Identities in New Book, Asian American Press

Jul 25, 1997 by Lan Cao, in Monkey Bridge
Author Describes Bridging Cultures, Week of July 25, 1997

St. Paul, July 22 – Although the passing of twenty two years should improve perspective, the aftermath of the Vietnam war from the point of view of the Vietnamese Americans has rarely been examined in fiction. A newly published novel, “Monkey Bridge,” by first-time author Lan Cao undertakes that very task in a dramatic and insightful way.

Cao, a 36 year old Vietnamese American woman, is a law professor who lives in Brooklyn, NY. Her novel is drawn from personal experience. It illustrates cultural identity dilemmas, a young woman’s coming of age, the war and its aftermath, and rethinking traditions in the context of a mother/daughter relationship.

The story is told in the voice of daughter Mai Nguyen who, as the author had in real life, escapes Saigon with her mother Thanh shortly before the Communist victory in 1975. Through Mai we learn of their lives before and after the war, their losses and struggles as Mai comes to embrace American ideals while Thanh looks to the traditions and beliefs of the old country. Drama unfolds as Mai seeks to find the truth of the past and settle the mystery of the loss which haunts her mother: what became of Thanh’s father Baba Quan who disappeared just before she escaped on the military flight from Saigon April 30, 1975?

The story touches on universal ‘immigrant story’ themes – reconciling assimilation, cultural collisions, intergenerational conflicts, and guilt. But it has an added dimension of telling the Vietnamese side of the war story, intertwined with some dramatic twists and surprising revelations. As Cao explains it, “I originally wanted to write because I thought: ‘here is one part of the story which hasn’t really been told yet’—the Vietnamese-American experience with this war,” adding an observation “The evolution of stories that came out of this war – it took a long time, by the way for any story to emerge at all . . . but after some time the veterans started to tell their stories, the African American veterans, some women told their stories too, but most of the time the Vietnamese voices were not being heard. My motivation was to add this component to that picture.”

Lan Cao was in St. Paul last week in the first stages of a cross-country publicity tour. Her visit here would include stops at the Pioneer Press, Minnesota Public Radio, plus a public reading at Hungry Mind Bookstore. The next day would be spent in Seattle, WA in similar pursuits, then to San Francisco, on to Los Angeles, etc.

Cao described some of her reasons for writing “Monkey Bridge”: “There are several layers to how I started writing the book. Clearly I have . . . one foot in each culture. I like making bridges and making crossings in a way that allows the person that is making the crossing to emerge whole.”

She went on to give insights about the book’s title and story: “A Monkey Bridge is a kind of bridge that is indigenous to the Mekong region of Vietnam. It is a very slender bridge, the surface is about the size of my forearm. Quite narrow – one bamboo pole, makeshift, tied in a very haphazard way to two poles. Peasants make their crossings throughout the delta on these. . . I wanted to explore making the bridge cross-culturally . . . as far as the war is concerned, I was interested in exploring the undercurrent beneath the surface of the war and the reconstruction and rebuilding that occurs in the aftermath of the war.

“It’s also a mother/daughter story and in that sense it is, I think, universal. Anybody growing up has growing up pains with their parents. The only difference here is that the mother and daughter came from very different experiences, and when they arrived in the States one had a rear-view mirror view of the world, looking backward thinking back to the times of old Vietnam, the old traditions. She, to me, represented the idea of Karma. That is a very deeply rotted sensibility in Asian culture, that one can never ever escape the after-effect or the ripple-effect of any action.

The daughter on the other hand wants to shed all of that. So in that sense it’s a mother/daughter story, it’s an immigrant story, but it’s also a very peculiarly Vietnamese story. Because the daughter Mai wants to shed much of the culture of the old generation, which is what a lot of immigrants do when they come to this country, but she also wants to shed the Vietnam past, primarily because it’s such a bitter topic in the States.

“It’s a mother/daughter story which is very personal in many ways but it also represents some of the bigger issues which is in the process of reconciliation and emerging – going from one border to another, how much does one look back to the past and stay within the confines of that history, and how much can one look to the idea of America . . . of totally pursuing an American dream that one makes by one’s own hands.

“It becomes this tension between how do you reconcile those two seemingly polar opposite ideas. I think it is a common struggle and I think in order to emerge whole one has to be able to at some point struggle and resolve the past and the future: karma versus the American Dream, where everything is possible.

“This book . . . is (about) assimilation and cultural collision and how to resolve that. The reason why it’s very different is because it takes place in the aftermath of the Vietnam war, which means that these particular immigrants, those that came from Vietnam – French Indochina, carried an extra burden – the burden of historical loss. So they not only had to negotiate cultural collision and cultural differences they also had to negotiate the history they brought with them, which was the exact same history that country was trying to forget.”

Cao spoke about difficulties she personally encountered when first coming to the U.S. in 1975. She recalled that some Americans were unsure if the Vietnamese in America weren’t the enemy, even though logically that could not have been possible. And she came to realize that many Americans who had come of age during the Vietnam war years were quite attached to certain ideas and emotions connected to their perception of the Vietnam war. “In many ways their identity emerged out of that period,” she observes, “So if I say ‘this is my experience’ and if it doesn’t seem to synchronize with theirs, they’re not really listening to it.”

In one sense Lan Cao wrote her novel to put things into a truer perspective. She states a hope for readers to find their own story in hers. “Whatever one’s view is,” she says, “one should be willing to step out of one’s framework and just look at another experience – freely. Not see it as an echo of their experience or see it as simply to validate (their experience). Just look at it and see whether or not there’s a way of evolution. So anybody who reads the book who questions or re-questions their views, I think that’s a great thing.”

Like making an uncertain crossing, but emerging whole.