Reflectiona about writing about Vietnamese American literature

In this blog entry, author Isabelle Thuy Pelaud explains that her inspiration for writing this is all I choose to tell: History and Hybridity in Vietnamese American Literature came from her involvement in the Vietnamese American writers community.

I have been active in promoting Vietnamese American literature for almost twenty years, organizing or participating in many literary events myself. All these years I have heard complaints from writers about the limiting pressure to represent the refugee experience for a mainstream audience in search of resolution for the Vietnam War.

This recurrent theme became central to my argument. I used interviews, reviews of the literature and close examination of the texts to address it.  Since no book on Vietnamese American literature had been written, I complemented my observations and analysis with a general introduction of the literature spanning over forty years and generated a framework for reading these texts. I advocate taking into account

the overall Vietnamese American experience. Vietnamese Americans are not only refugees, they are also from a country that has been colonized. And they are also immigrants who often maintained transnational linkages.

One challenge in writing this book was that the stories I read did not always fit neatly with some of the theories and concepts in Asian American Studies.  The examination of transnational identities is at times disputed because it is said to lead to depolitization and dehistorization. I did not see the narratives purely as acts of resistance or accommodation to White hegemony. Sometimes they are those together and sometimes they are more concerned with other issues like finding closure with a past located outside the United States. These stories forced me to reconsider what I had learned and to open myself to new themes and contradictions within the texts. I also struggled with my own contradictions, by this I mean between my own view of identity as being something fluid and always changing in relation to the environment and various axes of power, and my own political drive to represent and include these voices within American society. I opted to make this tension clear and selected texts to illustrate this tension. The first two (Andrew Pham’s Catfish and Mandala and Lan Cao’s Monkey Bridge), although they do so with a certain degree of ambivalence, seek to represent the Vietnamese American experience, and the two others (Truong Tran’s dust and conscience and Linh Dinh’s Fake House) reject more forcefully the representation imperative.

Other challenges had to do with time and space. I teach at California State University where the focus is on teaching, leaving little time for research. Faculties have to compete for limited resources to obtain release times. At times I thought of not applying to university grants so that others have more chances to receive them. My attempt to write an academic book was nonetheless misconstrued by some as not community-oriented enough. This tension between academic and community orientations in Ethnic Studies is common. The most difficult part for me in writing this book was to uphold my vision and keep my focus. I could not have maintained my slow but steady progress without the support of my family, friends and mentors.

What also helped me a great deal is that I know many of the writers. When I had a question and did not understand a passage clearly, I could send them an e-mail, call them or meet them for coffee. I believe that my own Vietnamese, mixed race and working class background further helped me capture certain insights and remain independent minded. I did not attempt to replicate other literary criticism books in my field. I was more interested in applying theories than formulating new ones. I acknowledged the importance of history for Vietnamese Americans and in Vietnamese American literature in a context where these perspectives are absent from the official history of the nation. I provided a chapter to the actual Vietnamese American history that I saw as relevant to the understanding of the texts and supported my call for a broader interpretation that includes, but is not limited, to the refugee experience. Finally, I did let go of trying to please an audience, whether it is an academic, community or mainstream one.

I hope this book will be a significant step toward the inclusion of Vietnamese American literature in American society and that some of my observations and approach will contribute to the development of Asian American Literary Studies. To suggest for instance that identity politics may at time by used by narrators as shields to protect themselves is not too lessen the importance of that identity. It points however to the lack of accountability, understanding and support from this society for those who are no longer regarded as useful to its geopolitical interests, and of the still overwhelming relevance of the issue of belonging in our own terms.

We are all individuals! But we are citizens too!

In this blog entry, John Fairfield, author of The Public and Its Possibilities urges us to consider the value of personal responsibility.

Our public life is infected with such deep anger that our elected representatives hesitate to meet with their own constituents. Bailouts of Wall Street bankers, industrial corporations, and homeowners have added to a mounting national debt already swollen by the wars and tax cuts of the past decade. So how do we get “we the people” to use their collective powers for good?

The dominant values in American life have always been private ones – self-reliance and personal responsibility, individual rights of property and privacy, the domestic joys of hearth and home. But there is also a civic strand in our history, a rich legacy of public experience and political aspiration.  The United States came to life in a revolution to protect political liberty and, as Thomas Paine put it, “prepare in time an asylum for mankind.”  The United States underwent a painful rebirth in a bloody civil war that President Abraham Lincoln described as an effort to preserve the “last, best hope of earth” and ensure that “government by the people, for the people, and of the people shall not perish from the earth.” Hundreds of thousands of Americans have died to protect a Constitution that provides “we the people” with the power to “form a more perfect Union.

For the past thirty years, however, we have embraced the belief that government is the problem. Public initiative has taken a back seat to a market fundamentalism determined to privatize every aspect of American life. Occasionally a candidate has won office with a campaign centered on public initiatives and civic aspirations. Sadly, little has come of such campaigns, even in victory, due to our leaders’ personal and political failures and our own apathy. A pervasive cynicism about government always returns, leaving us to shun public responsibilities.

The election of President Barack Obama in 2008 once again suggested that leaders willing to ask Americans to participate in something larger than themselves could succeed. “What is required of us now,” Obama explained in his inaugural address, “is a new era of responsibility —  a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly.”

As in the past, the Obama administration has had to contend with its own mistakes and a pervasion frustration with politics. But there appears to be an inconsistency in our angry condemnations of incompetent and improvident government. Get the government out of health care, we say, but protect Medicare. Avoid bailouts and stimulus bills, yet somehow ensure economic security and prosperity. Deregulate the economy, but protect the purity of our air, water, and food.  

Both the anger and the inconsistencies are a visceral reaction to the unwelcome truth made unmistakably clear in our recent troubles: our unavoidable dependence on the same public and private institutions that we mistrust and revile. We think of ourselves as a nation of self-reliant, personally-responsible individuals. But the near-collapse of the credit system, the escalating costs of health care, and the horrific oil spill in the Gulf painfully reminded us of our reliance not only on government but on financial and industrial corporations over which we have so little control.

So as a new election cycle is upon us, I have wondered if my history of public experience and civic aspiration,  The Public and Its Possibilities: Triumphs and Tragedies in the American City, has something useful to tell us. I think it does. Self-reliance and personal responsibility are indelible values in American life, worthy of our respect and ignored only at great peril. But we must recognize that self-reliance and personal responsibility are not merely personal and private matters. No one is born self-reliant and personally responsible. We acquire those traits, if at all, through a host of social and civic relationships, starting with the family and extending outward into public life. Self-reliance and personal responsibility are also the product of the institutions, public and private, in which we spend much of our lives and which shape our ambitions and opportunities.

In other words, one has to be given a chance to be responsible. The great glory of democracy – and its great burden – is to create a society, economy, and culture which encourages and enables each of us to become self-reliant and responsible. This is a task beyond our capacities as isolated individuals and requires we work together. Self-reliance does not preclude co-operation and responsibility implies obligations to others. To realize these values, we must rebuild a civic realm not of privileges or entitlements but of common opportunities and obligations for education and service. It also demands that all our institutions, public and private, be reorganized to promote the widest possible distribution of political and economic responsibility. Such an effort combines our commitment to those great values of self-reliance and personal responsibility with our civic aspiration for self-government. It might even be a program the parties could unite behind.

Pushing for Midwives and the Reproductive Rights Movement

In this blog entry, Christa Craven, author of Pushing for Midwives: Homebirth Mothers and the Reproductive Rights Movement, explains what prompted her to write a book linking homebirth, midwifery, and reproductive rights activism.

When I met a midwife for the first time, we were both volunteering at a Planned Parenthood clinic.  She was an aspiring midwife in Florida, where direct-entry midwives (DEMs), those who attend the majority of homebirths in the United States, are legal, and student midwives are required to have clinical experience prior to applying for state licensure.  Both of us were working with Planned Parenthood’s program to educate high school students about HIV/AIDS.  We talked with “sex ed” classes and did pre- and post-test counseling for young women and men being tested for HIV.  Perhaps because my first exposure to midwives was in this context, I assumed a strong link between those who struggled for a woman’s right to access the practitioner of her choice for childbirth and the larger reproductive rights movement.

Yet when I decided to conduct research with midwives and homebirth mothers, it turned out that the link between midwives and reproductive rights was far more complicated.  In fact, the feminist movement had done relatively little to support midwives.  It was only in 1999, for instance, that the National Organization for Women (NOW) issued a resolution to expand “reproductive freedom” to include the support of women’s choice to homebirth and to seek midwives as their birthcare providers.

As I met more midwives and their supporters, I also discovered the religious and political diversity that characterize this movement.  Some linked their support of midwives to progressive causes, such as anti-racist organizing, environmentalist campaigns, as well as the reproductive rights movement.  Yet just as many saw their support of midwives directly connected to their strong religious convictions, pro-life politics, and commitment to “traditional roles” for women in the home.   As Katie Prown, the campaign manager of the national organization The Big Push for Midwives has explained, “’We’re one of the few movements that’s succeeded in bringing together pro-life and pro-choice activists, liberal feminists and Christian conservatives.  In every state we manage to recruit Republican and Democratic co-sponsors [for bills supporting midwives] who normally would never be on the same bill together.'”

It was this distinctive strength of the midwifery movement that prompted me to explore the relationship between homebirth mothers’ advocacy for midwives and the broader reproductive rights movement.  Although DEMs are legal and plentiful in Florida, where I first encountered midwives, women seeking homebirth in other areas of the country are frequently unable to find practitioners to attend them.  In fact, direct-entry midwives are only legally available in about half of the U.S.  In many other states, homebirth mothers—including those in Virginia, where I conducted the research for this book and Certified Professional Midwives, a national certification for DEMs, were legalized in 2005—are mobilizing to support midwives.  Women have also been central in the support of Certified Nurse-Midwives (CNMs), who attend approximately 7% of U.S. births primarily in hospitals, but also in birthcenters and in the home.  Although CNMs are legal throughout the U.S., they are often restricted by legislation that requires physician supervision and limits prescriptive authority. 

Yet despite the recent growth of this movement for midwives, there still remains little discussion of women’s experience of childbirth among reproductive rights activists.  And although the midwifery movement has been successful in organizing across religious and political lines, they have been less successful at incorporating women from diverse racial and socioeconomic backgrounds (a charge frequently leveled at reproductive rights activists as well).  As we consider the historical marginalization of women of color and poor women in the U.S. regarding access to healthcare, as well as the uneven gains garnered by the reproductive rights movement, it becomes essential for feminist scholars, as well as activists, to consider the challenges women face in gaining access to reproductive services (even once “reproductive rights” are legal), including the important care that midwives provide to a broad range of women and their families.

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