|Vietnam Veterans of America|
Dust Child: A Novel that Illuminates the Fate of the Amerasian Children—and their Parents
Vietnamese-born poet and novelist Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai hit a home run with her first published novel in English, The Mountains Sing, which came out in 2020. The poetically written, multi-generational tale of a large Vietnamese family from the 1940s to the 1970s gave voice to the stories of civilian men, women, and children during that time of nearly constant warfare. It’s a compellingly written tale that deals with an important aspect of the Vietnam War that is not often available to American readers.
With her second novel in English, Dust Child (Algonquin Books, 352 pp. $28, hardcover; $13.99, Kindle), Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai has delivered again with an engagingly written tale that illuminates another important part of the Vietnam War’s history and legacy that rarely appears in the conflict’s literary canon: the unsettling fate of children born to American servicemen and Vietnamese woman during the war — and of their parents on both sides of the Pacific.
The novel focuses on Trang and Quýnh, teen-aged sisters from an impoverished South Vietnamese village who become bar girls in Saigon during the war. The sisters hide that fact from their destitute parents back home, pretending the money they send them every month comes from working office jobs. Trang, whose bar name is Kim, falls in love with a G.I., a helicopter pilot named Dan, and becomes pregnant. Before the child is born, Dan reluctantly rotates back home. She never hears from him again.
Dan, filled with remorse and guilt, comes to Saigon in 2016 with his wife Linda to try and find Kim and child he left behind — although he doesn’t tell his wife the real reason for the trip. That part of the plot is based on an American serviceman Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai worked with in 2015 when she was in Vietnam helping Amerasians — known by the pejorative term “dust children” in Vietnamese.
The parallel plot centers on Phong, an Amerasian whose goal in life is to overcome a horrific childhood mostly spent living on the streets of Saigon and immigrate to the United States with his wife and children. The reason: to escape the racism (his father was a Black G.I.), bullying, and ostracism he has faced all his life. And to try to reunite with his father.
Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai weaves those two main plots together seamlessly. In doing so, she gives voice to the inner lives of bar girls, prostitutes, and Amerasian children during the war and up to the present day. Here’s one example, in which we learn that younger sister Quýnh “had tried to live an honest life,” but the war and “had given her no choice. It had forced her to make up a version of herself that was acceptable to others… Her lies had enabled her parents to go on living.”
Another example: It’s a good bet that American males who served in Vietnam during the war know firsthand what “Saigon Tea” is. But very few of us have given much thought to what life was like for the young women who hit you with, “You buy me Saigon Tea” seconds after you walked into a bar in South Vietnam. Trust me, you’ll never think of the women pedaling Saigon Tea the same way again after reading Dust Child.
Or the fate of the thousands of Amerasians in this riveting novel that hums along rapidly, includes two big plot twists near the end, and exhibits both the foibles and moral courage of Vietnamese and Americans thrown together during the Vietnam War and the complex legacies that carried into the second decade of the 21st century.
Wayne Karlin's Latest
I have been a huge fan of Wayne Karlin’s books since I read his second novel, Lost Armies, in 1988. That small gem tells the story of a Vietnam War Marine veteran and his relationship with a community of South Vietnamese refugees in his small town in Southern Maryland.
Much of Karlin’s other literary work (eight novels and three nonfiction books) has dealt with the Vietnam War and Vietnam War veterans. Karlin — who recently retired after decades of teaching literature at the College of Southern Maryland — is a member of Vietnam Veterans of America and a recipient of (among many other honors) the VVA Excellence in the Arts Award.
His new book, Memorial Days: Vietnam Stories, 1973–2022 (Texas Tech University Press, 216 pp., $26.94), is an outstanding collection of short stories written over those years, three of which are carved out of his novel Prisoners. Some are set in Southern Maryland, a part of the country Karlin knows well and writes evocatively about. Nearly all deal with the Vietnam War and its legacies. Karlin served in Vietnam as a U.S. Marine Corps helicopter crewman.
“Lizard Wine,” for example, is set in Hanoi decades after the war. In it, Karlin spins out a tense, riveting tale involving the first Americans working with the Vietnamese in the search for remains of MIA U.S. airmen. “Search and Destroy” is a short, sharply observed, tense story about a different kind of wartime mission undertaken by a group of Marble Mountain Air Facility Marine helicopter crewmen in Da Nang: seeking out and eliminating (with extreme prejudice) a horde of rats that has invaded their hooch.
The impressionistic “American Grass” takes place during one day in the nineties at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. It’s told in the bitter voice of a young Amerasian man in “black clothes, sandals and V.C. eyes,” a “black spoiling speck” who has unsettling interactions with tourists and a Black Vietnam War veteran at The Wall.
All of the stories in Memorial Days are well-crafted, sharply defined, and character driven — and a treat for any reader, but especially for those of us whose lives have been touched by our service in the Vietnam War.
Race, the Army, & The Sixties
Beth Bailey’s An Army Afire: How the U.S. Army Confronted Its Racial Crisis in the Vietnam Era (University of North Carolina Press, 360 pp. $35, hardcover; $26.99, Kindle) takes a deep, detailed dive into what the U.S. Army called “the problem of race” in the late 1960s and early 1970s. As Vietnam War veterans know full well, that era — aka The Sixties — was a time when racial conflict rocked the nation. What many may not know is that during that turbulent time the U.S. military took its first steps to face its racial problems.
Bailey, a University of Kansas history professor, catalogs myriad racial incidents; profiles activist GIs and Army civilian and military higher-ups who worked on racial issues; and examines pervasive racial inequities on and off bases (primarily in the southern United States), and in South Vietnam during the war.
In doing so, she covers the well-known — including the August 1968 race-fueled riot at the Long Binh Jail — and the obscure, such as Richard Nixon’s politically motivated demand in 1971 to erect a monument at West Point to U.S. Military Academy graduates who died serving in the Confederate Army. That scheme, part of Nixon’s Southern Strategy of appealing to white Southerners in the 1972 presidential election, never came to fruition, mainly because the USMA Black cadets vociferously objected to it.
Bailey all but ignores significant racial disparities in the other services at the time — especially in the U.S. Navy. But her recounting of the situation in the Army is enlightening and her mixed conclusion is well supported. Much was “accomplished,” she writes, but the Army’s success in fighting for racial equity has been “incomplete.”
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