Lan Cao Introduction - Essay

Introduction

Lan Cao Monkey Bridge

Cao is a Vietnamese-American nonfiction writer, novelist, and professor of law.

Monkey Bridge (1997), Cao's first novel, tells the story of a Vietnamese mother and daughter who leave their homeland shortly after the Vietnam War to immigrate to the United States, where they confront a clash of cultures and generations, as well as secrets from their own family's past. Thirteen-year-old Mai arrives in the United States in 1975, followed shortly afterward by her mother, Thanh, and the two settle in an area heavily populated by other Vietnamese outside Washington, D.C., known as "Little Saigon." Mai quickly adjusts to American life, learning English and adopting American social conventions, but she is at once embarrassed and amused by her mother's difficulty assimilating, and feels herself acutely torn between the two worlds. Not long after their arrival, Mai discovers that mystery surrounds her missing father and grandfather, and that her mother is somehow haunted by the past. While Mai is the primary narrator of Monkey Bridge, Cao uses the device of a diary within the text to tell the story of Mai's mother, who records not only her confusion and apprehension about her new country, but also painful details about the family's past. Cao herself immigrated to the United States from Vietnam in 1975 and now teaches international law at Brooklyn Law School. In 1996 she published Everything You Need to Know about Asian-American History with Himilee Novas. With Monkey Bridge, Cao is one of the only Vietnamese-Americans to explore the war—called the "American War" by the Vietnamese—and the ensuing immigrant experience in fiction. Critics have almost unanimously praised Cao's evocation of the Vietnamese landscape and culture as well as her depiction of the simultaneous feelings of alienation and hope experienced by immigrants to the United States. Many reviewers have been less enthusiastic about Cao's narrative structure and plot development, finding her use of two narrators—Mai and her mother in the diary—awkward. Nevertheless, Monkey Bridge is considered an important contribution to both Vietnam War literature and immigrant literature, giving voice to a little-explored part of one of America's most painful historical events.