Fall 2017

A Melancholic Song in the Living Room

with my own & begin
the faithful work of drowning
Ocean Vuong, Night Sky with Exit Wounds (Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press, 2016), 8.


When we thought of Viet Nam, we always suspected that it was more than an origin. We felt that there was no transparent trajectory from the homeland to us. We knew our parents had arrived and are still arriving through a devouring ocean, through holding hands with ghosts of the war.  


Viet Nam is known as “the theater of wars and destructions,”Trinh T. Minh-Ha, Elsewhere, within Here: Immigration, Refugeeism and the Boundary Event (New York: Routledge, 2011), 19.as a narrative of loss.Lan P. Duong, Treacherous Subjects: Gender, Culture, and Trans-Vietnamese Feminism (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2012), 6. 


A woman interviews my parents about the war for a film project. She is trying to document a victim story, but somehow it feels off. My parents tell her about how they each left the homeland one night and talk about the wrongs that were inflicted on them. I am not sure if I am supposed to be in the living room. Soon after witnessing this narrative of loss, I notice the shape of others in our daily life. My mother talks about sweet little nothings and those left behind.

      I’m tired of metaphorsA Boat in the OceanThu Do. 1980. YouTube Video. 5m23s. Image Courtesy of YouTube. 

For a while I just kept replaying this image and wanted to treat it as a referent. Here is where my father’s life altered, and so my life began. Still, there is more to this image than an originary event that I cannot bear witness to. The image feels like an echo, traversing public and personal experiences, surrounded by disaster and grief. Out of a felt concern for this image, I attune to the reality of this grief.


Does being haunted mean feeling this state of overwhelming grief? We try to imagine all the deaths that birthed our existence in the Vietnamese diaspora, and realize we can never give them a worthy funeral. What would have happened had our homeland not felt so defeated by the war and not flung itself into a strange communist capitalist society model?


If allowed to stay together, I told my aunt, we could have incorporated ourselves into a respectably sized, self-sufficient colony, … sufficiently collective to elect our own representative to the Congress and have a voice in our America, a Little Saigon as delightful, delirious, and dysfunctional as the original, which was exactly why we were not allowed to stay together but were instead dispersed by bureaucratic fiat to all the longitudes and latitudes of our new world.Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer (New York: Grove Atlantic, 2015), 69. 

Why are we still singing about the color purple?Paris By Night  16. Thuy Nga. 1992. YouTube Video. 44m23s. Image Courtesy of YouTube.

Before Paris by Night decided to head for total entertainment and become the live show musical that it is known as today, it featured lengthy sequences of Viet Nam before the war. These briefly resurfaced for the thirtieth anniversary episode, opened by Khánh Ly.Paris By Night 77: 30 Năm Viễn Xứ, produced by Thúy Nga, 2005.As she was singing, I saw that my mother was crying. It was only then that the war coincided with her silence.

We spent long nights consuming nationalistic images of the army and labouring women, sentimental images of water and earth, interspersed with melancholic exile songs.


Somehow the conversation had taken a turn from Saigon and songs to the fall of Saigon, which was not surprising. Most of the songs the exiles listened to were soaked in melancholic, romantic loss, which could not help but remind them of the loss of their city. Every conversation about Saigon eventually became a song about the fall of Saigon and the fate of those left behind. They’re dead, Bon now said.Nguyen, The Sympathizer, 243. 


There is something so crucial that it is in the now, that Bon asserts how those left behind are dead. Perhaps here lies a difference between nostalgia and melancholy. Both express a desire to connect with the past. However, nostalgia operates under the assumption that the past is cut off from the present and can be retrieved. Melancholy is feeling the past as present and simultaneously feeling it as loss. A melancholic knows they will never get what they desire and it is this fact that causes them grief. We know we cannot ask for boats to devour oceans. We know that some of our ancestors were not only denied a worthy funeral, they also disappeared in the fissures of history. They died twice.


Two living rooms in a state of grief

The burial ground was far away. Đám ma bà ngoại của Việt. Võ Thiên Việt, Untitled, 2015. Digital photo. Image courtesy of the artist.

The burial ground was far away

She always made me drink a glass of water with effervescent vitamin C. Đám ma bà ủa Nam Chi. Tran May, Untitled, 2011. Digital photo. Image courtesy of the artist.

She always made me drink a glass of water with effervescent vitamin C

Bà nội and I are walking in a market. The cheap plastic bag that she is carrying embarrasses me. How she differs from the crowd makes me feel even more different. A few years later, I cannot make it to her funeral. My father tells me the living room is full of flowers. I cannot bring myself to face this image. And so through my shame, she dies again.

On the night of the US elections I stay up late, and as I attune to grief I am drawn into the colours of Bà nội’s disappearance. She is with me, and I devote labour to carving out a space for her in the present. This year I write about carrying ideals in a cheap plastic bag and surround myself with flowers. I invite her to my living room.

One should eat the lychees after a day or two. Attempt at an ancestral shrine. Nguyễn Nam Chi & Võ Thiên Việt, 2017. Digital photo. Image courtesy of the artists.

One should eat the lychees after a day or two

Still, inviting Bà nội to our living room does not resolve the haunting. A narrative of loss is not reclaimed when we replay our loss as a narrative of appearance. Haunting incites a dangerous documentary impulse that reproduces the logic of knowing and not knowing. We should be suspicious of the images that promise an impossible presence and pretend to stitch the fissures of history together.


Ghosts thwart dreams of innocence, amnesiac legacies of freedom, and failed promises of equality. Ghosts point us to the context of their deaths which is always connected to “a something that must be done.”Avery Gordon, Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), 168.

Simultaneously ghosts refuse to be mere witnesses of a new history. It is not as if past wrongs can be restored when we repeat the image within a victim story. We must avoid the naive endeavor to reclaim a “native” Viet Nam counter-narrative. Instead we elicit our complicity and question the Vietnamese dream: we confront national nostalgia, anti-communist convictions, and the classist obsession with France. We remember how the war killed three million Laotians and Cambodians.

Listening to ghosts means choosing care over both ignorance and innocence.


This care veers us to “a loss that is truly inarticulable between mother and daughter—a loss that extends beyond inevitable, expected parent-child losses to whole cultural, national, and historical losses that the mother has herself endured, is herself barely processing, and has in fact passed on to the daughter.”Anne Anlin Cheng, The Melancholy of Race (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 86.

A melancholic feels a mother’s grief as a narrative of maternal-material offerings. Melancholy and matrilineage coincide: they emphasize a desire for sensuous knowledge.Gordon, Ghostly Matters, 205.Let us embrace the imaginations that are neither essential nor illusional, and witness how women relay life.


As much as haunting can render us full of grief, it is within this haunting that we share an intimacy with the dead and form a community. In clinging to us, ghosts make their shadows fall upon our ego. We realize we are not alone.


I could not believe what I did when the camp official called out my family’s name. I ran out to the beach in no time to soak up myself. I screamed and I told my mother, who died on the fourth day when our boat was hit by a storm, that we were accepted to go to Canada. Then, I thought I heard her voice from the bottom of the sea telling me that she was happy too … She must have done something right for us …Lawrence Lam, From Being Uprooted to Surviving: Resettlement of Vietnamese-Chinese “Boat People” in Montreal, 1980-1990 (Toronto: York Lanes press, Inc., 1996), 92. 


Ghosts invite us to talk to the sea and to think of our agency as communal agency. When we finally let go of the futile isolation of a singular identity, we trace the echoes within us and the colours surrounding us.


A mother singing a melancholic song in the living room


Words refuse to elucidate

Their clans of urgent meaning

After they kiss each other goodbye—

They disperse into a field of nonsense

Or into a cliche

Many words enter a queue

Collaborate with one another

To form an allegiance

Of melancholyVi Khi Nao, The Old Philosopher (New York: Nightboat Books, 2016), 63. 

We are the fishy ones. A Boat in the Ocean. Film Still of Forgetting Vietnam, 2016. Image Courtesy of Trinh T. Minh-Ha.

We are the fishy ones

If we are willing to listen, we hear in the silence of labouring women the disarticulated grief, and can imagine a tear in the world.

Who can afford heroism? Trinh T. Minh-Ha powdering one of the actresses. Film Still of Surname Viet Given Name Nam, 1989. Image Courtesy of  Trinh T. Minh-Ha.

Who can afford heroism?

In Surname Viet Given Name Nam (1989) we are offered an insight into women’s pleasures of storytelling. First, the women perform a reconstructive narrative “as women in socialist Viet Nam, as women in the diaspora, and as women subjects interpellated by both nation and community.”Duong, Treacherous Subjects, 135.Strange and partial translations of their heavily accented voices displace any desire for a referent. The camera plays with our impulse to look at a speaking mouth and lingers on moving hands and shadows instead. After, Trinh T. Minh-ha interviews the women as they critique their performance of memory. Haunting insists on subjects that betrayIbid., 2–3.hetero-patriarchal discourses, sing into silence, and collaborate to make meaning and sentiment converge.


Trinh states: “Interview: an antiquated device of documentary. Truth is selected, renewed, displaced, and speech is always tactical.”Ibid., 128. 

She does not disregard the idea of an interview, rather she emphasizes that the interview form is suspicious and fractured. Daughters do not seek a truth, rather, they desire to articulate a difference.


Perhaps resistance needs to be located not outside of a cultural relay (that is simply not possible ...) but rather within that relay …Cheng, The Melancholy of Race, 159. 


Nationalist histories try to suppress the shadows of those left behind so that we stay dispersed. If we allow the hurting-healing, we will feel how images breathe both disappearance and appearance. Tensions between public and private narratives should not cease. We must align “all the fantasmatic attachments inevitable in any act of reconstruction,”Ibid., 145.and twirl around what can be seen as real.

A melancholic gathers the fragments and resists referentiality. She honours the relay: fragments are surrounded by what can be only felt and never simply known.

A promiseA Vietnamese person in a refugee camp being interviewed in English in “June 24 1979 Vietnamese Boat People - The Price of Freedom.” YouTube Video. 4m45s. Image Courtesy of YouTube.

Haunting points at a wavering present that desires our care. Ghosts demand our refusal to side with either the living or the dead. We see that the state of overwhelming grief does not ask us to kiss our ancestors goodbye; as a matter of fact, it teaches us to invite them to our living rooms and embrace their shiny shadows. All those left behind appear as disappearances and deserve to be remembered. Even losses that have no referent live through singing women.

The images that have been circulating in the Vietnamese diaspora offer us more than a counter-narrative. A melancholic realizes that collaborating with women can bring a performance of memory that is more colourful than nationalist histories. We choose to draw up rituals together so that we can face ignorance and innocence. Melancholics gather the fragments and expand communities.

Thinking of Viet Nam, we take up the impossible and urgent task of listening to our ghosts: we displace images: we relay history.