A writer writes. He often writes into the dark. but once in a while there's a response, and it turns that solitary gesture into an intimate dialogue. The letter from a college student sent me after she read my book, Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora, is earnest and untempered and well, flattering as hell, not to mention deeply moving...
I invite you to read on:
I am a senior history major at Texas Tech University. We are required to take a history course in AAL (African, Asian or Latin). I chose Modern Vietnam, not sure of what I would be getting into since I’ve only ever heard about it in reference to “that war.” And, to be honest, what I knew of “that war” was from watching “Tour of Duty,” “Rambo” and “Good Morning, Vietnam.” First of all, I love the class and I find myself devouring every word in out text book and anything else I can find. I am ashamed to admit that I knew very little about Vietnam except that there was a war there which ended 5 years before I was born and as I’m sure you know, Americans don’t like to talk about things that cast them in a shameful light. It’s much easier to sweep it under the rug and pretend as if it never existed, so in my public school education, we usually skipped or skimmed over that part of history. A few of my teachers were Vietnam veterans and simply did not want to talk about it.
In our class, we have to write a book review and we were given a list of books to choose from. I was drawn to yours almost immediately. The title caught my eye. I love flowery language and eloquent wording and I’ve been a fan of Asian writing for many years now for that reason. Of the books I’ve read, I’ve found that they were written in the way I think. For the same reason, I enjoy reading Spanish books as well. Anyhow, I started reading your book on the floor of our campus bookstore and I could not put it down! I also lost my home once and was homeless for a short time, my mother and brother lived in a car. We had land and it was taken from us. This happened a few years back and I’ve never completely gotten over it. Our house was burned down. We had to get what we could before we were run off and I had to choose between taking one precious item over another. It was incredibly hard. On page 2, you wrote, “Precious things lost are transmutable.They refuse oblivion. They simply wait to be rendered into testimonies, into stories and songs. When I read the line on p.15 “home is portable if one is commune with one’s soul,” I felt this incredible weight lifted from my chest. I think for the first time, I realized that just because my home is gone and the land I grew up on and loved more than anything is gone, it still remains with me, just waiting for its story to be told. That made me feel so much better.
As I said, I read the entire book and I can’t imagine how hard it must have been. I feel, after learning more about the war, that America did let Vietnam down and I am ashamed that there are people who don’t know freedom because we didn’t do more. I’m sorry you had to lose your home. When I read the part about your grandmother and how each week she tended her late husband’s grave and how it was her only wish to be buried beside him, I was so deeply moved. Such love and devotion! She must have been an amazing woman and leaving him behind must have been agonizing for her. When I read that the Communists were going to raze that cemetery, I was so angry they were disturbing the dead in that way. That is so disgraceful and shameful. I’m so glad that your cousins were able to cremate your grandfather and that in the end she could be beside him after all. For your father too, what an amazing life he lived and how difficult it must have been to not only have to leave the place he loved but to see it fall into the evil grip of Communism. I hope he’s right and that Vietnam will be free again and he is able to see it.
Another part I was so moved by were the refugees in the Whitehead detention center. What happened to them? Why isn’t this more known to the public? I was shocked and overcome with grief to hear that these children are born in this place and never ever know what freedom is like. The father whose son committed self immolation, the boy with the statue of liberty bust tattooed on his chest, I felt so deeply hurt by their suffering and angry and ashamed that people here in America don’t appreciate their freedom more.The first thing I thought was that they deserved freedom more than I do. The man, Lieu, whose letter you included in your book was truly one of the saddest things I have ever read in my life. I wonder what happened to him.
I love your book and I eagerly await anything else you write. I’ve already told my mother and other friends that they MUST read this. Several people I know will be getting this as a Christmas gift this year. I’m really glad you put your story down in words. I’m thankful that you shared it with the world. You have something very special, an amazing history in not one, but two countries. Vietnamese history is very long and withstood so much. America’s history is much shorter in comparison but your history in America is something to be so proud of. Identity in America is anything you want it to be, and that’s one of the more amazing things about this country. You can remake yourself overnight. You can come from nothing and gain everything and you can have everything and lose it all, but at the end of the day, there’s still hope that tomorrow will be better.
Again, I just want to express how much your memoir meant to me. It was an amazing read and I was sad when I reached the last page. You are an amazing writer. Please publish more books!! I never expected to be as enthralled with Vietnamese history as I am. I intend to take more classes on it in Grad School and read more memoirs. Also, Texas Tech is home the Vietnam Archive, the nation’s largest and most comprehensive collection of information about the Vietnam War so I plan to spend more time researching there. I must apologize about the length of this email, I just wanted to tell you how much your book meant to me and I’m often overcome by my own wordiness. Good luck with all your future endeavors! Thank you for taking time out of your busy day to read this!
A related note: I am also someone else's homework apparently, at USC: