What’s wrong with this scenario? Robert Olen Butler’s A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain wins the Pulitzer Prize despite “his portrayal of sweet and off-beat Vietnamese American caricatures,” as San Francisco State University Associate Professor Isabelle Thuy Pelaud diplomatically comments in This Is All I Choose to Tell: History and Hybridity in Vietnamese American Literature.
Meanwhile, multifaceted, defiant Vietnamese American writer Linh Dinh (Fake House) is “denigrated and dismissed for addressing the ruthless reality of life on the margins, which includes caricatures of offbeat white characters,” and bestselling author Monique Truong (The Book of Salt) is asked by her first publisher “to simplify the language because they said a Vietnamese cook could not possibly have such sophisticated thoughts and the language was too poetic for an uneducated Asian character.”
This is why Pelaud needed to write “the first book-length study of [Vietnamese American] literature.” She deftly examines 35 years of Vietnamese American writing in two parts, providing historical and cultural context in “Inclusion,” then offering close readings of diverse titles in “Interpretation.” She argues that two markers – the Vietnam War and the arrival of most Vietnamese to America as refugees, not immigrants – clearly differentiate, but should not define or limit, Vietnamese American literature from other longer-established Asian American literatures.
Pelaud shows rare weakness when she gets entangled repeating other scholars’ work – her chapter, “Hybridity,” for example – rather than relying on her own sharp perceptions. Her shrewd insight gleams brightest in “Reception” when critiquing the critics. In spite of historical, cultural and commercial challenges facing Vietnamese American writers, Pelaud’s closing prediction that soon, “more stories will be published” is certainly reason for hopeful anticipation.