Stories set in—and revolving around—Vietnam have appeared on BIP many times, like Marcelino Truong’s coming-of-age memoir in translation by David Homel: Such a Lovely Little War (2014; 2015) (his follow-up, Saigon Calling, brought the family to England). Also Robert Olen Butler’s Perfume River (2016) but to say much more than that explores a beautiful interplay between memory and reality. And Kim Thúy’s award-winning novels, in translation by Sheila Fischman: Ru (2009; 2012)Mãn (2013; 2014), and Vi (2016; 2018).

Some regular readers might recall my reviews of Khanh Ha’s fiction: whether of Mrs Rossi’s Dream (2019)—a review with an inordinate number of photographs, if you’re looking for a glimpse into the country’s landscape—or The Demon Who Peddled Longing (2014), or his debut novel, Flesh (2012). He will have a new collection of stories published in September 2021. I’m looking forward to reading these stories later this year.

While waiting for a copy of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer to arrive, I gathered three other Vietnamese stories into my stacks.

Le Ly Hayslip’s When Heaven and Earth Changed Places: A Vietnamese Woman’s Journey from War to Peace (Trans. Jay Wurts, 1989) is a personal story told from the perspective of a woman who has lived safely long enough in the United States to gather the courage to return to North Vietnam, to confront her wartime memories and experiences.

In 1987, she founded the East Meets West Foundation, which aims to heal the wounds of war and break the circle of vengeance. Her memoir seeks to demonstrate how “peasants survived—and still survive today—as both makers and victims of our war.” And she begins her story in girlhood, describing her sudden and relentless engagement with the war against a backdrop of her family’s story.

It feels real. How, at night, the family sat around the fire and told stories about the dead. The “show of male power”—do danh vo—usual for other fathers, unusual for hers. The ordinary exchanges and patterns that shift as the war intensifies.

Extraordinary events, too, like how her mother asked her son-in-law to gain them access to the place where Hayslip was being held prisoner and tortured, claiming that she’d not been involved in any incursions, had simply gone astray when doing an errand for her mother. Who, once she’s gained access to the facility, looked at her daughter “like a shopper sizing up a bad melon” to convince her captor that the girl would be treated even worse if returned to her custody, due to her disobedience.

More than once, our narrator evades capture. But she suffers a great deal too. Sometimes she makes clear and unvarnished statements about violence. Other times she includes a sensory detail to bring the war off the page: “The Viet Cong in the room started shooting and the noise from their guns was so loud I saw double.”

Overall, the prose feels thick with detail and emotion; in another reading mood, this might have swamped my curiosity but instead I found myself more thoroughly invested in her story.

Thi Bui’s illustrated memoir, The Best We Could Do (2017), also considers a young woman’s experiences in a family of immigrants, that escaped to America in 1978 from Vietnam.

One morning in 2015, after she births her first child in a California hospital, the narrator’s mother returns to the hospital with a bowl of pho (a hot noodle soup with bean sprouts and basil) that “tastes like home”.

Now, as a new parent herself, Thi Bui has a fresh impetus to understand her own mother and father, as well as the traditions she’s inherited and will transmit.

To her, her parents represent “two sides of a chasm—full of meaning and resentment”. They, in turn, feel “stuck in limbo between two sets of expectations”. Even when she returns to Vietnam in her twenties, to construct a different way of understanding Má and Pô’, it’s her memories of growing up in California that hold sway.

The terror her father experienced as a child explains a lot (a brief history lesson connects, for readers, the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima with political change in Vietnam, which led to thirty years of conflict).

Her mother’s upbringing was different, more privileged; as a girl, she read in secret and grew to understand colonialism and vowed early on to remain loyal to Vietnam.

Her parents share their memories of past events, but—from the story of how they met, through milestones like the birth of a child—their experiences do not align.

Studying history, too, Thi recognizes the contradictions, oversimplifications, and stereotypes that make it difficult to assemble a throughline about Vietnam. Stories told about the American/Vietnam War are haunting but also confusing.

As her readers, however, we can depend on a series of nine-panel pages, line drawings with the only other colour a wash of clay (the sort used to build foundations of houses back in mid-twentieth-century Vietnam). It suits the idea that memories are as powerful as facts, but sepia-like, like a set of older photographs. The occasional use of a full spread emphasizes the power of key moments (like on the boat, beginning their journey to America, beneath the stars).

The two novels in my stack are both writers featured in David Naimon’s “Between the Covers” podcast; for other writers with a keen interest in the craft or readers who are exceptionally curious about the writing process, his interviews are a true pleasure. (He also has a recent episode with Viet Thanh Nguyen, about his latest, The Committed.)

Dao Strom’s Grass Roof, Tin Roof (2003) is also about a Vietnamese family that settles in California; narrated by different family members.

The story opens with Tran’s perspective. She was a writer in Vietnam in 1975, who fled for America with her two young children. (I believe Dao Strom was born in 1973, whereas Thi Bui was born in 1975: reading these two chronicles as companions is particularly interesting.)

There are some poetic passages and the prose is dense with detail, but so clearly expressed that it reads quickly, boosted by solid and engaging characterization. (I was reminded of Souvankham Thammavongsa’s style, Madeleine Thein’s characterization, and Elizabeth Strout’s eye for emotional detail and connections.)

“It is true I was born on the fringes of several wars. It is true no bullets grazed me, no mortar blast stunned me, no tear gas blinded me, and no mother was actually taken from me; nevertheless, I hold images.”

This is a familiar structure—and I was immediately drawn into Tran’s story, as she begins by retelling Gone with the Wind, intrigued by the story of Civil War but compelled by the romance (such as it is)—but I didn’t expect she would sustain my interest in the other characters too.

(When I was a teenager, I counted Margaret Mitchell’s novel among my favourite stories, but my opinion changed when I had the opportunity to read more. Now I prefer Alice Randall’s satirical response.)

Something about the authorial voice behind Dao Strom’s novel captured my interest so profoundly that I found myself reluctant to return the book to the library. Checking the catalogue, noticing that none of her other books have been added to the collection since, made me think about how many people simply do not return a library book.

They quietly add that book to their own shelves and revisit it when they wish: all of that made a different kind of sense to me, thinking about Dao Strom’s tender telling of these stories. (Strom is also the founder of She Who Has No Masters, a collective of writers who seek to boost the voices of women writers of the Vietnamese diaspora.)

Vi Khi Nao’s Fish in Exile (2016) is a slim volume, beautiful and strange. At times, the language is rich, mythic even; at times, it’s banal, even set into typescripts (small excerpts from plays, scattered throughout the chapters). It’s about grief and resilience; it moves from bathtubs to oceans in an instant. (You can read one of her short stories, here, at The White Review. If it suits you stylistically, you’ll love Fish in Exile.)

“Although my mind confuses eruption for euphoria and devotion for diaspora, it clearly distinguishes today from tomorrow and yesterday from today. Or does it? Perhaps it blurs yesterday and tomorrow with the present so that life is one extended breath, minced to calendric intervals. Perhaps we are fit to perform only one duty: exhaling.”

In interview with David Naimon, in Between the Covers, she talks about how she tried to write away some aspects of her experiences on the boat, emigrating from Vietnam when she was a child. They seem inescapable and even when they are not present in her writing, she feels they are still present in her work. The same way that she believes that her first language, Vietnamese, so beautiful and poetic and tender, is invisible but present, in all of her writing in English.

I know there are many books and stories about Vietnam yet to explore, so my journey will continue. In Le Ly Hayslip’s When Heaven and Earth Changed Places, she writes: “The Vietnam war will not be over until it ends for everyone.” One small way to move towards that resolution is to serve as a witness to these stories.

Two that are yet in my stack are Nathalie Huynh Chau’s Memory is Another Country: women of the Vietnamese diaspora (2009) and Vincent Lam’s novel The Headmaster’s Wager (2012).

Do you have a book or story to recommend, to fit with this theme?