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.

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.

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.