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APABookClub Exclusive Response: “‘What about us?'” Professor Isabelle Thuy Pelaud

Isabelle PelaudReflections
by Isabelle Thuy Pelaud

In the summer of 1995, a Vietnamese American graduate student asked me: “What about us? Why do we never see anyone like us represented anywhere?” By ‘us’ she meant young women who had grown up here in the U.S. but whose parents had come from Vietnam as refugees. She wanted to read a book in which she could recognize herself, one that was not trying too hard to fit in a minority discourse and without nostalgia; a book that would not define those like her by war alone and would capture the contradictions, complications and richness of inhabiting hybrid locations.

When I read Bich Minh Nguyen’s Pioneer Girl, my first thought was that such a book was now in my hands. Although it is fiction, the narrator’s way of being rings true to me. That this narrator, Lee Lien, so preoccupied with Rose Wilder and Laura Ingalls Wilder (who according to Lien may have co-written the Little House books), went back to live with her Vietnamese American mother and grandfather after graduate school touched me. Growing up in rural France with a Vietnamese mother and a French father older than her own father, I was a fan of the American Western TV show The Little House on the Prairie, set in the 1870s and 1880s on a Minnesota farm and inspired by these books. I was transfixed by the seemingly perfect pioneer couple and the way they supported their children and interacted with them. I identified with Laura’s coming-of-age struggles but always knew that unlike her, I was not welcomed in the small town I lived in. It resonated with me when the narrator of Pioneer Girl wrote that “my concept of American history had been unknowingly shaped just by reading those books, and that they had rooted in me a paradox of pride and resentment – a desire to be included in the American story and a knowledge of the limits of such inclusion.” Like her, I knew that my inclusion in the country of my birth was partial.

I was also intrigued by the narrator’s close examination of the relationship between the authors of Little House, Rose and her mother Laura. When the narrator compares that relationship with her own mother, a desire for inclusion and inscribing her voice and experience into the fabric of American society become clear. Like the tensions between the famous all-American mother and daughter, Lien’s difficulty with her mother is an American one – not a foreign one. She writes: “They needed each other, called to each other, and drove each other mad.” In Pioneer Girl, the narrator does not become American, she is American. The similarities between the respective authors and the stories they create, between an idealized and struggling legendary pioneer family and a Vietnamese American one, effectively disassociate the theme of mother-daughter conflicts from Asian American narratives; a brilliant comparison that allows honest discussion of survival without essentializing the Vietnamese American narrator. Like Rose, the narrator is frustrated with her mother and has to choose between two lives. That Rose may have been in contact with the narrator’s own grandfather in Vietnam in 1965 and played a role in their move to the Chicago suburbs, and the mystery about her family that unfolds from the pursuit of knowing more about this tenuous connection, reinforces the ambivalent assertion of Americanness. Pioneer Girl captures in original fashion readers’ attention and removes layers of otherness from the narrator while simultaneously addressing the uniqueness of her story.

The narrator’s efforts to unravel the mystery around the connections between the two American families lead to rich reflections on the nature of storytelling as the narrator and narrative routinely navigate between memories and the imaginary. “In my mind, Rose was choosing between two lives,” the narrator had clarified (italics added). The phrase “in my mind” invites readers to question how one knows about one’s history and of those around. Which part of those stories are real, imagined or constructed? And what happens when the story in one’s head about oneself and others cannot be validated? “I can’t verify it. Can’t prove it,” she admits as she shares her discoveries about Rose.

From this admission emerge new questions: Who gets to tell and ultimately control the production of a story? In her quest for truth and her desire to construct a story that would associate her with an American classic, the ethical ramifications of telling someone else’s story become clearer, especially when those stories have been silenced or transformed. Adding race to the mix, the narrator ponders the differences between a majority writer telling the story of a person of color and that of a minority writer telling the story of a white person. “I used to figure that white people who studied nonwhite people had to have some kind of subconscious fetishizing or cultural appropriation going on. But now that I’d actually barged in on a real person’s life without his permission, there was no denying that appropriation went around the other way too.” This reflective moment may explain why she focuses less on finding and telling the truth and more on privileging the process of representation in American culture instead. What matters is not what actually happened in the past but how the stories are found, told, believed and understood in relation to one another. “I knew that the story I’d tracked down was only slightly, peripherally, mine… Me, I was a bystander. A finder. Was this to be the rest of my future, trailing other people’s lives, whether they were real or fiction, then turning them inside out, looking for critical notes to explore and exploit? Was I always going to be the go-between, the one translating one text to another, one person to another, conveying interpretation?” the narrator says in earnest. Is her question a product of her hybridity as a second generation Vietnamese American or the common preoccupation of graduate students in humanities? Does the fact that the narrator and the author are Vietnamese American women impact how readers (myself included) interpret her questions and by extension, her narrative?

The narrator’s self-reflexivity combined with her simultaneously serious and humorous quest to understand Rose’s life allow her to ask what may be an important question for her: is her father, who passed away when she was little, the person she grew up believing he was? Or was his image created in order to protect her from the truth? And if so, what are the costs and benefits of knowing or not knowing the past as it actually occurred?

In seemingly simple prose, Pioneer Girl explores complex themes. In the Acknowledgments section, Nguyen writes that the novel grew out of a question of “What if? … How two seemingly opposite cultures might have so much in common.” The similarities drawn between the two families, separated by time and space, pull Vietnamese American stories into the fabric of American society. Whether they are real, idealized or just made up, the juxtaposition of these stories and the reflections this process generates produce important epidemiological questions of race, class and gender. Pioneer Girl is a book that is both light and deep. I enjoyed it tremendously. I did find myself in the ways the narrator thinks. And in her mother, I did recognize the disorienting, unsentimental pragmatism and logic of my own mother.

Isabelle Thuy Pelaud is an Associate Professor of Asian American Studies at San Francisco State University, and founder of the Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network (DVAN). She is the author of This Is All I Choose To Tell: History and Hybridity in Vietnamese American Literature (Temple University Press, 2011). Her essays and short stories have been published in Making More Waves (1997), Tilting the Continent (2000) and Vietnam Dialogue Inside/Out (2001). Her academic work can be found in Mixed Race Literature (2002), The New Face of Asian Pacific America (2003), Amerasia Journal (2003, 2005), Michigan Quarterly Review (2005) and the Journal of Asian American Studies (2012).


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