Op-Ed: Are Refugee Stories Creating a New Stereotype?

Bao H. Nguyen July 20, 2011 Comments Off on Op-Ed: Are Refugee Stories Creating a New Stereotype?
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A personal refugee story by Vietnamese American author Andrew X. Pham.

The most significant introduction I received soon after coming to the United States was to the world of literature.  I was immediately smitten and my eyes could not stop scanning page after page of barely recognizable words.  What little I was able to understand still conjured up amazing sights and sounds I had never experienced before.


I devoured books by the dozens and my appetite for words played a tremendous part in helping me master the English language.  Content, more than authors, determined what I chose to read but before this year, I was never aware of any Vietnamese American (VA) author writing in English. It was not until I started writing my own stories that I wondered about other VA writers out there. I was searching for a role model, another storyteller whom I could learn from and recommend to friends.


What I found, however, were shelves of books reciting tales of the refugee experience.  A cursory look at Vietnamese American literature can give the impression that we must have incredible capacity to remember things as almost all of the books available are in the form of memoirs recalling childhood experiences.


The term “harrowing escape” seemed to be printed on every one of these books, attached to the characters, the authors, or usually both, and almost always used to describe the journey of escaping Vietnam, by boat, to a distant land, almost always the United States.  The overseas voyage and refugee camps are fraught with perils and, once in the U.S., the characters, the authors, or usually both, experience culture shock and struggle to adapt while maintaining traditions but ultimately overcome adversities and work hard to achieve success.  This narrative came up again and again.


After going through a few of these books, I understood why I never ran across these authors in my years of reading. I was not looking for these types of books.  Most VAs I know are not reading these either and if they are not buying these books, who are?


It came to me some time later that these refugee survival stories are just the perfect fodder for what American mainstream media feeds to its consumers.  As it is, to the typical American audience, Vietnam will forever be a “war-torn land” and Vietnamese Americans will forever be “boat people,” those who fled in the months and years immediately following the end of the war, despite there being a significant population of those who arrived much later and not by boats.


I was dismayed.  Are these the only stories that we, as VAs, find worthy to tell of Vietnam? Why is no one writing in other genres like fantasy, mystery, or children’s literature?  Most importantly, are we helping to solidify the annoying stereotypes that stick to our skins like gum to our shoes?  


Some books like “The Storms of Our Lives: A Vietnamese Family’s Boat Journey to Freedom” by Tai Van Nguyen and “The Last Boat Out: Memoir of a Triumphant Vietnamese-American Family” get straight to the matter.  The titles say all you need to know. Many others use the boat people narrative as a backdrop, perhaps to set a familiar scene and tone for readers who are expecting such things, to tell stories of the outsider experience, clashing identities, and cultural reconciliation.  Some examples of these are “Catfish and Mandala” by Andrew X. Pham, “I Love Yous are for White People” by Lac Su, and “Quiet as They Come” by Angie Chau.


But after reading these in succession, I found myself imagining the same sights and sounds as if all the scenes were played out on the same stage with the same props, only with (slightly) different characters. It got old quickly.


There were certainly books by talented authors, like Le Thi Diem Thuy’s “The Gangster We Are All Looking For,” whose prose I enjoyed while a few others left much to be desired. It begs the questions of whether talented VA authors are being turned down by publishers because they refuse to write about the war/refugee experience and whether there are non-authors who get published simply because they are willing to supply the coveted material. I am certain the answer is ‘yes,’ to both.


To be clear, there is definitely a place for these stories as personal testimonies and historical records. Textbooks may tell the facts but they do no justice for the human elements that these novels highlight. For many people, writing and reading about these experiences bring closure to a war that never had a real ending. But I think the market is saturated and any additional books of these types will only diminish the genre’s value while making it harder for other writers who wish to be published for a different kind of story.


Readers, if you want to try something different this summer, there are a few VA authors who have ventured into other realms of writing. Monique Truong’s “The Book of Salt” and Linh Dinh’s “Love Like Hate” both deal with Vietnamese characters outside of the war setting. For the kids (and adults who enjoy children’s books), try Le Uyen Pham’s “Big Sister Little Sister” for a heartfelt tale and beautifully drawn tale.


These authors give me hope that I will one day find my literary idol.

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