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Celebrating the Lunar New Year: Books About the Vietnamese Diaspora

2014 January 31
by Alegria Barclay
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photo by flickr user kennymatic

Chúc Mừng Năm Mới!  Or Happy Lunar New Year!  Today marks the beginning of Tết —the most important Vietnamese holiday of the year.  As the child of a Vietnamese mother and an American father, I have fond memories of this time of year.  The red envelopes full of money, the bustle of families coming together, the sticky sweet smell of incense, heaps of steaming food, all accompanied by the sound of fireworks.  Growing up mixed race, it was one of the few times a year where I got a glimpse of my mother’s culture and the lives she and my extended family once lived before the Vietnam War made refugees and immigrants of them all.  As such, Tet sometimes seemed to be both a celebration of things past as well as the hope of things better to come.  Both buoyant and bittersweet, the holiday is symbolic of the ways in which immigrant communities across America weave the old in with the new creating patterns inspired by tales of survival, loss, and the constant dreams of a better life.

As I thought about which books to include in this post, I realized I wanted to highlight books that spoke to this balance of past and present, of love and loss, of hope and despair.  All the books below explore the Vietnamese immigrant experience and will hopefully help readers get a glimpse into the lives of the people in this community.

inside_out_back_againFor younger teens and tweens, two novels in verse that complement each other beautifully are Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai and All the Broken Pieces by Ann E. Burg.   Inside Out and Back Again, a National Book Award Winner, follows ten-year-old Hà  as she and her family flee from Vietnam after Saigon falls and find themselves in Alabama.  The novel unfolds in a series of vignettes that capture the beauty of Vietnam, the utter foreignness of America, and the moments of beauty in between.

Ann E. Burg’s All the Broken Pieces  (2010 Best Book for Young Adults) recounts the life of a refugee child, in this case a 12-year-old mixed race boy named Matt who after being airlifted out of Vietnam is adopted by an loving American family.  His memories of war haunt him as they do Hà  in Inside Out and Back Again, although Matt is more alone in his grief as his Vietnamese mother and brother were left behind.  He must grapple with both the loss of his family , as well as the challenges of fitting into a world that is at times hostile to his presence.  The combination of minimalist prose, strong imagery, and a compelling main character makes this a wonderful read.

vietnamericaFor older teens and adults, there are obviously many books that deal with the Vietnam War and its aftermath.  In deciding which ones to review, I opted for three books that approach the topic from a unique standpoint, whether it be distinctive style, format, or voice.  I’ll start with GB Tran’s excellent memoir Vietnamerica.  This graphic novel explores the consequences of war and   its effect on family, identity and  memory. GB Tran was born a year after the war ended and as the youngest child had little understanding of what his parents and older siblings left behind.  The death of two of his grandparents  is a catalyst for his own transformation as he begins to delve deep into the memories and generational stories of his family.  His journey back in time plays out in vivid and unusual images that underscore the power of his narration.

Kim Thúy ’s Ru is neither poetry nor prose, memoir nor fiction,  it transcends both genre and form and is

quite simply an remarkably moving and exquisitely written account of one Vietnamese woman’s struggle  to make meaning of her past and present, while building a future for her family.  Although, the book centers on common occurrences in the immigrant experience, the language transports us into each jewel of a memory providing new insights.  A beautiful book on the power of love and the possibility of renewal.

catfish_and_mandalaI’ll end with my arguably my favorite memoir ever written, Andrew X. Pham’s Catfish and Mandala.  It is the story of Pham’s year-long bicycle trip throughout the world after his sister’s suicide.  His  journey  eventually takes him back to  Vietnam, a country he fled when he was 10.    Although the book can be read  in many different ways, I was drawn to Pham’s depiction of his fragmented identity and the ways in which the immigrant experience makes it difficult to define not only oneself but also what one considers to be home.

Although many of the books featured here deal with heavy topics, they all in their own way illuminate some of the aspects of Vietnamese culture that I find most beautiful and pay tribute to the struggles and universality of the immigrant experience.  I hope you enjoy  reading them as much as I did!

-Alegria Barclay, currently reading Hero by Alethea Kontis

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