Generational Understanding Versus Exploitation When Writing About the Vietnam War

My grandparents do not talk about their past. Despite their fascinating struggles and rich experiences, I am left to my own imagination in order to attempt to understand what they went through. Literature is frequently used as a medium to bridge generational disconnect and tell these lost stories. Vietnamese-American literature in particular continues to tell stories about the Vietnam War by a generation too young to have experienced it. As this new generation of writers grapple with their identities in the United States and beyond, there is a conflict between honoring their ancestors’ struggles and exploiting them for profit. Daniel Kim and Viet Thanh Nguyen articulate this conflict in “The Literature of the Korean War and Vietnam War,” saying “while often being self-conscious of their circumscribed conditions,  [Vietnamese-American writers] find it hard not to write about the war” (Kim and Nguyen 66). Since many Americans’ knowledge of Vietnam is limited to the war, writers sometimes feel trapped to strictly writing about what their ancestors went through.

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In Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice by Nam Le, he explores the tendency/pressure for Vietnamese-American- or, in his case, Vietnamese-Australian- authors to write about their parents’ experiences with the war. The short story centers on a Vietnamese-Australian writer who struggles with writer’s block. When a friend hears about this, she says to him, “You could totally exploit the Vietnamese thing,” to which he reacts by feeling like his leg was “gory, blood splattered (Le 10). The physical pain he feels, or imagines to feel, is a metaphor for his emotional pain he feels over writing about the Vietnam War. The description of his leg as gory and blood splattered is an illusion to a bullet wound, linking his present experience to his father’s past. Despite the generational disconnect, he still feels tremendous emotional pain when he is told that writing about his father is exploitation.

This is a shift from the experience that Kim and Nguyen describe, as Love and Pity is a self-aware and critical story about those who continue to write about the Vietnam War. The narrator struggles with thoughts of exploitation throughout the story, as by writing about his father’s past, he is doing what is expected of him. He is illuminating his father’s past, but he feels wounded and cheapened by doing so. However, by writing about a narrator with these thoughts regarding writing about his father, Nam creates a unique reflection on what it is like for contemporary Vietnamese-American writers to simultaneously attempt to honor the past and also feel minimized to one topic. B4.

Works Cited

Kim, Daniel Y. and Viet Thanh Nguyen. “The Literature of the Korean and Vietnam Wars.” The Cambridge Companion to Asian American Literature, edited by Crystal Parikh and Daniel Y. Kim, Cambridge University Press, 2015, pp. 66 – 67.

Le, Nam. “Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice.” The Boat, Knopf, 2008, pp. 3 – 28.

One thought on “Generational Understanding Versus Exploitation When Writing About the Vietnam War

  1. Your analysis of the roles of Vietnamese literature and the metaphor of Nam’s leg in “Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice” by Name Le are spot on. The contrasting roles of ethnic literature (strengthening the memory of a community’s past and minimizing the writer’s influence) are accurately described and are informative as is the metaphorical pain Nam feels in his leg and how it connects to his father’s days in the war. I was wondering, however, how these examples of close reading challenge or reframe your interpretation of Asian American literature. Do these observations highlight the complexity of ethnic literature? How multilayered it is? You note how Nam’s experience is a “unique reflection” because he is simultaneously aware of the restrictions imposed on him yet embraces the past of his father that he avoided for so long. Thus, how does this reflection connect to your views on Asian American literature? Does it make you believe that other Asian American authors can do something similar? If so, what makes this significant?

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