Vietnamese American Post-Memory Refugee Poetry: The Unacknowledged History

Ann Phong : I am Not a Virus

In 1975, Congress passed the Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act. This program designated four hundred million dollars in funding for the emergency evacuation of over thirty-five thousand South Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian refugees from their home countries to the United States following the fall of Saigon signaling the end of the U.S.’s participation in the Vietnam war. This is how the House of Representatives would describe the events of the diaspora of Southeast Asian populations after the United States under the leadership of Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon arguably escalated the conflict between Southern and Northern Vietnamese. The violence resulted in millions of civilian casualties and the absolute and long-term devastation of the environment and of local communities with the use of toxic herbicides and Napalm which made parts of South Vietnam uninhabitable. Thousands of people were displaced by the war. The House of Representatives labeled the catastrophe a “Refugee Crisis” and claims to have provided asylum to these refugees “opening up residency opportunities and access to Social Services.” On the U.S. Department of State website, refugee is a defined as a “an alien who, generally, has experienced past persecution or has a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.” This legal definition is cited from the 1980 Immigration Nationality Act (INA) meant to supplement criteria for the U.S. refugee Admissions Program for reception and Placement assistance (R&P). The term enables the governmental screening, adjudication, processing, and placement of refugees with Non-profit resettlement agencies. These Resettlement Support Centers place refugees in communities within the U.S. based on matched personal, familial, and employment needs in particular areas. The refugee has always been a legal and sociopolitical entity since immigration or asylum in the United States became a legal action which requires admission or approval.

There are preconceived notions of what it means to be a refugee and what it means to overcome the refugee state. Asian American literary scholars like Joseph Wei and Timothy August have attributed second-generation Post-Memory poets to the reclamation of the refugee subjectivity because of the way they deny the temporal condition of the refugee state. Poets like Cathy Linh Che, Quan Barry, and Ocean Vuong lyricize the violence and traumas of war as if the atrocities are happening in the present, as if they were witnesses to the events themselves or remember the events. Poets like Bao Phi, Hoa Nguyen, and Linh Dinh write poems about their experiences as refugees in the U.S. attempting to heal generational traumas from the atrocities of war and the impossible expectations of refugees to improve their own circumstances with the aid offered by the U.S., to appreciate the saving, and to overlook or forget the tainted and violent history that they learned from their parents. In my research of Vietnamese Poetry, I was unable to find first person accounts of the war from the perspective of a refugee who survived the war and immigrated to the United States as an adult. I did find numerous poems written by veterans, nurses, or family members of Veterans accounting for the trauma of participation in the war, witnessing the horrific deaths of soldiers, civilians, and enemies, and coming home to contend with traumatic memories of the war. It is entirely possible that I do not have access to some firsthand accounts of Vietnamese refugees because they are written in Vietnamese. The activism of Post-Memory poetry is seen in how second generation refugee’s claim of the stories of their parents by writing about their experiences during the Vietnam war and the resulting displacement.

I hope to argue that legal definitions of a corpus of minority individuals and the reliance on non-profit and religious groups for integration efforts have shaped majority perceptions of refugees as low-class peoples that require saving which has severely limited their participation in art and poetry in the past. Whether consciously or not, our established poetic cannons in programs like the MFAs have suppressed the self-expression of Vietnamese Americans through poetry by not providing a platform that highlights their familial histories, personal creativity, and activism. Post-memory poets have done the hard work of creating spaces for younger generations of refugees and immigrants through workshops. By including and discussing Southeast Asian narratives in academic programs, we acknowledge refugee art and experience and legitimize refugee history in a way that respects the refugee subjectivity rather than confining it to conditional legal terminology.

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