Bridging the Gaps: Inescapable History in Lan Cao's Monkey Bridge

Article excerpt

Myth and Secrecy: Obscuring the Vietnamese Past

Renny Christopher identifies the "bicultural" stance of Vietnamese American writing as its most unique and universal characteristic. Christopher observes that "Vietnamese exile authors, while becoming 'American' insist on remaining Vietnamese at the same time.... The struggle to remain bicultural ... is a theme that runs through most Vietnamese literature" (30). While the theme of cultural adaptation may be a pervasive one, it is nevertheless difficult to negotiate because "bicultural identity and cultural fusion are not easily or painlessly achieved" (30). The Vietnamese refugees in Lan Cao's Monkey Bridge are forced to endure a series of divisions--from their homeland, their families, and their own pasts--which becomes problematic in a country where the refugees act as "reminders of America's most troubled war" (154).

Monkey Bridge conveys the complexity of the Vietnamese refugee experience through the narrative of a mother and daughter attempting to create a new life in the United States. The novel tells the story of Mai, a teenage Vietnamese immigrant, who fled Vietnam a few months before the end of the war. Mai's escape from Vietnam was initially made possible by her father's friendship with an American colonel, Michael McMahon, with whom Mai subsequently lives in the U.S. Eventually, Mai's mother, Thanh, manages to join her, and the majority of the novel focuses on the cultural negotiations Mai and Thanh must undertake in order to make a future in America. One consequence of the move to America is that Thanh attempts a containment of the Vietnamese past, denying Mai access to her family history. While Thanh's secrecy might be understood as an attempt to make her daughter's transition easier, her silence is motivated by the shameful circumstances of her own illegitimate birth. Unable to maintain his rental payments, Baba Quan, the man Thanh believed to be her father, prostituted his wife to his landlord, an act that secured his land and resulted in Thanh's conception. Baba Quan ultimately exacts revenge on the landlord by murdering him, an act that is obscured by Baba Quan's communist sympathies. Once the war begins, Baba Quan becomes a member of the Viet Cong; as a consequence, his village is declared a free-fire zone, and his family is moved away from their ancestral land to a nearby strategic hamlet. However, when Thanh's mother dies, her body must be returned to her home in accordance with Vietnamese ritual, and so Thanh returns to the village, where she is the victim of a napalm attack. In the confusion, Thanh is severely injured and left with permanent scars; more importantly, she loses her mother's body, and her failure to perform the proper burial rites prevents her from mourning her mother's death. The complexity of Thanh's problematic family history and the unresolved nature of her past have a significant impact on her move to the United States and clearly affects her relationship with her daughter. Unable to envision a more promising future for herself and in an effort to distance her child from the disturbing Vietnamese past, Thanh ultimately commits suicide.

Through the mother-daughter relationship at the heart of Monkey Bridge, Cao also examines the implications of the divisive nature of war on the Vietnamese family. The central tension clearly arises from the conflict between Mai, who wishes to gain access to her own Vietnamese past, and Thanh, whose aim is to protect her daughter from her family's shameful history. Cao establishes a particularly intricate web of associations between the loss of ancestral land, the maternal body, and memory in order to illustrate the difficulty of reconciling the Vietnamese past and culture with life as a refugee in America. Cao utilizes specific Vietnamese myths and beliefs in order to explore Mai's familial and cultural heritage, demonstrating how myth is used to obscure historical realities. …