In its own unfortunate way, the movie "Forrest Gump" provides the most realistic portrait of Vietnam from the American perspective: a place without Vietnamese. Gump and his fellow innocents play out their defining experiences and are transformed into the expected roles of vet-victims in a land blanked of inhabitants. The film, like much of the American films and literature inspired by the Vietnam War, reflects (rather than exposes) not only popular attitudes but the very policy that started the war in the first place and then allowed it to continue. As that belated prophet Robert McNamara--3 million Vietnamese and 59,000 American lives later--recently told us in his book "In Retrospect": "Our misjudgments of friends and foe alike reflected our profound ignorance of the history, culture and politics of the people in the area."
Le Thi Diem Thuy is one of the many writers from both Vietnam and the Vietnamese refugee community--that is, both sides of the war-- who have started being published in this country over the last few years. They offer the rest of us the voices and stories we never heard--or never wanted to hear. "Stories save lives," Tim O'Brien has written. "Not bodies but lives." Good words and true. But perhaps one can be forgiven for hoping that imaginative fiction's ability to help us enter the inner lives of those considered enemy, or alien, or not at all, might make the decision for the next war that much harder and save a few bodies as well. At the least, the work of writers such as Le Thuy finally lets us see Vietnam and America through Vietnamese eyes and understand the common wounds to our humanity wrought by the war and its aftermath.
The sense of displacement in "Monkey Bridge" is a common theme of the Viet Kieu authors who were born in Vietnam but grew up in America with English as their primary outside-the-home language. Two of the most seminal and influential, Nguyen Qui Duc and Andrew Lam, often wrestle in their fiction and essays with the eternal questions of exile: What is lost, what is kept and what is gained? Duc's "The Color of Sorrow" describes a Vietnamese refugee who returns to Vietnam but finds the colors of his world have been irrevocably altered: He sees America through Vietnamese eyes and Vietnam through American eyes and in turn is seen as a foreigner in both countries. Neither place--and yet both--is home. Lam, in "Show and Tell," uses the voice of a young white American Southerner who befriends a classmate, a Vietnamese refugee who speaks little English. He is finally accepted in his new world when he is able to tell his story of war and exile to his classmates by drawing it on the blackboard, as his new friend, making it up as he goes along, provides a commentary in English for the pictures.