- The Innocents: Reading Refugees in National Culture and Diasporic Literatures
Early in Lê Thi Diem Thúy’s novel The Gangster We Are All Looking For, Lê’s first-person six-year-old narrator finds herself in communion with the glass animals locked in a display case in the office of the Russell family, which sponsors her, her father, and four other men—“the uncles”—who accompanied them as they fled from Vietnam to the United States. She tells the animals about her journey on the boat and rescue at sea by the U.S. Navy, memories of her mother from whom she and her father have been (temporarily) separated, and about her dreams in which her family is reunited. Ultimately, she smashes the display cabinet, hurling a glass disk containing a motionless butterfly whose captivity has fascinated and troubled her:
The disk flew hard and fast, but not where I had sent it. It crashed through the glass doors of the display cabinet. The animals’ knees buckled. As they fell, some of the animals lost their heads while others’ bodies broke in two. The broken bodies of some protected the bodies of others from shattering completely. Some lay on their sides, staring out the window.1
The act of destruction brings the makeshift Vietnamese family’s residence with the Russells to a rapid end, and the novel moves on to narrate accounts of life after the narrator and her father are reunited with her mother. It centers in particular on the family members’ growing estrangement from one another, especially as they belatedly grapple with the loss of the narrator’s brother, who had drowned in Vietnam before the family’s departure.
The narrator herself is likened to any number of animals, a “common pigeon,” a “headless chicken,” and a mouse.2 And The Gangster closes with the narrator as a young adult recalling a visit to the beach with her parents “during our first spring together in California”: “As my parents stood on the beach leaning into each other, I ran, like a dog unleashed, toward the lights.”3 The figuring of the narrator as an animal evokes a duality in terms of her status as a refugee. On the one hand, seemingly excluded from the family of “citizen and man,” to whom rights are directly granted, she instead appears herself situated in a community of “broken bodies,” some of them perhaps better “protected” than others, but all rendered as the bare life that state-lessness engenders. But the trope also marks her as a kind of willful, if disorganized, form of life who exceeds the injunctions of the humanitarian nation that receives her. Read through this feral animality, the innocence ascribed to her as a child and as a refugee comes up against the limits of tolerance that the liberal imagination is willing to extend to her and her kind. As it turns out, the childish refugee might not be as [End Page 547] docile as the broken glass animals with whom she seeks identification but whom she also destroys as she seeks to deliver their salvation.
When one observes refugee realities and politics from the institutional and intellectual vantage of critical American studies, a peculiar set of contradictions regarding the constructions of innocence, responsibility, and redemption or salvation becomes readily—and maddeningly—apparent:
• First, due to its outsized influence in the postwar international order, the United States was pivotal in narrowing the scope of the prevailing definition of “refugee,” and in particular the one codified in international legal instruments such as the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. Namely, the refugee as the innocent victim who “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country,” is defined precisely as bare life, incapable of political agency and responsibility, animated instead only by trepidation and distress.
• Second, certainly since 1945—but also in many instances before then, especially where the western hemisphere is concerned...