Erasing the Past: Vietnamese Identity in “Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice”

Multiple images of Vietnam War

The past is often inescapable. Try as one might, there are certain things that simply cannot be erased. In “The Literature of the Korean and Vietnam Wars,” Daniel Kim and Viet Thanh Nguyen argue that the Vietnam War continues to define Vietnamese Americans in this way. It can be seen through literature, as “most Vietnamese literature continues to be about the war or its consequences” (Kim 67). This is certainly true of both “Aubade with Burning City” and The Gangster We Are All Looking For. These works are a “direct confrontation with the war” (Kim 69), detailing the war and its aftermath on the characters. The stories and authors, therefore, come to be defined by the Vietnam War or its consequences.

In “Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice,” on the other hand, the narrator spends most of the novel trying to distance himself from his past. Using flashbacks, the narrator discusses his hatred for his father, sharing specific examples from childhood to comment on their strained relationship. In doing so he distances himself from his father, simultaneously distancing himself from Vietnam. Kim and Nguyen argue that Nam Le uses this perceived distance in order to “to demonstrate that a Vietnamese author in the United States…does not have to write about Viet Nam” (Kim 67). However, though Le’s story is not explicitly about the Vietnam War, ironically the story is incomplete without it. In one particular scene, the narrator speaks of the time when he “discovered that [his father] had been involved in a massacre” (Le 13). In the three plus pages Le uses to describe this massacre, it is clear that without Vietnam, the story is incomplete. Of course this flashback is used to shed light on the narrator’s childhood and to build the character of the narrator’s father, yet in doing so it is clear that much of the narrator’s relationship with his father and the strain it constantly seems to be under, is a result of the Vietnam War.Father and Son Silhouette

Therefore, though the use of flashbacks can be seen as a tool to create distance between the narrator’s current life and any attachment he has to his Vietnamese ethnicity, flashbacks also function to tie him to this identity. While the narrator works to distance himself from his father for the entirety of the work, in the end, the father’s story still comes to define the son. 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. 66–72.

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

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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.