Academic journal article Southeast Asian Studies

When Memory Speaks: Transnational Remembrances in Vietnam War Literature

Academic journal article Southeast Asian Studies

When Memory Speaks: Transnational Remembrances in Vietnam War Literature

Article excerpt

The conflicting attitudes toward, and the moral dilemmas surrounding, the Vietnam War are recorded extensively in Vietnamese, Vietnamese American, and American histories and literatures. Each side interprets the war from its own partisan perspective, creating a plethora of opinions and well-argued positions on the political and military conflict. The year 2015 marked the 40th anniversary of Vietnam's reunification, and although nearly half a century has elapsed, the Vietnam War remains actual in the socio-political determinants, literary productions, and cultural memories of both Vietnam and the United States. Viet Thanh Nguyen notes, "So much is told about Viet Nam, and so little is understood" (V. T. Nguyen 2006, 13), and Neil L. Jamieson advises the Americans to "learn more about Vietnamese culture and Vietnamese paradigms in order to untangle the muddled debates about our own," because the Vietnam War is an important event that Americans must excogitate in their attempt to understand the Vietnamese and them· selves (Jamieson 1993, x). Discourses on the Vietnam War, in the West and particularly in the American cultural memory, have been criticized for their exclusion of the Vietnamese experience and suffering, and even if the Vietnamese are present in U.S. films and books, they tend to be presented as "shadowy cardboard figures, merely onedimensional stage props for the inner workings of the American psyche" (ibid.). Thus, in order to gain a multidimensional understanding of the war, Edward Miller and Tuong Vu suggest a new critical approach, dubbed "The Vietnamization of Vietnam War Studies" (Miller and Vu 2009, 2) that accentuates "Vietnamese agency and the sociocultural dimensions of the event as lived and experienced by Vietnamese" (ibid., 5). This approach facilitates examinations of how the war exercises perennial effects upon Vietnamese society and its postwar mentality and how it enriches our knowledge about this conflict. In this article, I respond to the appeal made by Miller and Vu above by highlighting several problems occurring in representations of the war in both U.S. and Vietnamese literature in order to challenge or debunk certain misconceptions about the Vietnamese experience. My analysis of Bao Ninh's The Sorrow of War and Dang Thuy Tram's Last Night I Dreamed of Peace will indicate that these two Vietnamese literary texts function to humanize victims and pay due respect to the wounded and the dead on the Vietnamese side, thus challenging the way U.S. and Vietnamese American cultural politics funnel "all of these histories into the single story" that serves a narrow ideological agenda (Nguyen-Vo 2005, 171). The nameless faces and the faceless names of the Vietnamese victims of the war that Bao and Dang lament demand questioning the "narcissistic myths of the war as a US tragedy" (Schwenkel 2009, 39).

Epic Heroism in Vietnamese Literature about the Vietnam War, 1960 to 1975

Prior to considering the two literary texts selected for this article, it behooves readers to understand how war-related trauma and suffering necessarily were treated in Vietnamese literature produced under the guidelines prescribed by the Hanoi government: writers were required "to support the national endeavor by authoring stereotyped works that featured typical characters and themes and that focused on the goals of the collective struggle" (Schafer 2000, 13). If one were to study the wartime corpus of literature without some background knowledge of its historical and political context, one might mistakenly conclude that the Vietnamese did not suffer excessive loss and pain during the war, because the war was romanticized in the literature, as a propagandistic expedient to invigorate the people in their struggle against the enemy (the Americans and anti- communist South Vietnamese troops). Vuong Trl Nhân observes, retrospectively: "'Accentuate the positive, cover up the negative'-this way of thinking has sunk deep into the Vietnamese psyche and silently guides society" (Vuong 2008, 182). …

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