“Can you be a witness to history if you do not remember it?” asks Viet Thanh Nguyen in his new memoir, A Man of Two Faces. In the Pulitzer Prize winner’s memoir, he assembles his own history of scenes remembered and dis-membered from his vantage as a refugee displaced by war. But as Nguyen attests, a witness is not validated in spite of gaps in memory but in how one accounts for them. While trauma distorts memory, revisionist narratives operate more insidiously to erase the histories of the oppressed and preserve the impunity of the oppressor. Nguyen squares up against such narratives, especially those that assimilate through silenced or whitewashed cultural histories. Against this backdrop, Nguyen quotes Hannah Arendt, in reference to European Jewish people after the Holocaust: “We were told to forget; and we forgot quicker than anyone could ever imagine.”
With critical distance, Nguyen reconstructs his Vietnamese American history: from Vietnam to his family’s resettlement to Harrisburg and then San Jose, to his recent successes as a writer, scholar, husband, and father. Nguyen is not lost on his status as a celebrated American author; however, he reflects on his negotiated privilege and the racism he must still endure. “You are the Model Minority,” he writes, addressing his self, “You are also the Yellow Peril”. He renders the American Dream as a gross exploitation, a brand that baits immigrants with the ignis fatuus of true equality. “AMERICA™” is the milieu into which he was assimilated: books and television shows he grew up with were rife with stereotypes against Asians, while celebrated films like Full Metal Jacket objectified the Vietnamese as savages through the eyes and for the eyes of white Americans. Welcome to America, this is how we see you.
For many Asian immigrants and their children, this is familiar territory. As a Korean American, I was raised by assimilationist parents who spoke to me in English, gave me a name that sounded Western enough to pass for white. Traces of my ancestry were otherwise tucked away in photo albums kept under the bed. But in time, like Nguyen, I questioned the identity I wore to fit into white majority contexts. I wondered why as a child I didn’t care for folk traditions of my culture, why my immigrant parents rarely told stories of their childhood, or why memories of my late mother still register with an affectual loneliness. Having lost the tongue of my ancestors, perhaps I had silenced an integral part of my consciousness. Perhaps, recovering the divided self requires a new language.
In A Man of Two Faces, language is where form meets content. Nguyen’s prose is exacting yet fragmented, as if in recalling his experiences he was reporting at the seams of a split consciousness. And yet he avoids solipsism by foregrounding the systemic issues that divided him in the first place. “To be American,” he writes, “is to be squeezed in the vise between these binaries of memorialization and murder, to waver dialectically so long as AMERICA™ exists, because AMERICA™ itself is and will always be a contradiction”. The refugee narrative, he argues, is also America’s narrative. To be a true witness to history, one must remember what others are keen to forget.
But are some stories meant to remain forgotten? Writing about his mother, an immigrant whose mental breakdown illustrates the hidden casualties of war, Nguyen questions why he does not recall her time spent in a psychiatric facility. Despite the trauma, telling her story from a selective memory presents an ethical dilemma: how to speak on behalf of the dead. “A memorial,” he writes, “Despite its name, is also a testament to how much has been forgotten…as well as all the disputable facts that must be interpreted”. Memory is illusive, constantly rewritten to accommodate our many selves—and the forces that shape them. “If blankness and whiteness riddle my imprecise memory of Má” he writes, “Is that also treachery?” Here, Nguyen treads carefully, avoiding the colonialist’s sin of assuming the voice of the silenced in order to amplify one’s own. Can you be a witness to history if you do not remember it? And yet, by choosing to tell his mother’s story as a witness to her pain as well as her love, Nguyen pays homage to her and to other refugees who have similarly suffered. That includes the Author, who, in reconstituting his story can begin to heal himself.
One expects a retributive edge in recounting injustices, yet Nguyen maintains a distance that enables both criticism and empathy. In his 2016 book, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, a study on how power shapes memories of war, Nguyen engages Paul Ricoeur’s ethics of recognition, that is, in “[recognizing] our capacity to do harm, we can reconcile with others who we feel have hurt us.” By reimagining perpetrators as victims of unjust circumstances, we may imagine ourselves, tables turned, capable of such brutality. However, this kind of empathy is limited insofar as it is centered on our own subjectivity. By identifying ourselves as perpetual victims, we are vulnerable to shift blame for our harmful actions. Conversely, by perpetually casting our oppressors as victims, we elect always to bear the injustice.
In A Man of Two Faces, Nguyen offers a corrective: between colonizer and colonized, American and Vietnamese, Nguyen finds the Other in himself. And in so doing, he can humanize both the perpetrator and victim, acknowledging his complicity in systemic injustice while allowing himself to heal. On one hand, Nguyen dignifies the stories of those closest to him while allowing for human contradictions in assessing experiences not his own. On the other, while duly critical of imperialistic narratives, he avoids ressentiment by appealing for a more enlightened response. “To unscrew ourselves from the colonizer,” he writes, “We must imagine solidarity with others who do not seem to be like us but whose sorrows we can and must share.” Dreaming of a better future requires an acceptance of the past and responsibility for the present. Nguyen, as a responsible witness to a history dis-membered by erasure, recovers this narrative for his ancestors as well as for his descendants. It is a corrective for many children of immigrants like me: not only to take ownership of how our stories are told, but having understood everything at stake, to give a damn.
Viet Thanh Nguyen’s memoir A Man of Two Faces is available from Grove Atlantic.