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Through the Literary Looking-Glass
About Subarno Chattarji's works

Focus on The Distant Shores of Freedom: Vietnamese American Memoirs and Fiction

Renée Dickason
Référence(s) :

Subarno Chattarji, The Distant Shores of Freedom: Vietnamese American Memoirs and Fiction, Bloomsbury Academic, 2019, 320 pages.

Texte intégral

1The poetic flavour suggested by the title of Professor Subarno Chattarji’s book – The Distant Shores of Freedom – announces, with finesse, serenity and expectant hope, the subtle complexity of individual, collective, and, more generally, the cultural integration in the United States of those who were to become Vietnamese Americans. Their writings are moving and powerful. Their testimonies make the readers reflect on the essence of life, the absurdity of wars but also on themselves, and on what (individual and collective) identity means. The uncaring oblivion, the human and historical amnesia and negligence, the hidden records of what happened in a deliberately secretive fragment of history, need to be expressed, for this to be smoothened, expelled and, eventually and hopefully, healed.

2In the western world, the Vietnam War still is a prolific source of stories, testimonies, debates, films and a mediatisation based on a mainstream representation. Quoting Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, by Viet Thanh Nguyen, also famous for his bestselling novel The Sympathizer, Subarno Chattarji reminds us that this war was fought at least twice: on the battlefield(s) and in the paths of memory.

3The visible and the invisible imprints of the living experience of a war are to be considered as they necessarily co-exist. The battlefields are places that can be visited, they remain visible, even following the alterations remodelling their space after combats and, like tombs, they are places of recollection, mourning and remembrance. Some even become open-air museums. The problematic differs for invisible and intimate individual traces. These may be buried and/or concealed, but they cannot be erased as they are profoundly anchored in the deeper selves of those who suffered. Willing and unwilling choices are made about what is consciously or unconsciously kept secret or silenced. All this will have an incidence on the possible articulation between trauma(s), understanding and reconstruction of the self, and on the gradual development and individual shaping of memory/memories. This long suffering process can be lived through in many ways and writing may contribute to this necessary progression.

4Subarno Chattarji has brilliantly grasped the emotions at work. His very moving and human study is inscribed in the subfield of Vietnamese American literature and finds its originality in a series of subtle fictions and non-fictions and in the intricate questions of the shaping of memories, resting on human consequences and (dead and still alive) remains of a War which had a particular impact on both American and Vietnamese people. This is all the more poignant when it applies to Vietnamese refugees who had to flee from their native land, a singular, but nonetheless universal, trope in literature.

5In the memoirs he studied, Chattarji found the reiteration of “home and belonging” themes, arguments and counter-arguments about ideological approaches, dividing communists and non-communists, pro-Americans and anti-Americans. The context of the Vietnam War and the position of the pro-American Vietnamese account for a physical rupture and mental tearing that is hard to repair, even more so as these populations had no other choice than to escape in order to survive. A diaspora can be assimilated to the scattering of ashes at sea: it is a point of no return leading sometimes to a succession of meanderings in unknown and (maybe unsafe) surroundings. The unchosen attraction of the siren calls from the “distant shores of freedom” may be an answer to the end of a nightmare, but it certainly is the beginning of many uncertainties and vulnerabilities, a brutal severance from one’s past and one’s individual (and collective) history, tainted by nostalgia.

6As Subarno Chattarji reminds us, the torments of diasporic developments are palpable at different levels, through the existential issues of exile, the idea of what “home” and “community” can mean, the sufferings brought by marginality and racism, the various perceptions of what belonging to a community signifies inside a “foreign” country, strange because so culturally remote and yet cosmopolitan and universal. The metaphor of the American melting-pot, which is part of an (un)attainable myth, a dream-like idea and belief that everybody can live and co-exist happily together, is another illustration of the particularities of exile and diasporic lives.

7The notion of point of view and the cross-examination of the collective (wounded) memories from both nations shine through Chattarji’s meticulous study. This might seem a truism but there is no denying that concerning the Vietnam War, the dominant representation was/is strongly pro-American and stereotyped in that the American people involved in this war are mainly considered as victims, which is a reflection of a profound individual, collective and national trauma. American propaganda and political orientations played a part in this leaving deep stigmata in the narratives of the conflict from the American perspective.

8The major diasporic event of the mid-1970’s of Vietnamese refugees settling in the USA led to the expressions of other representations and the development of other writings (in English), by Vietnamese Americans who felt the need to offer other appreciations and opinions, but also to creating another original corpus of analysis of this war. Subarno Chattarji examines many facets such as what “life as an immigrant in the USA” entailed, the “anxieties and politics of displacement and finding ‘home’, and the betwixt and in-between consciousness of the diasporic writer and observer”.

9These writings help build the memorial of those who were either forgotten or not part of the memorial process and also a mosaic constituting a path to a necessary reconciliation. The truth and its various interpretations need understanding, rehabilitation and war trauma needs to be healed. Forgiveness is also a very sensitive and delicate process in the memorial reflexions.

10In his very inspiring book, Subarno Chattarji has wisely chosen to concentrate on critical perspectives of what he calls “the contours of memorial landscapes”, those present in memoirs but also in fiction. These coincide with other reflexions based on “the fragmentation of lives and histories” which contribute to the shaping of an intricate and protean imaginary, cultural and memory puzzle. The identity issue is central here. Subarno Chattarji points out “the manner in which questions relating to Americanness [and American identity] as well as laying claim to the geographical, social, and ideological domains of America reverberate in contemporary times and specifically within Vietnamese American imaginaries”. Hybridity is another cornerstone of Chattarji’s analyses which cohabits with critical refugee studies.

11On the whole, Chattarji considers two broad groups of memoirs: the first focuses on re-education camp experiences (either first-hand or at one remove); the second examines writings by “women describing travails in war-torn Vietnam, in refugee camp, and being in the US”. As Chattarji specifies: “the archive of memoirs I read are largely obscure and their neglect within academic study is part of the impetus of my work. Their value, however, resides not only in their obscurity, but in the kinds of memory work they perform and the ways in which they are in turn implicated within larger networks of memory and forgetting”.

12This fascinating book considers a broad scope of the limits of what can and cannot be written or said and invites the readers to better understand this side of a tragic historical event which might lead to a renewed introspection into the self.

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Renée Dickason, « Focus on The Distant Shores of Freedom: Vietnamese American Memoirs and Fiction »Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], Anthologie vivante sur les Mémoires de guerre, mis en ligne le 28 janvier 2021, consulté le 13 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Renée Dickason

Professor of Cultural and Media History, Rennes University, France

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