A technology to remember and forget: André Dao’s Anam

André Dao’s Anam is a sweeping epic composed over twelve years and spanning three generations: from Dao’s unnamed grandfather, a Catholic intellectual imprisoned for 3653 days in ­war-torn Vietnam; to his parents, whose application for refugee status was accepted by Australia, separating them from relatives resettled in France; to Dao’s rootless perambulations between all three countries plus Cambridge, where guilt and financial obligation bind him to the pursuit of a master’s in law. In the process, Anam presents questions around responsibility, inheritance and belonging as Dao searches for a home that feels like home, with partner and daughter at his side, and is instead confronted by a sense of placelessness, of time outside of time, and collected histories which refuse to yield redemptive truths.

The title is a neologism chosen by Dao to represent ‘the thin, S-shaped spit of land’ that we call Vietnam, an anglicised name which fails to evoke complex histories of conflict, conquest, Communist insurgency, counter-invasion and colonisation. ‘Annam’ was its given Chinese name, meaning ‘Pacified South’. By dropping the extra ‘n’ and leaning into the principle of anamnesis—either ‘the Ancient Greek belief that our eternal souls have forgotten all there is to know, or the Catholic act of salvation through worshipful remembrance’—Dao invites a hypothetical re-telling of history, wrought by a fictional peoples, the Anamites, who ‘are masters of memory, so good at remembering that they remember things that never happened, and things that are best forgotten.’

Billed as fiction, this creative-critical work is a bricolage of archival research, colonial histories, transcribed conversations, ghost stories, memoir, epistolary address, reimagined pasts, speculative and suspended futures. Dao argues that there is no better technology ‘for useful remembering-forgetting’ than the novel, and that if a novel is truly great it ‘becomes a kind of commons for the polity, terra imaginaria from which to dream of unity.’

I attended Dao’s workshop ‘Autofiction Techniques’ at the Wheeler Centre during the 2023 Melbourne Writers Festival, where he revealed the genesis of Anam as a work of nonfiction that attached to different labels over time: hybrid, autotheory, research. It was during a writing residency in Hanoi that he allowed himself to know that a fact-laden family history was ‘a work of duty but not imagination, of labour but not risk.’

‘We aren’t fully in control of the creation of ourselves,’ said Dao during that workshop, as he spoke to the agency that arises when one recognises how they have been shaped by outside forces. Although Anam nods to theorists such as Barthes, Benjamin and Derrida, his book is free from para-academic citational practice as matter of choice. In Dao’s appended ‘Note on Sources’, he mentions that a bibliography ‘is no substitute for working through what is to be received, and what is to be passed on, nor can it decide how much of that is to be made explicit, and how much to be submerged.’ His efforts toward self-knowledge are guided by Foucault’s description of the first- and second-century writing practice of hupomnēmata, which aimed ‘to enable the formation of the self out of the collected discourse of others.’ The hupomnēmata were not so much spiritual/intimate journals or self-narrative as something near-to-hand which could ‘capture the already-said’ for the ‘purpose that is nothing less than the shaping of the self.’

Hupomnēmata might be seen as an early form of creative-critical writing. According to Foucault, the culture at the time valued ‘recurrence of discourse, by “citational” practice under the seal of antiquity and authority,’ whereas the hupomnēmata privilege self-reliance and self-knowledge attained through reading and reflective writing. Where hupomnēmata marries reading and assimilative writing, a ‘body’ is created not of doctrine but of ‘one who, by transcribing his readings, has appropriated them and made their truth his own: writing transforms the thing seen or heard into “tissue and blood”.’

As Dao substantiates polyphonic and multi-referential sources into his life narrative, a genealogy of all that he has consumed becomes evident, textual referents made flesh. This digestive process, notes Foucault, wards off stultitia: ‘mental agitation, distraction, change of opinions’ and ‘weakness in the face of all the events that may occur.’ It is perhaps this very act of assimilative writing that permits Dao to let go of his Cambridge pursuits: ‘Let’s go home,’ he tells his partner, realising that ‘the past is not a home.’

Dao, who grew up reading an English and American canon, explained to us how he compiled twelve years’ worth of work into ‘a book and called it a novel—but it’s an inventory, an archive of who I am’. This inventorying took inspiration from Gramsci’s Prison Notebook, in which he claims that to compile an inventory is imperative because ‘the starting-point of critical elaboration is the consciousness of what one really is, and is “knowing thyself” as a product of the historical process to date.’ An inventory of influences can never be complete: Anam demonstrates that fixed materiality is an illusion and all thought-objects are relational. Dao writes that ‘there is no such thing as innocent or neutral perception’, as he turns to ‘amateur phenomenology’ to understand why his grandfather and his grandfather’s brother went to war on opposing sides. He casts a sharp eye at those who compare his grandfather to the ‘colossus of transcendent incarceration: Nelson Mandela’ as if to elevate his suffering, to make his decade in Cell 6, Section FG of Chi Hoa Prison mean something.

Dao’s grandfather is ‘the living ghost who silently came back to haunt the family’ in the years after he is ‘Recalled to life!’—a Dickensian quote Dao’s grandfather scrawled on an Air France in-flight menu taken as souvenir in December 1989, following his release as a man broken. Years later, after coaxing him out of persistent silence, Dao cannot fathom his grandfather’s claim to have forgiven his captors. His grandfather’s life, imprisonment and death appear ‘the most god-awful waste’ in ‘a world that professes to care about justice’ but fails to save him. Dao envisions his grandfather transmitting memories to him

without fanfare or chronology or explanation, just a succession of stories, some lacking even the basic structure of a narrative and so more like an image, or a riddle, a torrent of words handed down to me, to‑what? What am I supposed to do with his words? … What else but act as his amanuensis, reconstructing the book the fragments must have once been part of, if only in his imagination.

Using the technique of bricolage, Dao’s fragmentary passages, both real and imagined, speak with and—as Claude Lévi-Strauss writes—‘by means of things: recounting, through the choices it makes among limited possibilities, the character and life of its author’ and his antecedents. He carries these fragments around as ‘something to hold onto’ long before he collages them into place. Neighbouring passages open themselves to interruption and interlocution: all parts are moveable, textual compositions susceptible to re-arrangement, to interpretational flux. Dao could not have brought his grandfather’s history to life any other way than through collective storytelling and intertextual collage: ‘I’ve tried ventriloquising him, fictionalising him, verbatim transposition of his speech. None of it worked.’

Artfully woven, this fictocritical masterpiece infuses with heart its meticulously researched histories—both contested and revised—inviting the reader to contextualise Dao’s grandfather’s political choices through the author’s life-writing practice and contemporary political activism on behalf of the Manus refugees. While he links all diasporic peoples to ‘the same time–place’ which ‘is part memory­–place, part here-and-now, part Babylon, or Zion,’ still Dao detects a falsity or posturing in his relationship to his clients, wherein he attempts an ‘understanding-by-proxy.’ He suspects that his own sense of loss is only ever an illusion of loss. Although Dao casts judgment on his grandfather’s choices, he is equally critical of his own motivations, driven to interrogate every aspect of self, letting us into the workings of his mind.

Although Dao records both his wife and his supervisor critiquing his writing for having a certain coldness to it, I would argue the opposite. A famous Simone Weil aphorism states: ‘Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love’. Twelve years of scrupulous devotion to memory, legacy and inheritance—‘a mad love, beyond reason’—via transcontinental travel, archival research, oral story collecting and imagination prove his heartfulness beyond doubt. Dao’s stubborn refusal to accommodate his grandfather’s claim to forgiveness gradually gives way to the revelation that he finds it easier to imagine hate than to ‘take love seriously’—and what a waste of inheritance it would be to refuse the gift of love.

I wonder if perhaps Dao’s grandfather found small comfort in Weil’s chosen life of suffering during the decade of his imprisonment, which led her to write:

Whatever happens, how could I ever think an affliction too great, since the wound of an affliction and the abasement to which those whom it strikes are condemned opens to them the knowledge of human misery, knowledge which is the door of all wisdom?

Ultimately, Dao releases his grasp on sense-making, loosens his grip on reality and acknowledges that all truths are only half-truths, that remembrance leaves its trace on things past, and that while ‘we can return potential’ to the past, we cannot redeem it—we can only take responsibility ‘for the places we are and have been and will be.’

Jenny Hedley

Jenny Hedley is a neurodivergent writer, PhD student and Writeability mentor whose work appears in Archer, Cordite, Crawlspace, Diagram, Mascara, Overland, Rabbit, TEXT, The Suburban Review, Verity La, Westerly, and the anthologies Admissions: Voices in Mental Health and Verge. She lives on unceded Boon Wurrung land with her son. Website: jennyhedley.github.io/

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