Nguyen is no nationalist. He's a man betwixt and between countries, histories, perspectives, and memories.
These nonfiction chapters survey memorials, fiction, film and the memories they collective construct of what people in the U.S. call the Vietnam war and people in Vietnam call the American war. His parents fled the north of his country for the anti-communist south in 1954 and, after the American war collapsed, landed in U.S. refugee camps and finally in what became the Vietnamese section of San Jose. He's been back to his ancestral country to see where relatives live, where battles were fought, and even the killing field of neighboring Cambodia. In this book, he describes crawling through what were once Viet Cong tunnels from which they ambushed U.S. GIs; these have been converted (also spruced up and enlarged) to accommodate tourist tours. He is more bemused than appalled by all sides' morphing memories.
Nguyen insists that only if we can allow ourselves the convoluted, often painful, process of rigorously examining embedded memories can we hope to create a usable past, more peaceful than what we've known. He calls this making "just memories."
He doesn't think "the nation" is the answer to any of this agony. Everywhere -- on the ground and on the page -- he struggles against the worldwide hegemony of the U.S. view of what happened (this intrudes even within victorious Vietnam) and what it all meant.
Our English-speaking cultural arena can be profoundly unwelcoming to artists who insist on mixing their realities; he cites such unequivocally white examples as Kingsolver and Sontag as well as more obvious ones of color. Nguyen's recent acclaim seems a breakthrough in this context; but will it just be more tokenism?
A future post here will take up what Nguyen writes about the essence of war, of cosmopolitanism and compassion, and of the possibility of an effectual peace movement. He has a lot to teach.