Angst from Vietnamese Writers

Lam, Tran, and Tran chronicle humor, sadness of immigrant life

An 11-year-old is evacuated by cargo plane two days before the fall of Saigon. A sexually abused runaway steals a wallet on a World Trade Center elevator on 9/11. An immigrant family treasures an old photo of a man holding a gun. While these images may seem purely dark, the writers who created them explained they are the source of humor as well as melacholy in a Harvard panel entitled “Dreams, Sex, Dust: Three Vietnamese American Writers.”

Novelist Gish Jen ’77 moderated the April 12 event together with Cabot Professor of English Literature and Professor of African and African American Studies Werner Sollors. Essayist Andrew Lam, performance artist Lan Tran, and poet Truong Tran all presented readings to the audience gathered in Ticknor Lounge.

Sollors provided opening remarks and introduced the first reading, Andrew Lam’s “Child of Two Worlds,” an angst-ridden autobiographical sketch of the author’s exile from Vietnam and his coming of age in America, from his essay collection “Perfume Dreams.”

“His writing represents the inevitability of some form of American assimilation that, while it is still taking place, we no longer have a good metaphor for. We keep denouncing the melting pot, but something of the sort keeps going on,” said Sollors of Lam.

Lam detailed his resistance to his mother’s attempts to bind him to his culture by reading letters received from relatives left behind.

“What did I do? I skimmed. I skipped. I shrugged,” read Lam, drawing laughter from the audience.

The theme of angst also pervaded Lan Tran’s reading, a performed monologue of runaway-cum-pickpocket Violet from Tran’s solo show “Elevator/Sex,” which premiered off-Broadway last May and foregrounds the similarities between the experiences of 9/11 survivors and victims of sexual abuse.

After taking a moment to put herself in character, the sunny Tran emerged as the tough-talking Violet. Having described how she swiped a woman’s wallet in the express elevator just as the North Tower was struck, Violet drew a disconcerting comparison between herself and her sexual abusers.

“All the shit I’ve been through. All those fat men my mom brought home. Want me to call them Daddy, then do me like no daddy ever should a girl. When you been through shit like that, what’s one more skinny Chinaman? He ain’t so bad. He don’t beat you....He trifling. Like a pickpocket on 9/11,” she read. Despite the bleak subject matter, Tran’s direct and decidedly politically incorrect style drew peals of laughter from the audience.

As a preface to his reading from his 2002 collection of prose poems “Dust and Conscience” and his recently completed manuscript “Four Letter Words,” Truong Tran placed particular emphasis on the political nature of writing.

“I wrote the second collection as a response to our wonderful Laura Bush who cancelled the poetry summit in 2003 saying that poetry and politics have nothing to do with one another,” he said.

If homogenizing connotations no longer make the “melting pot” an apt metaphor for cultural assimilation, Truong Tran’s condensed prosody—written as blocks of text without capitalization or punctuation—attempted to capture the mutability of possible futures and the importance of finding an individual voice in a new language: “my mother says I would have been married in saigon settled with two children as for that man in the picture holding the gun where would he be now as it is decisions arrived at somewhere in southern california he owns a restaurant i’ve written a poem.”

—Staff writer Alison S. Cohn can be reached at