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.

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