The year 2010 marked a turning point for Vietnamese American literature. Monique Truong’s Bitter in the Mouth, Andrew Lam’s East Eats West, and Linh Dinh’s Love Like Hate, all published that year, are provocative texts that push the boundaries set by many mainstream reviewers for refugee and Asian American narratives. These works are not centered on the Việt Nam war and do not explore mother-daughter relations. They push Asian Americanists to think, to use Kandice Chuh’s term, “otherwise,” but not in ways that can be neatly read as narratives of resistance or accommodation alone: Monique Truong refuses to frame her narrator in term of her ethnic identity, Linh Dinh does not attempt to retrieve a “good and strong” culture of origin or hide the “dirty laundry” of “the” community, and Andrew Lam is more interested in examining Asian influences in the U.S. than critiquing American empire or racism. Yet all three articulate new versions of home and identity.
“It seems only fitting, 50 years after the publication of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’” writes Roy Hoffman, “that a Vietnamese-born author who came of age in the United States has written a Southern novel with an Asian-American protagonist who likes to cite Harper Lee.” Monique Truong’s novel is indeed set in the town of Boiling Springs, North Carolina, in the 1970s and 1980s. Bitter in the Mouth goes out of its way to mask the ethnic marker of its female protagonist, and the exploration of what is not revealed lies at the heart of the novel. The narrative focuses on an internal difference called synaesthesia, a rare condition whereby stimulation of one sense triggers sensation of another. In this particular case, the narrator associates words with the tastes of foods commonly available in the South during that period—canned green beans, meat loaf, chocolate milk, RC Cola—foods neither tasty, comforting, nor healthy.
The narrator Linda lives with her strict and distant mother DeAnne and her abrupt grandmother Iris. The vital element of her world, the one that sustains her inner life, is her intense relationships with her great-uncle “Baby Harper” and her girlfriend Kelly, both of them outcasts of their own.
The narrator introduces herself as follows: “I’ll tell you the easy things first. I’ll use simple sentences. So factual and flat, these statements will land in between us like playing cards on a table: My name is Linda Hammerick…” (4). Soon after, she states that “the only way to sort out the truth is to pick up the cards again, slowly, examining each one” (5), foreshadowing the remainder of the narrative and its many layers of secrets. What the narrator and the reader see is not what is actually presented. The façade of Linda, brilliant Yale law student, is dismantled slowly throughout the narrative. Some walls fall slowly, while others crumble at once, at the risk of disturbing the cadence of the narration itself: “What I know about you, little girl, would break you in two” (12), slips grandmother Iris the day before she dies. What grandmother Iris thinks would break Linda in two has something to do with Linda’s first memory, one that she keeps secret, naming a word and a taste. Of the two, only the taste is revealed to readers: “There was something bitter in the mouth, and there was the word that triggered it…It was bitter in the way that greens that were good for us were often bitter. Or in the way that simmering resentment was bitter” (15). The word itself is never mentioned and its absence stands for the silence kept by those who are “different” in order to function among others who are not. Breaking the silence as a form of empowerment is not here an option. The silencing of the first word Linda remembers is crucial to the novel and points to complex underlying forces that shape the lives of those who are different from others. In this case, it is intertwined with ruptured history, forgetting as well as a strong sense of distrust toward readers themselves.
The readers are guided to ponder the mystery of the first word Linda remembers when her second memory is revealed. It is that of a trailer home on fire and the crunching sound of footsteps on gravel. Who is it that carried her away from the fire and put her at safe distance? “Whoever carried me out, his or her face was blank to me. Whoever stayed inside, by force or by choice, became strangers to me,” she writes. The words “by force or by choice” put doubt about the cause of death of her biological parents. Could the father have forced the mother to stay inside the trailer and returned to die with her, not trusting her or himself to provide for the child and giving her instead to a former love? The narrator shares this: “The last word that this man or this woman had said to me was the only thing that remained, as a taste of bitter in my mouth” (280). If this “last word” is in fact Linda’ first memory, what could this word have been? Could it have been her own name? Or could it have been a gentle command in another language to not run back in the fire?
The novel ends with the following: “We all need a story of where we came from and how we got here. Otherwise, how could we ever put down our tender roots and stay” (282). In a book filled with clues to reconstruct who Linda is after all, it could very well be that the last word of the novel, “stay,” which in Vietnamese translates as “ở lại” or “ở lại đây,” is a clue to Linda’s first memory. The decision to stay or not to stay resonates with refugees who left their homeland as a matter of life and death. It also points to the enormous sacrifices they, but also immigrants, make on behalf of the children. “We gave you life, we said to our children. We saved your life, we said to the children of other people whom we took into our homes” (265), the narrator of the novel tells us. Linda keeps this observation at bay, however. She remains on the fine line between knowing and not knowing, sensing and evading. “I had thought, in between our sips of bourbon, that she could be making this all up. I decided it didn’t matter. At least it was a story” (282), she says. Unlike Binh in TheBook of Salt, Linda does not lie or manipulate the truth. She does not tell the full story because of gaps in her memory and because it is not told to her until the very end. And even then, she is not certain her story is true or not, or only partially revealed for reasons she ignores or had not had the time yet to process. Those who are left around her may not also know themselves the full story. She leaves readers with the following observation: “All children learned to adapt and thrive, or they died. Their first lessons of survival were learned within the home” (265). In this scenario, home is where early memories associated with language and food develop.
Bitter in the Mouth is a story of survival intertwined with a subtle critique of readers’ expectations. The last “byte” of the novel is disorienting, leaving one simultaneously full yet hungry. The weight of the parents’ sacrifices cannot be clearly located. The novel is sprinkled with clues like the nickname given to the protagonist by her grandmother (“little canary”) or a comment made by a hairdresser in regard to a so-called Chinese hairdo. The decision to hide the narrator’ ethnic identity until the very end, as awkward as it may be, speaks of the difficulty to represent ethnic differences. For Vietnamese American writers, it is difficult to do so without giving in to a general public’s demand for a resolution of the Vietnam War or to what David Palumbo Liu calls minority discourses. In an interview with Michael Silverblatt, Truong says that she refuses to believe that ethnic subjects can only be represented as “the sum or mirror of someone’s else hatred.” By focusing on a difference that cannot be seen and can be hidden by choice, Truong wishes to make visible the complex inner life of the narrator. Free from apparent and immediate ethnic markers, layers of experiences and reflection emerge. Bitter in the Mouth stands in this light as an ambivalent invitation to readers of all backgrounds to identify with the protagonist’s daily life: her intense friendship with her girlfriend, her love for her uncle, her glimpse of North Carolina history and the shock of sexual assault without the veil of predetermined racist judgments and expectations of those who read ethnic literature only in term of resistance or accommodation.
In contrast to Bitter in the Mouth, Linh Dinh’s Love Like Hate is blunt and offers a relentless critique of Vietnamese culture. The narrative spans the period from the 1950s to the present and examines closely the dysfunctionalities of globalization in Việt Nam, with its history of poverty, colonialism, American war, communist rules, and mass migration abroad. All of the novel’s characters have their own logic of survival, tragic figures born in a world where pragmatism overrides sentimentality, where the strong eat the weak. Sexual perversion, greed, and the harshness of survival are the subjects of Dinh’s work, and he tackles them with the sensibility of a poet. What emerges from this strong narrative are the failings and failures of those on the margins, those whose lives have been damaged by war, communism and the lure of the American dream. Out of these stories surface, as through a magnified glass, the pragmatic absurdity of the mundane.
When, for example, Kim Lan is eleven and caught trying her stepmother’s lipstick, the woman forces her “to strip and kneel in the courtyard” naked, her arms stretched out “for the neighbors to see” (50). The world of the characters in Love Like Hate is inescapably small, while their aspirations to material success are unrealistically large. The women in particular in the novel are the driving forces behind survival stratagems (at work, or on the black market, or at home controlling daughters), while the men hold them back with affairs, neglect, violence, gambling, alcohol, and laziness—when they are not locked away in reeducation camps. Chapter titles such as “Assets,” “A Frenchman and Public Nudity,” ““The Dumpster of History,” “Wafts of Decay,” “Primates,” “A Tight Posse,” and “ A Drunk Biddy” set the tone for endless circles of abuses, self-destruction, and despair.
The end of the novel is chilling to say the least. Of Kim Lan’s daughter, Dinh writes:
They had spent three days together without even knowing each other’s name. It did not matter to Hoa. All she cared to remember from the experience was one magnificent view from a balcony high up in the sky. From there she could see the future. She was the future. Now that she had money, she could check into a hotel on Pham Ngu Lao Street. That very night she went out to make more money. The next day Hoa turned eighteen (238).
Groomed to become a Viet Kieu’s wife against her will, Hoa escapes but ends up sleeping with a stranger. Her agency, while it exists, will likely to entrap her in an infernal cycle of detachment where people are harsh toward one another and self-destruct. What deeply interests Dinh is not as much the causes of social ills in Việt Nam but the close examination of the aberrations that emerge out of pre-colonial society, colonialism, war and globalization, then tend to be masked by tourism, first generation Vietnamese American nostalgia, and American identity politics. He does not shy away from examining the so-called dirty laundry of Vietnamese and Vietnamese American culture but exposes in neon light the seemingly irreparable voids created by what he sees to be the cruelty, greed, and selfishness of survivors.
Very different from Bitter in the Mouth and Love like Hate in style, subject matter, and approach is Andrew Lam’s East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres. Lam’s gaze is directed toward the more positive and unexpected outcomes of globalization, and what he finds to be interesting spaces and moments born at the confluence of Asian and American cultures. He defines Vietnamese American identity not in terms of loss but in term of “bona fide” cosmopolitism.
The twenty-one essays of the collection take on the task of representing the culture Lam belongs to and witnesses: the Vietnamese American experience, the hybridization of what he calls Eastern and Western cultures, and what is happening culturally in present-day Asia. In one of the first essays, titled “From Rice Fields to Microchips: The Vietnamese Story in California,” Lam calls for a “move beyond anger and lust for revenge,” and for spaces where “constructive discussion and dialogue” that “spur new political thoughts” (67) can take place. His essays are not characterized by nostalgia, regret, or guilt—as are some of the texts written by first generation Vietnamese American writers—but by the luxury of honesty, curiosity, introspection, optimism, and humor.
Lam paints himself as a Vietnamese American globe-trotter in awe of the economic successes achieved by a certain segment of the Vietnamese American population. “Those sunburnt, scrawny people holding their SOS signs on the crowded boats seen on American television in the late seventies and early eighties have transformed into a vibrant ethnic group in America” (53), he writes in “From Rice Fields to Microchips.” “Once communal and bound by a common sense of geography, we are now part of a global tribe…that thrives and prospers” (3), he adds.
Like Lam’s first book, Perfume Dreams, this collection includes personal essays, like “Ode to the Bay,” about his “First California Moment.” Taking on the role of what Elaine Kim calls a culture guide or translator of culture, Lam explains carefully to a non-Vietnamese American audience the unique conditions of departure from Việt Nam and the enormous weight placed on children to bring entire families out of poverty (One Asian Writer’ Lesson: Love Your Immigrant Parents, Follow Your Bliss). To become a writer in this particular context, he explicates, is an extravagant individualist gesture that goes against parents’ insistence on pragmatism and sacrifice for the collective. Lam pays homage to those who helped him along the way, like the elementary school teacher who took time to teach him English and eased his resettlement in an essay titled “My Teacher, My Friend.” In “Waterloo,” he shares memories of traveling with his family as a teenager. The generational gap between father and his teenage son preoccupied with love in California is both familiar and at odds with normative narratives of immigration. Father and son do not see eye to eye, and the chasm between them is widened by colonization and war.
Unlike Asian American cultural nationalists, Andrew Lam is not invested in criticizing how white Anglo-Saxon culture changed Asian American culture negatively; instead, he marvels at how the East has changed the West over the past two decades. By East, he refers to Vietnamese beliefs, traditions, aspiration and food; Chinese movies; Japanese anime and the Iraq war. By West, he means Northern California and Silicon Valley.
Lam brings to light the contradictions, the ironies, and the new ideas that emerge at the intersection of cultures. What happens when “pho, manga, martial arts, Hong Kong-style action movies, Buddhism, the ethos of hard work and entrepreneurship and strong and abiding communal relationships” become part of California culture, he asks and explores? For Lam, home is marked by an amalgam of contradictions in which one should be heard, and play an active role in transforming the national narrative. Lam’s moving “Letter to A Young Iraqi Refugee to America” builds on his own experience as a refugee; his advice to the young Iraqi refuges is to “learn to live with the contradictions of your new home, ally yourself to this country and let it transform you even as you transform it; tell your story” (131).
War and racism do not take center stage in East Eats West, Love Like Hate, or Bitter in the Mouth. Whether they speak of the local or the global, all three push the boundaries of what a Vietnamese American and an Asian American text is at times, expected to represent. They play a significant role in moving Vietnamese American literature away from the margin. The questions their works raise should not be taken lightly. What is the role of the Vietnamese and Asian American writer today? And what assumptions lie behind this very question? The good news is that more Vietnamese American writers are getting published, more are receiving national attention, and are more free to produce literary texts on their own terms.