Reviewed by Jenna Lê
Asian American Literary Review, Vol. 6
Edited by Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis and Gerald Maa, with Guest Editors Cathy J. Schlund-Vials and Sylvia Shin Huey Chong
Asian American Literary Review, 2015
As a child growing up in the Midwestern U.S. in the 1980s, I was struck by the apparent fact that all English-language media about the Vietnam War—history textbooks, novels, movies, documentaries, television programs, newspaper and magazine articles, and poems—were exclusively concerned with portraying the war from a U.S. military perspective. Both of my parents were South Vietnamese immigrants who—in the liminal, unnaturally-lit hour just windward of my 9 PM bedtime—would sometimes fall to regaling me with spellbinding oral accounts of their perilous maritime escape from a war-fractured Saigon in 1975, and therefore I was faintly aware that other perspectives on the war besides the U.S. military perspective enshrined in the history textbooks must exist. However, until fairly recently, I never had the validating experience of seeing such alternate perspectives on the war reflected on the printed page. Certainly, I never saw the full range of such perspectives explored via essays, poems, and visual art until I read the Fall/Winter 2015 issue of the Asian American Literary Review, a special issue subtitled “(Re)Collecting the Vietnam War.”
“(Re)Collecting the Vietnam War” ought to be required reading for anybody with an interest in the Vietnam War, and especially for any American writers writing about the Vietnam War. Yes, the issue gathers prose and poetry from many of the first-generation and second-generation Vietnamese American writers who have made a splash on the U.S. literary scene in the past couple decades: Monkey Bridge novelist Lan Cao, The Book of Salt raconteur Monique Truong, laureled author of The Sympathizer Viet Thanh Nguyen, bard of Burnings Ocean Vuong, phoenix-like poet of trauma Cathy Linh Che (Split), and spoken word phenom Bao Phi (Sông I Sing). Given the obscurity in which such voices once languished, this encyclopedic marshaling of Vietnamese American voices, in and of itself, is a worthy achievement.
However, the accomplishments of “(Re)Collecting the Vietnam War” go far beyond this. The issue is also noteworthy for highlighting many writers and artists from mixed racial backgrounds. The issue includes Korean American artist Yong Soon Min’s photographic documentations of the unjustly-sometimes-forgotten role that Republic of Korea soldiers played in the war. The issue gives ample room to writers and artists with Hmong, Lao, Cambodian, Khmer, and Thai roots (many of whom, like myself, hail from the snowy climes of Minnesota: e.g., poets Soul Vang and Bryan Thao Worra). The issue gives consideration to the impact the war had on Guam and other far-flung territories. The issue features Muslim voices and Buddhist voices, exclusively English-speaking voices and bilingual voices, gay voices, transnational voices, environmentalist voices, veteran voices and refugee voices. Some pieces in the issue, such as poet Bao Phi’s, persuasively argue that Vietnamese Americans do not live in a vacuum but are linked by various affinities to other Asian American communities as well as to Native American communities and Black communities, that the circle is unending. As Yến Lê Espiritu writes in her prose piece on the Vietnam War’s “collateral damage” in Guam and elsewhere: “When I started my research…I was intent on documenting the war’s costs borne by the Vietnamese because I wanted to accord Vietnamese bodies the same humanity and dignity given to American bodies. I conceptualized the Vietnam War as a dyadic war between the United States and Vietnam — an asymmetric dyad to be sure, but a dyad nevertheless. What I came to realize was that the war…involved a constellation of U.S. former and current colonial territories…”
This issue of the Asian American Literary Review achieves a constellation-like complexity worthy of its subject not only via a thoughtfully curated polyphony of voices but via other means as well. The issue seriously explores and questions the significance of ethnic identity for displaced persons and families today (in a prose piece, scholar Mariam B. Lam astutely describes her lengthy response to the vexingly omnipresent question “Where are you from?” as “an old familiar story… that now feels like a requirement, a license, and a justification of some sort”). The issue directly engages with problematic representations of Southeast Asia in movies that once almost exclusively defined how Americans think of Southeast Asia and Southeast Asians (Full Metal Jacket, Apocalypse Now, Gran Torino, The King and I, and others). It is worth noting that this issue is reading material for adults only (one piece, combining prose and very explicit visuals, considers the legacy of the pornographic movie Brothers), but what reading material for adults it is! Virginia Woolf once described the classic novel Middlemarch as “one of the few English books written for grown-up people.” I wonder: would Woolf call “(Re)Collecting the Vietnam War” one of the few English books written for grown-up people about the Vietnam War? Maybe. In any case, it sets a new bar for Vietnam War scholarship and literature.
Jenna Lê is the author of Six Rivers (NYQ Books, 2011), which was a Small Press Distribution Bestseller, and A History of the Cetacean American Diaspora (Anchor and Plume Press, 2016). Her poetry, fiction, essays, criticism, and translations appear or are forthcoming in AGNI Online, Bellevue Literary Review, The Best of the Raintown Review, Crab Orchard Review, The Los Angeles Review, Massachusetts Review, The Village Voice, and elsewhere.