- Articulating the Exodus:Place and Memory in Vietnamese-American Women Writers’ Novels
The fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam War formed the prelude to one of the largest exoduses in the twentieth century. Approximately two million Vietnamese left their homeland as refugees and migrants. This exodus has in turn led to a body of literature in the West. On the one hand, many influential writings that emerged from American perspectives tend to reconfigure the Vietnam War and its aftermath in terms of Cold War imperatives or the inevitability of a “noble cause.” The defeat in Vietnam serves as a “powerful reminder of U.S. involvement and failure in Vietnam” (Lieu 58). Conservative revisionist narratives, therefore, display a stunning ideological coherence in reconfiguring the innocent and heroic narratives and in the denial of a dishonorable past. On the other, with complicated confluence of politics, immigration, and memory, Vietnamese-American writers articulate their contesting voices in order to counter “the silencing of the South Vietnamese experience from most histories and narratives of the Vietnam War” (Nguyen N.H.C. 35). For many Americans, Southeast Asia and its inhabitants—particularly the Vietnamese—become visible only through the lens of the Vietnam War. In the meantime, contemporary Vietnamese tend to see that war as the major imperialist conflict in which they have been engaged unwillingly. A great portion of the Vietnamese came to the United States as a direct result of this conflict, which is accordingly associated with cultural representations of Vietnamese-Americans in the United States. The catastrophic experiences of war and exile become defining experiences of their identity. Vietnamese-American literary texts are consequently often viewed through the “sometimes totalizing grip of the Vietnam War” (Long 1) and are therefore situated in an “overdetermined and mythically constructed past” (Truong 224). Many critics of Vietnamese-American literature have remarked upon the inconvenient way this emerging literature finds its genesis in war. In general, literary texts that cultivate and reiterate the narrative of victimization [End Page 69] are to some extent trapped in a common and simplistic trope—loss and mourning—which often meets with near universal approval by readers either from the West or the East. Yet, this trope presents only some “overdetermined” aspects of the complicated texts of Vietnamese-American migrants and their life experiences both in Vietnam and in the U.S. Viet Thanh Nguyen contends that the issues of how Southeast Asian American literature has been received and evaluated have a decisive influence on how we approach and study “Southeast Asia” as field of research and as a location. Marita Sturken has called attention to the fact that it is not that colonial and imperial wars in Southeast Asia have been monopolized in Western representation, but rather that a location like Vietnam is remembered only as a war. Monique Truong also warns that it would be erroneous to see Vietnamese as a “people defined exclusively by the military conflict that forced their resettlement” (220).
The three Vietnamese-American novels discussed here, Lan Cao’s Monkey Bridge (1997), Dao Strom’s Grass Roof, Tin Roof (2003), and lê thi diem thúy’s The Gangster We Are All Looking For (2003), are auto/biographical narratives about the Vietnam War and the exodus in 1975. But, they are telling something more. This essay aims to negotiate the conceptual tensions within and between “memory” and “geopolitics”—a discussion which derives from the word topos. A “topos” has double meanings: In Greek a topos means a “place,” while in Latin it refers to a “standardized method of constructing or treating an argument.” My main premise straddles the word’s dual implications to explore the way that Vietnamese-American women writers articulate a topos of their pasts that illustrates a sort of locational discourse which unsettles the overdetermined meanings of “Vietnam.” The essay proposes the significance of spatial rhetoric and locational politics in the constructions of memory, especially in migrants’ writings. An idea of “geopolitics of memory” reflects geopolitical constellations; it is especially a productive negotiation of locations and remembrance, and of “ideas, forms, images, and imaginings” of “geography.” In his Culture and Imperialism, Edward Said writes: