Recently, I noticed something peculiar: I heard my voice echoed in the writing of other women. I heard my personal journey, something that I had learned to hold as sacred and singular, in the stories of other Vietnamese American women writers. I don’t know if this is a fleeting moment or the beginning of a wave of narratives from my sisters. But in any case, I hear them, and through their voices I see myself anew.
Thi Bui’s The Best That We Could Do, told her story in vivid drawings with pen and ink starkly outlining the harsh realities of life in war torn Vietnam, and in simple words, expressing the distance between generations and the disconnect of the immigrant experience. It was not easy for me to read her book for it essentially told my story. The passages about families torn, scarred souls and immigrant struggles hit so close to home, so very close to the box that I keep tightly shut. But though the box remains closed, it cannot stop the mind from remembering and the heart from hurting.
Even my son understood that this story was about his mother, and perhaps that acknowledgement was most bittersweet of all. A teenage son, learning more about his mother through the narrative that she shares with thousands of others, is both heartwarming and traumatic. He will understand me better, but he does not yet realize that in doing so, he will become a part of that historical pain. It will be a loss of innocence so slow he won’t know it’s happening.
Julie Yip-William, would say that my son will also have learnt empathy from embracing that shared tragedy–that he will better appreciate the pain and struggles of others. She would’ve said so much more had she not passed away from cancer in 2018. Julie was an attorney and a writer, whose cancer blog is being turned into a memoir. I do not have to read that memoir to know that we shared similar journeys from Vietnam into privileged American lives. I have begun to read her blog, knowing that I must pace myself, for once again, there is a familiarity that rattles me.
“I never felt like I belonged in any of these fine institutions: a poor immigrant girl who wasn’t that smart but was willing to work hard, rubbing elbows with America’s elite.”
Julie was talking about attending Williams College and Harvard Law School. Her words eerily echo my own feelings about being a student at Brown and Harvard; the same insecurities, the same will to succeed.
I do not know why these women and their stories are coming forth now. I also don’t know if there will be more stories like theirs, like mine. But if this is indeed a moment, our moment, no matter how small or fleeting, I will embrace it as a sign that from great adversity comes great strength. In my feeble attempts to tell snippets of my own story, I’ve come to understand that finding one’s voice requires not just determination, but also bravery of spirit to welcome others into such a private space. We Vietnamese American women, born of war and weaned on struggle, not only have persevered, we have blossomed and our stories are worth telling. Thank you, my sisters, for being my voice and reminding me to speak up more for all of us.
PS. I am aware that our Vietnamese American brothers are also having a moment, from Viet Thanh Nguyen to Bao Phi and Ocean Vuong, but their voices don’t fully capture my journey. Their success and their words fill me with pride and we have a certain kinship, but they do not share with me the weight of Vietnamese expectations of daughters and American expectations of mothers. Any Vietnamese family of a certain generation will tell you that boys and girls were treated differently. While my Vietnamese brothers will always have the advantage of their gender, even beyond the confines of their families, I find the strongest affinity with my sisters and their stories of love, loss and perseverance.
For more about Vietnamese American writers, please visit: https://lithub.com/vietnamese-and-vietnamese-american-literature-a-primer-from-viet-thanh-nguyen/
PPS. The Vietnamese Phoung (Phoenix) was often used as an emblem for queens. Richly symbolic it symbolizes grace, pride, and nobility. Unlike the Western phoenix myths, the Phoung are truly immortal. They are not reborn from their own ashes. Like the western phoenix they do however represent longevity, renewal and most importantly hope.