Brent Kliewer - Novel moves between Vietnam and America, Santa Fe, New Mexican (New Mexico)

Feb 18, 2020 by Lan Cao, in Monkey Bridge

No other event in the past 30 years has played a bigger hand in the shaping of this country’s psyche than the Vietnam War.

After World War II, had we denounced the French colonial hold on Vietnam in favor of the country’s independence — after all, at the time Ho Chi Minh cited the Declaration of Independence as a major inspiration — maybe, just maybe, this would have turned out differently. Instead, we pursued an aggressive policy of the only good commie is a dead commie, but came up against a style of guerrilla warfare unbeknownst to our most seasoned military experts, and quite frankly got our butts kicked. Our soldiers returned home to be treated like pariahs, disgraced and held in contempt. Our way of dealing with this humiliating defeat was to ignore the people who fought.

Though our megalomania more than diminished our share of the responsibility for the complete obliteration of a culture, stories from the Vietnamese diaspora — from the Vietnamese perspective and not to be confused with the hammering apologists like Oliver Stone, whose film Heaven and Earth was insufferable — has begun to find expression in the arts.

The most recent and certainly one of the most satisfying novels in this vein is Lan Cao’s Monkey Bridge, an intense exploration of cultural difference and identity, of the universal process of growing-up.

Lan is a professor of international law at Brooklyn University. She left Vietnam, in 1975, just before the withdrawal of U.S. troops. Monkey Bridge is her first novel, and while it technically is a work of fiction, it reads like a memoir.

Moving between past and present, between Vietnam and America, Monkey Bridge is narrated in two parallel, interlocking stories. One is that of Mai Nguyen, a young Vietnamese immigrant who at the tender age of 13 comes to American just before the fall of Saigon in 1975. Mais’s road from Vietnam to America is pitted with the strange juxtapositions of a life in transformation. She sorts out cultural difference, struggling to fit in with the American dream while maintaining her own identity, trying to get over her horrific experiences of the war in the face of Americas amnesia over an experience to wrenching to confront.

“We each had our own way. My mother had hers, I had mine. My philosophy was simply this: if I didn’t see it at night, in nightmares or otherwise, it never happened. I had my routines: constant vigilance, my antidote to the sin of sleeping and the undomesticated world of dreams. I reached for the pills, my kind of comfort — verifiable peace in every hundred-milligram pellet of reliable, synthetic caffeine.”

In the midst of all of this, she must wrestle with her own adolescence – with establishing relationships, learning to love, preparing for college, caring for her widowed mother, Tranh, who has recently suffered a stroke, and attempting to establish contact with her grandfather on her mother’s side, Baba Quan, who mysteriously disappeared on the day he was to be airlifted out of Vietnam and hasn’t been heard from since.

As Mai tries to come to grips with her past through the discovery of her mother’s journals, which she one day finds buried in a drawer. These journals, which Lan Cao italicizes throughout her novel, open a window to another place and time. They tell of her private thoughts, as well as her family’s history in Vietnam — most particularly of her mother, her grandmother and her grandfather — and the secrets told therein.

“Karma is the antithesis of Manifest Destiny, the kind of Manifest Destiny they teach my daughter in her history book about the great American West. Ours is not a nation of pioneers. I truly don’t understand the American preoccupation with cowboys who win and Indians who lose. It must be the American sense of invincibility, like a child’s sense that nothing she does can possibly have real consequences. Our southward expansion we study with sorrow and shame, not with a sense of conquest and pride. Karma is based less on rights and entitlements than on moral duty and obligation, less on celebration of victories than on repentance and atonement.

But my Vietnamese born daughter would never accept this way of thinking. The world to her is a new frontier, clean, pristine, ready to be molded and shaped by any pair of skillful and pioneering hands.”

Through these diaries, Mai is pulled back into Vietnam and into her family toward the revelation of the true identity, and eventual fate, of her grandfather, the novels central secret.

The title refers to the “row of pedestrian overpasses that hovered thirty meters or so above a web of canals. The villagers called them monkey bridges, because the bridge was a thin pole of bamboo no wider than a grown man’s foot, roped together by vines and mangrove roots. A railing was tied to one side, so you could at least hold on to it as you made your way across like a monkey. Only the least fainthearted, the most agile would think about using this unsturdy suspension they call a bridge.”

Lan’s monkey bridge serves as a significant metaphor, one whose distance is measured, not in feet or miles, but in terms of tradition. Lan beautifully evokes a meaning of “exile” far beyond the obvious Little Saigon in Falls Church, Virginia to the rites of marriage, “a special kind of exile, the kind that makes you an exile in your own country.” Exile is leaving everything you know and love at the age of fifteen in order to live, eat, sleep, breathe with strangers you suddenly have to adopt twenty-four hours a day as your family members”


Monkey Bridge is a rich, fascinating, atmospheric novel, one which offers a new perspective on the assimilation experience, as well as an intense evocation of a mother-daughter relationship. It’s also remarkable in its encapsulation of the attendant national strife that gripped this country during and after the war.