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The Girl in the Picture: The Story of Kim Phuc, the Photograph, and the Vietnam War by Denise Chong + Author and Subject Profiles [in aMagazine: Inside Asian America]

Girl in the PictureThe Girl in the Picture

It is undoubtedly the most famous image of the tragedy of War: in its center, a young, naked girl screams in agony and terror, her thin arms half-outstretched in utter helplessness as she runs away from a looming cloud of dark napalm behind her. The photo that is not seen is the one taken from behind: the severity of the third degree burns across the girl’s back, from the napalm that instantly melted the clothes off her skin. That child is Kim Phuc, 9 years old on that day, June 8, 1972. Miraculously, with the help of many, she survived.

Denise Chong, a Canadian writer of Chinese descent, chronicles Kim’s incredible story in a remarkable new book, The Girl in the Picture: The Story of Kim Phuc, the Photograph, and the Vietnam War. Written with Phuc’s cooperation, the book presents a harrowing account of war, especially the effects on its innocent victims.

For Phuc, physical survival came at a high price. With her picture splashed all over the world – a picture for which its photographer, Nick Ut of the Associated Press, won a Pulitzer Prize – she became a part of the Communist North Vietnamese propaganda machine: She was a victim of the evil Americans, yet she survived to become a medical student in the new capital of Ho Chi Minh City, determined to become a doctor in honor of the doctors who had saved her life. In reality, she was an exhausted puppet, put on display here and there, a false symbol of the alleged glory of the Communist regime.

In hopes of escape, Phuc managed to get herself transferred to Cuba, where she enrolled at the prestigious University of Havana. She met her husband, Bui Toan, and together, on the return trip from their Moscow honeymoon, the couple got off the plane in Canada and never looked back. For almost three years, they lived in anonymous peace, until once again, in early 1995, Phuc was catapulted back into the international spotlight. Once again, her private life was shattered. Once again, she was the girl in the picture. And the world wanted to know the rest of her story.

In between book-tour-stops, I was able to catch both Denise Chong and Kim Phuc via phone. Denise proved to be an accessible, knowledgeable, bottomless resource. Kim, on the other hand, remained elusive for weeks. Finally, she granted me an interview.But even as Kim avoided my questions, her cheerful voice came through in her voice mail apologies. Even as she explained she was just bone tired, her throat sore from endless interviews in London, then New York, when we finally connected, she remained open, sincere, and inspiring. And listening to her voice, in spite of her tragic experiences, was an exercise in hopeful forgiveness. Indeed, Kim Phuc has more than survived; she’s managed to flourish.

The Denise Chong Story

When did you first see the famous picture?
I’m sure I saw it in 1972 when it was first splashed across the world. I had the same question most people did – whether she lived or died. Then in 1995, I got a call from my publisher. It was quite a call: “Do you remember the famous photograph from the Vietnam War of the little girl running…? Well, she now lives in Canada, and she’s sold her book rights to us. Will you write her story?” I think my publishers needed someone with sensitivity to Kim’s Asian background, someone she could trust.

Was Kim eager to talk?
Yes, in the sense she had sold her book rights. By then she had been in Canada for three years, had had her first child, and was relying on welfare, sending Toan [her husband] out on garbage collection days to scavenge for furniture. She had sold rights, which meant she had agreed to cooperate, but asking someone to cooperate and asking them to delve into their past so deeply are very different things. I quickly realized that I would not be able to get the whole story from Kim. I would have to go to Vietnam to piece together the village, the family, the highway between the village and Saigon – to weave that landscape into that of the Vietnam War. The challenge as the writer was to put a human face on the war. I had read countless volumes of soldiers’ stories of wars and journalists’ accounts, but there are few stories of the ordinary peasants who were also victimized. That’s what Kim’s story gives us access to. …[click here for more]

Author/subject profile: “The Girl in the Picture,” aMagazine: Inside Asian America, December 2000/January 2001

Readers: Adult

Published: 2000


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