What did the first waves of Vietnamese refugees in America think about themselves? What was their mindset regarding their place in the world? Is it possible to write a coherent literary history of their experience?
The search for answers can take different directions and have different starting points. In my opinion, it isn’t a bad idea to begin with a collection of poetry, essays, memoirs, and fiction entitled Tuyển Tập Thơ Văn 90 Tác Giả Việt Nam Hải Ngoại 1975-1981: Selected Poetry and Prose from Ninety Vietnamese Writers Abroad, 1975-1981 (Missouri City, TX: Văn Hữu, 1982).
The collection was published by Hoàng Ngọc Ẩn, who was born in central Vietnam in 1940, came to Saigon in his youth, and worked in an unspecified capacity at the U.S. Consulate in my native Biên Hòa. Just before turning refugee in 1975, he headed an office of construction and sales (also in Biên Hòa?). His commercial background must have been handy after he settled in the Houston area. He opened several businesses in the next two decades: a couple of periodicals, a bookstore, a recording studio, and a restaurant and night club.
As a refugee, Hoàng Ngọc Ẩn wrote many poems, some of which were adapted to music by Phạm Duy, Lê Uyên Phương, Việt Dzũng, and other songwriters. Arguably the best-known and best-composed song came from Song Ngọc, a Southern native and another refugee to metro Houston. Called Sài Gòn Vĩnh Biệt Tình Ta – Farewell Forever to Saigon Our Love – it was recorded by a number of singers in the diaspora since 1979, including the late Ngọc Lan.
The song (and, of course, the poem) reflects very well the disruptive experience among urban South Vietnamese displaced suddenly from their homeland, and the accompanied grief of permanent loss. Here is the last verse:
Từ ngục tù người viết bài ca
Khiến người đi mắt lệ nhạt nhòa,
Cung điệu buồn chừng như nức nở,
Ôi! Sài Gòn, vĩnh biệt tình ta!
From prison a song you write
Making us in exile teary-eyed,
Weeping is the sorrowful tone,
Oh, farewell forever to Saigon our love.
The finality of disruption is also reflected in the collection under discussion, which puts together a number of poems and short prose pieces from writers in the diaspora, mostly in the U.S. Many contributors to the volume are known or prominent literary and cultural figures in the Republican South, including Mặc Đỗ, Minh Đức Hoài Trinh, Nghiêm Xuân Hồng, Nguyên Sa, Túy Hồng, Võ Phiến, Vũ Khắc Khoan, and Mai Thảo. Interestingly, the last one contributed a poem even though he was much better known for prose than poetry.
Like Mai Thảo, most of the more prominent contributors are deceased by now. But there are also younger or newer writers in the anthology. One is Nguyễn Ngọc Ngạn, now the celebrity MC for the Thúy Nga DVD series. Another is Hồ Văn Xuân Nhi, who later published a youth-oriented magazine and worked as director of a non-profit assisting the resettlement of refugees in immigrants in Little Saigon, Orange County.
Each section is arranged by alphabetical order of authors: Cao Đông Khánh to Xuân Hiến in poetry; Đặng Phùng Quân to Vũ Mộng Hà in prose. Many are the themes and subject matters in this volume, some of which intersect and intertwine closely with one another.
Having looked over the volume not long ago, I wish to highlight three of these themes and categories.
First is place, in that Vietnamese space, geography, and localities figure large in these selections. Echoing the grief over lost Saigon as in the song above, the very first selection of the volume, “Uẩn Tình Kẻ Xa Xứ” – Hidden Love from an Expat – by Cao Đông Khánh, names the city no fewer than four times.
Several specific locations also appear in this poem: Nhà Bè Gia Định, Ngã Tư Bảy Hiền, Đường Xích Đạo, Cư Xá Thanh Đa, Chung Cư Minh Mạng. Suburbs, boulevards, major intersections, apartment complexes: they are among prominent spots in the city which, in the minds of these writers, continues to symbolize the noncommunist Republican ideology and way of life.
Another poem, “Tôi Ao Ước Một Lần” – For Once I Wish – by Linh Linh Ngọc, names Saigon and several other cities in southern Vietnam and many localities in northern Vietnam such as Bắc Lạng, Hải Dương, Hưng Yên, Phủ Lý, and Hanoi.
Named too are three particular spots in Old Hanoi: Phố Hàng Da, Ga Hàng Cỏ, and Ô Cầu Dền – a neighborhood, a train station, and a city gate from precolonial times. I could not establish the identity of this author. But I’d guess that unlike the southern native Cao Đông Khánh, she or (more likely) he was an émigré to the south in 1954.
The invocation of both southern and northern parts of Vietnam suggests the experience of double removal. It is exemplified by a short prose piece called “Người Đàn Bà Xa Lạ” – The Unknown Woman – whose author Phan Lạc Tiếp is easy to identify. A former naval officer, Tiếp had spent several months in San Diego during 1970 for training and reception of a U.S.-made ship for Vietnamization. Five years later, he left falling Saigon in the same ship and, coming full circle, his family ended up resettling in San Diego.
Tiếp’s contribution has to do with his two younger sisters, who were in the north when he left for the south during 1954-1955. To no avail he searched for them in the south during the first year of division, and there was no contact between them for over twenty years. Another four or five years passed after the Fall of Saigon, then in southern California he received a letter postmarked from Hanoi from one of the sisters.
The letter was accompanied by black-and-white photos – the number is more than one but unspecified – and he had to lie down and close his eyes after looking at them. In front of me is the picture of an old and weak and poor woman, writes Tiếp, But she is my sister. His sister has become người đàn bà xa lạ – an unfamiliar or unknown woman. He then read the short letter that briefed him on their lives and concluded with a note about getting permission from the government to visit their hometown and the burial spots of their parents. The memoir ends,
I gave my wife the letter from my sister, and the photos to my children to see. My body felt exhausted. During those restless and stirring moments, I said softly to my family, “This is my sister and your aunt… What can we do to help them now?”
A number of things could be said about this recollection, including the irony that it took the brother’s second removal for the siblings to be in touch with each other. Double removal was enormous in the experience of many refugees and probably the majority of diasporic writers and artists up to 1982. The subject deserves a more thorough scholarly treatment, starting with examples like Linh Linh Ngọc and Phan Lạc Tiếp.
A third category has to do with food and drinks. Cao Đông Khánh’s poem notes cafe đá and ly nước mía – iced coffee and sugarcane drink – the latter made at the famed Bảy Hiền Intersection. Bánh tôm Cổ Ngư, a well known northern shrimp-based cake, is duly noted in the contribution from Linh Linh Ngọc. These and other examples suggest that memories of food and drinks are intimately tied to memories of place. They are further enhanced by the fact that few indigenous ingredients were readily available in the U.S. at the time.
Addictives are also prominent among the poems and prose pieces. In addition to iced coffee are cà phê đắng, khói thuốc, men rượu bốc hơi cay: bitter coffee, cigarette smokes, and liquor with “strong smell and burning taste,” respectively. Strong is consumption of stimulants and depressants in this world of refugees, especially among men. Here, consumption is further imbedded to loss, exile, and separation, among other experiences.
The above are merely a trio of themes, very briefly described but definitely worthy of further exploration. Among other themes are war and reeducation camps and boat people and middle age. Abound are images such as the sea and the jungle. Israel and Africa appear at least once each as parallels to the Vietnamese experiences. Already, a rich and complex world emerges from this collection and awaits discovery and understanding.
The preface to the collection, unsigned but presumably written by Hoàng Ngọc Ẩn, makes note of the hope that the book will be among “the necessary evidence and documents for researchers into our literary history in the future, when writing about the history and development of Vietnamese literature abroad” (emphasis mine). It reflects hope, but also the fear that subsequent generations of Vietnamese in the home country and diaspora may forget about Vietnamese refugees and their literary legacy.
This fear remains alive forty years after the first arrival of refugees to the U.S. There is no literary history written in English about these writers and their works. The vast majority of academic writing on Vietnamese American literature has been about fiction and poetry in English by the 1.5 and second-generations. As far as I know, there are no substantial academic studies about Vietnamese-language productions during the first decade after the Fall of Saigon.
The closest to an exploration of early refugee literature is an article by Nguyễn-Võ Thu Hương in the Journal of Vietnamese Studies about two short stories, one by the South Vietnamese writer Nguyễn Mạnh Côn and the other by the refugee Huỳnh Minh Dũng. This article also makes a rare and laudable effort at connecting the Republican South and the postwar diaspora. For our purposes, however, the latter story wasn’t published until 1996, or a good deal past the first waves of refugees.
But the large lacuna also means that a world of possibilities remains ahead for researchers. No literary history of Vietnamese in the U.S. is possible until Vietnamese productions of 1975 and boat people refugees are studied in earnest. This collection of ninety authors may not be a bad place to commence a search for this not insignificant history.