When journalist Erika Hayasaki was participating in a science journalism fellowship in 2016, she had recently given birth to identical twin sons. Her experience as the mother of twins informed her interest in researching the way one’s environment interacts with one’s genes. Soon she was interviewing sets of twins and was introduced to sisters, Ha and Isabella, teenagers who as infants were adopted in Vietnam. In her new book, Somewhere Sisters: A Story of Adoption, Identity, and the Meaning of Family, Hayasaki examines Ha’s and Isabella’s separation as infants and their later reunification, and whether their genes or environment played a stronger role in shaping their personalities.
“My watch reads ten o’clock,” opens Thuan’s Chinatown, a novel that displays a writer in full play with language and story-telling. Her narrator begins a two-hour interior monologue that is the bulk of the novel. She is on a stopped train in the Métro in Paris. Her twelve-year-old son is asleep against her shoulder. An unattended duffel bag has raised the uncertainty of a bomb. Most passengers have disembarked, opting for other ways to their destinations. Along with three others, the narrator sits. Her mind wanders through the jumble of experiences, emotions, and places she continues to live. At times, these are overwhelmed by the larger world, with forays into the massive emigration of Vietnamese to France, the collapse of the USSR, and the effects of such events on ordinary lives. She is thirty-nine, Vietnamese, a writer, and currently teaching in France.
Sometimes the further away in time you get from an event, the clearer it becomes. Time often enables historians to learn more facts and circumstances about, and fosters a more dispassionate view of, historical events like wars. The Vietnamese wars against France in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and against the United States in the 1960s and 1970s, have far too frequently been analyzed through ideological and political lenses, with both sides ignoring or downplaying facts that do not fit within their ideological-political agendas. The greatest merit of Christoper Goscha’s splendid history of the First Indochina War (1945-1954) is his unsparing devotion to letting facts inform his assessments and conclusions.
Jean-Luc Guéry is a man down on his luck. Middling journalist, gambling addict, alcoholic. Yet when news of his brother’s murder in Saigon reaches him in France, Guéry drops everything and travels to French Vietnam to investigate.
It’s 1951 and Jean-Luc Guéry, a perpetual ne’er-do-well, has arrived in Saigon from his native Côte d’Azur to look into the as yet unsolved murder of his brother. Guéry, a hack reporter for the regional Journal d’Antibes, has a fondness for alcohol and a weakness for gambling. His brother, on the other hand, was running a respectable business importing agricultural machinery but was found floating face down in the Arroyo Chinois with a bullet in his head.
Unlike most memoirs about the immigrant experience that center around overcoming hurdles to build a new life, Jolie Phuong Hoang instead structures Three Funerals For My Father: Love, Loss and Escape from Vietnam around her father’s death as he tries to escape Vietnam by boat in 1985. Her younger sister also drowned on that journey. It takes Hoang three decades to come to terms with her father’s and sister’s deaths and her book tells their stories and how her father did whatever he could to bring his family to safer shores.
“I’m going to tell you the truth,” begins the narrator on the first page of Kim Thúy’s latest, Em, “but only partially, incompletely, more or less.” To put an even finer emphasis on the point, she tells us a couple pages later, that “truth “is fragmented”—as indeed it must be when dealing with a topic as vast as the troubled history of Vietnam. Departing from its brutal colonial entrapment as a rubber producing outlet for the French, cascading through the desolation of the Vietnam War, finally culminating in the strain of exile that became the sole reality available to those who managed to survive, Em accomplishes in some 160 pages what has taken many historians volumes to tell.