“(Re)Collecting the Vietnam War” is the theme of unrestrained poetry, prose, drama, and art in this special issue of The Asian American Literary Review. This hefty volume can be regarded as a history, much like survivor accounts of other wars. Its five sections are each prefaced by a curator, some offering more explanation than others to illuminate what follows. Contributors to this volume straightforwardly talk about the past, present and future, while not glossing over the conflicts in Southeast Asia four decades ago.
Loa-American poet and playwright Saymoukda Duangphouxay Vongsay contributes a raw scene from her award-winning play “Kung Fu Zombies vs Cannibals.” In it, Arahan tells Sika, “You see that tiny patch of water? See those six houses or what’s left of them? About 300 yards to the right of that, that’s where my parents got blown up.”
In contrast, Huong Nguyen’s script, “Is This Trash?” treats a lighter side of life with a family cleaning out the garage for moving day:
Really? Mom, you’ve had fifteen Christmases since you bought them.
Fine, I’ll send them home to your cousins in Vietnam.
No one in Vietnam has ever needed a performance winter fleece vest.
Yes they do, they love everything from America.
Elsewhere in the issue, video artist Nguyen Tan Hoang expresses himself with stills and a partial script from “Brothers: A Pornographic Love Story,” this issue offering a wide variety of formats and styles.
I’d like to have seen more poetry included in this special because what is here is potent. Anida Yoeu Ali is a first generation Muslim Khmer woman born in Cambodia and raised in Chicago. One of her featured poems “What’s in a Name?” is a long poem of interest to anyone who ever had to clarify pronunciation of their name, characterizing hers: “I take issue with your inarticulate mangling of my name / she refuses to disintegrate into a colonized tongue.” and “She is my only refuge when I am stripped naked. / She is my bloodline to mothers who have labored before me. / She is My Name. The echo of Home I long to remember,” she writes.
Kosal Khiev is “a Thai refugee camp-born exiled Khmer American poet, tattoo artist, and survivor of the U.S. prison system deported to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where he currently writes and performs,” according to curator Miriam B. Lam. His past and his current state of exile shines through in lines from “Revolutionary”:
like selma she walked
like rosa parks she sat
like maya angelou
she grew wings like an eagle pitch black.
so like Afinie Shakur she yearns to break
free from the
hoping one day
her seed may
grow to be
Performance poet Bao Phi’s poems are accompanied by Simi Kang’s visuals. His “Poem for Ahmed Al-Jumaili,” the Iraqi refugee who was shot and killed in Dallas while taking pictures of snow, begins:
The shower. The water looks like elongated beads of silver
each with a band of shifting rainbows at the top.
How have I never noticed this?
The sun is shining this winter morning,
turns water into the briefest art, dying down the drain.
The Asian American Literary Review is thick with photographs and drawings. Though his work is not shown, Huỳnh Công Út, whose professional name is Nick Ut, is briefly profiled. He’s the 1973 Pulitzer Prize winning photographer who captured the image of the naked young girl running from a napalm attack. Mariam B. Lam writes, “Most do not know that Ut rushed the young girl to the hospital before scrambling to submit the photographs to AP on assignment. Most do not know that he had an older brother, Huỳnh Thành Mỹ also an AP photographer, who died on assignment [ . . . ] in the Fall of 1965,” shining light on such an iconic photo.
Some of the most unexpected artworks are four single-thread, hand-embroidery pieces by Lionel Descostes, a French artist based in Hanoi, Vietnam. And take a long look at photos by Vandy Rattana titled “Bomb Ponds.” Việt Lê’s introduction tells these ponds, now surrounded by lush vegetation, were “left by 2.7 million tons of bombs dropped” in Cambodia and Laos, resulting in a haunting effect.
Several performance pictures dare you not to stare at them, including Ly Hoang Ly’s “I drink my country,” in which she swallows water, it passes through her, and she swallows it again. Tuan Mami’s “Let It Grows Up-On” shows rice seeds that he’s grafted into his skin and let grow for a month. True, these are unusual examples.
But there is much, much more writing and art that speaks to the beauty, sadness, and often lack of resolution by creative, expressive people affected by war. In light of today’s spotlight on who’ll be our next president, or which celebrity said what, it’s easy to overlook the literary contributions of individuals who aren’t in the media every day. “(Re)Collecting the Vietnam War" directs your attention to some of them.