive when it comes to dealing with “trouble makers”?

With an “economic bill of rights,” these protestors’ central demand was a $30-billion anti-poverty program. Like many Americans of today, they simply wanted less money for death, more for life, but of course, such a silly sentiment from a pack of nobodies could not be taken seriously by the Washington masters of wars.

Washington DC makes absolutely nothing yet eats up everything. With its career politicians, lawyers and lobbyists lurking in every corner, Washington DC has to be, by far, the biggest magnet for crooks, bullies, asskissers and shameless liars in the entire country. Wouldn’t it be perfect if Washington was granted not state but nationhood, so it could be independent from the rest of us? Imagine your life without Bush, Cheney, Rice, Obama, Pelosi and Clinton, etc, inside your wallet, head and pants, and on you back constantly! Elections would not be so pointless as they are now, for Americans could exile their very worst to that squarish lump of land inside the Beltway! Washington DC, where America purges.

Minus that fantasy, our future is indeed grim. Washington DC will likely ignore the upcoming protestors until they voluntarily disperse, but if enough Americans show up and stay to become an eyesore and a nuisance to business as usual, cops and soldiers will come to evict them, without any concessions made whatsoever, but what are these protestors’ demands, exactly? Would they be satisfied if Washington promised to withdraw all American troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, or are they demanding more, much more? (I’m evoking the promise, not the actual withdrawal, which would take months.) And what does it mean to say that protestors will occupy Freedom Plaza “until our resources are invested in human needs and environmental protection instead of war and exploitation”? Would the pledge of such a shift be enough to disperse them, or will these protestors stay until actual laws—which, and how many, exactly?—are signed? Compared to the Poor People Campaign, the aims of these upcoming protests are not as clearly articulated, not yet anyway, but perhaps these will come into better focus, soon.

But asking the right questions is still much easier than getting any answers, even wrong ones. We will be reminded, yet again, that the moneyed interest won’t yield us an inch without a savage struggle. They have all the funds and guns. We have our disunity.

For a glimmer of hope, one can perhaps look to Thailand. After seeing their elected leader ousted and their political parties repeatedly banned, the red shirts staged protest after protest and suffered many casualties, nearly a hundred dead in 2010 alone. That year, at least 25,000 of them occupied Bangkok’s central shopping district for six weeks, until the Army came and blasted them away, but before fleeing, they exacted revenge by burning Asia’s biggest shopping center and the stock exchange. Persisting, these red shirts finally gained victory when their candidate, Yingluck Shinawatra, became elected as prime minister.

The red shirts became a force because they dared to disrupt the normalcy of a very corrupt and vicious system. Americans will undoubtedly have to do the same. The stakes and risks are already high.

Linh Dinh is the author of two books of stories, five of poems, and a just released novel, Love Like Hate. He’s tracking our deteriorating socialscape through his frequently updated photo blog, State of the Union.

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 of Linh Dinh’s argument? What is your opinion of the State of the American Union?

Mugged then Shot: Linh Dinh on American Corruption


Linh Dinh doesn’t think the USA is the greatest country on Earth. Here he lays out a powerful critique of American corruption. He’s one of our most provocative Vietnamese diasporic writers, and diaCRITICS is not only about what happens in Viet Nam or in the Vietnamese diaspora. diaCRITICS is also about what Vietnamese and Vietnamese diasporic writers and artists think about their world, so we’re delighted to have a chance to repost his work here. 

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Linh Dinh

“The United States has been a leader in the multinational effort to end bribery and corruption in international business practices.”
–Website of The U.S. State Department

If absolute power corrupts absolutely, why shouldn’t the United States be the most corrupt (and corrupting) country on earth? We’re number one! In America, each politician can be bought and absurd sums of money are routinely misallocated or missing altogether, with nary a peep from the complicit media. On the foreign front, America’s modus operandi is to bribe every dictator, and the ones she can’t bribe, she’ll undermine, overthrow or bomb back to Jesus. In exchange for this bribe, which can be disguised as loans or “foreign assistance,” said dictator will allow America to loot his country in perpetuity. If you don’t believe me, just strip any tinpot dictator and you’ll surely find “CIA” tattooed on one ass cheek, with a (pretty good) portrait of a recent U.S. president embossed on the other. Lovers always leave a mark, they often say. Sometimes it’s not a dictator, per se, but a dominant party that’s America’s hushed puppy. In any case, rapacious trade deals and unpayable loans are the bane of countless client states orbiting Washington.

Domestically, American corruption has been institutionalized as campaign contributions and lobbying, but that’s only the open, legal part. Perhaps these practices are allowed to trick us into thinking that American corruption only goes so far, but who really knows what goes on in the labyrinthine backrooms, basements and dungeons of Washington? In any case, us lumpen Americans are “represented” by millionaire politicians who are lint deep in the pockets of the fattest banks and corporations. The American politician is thoroughly corrupt, often from grassroots level, but the degree of venality and sanctimonious hypocrisy increase as he approaches Washington DC, that beautiful cesspool of martial madness.

No candidate who’s not heavily pro big business, overtly or covertly, can have any chance of being elected to national office. He won’t be funded, nor will he be seen on television. It’s not a democracy when all candidates are vetted beforehand, and only millionaires can be chosen by other millionaires and billionaires. In this setup, the average citizen doesn’t matter, as his vote or canvassing for a favorite are only charades designed to make him feel good and involved, as if his opinions and advocacy matter, but whatever he does, it won’t prevent the election of yet another tool who’s corrupt, pro war and pro big business, at the expense of all else. But don’t despair, all you earnest partisans, for even when your candidate does lose, the other guy, one who’s hardly different than your favorite man, wins! Those who voted for McCain, for example, got pretty much all of his policies through Obama, so it’s a win, win, lose, lose situation, see? Emblematic of this farce is the fact that American tax payers are even asked to contribute three bucks a year to the Presidential Election Campaign Fund. Though stuffed with cash from Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan and Raytheon, etc., our candidates still panhandle from poor schmucks whom they will soon rip off anyway.

American politicians may differ on personal and ethical matters such as school prayer, gay marriage and abortion, but on all the major, lucrative issues affecting the military industrial complex or big business, they are remarkably uniform. Our senators and congressmen also behave like trained seals when it comes to Israel. Witness the 29 standing ovations a packed House gave Netanyahu recently. Whether Democrat or Republican, each was terrified to be caught sitting as his colleagues jumped up and barked.

Your rep sure knows who his daddy is, and it ain’t you, sucker! The primary job of the American politician, from Obama on down, is to spin and disguise an endless series of corporate and military crimes he’s enabling. Which brings us to the Pentagon. No other governmental organ is more gluttonously corrupt. The Pentagon’s main function is not defending America but to bleed this country dry to enrich Halliburton, Lockheed/Martin, Boeing, General Dynamics, Northrop Grumman and the rest. Over and over again, the Pentagon has put hundreds of thousands of Americans in harm’s way, just so its masters can make a handsome profit. To feed these insatiable ogres, the Pentagon is willing to destroy American itself, and it is doing so, right now.

Beside bloody business as usual, billions of dollars often go missing from the Pentagon cash register without any explanation whatsoever, and in 2001, Donald Rumsfeld even admitted that $2.3 trillion had disappeared, which he blamed on sloppy accounting. So it’s not thievery or corruption, but merely inept arithmetic. Tamping down this scandal, the mainstream media seemed to agree.

But perhaps we do have a math problem. We are a people who clip 25 cent coupons, drive (an SUV) a mile to save a buck, register with subtle satisfaction the missing penny from a $19.99 price tag, yet these stolen trillions leave us unfazed. One reason for this, I think, is that American corruption is not experienced directly, face to face, as it is in many other countries. Most Americans have never been browbeaten and shaken down by a corrupt cop, clerk or judge, so we can pretend that corruption doesn’t hurt us. Washington has also been waging wars without raising taxes, so it’s no skin off my back, many Americans are thinking, but our bellicose policy overseas is certainly bankrupting the homeland, even as it increases our insecurity in future blowbacks. The constant hike in our money supply, devaluing our dollars, is also a form of hidden taxation.

Another reason for our passivity in the face of widespread corruption is the state of our media, which routinely hype trivial stories while suppressing much greater outrages. Thus, the money John Edwards spent on his mistress, a million dollars provided by two private donors, was discussed for a week by television and newspaper “pundits,” but no one is concerned about the $1.5 million of tax money wasted each time Washington fires a Tomahawk missile at Libya. How many thousands have been launched so far in this three-month war? No one knows, and no one seems to care about the real flesh and bones on the receiving end of those weapons. “Bad guys” deserve to die, and so do “collateral damages.” Even as they mug us, our masters speak to us as if we’re morons. As they gobble up the entire world and everyone’s future, we get to nibble on catch phrases and slogans

Like Pavlov’s dogs, Americans have been conditioned to salivate at the sound of a home run, a Lady Gaga’s burp and the promise of hope and change comes election time, but when that fat, familiar hand reaches into our wallet, yet again, we feel nothing. We’re cool and blasé until it’s our turn to receive the pink slip, be evicted, then having to curl up in our car or on cardboard.

Interviewed by Stud Terkels, retired congressman C. Wright Patman said in 1970, “A dictatorship could spring up here over night, if this country got so bad. If another Depression came, we’d have a revolution. People wouldn’t take it any more. They have more knowledge. The big ones, they’d be looking for somebody that’d have the power to just kill people, if they didn’t agree. When John Doe begins to get up, they’d just go down and shoot him.”

I’m not sure that we have more knowledge, but with a presidency that can wage wars without congress or popular approval, and that can imprison or kill any American citizen without due process, a dictatorship is certainly here. Ditto, that Depression.

In a productive economy, corruption is less glaring because there are so many legitimate ways to enrich oneself, but in an increasingly non-productive one, such as what we have now, corruption becomes the primary means to riches. As we starve and kill each other, the mega corporations and their servants, our politicians, will continue to fatten themselves through their access to power.

In a ghetto with no stores, only drug corners, any bling-bling dude steering a loud Hummer is viewed suspiciously (or with admiration), so in this nation of fewer and fewer factories, save those that make bombs, tanks and high-grade weapons, who are our biggest death pushers and pimps, and what should we do about them?

Linh Dinh is the author of two books of stories, five of poems, and a just released novel, Love Like Hate. He’s tracking our deteriorating socialscape through his frequently updated photo blog, State of the Union.

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 of Linh Dinh’s argument? What is your opinion of the State of the American Union?

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.”

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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”?

For Poetry Month, Five Voices from the Vietnamese Diaspora


The Vietnamese diaspora . . . and poetry? Don’t know anything about that? diaCRITIC and poet Kim-An Lieberman gives us the breakdown on five Vietnamese diasporic poets to read in celebration of National Poetry Month.

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

The 2011 National Poetry Month poster, designed by Stephen Doyle. Image courtesy of Poets.org.

As observed by bookstores, bookworms, and all kinds of bookish festivity across the U.S. and Canada, April is National Poetry Month. Enter the diaCRITICS poetry roundup! Recently, we featured a review of emerging writer Ocean Vuong, a review of experimental poet Hoa Nguyen, and new work by spoken-word artist Bao Phi. Here are five more contemporary poetic voices from the Vietnamese diaspora to fuel your reading list.

1. Two Shores / Deux Rives (Ronsdale Press, 1995)
by Thuong Vuong-Riddick

Two Shores - Deux RivesBorn in Hanoi in 1940, Thuong Vuong-Riddick moved to Saigon and then to Paris as a young adult before eventually settling in Vancouver, B.C., with her family. Two Shores / Deux Rives is an autobiographical sequence of poems arranged by chronology and geography into three distinct sections: “Vietnam,” “France,” and “Canada.” Like the title, the collection is bilingual, with each poem presented on facing pages in English and in French. Vuong-Riddick’s lyrics are pensive and understated, featuring clear narrative details with an ironic edge. In “The Whirlwind of History,” for instance, she comments on the naïveté of her Montréal university students regarding the concept of national tragedy:

…when La Crise d’Octobre 1970 exploded,
students told me:
“The most tragic episode of our history!”
I thought: “Only one killed!”

Vuong-Riddick offers a personal take on the political complexities and cultural cross-currents that defined 20th-century Vietnam. Great reading for history buffs, language learners, and anyone interested in a better understanding of Vietnamese immigrant experience beyond U.S. borders.

2. The Book of Perceptions (Kearny Street Workshop, 1999)
by Truong Tran, with Chung Hoang Chuong

Poet and visual artist Truong Tran lives and teaches in the San Francisco Bay Area. A member of the 1.5 generation, he came to the U.S. with his family at a young age. His debut collection, The Book of Perceptions, explores the complex emotional terrain of his first return trip to Vietnam. It also represents a creative collaboration with first-generation Vietnamese American artist Chung Hoang Chuong, a longtime educator and activist in the refugee community. Each poem in the book is stripped bare of punctuation, sculpted into a visually compact stanza, and juxtaposed with black-and-white photography from Chuong’s travels in postwar Vietnam. We are challenged to construct meaning from these pairings:

approach it as you will but do so
knowing that the line which
connects the perceptions to the
perceived is crossed with the line
of the needs and necessities and
there at the crossing are the
casualties fragments to stories
some still struggling to find the
beginnings

Together, Tran’s words and Chuong’s images form a sustained meditation on the disconnections–and reconnections–of diaspora, homeland, and identity.

3. Song of the Cicadas (U of Massachusetts Press, 2001)
by Mộng-Lan

Song of the Cicadas

Mộng-Lan is a multitalented poet, painter, photographer, and professional tango dancer currently residing in Buenos Aires. Like Truong Tran, she belongs to the 1.5 generation of early-childhood Vietnamese immigrants, and she also uses poetry to interrogate themes of shifting cultural identity. Song of the Cicadas, her first book, resembles a travel diary. Vivid sensory details evoke street scenes and postcard landscapes from San Francisco to Saigon. The poetic lines literally travel, too, in their placement and spacing across the page:

honey-moon light swoops over the valleys—————————————-
—————————————————upon the Đà Lạt mountains
like squadrons
a man buys two bunches of bananas in half a second————————————

Song of the Cicadas is crafted to achieve a graceful sense of balance. Parallels between distant entities—like the Long Biên Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge, or Vietnam’s colonial past and the present-day tourist’s itinerary—prompt us to consider how deeply and permanently “East” and “West” are intertwined.

4. In the Mynah Bird’s Own Words (Tupelo Press, 2002)
by Barbara Tran

A New York native, Barbara Tran juggles an eclectic dual career as a writer and a certified dog trainer. Her poetry collection In the Mynah Bird’s Own Words offers tightly honed and unflinching observations on how traditional Vietnamese culture has defined family, gender, heritage, and faith. In “Rosary,” a father anticipates his daughter’s wedding with resignation and regret:

He wondered how crowded her new home would be, how long she would have to live with her in-laws, how such a small child would bear a child. He knew she would find it difficult to breathe in the smog-filled streets of Saigon. He closed the trunk for her, knelt down beside her, pressed a bar of gold into her palm.

Tran’s artful poems blend to form one story (or perhaps a handful of kindred stories) about marriage and motherhood in a Vietnamese family. Though the stage is patriarchal, Tran puts her female characters in the spotlight. They are resolute survivors whose memories endure through war, dislocation, and generational change.

5. Borderless Bodies (Factory School, 2006)
by Linh Dinh

Linh Dinh‘s writing is unmistakable. Raw, transgressive, darkly humorous, politically charged: from prose to verse in both Vietnamese and English, he jolts readers right out of their comfortable seats. Dinh’s third book of poems, Borderless Bodies, tackles physicality and materialism in contemporary popular culture using explicit body-related symbols like prosthetic limbs, artists’ models, and sex dolls. In “Menu,” unexpected use of the word “meat” conjures the visceral nature of female objectification:

Talcum powdered meat.
Meat arrayed with trinkets.
Meat back lit by red strobe lights.
Meat photographed from below.
Meat admiring self, photographed from below.
Touched up meat universally applauded.
Free ranging meat suddenly subdued.

An experienced translator, Dinh is also playing with glosses. The Vietnamese word “thịt” means both “flesh” and “meat” in English. The former is a familiar way to talk about human desire; the latter transforms erotic lust into something carnivorous and predatory. Dinh does not let us take vocabulary for granted. His poems force a more vibrant, more dangerous language.

Several anthologies also highlight Vietnamese poets in the diaspora, including Watermark: Vietnamese American Poetry and Prose (coedited by Barbara Tran) and From Both Sides Now: The Poetry of the Vietnam War and Its Aftermath (featuring almost all of the folks named above, plus many other noteworthy poets of Vietnamese heritage like Christian Langworthy, Bao-Long Chu, lê thi diem thúy, Trinh T. Minh-ha, and original diacritic Richard Streitmatter-Tran). For broader historical context, check out An Anthology of Vietnamese Poems from the Eleventh through the Twentieth Centuries, translated and edited by the late great Huỳnh Sanh Thông.

Kim-An Lieberman hails mostly from Seattle and holds a Ph.D. in English, specializing in Vietnamese American literature, from the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of Breaking the Map: Poems. More info at her website.

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 should we be reading? What else should we be looking at?

A Second Review of Linh Dinh’s Love Like Hate


Ever-reliable guest blogger Stephen Sohn gives diaCRITICS its second review of Linh Dinh’s Love Like Hate (Seven Stories Press, 2010). Check out Dan Duffy’s review too.

Linh Dinh at San Francisco State University, sponsored by DVAN

Linh Dinh’s long awaited first novel is perfectly titled.  Love like Hate refers, on the one hand, to the name of a band that a character in the novel idolizes due to her involvement with the lead singer.  On the other, “love like hate,” also invokes the many paradoxes that the narrative engages.  For instance, Dinh is clearly interested in problematizing the supposed communist status of Vietnam, showing how the country has been infiltrated by global capitalism.  Kim Lan, one of the main characters, is sure that the key to changing her life is making sure her daughter, Hoa, marries a Viet Kieu, otherwise known as ethnic Vietnamese whose primary residence is outside of Vietnam.  Kim Lan makes sure that Hoa wears the most fashionable and westernized clothing, only eats at the most westernized restaurants, all in the hope of marrying her off to a Viet Kieu.  Kim Lan’s tactic is obviously much too simplistic and she fails to understand how tragically limited her vision might be in circumscribing her daughter within an economically-motivated paradigm.  Her single-minded focus in getting Hoa to marry a Viet Kieu is just a figurative rendering of Dinh’s major critique of contemporary Vietnamese society.  But, Kim Lan is only one of many flawed and dynamic characters that Dinh chooses to create.  Others include:  Hoang Long, Kim Lan’s first husband, a career military man, who later languishes in a re-education camp following the fall of Saigon; Sen, an ethnic Chinese living in Vietnam and ostensibly Kim Lan’s second husband that she takes up with only after she believes Hoang Long is either killed in action while serving in the military or has fled Vietnam; Cun, Kim Lan’s son from her marriage with Hoang Long.

The other huge character in Dinh’s novel is clearly the third person narrator, who has an extremely caustic tone and is not afraid of off-color, politically “incorrect” humor.  Take this excerpt for example, which comes up early on in the novel and is used to describe a minor Viet Kieu character not coincidentally named Jaded Nguyen: “Jaded was also Asian, which meant that he was smaller.  If he were Yao Ming or Dat Nguyen, it wouldn’t have mattered, but he wasn’t even Ichiro size, more like Apolo Ohno, except not that good-looking, and he didn’t have Michael Chang’s born-again faith to rock himself to sleep at night.  (If there was one guy who annoyed Jaded more than Michael Chang, it was Jackie Chan and his stunted sexuality.  The guy clowned and kicked ass, but never got laid.  About the only Asian guys to get laid in Western movies were the ones conjured up by the feverish mind of Marguerite Duras.)” (14).  This passage is fairly representative of other such tracts in the novel, where the narrator often generates a perspective willing to plumb the depths of a character’s many intricacies and idiosyncrasies.  As the passage later continues:  “He also subscribed to nastycheerleaders.com, republicanbabeswithguns.com, sexykitchens.com, innermostdreams.com, and even youngpee.com.  Upskirt, downskirt, dominatrix, hog-tied, slaves, elderly nuns in combat boos, elementary schoolteachers made to kneel naked then spanked, infants, corpses—he sampled them all with his eyes” (15).  If we would want to characterize the narrator, it is to think of his as being perhaps a tad hyperbolic.  But this passage also serves to demonstrate the limits of Kim Lan’s own fetishization of the Viet Kieu, who the narrator reveals to be, at least in this case, a kind of Vietnamese American loser, without many prospects.

Linh Dinh reading at California College of the Arts, sponsored by DVAN

The novel is particularly distinct in the growing body of Vietnamese American literature specifically for the narrator’s satirical wit and unflinching voice.   It is a ferocious work, one that ultimately showcases the fallout generated by global capitalism.

Photos courtesy of Isabelle Thuy Pelaud.

Buy the book here and here.

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Linh Dinh reads for DVAN in San Francisco


Love Like Hate–so which will it be when you see Linh Dinh read in San Francisco? We bet on Love, but come see and hear for yourself when the Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network hosts Linh Dinh on October 16, 7-9 PM, at the California College of the Arts. See flier for more details, and read the diaCRITICS review of Love Like Hate.

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