DECEMBER 1, 2015
CHILDHOOD AMNESIA is the name scientists give the period of life before we acquire the capacity for autobiographical memory. This formative forgetting is constant across time and culture. Unlike other amnesia, it is not the result of trauma. The infant brain, for the first couple of years of life, simply lacks the ability to record its experiences in any narrative or factual sense. Rather, during this period, the child learns about the world by grasping patterns in experience that she will never be able to consciously recollect.
It is a problem of memory, and of identity, that we must rely on the memories of others to fill in such gaps in our own pasts. We must trust those who came and saw and can remember, or so we must at least while we are children. Becoming an adult is, in part, the process of reconciling the conflicting reports we’ve received from parents and older siblings and the rest of the world, and shaping our own narratives to thread together the seams between.
Dao Strom arrived in the United States as an amnesiac infant. Her parents were writers in Vietnam, and at the Fall of Saigon, her mother chose to flee with an adolescent son and infant daughter, ending up with tens of thousands of other refugees at a Marine base in Southern California. Consequently, Strom is a “1.5 generation” Vietnamese American, neither completely an immigrant nor precisely a first-generation citizen. She is eternally between. In her new memoir, We Were Meant to Be a Gentle People, she writes:
I have no memory of the passage we made, of the first home I was born to, no shadows or impressions, nothing whatsoever. Any inklings I may claim to have of this period are made up of witness and iconography and documentary and imagination and bias and hearsay and silence and inference.
Strom’s mother went on to marry an American (she had never married in Vietnam), and they made their home in the Sierra Nevada foothills of California, a rural and distinctly un-cosmopolitan setting where Strom grew up isolated and alienated from both of her cultures, the old and the new. Strom believed that her Vietnamese father was dead until she was 14, when her mother suddenly revealed that he was alive and had been held in a communist “reeducation” camp for most of the intervening years. The discovery of her father’s existence — and her mother’s deception — only deepens Strom’s sense of division between worlds: mother and father; Vietnam and the United States; the past and the present; words and silence. She looks for a way to tell her own story by triangulating between these extremes.
Triangles are a recurring image in We Were Meant to Be a Gentle People, which is a hybrid work of memoir, poetry, photography, and even music. (A companion album of original songs entitled East/West is being released in conjunction with the book’s publication, and while this review focuses exclusively on the book, music’s inclusion here is significant. It is a third language between words and silence upon which Strom sometimes relies.) Juxtaposing fragments of the personal with the historical, the Eastern with the Western, the remembered with the imagined, Strom portrays the struggle to reconcile conflicting versions of her origins, a story shaped by a mother who refuses outright to answer questions about her past; a father who is a surprise and a stranger; a stepfather who resents and relishes his role as his family’s rescuer; and also by forces much larger than family. Many of us, as we come of age, enact a search for the truth that lies between Mother and Father, but Strom’s excavation is not purely personal. She is also looking for a narrative about the Vietnam War and the refugee experience that will cohere with her own existence and account for her fragmented and divided identity. So much of her self seems linked to a time and place she does not remember, but of which the whole world shares a vast and well-documented memory. To write a memoir about a past one doesn’t remember is its own challenge, but the difficulty of that project is compounded when readers are likely to believe they already understand the events in question.
But surely “understand” is the wrong word. Our habits of thought about Vietnam do not constitute an understanding so much as a haunting. In Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag writes:
All memory is individual, unreproducible — it dies with each person. What is called collective memory is not a remembering but a stipulating: that this is important, and this is the story about how it happened, with the pictures that lock the story in our minds. Ideologies create substantiating archives of images, representative images, which encapsulate common ideas of significance and trigger predictable thoughts [and] feelings.
It is the supposed collectivity that is troubling here. Who curates the archive of representative images that make up our “collective memory” of Vietnam? What alternate, individual stories are obscured by the “stipulating” that has taken place during the last 40 years? Which voices does this “collectivity” silence? Elsewhere Sontag writes, “No ‘we’ should be taken for granted when the subject is looking at other people’s pain.”
There are expectations placed on an immigrant narrative, expectations at which Strom bristles. Perhaps anticipating similar criticisms for her present work, she describes the publication of her previous book, a collection of stories entitled The Gentle Order of Girls and Boys, which received, in her words, “some praise for its psychology and its honesty about the feminine experience” and “(just as much, maybe more) criticism for those very same reasons.” The stories featured Vietnamese American female protagonists, but did not focus on the characters’ “Vietnameseness,” to the disappointment of some reviewers, who Strom says would have preferred for her to write about “the sea-voyaging, leaky-vesselled, war-riddled dramas of their (hardly mentioned) parents’ pasts in escaping Viet Nam.” She sounds more weary than angry when she writes:
I will receive these criticisms with as much humility as I can muster, but part of me will also hinge on a sense of there being an unspoken expectation underlying this particular line of thought — in effect, a dismissal of the mundane and social-sexual struggles (of women, of immigrants) in favor of epic, and evident, conflicts. It is an expectation that assumes […] that because we are descended of survivors, or are ourselves only barely-risen out of the ranks of refugees, we should be (not unlike the rescued stray dog or cat) still unquestioningly grateful, glad just to have survived, to have been picked up by an outside agent and borne off to a better place of obvious freedoms.
This is territory familiar to anyone who read the excellent essay by Chinese American writer Jenny Zhang, “They Pretend To Be Us While Pretending We Don’t Exist,” which explores some of the recent and longstanding difficulties of writing while Asian in the US. In it, Zhang asserts that “resisting white supremacy means insisting that we [people of color] are more than our traumas,” and in Strom’s work the reader sees that insistence taking form.
The question of survival may be a dramatic one, but it is hardly central for a writer like Strom, who lives “on the Western end of the global spectrum.” Juxtaposing personal with documentary photographs from Vietnam is one of the most successful ways in which she complicates the reader’s sense of the relationship between a Vietnamese American writer and the Vietnam War. Family pictures (a Winnebago, a pony, men laying the foundation of her family’s home, her Danish American stepfather in close-up) are interspersed with photos taken by journalists (bombed-out buildings, blown-up jeeps, refugees wading through water). The effect of the juxtaposition is not shocking; rather, because Strom chooses images that depict not violence but its aftermath, it places the war in a personal, almost mundane context. Gathering these images together gives them equal importance and claims the war as part of the writer’s biography. While trauma is present in We Were Meant to Be a Gentle People, it acts as ballast — not the book’s animating force, but necessary and weighty cargo.
If the reader feels starved for a clear glimpse of that cargo, Strom shares that hunger, as her own efforts toward understanding are continually thwarted by circumstance and by her parents’ commitment to silence. “It’s better you just pretend I’m dead. And you can’t get anything more out of me,” her mother says when she asks about the past. Her father deletes the memoir he was writing about his time in prison, unable to articulate much about the experience once he finds himself free and settled in the States. Their daughter gathers fragments from films, stories, scholars, and distant relatives, and her own trips to Vietnam, and still no clear image emerges.
But rather than reject these fragments as incomplete, Strom embraces the fragment as the smallest reliable unit of truth. The result — a collage of images, memories, and moments — embodies the struggle to shape her own identity. Rather than edit out her confusion, Strom places uncertainty at the center of her project, using photographs, footnotes, formatting, and fonts to recreate contradiction on the page. Sometimes text works more as image: a few words are written large, but gray and in parentheses, across one page; a triangular fragment of text photographed from a book takes up another. On some pages the text splits into multiple speakers, so the words on the page are layered like tracks on a recording, voices speaking over one another, song rubbing up against speech and sound. The visual effect is sometimes more successful than the literary (it is easy to see the different voices on the page — harder to figure out how to read them), but this forces the reader to contend with the same conflicting voices as the author.
Competing with these voices, overpowering them at times, is silence, which creates a pressure that animates the book. The struggle between text and subtext, central story versus marginalia, posits the question of which is more powerful: saying or not-saying. In one section Strom excerpts from the rules of censorship under which her parents worked, and which ultimately forced them to choose between flight and imprisonment. The inclusion puts her parents’ willful omissions in a different context: perhaps silence can protect something greater, more sacred, than ego. Perhaps Strom’s writing is a form of weakness, an inability to withstand the internal pressure that silence exerts. At times she seems downright ashamed of herself, and even directs her remorse at the reader. Halfway through the book, after a section filled with hefty footnotes in which she retells the plot of a short story beloved by her mother, she pulls back and equivocates:
I know, surely it’s a little self-defeating, a bit distracting and frustrating, no doubt, that I’ve chosen to give you this information in subtext, or footnote, or whatever the device is I’m imitating/bastardizing. Surely these stories warrant more attention and presence, you might think. Or you might not. But see how I’ve let them take over almost a whole page for a moment anyhow? […] I invite you to read them (the margins) or not.
Strom is not the first writer to experiment with the footnote as a form, and by the 89th page, where this “invitation” appears, the reader understands that she is using this tool, among many others, to cut a path through the thicket of memory. The reader, too, is looking for that path, and it’s somewhat exasperating to be (un)invited at this late date.
Yet this apologetic tone, which carries through much of the book, belies something more potent than a lack of confidence. Strom has internalized the perception of some critics that to have been delivered from a war zone to a safer, easier way of life, and then to question the value of that deliverance, is the height of ingratitude. “It’s harsh and I’m sorry,” she writes in the book’s opening pages, addressing her parents directly. “Dragging your silences into the light like this.” And from the first, she frames her memoir as a betrayal not only of her parents, but of the myth of the immigrant experience; the myth of the refugee as a kind of Third World MacGyver, able to make a meaningful and happy North American life out of nothing; and the myth of the US as a green pasture to which the lowly immigrant is mercifully transported to live happily ever after. These are idols that Strom seems reluctant to smash.
Ultimately, We Were Meant to Be a Gentle People leaves lingering questions about whether there is a violence implicit in memoir, in the process of putting words to other people’s silences, one of those silences being death. Sontag may have been correct that “all memory is individual, unreproducible,” and that “it dies with each person,” but perhaps all memory (and certainly all memoir) also entails a stipulating, to borrow Sontag’s term. Each of us, in her own mind, codifies a personal version of the past, one that by definition obscures the memories of our loved-ones. Perhaps silence would be gentler; perhaps silence would let their versions stand. But this is how one makes for herself a narrow little strip of history to stand on: by asserting that we don’t owe debts for kindnesses we can’t remember. If survival is a triumph, it is a triumph that opens life to further tragedies. And even if we are grateful to be rescued, there are limits to what can be escaped.