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4.18.2011

Vietnamese Lit...You Know, Without the War

Somehow I don't have a lot of time to write for this blog, yet I find time to go to literary events (or literary like events, such as those where I bring a book to read while someone else speaks).

Last Thursday, The Hirshhorn Museum hosted Beyond the War: Vietnamese American Film and Literature Envision a New Homeland featuring Monique Truong, Truong Tran, Mark Tran, and moderated by Isabelle Pelaud. Part of the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program, the goal of the event was to explore Vietnamese-American art 36 years after the Fall of Saigon.

As Isabelle Pelaud mentioned in her introduction, the Vietnamese American experience is framed by the Vietnam War and there has been abundant literature that are consequences of that war. Yet what about authors who do the unexpected: write of the Vietnamese American experience as something beyond a/the war. She pointed to the example of Monique Truong's debut novel The Book of Salt. She asked if anyone had read it, and two people raised their hands. I felt bad because I was not one of them (it's on my bookshelf somewhere, but I do not know where it is, which makes me sad). Truong's first novel explored the life of a Vietnamese cook who was transplanted to France to be Gertrude Stein's personal chef. Pelaud mentioned the social responses within publishing houses: "A Vietnamese cook can't have such complex thoughts," they commented. (And of course in a type of delicious poetic justice, the book became a bestseller, an award winner (it garnered a Lammy nomination, but lost to Christopher Bram), and Truong is a millionaire or close to it (note that a millionaire in the writing world isn't the same as a millionaire in the real world; think Canada...)

The conversation, among other things, talked about how Vietnamese literature has moved beyond the war (through presentation of the writers' works), and how moving beyond the war is an obstacle for Vietnamese writers stuck in the ghetto of the war story. To write as a minority, it seems, one doesn't really have full creative license, but instead must produce (by industry standards) something that is in demand: a recognizable otherness to separate it from the literature of white males (i.e. serious literature that says so much about the universal human condition, compared to the works of ethnic minorities which are nice, but no cigar).

Otherness, it seems, is something that is upheld in the publishing world through the stories it systematically approves to publish.

Yet as Truong Tran said, artists are artists because they do the unexpected. In his case: writing radical poetry and making art out of porn (lots of porn apparently, including a quilt!). Or in Mark Tran's case, making a movie that doesn't deal with the war, but instead generational gaps. Or in Monique Truong's case, where the war is a background story (as in Bitter in the Mouth), or not a story at all (as in [I guess I'm assuming] The Book of Salt).

All this anti-war talk begets the questions of: is the war of any importance anymore?

A young writer/audience member asked the question (with all due respect): don't you think the war is still important? Even if we're not directly affected by it, we are because of it.

The panel responded: yes. We must not forget the war. It's part of Vietnamese-American identity. It's part of our cultural consciousness.

I asked (the first time I ever asked a question at a reading/panel!), where did the authors see the future of Vietnamese Lit/Art if we're moving--as the title of the event says--beyond the war, as identity is perhaps "becoming more American," whatever that means?

Everyone agreed: it doesn't matter. Writers will do their writing: no matter the categories. Even if it is a question of assimilating, "When we look in the mirror, our identity is there; but most importantly, people remind us of who we are." That is to say, you can claim your identity and this is powerful, yet people will make your identity for you anyway (especially as a writer) because it is believed that as a writer of non-white ethnic origin, you must represent something and somebody. The word “token” comes to mind.

This, it seemed to me, was the thing to take away: that as writers one must hold on fast to the identity one wants to proclaim, especially in the face of social structures that is not conducive to art. Art is rebellion. Society is structured.

Which, of course, I could've gotten totally wrong, but the important part is that I got a book signed by Monique Truong (she personalized it!) and right now it is my most cherished signed book (and trust me, I get around).

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