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July/August 2021 -   -  

Art, Literature, and Resistance:

The Work of Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American Artists


A work of art can carry a heavy burden. It can speak for a people, for a moment in history, like Picasso’s Guernica. It can serve a regime. It can be a mere commodity, something bought and sold like a racehorse or yacht, or it can deliver a sublime experience of reverence and enlightenment.

Or it can critique a government, challenging the received wisdom that a society has come to accept. So it is with three Vietnamese artists, two of whom were among the wave of post-Vietnam War refugees who came to the United States but have now returned. The three—Dinh Q. Lê, Nguyen Trinh Thi, and Thuan Andrew Nguyen—were the subject of a lecture delivered (virtually, thanks to the pandemic) at the University of Arizona and other venues by Pamela Nguyen Corey in March.

An art historian with degrees from the University of California, Irvine, and Cornell University, Corey taught at the University of London until January 2021, when she joined the faculty of Fulbright University Vietnam in Ho Chi Minh City. Her appointment complements the emergence of the former city of Saigon as a major center of contemporary art—but art, Corey notes, that is sometimes at odds with Vietnamese officialdom.

Born in 1968 in Hà Tiên, on the Cambodian border in southwesternmost Vietnam, Dinh Q. Lê escaped from the country with his family when he was ten. He spent his teenage years in Los Angeles, earning a degree in photography from the University of California at Santa Barbara and another in studio art from the School of Visual Arts in New York. He returned to Vietnam in 1996, taking residence in Ho Chi Minh City, and curated shows by local artists, and then mounted exhibits of his own, such as the recent Damaged Genes.

The title refers to exposure to Agent Orange, a topic the Vietnamese government has avoided as much as the American government has, and which he has depicted through dolls and figurines reconfigured to show such things as conjoined twins and genetically damaged children. The images aren’t comfortable to view. Corey notes that the use of dolls is particularly daring given Vietnam’s leading role as a producer of toys and children’s clothing. Lê also has made films and photographic collages that subtly lampoon stereotypes of the war, discomfiting all governments concerned.

Letters from Panduranga

A filmmaker of note, Nguyen Trinh Thi was born in 1973 in Hanoi, where she now lives after studying art in Iowa and California. Her 2015 film, Letters from Panduranga, which Corey took up at length in her talk, is another example of a daring critique of official government policy—in this case, a plan to build two nuclear power plants in Ninh Thuan near Cam Ranh Bay, a project that displaced and otherwise affected villages where the native Cham people had long lived.

Accustomed to acting as it wished, the government was disinclined to hear any dissent about the plants, which pose many potential dangers. In her film, Tri posits the nuclear plan as a continuation of the invasion of the ancient kingdom of Champa—its center the sacred district of Panduranga—and an extension of French colonialism and the American war, a critique not likely to win her many friends on the Central Committee.

Filmmaker Tuan Andrew Nguyen’s 2019 film and installation, The Specter of Ancestors Becoming, also touches on a sensitive subject: the mixed-race children of Senegalese soldiers who, from the 1930s to the 1950s, were an important component of the French colonial army. The Senegalese departed with the French after the defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, but they left approximately 300 children behind who describe themselves in the film as “lost” and “invisible.” Born in 1976 in Saigon and raised in California, Nguyen also now lives and works in Ho Chi Minh City.

The Specter of Ancestors Becoming

Lê, Thi, and Nguyen wave red flags, so to speak, at the very large bull that is the communist government. Vietnamese artists must be careful, Corey says, because in order to mount an exhibition of any sort, they must secure permission from what amounts to a censor’s office—and permission is not granted easily. As a result, most Vietnamese artists exhibit their work outside the country—Letters from Panduranga, for instance, was first shown at the Jeu de Paume in Paris.

Pamela Nguyen Corey’s talk can be viewed here.


Resistance of another sort comes from Viet Thanh Nguyen, whose 2015 novel The Sympathizer put an unusual spin on the Vietnam War, centering on an NVA spy whose mission is to follow the refugees of 1975 to America and keep an eye on them. Nguyen has just followed up with a sequel, The Committed, which Marc Leepson reviewed in the last issue. The Committed finds our narrator, part French and part Vietnamese, in Paris. Part historical novel, part thriller, part satire—“I did set out to try to offend everybody in that book,” he says of The Sympathizer, “[and] I think I succeeded”—Nguyen’s new book helps further his emergence as one of the leading voices in contemporary American literature.

It comes at a bad time for Asian Americans, though, who are being vilified for their supposed role in the coronavirus outbreak. Nguyen, who left Vietnam in 1975 at the age of four, says the role of a refugee can be unsettling. “I felt like an American person in a very Vietnamese household with my parents, spying on them,” he recently told Robin Givhan of The Washington Post. “But when I stepped outside of that household into the rest of the United States, I felt like a Vietnamese spying on Americans.”

He adds, however, that outside the sometimes painful influence of the refugee experience, he is as American as anyone else: “I mean, I’m an American, I’m an American citizen. I think I fully belong here.”

A transcript of Givhan’s interview with Viet Nguyen can be found at The Washington Post’s website.




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