[Applestein-Sweren Contest] Indochina to Vietnam: A (re-telling) search for identity through narratives

We are raised and familiarized ourselves with the narratives we are told, given and taught. So when those narratives are challenged, we are confused and forced to step out of our comfort zone. Or at least that what happened to me in my high school U.S History class where I first experienced an identity crisis at sixteen; that was the first time I heard stories from the “other side of the battlefield.” The narratives that I was used to were contradicted, denied and even persecuted by the textbooks of the American education. I was raised with the stories of my grandparents as proud Vietnamese fighting for the country’s independence. My American friend was accustomed to the stories of her grandparents as proud Americans fighting for democracy in a Communist-infected land. For the Americans, my grandfather must have been a sneaky and evil Vietcong but for my family, he was a protector of peace, a thoughtful husband and a caring father.

From that moment onwards, a question lingers in my mind as I slowly mature: whose narratives are we talking about when we look at History? During the course of my academic studies, this personal question (unbeknownst to me) has become the driving force behind my research papers, my interests and eventually to this collection. These narratives that I have chosen for this collection are often hidden by History (with the capital H) as they represent the untold, unseen and untouched part of a large and abstract concept. I build this collection with the desire that these authors can help me discover the identity of the land that nurtured my childhood and pivoted me into the person I am today.

The occupation of French colonialism and American military intervention were the ones that solidified the country as a contingent political and cultural entity. Along with those atrocities emerged identity confusion and internal struggles of people who share two or even three national identities, a lot of whom become authors to channel their self-search through fictions, autobiographies, memoires which I have (unconsciously) come to love and collect. Some of the books I bought in second-hand bookstores for recreational reading, some I ordered online out of curiosity or used for my research papers, and some were given to me as gifts. Each narrative is a precious addition to my life-long learning journey.

Kim, Thúy. Ru. Vintage Canada Publisher, 2009.
Upon learning about the refugee crisis of Syria and of the Rohingya people, these events instantly remind me of the Vietnamese boat people. Ru by Kim Thuy and The Refugees by Nguyen Viet Thanh are some of the rare specimens that give the displaced people a chance to tell their stories.

The majority of the books are written by Vietnamese descendant authors who are refugees and immigrants coming to France and the US after the Indochinese War and the Vietnam War. They use the beautiful language of poetry and powerful narratives to encapsulate the various spectrum of their adversaries as refugees and immigrants. Inspired by their own life, these narratives are personal and often times heart-breaking. Despite sharing a common theme, all these narratives are yet so different, they reflect and raise new questions for me every time I read or re-read them. The desire of wanting to belong and the dilemma of supporting the “enemy” country while still having to keep your roots are just wonderfully expressed in Nothing Ever Dies (Viet Thanh Nguyen). Or the question that how can one remember a country which they don’t even know, speaks volume to second-generation immigrant Mia in Listen, slowly (Lai Thanhha), as Vietnam in her mind is a place of fairytale in her bed-time stories. Indochina and Vietnam are portrayed as both a place of happiness and a reminder of pain and sufferings.


Lê, Minh Khuê. Những Ngôi Sao Xa Xôi (Faraway stars). Short story.
The story is recently republished with a new cover and a personal letter from the author. I can’t wait to go back to Vietnam so that I can purchase it. Having said that, my copy from middle school is still of utmost importance to me.

In the progress of acquiring and reading these works, I am also fascinated to realize that I am living in a post-colonial society where it is possible for me to get the necessary tools (language, travels, literature, etc.) to explore the euphony of cultural integration. I am not a refugee nor an immigrant; therefore, I have no right to talk about anyone’s experience. However, the psychological stress of being “a stranger” is something I am used to and these narratives, that I include in the collection, help me reflect a lot of those thoughts. I am grateful to be able to read and learn about these narratives since I think a lot of them aren’t or won’t be included in the big History we tell our children.

Nguyen, Thanh Viet. The Sympathizer. Grove Press, 2015.

As I move on with my life, I want to remind myself to always be critical of the stories that I am told. There is no right or one way to tell History. History is often looked as a collective: an event, a movement or a war. Rarely do we consider the individual narrative of people who actually live through those circumstances despite their experience can shed light on the multifaceted layers and contribute greatly to our understanding.

Vuong, Ocean. Night Sky with Exit Wounds. Copper Canyon Press, 2016.

*  This post is an exercept from my personal essay for Goucher Applestein-Sweren Book Collecting Contest. The contest allows me to tell my story through the personal narratives of these authors that helps me understand the different nuances of history.

Author: Uyen Nguyen, uyngu001@goucher.edu, Goucher College Class of 22′