"Mai's search for her grandfather, and the truth about her mother's departure from Vietnam, is rooted in the fundamental belief that there is a truth to find, and that her family has behaved sincerely according to the ideology of Confucian filiality and fierce anticommunism that they have professed. The finale of the novel is an apparent crescendo of sincerity: Thanh commits suicide, leaving a note that finally "tells all." This letter reveals all of Mai's previous understandings about her grandfather, gleaned from her mother's diary, to have been falsities and fabrications. Not "my own and my mother's history" (168), as Mai believes, Thanh's diary is instead full of "gorgeous fictional reimaginings" (255). The source turns out to be fraudulent, and what Mai has always known,
that her mother suffers the guilt of abandoning the beloved grandfather, is equally wrong. Her grandfather turns out to have been not proud and honorable but abusive, alcoholic, and vindictive. Her mother's delirious callings were not for him but in fear of him. He was not left to the mercy of enemy forces, he was himself a Vietcong. The diary is exposed as a plant, left where Thanh knew Mai would discover it. In the climactic ending, duplicity is retracted and truth prevails, sentimentally reinforced by the contextual of the suicide. can be seen as pathos MonkeyBridge following a curative trajectory of trauma rooted out, exposed, understood, and cauterized. Mai, now understanding her (now absent) mother, closes that chapter of her life and prepares to enter a new one: adulthood, independence, and college."

— Guerrilla Irony in Lan Cao's "Monkey Bridge" by Michele Janette, pg. 54

Book Excerpt: 'Family In Six Tones'

By Lan Cao and Harlan Margaret Van Cao

In my life, there is Saigon, my childhood city, and there is Harlan, my daughter. One is loss and the other is love, although sometimes loss and love are intertwined. Both are volcanic, invasive experiences, their own particular battle zones, full of love and warmth. All‑powerful, all-encompassing, searing, awakening. Once experienced, they take over your life, altering the very cells in your body, both in the moment and in retrospect.
"Family in Six Tones: A Refugee Mother and An American Daughter" by Lan Cao and Harlan Margaret Van Cao. (Photo courtesy)
"Family in Six Tones: A Refugee Mother and An American Daughter" by Lan Cao and Harlan Margaret Van Cao. (Photo courtesy)

I am writing as a refugee who lost a country and as a mother whose love is vaster than even the vast parameters of loss. In Vietnamese, the word for country is a combination of earth and water, elemental and archetypal. Traditionally, the Vietnamese are tethered to their ancestral home, born of land and sea, the way newborns are tied umbilically to their mothers, sharing one swollen, tightly packed body, ferociously, bound almost despotically by flesh and blood.

For all of us refugees who enter America with our contingent lives, there is the all‑powerful, all‑venerable American Dream. Do we follow it? Are we trespassing when we enter it? Or do we float into the dreams we invent ourselves? Having witnessed so many refugee families struggling to make it, I wonder whether the American Dream is really for dreamers. Are you dreaming if you’re working twelve hours or more a day?

It might seem strange that being a refugee and being a mother feel so similar to me, but both involve a tortuous and lifelong drive in search of home and security—in one case for oneself; in the other, even more furiously, for one’s child. The journey of a refugee, away from war and loss toward peace and a new life, and the journey of a mother raising a child to be secure and happy are both steep paths filled with detours and stumbling blocks. For me, both hold mystery. It is like crossing a river on a monkey bridge. The bridge, indigenous to the Mekong Delta, is hand‑ made, with slender bamboo logs and handrails. It is frail and slippery, and crossing it requires agility and courage; it is both physical and mental. I have not made my crossing alone but have had fellow travelers on this bridge—we could call them darker selves that emerge from the hidden, almost mystical shadows.

Carl Jung saw shadow selves as selves that are cradled in the darkness and lie outside the light of consciousness. But what I think of as my shadow selves are denser, perhaps more fragmented from the self than Jung’s original use of the term. They might seem like strangers at first, unknown, unknowable, and as a result frightening, a presence manifesting unruly states that had to be fought with or unshackled from. Over time, with a deeper reservoir of understanding, I have come to see them as guardian angels, as they are now more integrated with me than not.

Excerpted from "Family in Six Tones: A Refugee Mother and An American Daughter" by Lan Cao and Harlan Margaret Van Cao. Copyright © 2020 by Lan Cao and Harlan Margaret Van Cao. Republished with permission of Penguin Random House.

(via Wbur.org)

A Mother, Daughter And The Shadow Of Vi…

Interview with Lan Cao: Diving into the Wreckage And Into the World

Your work is very much tied to history—(inter)national and personal. For instance, the mother in Monkey Bridge is very concerned with karma—punishment because of history and the repetition of history—but the backdrop of her story is the history of the Vietnam War. How is history important to you as a writer?

History is important to me because I am living with the history of the war in Vietnam. How that war was waged by the U.S. has consequences for us the Vietnamese diaspora. But if I were to write another work of fiction that doesn’t involve Vietnam, I would think history would still be braided into this work. I am interested in the crosscurrent of past and present; in particular, how the past bleeds into the present. And the past doesn’t have to be historical past. History with a capital H. It can also be one’s personal history. “The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” as Faulkner said.

I find this very Vietnamese. For example, the concept of lam phuoc. I’m not sure how to even translate phuoc. I guess one could say blessing. The notion that is peculiarly Vietnamese is the notion that one can create this by one’s thought and deed. And not just create it but also pass it down to one’s children. I don’t know if this is an explicit concept, but it’s implicitly understood in everyday life. You might have heard people say lam phuoc cho con. That has to mean you, the parent, do something to create good blessings, luck, and that luck/blessing can be passed down. Very similar to the notion of karma. Karma doesn’t just get reproduced and appear in next lives but even in this life. Same with lam phuoc. So the past (acts from the past—done by a person or a country) will have ripple effects that are felt in the present. My mother always talked about how the Vietnamese treated the Cham, the Khmer. She always thought that created very bad “phuoc.”

(via DVAN |Interview with Lan Cao: Diving into the Wreckage And Into the World)