My New Book!

My New Book!
My New Book!

Thursday, September 27, 2018

September 27-29, 2018: Tina Powell's Guest Post

[Dr. Tina Powell teaches writing, American and refugee literature, and more at 
Concord University. I'm excited to share this timely Guest Post, part of a larger 
book project she's working on!]
“She’s going crazy.  She’s clearly losing it.” 

The first time I taught le thi diem thuy’s novel the gangster we are all looking for, a novel about a young Vietnamese girl and her family’s flight from Vietnam and their resettlement in the United States, my undergraduates struggled with the novel.  We had extensively discussed the history of the Vietnam War and the refugee crisis it created, the US response to that crisis through policy and rhetoric, as well as trauma theory to provide a foundation for discussing the narrative structure le uses.  They, on some level, acknowledged the complicated relationship between the US and Vietnam and could explain how that relationship plays a significant role in le’s and other Vietnamese refugee narratives they were reading.  At the same time, their insistence that le’s protagonist, the young girl at the heart of the novel, was “going crazy” largely referred to how she moved around and experienced the site of her resettlement – the San Diego area – and how the narrative increasingly relied on fragmentation, ekphrasis, and palimpsest to more effectively illustrate the trauma of flight and resettlement.  References to “craziness” became their shorthand way of expressing frustration at the texts.  They had expected that the arrival of refugees to the US signaled a more positive outcome that would affirm the US as the “hero” – the rescuer – in the larger story.  They expected what Mimi Thi Nguyen describes as the US “rescue[ing] [one] from [a] psychic death through the gift of freedom as a promise of care [that] encodes a benign, rational story about the United States as the contested superpower on the world stage” (2).  But le’s novel, and many other refugee narratives focused on resettlement, resist that tidy relationship as refugees face significant systemic barriers to that “promise of care.”

Just as my students expect that those refugees arrive in a place that is stable and safe, refugees flee hellish landscapes with faith that where they end up will be significantly better.  And sadly, as Central American families fleeing violence have experienced, the US is not a safe haven.  Southeast Asian refugees fleeing wars and genocide in Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam in the late 1970s/1980s arrived in the US and faced many systemic issues that affect so many disenfranchised Americans.  This contradiction adds to the trauma of flight as well as shapes the ways that refugees move through and engage with their new surroundings.  Even today, resettlement agencies in some areas have failed to provide adequate housing for refugees.  

Camp Talega: Quonsets at Camp Pendleton -- makeshift housing originally set up to house incoming Southeast Asian refugees.  Photo Credit: Megan Burks

Trinh T. Minh-ha, in writing about hers and other refugee experiences, emphasizes that “the state of indeterminateness and of indefinite unsettlement” goes beyond transit; in fact, it persists in resettlement and as such, we need to be attuned to critical engagement with the very systems involved in practical coordination and development of resettlement resources.  In thinking through how to discuss texts like le’s, we need to not only discuss the experience of fleeing one’s home, but also the traumas the US forces on third world populations, as well as how refugees shape their new home in response to that experience.  As Yen Le Espiritu suggests, we must “look for the places where Vietnamese refugees have managed to conjure up social, public, and collective remembering” (3); the home, in particular, is a space where public, private, political, and collective memories and lives structure the rituals of domestic space.

For instance, le’s novel confronts not just the difficulties of flight and war, but also the realities of the disenfranchised of the US.  From economic instability to affordable housing barriers, the world that le’s protagonist lives in is not one created to provide safety and stability for refugees to thrive; it is a world created by decades of policies implicitly designed to continue to disenfranchise minorities and the poor.  le’s family moves between multiple housing complexes – makeshift housing on base, a sponsor’s house, converted military barracks, apartment complexes that look prisons, buildings falling apart from neglect, and residences forcibly vacated through mechanisms like imminent domain – each a less stable place than before.  As le moves, the complexes bleed together; each poorly maintained property is indistinguishable from the next, much like the residents who live there.  However, le takes care to pay attention to those residents; her description of those complexes is imbued with the remnants of lives destroyed by poverty.  The  

“empty chest of drawers, a dusty mattress with broken springs, eight bent spoons, a dead
lamp with a melted cord, ashy paper, two chairs with missing legs, one chair with a
broken leg, smoke-stained curtains and scattered across the floor stuffing from the torn
cushions of an orange plaid couch” (56) 

and intimate pictures left behind of unhappy, sick, and destitute couples.  The presence of photographs and remnants of lives – rather than the presence of people – allows le to make their presence felt while also emphasizing their disposability to corporate and government interests.  Much like le’s family, these absent people are too easily co opted or erased for property owners’ profit.  The physical detritus of these forgotten lives mixes with evidence of current residents to produce a cacophony of sounds that are distinguishably separate from the lives of those behind manicured lawns.

Certainly, there are many systemic issues to tackle when examining Vietnamese refugee resettlement literature; but housing holds such a significant place in American identity that it demands careful attention.  Home ownership allowed a large portion of whites to establish economic stability in the postwar years and, even after the housing crisis, it still remains an important marker of the nation’s economic strength.  From the forced removal of native peoples, the Homestead Act, to redlining practices, home ownership has functioned as a necessary goal to achieve (symbolic) status as a fully accepted American citizen.  And yet, lack of affordable and safe housing, as well as discriminatory policies, contradicted the picture Ronald Reagan painted at the 1980 Republican National Convention of Southeast Asian refugees as ideological descendents of (white and assimilated) immigrants.  Housing -- and the private space it holds -- provides a picture of stability, safety, and security – that “promise of care” -- that refugees hope to see. 

Aguilar-San Juan, Karin.  Little Saigons: Staying Vietnamese in America.  Minneapolis:
            U of Minnesota P, 2009.
Espiritu, Yen Le.  Body Counts: The Vietnam War and Militarized Refuge(es).  Oakland: U of
California Press, 2014.
le thi diem thuy.  the gangster we are all looking for.  New York: Anchor Books, 2003.
Nguyen, Bich Minh.  Stealing Buddha’s Dinner.  New York: Penguin Books, 2007.
Nguyen, Mimi Thi.  The Gift of Freedom: War, Debt, and Other Refugee Passages. Durham:
Duke UP, 2012.
Trinh T. Minh-ha.  Elsewhere, Within Here: Immigration, Refugeeism and the Boundary Event. 
New York: Routledge, 2010.

[Next series starts Monday,
PS. What do you think?]

No comments:

Post a Comment