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Among the Boat People – A Memoir of Vietnam – Review

Among the Boat People – A Memoir of Vietnam
Nhi Mahn Chung
Autonomedia, 2019

Nhi Chung has been working on this book off and on for over twenty years. A few portions have been published, mostly “earlier versions” since rewritten — but none of them in terms of readability, literary conventions, story-telling principals — none of them WORK. Just the same, a comprehensive new edition from Autonomedia was launched at BlueStockings Bookshop on Friday, January 17. Why?

The lack of consistent timeline, the disjointed pacing, the flattened emotions, actually make Ms. Chung’s book an amazing document and finally a deeply moving one.

Among the Boat People Nhi Manh Chung

Her book through its many changes, quotations from the work of others and evidence of rewriting “help”, remains utterly artless. I know that word has a sweet definition. It can be taken to mean charm. Without guile or artifice. But at bottom “artless” means exactly what it says: Without art.

An artless person could never make a living as a con artist, says If one cannot lie can one create truth?

We are swimming in “survivor” and “confessional” books. As told to or as imagined by or as reported with, bookshelves groan with brilliantly executed accounts of domestic abuse, loss of family, loss of homeland, of culture, language, identity. We have many books that lead readers to confront harrowing experiences, including the subtle social oppression of the nonconforming person.

This artless volume does something else. It displays what brutal events do. This writer is in shock. Shock from which she has never emerged. This is what it is like to continue. The jumbled time lines. The unintended vagueness of memory, the shakiness and deep self doubt. These are signs of what brutal losses impose.

Wait, what year was that? Oh, let me explain this later, Ms. Chung will say. She will interrupt her own narrative to quote from other sources in her struggle to convey things profoundly difficult for her to explain. The disruptions and discontinuities in her narrative leave a reader dizzy and disoriented. Having experiences like hers in one’s own memory would easily do that. Displacing it, removing it. Yet her decades-long devotion to continue trying to write this account is everywhere evident. She must. She tries again and again.

But what can be resolved? Ms. Chung, a Chinese in xenophobic Vietnam, the daughter of a small factory owner in a city taken over by a puritanical Communist regime, an impoverished immigrant in multi-ethnic but ever Balkanized New York City, a person from a profoundly family-oriented culture belonging to no one at all.

You read — just once in this book — that she sometimes wakes in the middle of the night wondering if one of the people she kicked away from her legs as she struggled to keep herself afloat in the dark hold of a capsized tanker could have been her own mother. Her mother, sister, and brother were all lost in this disaster. But this is not a recurring motif as it might be in the hands of say a Gunther Grass. She tells it just once in flat statements. There is no recreation of her desperate horror.

Without drama and often without clarity, we read of domestic abuse and erasure of self-esteem that began in her childhood, fueled by the misogyny of her culture. War brings more. Starvation. Fear. Brutality. Betrayal. Loneliness. Exile. Illness. And in fragments we discover what it took her to go on: acquiring street knowledge, job skills, certificates, the official tokens that permitted her to acquire foods, shelter, social life in America. There is no catharsis. No purging wave of emotion. And no uplift, though she does find friendships, makes love, cares for her children, and even tentatively reconnects with some of her shattered family. In New York. she finds useful work as a bilingual public school teacher, navigates big city bureaucracy, overcomes language problems, protects herself, adjusts, adjusts, and adjusts again. But always she backs up and goes on writing this book, which stays on the same note. It is unrelenting. What has happened in her life is indigestible.

Reading this book is harrowing because of its artlessness. Reading it is to engage viscerally with what severely injured people live with. No recovery can restore what had to be excised to allow life to continue. We readers who have never been in such profound jeopardy need to have this in mind as our world fills with survivors.

–Martha King


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