Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Between Refugee and 'Normalized' Citizen: National Narratives of Exclusion in the Novels of Bich Minh Nguyen

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Between Refugee and 'Normalized' Citizen: National Narratives of Exclusion in the Novels of Bich Minh Nguyen

Article excerpt

This essay traces how novelist Bich Minh Nguyen intertwines questions of identity and national politics in Short Girls (2009) and Pioneer Girl (2014). While Pioneer Girl has received critical attention for its engagement with Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House novels through the eyes of a daughter of Vietnamese imm igrants, this essay asserts that Short Girls, a meditation on precarity in Midwestern immigrant communities after 9/11, exposes Nguyen's insistence on the connection between the local and particular and the national and global. Drawing on a framework of critical regionalism, I argue that Nguyen's novels link her characters' deeply personal navigation of community and identity as Asian Americans in the Midwest, national myths romanticizing a white pioneer past, and political narratives over who belongs and who should be excluded in the post-9/1l era.

Introduction

The first and best way to secure America's homeland is to attack
the enemy where he hides and plans, and we're doing just that.
-- George W. Bush, "Address to the Nation on the Proposed Department
of Homeland Security, June 6, 2002"

In the last 14 months, every level of our government has taken steps
to be better prepared against a terrorist attack. We understand the
nature of the enemy. We understand they hate us because of what we
love. We're doing everything we can to enhance security at our
airports and power plants and border crossings.
-- George W. Bush, "President Bush Signs Homeland Security Act, Nov.
2002"

Your name was brought to our attention because, among other things,
you came to Michigan on a visa from a country where there are groups
that support, advocate, or finance international terrorism. We have no
reason to believe that you are, in any way, associated with terrorist
activities. Nevertheless, you may know something that may be helpful
in our efforts. In fact, it is quite possible that you have
information that may seem irrelevant to you but which may help us to
piece together this puzzle.
-- US Dept. of Justice, "Letter from the U.S. Department of Justice
concerning September 11 terrorist activities, November 26, 2001"
(emphasis in original)

In the months following September 11, 2001, the Bush administration undertook a series of steps aimed at preventing future attacks, including tightening immigration restrictions and targeting Arab American communities by asking some eight thousand "mostly Middle Eastern" men between the ages of eighteen and thirty-three to submit to "voluntary" interviews by the Justice Department about what they might know about terrorist activities (Report on Hate Crimes 36). Despite rhetoric about not targeting Muslims, and letters like the one quoted above ostensibly emphasizing that those targeted for interviews are not under suspicion, the government's actions clearly singled out Muslim communities and created an atmosphere of fear. Language invoking the threat from an "enemy" who "hate[s]" Americans because of "what we love" is everywhere in Bush's speeches and policies from this period and was broadly seen as reinforcing stereotypes about dangerous outsiders and contributing to a rise in hate crimes in the US.

For Dinh Luong, the protagonist's father in Bich Minh Nguyen's novel Short Girls (2009), Bush's rhetoric and actions targeting enemies of the state to be denied entry at the border or rooted out in the homeland is completely disconnected from his own decision to seek citizenship after twenty-eight years in the US. As he sees it, the path from Vietnamese refugee to citizen should be a smooth one that recognizes his potential as an entrepreneur and his decision to leave behind his "refugee status" (3). He sees his path to citizenship entirely within the context of the Vietnamese community, divorced from broader political events, and he celebrates by throwing a party "in the old style, the way all of the Vietnamese families in their town used to gather in the late seventies and eighties. …

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