Weekend All Things Considered: Jacki Lyden, Interview

Apr 16, 2014 by Lan Cao, in Monkey Bridge
National Public Radio, July 20, 1997, Transcript Number 97072008-216

Jacki talks with novelist Lan Cao about her book, “Monkey Bridge” (Viking). The book tells the story of a young Vietnamese girl’s coming-of-age experience and the conflict created with her mother as she grows more towards American culture than she does towards traditional Vietnamese culture. Lan Cao is professor of international law at Brooklyn Law School. She left Vietnam in 1975.

Jacki Lyden, Host: The year is 1975; 17-year-old Mai is in Falls Church, Virginia, glued to the TV, watching the collapse of South Vietnam, the helicopter leaving the embassy, the American retreat.

Suddenly she realizes her recent exile to the U.S. will be permanent. Her mother remains for a time in Vietnam searching vainly for her own father. Eventually, the two women are reunited in America, a mother clinging to the past, to a Vietnam of myth and legend, her daughter spanning that experience to a new world.

This mother/daughter conflict is explored in a new novel called “Monkey Bridge” by Vietnamese-American writer Lan Cao who herself left Vietnam in 1975.

Lan Cao, Author, “Monkey Bridge”: The bridge is really the bridge between a past and a future. And the mother, it’s a mother/daughter story. So it’s – it’s the mother who represents a pull towards the past. And daughter is trying very much to become assimilated into American culture. And the mother is trying to keep her into the past. She doesn’t want to release the daughter because, to her, that would mean releasing the one connection she has to Vietnam and her one connection to America. And the daughter is desperately trying to leave to go to college.

So it’s a kind of cultural collision. And the – the idea of a struggle between assimilation and preservation of culture.

Lyden: Do you think that the Vietnamese who came when you did carried a sort of double burden compared to other new immigrants because they were associated fairly or not with a great American failure?

Cao: Yes, I think we were associated, in many ways, with a war that really tore the country apart. And we were reminders of a war that the whole country was trying to forget.

And I remember many times having talks with American soldiers who had fought in Vietnam at little shops in Little Saigon in Virginia. And I thought well, you know, if they can’t even tell their story, if they can’t be accepted by this country, then there’s no way we, the refugees, will ever be.

And so I was very moved by their story in many ways. And I watched the unfolding of the gradual telling of the vet stories over time, and then the telling of African-American veterans, and then finally some stories by women who had served in Vietnam. And I thought the Vietnamese experience is another part of the story. And I wanted to add to it.

Lyden: You use a lot of rituals in your book and dreams, the kind of rituals that ancient Vietnamese society has, ancestor worship, offerings. When you went back to Vietnam last year, did you find that you could reconcile with the country? Or was there, again, a divide between Vietnamese people who remained and those who had immigrated elsewhere?

Cao: So interesting. Depending on where I went, when I was in South Vietnam, in Saigon, it was extremely easy to make the connection, I think primarily because the Vietnamese who, the South Vietnamese who were in Saigon, have a lot of family who are in California, New York, Washington, D.C., Texas. And the connection has been maintained.

And, in fact, the overseas Vietnamese provide a source of financial support for the South Vietnamese in the southern area. By contrast, the Vietnamese in the North, I don’t think, have a lot of family members who are in the U.S. or in the West. And so when I was up North, I felt much more of an alien than I did when I was in the South.

And I think, perhaps, also because of my southern accent I was treated differently in the North than in the South. There is, I think, still a high, a strong division North and South in the country, as well.

Most of the foreign investment that the country has attracted has primarily taken place in the South. So, while all the papers may be signed up North with the various ministries up North, the investors, once the papers are signed, basically fly South and do their investment South.

Lyden: In the end, we leave your two major characters, the mother and daughter, do you think that they are reconciled to each other?

Cao: I think yes. I hope so. That’s – that’s the idea I have in the book. That, regardless of what happens, and regardless of the wasteland that one is handed, and that’s why I have an epigraph of “The Wasteland” at the beginning of the book.

Lyden: The poem by T.S. Eliot.

Cao: The poem by T.S. Eliot. There is in the end always the hope of reconciliation. And the hope really lies in the second generation.

But yes, one has to remember that there is karma and realize that there are consequences to all of our action, where it be personal or national actions, but that the second generation starts clean, I believe. And, so, between mother and daughter, the generational bridge has to be crossed.

And I play a lot with the different ideas of memory, dream, and myths, as you said. And I played with these ideas from both the Vietnamese and the American pop culture.

I think Americans have their own dreams and myths. And that’s why I explore some of the TV shows that I loved growing up.

Lyden: That’s why Pop Tarts and “I Dream of Jeannie” turn up in this book?

Cao: Yes, “I Dream of Jeannie.”


Cao: I love “I Dream of Jeannie” because when I watched it, I thought this is it. This is reinventing yourself with magic.

And I loved the idea of crossing your arms, blinking, and a whole new reality would come. And any time something horrible happened to me, let’s say in high school, I would do the same thing, imagine that Jeannie – genie magic comes, and a whole new reality could be reinvented in America.

And then with “The Bionic Woman,” for example, you know, we have a lot of Vietnamese warriors, historical Vietnamese warriors, who are women in Vietnam. The Trung sisters, the first – is like the Joan of Arc of Vietnam – led Vietnam to victory against the Chinese.

And my mother loved “The Bionic Woman” because to her, that was the American version of the Trung sisters. And she – that was one of her favorite shows.

And so I love playing, creating an interplay between ancient Vietnamese history and myths and historical figures and the modern American version of it in “The Bionic Woman,” for example.

Lyden: Well, I think you did it very successfully.

Cao: Thank you.

Lyden: Thank you very much for speaking with us.

Cao: Thank you for having me.

Lyden: Lan Cao is the author of “Monkey Bridge.”