Vietnamese American Identity in Literature

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Historical Background

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Asian American groups saw the emphasis on civil rights and ethnic awareness that developed in the 1970’s as an opportunity to explore their identities. This opportunity continued into the years after 1975, when Vietnamese refugees began expressing issues as exiles from their homeland. The war in Vietnam had changed much. Not only was it a civil war; it was also a conflict of two imported philosophies (Western liberal capitalism and communism) that crushed much of traditional Vietnamese culture and identity. Issues varied between the generation who fled Vietnam and the subsequent generations born in the United States, but common themes appear in English and in Vietnamese-language literature. Issues include struggles with Marxist ideology traditional beliefs in fate, different views on cultural survival in isolation, the loss of roots, and the conflict between assimilation and maintaining traditions. There are differing perspectives from men and women writers as well.

Since 1953, two distinct traditions influenced later refugee writers. Writers with a background from North Vietnam tended to carry a Communist emphasis on realism and political themes; the majority of Southern refugees, influenced by French and Chinese literatures, tended to have more romantic, individual voices of a personal bent, reflecting struggles with alienation and isolation.

Images typical of postwar literature reflect resettlement and symbols of success in America, changes in status and language, and themes of justification for voluntary exile. Stories recount being refugees, boat people troubled by piracy, rape, starvation, and the difficulties of becoming Americans. American culture is often perceived as mechanical and hectic.

The growth of the Vietnamese American population after the fall of Saigon led to a boom of publications in the 1980’s and 1990’s that exhibit a wealth of Vietnamese experience. These works are addressed to a wide readership. Important works include Tran Van Dinh’s novels and short stories, notably Blue Dragon, White Tiger: A Tet Story (1983), considered a significant exploration of bicultural identity, of white culture’s penetration into Vietnam, and of the conflict between tradition and Communist demands. Nguyen Ngok Ngan’s The Will of Heaven (1982) also explores the end of tradition as characters survive war to become exiles.

The theme of bringing Vietnamese culture to America also is evident in Le Ly Hayslip’s When Heaven and Earth Changed Places (1989) and Nguyen Thi Thu-Lam’s Fallen Leaves (1989) which focus more on life in Vietnam than the assimilation process. Minh Duc Hoai Trinh’s novel This Side, the Other Side (1985) overlays familial conflicts with the political...

(The entire section is 616 words.)