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This Is All I Choose to Tell: History and Hybridity in Vietnamese American Literature (review)

From: Journal of Asian American Studies
Volume 15, Number 3, October 2012
pp. 347-349 | 10.1353/jaas.2012.0023

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The first book-length study of Vietnamese American literature, This Is All I Choose to Tell is unquestionably an essential contribution to the field of Asian American studies. In this book Isabelle Thuy Pelaud provides scholars and teachers alike with an impressive road map to this burgeoning body of literature, expanding on rigorous literary surveys produced by Michele Janette and Monique Truong, with a nod toward recent interventions in Vietnamese American history, such as Sucheng Chan’s The Vietnamese 1.5 Generation. Considering Vietnamese Americans first established a presence in the United States thirty-five years ago—an arrival so closely examined, agonized over, and intricately catalogued—it could be surprising that only now has a full-length book about the literature been produced. However, Pelaud interprets this delay as evidence of the great pressures Vietnamese American authors and critics have been under to produce representative work and feels that the responses to this demand have been carefully considered and strategic. This insight, then, confirms the book’s central argument that Vietnamese American literature is crafted through momentary historical, social, and political demands.

Hence, Pelaud is closely concerned with both the production and the reception of Vietnamese American literature, dividing the book into two main sections: “Inclusion” and “Interpretation.” The first half recognizes the need to establish the context of the discipline and make the case for its critical importance for Asian American studies, while the later half consists of close readings that shift the previously broad analytical terrain to more nuanced analysis.

Chapter 1, “History,” is a poignant opening volley, where Pelaud examines Vietnamese immigration to the United States through three interweaving perspectives: refugees, immigrants of color, and transnationals. While this section certainly could have been perfunctory, Pelaud has instead written a sharp account of Vietnamese American history that counters narratives of a smooth and inevitable assimilation. Here she demonstrates that an attentive Vietnamese American history is rife with stories of exclusion, betrayal, and racism that bristle against national myths of inclusion. For her, reclaiming Vietnamese American history is important not only for Vietnamese Americans attempting to recover their past, but also for the world at large, as the narrative of an unproblematic, benevolent reception of the Vietnamese into the United States is often deployed as “part of a powerful national revisionist effort in America to forget and forgive itself in order to justify the occupation of other countries through military, economic, and cultural means” (21). Through the sum of these parts, then, Pelaud demonstrates how Vietnamese American history has functioned geopolitically as both a product of as well as a product for American empire.

Chapter 2, “Overview,” periodizes the over one hundred literary books produced in English by Vietnamese American authors since 1963. In this section she explains the motivations of the first, 1.5, and second generations, while identifying why different genres of writing, such as collaboration, anthologies, and histories, have developed. Throughout she maintains that studying the social history through which these works were written is vitally important and that at each stage the authors made stylistic decisions based upon the literary, linguistic, and material resources afforded them.

Chapter 3, “Hybridity,” locates Vietnamese American literature within the discipline of Asian American studies, while placing Pelaud’s own project alongside the work of Kandice Chuh, Lisa Lowe, Viet Nguyen, and Sau-Ling Wong. Here her definition of hybridity “as those experiences and identities shaped by colonialism, war, immigration and racism” (49) is more Lowe than Homi Bhabha, and indeed this choice speaks to her concern about the depoliticization and dehistoricization of Asian American studies. Instead of promoting in-betweenness or seeing this population as a bridge between two cultures, Pelaud’s reading of hybridity provides material context to articulate the uneven representations and identities of Vietnamese Americans vis-à-vis the state, the academy, and global empire.

Chapters 4 and 5 consist of close readings of Andrew X. Pham’s Catfish and Mandala, Lan Cao’s Monkey Bridge, Truong Tran’s dust and conscience, and Linh Dinh’s Fake House, works likely to show up in the classroom. In each section Pelaud is extremely faithful to the authorial presence and carefully unpacks the text on its own terms...

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