An Evening with Viet Thanh Nguyen Retrospective
What does it feel like to be invisible? What does it mean to be heard? How does one exist if their experiences are never accounted for? How do we break the cycle of violence towards people that structures of power refuse to see?
I came to Minnesota in July of 1975 as a baby, a war refugee with only my immediate family, in a US government-issued white onesie. I grew up in St. Paul isolated, without any other Vietnamese families in my neighborhood. My six older siblings and I made up the Vietnamese population at school. Although my father spoke a little English and my mother only Vietnamese, English was the language I spoke with my siblings at home. My parents had neither the emotional capacity nor the vocabulary to tell me about “the War” that we fled from, leaving all of our extended family, belongings, and history behind.
Growing up, no one else seemed to want to talk about the Vietnam War. None of the kids in class knew what it was, and it was never taught in school. As I got older, I couldn’t shake this haunting need to learn more about the war in order to understand my parents and my own identity and history as a Vietnamese person. I didn’t realize it then, but the tools I used to unearth this past were the tools of the humanities. I sought out Vietnam history books and Vietnamese/Vietnamese American literature, war documentaries and Vietnamese art and artists. I travelled to Vietnam to visit the “American” war museums and to see and touch the land that instantly felt like home. And, standing in the swirling sea of Saigon traffic, I felt, for the first time in my life, as if I were whole.
Bearing witness to the conversation between Viet Thanh Nguyen and Kao Kalia Yang at St. Catherine University,* I felt the rare experience of being reflected as a Vietnamese refugee and immigrant, an Asian woman, a poet, artist, scholar, activist, and human. Both Viet and Kao Kalia spoke to the heart of those that feel invisible, sharing with a captivated audience their thoughts and theories about the complexity of constructed memories, cultural and economic complicity in war, the need to confront one’s own capacity to be inhumane in order to prevent future harm, and the role of the artist/writer to create change. They gave validity to ghosts and civilians, and voice and value to the unseen, the unheard and the forgotten. Viet and Kao Kalia generously shared their gifts of genius with vulnerability, courage, and tremendous vision.
In gratitude for their words and wisdom, I no longer feel alone.
*An Evening with Viet Thanh Nguyen, hosted by the Minnesota Humanities Center, occurred Sept. 15, 2017 at St. Catherine University. Join us for the next public event in this Humanities Center series on war and memory. An Evening with Kao Kalia Yang will take place Nov. 10 at the Humanities Center in St. Paul.
Author: Anh-Hoa Thi Nguyen
Anh-Hoa Thi Nguyen is a poet, community artist, activist and educator. She was born in Saigon, Vietnam and grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Mills College in Oakland, California where she was awarded the Mary Merrit Henry Prize in Poetry and the Ardella Mills Literary Composition Prize in Creative Non-Fiction. She is the founder of Pomelo Press, completed a residency at Hedgebrook, a Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation (VONA) alumna, Elizabeth George Foundation Fellow, and a Minnesota State Arts Board Artist Initiative Grant Winner.