Grocery Shopping: Assimilation through Juxtaposition in The Namesake

I’m going to be honest. I read Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake for class in high school, and my strongest memory of that unit was everyone complaining about having to read it at all. For context, I went to a fairly white and mostly assimilated high school in the suburbs eastern Massachusetts, so you would think that the parallels between our town and the town the Gangulis occupy would have been a bit more obvious than they actually were. But at the time, no one seemed to notice just how present the novel’s depiction of assimilation was directly around us.

Regardless of my high school’s opinion on The Namesake, the novel outlines clear tensions within the Ganguli family’s assimilation to American culture, particurally within the generational gap. Lahiri juxtaposes these generations while speaking of the adaptations Ashoke andboar bristle shaving brushAshima make through the years. She writes that “Ashoke, accustomed to wearing tailor-made pants and shirts all his life, learns to buy ready-made. He trades in fountain pens for ballpoints, Wilkinson blades and his boar-bristled shaving brush for Bic razors brought six to a pack” (Lahiri 65). Lahiri identifiesBic RazorsAshoke’s material habits to fall into one of two opposing categories: American convention and Indian convention. By setting tailor-made clothing, fountain pens, and a shaving brush against ready-made clothes, ballpoints, and Bic razors, Lahiri juxtaposes the material elements of Ashoke’s life. She emphasizes the replacement of Indian lifestyle conventions with American ones, identifying the swapping out of possessions as a marker of the family’s assimilation and adaptation of American life.

In contrast to Lahiri’s description of Ashoke’s switching from Indian conventions to American conventions, she only refers to the American conventions when speaking of Gogol. She writes that “In the supermarket they let Gogol fill the cart with items that he and Sonia, but not they, consume: individually wrapped slices of cheese, mayonnaise, tuna fish, hot dogs. For Gogol’s lunches they stand at the deli to buy cold cuts, and in the mornings Ashima makes sandwiches with bologna or roast beef. At his insistence, she concedes and makes him and American dinner once a week as a treat, Shake ‘n Bake or Hamburger Helper prepared with"american food aisle" at a british grocery storeground lamb” (Lahiri 65). In the lists of American food that she identifies as staples of Gogol’s diet and tastes, Lahiri never compares them to the Indian alternative which they substitute in for. Instead, she presents without alternative the American conventions which Gogol prefers. Lahiri’s description of Gogol and American food directly juxtaposes with Ashoke and American objects, as for Gogol, the younger generation, she does not note on the alternative, which lingers for Ashoke, the elder generation.

Through juxtaposition, Lahiri reflects on the generational perspective between immigrants and their children as they assimilate. With the descriptions of food and materials in their lives, Lahiri suggests the separate nature of assimilation. For an elder generation, American assimilation comes more with a sense of substitution and replacement. However, for the younger generation, being raised in America, gravitate toward American cultural norms and do not experience that sense of replacing their heritage.

Lahiri, Jhumpa. The Namesake. Houghton Mifflin, 2003.

Being a Foreigner is Like a Lifelong Pregnancy: Simile in “The Namesake”

Being away from home for an extended period of time can be difficult. But it’s especially challenging when you have to leave home and move out of the country, the only place you’ve known your whole life, and adapt to an entire new culture and society. This is the exact struggle that Ashima Ganguli experiences in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake. After marrying Ashoke, she leaves her family behind in Calcutta, India and follows her new husband to the city of Boston in America, where Ashoke decides to complete his engineering studies and become a professor. While Ashoke is happy to be seeing a different part of the world, Ashima is constantly racked with homesickness, to the point where she compares the experience of being a foreigner as painful as pregnancy.

It is clear from the onset of the novel that Ashima misses her home. On the very first page of the novel, Ashima attempts to recreate a concoction from India to consume during her pregnancy, which is “a humble approximation of the snack sold for pennies on Calcutta sidewalks and on railway platforms throughout India” (Lahiri 1). However, she notices that, “as usual, there’s something missing” (Lahiri 1). Ashima’s efforts at trying to create a reminder of her homeland in her new home abroad can be seen as a representation of her homesickness because even though she has been living in Boston for a while, something is still out of place.

https://goo.gl/images/Pgxm8X

Throughout the rest of the novel, Ashima’s homesickness is more explicitly stated: she often ponders about the cultural differences between India and America, feels lonely without her family, cries when there are no letters from Calcutta, etc. Prior to her son Gogol being born, Ashima would “spend hours in the apartment, napping, sulking, rereading her same five Bengali novels on the bed” (Lahiri 35). Though life does improve when she has children, Ashima still feels saddened by homesickness. For instance, when the Gangulis move from Boston to a university town outside of the city, Ashima feels distressed all over again from having to leave behind a familiar setting. At the beginning of Chapter 3, her thoughts about this process are highlighted: “For being a foreigner, Ashima is beginning to realize, is a sort of lifelong pregnancy – a perpetual wait, a constant burden, a continuous feeling out of sorts. It is an ongoing responsibility…like pregnancy, being a foreigner, Ashima believes, is something that elicits the same curiosity from strangers, the same combination of pity and respect” (Lahiri 49 – 50). The simile used here exemplifies how being a foreigner is like being pregnant. Ashima uses pregnancy as a comparison to her experiences as a foreigner to allow the reader to understand her emotions in a more familiar manner and to emphasize how difficult and painful it is.

https://goo.gl/images/DkJub3

Ashima’s pain as both a mother and a foreigner are addressed in this passage. Through the usage of similes, Ashima makes it clear how, as an Indian living in America, she constantly has to struggle with the burden of taking care of her status. She always has to combat homesickness, deal with new ways of life, and put up with ignorant people. Much like raising a child, the feeling as a foreigner never leaves Ashima alone, constantly demanding her attention, looking for a cure to the feelings of emptiness and desire for her former life of relative ease and familiarity.

B5

Works Cited

Lahiri, Jhumpa. The Namesake. Houghton Mifflin, 2003.

“I’m afraid I don’t understand. Good name?” Misinterpretations Associated with Names in Jhumpa Lahiri’s, “The Namesake”

The 2003 novel, The Namesake, by Jhumpa Lahiri, is worthy of its title. “Good name,” “pet name,” “legal name,” “nicknames”: the list goes on and on for different, distinct name categories (Lahiri 58). If that sounds confusing to distinguish, you are not alone. Using the proper name given the situation is a central problem that arises in Lahiri’s text. Ashima, Ashoke, and their Bengali relatives recognize the importance of having at least two names. One name is used in private and the other is reserved for the public sphere. However, Mrs. Lapidus, the principal of Gogol’s new school, does not understand this Indian tradition. Her inability to comprehend, or take the time to do so, results in an unique shift in power dynamics, created using dialogue.

Hello, My Name Is

After Ashoke leaves his son at his new elementary school, Gogol expresses his distress about his “parents want[ing him] to have another name in school” (Lahiri 59). Mrs. Lapidus asks the five year old, “And what about you, Gogol? Do you want to be called by another name?” (Lahiri 59). Upon first glance, one may interpret this moment as progressive. Mrs. Lapidus notices Gogol’s unhappiness and actively creates a dialogue with and acknowledges the opinions of the child. Oftentimes, the requests of a kid are not considered because their parents dictate their actions and beliefs. However, the principal is not necessarily sympathetic to Gogol because of his age, but because of her misunderstanding. Mrs. Lapidus’ question to Gogol follows a lengthy conversation with Ashoke. When dropping Gogol off, the question of his name emerges. Given his multiple names:

Mrs. Lapidus studies the registration form. She has not had to go through this confusion with the other two Indian children… ‘There seems to be some confusion, Mr. Ganguli,’ she says. ‘According to these documents, your son’s legal name is Gogol.’

                            ‘That is correct. But please allow me to explain—’

                            ‘That you want us to call him Nikhil.’

                            ‘That is correct.’

                            Mrs. Lapidus nods. ‘The reason being?’

                            ‘That is our wish.’

                            ‘I’m not sure I follow you, Mr. Ganguli…’ (Lahiri 58).

Thus, the praise once given to Mrs. Lapidus for asking Gogol his preference regarding his name should be reconsidered. Her motivations for gaining Gogol’s insight is because she does not understand his father’s rational. She admits to her “confusion” but is not interested in fully understanding or resolving this misunderstanding (Lahiri 58). Dialogue establishes an opportunity for understanding, considering it allows for clarification by questioning back and forth between participants. However, Mrs. Lapidus does not take up this opportunity. Ashoke explains, “That is our wish” to call his son Nikhil in school instead of Gogol (Lahiri 58). Rather than respecting this “wish,” Mrs. Lapidus refers to the boy as Gogol because doing so is easier than being educated about this Indian custom (Lahiri 58). Ashoke attempts to explain his name preference several times. Nevertheless, Mrs. Lapidus “does not understand a word” (Lahiri 59).

Therefore, this conversation becomes a problem because it “others” Ashoke and Ashima. Mrs. Lapidus asks Gogol his preference because he is more American than his parents. She is able to easily comprehend Gogol’s wishes because they are similar to her own. Gogol grew up with only one name, a custom traditionally American. This becomes a problem of intolerance. Mrs. Lapidus would rather practice methods of her convenience instead of educating herself about beliefs different from her own but that are incredibly important to Ashoke and Ashima. Because their “wish” was not respected, upon the birth of their daughter, Ashoke and Ashima have “learned their lesson after Gogol. They’ve learned that schools in America will ignore parents’ instructions and register a child under his pet name” (Lahiri 58, 61). The parents are forced to shift their beliefs in order to fit into a school system and nation different from their home.

Form to fill out with name

Avoidance over education often takes precedence when confusion occurs. It is ironic that Mrs. Lapidus, a principal of a school, would rather ignore the requests of Indian parents than educate herself about their culture and customs. This gives more power to a child than adults because it is easier to go along with the established norm instead of taking time to learn about a new situation. As a result, Ashoke and Ashima are othered because they are not Americans. Beyond that, they are also othered from other Indians considering, Mrs. Lapidus “has not had to go through this confusion with the other two Indian children” (Lahiri 58). This mindset creates categories for discrimination. Mrs. Lapidus struggles to comprehend the different categories the Bengali culture associates with names; yet, she does not hesitate to place Ashoke and Ashima into Americanized boxes. B5.

Works Cited

Lahiri, Jhumpa. The Namesake. Mariner Books, 2003.

 

She Cries, She Cries, She Cries: Repetition and Juxtaposition of Action Verbs in The Namesake 

Homesickness. We all know the feeling. The empty pit in your stomach. The feeling of longing that you just can’t quite put at ease. And then just like that, something familiar comes along and there is a brief sense of relief. In The Namesake, Ashima’s homesickness is almost tangible. However, with the birth of her son, Gogol, there is a short lived relief. Lahiri uses the repetition and juxtaposition of action verbs to show this brief, but positive change.

Figure walking through emptiness.

From her first years in the United States to the birth of her son, all Ashima thinks about is going home. Every day she goes through the same routine, barely moving, barely living. Lahiri’s use of repetition emphasizes the monotony of Ashima’s everyday routine.

“She cries as she feeds him and as she pats him to sleep, and he cries between sleeping and feeding. She cries after the mailman’s visit because there are no letters from Calcutta. She cries when she calls Ashoke at his department and he does not answer” (Lahiri 34).

Not only does the repetition of “cries” make clear how unhappy Ashima is with life in the United States, it also emphasizes how boring and colorless each of her days is. Every activity that Ashima performs takes place within her house and there is no interaction with anyone but the mailman. However, all of this changes once she starts to take agency in her life, due to the birth of her son. In taking care of Gogol, Ashima develops new patterns that make her life much more eventful and the verbs Lahiri uses to describe her actions begin to change too.Mother and child's hands

“She discovers,” “she gives,” “she sings,” “she drinks,” (Lahiri 35).

Just as before, the word “she” is repeated over and over, and yet each time it is accompanied by something new. Though to cry is an action verb, the verbs that accompany “she” here show much more physical movement and, along with that, happiness. In juxtaposition with the words from just a page earlier, it is as though Ashima has finally begun to live her life.

B5.

Works Cited

Lahiri, Jhumpa. The Namesake. Mariner Books, 2003.

Blog Prompt #5: Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake

Blog Post #5 Due: Fri 11/2, 8:30am // Comment #5 Due: Fri 11/2, 11:59pm

Cover of Jhumpa Lahiri's The NamesakeOkay folks, we’re going to switch things up here, so pay attention! : ) Each of you will be responsible for leading a portion of our opening discussion of Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel, The Namesake, on Friday, 11/2. You will use this blog post assignment to help you facilitate that discussion.

First, decide on a central tension, problem, or pattern that you find especially compelling from Chp. 1-3. Then, in this blog post, introduce this tension / problem / pattern and close read a specific literary device in conjunction with it. Remember to pay attention to the key steps in the close reading process.

In class on Friday, you will have 5-8 minutes to facilitate our discussion. You should come prepared to complete steps 1-3 listed below in a thoughtful and engaging manner. This will require that you review your own blog post carefully, develop thought-provoking annotations on the assigned chapters, and make note of at least 2-3 interesting and focused questions to facilitate your portion of the discussion.

(1) Summarize your blog post for the class in an engaging and conversational style (1-2 mins for this step)

(2) Pose a specific question emerging from your post to the class. This question should be one that invites multiple interpretations / close readings centered on either: (a) the scene you analyze in your blog post or (b) a different scene in the novel that you direct us to.

(3) You will also be responsible for helping to facilitate responses from your peers and developing connections between your peer’s responses and your own analysis. This means: (a) asking follow-up questions as necessary or (b) making comments that build on your peers’ responses. (4-6 mins for steps 2-3)

 

Here vs There: Do I want to go back?

B4

Note: I used an Ebook version of The Gangster, so page numbers may be different.

As an adult, looking back onto my childhood home is a very unusual experience. It almost seems like a magical place: I remember is as comfortable, friendly, and accessible, despite not understanding much of it. After my family moved, we’ve never had the chance to go back to that town, which has made it seem all the more illustrious and wonderful in my mind. And in lê thi diem thúy’s The Gangster We Are All Looking For (TG), the narrator’s mother (Ma)  experiences her childhood home in a very similar (albeit far more intense) way.

The mother’s relationship to home is echoed throughout TG, and her struggle to deal with what she has left behind become central parts of the narrative. The book follows a family of Vietnamese refugees who come to America due to the Vietnam war. Ma has a troubled family history, as is stated on page 198 of TG: She was disowned by her parents due to her choice to marry her current husband, the narrator’s father. On page 199, Ma’s struggles with the past come to the forefront, when a single photograph of Ma’s parents arrives on the doorstep of her house: “When the photograph came. Ma and Ba got into a fight. (…)  Ma broke all the dishes. They said they never should’ve been together” (lê 199). Here, Ma struggles to confront her decision to leave that place of comfort. She curses the decision that caused her to leave – her decision to marry Ba (the father) – and also makes an active attempt to make her current place of residence seem less homely by destroying parts of the family’s current place of refuge. This destructive rampage also emphasizes Ma’s discomfort with settling into the consequences of her decisions. She dislikes her current living situation compared to her previous life in her home country, and in that longing to return, makes an attempt to destroy bits of her current place of living that gives off an impression of permanence.

A broken dish

However, many other Vietnamese-American characters do not long towards their home country in the same way that Ma does. Nam, the narrator of Nam Le’s short story The Boat, expresses a distinct level of comfort with being adjacent to yet separate from his childhood home. This is best expressed on page 9 of the story, where Nam imagines himself posing for a senior photo in traditional cultural garb: “I pictured myself standing in a rice paddy, wearing a straw conical hat. Then I pictured my father in the same field, wearing his threadbare fatigues, young and hard-eyed” (Le 9). This scene is structured in such a way as to make evident Nam’s discomfort with his past. His own mental depiction of his wear during this scene, “a straw conical hat” and standing in a rice paddy is ironically stereotypical of Vietnam, a point-for-point depiction of the American image of a Vietnamese rice farmer. And yet his depiction of his father is far more military and distinctly less friendly: “threadbare fatigues” is a clear allusion to army wear, and the combination of a “hard-eyed” gaze with youth implies a difficult life and a hardened exterior. It’s an unfriendly image, and a purposeful comparison between Nam, who spent only his childhood in Vietnam, and his father, who lived there much longer and served in the war. Similar to Ma, Nam experienced degrees of rejection from his parents, but he does not wish to return to his home. He does not hold Vietnam in the same heightened light that Ma does, and seems somewhat uncomfortable in his mental exploration of placing himself in Vietnam next to his father.

This directly contrasts much of TG; In that novel, Ma, the narrator and the family struggle on American soil and experience much of American tradition as unusual and alien, yet Nam appears to associate a return to home with a kind of alien unfriendliness, as shown through the differences between his description and description of his father.

Hot, Easy, and Entertaining: Redefining a Genre by Being Abrasive

What could possibly be easier than writing about yourself? What could be more natural, more relatable, more fascinating? In his short story, “Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice,” Nam Le plays with the expectation of ethnic literature as easy, entertaining writing.

When the story’s main character, Nam, struggles with writer’s block, he reflects on what others have told him about the genre of “ethnic literature.” Nam reflects on the words of a friend to him: “How can you have writer’s block? Just write about Vietnam” (Le 8). This Nam Lesuggestion brings up the outsider expectations of ethnic literature as easy to write, as something natural, something inherent. Adding to this assumption of ethnic literature as an easy genre, Nam also remembers what a writing instructor told him once, that “Ethnic literature’s hot. And important too” (Le 9). The reflection of ethnic literature as “hot” suggests the genre’s easy popularity.

So what makes ethnic literature so easy? What allows it to sit on the shelf as a “hot” genre for an American audience? In part, because it simply does not challenge American ideas of the Vietnam War. It does not assign fault or blame for trauma with America’s involvement in the war; it exists to be unobtrusive to its American readers.

In lê thi diem thúy’s novel The Gangster We Are All Looking For, even as she discusses the trauma which shaped her entire life, the events affecting this trauma are her brother’s death and her separation from her mother. Notably, she never discusses a source of blame for these events, although if causes for either event were to be identified, then the ocean and the chaos of war would be these direct sources. Similarly, Ocean Vuong’s “Aubade with Burning City,” while the poem details the traumatic event of the evacuation from Saigon, the poem does not assign a sense of blame that alienates an American audience. Vuong writes “The radio saying run run run” (Vuong). Vuong’s poem highlights American assistance in the evacuation of Saigon, situating America in the light. Even as lê and Vuong’s works discuss wartime trauma, this trauma never challenges the United States, and therefore is able to exist unchallenged as a piece of genre writing.

However, in his short story, Le refuses to leave America unchallenged. Perhaps due to his residence in Australia, Le directly discusses American actions as the root of trauma in the Vietnam War. In excruciating detail, he discusses the My Lai massacre that his father survived, stating “People were now shouting, ‘No VC no VC,’ but the Americans just frowned and spatMy Lai Massacre and laughed” (Le 16). Le paints Americans as cruel and impassive as they commit inhumane actions, murdering civilians, raping women, and committing mass slaughter. This scene directly challenges American involvement in the war, and in doing so, challenges ethnic literature’s convention of being unabrasive to an American audience.

Despite being seen as an easy genre to add writing to, Le digs deep into the meaning of “ethnic literature.” In discussing such a difficult memory and assigning a sense of blame in it, Le directly combats the idea that ethnic literature is easy and entertaining. He dredges up severe trauma in excruciating detail, proving the difficulty of ethnic literature’s creation.

The Trap of Challenging Expectations of Writing “Ethnic Literature” in “Love and Honor” by Nam Le

“Write what you know / so they say, all I know is I don’t know what to write / or the right way to write it,” is a lyric from the musical, Newsies; but, this mantra could apply just as well to Nam Le’s dilemma in his short story, “Love and Honor.” Daniel Y. Kim and Viet Thanh Nguyen state in their book chapter, “The Literature of the Korean and Vietnam Wars,” that “the Korean War (1950-1953) and the Vietnam War (1960-1975) serve as dominant themes of much Korean American and Vietnamese American writing” (Kim and Nguyen 59). As a Vietnamese Australian, writing about the Vietnam War should be easy for Le, right? However, Le challenges this common theme by presenting the difficulty attached to writing “ethnic literature” (Le 9).

Crumpled paper and a typewriter.

As our Unit III title suggests, “Writing [about] War,” is a prominent topic in Asian American literature. Because of this topic’s prevalence, there is often an expectation that Asian American authors write about this theme. As a result, Asian American authors often feel pressured or obligated “to write about the war or at least find it difficult to get published if they do not write about the war” (Kim and Nguyen 67). This conflict brings up questions of identity and worth, which also connect to Le’s work. The question arises: Are Asian American authors only worthy of praise and notice if they write about war? Le’s narrator in “Love and Honor” challenges this notion by attempting to write other genres. Nam “choose[s] to write about lesbian vampires and Colombian assassins, and Hiroshima orphans—and New York painters with hemorrhoids” instead of the typical war narrative (Le 10). However, it is important to look at the beginning of this sentence and conversation. Coming out of a party, the narrator is talking with his friend about writer’s block. Due to the commonality of writing about the Vietnam War, as Kim and Nguyen mention, his friend suggests an “easy” solution:

You could totally exploit the Vietnamese thing. But instead, you choose to write about lesbian vampires and Colombian assassins, and Hiroshima orphans—and New York painters with hemorrhoids (Le 10).

The use of italics emphasizes the friend’s critique of Le’s choice to stray away from the subject matter expected of Asian American writers. Through “totally,” the friend is suggesting that “exploiting” the trope of writing about the Vietnamese War is an easy task. The italics add a nonchalance to the word. “Totally” becomes a phrase that anyone can use, insinuating a task that anyone can accomplish. The use of italics suggest that writing about war is an easy task for Asian American authors. Because they are Vietnamese, there is an expectation that Vietnamese writers automatically know about this event in depth and have a personal story to share about it. However, this is not always the case. Le looks to avoid this stereotyping by writing about different genres. Because he is looking to get as far away from the expected as possible, Le chooses rather obscure topics, including, “lesbian vampires and Colombian assassins” (Le 10). Yet, Le’s attempt to challenge expectations creates greater ridicule from his friend. Rather than following the norm and writing about war, his friend points out that “instead” Le picks peculiar topics that result in writer’s block and do not have a specific audience. Once again, italics emphasize the friend’s scorn towards Le’s choice. This ridicule, combined with writer’s block and approaching deadlines, causes the narrator to fall into the trap of writing about war. Therefore, even when Le attempts to challenge the norm and reframe the expected narrative, he realizes the reality of his situation. This revelation is not that “ethnic writing” is easy, but rather that it can become a default for producing work under tight pressures and popular opinions. Le tries something new; but, he is not immune to the pressures Asian American writers, and writers in general, are subjected to.

Trap

Le has good intentions when he “rebel[s] against this expectation of telling the ethnic story” (Kim and Nguyen 67). His narrator attempts to broader what is expected of Asian American writers, by selecting topics that are unique and daring for writers in general, not just Asian American ones. Yet, this risk does not reap the expected rewards. Ultimately, thanks to writer’s block, the narrator realizes that “ethnic writing” is not the easy route but an effective route for Asian American writers to take when pressures arise. This encapsulates the difficulty of being an Asian American writer who simultaneously wants to break down stereotypes, and advance the expectations of their capabilities; but, also wants to keep and secure their job. 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, Alfred A. Knopf, 2008, pp. 3 – 28.

 

 

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.

5 Best Books on the Vietnam War | Quintessential ...

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.

Ethnic Lit: A Hot Topic & License to Bore

It’s hot. It’s important. It focuses too much on exotic food. It’s a bore. It’s a mean of exploitation.

All of these phrases are used to describe one thing in Nam Le’s “Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice”: ethnic literature. In this short story, protagonist Nam struggles with reconnecting with his abusive father and with writing & submitting a story in three days. Because Nam and his father are refugees of the Vietnam War, Nam is torn over whether or not he should write a story about his personal experiences and background. While Nam understands the importance of telling a personal story, he does not want to confront his family’s past or fall into the expected category of “ethnic writers.” As Nam mulls over these problems, thoughts of contrasting perspectives and various pieces of advice from literary agents, colleagues, and friends fill his head, highlighting the juxtaposition of ethnic literature’s roles in the story.

Though Nam’s thoughts are fictional, his issues with ethnic literature, identity, and categorization are grounded in reality. Vietnamese American authors, like Nam, have struggled with separating their writings from the Vietnam War. As noted by Daniel Y. Kim and Viet Thanh Nguyen in “The Literature of the Korean and Vietnam Wars,” Vietnamese Americans “express deep ambivalence about writing a literature that is marked so indelibly by war, colonialism, racism, and the experiences of being exiles, refugees, and immigrants…Vietnamese Americans tend to be visible so long as they speak of [the war] and invisible when they speak of other matters” (Kim & Nguyen 66 – 67). Thus, Vietnamese American writers find it difficult to assert their own independence in the writing world since most people expect (and perhaps wish) for their pieces to be about their Vietnamese backgrounds and experiences with the war and refugee crisis that followed.

https://goo.gl/images/85TMSp

The categorization of Vietnamese American authors as a race of people whose works are only worthy if they write about the war creates an identity that Nam greatly dislikes. This racial categorization is represented in the story when two literary agents talk to Nam: “‘You have to ask yourself, what makes me stand out?’ She tagteamed to her colleague, who answered slowly as through intoning a mantra, ‘Your background and life experience‘” (Le 9). The fact that the words “background” and “life experience” are italicized demonstrates how much these terms stand out to Nam and how the two literary agents like to emphasize them. Additionally, the choice to use the word “mantra” implies how often the literary agents have pitched this idea to potential ethnic writers, highlighting the racial categorization present in Le’s story.

https://goo.gl/images/8JJ1tA

But not all of the people in Nam’s life implore him to focus on his racial identity when writing. A drunk friend rants about how “it’s a license to bore” (Le 9) because people of a certain culture, ethnicity, nationality, etc. are constantly writing about their own background, creating predictable stories filled with characters who are “always flat, generic” (Le 9). Although the very same friend later encourages Nam to “totally exploit the Vietnamese thing” (Le 10), his argument on categorization and predictability bring attention to the juxtaposition of ethnic literature. The comparing and contrasting of the perspectives, pros, and cons of ethnic literature help paint a larger picture: we are able to see how ethnic literature is important because it helps shed light on the experiences of minority communities but at the same time, puts ethnic people in a box of assumptions, such as Vietnamese Americans being expected to write about the Vietnam War. Thus, the juxtaposition of ethnic literature highlights the assumptions that Vietnamese American writers must combat and makes us readers take into consideration how a person’s culture, race, or nationality does not automatically guarantee the production of a story based on these factors.

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.