Aimee Phan's first novel, The Reeducation of Cherry Truong opens with the title character searching for her older brother, Lum, who has been exiled to Vietnam after a gambling debt ended in violence. While its emphasis on Southeast Asian gangs in America may sound a bit reminiscent of Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino, the novel diverges from the by-now common look at conflict between white and Asian Americans. Phan offers instead a multi-faceted narrative of the lives of two Vietnamese families, the Truongs and the Vos, as they piece together their relationships to each other and their communities in the decades-long aftermath of war.
At the heart of Phan's saga lies the fall of Saigon in 1975, when the mode of evacuation for many South Vietnamese depended on a family's wealth and relationships with the US military. Families who could afford it, like the Truongs, made it onto refugee boats to UN camps in Malaysia, where they waited for sponsor papers from America or France. Those left behind -- like members of the Vo family -- were killed or "reeducated" in communist-run camps.
When the story begins, Cherry Truong has deferred her medical education for a chance to convince her brother, Lum, to come home. Rather than finding him anxious to resume his life in America, Cherry discovers that he has spent the past five years becoming a successful businessman, and now lives happily with the branch of the family who had decided not to leave Vietnam after the war. His reluctance surprises her: “'But it's not home,' Cherry says, struggling to control her impatience. 'It's not America.'" Her grandaunt takes in her comment and draws a cross-generational parallel: "You know who you sound like? ... Your grandfather, when he tried to convince Bac Tran and me to leave Vietnam... Not everyone was fated to leave.”
Photo of the author by Julie Thi Underhill
From this present-day moment, the novel shifts time and changes perspective in successive chapters, conveying a different character's experience within either the Vo or Truong families. The flashbacks provide glimpses of past memories that continue to inflict bitterness and rage. The most striking story comes from Cherry's grandmother, who had initially been left behind in Vietnam and now wields power over her family in America. Grandma Vo's inflated sense of self-worth and ruthless authority are nearly comic in scope and execution. But when she decides to teach Lum a lesson for his gambling addiction, she exposes herself as a self-aggrandizing, ego-driven woman less interested in educating a grandchild than in exacting revenge, and the pattern of family fissures seems destined to continue.
Some of the other characters are less powerfully drawn. The elder Truong grandmother and grandfather tell stories of how they have endured the oppressive obligations to their French sponsors, the devastating memories of sexual abuse within their family, and the shame and pleasure of watching the younger generation come of age in France. While the events being described are undeniably moving, the novel could have done more to develop these characters as they attempt to maintain their integrity and remain a coherent family.
Still, Phan's gifts are considerable, and the novel is at its best in exposing the dark underside of family relationships while simultaneously creating many sympathetic, realistic characters. For Phan, there are no heroes or villains, no stereotypical submissive Asian immigrants or loud-mouth Americans. Her novel focuses on the familiar characters of everyday life -- those family members whom you love, tolerate, and sometimes despise. With the return to Cherry Truong's voice at the end of the novel, Phan gestures toward the uncertain knowingness possessed by a younger generation of Vietnamese descendents living in America and France, and their continuing -- and at times successful -- struggle to comprehend the legacy of Vietnam.
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Jee Yoon Lee teaches at the George Washington University and maintains the blog writinglikeanasian.blogspot.com.
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