The latest musical due to hit the Arts Centre in Melbourne Australia during March 2020, is Rolling Thunder Vietnam. ‘Rolling Thunder’ was the code name used by the Americans for their campaign to carpet bomb North Vietnam during the Vietnam/American War. An equivalent would be naming a song and dance show Operation Desert Storm – the Musical. This would be unthinkable. But clearly Vietnam is no longer a war. It’s entertainment.
As noted by Christian Appy in his book on the oral history of the conflict, ‘Vietnam’ is used as a one-word descriptor in American discourse to refer to military interventions overseas. It is also associated with the failure of such interventions. Narratives about the Vietnam/American War in English are dominated by over eighty Hollywood films such as Full Metal Jacket, Born on the Fourth of July and The Quiet American. These are almost all told from the American perspective.
Vietnam the country has been the subject of literary and cinematic treatments in the Western world for as long as there has been a colonial presence. Some of this material have become part of literary and cinematic canon despite the problematic representation of Vietnam and her people. The most famous may be the musical Miss Saigon, in which the Vietnamese characters are mostly prostitutes, pimps and soldiers. The narrative follows the Madame Butterfly archetypical story where an Asian woman kills herself when her white lover rejects her in order to be reunited with his white wife. David Henry Hwang points out the ridiculousness of this narrative in his play M. Butterfly, inviting us to ponder what sort of reception such a story would get if a young blond heiress gave up a marriage to a Kennedy and her life for the love of a common soldier. It is because it is an Asian woman who dies that you think that it is beautiful, he proposes.
For the Vietnamese, the Vietnam/American War is known as the American War, as opposed to the French Indochine War. In articulating their suffering, members of the Vietnamese diaspora provide counter-memories to the dominant Hollywood discourse about the war.
Oliver Stone is the only Hollywood director who has attempted to portray both the American and the Vietnamese perspectives in his 1993 adaptation of When Heaven and Earth Changed Places, the autobiography of Le Ly Hayslip. Other attempts to portray different sides of the war include Maxine Hong Kingston’s anthology Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace, based on her writing workshops using Thich Nhat Hanh’s mindfulness exercises for both Vietnamese and American veterans.
The most prominent contemporary Vietnamese diasporic writer is Viet Thanh Nguyen, who won the Pulitzer Prize for the novel The Sympathizer. This centres around a North Vietnamese agent in Orange County, a Vietnamese diasporic community in America. He has also written the non-fiction book Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, in which he reflects on the ethics of memory and the production of art concerning the Vietnam/American War.
Nam Le’s short story ‘Love and Honour and Pity and Sacrifice’ is a self-reflexive work commenting on the nature of the ‘ethnic story’ in the literary landscape and the story he cannot tell about his father’s experiences. Ethnic stories, often featuring cooking, are trendy and commercially popular. In an ironic depiction of the currency of this genre, the author portrays himself standing in a rice field in a conical hat – the same image on the cover of the anthology The Perfume River, in which the story is also featured.
Other Vietnamese diasporic texts include Chi Vu’s A psychic guide to Vietnam, which was included in the The Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Writing in a sign of mainstream literary acceptance. In her short story collection ‘Lucky Ticket’, Vietnamese Australian Joey Bui includes three stories with Vietnamese protagonists and other international settings. She dedicates a transgenerational Vietnamese story of a veteran of war to Nam Le.
In the mainstream there has been more promising Vietnamese artistic representation in the adaptation of Watchmen, a comic, film and popular miniseries as an alternative history where America wins the Vietnam War and Vietnam becomes the fifty-first state. The lead female protagonist and antagonist is Bac Trieu, a Vietnamese multimillionaire inventor. Named after the legendary female warrior, she features in the major part of the action and narrative arc in a Vietnam where both white and black characters speak Vietnamese. There is a problem in her demise however, a powerful woman is not allowed to achieve what she wants in this alternative world any more than she would be able to in the one we inhabit.
The SBS mini-series Hungry Ghosts (2020) features transgenerational trauma in three generations of a haunted Vietnamese family. However, one could be forgiven for thinking the series is solely about Bryan Brown playing a white photographer scarred by the war, as SBS are marketing his perspective rather than that of the Vietnamese characters, the Vietnamese script writers or the Asian cast.
The art produced about and by the Vietnamese diaspora provides much needed counter-memory to mainstream Vietnam War narratives that are still dominant today. The Vietnam/American War is more than just musicals and catch phrases – we also need to honour the dead on all sides and their descendants. Only then can we heal from the transgenerational trauma that affects all of us touched by the war today.
Image: publicity photo for Rolling Thunder Vietnam