- Vietnamese American Art and Community PoliticsAn Engaged Feminist Perspective
What is our ethical responsibility to our own ethnic community? This is the question we posed ourselves when we became embroiled in political controversies concerning Vietnamese Americans, anticommunism, and the arts. Lan Duong was a co-curator for a 2009 art exhibit called F.O.B. II: Art Speaks [Nghệ Thuật Lên Tiếng] in Santa Ana, California, a showing that drew hundreds of protestors because of the exhibit’s display of communist symbols within some of the artwork. As co-president of the Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network (DVAN), Isabelle Thuy Pelaud made the difficult decision of not being involved in the F.O.B. II controversy for fear of community reprisal. In spite of these divergent experiences, we collaborate on this article to explore what a progressive politics belonging to Vietnamese Americans would look like, given the exigencies of the past that bind young and older Vietnamese Americans to Việt Nam and the United States today. This past includes the traumatic legacies of war and the deep scars of displacement that Vietnamese Americans still carry more than thirty-five years since the American War ended. We come together as feminist academics and arts organizers to emphasize the similarities between our respective positions rather than our differences. We are troubled by how many community organizations have self-destructed over the years and continue to do so due to issues related to homeland politics. Consequently, we hope that the dialogue resulting from this collaboration will contribute to a feminist [End Page 241] reworking of what it means for Vietnamese Americanists to work in the community.
Our inquiries are guided by the concerns that we—as female Vietnamese American scholars—are caught in a triple bind. On the one hand, we intimately understand the enormous losses of war and country experienced by our parents and the community. On the other, as educators and intellectuals trained in identifying and critiquing power structures, we do not want to be silenced by excesses of power, regardless of its origins. In our scholarship and community work, we counter mainstream misrepresentations of Việt Nam and, by extension, of Vietnamese Americans. Hence, as we resist former antiwar protestors’ blind spots about Vietnamese American experiences and histories, we must also negotiate with Vietnamese American anticommunist activists who misinterpret our intentions and denigrate what we do. Ironically, combating dominant representations of Asian Americans is the easiest to undertake, since countering stereotypes fits well within the parameters of our academic discipline. Arts funding is also more favorable toward community organizations that propose debunking stereotypes. But issues concerning Vietnamese American politics are more delicate. For Vietnamese American activists and academics, there are not enough theoretical and practical tools to interrogate the vexed concerns underlying our community engagements and research about Vietnamese Americans.
In this article, we foreground the issues of doing activist community work within and beyond the academy. We question the politics of “the community,” especially when they marginalize women and other subjects who test the bounds of an “imagined community.”1 At the same time, we decenter the logic of a white liberalism that would champion what is perceived as our leftist, procommunist stance or critique of an older generation, who are unable to let go of the past.2 Reflecting on our roles as educators, moreover, we address the difficulties of teaching Vietnamese American studies courses, particularly because our own students now embody a variety of experiences and lead diverse political lives. Devising a rough guideline for organizations, we formulate partial answers in dealing with politicized art and the threat of anticommunist protests. Ultimately we ask that the field of Asian American studies be more conscious of [End Page 242] our challenges when we try to turn theory into practice, a move that is at times adamantly opposed by the very community with which we wish to collaborate. We call for more analyses in the field about Vietnamese American refugees, analyses paired with a critical understanding of this community’s profound losses and rigorous attention to issues of power and domination that mark its formation.
We begin with...