The Vietnam War and Asian American Literature
- Josephine Nock-Hee ParkJosephine Nock-Hee ParkDepartment of English, University of Pennsylvania
The first wave of the now-canonical literature of the Vietnam War featured the GI grunt, the wary officer, and the rock-and-roll journalist—all embattled and disillusioned white men. These fictions, memoirs, and reportage came to define the expressive labor shaped by the ethical morass of the war, and these differing genres melded in the cinematic renaissance occasioned by the Vietnam War, which installed a generation of American auteurs. Asian American writers contended with this potent cultural formation, not only to critique the popular imagination of white innocence lost, but to claim the force and even intoxication of this cultural juggernaut. Asian American literary texts from the 1970s onward were shaped by the war and its aftermath—notably including the resistance movements it sparked—and the 21st-century rise of Vietnamese American reckonings with the war’s legacy has instigated significant reappraisals of the aims and effects of the war.
The foundational Asian American literary writings of Maxine Hong Kingston and Frank Chin weighed the service of the Asian American soldier in Vietnam in the context of the Third World movements that drove the formation of Asian American studies. A decade later, the publication of bestselling memoirs by Le Ly Hayslip, popularly heralded as the emergence of a Vietnamese American voice, marked the origins of a burgeoning field of writing, wide-ranging in form and genre but arrayed alongside and against the mainstream imagination of Vietnam. The major fiction of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer (2015) has come to stand as a culminating literary riposte to the canonized first wave of Vietnam War literature: Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel exposes long-standing fictions of U.S. conduct and foregrounds a complex Asian American and refugee perspective. Asian American literature of the Vietnam War expresses a dynamic range of felt responses to the cultural history of the war to produce imaginative work that interrogates the war’s iconic images and reveals its unseen subjects.