The Distant Shores of Freedom: Vietnamese American Memoirs and Fiction (320 pp. Bloomsbury India, $39.73), is Subarno Chattarji’s thought-provoking consideration of the significance of literary works by people affected by the Vietnam War. Chattarji, a University of Delhi history professor, is also the author of Memories of a Lost War: American Poetic Responses to the Vietnam War.
His new, well-researched book analyzes many Vietnamese refugee writers’ tales of war, escape at sea, rape, re-education, refugee camps, and arrival in an alien land. The book is divided into three parts. The first includes memoirs of re-education camp and aftermaths. This is followed by women’s memoirs, then a chapter on Vietnamese American fiction. The overriding themes are war, memory, trauma, and displacement.
When the American war in Vietnam ended in 1975, so-called re-education camps were set up to orient Southerners in the ways of communist doctrine. In analyzing memoirs of camp experiences Chattarji focuses on what he calls “buried texts,” those that are lesser-known.
Camp memoirs tend to justify the war, demonize the communists, and express nostalgia for the former South Vietnam. At first, southern government officials were asked to turn themselves in for an expected month-long re-education experience. Once they did, they learned that to Northerners they were considered American collaborators.
Many of the works in this section are individual accounts of imprisonment, survival, and witness. An older man puts his experience this way: “War. Death. Prison. All my life I’ve never had any time I could call spring.”
Many Vietnamese immigrants arrived in U.S. with a sense of euphoria, which would soon be replaced by overwhelming anxieties about everything involved in building a new life in a new land. For some a great sense of accomplishment for surviving years of captivity was replaced by a sense of becoming almost a non-person in this country. Many refugees simply wanted, above all, to earn how to feel at home in a new land.
The section on women’s memoirs looks at five books. From them, we learn that many women with husbands in re-education camps or missing bore the brunt of the trauma of that separation. Refugee women, especially, expressed concerns about being considered throwaway people, and many lacked of a feeling of belongingness. Chattarji says it’s appropriate to consider women’s memoirs separately because male writers tend to focus on the survival of the Vietnamese people in general and great national problems, while their female counterparts tend to write about the challenges in their daily lives. The final part on Vietnamese American fiction looks at two important works, Monkey Bridge, a pioneering 1997 novel by Lan Cao, and Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel, The Sympathizer.
I recommend putting The Distant Shores of Freedom alongside books that look only at the American experience in the Vietnam War. Chattarji’s book, with a thirteen-page bibliography and fifty pages of endnotes, drops the refugee experience of many Vietnamese Americans into your lap. In doing so, he helps to further humanize a group of people who to some still remain just a sidebar of America’s experience in the Vietnam War.