Orange County Register, Sunday Morning Edition

Aug 24, 1997 by Lan Cao, in Monkey Bridge
Across a Trembling Span, by Hieu Tran Phan, August 24, 1997

For more than two decades, Lan Cao has lived under the shadow of the Vietnam War.

The specter first appeared in 1975, when South Vietnam’s imminent surrender to communist forces compelled the 13-year-old’s family to flee their homeland. Cao resettled in Arlington, VA. She mastered English. Made new friends. Attended Mount Holyoke College and Yale University’s Law School. Became a Wall Street lawyer, and now a law professor in Brooklyn.

All along, however, the shadow of war trailed her.

Soon after setting foot on U.S. soil, she witnessed its oppressive silence toward the ostracized veterans. She felt its sting of prejudice from people who labeled her a Viet Cong. She seemed forever attached to the darkness of a conflict that had killed tens of thousands.

Even after Americans began publicly debating the war’s legacy, Cao says, the talk was lopsided. No Vietnamese voice emerged to balance the conversation.

“It’s a topic that has somehow been expropriated and appropriated by America, as if Vietnam was solely an American reflection,” says Cao, 35.

“When where you come from is such a defining catalyst, a bitter catalyst, for your adopted country, you face a lot of adversity. Especially in 1975, the anger was raw. You could smell it in the air.”


So Cao set out to shed light on her motherland’s 4,000-plus years of history. “Monkey Bridge,” her debut novel, is the first fictional work in English by a Vietnamese-American to chronicle the post-Vietnam War experience.

Each of its 260 pages is filled with haunting images of a once-beautiful people now ravaged by violence. Readers will learn more about Vietnam’s essence through Cao’s brilliant tapestry than they could ever accumulate from a stack of history books.

Verdant rice paddies, moon cakes, fish sauce, Confucian principles, legendary heroes, an obsession with mass karma, these staples of Vietnamese culture are obliterated by the onslaught of bombs, grenades and land mines. Cao’s translucent prose reveals the traumatic scars that time has imprinted on her native home.

This swirl of turmoil is seen through the eyes of Mai Nguyen, a semiautobiographical portrait of the author. Also 13 when she immigrates to the Little Saigon area of Arlington, Nguyen builds a second life with her mother, Thanh.

As she blossoms, her mother wilts. The child quickly adapts to chain supermarkets and fast food, while the parent languishes between a past long gone and a present that she will not embrace.

What ultimately separates yet binds the two is not assimilation.

It is the secret of what happened to Baba Quan, Mai Nguyen’s grandfather. He was supposedly left behind in Vietnam, having failed to arrive at the meeting point for a flight to America.

The real answer, though, involves murder and betrayal. Mai Nguyen’s mother knows the truth but will not tell, leaving the quest for closure to propel the novel to a tragically shocking end.


As the protagonist delves into her past for answers, she forms her own outlook on the war. Here arises Cao’s ironic genius: In slaying one shadow, she breathes life into another. Mai Nguyen’s perspective on Vietnam’s conflict is intentionally blurred, in stark opposition to the black-and-white views of her predecessors.

People who are too certain about life’s events make Cao uncomfortable, she says. The Vietnam War, then, served her aim of recasting history in a more complex frame of reference. “I think most Americans hold well-entrenched opinions about this experience. Particularly for baby boomers, their identity and rite of passage came with the war,” says Cao, who combined first-hand experience – including two return trips to Vietnam – with decades of research to write the book.

“People were either staunchly anti-war or gung-ho about it. I’m trying to show that the actual answer, if there is one, lies somewhere in the hazy middle. I want people to wrestle with their utmost convictions. I had to reassess everything I was taught, because one of my uncles is a Viet Cong.”

She understands that her approach might generate controversy, even among younger generations. But her literary interest involves probing the marginal realms – universal spaces where the unknown rules. To a significant extent, Cao weaves a seductive web of psychology in “Monkey Bridge.”

Her feat pays off: The novel transcends the historical and cultural boundaries of Vietnam to become an intimate study of humanity’s fundamental motivations.

“All of us in this country of immigration can identify with that sense of ambiguity,” Cao says. “We must accept that our existence is not a progression of linear events. Rather, it’s a whirlpool of emotions. Some people find resolution, others don’t. But the most fascinating part is the process.”

It’s a seemingly paradoxical stance for a lawyer. Cao, who teaches international law and economic development at Brooklyn Law School, was partly drawn to the legal profession because of its orderly structure.

Law binds society together, she rationalizes. Its ideals are social coherence and certainty; it is the glue in a world of tension and chaos.

But the law cannot penetrate the deepest recesses of a person’s soul, Cao says. To go there, one must make a gut-wrenching journey of crossings. That is where the monkey bridge comes in.

Cao describes the novel’s overarching symbol this way: “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.”

The bridge is both literal and metaphorical. Many of the novel’s defining moments take place on or near one. Using these episodes, Cao plunges into the myriad forms of crossings: from river bank to river bank, continent to continent, war to peace, hatred to harmony, wealth to poverty, stability to disintegration, birth to death.

“The bridge is not about putting up walls or being fenced in. Every bridge enables us to reach the other side,” Cao says. “So if you’re standing in one ambiguous space and you have a crossing into another ambiguous space, there’s a much higher possibility of reconciliation.”

But why do the novels’ characters take their risks, anyway? What stimulates people to take that first step? Why embark on life’s path when one false move will send the traveler hurtling downward?

Appropriately, Cao’s answer lurks within those uncharted shadows.

“I’ve learned that the vaguest, most uninhibited circles of our psyche harbor that most profound motivation for behavior – love,” she says. “My central point is that most, if not all, of us are ultimately spurred to act by matters of the heart. It’s being able to accept the human heart, even though we have different ideologies on the surface. So wars may be fought on the basis of politics, but in reality, it’s a battle of emotions.

“The novel evokes hope amid this landscape of pain and destruction because, in the end, it shows how one heart is able to touch another.”