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  • “Lives on Paper”: The Terms of Refuge in the Life Writings of Ariel Dorfman and Kao Kalia Yang
  • Aline Lo (bio)

As opposed to the literary tradition of the Modernist exile, which is usually attached to solitary intellectualism and artistic expression, refugee writing has often been linked to “the refugee condition,” which is that of a silent, backward mass of helpless persons. The rise of critical refugee studies, particularly in American studies, has been challenging the idea of refugees as helpless victims, but there is still work to be done around refugee narratives. In looking at previous traditions of reading displacement narratives, of which Ariel Dorfman’s Heading South, Looking South is emblematic, it is clear that such models do not account for contemporary refugee situations, many of which have arisen from U.S. efforts to democratize other nations. In particular, the Modernist exile tradition is inadequate in encompassing the issues of scale and silence that have been especially attached to post-Vietnam War refugees. Thus, it is vital that we consider broader and more fluid terms of literary representation for the refugee, terms that begin to encompass the silencing effects of refugee treatment and the nature of collective narratives. In this article, then, I draw attention to the need for new, critical forms of representation that can begin to discuss this liminal figure within the genre of life writing, tracing Kao Kalia Yang’s refugee narrative against a moment in the autobiography of the self-proclaimed exile, Ariel Dorfman. When Dorfman turns to a Modernist exile tradition of isolation and singularity at a crucial point in his displacement, he unwittingly relegates the refugee to a position of silence. It is against this silence that I read Yang’s The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir as a text that negotiates the interconnected relationships between the writer and the collective, that works through the [End Page 23] challenges of writing from a “void.” In placing these two texts together, I make a larger argument that refugee narratives require moving beyond the Modernist exile tradition to more contemporary and indigenous movements like testimonio, which provides an example of how those who have been marginalized, who have been characterized as a silent, desperate mass can claim a voice and assert agency not despite of but because of an explicit sense of collectivism.

In bringing together Dorfman, Yang, and testimonio, I am not only questioning the assumed position of erasure and silence attached to refugees, but am also drawing necessary connections between Southeast Asian and Latin American experiences of displacement and disempowerment within a U.S. context. As scholars continue to think about the impact of U.S. imperialism, particularly clandestine acts like recruiting Hmong soldiers to fight in the neutral country of Laos during the Vietnam War, it can be beneficial to establish meaningful correlations between other instances of erasure and marginalization that are also linked to U.S. diplomatic efforts. Indeed, both Dorfman and Yang appear among other writers in a recent collection entitled The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives. In that text, the editor, author and scholar Viet Thanh Nguyen, offers up “this book of powerful voices, from writers who were themselves refugees” as a small remedy “to the ongoing silencing of millions of voices.”1 Similarly, in turning to testimonio as a way to think beyond traditional Western and masculinist models of life writing, which often leave little room for collective representations and acts of erasure, I am proposing a way to listen to silenced voices. Using Dorfman’s earlier text as an impetus, I move to Yang’s more recent memoir in order to draw attention to how the rhetoric around refugees is beginning to change. Although both authors are pushed from their homelands and share a similar need for refuge, only Dorfman has the ability to strategically take on the label of “Exile” instead of “Refugee.”2 And, in doing so, he presents the “Exile” as the more legible status, one that allows for an intellectualized and singular retelling and that, inadvertently, creates a false dichotomy between the intelligible exile and the voiceless refugee. With John Beverley’s notion of testimonio, which draws together the issues of...


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pp. 23-44
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