Long Way from Saigon, Asian Week, The Voice of Asian America

Dec 03, 1997 by Lan Cao, in Monkey Bridge
November 27-December 3, 1997, Hane C. Lee

Since 1990 and Jessica Hagedorn’s brilliant “Dogeaters,” there have been maybe a half dozen first novels by Asian American women widely lauded for their originality, their unique voice, and their promise. But the attention given Lan Cao’s exquisitely melancholic and deeply introspective work “Monkey Bridge” goes even further.

As the first novel of the Vietnam War experience written by a Vietnamese American, the book has not only garnered praise from special-interest segments such as Vietnam War scholars, but also from the popular media, such as People and the New York Times.

But unlike “Dogeaters” – whose sharp-tongued, attitude-laden characters seem to effortlessly traverse the cultural mélange of contemporary Manila – “Monkey Bridge” illuminates a clash of worlds that certain of its characters find ultimately impossible to resolve.

I recently asked Cao how she feels about the mainstream acclaim in a telephone conversation from her office at Brooklyn Law School, where she is a professor of international law.

“Very grateful and very enthusiastic,” she replied. “I am not really someone in publishing. In other words, I write, and this is my novel, of course, but I don’t make a living from writing. So at times I’m not aware that this is a very non-typical experience for a lot of books that get published. You know, you kill yourself getting a book published and then nothing happens to it – it doesn’t get reviewed or anything. This book’s been reviewed [repeatedly], so that’s really been great.”

And how does she feel about the frequent comparisons to Amy Tan in a review published by the online magazine Salon?

“I haven’t seen it,” she admitted with characteristic modesty. “I’m not very Internet-savvy; I’m kind of an idiot in that area, so I’ll have to take your word for it.”

After elaborating on the comparison, Cao responded, “To the extent that one follows any Asian writer, I think of course there will be an attempt to situate the work within the existing literature that precedes [the writer]. I think our work is always seen in the sort of context of what’s existing in Asian American literature . . . . And if that’s the case, I would go all the way back to ‘Obasan,’ or Maxine Hong Kingston’s work.”

Indeed, throughout Cao’s narrative one is reminded of the dreamy, atmospheric quality of Kingston’s groundbreaking novel, The Woman Warrior. In particular, Cao’s evocation of the Trung Sisters, famed Vietnamese warriors, very loosely resembles the legend of Fa Mulan that forms the central refrain for Kingston’s narrative and after whom her book is named. Both stories tell of heroic women who led their countrymen in defending their land from attack by invaders.

But whereas Fa Mulan – who posed as a man in order to join and eventually lead the Chinese imperial army to victory – is a matter of myth, the Trung sisters are actual historical figures. They were the first Vietnamese to lead a rebellion of peasants against the Chinese empire. Among their hand-picked generals were 36 women. Their perfection of the art of guerilla warfare gains an ironic significance in the context of the Vietcong’s defeat of the U.S.-supported South Vietnam government in April 1975; the historic moment that informs Cao’s haunting novel.

“I had always thought that a lot of stuff written about Vietnam was US-centric,” Cao said thoughtfully. “From 1975 to 1980 there was more or less a void because the whole country was trying to forget about the Vietnam War. But once the interest was sparked again – probably by some of the works by veterans who were allowed to express themselves in the ‘80s – the topic became very much an American topic, solely an American topic. So I thought other voices should be added – this very particular voice, a voice of a different sort of experience.”

Cao continued: “Even for those Americans who had fought in the war it took a very, very long time for there to be an atmosphere, a national atmosphere, that would be receptive to that sort of voice. Even for vets who were returning to a country that had sent them to war, they had a very difficult time being heard. So I don’t think it’s a matter of not having people who were able to tell the story, whether it be from the vets’ perspective or the Vietnamese American perspective. I think there are a lot of Vietnamese American writers out there, but in many instances the Vietnamese voices seem more marginalized.”

Cao believes that this kind of storytelling moves in cycles. “In the beginning you have the vets who tell their story. Then American women who had served. So it would go from the male veteran’s voice to the female’s voice, and next to the families. Then maybe black vets’ stories. After that diffusion, there’s room now for a Vietnamese American person’s story.”

But according to Cao, wanting to contribute a Vietnamese American perspective was an abstract desire. The personal catalyst for [writing Monkey Bridge] was wanting to write a mother-daughter story.

“And that’s really what the book is more about,” she explained. “It just so happens to take place within the context of the aftermath of war.”

Like the “diffusion” of voices of survivors of the war, Cao allows multiple yet inseparable stories to emerge, including reminiscences by Uncle Michael, the American colonel the Nguyens befriended in Saigon, and various other minor characters. The primary narratives, of course, are first that of Mai Nguyen, the teenage daughter eager to blend into her American surroundings, and that of her mother Thanh, whose diaries provide a counterpoint and context for her sadness and shame at having abandoned her father in Saigon. Through the diaries she finds hidden in a bedside drawer, Mai strives to uncover the dark, phantom world her mother has inhabited since she fled Saigon to join her in a Washington, D.C. suburb.

Cao said that while she was concerned with the portrayal of war and its aftermath, gender issues were equally important even though that has not been emphasized in some of the reviews.

“For example, some of the rituals that the mother had to undergo were quite dramatic [such as] the virginity ritual where you could be returned to your family, and your family would have to pay reparations if there were suspicions that you were not a virgin,” Cao pointed out, describing this scene from her novel:

That night, villagers torched the family’s barn and drove all their farm animals and livestock into the fields. Flames leapt into the air, lapping up everything with their fiery tongues. With sledgehammers and scythes, the villagers slashed every animal in sight, and the flesh that hung from the carcasses bled pools of red into the soil. The next morning, the body of the bride was found by an old stream, her blood turning the water the bright color of her wedding-red dress.

All the animals were killed, except the pigs. The pigs were spared, so that their ears could be slashed as a warning to bad daughters who ventured beyond the traditional circle of virtue. The next day, a band of pigs without ears could be seen running like lost souls wailing mournful wails that could be heard several villages away.

So was the fate of an unfortunate village bride who, on her wedding night, failed to produce the anticipated three drops of virginal blood that would have ensured a triumphant parade with a feast of roasted pig.

The journals describe in magical, intense prose Thanh’s humble childhood in the farming village of Ba Xuyen in the Mekong Delta, the serendipitous circumstances surrounding her adoption by the region’s wealthy landlord, her marriage at 15 to a handsome intellectual, the subsequent birth of Mai, and their life in Saigon during the war. Thanh’s old-world story ends when her father, Baba Quan, fails to meet her at the appointed place where a car is to take them to one of the last U.S. planes leaving Saigon, forcing Thanh to leave him behind.

Once in America, like many children of immigrants, Mai becomes translator, guide, and caretaker for a parent she sees as out of touch and unable to adjust. When the relationship between Thanh and Mai is reversed, their whole lives are thrown off balance. A child’s inevitable realization that her mother is not the embodiment of perfect beauty, grace, and ability – but rather merely human – is manifested in Mai’s anguished observation of her mother’s struggles to adapt to refugee life.

As the novel progresses, a brief ironic inversion of sorts occurs. Thanh, having recovered from a stroke and with her friend Mrs. Bay’s help, resumes an air of “normal” life. She hosts weekly get-togethers in her living room – which is filled with the scent of incense, curry, and fish sauce – where the Vietnamese immigrant community in microcosm debates the relative merits of Joan Baez’s and Jane Fonda’s anti-war activism. On the other hand, Mai finds herself being pulled back toward her homeland and uncertain history, delving deeper into her mother’s journals toward a murky family secret that is finally revealed as she tries to solve the mystery surrounding Baba Quan’s disappearance.

“Monkey Bridge” tells the story of a mother and daughter struggling to maintain a bond, both genetic and karmic, amid the overwhelming pressures of immigrating to a new land and the collective nightmare of the war they fled. At times philosophical, at others unapologetically visceral, this is a poetic account of exile, loss, recovery, and what Cao calls “the luminous motion between us and our ancestors.”