A compact, thoughtful debut addressing violence, immigrant identity, and the long shadow of the Vietnam War.
Rekdal (English/Univ. of Utah), who received the Association of Writers & Writing Programs Award for Creative Nonfiction, begins with a vicious attack in Salt Lake City by a homeless Vietnamese refugee, Kiet Thanh Ly, who stabbed random white men while shouting “You killed my people!” The author argues that the perpetrator represents a broader “disturbed appropriation of the war and its aftershocks.” “When I read about Ly’s case,” writes Rekdal, “some part of me saw his crime as a brutal way to counteract that invisibility, to kill the ideal that he could never achieve.” From there, she blends aspects of personal narrative with a consideration of the nature of survival, as experienced both by often traumatized refugees and by Ly’s victims, as well as a social history of how the Vietnamese re-established their own identities after trauma, both in Vietnam and in America, where nearly 1 million arrived in the postwar years. “To outsiders,” she writes, “the Vietnamese who resettled in the United States look like a success story continually in the making.” Yet, Rekdal argues that disturbing stories like that of Ly or the perpetrators of a grisly 1991 appliance-store massacre demonstrate that refugee trauma can be passed along biologically, as hypothesized about descendants of Holocaust survivors. The author effectively uses interviews with various people in constructing this discussion, including Ly’s victims and other refugees who knew Ly before the attack. One noted that the community’s difficult experiences “came not from war or relocation, but from the long and sometimes failed process of assimilation.” Her writing about Vietnam (where she traveled) as a newly evolved environment and her family’s experience with identity in the face of war (an uncle won a Bronze Star in Vietnam) all feels authentic and effective, although her discussion of the violent flashpoint at the book’s center could use a clearer interpretive focus.
A poignant, relevant synthesis of cultural studies and true-crime drama.