The Reeducation of Cherry Truong, Aimee Phan’s ambitious first novel, makes a striking contribution to the growing field of Vietnamese diasporic literature. As bearers of a traumatic history of colonization, war, and displacement, authors from the Vietnamese diaspora face the difficult task of negotiating a relationship with this past, and of determining the form and extent of their engagement with it. Many of the most compelling—lê thi diem thúy, Monique Truong, Linda Lê, and Nam Le, among others—resist the assumption that Vietnamese diasporic authors must always and only produce a particular set of narratives about the American War in Vietnam, exile by boat, refugee life, and immigrant assimilation. Instead, these authors draw our attention to the complexity of language and writing itself, and often turn toward different kinds of stories altogether.
In contrast, Phan’s novel takes a more direct approach, recounting some three decades of Vietnamese diasporic history through the interwoven stories of two related families, one living in the United States, the other in France. Let me put it this way: The Reeducation of Cherry Truong comes equipped with a multigenerational family tree, and whether you take this as an invitation or a warning may well predict your response to the book. Readers who hunger for plot will be not be disappointed: shifting from the war-torn streets of Saigon to the nail salons of Little Saigon, from the grotto of Lourdes to the caves of Ha Long Bay, the narrative fairly teems with incident. Readers immune to the pleasures of a good family saga may look askance at the sheer accumulation of rivalries, betrayals, and, above all, secrets that bind together the members of the Truong and Vo families.
Phan is interested not only in stories of exile and diaspora but in how these stories are told, silenced, rewritten, destroyed, relived, forgotten.
To dismiss the novel as melodrama, though, would be to miss the point. Phan is interested not only in stories of exile and diaspora but in how these stories are told, silenced, rewritten, destroyed, relived, forgotten. Her characters live in a world of narrative, of gossip and hidden letters, of eyewitness accounts and lies—a world not unlike that of the televised soap operas that seem always to be running in the background, whether at the nail salon or in the families’ homes. Under the strain of this narrative excess, memory itself becomes strangely unmoored and porous. Cousins argue over whether or not their childhood memories of Vietnam are their own, or simply versions of the stories their parents have told them. When one character relates a dream, her daughter wonders if she is simply “recalling melodramatic scenes from an old movie she once saw on television.”
The novel itself mirrors the complexity of diasporic family history through a narrative structure that shifts back and forth in time as well as from place to place. At any given moment, events that might seem firmly located far away and in the past can surge up suddenly and at times incongruously, as when one character finds herself screaming in the middle of a Las Vegas casino, reenacting a gesture she made years earlier when her refugee boat was attacked by Thai pirates. While the novel’s twelve chapters are narrated in the third person, each is focused around a particular character’s memories and perceptions. Phan makes effective use of the technique known as free indirect discourse to blur the boundary between narrator and characters, further underscoring the impossibility of locating these stories under the sign of any univocal, objective truth: “Cherry’s mom claimed Grandmother Vo didn’t want to overburden any of her children, so she took turns living in each of their houses. It was an honor to care for one’s elders. So why every time before leaving a house did Grandmother need to scream and swear at all of them?”
Phan experiments with narrative form in other ways: a chapter devoted to a character living in France, for example, is structured around a series of questions from a philosophy exam, while all of the chapters are interspersed with letters written by the title character’s mother and grandfather. Cherry eventually acquires these letters and guards them closely in the hope that reading them, analyzing them, ordering them just so will at last allow her to make sense of a family whose history has never quite seemed to add up. If her project seems doomed to failure, the novel’s haunting final image—in which the ultimate fate of the letters is revealed—seems to gesture toward a different mode of living with the past, of feeling its weight even while recognizing its inevitable, irreversible loss.