John Marshall, An Immigrant’s Tale: Novel First to Tell The Experiences of Vietnamese in U.S., Seattle Post-Intelligencer
Bookshelves groan under the weight of books written about the Vietnam War. Combat accounts. Histories of diplomacy and decision-making. Memoirs. The war glimpsed through the prism of its crucial personalities. Investigative reports. Examinations of the social upheaval caused by the war. All aspects of the Vietnam War have already been written about and put between the covers of the book, it sometimes seems.
Until now. It suddenly becomes clear that all this coverage of the Vietnam War and its impact has been one-sided, if not myopic. Lan Cao’s “Monkey Bridge” (Viking, 260 pages, $23.95) points out that painful truth, with its fascinating inside look at the experiences of the two million Vietnamese who fled their homeland because of the war, resettled in the United States and built new lives. This powerful and insightful book is a bona fide first both for its author and for American publishing, the initial novel about the war and its aftermath written by a Vietnamese American.
This sort of cultural and historical milestone might weigh heavily on some writers, especially one in an adopted country. But Cao, a 35-year-old associate professor of international law at Brooklyn Law School, faces her first with polish and aplomb.
“My main concern was portraying sensitively an experience that was so raw for many Vietnamese Americans,” Cao said this week in Seattle. “I never expected this would be the book on the topic. There will certainly be other books by other writers.”
Cao, though, is accustomed to setting the example with her accomplishments, from her arrival in the United States in 1975 at age 14, only months before the fall of Saigon (where she lived), through her high school days in suburban Virginia to her studies at the prestigious Mount Holyoke College and Yale Law School.
Mai Nguyen, the young heroine of “Monkey Bridge,” follows a path remarkably similar to her creator’s: not only from the same area of Vietnam to the same area of the States, but also to the same college, and even having the same hairstyle (“the Dorothy Hamill wedge”). This may be the age of memoir in American publishing, but Cao insists that her own experience was only a starting point for the character in what is definitely a novel, not a work of non-fiction.
“I wanted to really push the parameters with what I wrote,” she says. “I wanted to go deep into that area of ambiguity and extremes that immigrants experience – to push to the limit, look at every facet, without being bound by my own life.”
In Cao’s description, the Vietnamese American experience is like that of other immigrants to this country in many ways: the sense of dislocation; the loss of identity; the longing for what’s past; the strangeness of new ways; the inevitable gulf between those of younger generations, who adapt easily to momentous change, and those of older generations, who find that difficult, if not impossible. As Mai’s mother laments, “What should it matter now, this old, century-old way of life, here in the great brand-new?”
But one part of the experience for Vietnamese Americans still remains singular, separating them from other immigrants, the way that they found themselves forever linked with a lost war that Americans would rather forget. Erasing that past, or at least hiding it, became the only way to survive the ambivalence and even hostility from many Americans. Vietnamese immigrants shared this daunting predicament, ironically, with the Americans who had fought in their country and come back to the States, where they also often felt like strangers in a strange land.
As Cao writes, “They too had been trained to decipher in strangers’ eyes the silent fact that they had failed to produce a victory. Vietnam had been their life, and now it must become nothing.”
Cao’s own way of overcoming that past was, as it has been for so many immigrants, education. She submerged herself in her studies and succeeded brilliantly, although she looks back at that period with a battle-weariness born by what she endured from within herself and from others. “It was very tough for me,” Cao emphasizes. “I became convinced that the way out for me was through education – I inherited that from my culture – so I felt under immense pressure. And I had many, many bad experiences with teachers in high school who were racist, sometimes latent racists, sometimes overt.
“There was one teacher I finally confronted, which was very difficult for me to do, and I told him that he was deliberately lowering my grade in math because I was Vietnamese. And he told me that that was because ‘you people take all the easy courses to get good grades above the American students.’ ‘But I’m taking advanced placement English,’ I told him, and he just shrugged his shoulders. I was so shocked – I had expected him to say, ‘Oh my God, I’m sorry, I made a mistake computing your grade – that I brought it up to my counselor right afterward, then the school principal. And they did nothing.”
Cao has gone on to carve a dual career for herself, a mix that satisfies different sides of her personality. Writing is her “passion,” solitary work she begins every day before dawn breaks, so that turning on her computer becomes an act that she likens to “approaching an altar.” Teaching provides the satisfactions of group endeavor, of sharing knowledge and helping others learn.
Teaching and its required research has also given the New York City resident the chance to return to Vietnam on two occasions since she left, trips in 1991 and 1996 that gave her the opportunity to visit parts of the country she had never visited and see things she had never seen. That included the “monkey bridges” in the Delta area south of Saigon that had given her the title for her first novel.
She looked up with wonder at these beautiful, but fragile structures that span rivers in Vietnam with a single pole of bamboo for the traveler’s feet and a single pole providing a hand railing, these traditional bridges held together by nothing more than vines and mangrove roots, making them definitely not for the faint of heart. And the writer immediately knew she had the perfect metaphor for the difficult crossing that Vietnamese Americans had to navigate from their old country and their old way of life to the new one ahead.