Let me begin with this disclaimer: I don’t usually read Asian immigrant memoirs. At least, not until very recently. This particular book came to my attention while I was randomly perusing some Asian American culture blogs, where it had received some attention, in part I’m assuming, because of its provocative title. The reason I wanted to put out this disclaimer up front is because, unlike a lot of other reviews for this book available on the web, this one is not written with an academic background in ethnic studies or extensive experience with the canon of the Asian American memoir. So, what can my review offer? Well, as the child of Asian immigrants who had never read Asian immigrant memoirs until very recently, I found the experience of reading this particular memoir and studying the blogosphere’s response to it to be interesting because of the questions it raised for me as an ethnic person in contemporary America who occasionally writes things for public consumption (Exhibit A: this blog post). So, in addition to sharing my thoughts on the book, I’m going to share some thoughts on the responses it has elicited, which I have found to be equally interesting.
First off, a quick rundown of the book and its author. I Love Yous Are for White People is by Lac Su, a young Vietnamese immigrant who, as a child, escaped South Vietnam with his family in 1979 and immigrated to America. The memoir begins with a harrowing boat dock escape then explores Su’s experience of growing up in Los Angeles in a series of chapters that read like individual essays. As noted by many reviewers, the book touches upon themes of filial piety, identity negotiation, and the pains of cultural transition. Also noted by many reviewers: what carries the memoir is Su’s voice. Even though a lot of the anecdotes feel either far-fetched (at one point, he blows balloons out of discarded condoms found in the hallway of his family’s apartment building) or too familiar (there’s a scene in a restaurant where his father doesn’t understand how food stamps work), I remained engaged because Su narrated these moments with self-deprecation and earnestness. It is hard not to like a guy who constantly notes how his father calls him “Big Head”—evidently the translation of a Vietnamese “term of endearment.”
While there were a lot of interesting and amusing moments in the memoir, of particular interest to me was the prevalence of violence throughout. I got the impression that for Su and his family, violence was encoded in their family’s story from the get-go. From the boat-dock escape amidst machine gun fire at the beginning, to the brushes with street violence sprinkled throughout, Su’s family just couldn’t get a break. For me, the most riveting scene in the book was a scene of random violence in which street thugs attack Su’s father while he tries to bike to work; the ostensible leader of the gang pins Su’s father on the ground and attempts to shove a screwdriver into his throat (Su’s father avoids serious harm by turning his head to the side in the nick of time). In addition to depictions of random violence like this, there are countless scenes of domestic violence in which Su’s volatile and overbearing father punches, whips, slaps, or uppercuts everything and everyone in sight, including his wife and children. Then, in the latter half of the memoir, Su recounts incidents of gang violence in which he engages in hand-to-hand combat with other local street toughs. Cumulatively, it comes across as one big olio of dominance rituals and tribalism.
So why did I find the violence so interesting? Well, a simple explanation is just that violence, when so frankly depicted, is often very compelling. Those of you who have read Blood Meridian (Vintage Books, 1985) by Cormac McCarthy and enjoyed it can probably speak to the dark poetry of violence. Then, there is Anne Sebold’s The Lovely Bones (Little, Brown, 2002), which has returned to prominence recently because of Peter Jackson’s film adaption (for those who aren’t familiar, the book and movie are about a fourteen-year-old girl who is raped, murdered and dismembered). Sebold has been quoted as saying she was motivated to write about violence because she doesn’t think violence is unusual; she feels it is just a part of life. Furthermore, she believes we get in trouble when we separate people who’ve experienced it from those who haven’t. And I would have to agree with her; to a lot of people, violence exists in the realm of “otherness,” a place distant and separate from the life they live. This is germane to Lac Su’s memoir because the palpable violence in Su’s stories resonated with me on a personal level, but I’m guessing it didn’t have that same effect with everyone. Perhaps its because I’m just another American who grew up inundated with images of violence via television and movies, or perhaps the specific depictions of violence in the memoir, which ranged from politically geared violence to not-so-random urban violence, conformed to a pattern that can be found in the experience of many Southeast Asian immigrants. Let’s face it, the wars of Indochina ended up encoding violence into the history of countless immigrant families. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I am an aficionado of politically geared violence or urban violence, but I would say that both are ineluctable aspects of my family’s history and reality. Why does this matter? Well, I think the depiction of violence in art, when done well, can be a double-edged sword: you harness the emotional force that images of violence are imbued with in order to elucidate some deeper truth, but you also cannot help but reduce that violence to an artistic substance, a kind of narrative ingredient.
So, here is where the other reviews of this book come in. Several of these blurbs noted that it covered familiar territory with its thematic combination of filial piety, cultural identity, and urban gang violence. While I can understand the resistance towards these worn-out tropes, I think it’s slightly shortsighted to consider this memoir solely as another entry into the slate of memoirs that deal with these tropes. But that isn’t to say that this memoir is unique. Perhaps it isn’t; perhaps if I surveyed the Asian immigrant memoir canon, I’d find several others that explore these same tropes with equal or better skill. What I’m trying to say is if urban violence and the Southeast Asian immigrant story have become such familiar bedfellows, then perhaps that’s the conversation we should be having around books like this one. Going back to Anne Sebold and her views on violence, I think it’s when we classify violence as an element of otherness, or reduce it to a narrative element, that we run the risk of sidestepping fruitful discussions that can potentially bring to the fore systemic issues underlying contemporary institutions and cultures. Perhaps there are geopolitical patterns and socioeconomic roadmaps in place that breed these heritages of violence. Not to get too macro, but I think this topic of discussion is particularly relevant to today’s international climate, considering the state of current U.S. foreign affairs: we have a war in Iraq, a war in Afghanistan, and a war brewing in Iran. Islamic extremism has become a permanent fixture in news cycles, and the accepted liberal left-wing interpretation appears to be that terrorist organizations point to American political violence abroad when entreating young men to join up. While I admit that I have probably made some large mental leaps by going from this memoir by a Vietnamese American male to meditations on the current conditions of U.S. foreign affairs (see my previous blog post for a similar rant), when reading a memoir like this one (which opens with a historically and politically saturated scene and then explores an ethnic family’s roadmap through America), I don’t think it’s necessarily beyond the pale to consider how the geopolitical actions of today shape the cultures of tomorrow. If nothing else, I appreciated that Lac Su’s memoir prompted me to make these connections and consider these questions.
Furthermore, among contemporary critics, there is also some resistance brewing towards literary work by Asians that perpetuate the formula of people of color as victims. The sentiment appears to be that using the person of color/victim pairing in order to deploy emotional bombs or to fulfill sociopolitical agendas is a well-worn approach and should be eschewed for the sake of progress. While I do agree that recycling such a familiar formula can be tiresome and counterproductive, I think the danger in this shift is that it would potentially shift the discussion along a class axis, as opposed to merely shifting it on a thematic axis. I don’t have any hard figures or data, but I have the sense that many disadvantaged people of color in America today feel like victims in some way or another, and that manifests in the literature they produce. However, perhaps the critical resistance is more against the imposed images of victimization, i.e. those produced by a white person (see: David Brooks’ op-ed on Avatar and “The Messiah Complex“) that are then adopted and perpetuated by the artists of the culture upon which the images have been imposed. Perhaps the sentiment is that in order for people of color to resist the imposed role of “the victim,” they must produce art that does not self-identify them as victims. Tying this back to the memoir: I found I Love Yous Are for White People and the critical conversation around it to be interesting because I think Su, through this memoir, made real attempts to represent himself not just as a Vietnamese immigrant male operating according to an imposed or predetermined character sketch, but also as an individual with a distinct personality that can be discerned amidst the familiar tropes and role-plays of Asian American literature. And for that reason, I, as well as many other reviewers, appreciated Su and his efforts as a storyteller.
P.S. This memoir, for a variety of reasons, reminded me of Spencer Nakasako and Sokly Ny’s documentary A.K.A. Don Bonus,which is also about a young Southeast Asian immigrant teenager trying to navigate his way through school and family life. I highly recommend it for anyone interested in stories of this ilk.