Rappahannock Review Contributor Spotlight: Interview with Wendy A. Gaudin
Rappahannock Review Nonfiction Editors: This piece explores the complex cultural relationship between the United States and Vietnam in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Can you discuss how you approached the subject, more than 40 years after the fighting (officially) ended, in such a personal way? What compelled you to write about this topic?
Wendy A. Gaudin: It is very difficult to be a North American, an English-speaker, in Vietnam — truly in Vietnam, in people’s homes, in the temples, in classrooms, in marketplaces — and not approach the subject of the Vietnam War in a personal way. Even though I am a person who was born just five years prior to the end of the war, even though I am not a former soldier and my father did not serve, I still represent the US when I open my mouth to speak, when I flash my US passport, when I exchange my US money. So I must always remember my subject position when I am in that country. Regarding the subject of this particular essay, I had the great privilege of staying with a woman who shared that her father had been killed by a US Marine. Her father’s picture is on her ancestral altar, and of course, I honor and respect him and the altar itself. So I was confronted by the very personal violence committed by the nation of my birth when I entered her home; however, she was warm, kind, patient, welcoming, and she made it very clear that she did not see me any differently than she would see another guest in her home. I was privileged to listen to her story, and the stories of her friends, and I hold those stories very gently.
RR: Can you discuss how you approach identity? Did your experiences in Vietnam affect your personal sense of identity?
WG: I am the descendant of Louisiana Creoles who migrated to California prior to the 1950s. Both of my parents are mixed race Creoles, and so are both sets of grandparents, so I, too, identify as a mixed race person. I come from a long line of people who grappled with one-drop racial ideology in the Deep South. So I carry that history in my body, in my language, and it informs how I see the world and how and what I write. When I began practicing Buddhism in the Vietnamese Pure Land temples of New Orleans, I was often mistaken for an “Amerasian” person, that is, a person who is “half American and half Vietnamese.” After being asked many times if that was my identity, I began doing some research on the mixed race children of the American War. Once again, remembering my subject position: I am very privileged to live in a time and place where being mixed race is not a curse or a dilemma. Mixed race children of the American War were treated horribly in Vietnam after the war, they were seen as children of the enemy, and their mothers struggled to rear them in a society where their children stood out. So when I am in Vietnam, a country that I love very deeply, I am drawn to mixed race people because they are, in my heart and mind, my people. We are different, of course, and our life experiences are different, but I still see them as kin to me.
RR: What kind of research and preparation did you do before your trip? How did your expectations compare to your actual experience?
WG: This particular essay was written about my fourth trip to Vietnam, and it was a different sort of trip because I took the national train from Ho Chi Minh City in the south of the country all the way up to Ha Noi in the north. So I saw parts of the country that I don’t normally see. Usually, I spend all of my time in Vietnam in my home temple in Ho Chi Minh City. I typically live in a community of Buddhist nuns, in an urban temple, and I practice with them, eat with them, clean the temple with them every day, etc. Now that I’ve been to Vietnam many times, I generally know what to expect, I bring very little with me, and I prepare myself to listen. Because I speak very little Vietnamese, I prepare myself to be confused, to be alert, to pay attention to every facial expression, every bodily expression, every instance of hesitation or pause or curiosity when I walk into a room, every guess at my identity (people generally think that I’m Malaysian or Indian, and they are surprised that I am from the US). I prepare myself for what I call “the stare” (the subject of another essay), which happens just about everywhere I go. I am definitely an anomaly in the temples and the small villages of Vietnam. I try to approach every interaction gently and with deepest regard for everyone I am interacting with. I also do my best to address people in Vietnamese with the proper pronoun (i.e., “older sister” or “aunt”).
RR: We’re interested in the formal structure you develop. How did the journal entries factor into crafting this piece?
WG: I imagine myself as a multi-genre essayist, so I typically include poetry, journal entries, or oral narratives within the body of my essays. I also have a PhD in history, so I sometimes use census records and archival materials within my essays, as well. With this particular essay, I felt that my informal observations were effective openings and closings to an essay about my intimate interactions with people who experienced the violence of the American War. The first journal entry was written literally while I was sitting on Miss Nam’s front porch, while a storm was blowing in. The second journal entry was written while I was sitting in the back of a temple while the monk gave a dharma talk entirely in Vietnamese, most of which I did not understand. The people in the temple were turning and staring at me, and I was staring at the monk — all of this staring and the thoughts behind it: “How shall I relate to you?” “How do I make sense of you in this place?” I was thinking of the monk in the same way, the same way the dog was barking at me. It all fits together, and my real-time observations form two bookends to the essay.
RR: How did this piece evolve from its inception? What changes have you made, and why?
WG: his essay has changed dramatically since I began writing it. Its former self included more material about my father, who is a biologist and who was a doctoral student during the heightened years of the war. Thanks to the choices that his parents made, and the support that he was given by my mother, his parents, and the University of Southern California, my father was exempted from military service. I am very grateful for that because my father was not touched by the war, and he did not directly cause violence to others. So my prior version of the essay included some material about him and what he was doing with his life in the year 1966. Thanks to two friends who read that earlier version, and who said “all of this does not fit together,” I was able to re-envision and revise the essay. I kept in the revised version of the essay the idea of a “fatherland” — this also reflects the mixed race theme, because many mixed race Vietnamese grew up fatherless, as their fathers were American soldiers who left them there, and being fatherless in a patriarchal society is deeply, deeply difficult.
Wendy Gaudin’s work appears in Issue 5.2 here.