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date: 25 February 2021

Vietnamese American Literaturefree

  • Michele JanetteMichele JanetteKansas State University


While the Vietnam War looms large in American national culture of the 20th century, Vietnam, Vietnamese people, and Vietnamese American experiences have been little attended to. Vietnamese American literature engages this erasure both in writing about Vietnamese perspectives on that war and by expanding the signification of “Vietnam” beyond being a synonym for a war. Beginning in the 1960s, Vietnamese American literature in English was dominated for the next few decades by memoirs, largely designed to educate American readers about Vietnamese politics and history. Rather than continuing to offer Vietnam as it appears in much other American literature, as a surreal backdrop to a US psychic wound, these writers narrate Vietnam, Vietnamese people, and Vietnamese Americans with autonomous geographical, philosophical, emotional, and intellectual presence and perspective, and often provide direct analysis and critique of both the South Vietnamese regime and its American ally. In the late 20th and 21st centuries, Vietnamese American literature has diversified in both form and content, expanding the field beyond direct engagement with the Vietnam War and the refugee experience, in work that rewrites canonical Western characters and genres, that challenges normative literary forms as well as social identities, and that explores US racialization, consumerism, and popular culture. In addition to writing Vietnam and Vietnamese American experiences into the national American imaginary landscape, this literature reconfigures the demonized and threatening tropes of the threatening, untrustworthy “gook,” and the passive, dependent “victim” figure, into the socially necessary and beneficial “critical refugee.” Through the experiences of marginalization, trauma, and survival, the critical refugee possesses insights and knowledge necessary for a 21st century of increasing displaced populations, whether from war, famine, or natural disaster. This critical perspective is also more transnational than nationalistic or exilic, exploring both physical and imaginary transnational connections.

What makes a piece of writing Vietnamese American literature? Like all categorizations, this one is a shortcut, and like all shortcuts, it has benefits and pitfalls. Decades of scholarship about race and culture have taught us to exercise caution in assuming any essential connection between an individual body or consciousness, socially constructed categories of identity, and specific artistic creativity. Further, such a category should induce caution about its tendency to homogenize: Vietnamese American flattens out the heterogeneity of class, region, ethnic subgroup, education, political affiliation, religion, age, sexuality, mixed racial parentage, gender, and more. Literature, though fraught with different tensions, is no more secure as a category. For example, does a ghostwritten memoir count as literature? (And if so, does it count as Vietnamese American literature if the ghostwriter is Anglo-American?) A turn from authorial biography to textual content doesn’t really solve the problem, since to say that “Vietnamese American literature” writes about “Vietnamese American things” is either to be hopelessly reductive about what is a “Vietnamese American thing” or helplessly vague, because everything might be.

Given all these caveats, then, in what way is the category useful? Scholars Kandice Chuh and Elda Tsou offer a useful formulation for structuring this inquiry, which is to see such a label as not a container but a trope. “Vietnamese American literature” is a rhetorical device that stands in for something while also always failing to actually be identical to that thing. It is an approximation, which should always carry a reminder of its own failure to represent what it refers to. This is not to say that these writers or their characters simply “happen to be” Vietnamese American—in the contemporary racialized social landscape, race is never happenstance. It is rather to say that Vietnamese American literature is an index to a common societal touchstone. It is an authorial perspective informed by being Vietnamese American in the United States, of sharing a history of the specific racialized violence resulting from the war in Vietnam and its aftermath.

Being Vietnamese American, like all other aspects of identity, is always present and infinitely variable in its precise significance. For some, such positionality is a haunting, a sense of survivorship of a past with claims on the present, demanding honor or exorcism. For others, it is a hailing, an existential demand to navigate identity in relation to always already racialized and racist social constructions. Novelist and scholar Viet Thanh Nguyen reminds us that he lives with the constant potential for racist interpellation: “Even though no one has called me, to my face, Gook or any of its equivalents, I know that that epithet exists to be hurled at me.”1

In response, much Vietnamese American writing seeks to resignify “Vietnam.” Rather than continuing to offer Vietnam as it appears in much other American literature, as a surreal backdrop to a US psychic wound, these writers narrate Vietnam, Vietnamese people, and Vietnamese Americans with autonomous geographical, philosophical, emotional, and intellectual presence and perspective. In early Vietnamese American writings, this gesture often manifests by making visible the South Vietnamese perspective on history. In more recent work, it often consists of retooling the demonized and threatening “gook” figure (who watches, hidden, in order to snipe and destroy) into the socially necessary and beneficial “critical refugee.” Through the experiences of marginalization, trauma, and survival, the critical refugee possesses insights and knowledge needed by all peoples as we move into a future that will see only increasing refugee populations, whether from war, famine, or natural disaster.2 Not all authors reclaim the refugee figure, however. Another common tactic is to shift the focus from refugee, diasporic emigration/immigration to transnational investments. Especially since the normalization of diplomatic relations between Vietnam and the United States in 1995, writers have shifted from an exiled paradigm to one exploring both physical and imaginary transnational connections.

A corollary of this resignification of Vietnam is an intervention into contemporary orientalism. If, as Timothy Yu has argued, “postmodern orientalism is defined by the catastrophe of the war in Vietnam,” Vietnamese American writers are especially well-positioned to refashion this postmodernism.3 Yu argues that since the 1960s, progressive, anti-imperialist writers have relied upon an imagined Vietnam as a victim to serve as a vehicle for critique of US nationalism. The very gesture of identifying with and incorporating the Asian other as a victim of American power, who serves as a philosophical foundation for the political movement that resisted the American war in Vietnam, is thus also a “regime for producing ‘authentic’ knowledge of Asia . . . a critical response to [American] imperialism that can itself become a form of appropriation.”4 Vietnamese American authors occupy the signifier “Vietnam” in ways that refuse this orientalizing, appropriative script. Not offering up simple narratives of victimization or characters of easy identification, they disrupt the orientalist appropriations Yu identifies. While a critical consciousness about US race relations in general and the historical erasures and fantasies about Vietnam in particular informs their work, Vietnamese American writers do not always thematize Vietnam or Vietnamese American identity prominently. Contemporary Vietnamese American writers appropriate the techniques of postmodernism to their own ends, in which the aesthetic practices of assemblage and mashup are included, in which Vietnam is included but not proffered for consumption, in which Western classical and popular culture as well as Eastern culture are assumed to be artistic fodder for Vietnamese American writers, and in which master narratives, objective authority, and insider information are replaced by “undercover professors,” unreliable narrators, and cultural critique.5

This literature is also moving from the margins to the mainstream. As the fortieth anniversary of the Fall of Saigon and the founding of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam garnered international attention in 2015, Vietnamese American literature also attracted increased attention. Viet Thanh Nguyen’s winning of the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for Literature for his 2015 novel, The Sympathizer, reflects both the superlative craft and concepts of his writing and the cultural environment of receptive interest in the Vietnam War after forty years.

History of Vietnam and Vietnamese Diaspora

Given that the major surge of emigration out of Vietnam occurred only two generations ago and was driven primarily by war, much Vietnamese American literature directly engages the history of imperialism and war in Vietnam. To better understand that historical context, a brief overview of Vietnamese history therefore seems beneficial.

Vietnamese culture began in the northern region of Vietnam near China. The majority of the current population is descended from two ancient cultures, the Lạc Việt and the Ău Việt, which merged in the 3rd century bce to form the Ău Việt. For most of the next two millenia, Vietnam faced colonization efforts from its northern neighbor, China. In 111 bce, China’s Han Dynasty defeated the Vietnamese and incoporated the Red River Delta into the Han Empire. As a vassal state for the next millenium, Vietnam’s social, cultural, linguistic, and political institutions were heavily influenced by China.

Vietnamese resistance to Chinese rule was persistent, however. The first major uprising, led by two sisters, Trưng Trắc and Trưng Nhị, occurred in 39 ce. The Trưng sisters established an independent kingdom in 40 ce, and although it lasted only two years, the sisters have become canonized as two of Vietnam’s most beloved national heroines. Major uprisings continued for the next thousand years but were unsuccessful at achieving lasting independence until 939 ce, when Ngô Quyền established the first Vietnanese dynasty.

China briefly reconquered Vietnam at the beginning of the 15th century, but in 1427 Vietnam regained its independence when Nguyễn Trai led guerrilla forces to a definitive victory. Now autonomous from China, Vietnam began its own colonizing forays to the south, conquering the kingdom of Champa and moving into the marshy lands of the Mekong Delta, previously part of the Angkor kingdom of Cambodia. Vietnam began draining the delta, a project that continued under French colonization, eventually producing the most fertile region of the country.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, Vietnam suffered under a series of civil wars. In 1802, Nguyễn Phuc Ánh finally united the nation under the Nguyễn Dynasty, naming it “Việt Nam” and himself the Emperor Gia Long. By this point, however, Europeans had begun their challenge to Vietnam’s autonomy. The Portuguese arrived first, in 1535, but it was the French a century later who became the major colonizers. The first French to arrive were Catholic missionaries in the early 17th century. Among them was Alexandre de Rhodes, who codified the Vietnamese language into the Romanized script, Quớc Ngữ. During the early 19th century, the French presence was officially evangelistic rather than political, but given the mandate from the French empire to assure unimpeded propagation of Catholicism, this evangelism frequently involved military intervention. In 1858, the French began their overt military conquest of Vietnam, and by 1883 Vietnam had been subjugated and divided into one French colony and two French protectorates.

Colonization enriched the French rulers while devastating the Vietnamese. Although the plantations of Cochinchina became the world’s third largest rice exporters, French prohibitions against exporting rice to Annam and Tonkin caused widespread hunger in north and central Vietnam. The French also imposed heavy taxes on goods such as salt, alcohol, and opium, a burden they compounded by requiring each Vietnamese community to annually consume a quota of alcohol and opium (notoriously addictive substances). Forced labor under deplorable conditions was widespread in the plantations and mines. As the French came to own more and more of the land, the landless Vietnamese turned increasingly to employment in the civil administration of the colonies.6

While armed uprisings were quelled by the 20th century, resistance to French colonization continued. Scholar-patriots such as Phan Bội Châu and Phan Chu Trinh encouraged Vietnamese youth to study abroad to learn Western technology, science, and politics in order to modernize Vietnam toward future independence. The early 20th century was a period of widespread cultural self-examination as thousands of Vietnamese analyzed their own society as well as the philosophies and ideas of other cultures. This mix of patriotism, intellectualism, and activism produced new, anticolonial political parties.7

During World War II, when France was overtaken by Hitler, the Vichy government gave access to and resources within the French colonies to Germany’s ally, Japan. When the Axis powers were defeated, Vietnam hoped to be acknowledged as a sovereign state, and Hồ Chí Minh, who had by then emerged as leader of the anticolonialist Việt Minh movement, in fact proclaimed Vietnamese independence in 1945. However, when the Allies assigned Chinese and British forces to oversee the Japanese withdrawal from Vietnam, British General Douglas Gracey disarmed not only the Japanese but also the Việt Minh. He simultaneously imposed martial law and rearmed the main unit of the French Indochina Army, thus paving the way for the French to officially reclaim Vietnam as their colony in 1946, which ignited the Franco-Viet War.

Famously believing that they would defeat the Vietnamese in a matter of eight days, the French were instead defeated, after eight years of fighting. During this time they had been able to control only the cities; the countryside remained the territory of the Việt Minh. France hoped to increase its political support by reinstating Emperor Bao Dai and promising Cochinchina status as a constitutent state of France—giving Vietnam a measure of international sovereignty while France determined its foreign policy and international military actions. In 1949, however, when the Communist Party came to power in China, the Việt Minh gained a powerful supporter. The Việt Minh army, which had previously scrounged and smuggled to get weapons, was now supplied with armaments and training from its northern ally.

As French support for the war in Indochina waned, the government announced that the war would become a topic at the Geneva Conference in 1954. In response, Việt Minh General Vỗ Nguyễn Giáp launched an attack against the French base in the mountainous region of Điện Biên Phủ. The siege lasted from March to May of 1954 and cost at least 1,500 French and 8,000 to 10,000 Vietnamese lives before finally concluding in Vietnamese defeat of the French. Giáp’s victory at Điện Biên Phủ concluded the war and won Vietnam its independence from France. Codifying the terms of peace at the Geneva Conference, the Vietnamese delegates reluctantly accepted a compromise urged by China and the USSR to allow Vietnam to be temporarily divided at the 17th parallel. The agreement promised that this division would be temporary, that general elections would be held in 1956, and that the nation would be reunited under whichever government won—the northern communists or the pro-Western southern government. Those elections never took place.

Instead, Vietnam remained divided. The North Vietnamese government continued to be led by Hồ Chí Minh, while in the South, the Catholic, Western-educated Ngô Đình Diệm became president. Diệm’s regime was heavily backed and advised by the United States, which, enmeshed in the Cold War, was anxious about communist expansion in Asia. Diệm’s presidency was corrupt and ineffective, and in 1963 he was assassinated during a coup d’état sanctioned by the United States. Over the next few years, South Vietnam went through repeated coups, as one unsuccessful president after another was replaced. Advisors from the United States were heavily involved in the politics of early South Vietnam, but US ground troops were not deployed to Vietnam until 1965, when the United States began sending Marines, Army, Air Force, support personnel, bombers, weapons, and machinery. By 1968, the total US deployment into Vietnam was over 500,000. In the late 1960s, the war became increasingly unpopular in the United States as victory failed to arrive and the body count rose. In 1969, the United States began withdrawing its soldiers as part of the “Vietnamization” of the war, and the last American troops left in 1973. Negotiations to end the war had also begun in 1969, culminating in the 1973 Paris Peace Agreement, which granted each government the territory it held at the time (a considerable advantage to the North). After the departure of the Americans, civil war continued for two more years.8

At the end of March 1975, North Vietnam launched the “Hồ Chí Minh Campaign” (though Hồ Chí Minh had died in 1969, he remains a beloved cultural icon). The North hoped this campaign would win territory in the South, planning to get as far as Saigon over the course of the twelve-month campaign. To their surprise, the Southern Army surrendered or abandoned their positions precipitously as the North advanced, and within only one month North Vietnamese troops were victoriously accepting the wholesale surrender of the South Vietnamese government. Over 130,000 South Vietnamese, mostly those with military or professional connections to the Southern military or government, fled Vietnam in April 1975 in the wake of this Northern victory. Some flew immediately to the United States, while others were transported by US, South Vietnamese, and other international navies to refugee-processing centers in nearby nations before settling in permanent homes abroad.

In reunified Vietnam, shortly after the communist victory, former participants in the South Vietnamese government, military, or civil service (as well as teachers, artists, and religious leaders) were told to attend “reeducation classes.” These classes were supposed to last from three to thirty days, but for most people the “classes” turned out to be months or years in forced labor camps that lacked adequate food, medicine, and proper shelter. In 1976, business owners had their assets seized, and they were sent to “New Economic Zones,” uncultivated regions where they were to clear and farm land (often land containing unexploded land mines). New military conflicts also arose, including against previous regional allies. In 1978, Vietnam invaded Cambodia and ousted the Khmer Rouge regime. In retaliation, China invaded Vietnam in 1979. Additionally, Vietnam suffered a disastrous harvest in 1980, exacerbating food shortages. Since the United States had placed a powerful international embargo on Vietnam after the war, international resources were limited.

Such conditions prompted many Vietnamese to try to leave Vietnam illegally. Thus began the “boat people” exodus in which more than 1 million people fled Vietnam between 1976 and 2000—most before 1982. (More than 250,000 Vietnamese—mostly ethnic Chinese—also fled over land into China.) In addition to suffering from fear of capture, hunger, and cold, these refugees were preyed upon by Thai pirates who looted passengers’ possessions and often raped and murdered refugees. The plight of the boat people became a humanitarian crisis as overburdened nations near Vietnam turned away refugees, and even those who were able to land experienced terrible conditions in the camps.

Programs such as the Orderly Departure Program and the US Amerasian Resettlement Program, changes to many nations’ laws concerning refugees, a relaxation of Vietnam’s harshest political policies, and regrowth of economic stability had slowed the emigration flow. Most of the refugee camps were closed by 1996, and the Orderly Departure Program ended in 1999.9 The largest refugee resettlement occured in the United States, with other major diasporic populations moving to Australia, Canada, and France.

In 1986, Vietnam underwent a period of reforms known as “đổi mới.” Akin to Soviet perestroika, these reforms allowed for more free-market enterprise, retreated from the push to collectivize industry and agriculture, and permitted more personal and artistic freedoms. In 1994, US President Bill Clinton lifted the trade embargo against Vietnam, and the next year announced normalization of diplomatic relations between the two nations. In 2006, Vietnam became a member of the World Trade Organization. In 2007, Nguyễn Minh Triết became the first president of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam to visit the United States. Economic and travel connections have continued to deepen between the United States and Vietnam.

In 2015, Vietnam celebrated the fortieth anniversary of the establishment of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. While critics of the country point to ongoing governmental corruption, press censorship, repression of dissent, and the increase in a wealth gap between the urban elite and a still impoverished agrarian class, the country has remained politically stable for the past several decades and continues to increase its tourist trade and manufacturing industries. Younger members of the Vietnamese diaspora increasingly reestablish connections to contemporary Vietnam.10

While Vietnamese Americans currently reside in all fifty US states, the largest diasporic Vietnamese community in the United States is “Little Saigon” in Orange County, California. Other substantial communities have developed near San Jose and Los Angeles, California, and in Texas near Houston and Dallas/Fort Worth. These communities offer cultural centers, grocery stores and restaurants, churches, and social services that recognize and support the maintenance of Vietnamese cultural practices. Civic leadership in these communities has often been provided by men who had had prominent military careers in South Vietnam, and their strident anticommunist ideology influenced the political tenor of the American settlements. This political stance could at times be rigid and vitriolic, as illustrated in the fifty-two-day-long series of protests, threats, and rallies that occurred in Westminster, California, when a Vietnamese video store owner displayed a portrait of Hồ Chí Minh next to a Vietnamese flag.

Younger generations have developed more varied political positions and tended to direct their activism toward local and progressive causes rather than the anticommunist resentment of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.11 The younger generations’ activist shift can be seen, for example, in the community organization VAYLA in Versailles, Louisiana, a youth-led organization that was able to protect the vulnerable fisheries and gardens of Vietnamese Americans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina when the city of New Orleans planned to dump huge quantities of flood debris into the wetlands of Versailles.12 In the 21st century, many Vietnamese Americans maintain transnational relationships between the United States and the Republic of Vietnam, involving family, business, and cultural connections.13

Developments in Vietnamese American Literature

The first generation of Vietnamese American literature was largely preoccupied with the political history outlined in “History of Vietnam and Vietnam Diaspora.” Two of the earliest writers, Nguyen Thi Tuyet Mai and Tran Van Dinh, exemplify the literature that would follow them. Mai and Dinh were visitors in the United States in the 1960s, well before the major phases of Vietnamese immigration.14 While in the United States for work and education, they published works in English for an American audience.15 These writings are important foundations to the field of Vietnamese American literature both historically and thematically. Mai’s personal essay, “Electioneering Vietnamese Style” (1962), explains her unsuccessful run for a governmental office in South Vietnam for the purpose of teaching Americans about the regime they were supporting. Dinh’s novel, No Passenger on the River (1965), was published in the same year as the first American Marines landed in Vietnam, and, like Mai’s work, seeks to illustrate the faulty foundation of the government that American troops were being sent to reinforce. It charts the corruption, propaganda, cruelty, and military mismanagement that led to the coup against President Điệm. These two works thematically forecast the focus on government corruption, thwarted idealism, and the tug of war between expediency and patriotism that would appear in subsequent writings. Pedagogically, they also preview the efforts in much Vietnamese American literature to explain Vietnam and educate the American reader. Most of the memoirists of the 1970s and 1980s who follow Mai and Dinh wrote because they felt American audiences needed to hear their stories. These narratives, including Trần Văn Đôn’s Our Endless War (1978), Nguyen Van Vu’s At Home in America (1979), Cao Van Vien’s The Final Collapse (1985), and Le Ly Hayslip’s When Heaven and Earth Changed Places (1989), contain hopeful, generous explanations of why the authors are sharing their stories, such as their desire to promote healing and reconciliation among veterans or the proffering of their lives as examples to other immigrants or to explain the political landscape of Vietnam, which they felt Americans never knew.

In doing so, these English-language writings differ from the literature being produced in the postwar decades by Vietnamese Americans writing in Vietnamese. Vietnamese-language literature published in the United States, often termed exile literature, has been shown by critics such as Qui-Phiet Tran to contain greater anger, lament, and criticism of American ways than is present in the early English-language literature.16 According to Tran, “wrath and anger” more commonly characterize the Vietnamese-language works, which overtly criticize American workaholism, vehemently denounce reunified Vietnam, and nostalgically recreate the lost Vietnamese homeland. The English-language works of this period are less invested in the expressions and experiences of exile. The predominant emphases are on achievement, reconciliation, survival, rationalization, and healing. Driven by the need to inform, to educate, to correct the record, and to claim a spot in the American psyche, this is largely a corrective literature, a deliberate intervention into dominant American culture.

This intervention is necessary because, despite having entered the war claiming to support the South Vietnamese, US depictions of Vietnam have tended to erase the South Vietnamese government and its supporters. The dominant image of the Vietnamese has instead been of the Vietcong (VC), the “enemy.” Postwar Vietnamese refugees thus faced not only the difficulties inherent in losing their home and entering a new culture, but also the further obstacle of being frequently perceived not as refugeed allies but as invasive enemies. This double violence is illustrated vividly in the real-life clash that occurred between Vietnamese immigrant fishermen and prior resident fishermen in Texas from 1979 to 1981. Resenting the refugees’ competition in harvesting the shrimp of Galveston Bay, the Texan shrimpers, aided by the Ku Klux Klan, not only burned several of the immigrants’ fishing boats, but also held an explicitly threatening “boat parade,” brandishing weapons and hanging an effigy of a Vietnamese fisherman from the deck of a boat dubbed “The Vietcong.” The threats were most directly pointed to Nguyen Van Nam, the leader of the Vietnamese fishermen, who, far from being VC, was a former colonel of the South Vietnamese army—the US ally against the VC.17

In this context, the early creators of Vietnamese American literature were writing to affirm their existence, to be seen as who they were rather than through misconceptions and stereotypes. Their narratives are thus not only compelling in offering new perspectives on the war and on Vietnam, but also impressive in their generous assumptions that if mainstream Americans were informed of the fuller story, they would abandon their assumption that all Vietnamese and Vietnamese Americans were enemy “gooks.”

Primarily memoirs, this early literature recounts history as the authors lived it, portraying lives in which national, global, and personal issues are inextricable from one another. Collectively, their works chronicle the historical arc of 20th-century Vietnamese history, often beginning with descriptions of life in French colonial Vietnam that contextualize the later American occupation in a longer history of foreign imperialism (see, e.g., Nguyễn Thị Thu-Lâm’s Fallen Leaves, 1984, as well as her sister Nguyen Thi Tuyet-Mai’s later memoir, The Rubber Tree, 1994). They poignantly depict the divided loyalties among individuals and families that began mid-century when the Geneva Conference split Vietnam into North and South (Yung Krall, A Thousand Tears Falling, 1995). They explain the political machinations of the South Vietnamese officials (Bùi Điệm, In the Jaws of History, 1987; Nguyễn Cao Kỳ, Twenty Years and Twenty Days, 1976) and the impact of the war on the peasants caught in the violence (Le Ly Hayslip, When Heaven and Earth Changed Places, 1989). They chronicle the cultural impact of and attempts at coexistence with a huge American presence (Tran Thi Nga and Wendy Larson, Shallow Graves, 1986) and portray the relief and subsequent disillusionment upon national reunification (Mai Elliott, The Sacred Willow, 1979). They also offer a window into a Vietnam largely unknown to US audiences: reunified Vietnam under communism in the 1970s and 1980s (Jade Ngọc Quang Huỳnh, South Wind Changing, 1994). They include the evangelical fervor of immigrant Nguyen Van Vu’s gratitude to the United States and Tran Thi Nga’s quiet critique of American “charity.”

Contrasting the many Army of the Republic of Vietnam perspectives was one of the most anticipated publications of the 1980s: Truong Nhu Tang’s Vietcong Memoir (1985). Tang’s account challenges many preconceptions, including the association of VC with snipers and bombs. Tang instead explores the role that the author, a VC agent, played in the political, social, and psychological campaigns waged by the National Liberation Front in opposition to the South Vietnamese government and the American presence.

The turn of the millennium saw a content shift from chronicles of wartime life to accounts of the painful aftermath of Vietnam’s reunification. Nguyễn Ngọc Ngạn, Doan Van Toai, Jade Ngọc Quang Huỳnh, Nguyen Qui Duc, and Kien Nguyen are among the writers who recount two of the most troubling phenomena in reunified Vietnam: the prison labor camps, known as “reeducation camps,” and the treatment of the mixed-race children of American fathers and Vietnamese mothers.18 Andrew Lam’s Perfume Dreams (2005) describes another postwar tragedy: the rejection of refugees by the nations they escaped to when those nations felt themselves overburdened.

While Vietnamese American literature frequently chronicles the trauma of war, including sexual violence, and the difficulties of war’s aftermath, including both posttraumatic stress disorder and racism against the Vietnamese in the United States, there are few accounts of disability. Anna Kim-Lan McCauley’s Miles from Home (1984) is unusual in emphasizing her blindness as the defining circumstance of her life story rather than the war or emigration. One of the only other Vietnamese American works to address disability is Monique Truong’s second novel, Bitter in the Mouth (2010), whose protagonist has synesthesia. Both McCauley and Truong present these disabilities in a recuperative manner. Acknowledging the challenges they present, both emphasize the alternate, or perhaps enriched experiences that these different sensory realities afford.

Truong is a member of the “1.5” generation, born in Vietnam but raised in the United States. The 1.5- and second-generation Vietnamese American authors of the 21st century write not only out of a social need for their experiences to be heard, but also as literary professionals. Their work covers a wide terrain of topics and styles, from traditional novel to experimental fiction; from children’s picture books to adult graphic novels; from plays filled with rock and roll music, martial arts, and popular culture references to mixed media combinations incorporating poetry, song, and photography; and from historical fiction to hard-boiled detective stories. While all literature contains politics and ideology, these works are often more politicized than political—imbued with political and ideological critique, attuned to social context, but approaching their topics with the indirections of poetry and art rather than the linearity of explanation.

Several Vietnamese American writers take up and complicate themes that are familiar in American literature, such as the parent–child conflict. Lan Cao’s 1997 novel, Monkey Bridge, lê thi diem thúy’s 2003 The Gangster We Are All Looking For, and Bich Minh Nguyen’s Stealing Buddha’s Dinner explore the frustrations and affections between teenage daughters and their immigrant parents in the varied contexts of Falls Church, Virginia; Linda Vista, California; and Chicago, Illinois. Quang X. Pham offers a masculine version of the parent–child conflict, as Quang seeks to live up to his father’s military career and expectations (A Sense of Duty, 2005). Nguyen Qui Duc’s Where the Ashes Are (1994) chronicles his childhood growing up in California in the absence of his parents, as his father was imprisoned by the postwar Vietnamese government for twelve years and his mother remained in Vietnam to care for his mentally disabled sister.

In their graphic novels, Vietnamerica (2001) and The Best We Could Do (2017), G. B. Tran and Thi Bui seek to understand their parents’ often violent behavior by trying to recover the history of their parents’ lives in Vietnam—a history the parents don’t talk about. Thanhha Lai also uses the trope of discovering a family member’s past as a means to present geopolitical history, as the American-born protagonist of her 2015 Listen, Slowly reconnects with her Vietnamese grandmother.

For Andrew Pham, the return to Vietnam to recover lost heritage is motivated by self-discovery rather than recovery of his parents’ story. His account of his bicycle trip through Vietnam is made possible by the normalization of relations between the United States and Vietnam, which permitted the “Viet Kieu” (overseas Vietnamese) to reconnect with contemporary Vietnam. Pham explores his double position of privilege as a US citizen traveling in Asia and of oppression as a man of color living in the United States (Catfish and Mandala, 1999).

Pham’s awareness of US racial exclusion while benefiting from American global stature draws attention to the promises and betrayals of the “American Dream” ideology. Critic Mimi Nguyen has analyzed the ostensibly benevolent promise of American opportunity as a “gift of freedom” in which refugees are structurally positioned as inherently in need of rescue and from whom subsequent gratitude is expected, even as actual conditions foreclose access to the opportunities and resources that America promises.19 Like Pham, many other Vietnamese American writers investigate the failures of this gift of freedom. In Thanhha Lai’s National Book Award–winning Inside Out and Back Again (2011), fourth grader Mai successfully overcomes the racist cruelties of her classmates and community, but not through a “bootstraps” assimilation of the immigrant. Instead, Lai makes it clear that the family members were already successful and that the necessary changes must occur in the attitudes of their surrounding American community. Bao Phi’s Thousand Star Hotel offers a more anxious view in poems that ponder the legacies of violence his Vietnamese American daughter will face from peers, state institutions, and even allies. truong tran offers poems that unpack the subtle relations between language and ostracism in such works as “lessons” (from placing the accents, 1999), where common Vietnamese names Bich and Phuc become the basis for playground harassment and grammar lessons are jarringly applied to the racist graffiti defacing the family home.

Strom’s The Gentle Order of Boys and Girls (2006) counters the gift of freedom cliché by omitting the rescue narrative itself. In her tales of Vietnamese American waitresses, wives, students, and musicians, “not one of the stories shows the women dealing in any direct way with Viet Nam or her ‘Vietnamese-ness.’”20 Instead, the young women of Strom’s tales experience “the ennui, the existential uncertainty, the inexplicable discontents, of immigration’s inheritors.”21 Bich Minh Nguyen’s Short Girls (2009) suggests that such second-generation ennui is overcome not by dedication to model minority aspiration but rather by critical activist engagement, as her protagonist Van’s professional success derives from her passionate challenge to the inhumanities of US immigration policies and the xenophobia of US residents. Like many other Vietnamese American writers, Nguyen uses her character’s discovery to educate the reader about history—in this case, however, not the history of Vietnam but of the United States: the transformation of the Immigration and Naturalization Service into the Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the abuses at Guantanamo Bay’s military prisons, and the murder of Vincent Chin by racist white autoworkers.

The critique of America’s gift of freedom to refugees is even more overtly visible in Aimee Phan’s We Should Never Meet (2004) and Dao Strom’s Grass Roof, Tin Roof (2002). Phan’s prismatic collection of stories reimagines Operation Babylift, the humanitarian effort to evacuate hundreds of Vietnamese orphans during the last days of the Vietnam War. The tales are told from varying points of view, revealing the aftermath of this operation to include foster home abuse, gang recruitment, and emotional insecurity among the adoptees. In Dao Strom’s memoir, her stepfather’s desire to marry her mother is explicitly claimed as an act of rescue, and while it does take Dao, her mother, and her brother out of the refugee processing center, their subsequent lives of isolation and domestic manual labor often seem to the children to be an implicitly expected repayment for their rescue. Pham and Strom illustrate both the underside of American “benevolence” and the connections between global militarism and domestic family structures.

Other writers explode normative concepts of family structure by challenging or rewriting heteronormativity. truong tran’s poems include both attempts to keep his sexuality a secret from his mother and his coming out to her (placing the accents, 1999; dust and conscience, 2002). Queer erotic love and longing are portrayed with lacerating beauty in the poetry of Ocean Vuong and Hieu Minh Nguyen (Night Sky, 2016; This Way, 2014). Andrew Spieldenner’s short story, “Georgia Red Dirt” (2000), explores the intersections of racism and heterosexism as his protagonist faces the homophobia of his partner’s sister even as they share an understanding of American racism. Playwright Qui Nguyen brashly and breezily rewrites some of the most famous heterosexual women in theater as lesbian lovers. In his Living Dead in Denmark (2006), Shakepeare’s Juliet and Lady Macbeth (reanimated as zombie fighters) are paired not with Romeo and Macbeth, but with one another, and linked intertexually to a canonical moment of American queer cinema when Lady Macbeth quotes Brokeback Mountain (2005) in lamenting to Juliet that “I wish I could quit you.”22

Monique Truong also engages queer literary history, not by rendering the heterosexual as queer, but by taking up one of the most celebrated queer artists of American modernism, Gertrude Stein. Her 2003 novel, The Book of Salt, imagines the life of Binh, a Vietnamese chef employed by Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas in 1920s Paris. Based on the mentions of anonymous “Indochinese chefs” in Toklas’s journals, Truong brings a lost history to imaginative life. Binh is multiply set apart: his homosexuality has exiled him from his family in Vietnam, and barriers of language, race, and class isolate him in France. But the sensuous language of his interior monologues reveals an incisive observer and insatiable romantic.

Truong’s second novel, Bitter in the Mouth (2010), also incorporates well-known historical figures, using segments of an actual elementary school history primer that features celebrities of North Carolina state history, such as poet and former slave George Moses Horton and the aviators Orville and Wilbur Wright. Bich Minh Nguyen, too, draws inspiration from canonical American literature with Pioneer Girl (2014), which intertwines a family story of migration from Saigon to Chicago with the pioneer tales of the Little House series, as the protagonist tries to discover whether a family heirloom was once owned by Rose Wilder, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s mother and coauthor.

Qui Nguyen, Monique Truong, and Bich Minh Nguyen thus tether Vietnamese American literature to canonical Western literature. Other 21st-century Vietnamese American novelists return to Vietnam through historical fiction. Kien Nguyen’s The Tapestries (2002) depicts the 20th-century spanning saga of his grandfather’s rising and falling fortunes and love affairs, while his 2004 Le Coloniel reaches further back in history, telling a tale of two Christian missionaries seeking to shape 18th-century Vietnamese politics. Lan Cao’s historically based Lotus and Storm (2014) retells Vietnamese history of “the American War” and repeats two of the themes from her earlier novel, Monkey Bridge (1997). In both works, political divides are manifested through interpersonal loyalties and betrayals as characters assumed to be loyal to the South are revealed as operatives for the North. The trauma of PTSD is vividly depicted in the split personalities of Mai/Bao/Cecile, who witnesses the bombing of her home as a child, and psychic wounds are embodied when undercover VC agent Phuong continues to feel a phantom limb after his leg is amputated.

The machinations of an undercover agent form the core of Vietnamese American literature’s most celebrated historical novel, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize–winning The Sympathizer (2015). In keeping with many Vietnamese American narratives, Nguyen chronicles wartime atrocities and abuses. But whereas most other narrators are depicted either as powerless civilian victims or as morally appalled witnesses to the actions of others, Nguyen delves into the depths of complicity. His Sympathizer undermines sympathy itself, as affect and motive are belied by persistently pernicious actions. Nguyen’s depiction of the impossibility of avoiding complicity levels all players—not by imagining a core of common goodness, but by revealing a universal inhumanity. In Nguyen’s critical work, Nothing Ever Dies (2015), he suggests that recognition of such “ever-present inhumanity” is a necessary step in the formulation of an ethical and just memory of our violent historical past that might enable reconciliation rather than fueling perpetual war.23

Vu Tran’s Dragonfish (2015) takes hard-boiled detective fiction, a genre famous for moral complexity, and repopulates it with Vietnamese American characters and experiences. Dragonfish’s central mystery revolves around the disappearance of the detective’s former wife, a Vietnamese refugee haunted by losses she experienced while fleeing Vietnam. In Birds of Paradise Lost (2013), Andrew Lam pushes the grittiness and darkness of noir through absurdity into comedy. His tales include a grandmother literally put “on ice” after her death, who revives, walks out of the freezer, and goes off to live a new independent life; and a stand-up comic whose routine embraces racist assumptions (like dog eating) and shameful emotions (like hoping that the Thai pirates who attack during his escape from Vietnam will choose someone else in the boat to rob and murder). Lam deploys both sarcasm and poignancy, provoking both cringes and gasps in pursuit of allegory or unvarnished truth.

Linh Dinh’s poetry delves even further into the realms of deliberately inflammatory language and content in his poetry and short stories. His poems seek to capture the displacement and schizophrenia experienced by the “unchosen” of neoliberal capitalism, the majority of the global population “whose lives cannot be encapsulated by national or corporate propaganda.”24 Critic Susan Schultz argues that this “poetics of disgust” insists on a violent, visceral engagement with horror, making the reader “a witness, rather than a spectator of witness.”25 In stylistic contrast, playwright Qui Nguyen pushes physical gore away from horror into slapstick comedy. His award-winning plays (which include Soul Samurai, 2009; She Kills Monsters, 2011; Vietgone, 2015; and War is F**cking Awesome, 2017) are characterized by witty verbal dialogue, frequent popular culture allusions, kung fu fights, rock and roll soundtracks, and zombies. Within this postmodern pastiche he offers poignant and penetrating allegorical investigations of identity, loyalty, race, war, nationalism, policing, and power. In addition to his many plays, Nguyen’s screenwriting credits range from science fiction dystopias critical of neoliberal capitalism (Incorporated) to educational children’s programming teaching math skills and cooperation (Peg + Cat, for which he won an Emmy in 2016).

Like Nguyen, several other Vietnamese American writers have produced work for children as well as adults. The earliest Vietnamese American children’s picture book is Trấn Khánh Tuyết’s 1977 The Little Weaver of Thái-Yên Village. Written explicitly to open a dialogue between refugee children and their classmates, Tuyet’s story and pictures are unusually explicit for picture books, depicting a child hiding from US bombs, losing her entire family and village in the bombing, and then trying to make sense of being medically treated and adopted by the same nation that bombed her village. The collection of Vietnamese legends and folktales, Beyond the East Wind (1976), takes a gentler narrative approach, eschewing war and recent history to focus on myths from Vietnam’s dynastic period. Like truong tran’s book, these stories are told in both English and Vietnamese, and Beyond the East Wind was intended for use in (and to foster) bilingual education for children. Though set during the mid-century period of war against the French, Huynh Quang Nhuong’s two collections of short stories for children also avoid representations of war (though the family’s water buffalo is named Tank). Huynh’s stories in The Land I Lost (1982) and Water Buffalo Days (1994) instead offer nostalgic recollections of village life.

Poets truong tran and Bao Phi have both also written children’s picture books. Tran’s 2003 Going Home, Coming Home/Về Nhà, Thăm Quê Hương offers a bilingual narrative of a young American-born girl coming to identify home as both the United States and Vietnam after she visits her grandmother in Ho Chi Minh City. Bao Phi’s picture book, A Different Pond (2017), illustrated by Thi Bui, is centered around his memories of fishing illegally in urban Minneapolis with his father. Phi both conveys tender moments between father and son and implicitly critiques the social conditions of urban immigrant life. Resisting nostalgia, Phi’s tale of finding another fishing pond in Minnesota to replace the one the father knew as a child in Vietnam becomes an allegory of diasporic longing and resilience.

Whereas the dominant touchstone of Vietnamese American literature has remained a historical connection to Vietnam, the past decade especially has seen Vietnamese American writers expand the scope of their work into transnational identity, multicultural reference, and experimental form. Contemporary Vietnamese American poems in Kim-An Lieberman’s Breaking the Map (2008) and Jenna Le’s A History of the Cetacean American Diaspora (2016) explore outsider figures through comparing gold rush homophobia with antiblack racism in contemporary Vietnam or juxtaposing whale migration and human diaspora. Nam Le’s 2008 The Boat sets its tales variously in Iowa City, Cartagena, New York City, a fishing village in Australia, Hiroshima, Tehran, and the South China Sea. Quan Barry’s poems place the wars in Vietnam alongside war and genocide in Africa and Afghanistan (Water Puppets [2011]), while Mộng-Lan’s are inspired by her visits to her parents’ village in Vietnam and her involvement in professional Argentinian tango dancing in Why Is the Edge Always Windy? (2005) and Tango, Tangoing (2008). Aimee Phan chronicles the transnational transformation of Vietnam itself in The Reeducation of Cherry Truong (2012), in which a young Viet Kieu real estate developer from Southern California returns to Southern Vietnam to build a housing division emulating the aesthetics of Little Saigon.

Other contemporary writers range across both geographies and genres. Quan Barry’s magical realist novel, She Weeps Each Time You’re Born (2014), features a girl (possibly also a reincarnation of Quan Am, the Buddhist goddess of mercy) who is born with the ability to hear and release ghosts. Barry includes the familiar themes of exodus, massacre, political repression, and exploitation, but eschews chronology and causality; instead, her narrative embraces hauntings and monstrosity as sources of power, belonging, and new beginnings. The works of Lily Hoang and Dao Strom also rethink the novel’s form and function. Hoang’s 2008 books Parabola and Changing incorporate forms from the I Ching, multiple-choice quizzes, modular stories, and assemblages from philosophy, autobiography, astronomy, religion, myth, and fairy tale. Her 2009 Evolutionary Revolution weaves a nonlinear narrative web populated by hermaphroditic, double-limbed, blind, and flying characters who are contradictory storytellers, manipulative prophets, and unwise counsels. This tale of love, conspiracy, betrayal, and salvation is also an allegory of parental pressure, environmental destruction, and diasporic family. Dao Strom’s We Were Meant to Be a Gentle People (2015) also experiments with mythical and personal content as well as unconventional form and mode. Strom’s work—photography and poetry, accompanied by a CD of original music—theorizes cinematic representations of nation and family and, in turn, both invites and resists engagement.

In half a century, Vietnamese American literature has developed into some of the most aesthetically sophisticated and culturally significant work of the contemporary era. Whether overtly didactic in seeking to expose lost history or more subtly influential in offering cultural perspectives and insights born of their critical refugee perspective; whether imagining undercover agents, winged mermen, or transnational real estate developers; whether crafting the English language into intricacies of beauty, expressions of horror, or arabesques of comedy, these writers prompt us to see our world more clearly and to imagine it more broadly.

Discussion of the Literature

Early analyses of Vietnamese American literature (see, e.g., Christopher, Schafer, Truong, and Janette) often focused on bringing visibility to Vietnamese and Vietnamese American perspectives, often on the Vietnam War.26 This work engaged questions of authorial strategy that were developed in critical analyses of deliberate reticence (Pelaud), collaboration and appropriation (Troeung), and ironic misdirection (Janette, 2001).27 A second common area of critical inquiry has been to explore how these works address competing cultural demands for assimilation and exoticism (Cheng and Tuon), often specifically focusing around themes of food and cuisine (Xu, August, and Powell).28

Monique Truong’s two award-winning novels, The Book of Salt (2003) and Bitter in the Mouth (2010), generated the largest flurry of critical attention in the first quarter of the 21st century. David Eng and Norman Jones analyze intersections of queerness with race and religion in The Book of Salt.29 Truong’s second novel sparked two main strands of inquiry: one focused on the protagonist’s “embodied knowledges,” exemplified by her synesthesia (Dykema, Janette, and Brandt), the other focused on the novel’s southern regionalism (Cruz, Janette, and Kaus).30

The second decade of the millennium saw the publication of three influential critical texts in Asian American and Southeast Asian American studies: Yen Espiritu’s Body Counts, Mimi Nguyen’s The Gift of Freedom, and erin Khue Ninh’s Ingratitude, which, though differing in content focus, shared a common paradigm shift in which expectations of gratitude were rejected and awareness brought to expressions of incisive critique.31 In the wake of these theoretical interventions, literary criticism became increasingly interested in explicating the “critical refugee” perspective within Vietnamese American literature (August, Nguyen).32 In this vein, Jungha Kim traces Aimee Phan’s rejection of rescue as gift, while Long Bui, Mai-Linh K. Hong, Alaina Kaus, Joseph Darda, and Lucas Tromly focus on critical refugee explorations of memory.33

Further Reading

  • Aguilar, Karin San Juan. Little Saigons: Staying Vietnamese in America. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009.
  • Barry, Quan. Water Puppets. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011.
  • Barry, Quan. She Weeps Each Time You’re Born. New York: Pantheon Press, 2014.
  • Bùi Điệm with David Chanoff. In the Jaws of History. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987.
  • Bui, Thi. The Best We Could Do. New York: Abrams, 2017.
  • Cao, Lan. Monkey Bridge. New York: Penguin, 1997.
  • Cao, Lan. The Lotus and the Storm. New York: Penguin, 2014.
  • Chan, Sucheng. The Vietnamese American 1.5 Generation: Stories of War, Revolution, Flight, and New Beginnings. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006.
  • Chiang, S. Leo, dir. A Village Called Versailles. San Francisco, CA: Walking Iris Films, 2009.
  • Chuh, Kandice. Imagine Otherwise: On Asian Americanist Critique. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003.
  • Dinh, Linh. All Around What Empties Out. Kaneohe, HI: Tinfish Press, 2003.
  • Duong, Van Quyen, and Jewell Reinhart Coburn. Beyond the East Wind: Legends and Folktales of Vietnam. Thousand Oaks, CA: Burn, Hart, 1976.
  • Elliott, Duong Van Mai. The Sacred Willow. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
  • Hayslip, Le Ly, with Jay Wurts. When Heaven and Earth Changed Places: A Vietnamese Woman’s Journey from War to Peace. New York: Penguin, 1989.
  • Ho-Tai, Hue-Tam. Radicalism and the Origins of the Vietnamese Revolution. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992.
  • Hoang, Lily. Changing. Tuscaloosa, AL: Fairy Tale Review Press, 2008.
  • Hoang, Lily. Parabola. Portland, OR: Chiasmus Press, 2008.
  • Hoang, Lily. Evolutionary Revolution. Los Angeles: Les Figues Press, 2009.
  • Huỳnh, Jade Ngọc Quang. South Wind Changing. Saint Paul, MN: Greywolf Press, 1994.
  • Huynh, Quang Nhuong. The Land I Lost: Adventures of a Boy in Vietnam. New York: Harper & Row, 1982.
  • Huynh, Quang Nhuong. Water Buffalo Days. New York: Harper & Row, 1997.
  • Karnow, Stanley. Vietnam: A History. 2nd ed. New York: Penguin, 1997.
  • Krall, Yung. A Thousand Tears Falling. Atlanta, GA: Longstreet Press, 1995.
  • Lai, Thanhha. Inside Out and Back Again. New York: HarperCollins, 2011.
  • Lai, Thanhha. Listen, Slowly. New York: HarperCollins, 2015.
  • Lam, Andrew. Perfume Dreams. Berkeley, CA: Heyday Books: 2005.
  • Lam, Andrew. Birds of Paradise Lost. Pasadena, CA: Red Hen Press, 2013.
  • Lan, Mộng. Why Is the Edge Always Windy? North Adams, MA: Tupelo Press, 2005.
  • Lan, Mộng. Tango, Tangoing. Victoria, Australia: Valiant Press, 2008.
  • Le, Jenna. A History of the Cetacean American Diaspora. Baton Rouge, LA: Anchor & Plume. 2016.
  • Le, Nam. The Boat. New York: Random House, 2008.
  • lê thi diem thúy. The Gangster We Are All Looking For. New York: Knopf, 2003.
  • Lieberman, Kim-An. Breaking the Map. Selah, WA: Blue Begonia Press: 2008.
  • Long, Ngô Vĩnh. Before the Revolution: Vietnamese Peasants Under the French (1973). New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.
  • McCauley, Anna Kim-Lan. Miles from Home. Wakefield, MA: AKLM Publications, 1984.
  • Nguyen, Bich Minh. Stealing Buddha’s Dinner. New York: Penguin, 2007.
  • Nguyen, Bich Minh. Short Girls. New York: Penguin, 2009.
  • Nguyen, Bich Minh. Pioneer Girl. New York: Penguin, 2014.
  • Nguyễn, Cao Kỳ. Twenty Years and Twenty Days. New York: Stein and Day, 1976.
  • Nguyen, Hieu Minh. This Way to the Sugar. Austin, TX: Write Bloody, 2014.
  • Nguyễn, Khắc Viện. Vietnam: A Long History. 7th ed. Hanoi, Vietnam: Thé Giới, 2007.
  • Nguyen, Kien. The Unwanted. Boston: Little, Brown, 2001.
  • Nguyen, Kien. The Tapestries. Boston: Little, Brown, 2002.
  • Nguyen, Kien. Le Coloniel. Boston: Little, Brown, 2004.
  • Nguyen, Marguerite, and Catherine Fung, eds. “Refugee Cultures: Forty Years after the Vietnam War.” MELUS 41, no. 3 (2016): 1–7.
  • Nguyễn, Ngọc Ngạn. The Will of Heaven: A Story of One Vietnamese and the End of His World. New York: Dutton, 1982.
  • Nguyen, Qui. Living Dead in Denmark. New York: Broadway Play, 2008.
  • Nguyen, Qui. Soul Samurai. New York: Broadway Play, 2010.
  • Nguyen, Qui. Vietgone. New York: Samuel French, 2015.
  • Nguyen, Qui. She Kills Monsters. 2011. New York: Samuel French, 2016.
  • Nguyen, Qui. War is F**king Awesome. Perf. Asian American Mixfest. Atlantic Theater, New York, August 16, 2017.
  • Nguyen, Qui, and Patrick Moss. Incorporated. CBS Television Studios. 2016–2017.
  • Nguyen, Qui, et al. Peg + Cat. 9 Story Entertainment. 2013–.
  • Nguyễn, Quí Dức. Where the Ashes Are. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2009.
  • Nguyen, Thi Thu-Lam, with Edith Kreisler and Sandra Christenson. Fallen Leaves: Memories of a Vietnamese Woman from 1940 to 1975. New Haven, CT: Yale Center for International and Area Studies, 1989.
  • Nguyen, Thi Tuyet Mai. “Electioneering Vietnamese Style.” The Asian Survey 11, no. 9 (November 1962): 11–18.
  • Nguyen, Thi Tuyet Mai. The Rubber Tree: Memoir of a Vietnamese Woman Who Was an Anti-French Guerrilla, A Publisher, and a Peace Activist. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1994.
  • Nguyen, Van Vu, with Bob Pittman. At Home in America. Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1979.
  • Nguyen, Viet Thanh. The Sympathizer. New York: Grove Press, 2015.
  • Nguyen, Viet Thanh. Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016.
  • Nguyen, Viet Thanh. The Refugees. New York: Grove Press, 2017.
  • Pham, Andrew X. Catfish and Mandala. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999.
  • Pham, Quang X. Sense of Duty. Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 2010.
  • Phan, Aimee. We Should Never Meet. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2004.
  • Phan, Aimee. The Reeducation of Cherry Truong. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2012.
  • Phi, Bao. Sông I Sing. Minneapolis, MN: Coffee House Press, 2011.
  • Phi, Bao. A Different Pond. North Mankato, MN: Capstone Young Readers, 2017.
  • Phi, Bao. Thousand Star Hotel. Minneapolis, MN: Coffee House Press, 2017.
  • Spieldenner, Andrew. “Georgia Red Dirt.” In Take Out: Queer Writing from Asian Pacific America, edited by Quang Bao and Hanya Yanagihara. New York: Asian American Writers’ Workshop, 2000.
  • Strom, Dao. Grass Roof, Tin Roof. Boston: Mariner Books, 2003.
  • Strom, Dao. The Gentle Order of Girls and Boys. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint Press, 2006.
  • Strom, Dao. We Were Meant to Be a Gentle People. Portland, OR: Paperdoll Works/Press Otherwise, 2015.
  • Toai, Doan Van, and David Chanoff. The Vietnamese Gulag. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986.
  • Tran, G. B. Vietnamerica: A Family’s Journey. New York: Villard, 2011.
  • Trấn, Khánh Tuyết. The Little Weaver of Thái-Yên Village. San Francisco, CA: Children’s Book Press, 1977.
  • Tran, Thi Nga, and Wendy Wilder Larsen. Shallow Graves: Two Women and Vietnam. New York: Random House, 1986.
  • tran, trương. placing the accents. Berkeley, CA: Apogee Press, 1999.
  • tran, trương. dust and conscience. Berkeley, CA: Apogee Press, 2002.
  • tran, trương. Coming Home, Going Home/Về Nhà, Thăm Quê Hương. San Francisco, CA: Children’s Book Press, 2003.
  • Tran, Van Dinh. No Passenger on the River. New York: Vantage, 1965.
  • Tran, Van Dinh. Blue Dragon White Tiger: A Tet Story. Philadelphia: TriAm Press, 1983.
  • Tran, Van Don. Our Endless War: Inside Vietnam. San Rafael, CA: Presidio Press, 1978.
  • Tran, Vu. Dragonfish. New York: Norton, 2015.
  • Truong, Monique. The Book of Salt. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2003.
  • Truong, Monique. Bitter in the Mouth. New York: Random House, 2010.
  • Truong, Nhu Tang with David Chanoff and Doan Van Toai. A Vietcong Memoir. San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1985.
  • Tsou, Elda. Unquiet Tropes: Form, Race, and Asian American Literature. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2015.
  • Viện, Cao Van. The Final Collapse. Center of Military History, US Army, 1985.
  • Vuong, Ocean. Night Sky with Exit Wounds. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2016.
  • Young, Marilyn. The Vietnam Wars, 1945–1990. New York: HarperPerennial Press, 1991.
  • Yu, Timothy. Race and the Avant-Garde: Experimental and Asian American Poetry. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009.


  • 1. Viet Thanh Nguyen, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016), 63.

  • 2. “Critical Refugee Studies” was first articulated as a project by Yến Lê Espiritu. For important developments in this field, see Yến Lê Espiritu, Body Counts: The Vietnam War and Militarized Refuge(es) (Oakland: University of California Press, 2014); Mimi Thi Nguyen, The Gift of Freedom: War, Debt, and Other Refugee Passages (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012); and Marguerite Nguyen and Catherine Fung, eds., “Refugee Cultures: Forty Years after the Vietnam War,” MELUS 41, no. 3 (2016).

  • 3. Timothy Yu, Race and the Avant-Garde: Experimental and Asian American Poetry (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009), 106.

  • 4. Yu, Race and the Avant-Garde, 106, 109.

  • 5. Timothy K. August articulated this persona to describe author Viet Thanh Nguyen’s incorporation of Asian American Studies content into Nguyen’s novel, The Sympathizer (and subsequent interviews about this Pulitzer Prize winning work), but the didactic undercurrent is present in much other Vietnamese American literature as well. Timothy K. August, “Spies Like Us: A Professor Undercover in the Literary Marketplace,” LIT: Literature, Interpretation, Theory 29, no. 1 (2018): 60–79.

  • 6. Cao Van Viện, The Final Collapse (Center of Military History: US Army, 1985); Ngô Vĩnh Long, Before the Revolution: Vietnamese Peasants Under the French (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991); and Sucheng Chan, The Vietnamese American 1.5 Generation: Stories of War, Revolution, Flight, and New Beginnings (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006).

  • 7. Hue-Tam Ho-Tai, Radicalism and the Origins of the Vietnamese Revolution (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992).

  • 8. Marilyn Young, The Vietnam Wars, 1945–1990 (New York: Harper Perennial Press, 1991); Stanley Karnow, Vietnam: A History, 2nd ed. (New York: Penguin, 1997); and Viện, The Final Collapse.

  • 9. Chan, The Vietnamese American 1.5 Generation.

  • 10. Viện, The Final Collapse; Chan, The Vietnamese American 1.5 Generation; Young, The Vietnam Wars, 1945–1990; and Karnow, Vietnam: A History.

  • 11. Christian Collet and Nadine Seldon, “Separate Ways . . . Worlds Apart?: The ‘Generation Gap’ in Vietnamese America as Seen through the San Jose Mercury News Poll,” Amerasia Journal 29, no. 1 (2003): 199–217.

  • 12. “A Village Called Versailles,” directed by S. Leo Chiang (San Francisco, CA: Walking Iris Films, 2009).

  • 13. Karin San Juan Aguilar, Little Saigons: Staying Vietnamese in America (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009); Mimi Thi Nguyen, The Gift of Freedom; and Espiritu, Body Counts.

  • 14. For a larger discussion of Vietnamese immigration to the United States prior to 1975, see Vu Pham, “Antedating and Anchoring Vietnamese America: Toward a Vietnamese American Historiography,” Amerasia Journal 29, no. 1 (2003): 137–152.

  • 15. Both Nguyen Thi Tuyet Mai and Tran Van Dinh would later immigrate and become US citizens and would continue to publish. See Duong Van Mai Elliott, The Sacred Willow (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999); and Tran Van Dinh, Blue Dragon White Tiger: A Tet Story (Philadelphia: TriAm Press, 1983).

  • 16. Qui-Phiet Tran, “Exiles in the Land of the Free: Vietnamese Artists and Writers in America, 1975 to the Present,” JASAT 20 (October 1989): 101–110.

  • 17. William K Stevens, “Klan Inflames Gulf Fishing Fight Between Whites and Vietnamese,” New York Times, April 25, 1981; Andrew Chin, “The KKK and Vietnamese Fishermen” (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina School of Law); and John Tedesco, “Leaving the Past Behind,” San Antonio Express News, May 1, 2000.

  • 18. Ngọc Ngạn Nguyễn, The Will of Heaven: A Story of One Vietnamese and the End of His World (New York: Dutton, 1982); Doan Van Toai and David Chanoff, The Vietnamese Gulag (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986); Jade Ngọc Quang Huỳnh, South Wind Changing (Saint Paul, MN: Greywolf Press, 1994); and Kien Nguyen, The Unwanted (Boston: Little, Brown, 2001).

  • 19. Mimi Thi Nguyen, The Gift of Freedom.

  • 20. Dao Strom, We Were Meant to Be a Gentle People (Portland, OR: Paperdoll Works/Press Otherwise, 2015), 108.

  • 21. Strom, We Were Meant to Be, 110.

  • 22. Brokeback Mountain, directed by Anh Lee (New York: Focus Features, 2005).

  • 23. This phrase is from the book jacket; the idea is developed most fully in the chapter “On the Inhumanities.”

  • 24. Linh Dinh, Interview, PhillySound: New Poetry 2 (December 2003).

  • 25. Susan M Schultz, “Most Beautiful Words: Linh Dinh’s Poetics of Disgust,” The Paper 8 (September 2004).

  • 26. Renny Christopher, The Viet Nam War/The American War: Images and Representations in Euro-American and Vietnamese Exile Narratives (Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 1995); John Schafer, Vietnamese Perspectives on the War in Vietnam (New Haven, CT: Yale University Council on Southeast Asian Studies, 1997); Monique Truong, “Vietnamese American Literature,” in An Interethnic Companion to Asian American Literature, ed. King-Kok Cheung (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 219–248; and Michele Janette, “Vietnamese-American Literature in English, 1963–1994,” Amerasia Journal 29, no. 1 (2003): 267–286.

  • 27. Isabelle Thuy Pelaud, This Is All I Choose to Tell: History and Hybridity in Vietnamese American Literature (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2011); Y-Dang Troeung, “‘A Gift or a Theft Depends on Who Is Holding the Pen’: Postcolonial Collaborative Autobiography and Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt,” MFS Modern Fiction Studies 56, no. 1 (2010): 113–135; and Michele Janette, “Guerrilla Irony in Lan Cao’s Monkey Bridge,” Contemporary Literature 42, no. 1 (2001): 50–77.

  • 28. Emily Cheng, “The Vietnamese American ‘Model Orphan’ in Aimee Phan’s We Should Never Meet,” Mosaic 49, no. 3 (2016): 109–125; Bunkong Tuon, “‘Not the Same, but Not Bad’: Accommodation and Resistance in Thanhha Lai’s Inside Out and Back Again,” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 39, no. 4 (2014): 533–550; Wenying Xu, Eating Identities: Reading Food in Asian American Literature (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2007); Timothy K. August, “The Contradictions in Culinary Collaboration: Vietnamese American Bodies in Top Chef and Stealing Buddha’s Dinner,” MELUS 37, no. 3 (2012): 97–115; and Tina Powell, “An Unpalatable Dish: Performing the Bildungsroman in Bich Minh Nguyen’s Stealing Buddha’s Dinner,” College Literature 45, no. 1 (2018): 134–156.

  • 29. David Eng, “The Structure of Kinship: The Art of Waiting in The Book of Salt and Happy Together,” in The Feeling of Kinship: Queer Liberalism and the Racialization of Intimacy (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 58–92; and Norman W. Jones, “Eucharistically Queer?: The Postsecular as Transnational Reading Strategy in The Book of Salt,” Studies in American Fiction 41, no. 1 (2014): 103–129.

  • 30. Amanda Dykema, “Embodied Knowledges: Synesthesia and the Archive in Monique Truong’s Bitter in the Mouth,” MELUS 39, no. 1 (2014): 106–129; Michele Janette, “‘Distorting Overlaps’: Identity as Palimpsest in Bitter in the Mouth,” MELUS 39, no. 3 (2014): 155–177; Jennifer Brandt, “Taste as Emotion: The Synesthetic Body in Monique Truong’s Bitter in the Mouth,” South 49, no. 1 (2016): 38–57; Denise Cruz, “Monique Truong’s Literary South and the Regional Forms of Asian America,” American Literary History 26, no. 4 (2014): 716–741; Michele Janette, “Alternative Historical Tetherings: Wilbur Wright, George Moses Horton, and Virginia Dare in Monique Truong’s Bitter in the Mouth,” Journal of Asian American Studies 19, no. 2 (2016): 193–212; and Alaina Kaus, “Reimagining the Southern Gothic: The Two Souths in Monique Truong’s Bitter in the Mouth,” MELUS 42, no. 3 (2017): 84–101.

  • 31. erin Khue Ninh, Ingratitude: The Debt-Bound Daughter in Asian American Literature (New York: New York University Press, 2011); Mimi Thi Nguyen, The Gift of Freedom: War, Debt, and Other Refugee Passages (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012); and Yến Lê Espiritu, Body Counts: The Vietnam War and Militarized Refuge(es) (Oakland: University of California Press, 2014).

  • 32. Timothy K. August, “Re-Placing the Accent: From the Exile to Refugee Position,” MELUS 41, no. 3 (2016): 68–88; and Vinh Nguyen, “Refugeography in “Post-Racial” America: Bao Phi’s Activist Poetry,” MELUS 41, no. 3 (2016): 171–193.

  • 33. Jungha Kim, “The Affects and Ethics of the Gift in Aimee Phan’s We Should Never Meet,” Contemporary Literature 57, no. 1 (2016): 56–78; Lucas Tromly, “Immigration and Amnesia: Andrew X. Pham’s Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam,” MFS Modern Fiction Studies 60, no. 1 (2014): 185–203; Joseph Darda, “Airport Memory: Recalling Vietnam from the Terminal in Andrew Pham’s Travel Writing,” Criticism 57, no. 2 (2015): 191–210; Long T. Bui, “The Debts of Memory: Historical Amnesia and Refugee Knowledge in The Reeducation of Cherry Truong,” Journal of Asian American Studies 18, no. 1 (2015): 73–97; Long T. Bui, “The Refugee Repertoire: Performing and Staging the Postmemories of Violence,” MELUS 41, no. 3 (2016): 112–132; Mai-Linh K. Hong, “Reframing the Archive: Vietnamese Refugee Narratives in the Post-9/11 Period,” MELUS 41, no. 3 (2016): 18–41; and Alaina Kaus, “A View from the Vietnamese Diaspora: Memories of Warfare and Refuge in GB Tran’s Vietnamerica,” Mosaic 49, no. 4 (2016): 1–19.