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Blunt-Force Ethnic Credibility

By Som-Mai Nguyen

  • June 30, 2022

There’s a jazz-hands half-nelson device I dislike in diasporic literature and criticism. Writers extrapolate from orthographic coincidence and sprinkle in non-English words to assert unearned authority. I tire of variants on: in Vietnamese, a tonal language, ma can mean many things. The author rattles off ghost, mother, tomb, horse, code, accompanied by the suggestion that this phrenologically means something. These claims are in-group sleights of hand, smugly announcing, without real evidence, that the author has exotic cultural knowledge the outsider cannot fathom. If you know, you know.

Most linguists reject the idea that the structure of one’s language constrains what one can conceive of and therefore finitely determines how one thinks and lives (such linguistic determinism is a popular distortion of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis). It is, however, on the nearby slippery slope of “language matters” that we find embarrassing armchair projections onto common turns of phrase. It’s of supposed note that in Vietnamese one eats rather than celebrates the new year, birthdays, anniversaries, Noël. Nước means both water and country. Indeed, whether by naiveté or narcissism, many diasporic writers seemingly cannot accept that The Motherland doesn’t care for them and their psyche’s under-processed, shapeless projections onto a culture to which they do not hold the keys alone, if at all, no matter what White people on committees think. Some linguistic coincidences make poetry available via “the possibility to (mis)understand something into existence,” but other puns are just puns, tropes just tropes. I identify the latter as those I would be mortified to explain to my mother, who became an adult in Vietnamese and therefore uses it like an adult: with capacity for distrust and disdain.

Interviewed in The New Yorker by Hua Hsu (Taiwanese-American), the poet-novelist Ocean Vuong (Vietnamese-American) described his aunt’s horror at the “lexicon of American violence” addressed in his poem “Old Glory.” She found the violence of American idioms “totally foreign” because “in the Vietnamese context — and it might be similar to Chinese — words are like spells. If you talk about death, death visits you, so you don’t talk about death at the dinner table. There’s a lot of taboo around speech and how it brings forth the darkness.” Hsu accepts the offhand comparison, adding that, in implied contrast to English, “even the word for a number conjures something taboo.” Vuong riffs back: “[America’s] actually quite archaic in how it imagines the capacity of language, and, and in this sense, Chinese and Vietnamese culture are way ahead, both in the time line, but also culturally, in their wisdom.” These hyperbolic claims escape unquestioned in the edited interview. Too many people believe their culture faces life’s hardships with the most dignity, spirit, and wit (every population, it seems, purports to be uniquely familiar with repression). Such vanity is nearly always annoying and corny, but it becomes especially strange when humorless, when one says things like “in the Vietnamese context … words are like spells.” Many people don’t know this: the Vietnamese brain simply cannot handle non-literal language, mine’s too full of ancient spiritual wisdom. 

The more immediate rebuttal to Vuong’s anecdote: it is absurd that his aunt should be horrified at figurative language that references death. Chết cha, đói/khát/buồn ngủ/buồn/chán muốn chết, sợ chết khiếp, sợ hết hồn, cắt cổ, tụi Astros bị diệt chưa, tao đập mày chết. I find her shock poignant, but don’t accept it at face value. Of course it is perfectly human to reject the foreign in oneself, but I am baffled that Vuong should so surely act as spokesperson in generalizing ethnic significance from her individual, initial response. In repeating these careless hypotheses, individuals within (and outside) the diaspora normalize essentialism and reinforce their authority to adjudicate authenticity.

In 2019, Penguin Classics released Timothy Allen’s translation of the Vietnamese epic poem Truyện Kiều as The Song of Kieu. Anthony Morreale’s piece in The Mekong Review comprehensively discusses the book’s technical shortcomings, but what merits further examination, to me, is how the industry permitted such naked amateurism and why the translation garnered such luminous praise from famous Vietnamese-American writers, functioning as professional ethnic auditors. In an interview with Vietcetera, Allen described translating the 3,254 lines of Truyện Kiều, the cornerstone of the Vietnamese literary canon, the same way I proofread texts to my grandmother across the Pacific: “I kept a Vietnamese-English dictionary beside me, and I made regular use of VDict.com, which provides online automatic translation of words and phrases.” I learned to speak, but not write, Vietnamese because it was the language my family spoke at home; Allen picked up some language skills during his time as an aid worker in Vietnam. Both of us had to teach ourselves to read. Penguin contracted him to translate a national epic; I don’t think it’s right to say I speak Vietnamese on my resume.

But Allen flirts with linguistic determinism to demonstrate authority, and by doing so, demonstrates that he lacks it. He begins each chapter with a list of words translated from Vietnamese to English, the chapter number and several near-homographs, suggesting (nonexistent) deeper significance in their similarity. For instance, the chapter page for một, meaning one, features definitions of mót, mọt, and mốt, meaning “desire, to glean,” “wormhole,” and “fashion, trend,” respectively. Here he reveals that he is unfamiliar with the Vietnamese alphabet, for o and ô are distinct letters (as is ơ) that denote different phonemes altogether (as opposed to the diacritics on ó, ò, , , and õ, which mark tonal contours). He explains:

Taking the uninflected letters for each number as a base, and then looking up in a standard bilingual dictionary the meanings of as many variants as I could find by adding diacritics. I confess that this originates from my own notes as a struggling poet-translator coming to grips with the rudiments of the Vietnamese language; as I looked at my notes on the page, they seemed to give not only an indication of the complexities of the tonal system, but also a kind of unexpected and slightly haphazard insight into Vietnamese society itself. 

The suggestion that the equivalent of juxtaposing bag/beg/big/bog/bug on a page could grant any noteworthy “insight into Vietnamese society” defies belief, but at least it’s funny. Although the project is energetic, gorgeous in many places, demonstrating Allen’s skill in English, it raises unanswerable questions about his capacity to understand, let alone translate, antiquated Vietnamese verse.

Allen placed third in the Stephen Spender Prize for Poetry in Translation in 2008, and in his corresponding comment, he wrote: “Vietnamese is far from English. The color xanh, for example, normally translates as ‘blue,’ while lục is what we call ‘green,’ but the boundary between these two shades is not in a European place.” But xanh is simply either blue or green; blue can be specified as xanh dương or xanh da trời, while green is xanh lá cây or xanh lục. And what’s so unimaginably distant about blue-green? I’ve looked at bodies of water, eyes, fabric, and not known what to name the color. The misjudged boundary between xanh and lục is one of imprecision and exoticization, European places indeed.

Allen’s volume also conspicuously lacks citations of Vietnamese scholarship. Rather than reasonably contextualizing Truyện Kiều as a Vietnamese adaptation of an earlier Chinese pulp melodrama, Allen does something comparable to pitching Romeo & Juliet as being about Italy. He opts for a focus on Chinese history in the introduction (which takes up thirty-four of the forty-five pages), while also inconsistently Sinicizing names (he writes most location names in Chinese but most character names in Vietnamese, except “those whose Chineseness seemed especially significant”). There may be reasonable justifications for these editorial decisions, yet not a single Vietnamese name appears on the acknowledgements page, though Western and Chinese names do. The “Further Reading” list similarly includes no Vietnamese scholars on Vietnamese literature, only Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, which specifically considers the post-1975 world via U.S. and Vietnamese art and monument-making. The Song of Kiều treats Việt Nam as South China, rendering it passive receptacle, satellite, minor. That Penguin Classics would ever handle a major translation from, say, French, with such lack of care is unimaginable. 

Searching Penguin’s websites for comparable text-translator pairings (i.e., of pre-nineteenth century poetry, toward English) one finds The Tale of Genji, The Tales of Ise, The Prose Edda, The Bhagavad Gita, and Essays in Idleness. At least all of these volumes were translated by scholars with extensive experience in the texts’ respective source languages and their historical forms; Medieval Japan’s Essays in Idleness was translated by an academic who lived and taught in Japan for two decades. Other search results: The Kalevala was translated by a fluent Finnish user who was born in Finland and received Finland’s highest literary award for the project; The Book of Taliesin was translated by Welsh writers born into Welsh-speaking families. 

Translation ought to be done and considered generously, as art that can accommodate many intentions and abilities — even if Allen’s result seems both less intentional and more disruptive than the controversially disloyal screen adaptation of a beloved text or the perennial take on Jane Austen. He does at least frame the project with humility and eager affection as a “reworking,” perhaps as a gesture toward the fact that he mostly wrangled preexisting translations into a more elegant form rather than working directly with the source text. Nevertheless, the work itself materializes as hubris, and in not supplementing his amateur methodology with anything other than the imprint’s prestige, Penguin Classics failed him and the epic with irresponsible under-editing. The conviction that translation toward English, of any sureness and quality, is a gift in and of itself is dated and appalling. Penguin’s low standards indeed seem unchanged from 1942, when the company published Arthur Waley’s translation of Monkey, also known as Journey to the West. An Englishman who “never visited Asia, explaining that he was content with the ideal image of the East in his imagination,” Waley not only produced well-respected translations from Classical Chinese and Classical Japanese but “interpreted the Chinese mind,” impliedly constant and knowable. The comparison is kind to both: Waley’s translations remain influential, but Allen at least lived in Việt Nam.

In any case, translation toward English is not an act of benevolent charity — Penguin’s imprimatur did not rescue Truyện Kiều from obscurity. Nearly a hundred million people live in Việt Nam and several million Vietnamese people live abroad. Việt Nam is now more populous than the United Kingdom, Turkey, Australia, France, Germany, South Korea — and many, many other countries. A friend recently shared a reminder from her mother: Vietnamese doesn’t need you. We get so embroiled in our diasporic angst, writing heartfelt, tortured essays about not being able to impart cultural knowledge to any children we might have, but we’re lucky for what is not the case for everyone who has lost a language or had it taken from them. Vietnamese is not endangered, and its literature is not honored by translation toward English — it is English-using society that benefits from gaining access to literature produced in other languages, even if The Poetry Review misspells Nguyễn Du’s surname in all ten instances in its review from the Autumn 2019 issue. (The critic, born and educated in Hong Kong, wrote that Allen’s translation “re-energised Nguyyễn Du’s lyricism in meticulous free verse.”) Allen agrees: “It is a great shame that Vietnam’s national epic has for too long been neglected outside of its home country (apart from among the Vietnamese diaspora). I hope however that my little translation will go some way towards redressing that omission, and that English-speaking readers may be enriched and rewarded as they discover the enduring power of the fabulous world of Kieu.”

The case of The Song of Kieu also offers the opportunity to consider how tokenistic praise from prominent diasporic and non-White authors can be used as a blunt cudgel to suggest value more broadly. Ocean Vuong called Allen’s translation “an essential book for anyone invested, not only in Vietnamese literature, but the historic power of the national epic … and its perennial place in our species’ efforts toward self-knowledge. Tim Allen’s new translation offers clean fluidity while honoring the original’s varied rhythms and jagged lyricism. A luminous feat.” From Viet Thanh Nguyen: “Tim Allen’s new translation of The Song of Kieu is lively and absorbing. It reinvigorates a classic and wonderfully conveys the romance, adventure, tragedy, and wisdom of the poem that all Vietnamese know.” That all Vietnamese know!

By anointing a few individual endorsers from a text’s culture of origin, publishers and review outlets subcontract the power of enabling mediocrity to those parties. Blurry-edged, heterogeneous cultures become consumable categories of absolution: safe, ethnically vetted homework for good literary citizens looking to diversify their reading diet. But no matter how much one might admire either Vuong or Nguyen as writers in English (I very much do), neither has a specialized background in Vietnamese-language literature, works in Vietnamese, or publicly translates between English and Vietnamese — let alone has expertise in nineteenth-century Vietnamese verse or familiarity with chữ Nôm (the older, logographic writing system in which Kiều was written). In this decade I imagine anglophone publishers in search of endorsements for any Việt-Nam-adjacent content frantically flipping through a two-card Rolodex — the Vương or the Nguyễn? I’ve used the diacritics to show you I can.

Why does Vuong wield his influence to instruct his audience in Vietnamese when he has claimed over and over to not write for White people and/or Americans, that he doesn’t care about what they think? Why do the people chased after for endorsement give it? Self-promotion, careerist savvy, and exhaustion are tempting answers but incomplete in their cynicism (though probably true for a handful of people). I suppose people over-assume authority and overclaim belonging for fear of being denied both altogether. After all, it seems wrong to hand over all of one’s identity to Vietnamborn people, to refrain from ever making any claim about the self and what it can know, just because you happened to grow up within the arbitrary borders of an elsewhere; that deference to the nation-state sparks defiance and resentment in me, too. 

A community (including any community circumscribed by the borders of a country) is not an inherently ethical or egalitarian entity, and belonging cannot be left to its capriciousness. Feeling Vietnamese includes any sense of knowing you come from the place, or people, even if they reject you; no one else can be the arbiter for a trait so base and amorphous. But you cannot feel your way into linguistic or social proficiency; insecurity about and anger at rejection by “the motherland” (a phrase I find unspeakably corny) cannot lead you to betraying yourself by forgoing accuracy and precision altogether. You can’t draw yourself closer to people by convincing yet others that they’re by your side.

The problem with these endorsements is also bigger than crises of belonging within diasporic individuals. It is troubling that the industry suggests readers ought to care what these Vietnamese-American authors have to say about this translation, specifically because of their Vietnamese-ness, instead of their status as English-language craftspeople one might trust to read, deeply, the language in which they write. This conflation of existence and cultural / language / contextual knowledge is consistent with how language is both racialized and claimed to be otherwise. Because a woefully small number of anglophones read literature in translation, it is also possible that, when they finally do turn to translated work, they will rely on the blurbs even more so than when selecting texts originally published in English. I am thus more troubled by endorsements used to signal ethnic and racial authenticity than I am by, say, MFA cohorts praising each other’s debuts. When publishers solicit blurbs or outlets assign reviews, they decide how non-English texts reach anglophone readers, and how non-White work gets sold in White markets. The solicitations and assignments can exotify and therefore constrain and misrepresent the work. MFA nepotism seems milquetoast in comparison. As determinism might impose too much on orthographic happenstance, publishers overextrapolate from coincidences of identity. In both cases, the misty, random reality of being alive is distorted and deadened.

What’s the alternative? In some unrigorous sense of representation, for the anglophone, some might argue that at least these blurbs, reviews, interviews are coming from Asian-Americans rather than people even further detached from Vietnamese culture. But this tokenistic concession topples at the gentlest attempt to extrapolate: if a Japanese-American had blurbed The Song of Kieu, sure, one might say “better them than some White guy from Ohio,” but why should the latter even be the alternate on the table? There’s no binary choice between seeking endorsement from U.S.-based Việt Kiều and from no one: there are Vietnamese scholars, and scholars of Vietnamese (Việt or otherwise). Neither geno- nor phenotype carries language or cultural knowledge; I know this. I inherit my family’s faces, and yet. Marking this flimsiness is not at odds with recognizing that quasi-/involuntary monolingualism can be excruciatingly painful, nor does it require stooping to classist demands of academic bilingualism or formal education, reproductions of old hierarchies. One might be “authentically Vietnamese” without being a scholar of Vietnamese literature or achieving fluency in the Vietnamese language. But if published work must be relentlessly essential, urgent, searing, incandescent — blank, blank, and blankly blank — shouldn’t publishers ask it to be hawked by people who could plausibly make those assessments for the text at hand, not just people who look like they could?

Efforts to address demographic deficits in publishing (or other media, or the legal profession, or academia) too often settle for the latter. On the insufficiency of image when it comes to representation, the academic Kristen Warner coined the term “plastic representation” as that which “uses the wonder that comes from seeing characters on screen who serve as visual identifiers for specific demographics in order to flatten the expectation to desire anything more” (Warner was specifically writing about Black audiences, but the term feels widely relevant.) Weeping that a Chinese woman won an Oscar, sobbing even more because a Korean man announced it! The Internet’s idiom of hyperbole notwithstanding — why? Keening, cloying racial cosplay, this prescribed inspiration, deferential to puzzlingly rigid ideas of what constitutes “a people” with whom we ought to feel kinship, “community.” Aren’t you embarrassed? Ngô Thanh Vân and Kelly Marie Tran populating the Star Wars universe is “representation” only vis-à-vis a population’s statistics, not in terms of how “lived experiences” theoretically allow individuals to see life and create art that others couldn’t. Cherishing the self-respect of ambivalence amounts to neither “gatekeeping” nor holding a “scarcity mindset.” Of course, the observation that “shallow” “representation” “fails” is by now practically its own unbearable, obvious cliché (in which I have nonetheless engaged), but I refuse to forfeit “the gift of being disgusted,” to appropriate Walter Benjamin.

Regarding representation, Viet Thanh Nguyen has recast the problem in terms of “narrative scarcity” and “plenitude,” concluding in the need for more “voices,” which would lower the stakes for any Asian media product or creator. (His books are the only two titles that his publisher, Grove Atlantic, has filed online under the “Asian American” tag; they have not listened.) But while I crave — so deeply! — the right to be mediocre and rewarded for it, “more voices,” even in publisher and critic positions, seems too vague a means to address the way audiences discover and choose whom to listen to. Work by non-White, non-anglophone, and/or non-Western writers deserves the respect of rigorous, sensitive, specifically equipped criticism and publicity, not just rubber-stamps from celebrities that usher them into legible categories based on biographical bullet points.

The cultural discourse in the U.S. surrounding Việt Nam and Viet-ness has expanded in recent years — Việt Nam is more than a war, Americans have learned — yet it remains difficult to reach beyond the ongoing century and the American diaspora. To engage with Việt Nam’s pre-1960s history or art, one is effectively limited to academic translations of French sociologists. Contemporary literature by Viet authors (working not only in Vietnamese but French, German, Czech, Russian) remains under-translated. Given the breadth of this lacuna, one might ask whether Vietnamese or Asian authorship make sense at all as categories. Does it actually inform the browsing bookshop patron of anything about what they might find, or does it just help the dutiful reader check a box without even wondering what isn’t available to them? Vietnamese and Asian groupings in anglophone publishing seem based solely on crude clusterings of lived experiences, the marketability of stagnant, consumable, essentialized identities. I stop here because Stuart Hall is smarter than me.

As strongly as I feel against misrepresenting one’s authority, of course default suspicion of someone’s claim to a culture is as inappropriate as unquestioning acceptance. I’m too ungenerous to people in whom I see something of myself. My paternal grandparents’ accents come from the old North, my mother’s from Central Việt Nam, and with my father, it’s complicated. I sound different from how many Vietnamese-Americans speak, mainly phonetically, sometimes lexically. I remember arguing with a sixth-grade classmate when a third person asked us how to say short in Vietnamese. We answered differently, and I was affronted that she would lie to people who didn’t know any better. At home, I raged to my mother, who informed me that the world is larger than myself and includes people from the South, their children, their grandchildren, who sometimes use different words. We’re doomed to be who we’ve always been — here’s me now, narrowing my eyes. I want you to believe me; I don’t think you should.

When people say the X community, I wonder whether they just mean some X people I know and refuse to say that because it sounds sillier to extrapolate uniform feeling from the latter, as there’s no X convention where everyone votes on a slate of propositions. I feel no allegiance toward Vietnamese, Vietnamese(-)American, Asian, or Asian(-)American “communities” because no such things can be composed of millions of individuals without interpersonal relationships. I graduated from law school recently, and you could not have caught me dead at any Asian Pacific American Law Student Association events making polite small talk with people headed to clerk for the country’s foulest xenophobes. I do not care for the nation-state, any nation-state; I care about people who have fed and held and loved me, and those I’ve tried to love back. When people say representation, I wonder why anyone should accept fictive lookalike kin, an indirect democracy of culture and its quasi-electeds, rather than a direct one, and what anyone even wants from art. I cannot preface my thoughts with “as a Vietnamese-American woman” credentials, not with a straight face. Of course, everything I think is “as a Vietnamese-American woman,” but my critical legitimacy derives from elsewhere. Still, every cover letter I write explaining that I’m of Vietnam, in some sense, is an act of pathetic, irreparable, mercenary, crass disloyalty. Any similar admission in this essay, too, perhaps.

The tropes of writing about one’s ethnic heritage as an anglophone Vietnamese-something: mango juice dripping down chins (but see: Soniah Kamal’s excellent “When My Authentic is Your Exotic”), ghosts, phoenixes, fish sauce, flag drama, Paris By Night, have you eaten? Vietnamese is a language that can caress or slice, as though that weren’t true of any human tool. Here lies overinterpretation, obviousness, the complete absence of any conservationist instinct against overmining, any impulse to care for what is yours. Mawkish adolescent attempts at lyricism (pejorative), trading in pride for skittish attention, giving grand speeches at the ramparts about hyphens while people get killed and imprisoned. I confess impatience. I’d rather die than die on the hill of demanding copy editors de-hyphenate Asian-American, or demand that my grandmothers include the hyphen in my given name, where it sits mostly as courtesy for American paperwork, pinning the syllables together in the right order.

Flailing at the most conspicuous “Viet” thing and telling people — who have already seen and packed it away in their hearts — to look, to do astrology memes for ethnicity, to pin their whole selves on nothing, on keeping a plastic bag of plastic bags and being able to laugh at some things but not others, like everyone does. Who are you pointing for? I think of Jane Austen’s Emma and banality: “If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more — but you know what I am.” If I wanted to be what I dislike, I’d claim this embarrassment is a symptom of being Viet. If I were to give it specific roots: Northern primness, Central melancholy, and the lack of any Southern lust for life. What’s credible about any of that? How come? Prioritizing “lived experience” demands disclosure — fellowship-application logic no one can truly afford to accept. The historian Joan Scott explains: “When experience is taken as the origin of knowledge, the vision of the individual subject … becomes the bedrock of evidence on which explanation is built. Questions about the constructed nature of experience, and how subjects are constituted as different in the first place, about how one’s vision is structured — about language (or discourse) and history — are left aside.” 

In Brandon Taylor’s exquisite short story “Prophets,” the Black protagonist, a recent graduate of a writing program in Iowa, doesn’t know what to do with the work of “the famous black writer” visiting town: “Coleman had thought the excerpt was satire. But when he checked the internet, he saw that people had passed the link around in great earnestness and depth of feeling. They felt that something real had been articulated.” The famous Black writer puppeteers a repentant White audience at a reading, accepting and rejecting them through pseudo in-group jokes that unsettle and thrill said self-flagellating audience — and bemuse Coleman. The famous Black writer cares so much what White people think of him and who can blame him, except for how he continues to reassure them that he does.

When I read Peter Zinoman and Nguyễn Nguyệt Cầm’s translation of Vũ Trọng Phụng’s Số đỏ last spring, I delighted in how volatile and unknown it felt to me. A 1936 satire about a con artist who inadvertently clambers up the social ladder, hopelessly repulsed by everything and everyone at the class-language-world-upending transition between French colonization and Vietnamese nationalism, it is a masterpiece of Vietnam’s modern canon, more of which I wish were available in English. I took in the viciousness with which it attacked all sorts of French and all sorts of Vietnamese, and I missed my dead grandfather, scowling at and marking up newspapers for fun while I flipped through novels at the foot of his bed. I might (I would never) write of my grandfather: “In Vietnamese, I MISS YOU glosses almost the same as I REMEMBER YOU. TO MISS: to remember. The latter, literally, can go I ARRIVE AT REMEMBERING YOU. I recall. I call you back.” Real eyes realize real lies!

It is not the artist’s job to undo market demands or argue with critics and readers; the landscapes in which their work exists and is used are not wholly their doing. But are authors faultless for letting themselves be too easily believed, crowned authorities on authenticity? Perhaps I harbor too much distrust of readers. Mine is an arrogant critic’s panic that readers will fail to question what they see — a conviction rooted in the fact that I, too, am often that sloppy, deficient reader, trusting anyone who can wink with authority, rolling my eyes about the emperor’s new clothes with my fly down. I wish I knew when to know better.

 

Som-Mai Nguyen is from Houston. She lives in Philadelphia and works in legal aid.