Paul Giffard-Foret reviews The Other Shore by Hoa Pham
by Hoa Pham
Reviewed by PAUL GIFFARD-FORET
The Diasporic Unconscious
‘…scattered to the winds
Are the seeds of my good heart
Each branching connected to the source
To see with the eyes of compassion…’
(Epigraph, The Other Shore)
I have previously reviewed in this magazine recent Asian Australian fiction whose authors increasingly depart from archetypal diasporic tales with a theos (origin: Asia) and a telos (destination: Australia). Michelle Aung Thin’s The Monsoon Bride (2011), Merlinda Bobis’s Fish-Hair Woman (2011), Lily Chan’s Toyo (2012) as well as Hoa Pham’s The Other Shore (2014), are all concerned chiefly with Asia – its history, but also its contemporary societies. To what extent, thus, may we still consider those novels Asian Australian, or Australian at all? Although some of these writers may object to such labels, the imaginary space of “Asian Australia” in particular remains useful in situating – and anchoring – Australia in the Asian Century. This constitutes an attempt at “provincialising” Australia, not so much vis-à-vis the geographically distant West, but vis-à-vis its regional neighbours, with respect to whom Australia has retained a sense of exceptionalism (not to say superiority). As Olivia Khoo concurs, one must now reach an “understanding [of] Asian Australian identities and communities within regional and transnational contexts.” (461)
The Other Shore re-views superficial Orientalist pulp fiction about Asia designed to elicit in the reader a domesticated sense of frisson through the conjuration of phantasmagoric characters – spies, double agents, war heroes, reporters, natives in need of salvation, corrupt, despotic leaders and “sexotic”, easily available Eastern women. Here, Pham’s narrative is about trauma and its implications. Kim Nguyen, the first-person female protagonist, is a sixteen years old teenager recruited as a psychic by the Vietnamese government to identify the bones of people dead during the Vietnam War: soldiers, Americans, children, civilians. Those remains (restes) must be laid down to rest and returned to their family for the past to be exorcised, mourned and buried once and for all. This past also involves Kim’s family: “In our house many people died, but all of Viêt Nam bleeds ghosts from the wars.” (1) Pham alerts us to the possibility of a Freudian “return of the repressed”, despite the fact that Vietnamese, half of whom are under 26, have little memory of the war, seeking to enjoy the bounties of consumer capitalism (46) following the end of the trade embargo imposed by America in 1994, Vietnam joining the World Trade Organisation in 2007, and the subsequent rapprochement between the two nations.
The action takes place in 2010, a year or so after the little-reported destruction of the Buddhist Prajna Temple part of the Bàt Nha monastery in the central highlands of Vietnam. “ ‘Officially’,” as the abbess explains to Kim, “‘Bàt Nha monastery was destroyed by a rival group of Buddhists.’” (90) However, there is a long history of religious persecution by the State in Vietnam. Bàt Nha monastics are followers of peace activist and founder of Engaged Buddhism Thich Nhat Hanh, whose non-violent and non-partisan approach to conflicts would force the latter into exile in the aftermaths of the Vietnam War. Thanks to her supernatural gift, Kim is able to relive the event of the assault on the Prajna Temple by the secret police through the revived thoughts of a monk who was there that day. In this monk’s mind, “fear and anger is the enemy of mankind and the Communists are afraid of the Buddhists, President [of US-backed South Vietnam] Diêm was so long ago.” (85) In the same way that Thich Nhat Hanh was, Kim is accused of national treason and has to leave Vietnam for America for refusing to take side and discriminate between the remains of North and South Vietnamese. We see here how the history of Vietnam’s internecine wars is a nightmare from which the country, along with the narrator, is still trying to awake. The cause, as in James Joyce’s modernist novel Ulysses, is imperialism’s Great Game:
I closed the door…and lay down on the double bed. My eyes closed and I descended into chaos. I was being raped by American soldiers. My body turned to ash in the fire and a gag was being forced into my mouth. I killed children. They were spies for the [USSR-backed] Viet Minh. (104)
Unless Vietnam becomes truly independent, subaltern masses will remain (reste) in the fringes of society as permanent reserve (réserve) army of labour for future military uprisings (relève) that masquerade as liberationist revolutions. While the Cold War is long over, the hangover of imperialism looms large, with growing US-China geopolitical rivalries in the South China Sea. Once enemies, the Vietnamese communist government and the USA now work hand in hand as part of the Obama administration’s China Encirclement Policy and Pivot to Asia. To that effect, a revisionist work is underway. As historian Wynn W. Gadkar-Wilcox has shown, “After 1990, researchers began to deemphasize the 1954–1975 period in Vietnamese relations with the United States in favor of the 1941–1945 period. During the latter, the United States cooperated with the Việt Minh, and several members of the United States’ Office of Strategic Services [now the CIA] became personally acquainted with Hồ Chí Minh.” (par. 14)
Pham’s novel also points out the double standard enforced by the government, simultaneously ignoring – unless bribed (61) – to honour the southern dead while rolling out the red carpet for US contingents seeking to claim the remains of MIA (missing in action) soldiers. As Kim deplores, “this was wrong that we were pleasing the Americans and could not find peace among our countrymen.” (72) Indeed, there is something wrong in the way history, as Marx famously put it, repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. Fleeing Vietnam (but not its history), Kim discovers in Orange County, Los Angeles the conundrum of Viêt Kiêu (overseas Vietnamese) community politics. As Khôi, also a psychic, and whose parents are boat people, tells her, “They will call anyone a Communist for daring to have anything to do with Viêt Nam. Even going here on holiday. If you use the southern flag in an artwork they will accuse you of dishonouring the flag no matter what your intentions were.” (93-4) There, too, Kim gets caught up by the phantoms of the past, as she is unable to disentangle reality from the daymares she gradually succumbs to. When she is denounced for overstaying her visa, ending up her journey in a prison-like (179) refugee detention, it becomes clear that the Vietnamese government, in the eyes of which she is a threat, has had a hand in her arrest. Here, psychic ubiquity becomes an allegory for totalitarianism – as in the case of Bác Phúc, Kim’s right-hand man, who turns out to be a fake and a dangerous con for the Communist Party.
However, the polysemic meaning of “the other shore” – the title of the novel – stands against monologic allegorisation, reflecting instead the multi-layered structure of Pham’s fictional work. It may refer, successively, to; the spirit other world of ghosts; “Asia”, from the perspective of an Australian author with family roots in Vietnam; southern Vietnam, from the viewpoint of Kim, who was born and grew up in Hanoi. Similarly, Kim’s “indigenous” ability to communicate with the dead (len dong) allows for the understanding of the radical otherness of colonial encounter, as well as for the confrontation of alternate meta-realities and various sites of discursive knowledge-power: the simulacrum of American paranormal TV shows (70); the scientism of academic psychology (78); the medical jargon of doctors who believe Kim to be brainsick (103); the arbitrary truth-seeking judgment of a court tribunal (173); or the classist functioning of the State apparatus, represented by Bác Phúc, for whom “spirits and ghosts are real, but loyalty to the old gods and goddesses is only for the masses.” (109) Seen as backward, ancestor worship was forbidden during doi moi, a period of economic reforms in the 1980s aiming at modernising Vietnam.
In The Political Unconscious, literary scholar and critical theorist Fredric Jameson writes of “magical naratives” that they challenge the “threefold imperatives of authorial depersonalization, unity of point of view, and restriction to scenic representation.” (104) Instead, as he adds, the subject in magical narratives can “accommodate a far greater sense of psychic dispersal, fragmentation, drops in “niveau,” [planes] fantasy and projective dimensions, hallucinogenic sensations, and temporal discontinuities.” (124-5) The double consciousness characteristic of diasporic subjectivity translates here into the collective subconscious of a scattered nation whose population includes about 3 million Overseas Vietnamese. From the Greek diaspeirein (disperse: dia “across”+ speirein “scatter”), diasporic consciousness as elaborated by Pham explores axes of transnational solidarity with Asian America, “emphasiz[ing] mobility and travelling as major tropes for unpacking the identity formations and knowledge productions of diasporic communities with cultural allegiances and political connections across a number of sites within and beyond the nation.” (Lo, Chan and Khoo xvii) The epigraph of the novel, taken from a family ancestral lineage poem and reproduced at the start of this review, is an invitation to sow the seeds of a transplanted Vietnamese wish fulfillment living on, and surviving in, the unconscious dream-like vision of a nation at last reunited and at peace with itself. Born in Tasmania of Vietnamese ancestry, Pham, who today works as a psychologist in Melbourne with her partner and two children, is a living embodiment of this cultural re-routing/rooting.
1. reste or restance: remain(der); réserve: reserve; relève: lifting up. These terms are borrowed from Francophone philosopher Jacques Derrida’s deconstructionist lexicon. The third one (relève) has a double meaning. Alluding to Hegel’s “unity of opposites onto a higher plane”, la relève always-already risks translating into a mere “changing of the guard” instead, if and when conceived, psychoanalytically speaking, as a discourse seeking to “conceal its own contradictions and repress its own historicity by strategically framing its perspective so as to emit the negative, absence, contradiction, the non-dit, or the impensé.” (Jameson 109-10)
Gadkar-Wilcox, W. W. “An Ambiguous Relationship: Impressions of the United States in Vietnamese Historical Scholarship, 1986–2009.” World History Connected 7.3 (2010): 43 pars. 21 Feb. 2015. <http://worldhistoryconnected.press.illinois.edu/7.3/gadkar-wilcox.html>.
Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. New York: Cornell University Press, 1981. Print.
Khoo, Olivia. “Regionalizing Asian Australian Identities.” Continuum 25.4 (2011): 461-464. Print.
Lo, Jacqueline; Chan, Dean; Khoo, Tseen. “Asian Australia and Asian America: Making Transnational Connections.” Amerasia Journal: the national interdisciplinary journal of scholarship, criticism, and literature on Asian and Pacific America 36.2 (2010): xiii-xxvii. Print.
PAUL GIFFARD-FORET obtained a PhD in postcolonial writing from Monash University. His doctoral thesis focuses on diasporic identities in Australian women’s fiction from Southeast Asia. Paul’s academic work appears in various literary journals, and he has been a regular contributor to Mascara.