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Renny Christopher seeks to replace the ethnocentrism and nationalism of the U.S. discourse surrounding the Vietnam War with a bicultural perspective. Her strategy is to foreground approximately a dozen Vietnamese exile narratives before moving back to the nineteenth century to begin tracing the American history of racist stereotyping of Asians. She documents, as have others before her, how that interpretive framework was brought forward to American representations of Vietnamese in such influential texts as The Ugly American and concludes with a hopeful look at the accounts of return journeys to Vietnam produced by both American participants in the war and Vietnamese immigrants.
While she is far too dismissive of what is in many respects a distinguished and rich literature, Christopher is right to point out the potential limits of the American canon of the Vietnam War. Both the authority of first-hand experience and that of artistic brilliance have been restricted by the same lack of knowledge of Vietnam that led American leaders in Washington into catastrophic decisions. Philip Caputo in his memoir A Rumor of War and Oliver Stone in his film Platoon drew on the authority of their experience as veterans to create texts that while realistic in their details were plotted as American romances, however dark. Filmmakers such as Francis Ford Coppola in Apocalypse Now and Stanley Kubrick in Full Metal Jacket entered the modes of surrealism to transform Vietnam into a theater for the American psyche as it struggled to confront the unacceptable message presented to American culture by Vietnam.
These literary and cinematic achievements remain profoundly valuable. Allowed to become the endpoint of our journey into Vietnam, they would become only perversely pleasing exercises in American narcissism. Both the realistic and allegorical journeys back into Vietnam through the corridors of American myth are explorations into the deeper implications of American history and ideology, a valuable stage of the self-contemplation and questioning the war has properly [End Page 481] forced upon Americans. But it is equally important to come out of our own psyche and perceive the reality of other peoples.
Arrogance and dogmatism are also dangers confronting those dealing with the American experience in Vietnam, and Christopher has not avoided them. While she writes clearly and documents exhaustively, the book is tedious. Her readings of individual works lack sophistication, as her method is to summarize a text while evaluating it according to how explicitly the author does or does not pursue her own agenda of a bicultural perspective. Christopher rarely recognizes nuance or irony, and as a result sees racism whenever an author does not explicitly comment on it.
Despite my disappointment with these aspects of her study, I agree with Christopher that Vietnamese perspectives need to be more insistently drawn into the American discussion of the Vietnam War and its legacy. Christopher has “seen students’ attitudes almost completely transformed” when they have read Le Ly Hayslip’s autobiography When Heaven and Earth Changed Places: A Vietnamese Woman’s Journey from War to Peace. Such Vietnamese exile narratives, along with such efforts as Robert Olen Butler’s cross-cultural presentation in his A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, are important additions to the still-forming American canon of the Vietnam War.