Colors and Haze: Liminal Space in The Gangster We Are All Looking For

There is something inherently disorienting to travel, regardless of the reason. Even within driving the eight hours from my hometown to school, everything seems to exist in a hazy, liminal space, time marked only by occasional stops at a gas station for snacks. For the narrator of lê thi diem thúy’s novel The Gangster We Are All Looking For, this disorientation is only compounded by the reason for her movement: her status as a refugee from the Vietnam War.

liminal space: a silhouette of a figure swinging on a trapeze in the clouds

The Gangster We Are All Looking For opens with the description of physical locations. lê writes “Linda Vista, with its rows of yellow houses, is where we eventually washed to shore. Before Linda Vista, we lived in the Green Apartment on Thirtieth and Adams, in Normal Heights. Before the Green Apartment, we lived in the Red Apartment on Forty-ninth and Orange” (lê 3). lê charts the movement between homes, each represented by a color. a variety of houses, brightly coloredBy passing rapidly through colors, lê creates a flickering, unstable effect, charting themovement between yellow to green to red and orange. The selection of specifically yellow, green, and red evokes the image of a stoplight, a marker relating to a physical travel on the road. By passing quickly between colors relating to transit, lê connects the imagery of the houses to the idea of movement. The inconstancy of color establishes an inconstancy of location, and the quick shifts between these descriptions creates an immediate effect of disorientation in displacement.

The novel’s initial feel of displacement is exacerbated by the narrator’s description of flying on an airplane, leaving a refugee camp and traveling to America. She describes the flight, stating “Holding onto one another, we moved through clouds, ghost vapors, time zones” (lê 4). lê once again charts movement and transit. This time, she notes the passage not between colors, but through hazier constructs: “clouds, ghost vapors, time zones.” The movement through clouds signals a physical haze and a spatial movement, while moving through ghost vapors suggests a more metaphysical movement.view out an airplane windowThe word “ghost” has a context of an echo or remainder of the past; Merriam-Webster defines it to mean “a disembodied soul” (“ghost”). In moving through “ghost vapors,” the narrator moves through a disembodied past. In addition to moving through physical and metaphysical markers, the narrator also passes through “time zones,” creating a sense of disorientation by dismantling the linear construct of time. lê’s imagery of the airplane associates the narrator’s movement with the passage through space, memory, and time, a disorienting and hazy experience.

lê’s imagery of movement situates the narrator in both a physical and metaphorical liminal space. She exists in a state of physical threshold, shifting between houses and countries. However, she also exists in a state of metaphorical threshold, her senses affected by the feeling of disorientation that comes from these movements. lê’s depiction of movement as disorienting and liminal suggests that the narrator’s experience as a Vietnamese refugee, as a person with transit forced upon her, reflects both this physical inconstancy and the feeling of unreality.


“ghost.” Merriam-Webster, 2018, Accessed 10 Oct 2018.
lê thi diem thúy. The Gangster We Are All Looking For. Anchor Books, 2004.

Adrift At Sea

When I was younger, I’d get this recurring nightmare of finding myself in the middle of the ocean with no one in sight. And although I don’t remember those nightmares lasting very long, they were always quite terrifying nonetheless; The feeling of helplessness and vulnerability stuck with me for several years, leaving me afraid of the ocean until my early teens.

This fear from a hostile environment is something that Le Thi Diem Thuy very clearly understands, as her use of a ‘drifting’ image in the second paragraph of her novel The Gangsters We Are All Looking For very clearly establishes the same feeling of danger that I’d felt in my young nightmares. Thuy uses this image while describing the movements of the narrator and her family across a wide ocean expanse, as they “floated across the sea, first in the hold of the fishing boat, and then in the hold of a U.S. Navy Ship” (Thuy 3). While this fear of watery depths would translate quite cleanly to many uncertain ocean journeys, Thuy’s word choice accentuates the fear factor: The group has “floated” across the sea adds an element of survival and randomness to the trip, where describing it more directly as a ‘trip’ or ‘travel’ would have diminished that aspect.

A man floats in an ocean.

Furthermore, the same paragraph sees Thuy extending the theme of motion through hostile environments from the sea to the skies, as the narrator describes the family’s travels through airports as well: “We were lifted high over the Pacific Ocean. Holding onto one another, we moved through clouds, ghost vapors, time zomes” (Thuy 4). The theme of motion without direction appears again, this time acting in the opposite way it did during the previous quote. The family’s motion through “clouds, ghost vapors, [and] time zones”, all of which are quite expansive and difficult to move through quickly, creates a sense of blurred motion too quick and too rapid to be safe or controlled. Rather than focus on the movement through a single time zone or cloud, the quote includes all three with little consequence, giving readers a sense of the family’s rapid speed through these sequences.

A person falls down over a cloudy sky

In both situations, however, the family is being protected by a fairly appropriate form of transport: A boat through the water, and a plane through the skies. But while this is true in the physical action of these situations, Thuy takes great care to attempt to remove that safety barrier from the image that readers will create in their own minds. This is accomplished in similar ways during both images: Although Thuy acknowledges the boats later in the line for the sake of clarity, the floating scene mentions “we”, or the family, as the ones who are floating. Note the effect this has: Editing this quote as to say ‘the boat floated across the sea’ does not carry nearly the same level of weight and desperation as ‘we floated across the sea’. The same effect shines through during the image of air travel, but even more strongly so. Thuy writes, “we were lifted high over the Pacific ocean. Holding on to one another…” (Thuy 4). The careful removal of the airplane in these lines loosens the barrier between the narrator’s family and a very, very long fall. Without the plane to protect them, Thuy implies the family is forced to hold onto one another in order to keep from dropping off one by one, and that they are being “lifted high over the Pacific ocean” once again by a force not entirely within their control (Thuy 4). Using these images to disrupt the barriers to safety for travel across long and hostile environments, Thuy makes these travel far more terrifying than modern modes of transportation normally allow them to be.


Works Cited

Lê, Thi Diem Thúy. The Gangster We Are All Looking For. Anchor Books, 2004.

Going with the Flow: Movement and Water in The Gangster We Are All Looking For

The first time I was away from home for an extended period of time was my freshman year of college. The experience was exhilarating but it was also disorienting and scary. I missed my house, my neighborhood, and most of all, my family.person in the middle of nowhere

I would imagine that others experiences are similar to this. This is why I find the attitude of the narrator in The Gangster We Are All Looking For to be so surprising. Though the narrator has moved from Vietnam to the United States, leaving behind her mother and brother, the tone she uses to describe her journey is almost calm. While there is a sense of disorientation, the use of water imagery makes the tone of the narrator seem carefree or perhaps even apathetic within the first two paragraphs.

As the narrator describes the experience of traveling to the United States from Vietnam, as a refugee no less, her tone is almost peaceful. “We floated across the sea” she states, detailing how she and her father, along with four other men, traveled by multiple ships, planes and cars to reach the United States (le thi diem thuy 3). Nothing about the journey sounds easy and yet le thi diem thuy chooses the word float, a word associated with serenity, to describe the narrator’s journey. “Float” undermines the chaos of the fishing boat, Navy ship, plane, and car the narrator takes to reach the United States, making the journey seem easy and relaxing.

This sense of ease occurs again in the first sentence of the book, as the narrator describes how she and her father “washed to shore” (le thi diem thuy 3). The imagery in this phrase is again one that is care free. There is no control in washing to shore, one just goes along with the flow of the water. And yet that lack of control, inherent in both floating and washing ashore, does suggest disorientation. Both seem aimless, movements without a specific direction. In addition, both are movements that are not necessarily human. That is to say, through this word choice the narrator paints herself as an object more than a person. The allusion to an object floating through the water or washing to shore reinforces the idea that the narrator has no control over where she is going. She simply floats along beside her father, going wherever the water might take them. B3.Person surrounded by ocean

Works Cited

le thi diem thuy. The Gangster We Are All Looking For. Anchor Books, 2004.

“Are We There Yet?”: Exploring Dislocation and Movement in The Gangster We Are All Looking For

The color of the walls in my hometown bedroom are light purple. That’s clear to anyone who enters. But did you notice, or remember, the ticket stub from 2008 sitting on my dresser? I bet not, and that’s okay. You were in my room for two hours, I have been living there my whole life. In The Gangster We Are All Looking For by lê thi diem thúy, the narrator, a nameless girl, struggles with dislocation. lê’s novel follows this girl, her father, and four “uncles” as they become refugees in San Diego after fleeing Vietnam following the war. Their journey is not easy, with no particular final destination. In the opening paragraphs, lê depicts the constant movement this family faces, as seen through “eventually” and “after” (lê 3-4). These particular words and images work together to show the extensive and constant journey this family endures. They struggle to make lasting memories along the way, as seen through the girl’s inability to characterize locations beyond generalizations.


lê begins her novel, “Linda Vista, with its rows of yellow houses, is where we eventually washed to shore” (lê 3). The word “eventually” emphasizes the ongoingness of the narrator’s journey (lê 3). “[E]ventually” suggests that the family has been traveling for an extended period of time before disembarking from their ship. It was only a matter of time before she “eventually washed to shore” (lê 3). The end of this sentence, “washed to shore,” continues the effects of “eventually” (lê 3). Here, lê  suggests that there was no intended destination, Linda Vista just happened to be where their boat arrived. This diction conveys uncertainty; thus, creating a sense of dislocation. The family has been moving for an extended period of time; however, they have no clear idea of where they are going or will “eventually” end up (lê 3). An uncertain fate is a common feeling among Vietnamese refugees. These Vietnamese were forced to suddenly flee their homeland without knowing where they might end up, or how long it will take to get to their new location.

Additionally, the narrator describes leaving the refugee camp in Singapore and going to the airport. Here, she states, “We entered the revolving doors of airports and boarded plane after plane” (lê 4). Once again, lê creates a sense of displacement and movement, considering planes are vehicles which carry someone from place to place. The phrase, “boarded plane after plane” reveals that this was not the family’s first time moving (lê 4). “[A]fter” particularly emphasizes the reoccurrence of movement. This alludes to the fact that there must be more than one plane which the family is getting onto. The narrator must have just been in one place and is now flying on another. As well, the mention of a “revolving door” creates an image of going in circles (lê 4). This family is constantly moving from one place to the next, repeating the same simple actions but in different places. “Revolving” denotes rotating around an axis (lê 4). In this case, the family is physically traveling around the world from Asia to North America.

Revolving Door

Together, these two images display the long, uncertain fate of a Vietnamese refugee. “Eventually” and “after” reveal that the family’s voyage took a long time (lê 3-4). The family “eventually” landed in California, but it was only after several modes of transportation and numerous stops along the way. Directly after the first line, the narrator describes several of these stops. She states, “Before the Green Apartment, we lived in the Red Apartment… and Orange, in East San Diego” (lê 3). This follows her description of Linda Vista’s “yellow houses” mentioned above (lê 3). The narrator characterizes these places simply by color, mentioning “Green.. Red.. and Orange” (lê 3). This is a very basic, general description. Due to her long and constant journeys as a Vietnamese refugee, she has no time to settle down or make memories. Therefore, she describes each place in a way that is easily identifiable but lacks specificity.

What good is a story if it has no substance? While this family has traveled to a lot of places, each place might as well be interchangeable as no lasting memories were formed during their stays. Dislocation creates long-term effects on the narrator. She is forced to relocate somewhere new before fully living in the last place. This sense of constant uncertainty becomes the fate of the Vietnamese refugee. It takes a long time to get to one destination, but soon enough, they will be on to the next. B3.

Works Cited

lê, thi diem thúy. The Gangster We Are All Looking For. First Anchor Books, 2004.