Diversify Your TBR: Vietnamese-American Fiction & Non-Fiction Book Recommendations

Welcome to a brand-new bibliophilic segment here on BiblioNyan! In an effort to bring more attention to diverse literatures, I’ve decided to do a monthly recommendations compilation that shall centre specifically one under-represented community within the literary world. With my recent dive into my Uni programmes that specialise in Asian and Asian-American literatures, I have realised that I want to be more active with promoting and uplifting marginalised voices, representations, and experiences. I have dropped the ball these last couple years, which was understandable given the personal struggles I faced. However, now that I’m in a bit of a better place, I wanted to make this my first step in doing what I can within my current capabilities. I hope you will join me in this effort and spread the word as much as you can!

Since we have been studying Vietnamese-American literature and the post-war (Vietnam War) displacement and identity crises that stem from said displacement in my classes, I thought it would be neat to begin this series by focusing on Vietnamese-American authors and books. My journey into Vietnamese-American fiction began with Aimee Phan’s We Should Never Meet, which is a collection of eight interconnected stories revolving around an event called Operation Babylift. Then I proceeded to read her novel, The Re-Education of Cherry Truong and it opened a door for me with wanting to understand much more of the experiences that Vietnamese and Vietnamese-Americans underwent during and after the war. Reading those two books also showed me that whatever has been presented in America through history classes and non-own-voices references have been horribly misrepresenting and under-depicting the events and impacts that this war had on the Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American communities, which is absurd.

In an effort to help raise more awareness and accurate insight into the history of the Vietnam War, I compiled this list of twenty excellent books that y’all should read if you’d like more information and some keen, intimate knowledge of precisely what the Vietnam War was, what it meant for so many people, and how it eventually would influence the Vietnamese-American identities as we know (or think we know) them in the modern age. Not every book will be about the war or post-war experience specifically, but they do explore what it’s like to live between two countries, as well as the generational trauma and affects that war has on future generations and identities.

Anyhoo, I tried to offer a mixture of both nonfiction, memoirs, and fiction as much as I could. Along with the title and snippet, I’ve also included links to the author’s or publisher’s site so you can visit those spaces for more information.

We Should Never Meet by Aimee Phan: A collection of eight interconnected tales that explore and examine the various perspectives and experiences of people who were involved in and impacted by Operation Babylift, which was a mass evacuation event of thousands of orphans from Vietnam to American just before the Fall of Saigon.

The Re-Education of Cherry Truong by Aimee Phan: A novel that follow’s Cherry Truong as she follows her brother to Vietnam during her summer vacation after he’s been exiled to his home country by his parents, who reside in Southern California. As Cherry travels to meet her brother, determined to bring him back, she ends up going on a long, emotional journey that involves uncovering decades-old family secrets, loves, and horrifyingly desperate choices that tore apart the lives of individuals who lived through the Vietnam War.

Pioneer Girl by Bich Minh Nguyen: Lee Lien is jobless with a PhD. When she returns to her Chicago suburbia home, she’s faced with all the challenging issues that she’s been trying relentlessly to avoid since college. Then her brother disappears. Leaving behind one single clue—their mother’s gold-leaf brooch from 1965 Saigon—Lee takes the heirloom and explores how it connects to her brother and family, which shall take her from dusty tomes in the library to a trip across the country to San Francisco, where the truth will transform her life as she knows it.

Short Girls: A Novel by Bich Minh Nguyen: A story about two estranged sisters who’ve been lifelong rivals that find themselves in terrible situations in their adult lives. Struggling and unable to confide in one another for so very long, the sisters find themselves reuniting in their small Vietnamese-American community after many years in the wake of their father’s death, which shall finally give them a foundation to reconnect and hopefully resolve the issues they’ve been grappling with for so long.

Where the Ashes Are: The Odyssey of a Vietnamese Family by Nguyen Qui Duc: Using his own and his family’s experiences, Nguyen tells a story that begins in 1968 Vietnam, where his father was a high-ranking civil servant in the South Vietnamese government and his mum was a school principal. Then the Tet offensive was launched and it utterly decimated their peaceful lives. Nguyen’s father was imprisoned and spent twelve years in captivity, while Nguyen fled Saigon in 1975. His mum stayed behind to take care of a mentally ill daughter. Coming of age as an American teen, he yearned for his homeland and the parents he had to leave behind. The book explores the complex thoughts and emotions that Nguyen dealt with while being pulled between his adopted country of America and the homeland he shared with his parents.

The Gangster We Are All Looking For by lê thi diem thúy: A novel told from the perspective of a child, it follows a young girl, her father, and four “uncles” as they’re pulled from the sea in 1978. Starting a new life in San Diego, the girl sees and hears everything intensely, hearing the distress calls of inanimate objects around her as she waits for her mother to join them. When the family is finally reunited, there is a lingering strangeness that cannot be erased. While the girl grows, her innocence dances around various traumas, such as the catastrophe that destroyed her homeland, the bits and pieces of a brother lost, and her father’s horrible, hopeless rage.

Dragonfish by Vu Tran: A hard-boiled detective novel that follows a cop who can’t forget his first wife, a Vietnamese woman that left him. After she disappears from her new husband, Sonny, the cop gets pulled into a dark and disturbing job of trying to find her. As she searches for his ex-wife amid the shady dens of Las Vegas, he also finds himself chasing a past that haunted her for so long, one leading back to Vietnam and a refugee camp in Malaysia, where the wife’s secrets uproot in shocking waves.

The Book of Salt by Monique Truong: Taking place in 1930s Paris, it follows Binh, who’s a gay Vietnamese cook employed by Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. He observes their dysfunctional entanglements as he tries to finagle out his own place in the world, one that is filled with powerful yearning, betrayal, as it takes us back to Binh’s servitude in Saigon under colonial rule to the many events that eventually lead him to becoming a cook in Paris.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong: The novel begins as a letter from a son to his mother who can’t read leads to the unburial of a vast and intricate family history that began before the son’s birth, one that is rooted deeply in Vietnam, turning into a brutally raw and candid examination of race, class, masculinity, and the love between a mother and her son.

The Sympathiser by Viet Thanh Nguyen: A literary thriller that follows a narrator who’s a communist double agent; a half-French, half-Vietnamese army captain who arranges to come to America upon the Fall of Saigon. As he builds a new life with other Vietnamese refugees in L.A., he secretly reports back to his communist superiors in Vietnam. There is a sequel to this called The Committed.

The Tapestries by Kien Nguyen: A book that starts with Dan Nguyen, a seven year old boy who witnesses his father being beheaded by the mayor of his town as a sharp political move. Already married to a lady that’s twenty years his senior, he promises her that he’ll avenge his father’s death one day in the future. In order to protect the boy, his wife hides him as a slave in the enemy’s house. Years pass and Dan falls in love with the one person he can never ever have. As his journey from a slave into the source of scandal takes life, Dan eventually finds himself at the royal court, where he may finally have an opportunity to have al he’s ever wanted. Based on the author’s grandfather’s life, who was a professional embroiderer in the court of Vietnam’s last king.

She Weeps Each Time You’re Born by Quan Barry: Taking place in 1972 Vietnam, a young baby girl is pulled out of her dead mother’s grave and named Rabbit. Born with the ability to speak to the dead, she’ll escape her destroyed village with a found family brough together by the tides of war. As Rabbit channels the voices of the ghosts around her, she’s able to reconstruct a violent and treacherous history of a nation from the days of the French Indochina to the Second World War plantations and finally to the post-war reunification.

The Mountains Sing by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai: A multigenerational story of the Trần family set in the backdrop of the Việt Nam War. Born in the 1920s, Trần Diệu Lan is forced to flee her family farm with her six kids during the rise of the Communist government in the North. Years later, her youngest granddaughter, Hương, comes of age as her parents and uncles head off to fight in a conflict that has torn the country and this family apart.

I Love Yous Are for White People by Lac Su: A memoir that follows Su as he escapes Communists in Vietnam in 1979 when his father gets a price on his head. Forced to immigrate to West L.A. where the living conditions are absolutely horrid amidst a cultural community that refuses to accept them, Su and his family quickly find their American dreams being shattered before it even has a chance to begin. As he deals with ostracism coupled with the psychological impacts of a harsh and unforgiving father, poverty, and his lonely search for love, Su finds his life turning upside down, which is further exasperated when he’s led into a dangerous gang experience.

Monkey Bridge by Lan Cao: The story is told from two perspectives. The first is a classic Vietnamese tale of the immigrant experience in America as told via a young girl. The second is one steeped in betrayal, political intrigue, dark family secrets, and revenge, as told by the girl’s mother. The narrative traverses dangerously between the past and present, the East and West as it describes generational experiences teeming with Vietnamese lore and history.

The Lotus and the Storm by Lan Cao: The narrative transports us back to wartime Saigon as we follow two girls named Mai and Khanh, who revel in the rich cultural climate of their country during this intense era. Meanwhile, their father, Minh, goes off to work as an army commander and their mother conducts business with Chinese merchants. Then four decades later, in the suburbs of Virginia, the homey and reminiscent Vietnamese culture they adored so much is revived in a local refugee community. Here Minh and Mai, father and daughter, live their broken lives, haunted by the ghosts, secrets, and loss of country—remnants threatening to destroy all they’ve sacrificed for.

The Zenith by Dương Thu Hương: The novel is an imagined account of the final months of President Ho Chi Minh’s life at an isolated mountaintop compound where he’s imprisoned both physically and emotionally. The story threads together those of his wife’s brother-in-law’s, an elder in the small village town, and a close friend and political ally of Ho Chi Minh’s to tell a story of how individuals reconcile their inner struggles and strife with those of the outside world around them, which includes an absolute thirst for power, the tragic consequences inflicted upon a whole family versus one individual, and the nationhood that results as a combination of these and much more.

After the Rain by Angeline Truong: This novel tells the story of Lily, who’s a first-generation immigrant in a family of fiercely, unapologetic ladies. Throughout the book, Lily and her family have to confront their own truths by assembling the broken fragments of their lives, which begins when she watches her Amah die. Exploring grief, cultural barriers, and the Vietnamese-American identity, the story is about stringing all of these elements together to truly understand oneself and their own unique identity.

Daughters of the River Huong by Uyen Nicole Duong: Narrated by the teenager, Simone, a girl who flaunts convention and enters into a forbidden relationship of love and sensuality, readers are drawn to the lives of four of Simone’s ancestors, from Huyen Phi, the Mystique Concubine from the extinct Kingdom of Champa, to Ginseng, the Mystique Concubine’s second daughter and a heroine of the Vietnamese Revolution. Duong tells a tumultuous story of power and lust that transports us from the Violet City of Hue to the teeming streets of a Saigon at war, from the affluence of Paris’s St. Germain des Pres to Manhattan.

When Heaven and Earth Changed Places by Le Ly Hayslip: A memoir of a girl on the verge of womanhood in a world turned upside down. The youngest of six children in a close-knit Buddhist family, Le Ly Hayslip was twelve years old when U.S. helicopters landed in Ky La, her tiny village in central Vietnam. As the government and Viet Cong troops fought in and around Ky La, both sides recruited children as spies and saboteurs, of which Le Ly was one. Before the age of sixteen, Le Ly had suffered many atrocities, but held fast to her faith and was able to escape to America. Twenty years later, she returns to the devastated country and the family that she left behind.

If you have any Vietnamese-American books to share, please drop them in the comments below! I know I’d appreciate them, and so will the other folx that visit. Thank you so much for stopping by today. Until next time, keep reading, chums!

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