Cultural memory and war in the poetry of Theresa Cha and Ocean Vuong
By Jonathan Chan
The United States' military presence in East Asia is often memorialised by way of thematic erasure, as with the "forgotten" war in Korea from 1950 to 1953, or malaise, as with the war in Vietnam from 1955 to 1975. Asian American activists argued in 1965 that the carnage wrought upon Vietnam must be seen in the context of the 20th-century occupations of the Philippines, Okinawa and Korea.
This collective resistance to the historical structures legitimising American hegemony, while obscuring intra-Asian tensions, is integral to the writing of Korean American artist Theresa Cha, born in 1951, and Vietnamese American poet Ocean Vuong, born in 1988. Cha captures the trauma of her migration in Dictée (1982), described by Timothy Yu as a multimodal text that insists on the material presence of history in archives, images and the body. Vuong's collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds (2016) is similarly engaged with the fragmentation enacted by compounded trauma, tracing nonlinear narratives of his family's displacement from Vietnam as refugees. Emerging from the detritus of war, both writers contest America's self-legitimising narratives on the terrain of cultural memory, a group memory existing outside that of the individual.
Cha and Vuong's attempts to comprehend the magnitude of their parents' wartime experiences are often adumbrated by repressed pain. Cha devotes a section of Dictée to her mother, Hyung Soon Huo, a Korean exile in Manchuria who eventually migrates to the US. Cha describes of her, "you see the unchangeable and the unchanged the same you smell filtered edited through progress and westernisation the same." The looseness of Cha's syntax masks the simmering rage toward the silencing of her mother, a disarticulation caused by her implied inability to speak English. This occurs despite her mother's lucid recognition of the immutable aspects of herself and the construction of "edited" progress. Cha draws out the rupturing caused by the Korean War from this liminality:
Cha's frustration is teleological – the "perpetual motion of search", delineates a longing for a "homeland", but is inhibited by the fixity of "perpetual exile", anaphorically described as happening within. Just as the Korean peninsula was "severed" by conflict "under the title of liberators", the speaker is paralysed in wrestling with the opposed elements of her Korean and American identity. The perpetuity of war attests to the tangibility of its memory – Cha describes South Korea's 1960 April Revolution against rigged elections to her mother, recalling how tear gas "slices the air", a synesthetic yoking of smell, sight and touch. The clashing of different tenses in "I cry wail torn shirt" defies linear time by having her outburst of grief and violence enfold into a single moment, a primal rage echoing into solitude. This suggests that resolution can only be achieved through a reconciliatory forgetting. Cha's poetry performs various optical destabilisations, identifying the reverberations of war against the Korean psyche in their collective struggle toward democracy. As recipient of these memories, Cha's mother remains a referent as she comes to terms with the solastalgia of militant violence.
Just as Cha addresses her mother, Vuong attempts to inhabit the memories of his parents in 'Immigrant Haibun' (2016):
The image of a woman becoming "a life raft" enacts a metaphorical transformation anchored in maternal sacrifice. The tenderness of a word "on the nape of my neck, where it melted into a bead of whiskey" attests to the burning impression of spoken language during the escape from conflict, a metamorphosis into concrete form. The latter paragraph grounds the trauma of loss in physical detail, approximating reportage, a juxtaposition of stillness and violence. In the vividness of these memories, Vuong locates the origins of his subjectivity, mediated by the experience of a collective displacement.
Cha and Vuong's acculturation in America avails Anglophone poetry as the terrain on which their embodied identities are mediated, an engagement that retains an ambivalence toward the possibilities of expression in English. The tentativeness of this subjectivity completes Cha's work: in the final section 'Polymnia/Sacred Poetry', Cha includes several poems that maintain an epilogic function. Cha writes:
Cha aspires for Dictée to codify overlooked war memories as "a ruin", as ephemerally legible as a "fossil" or "residue". The parataxis of the stanza enacts an equitable distribution of metaphorical anchorage – each clause extends on Cha's hope that her work maintains the trace of elided memory, particularly given the perceived erasure of the Korean War in the American consciousness. This is furthered in the lexis of filial affinity in 'Elitere/Lyric Poetry':
The French "diseuse" recurs throughout, meaning "teller" or "speaker". Cha unites the speech of mother and daughter, she who is lost and she who strives to restore her, in the task of "[Restoring] memory". The "diseuse" is a conduit for other voices; she can only speak when she is compelled by others. The immediate threat of "[stopping] writing" injects Cha's task with particular urgency: to record her mother's memories of war before she dies. The urgency of this literary responsibility comes amid state-enforced modes of erasure: as Josephine Park attests, the Korean War "marked a new era of militarisation, in which the executive branch extended its reach by concealing its actions. […] the template for veiling US military reach into distant regions of the globe."
Vuong's framing of wartime memory takes on more individuated contours, an explicit task of understanding how memories constitute or compromise the immigrant self. This is indicated in 'Self-Portrait as Exit Wounds' (2016), which moves swiftly across the scenes of Vuong's upbringing: from submerged memories of violence to the lethargy of a decrepit refugee camp. The figure of "Bà Ngoai", or grandmother in Vietnamese, and her last candle lingers, attesting to the scarcity of their supplies and the temporality of her presence. Vuong then draws in portrayals of the war in Vietnam in American pop culture, one that chafes against his upbringing:
The presence of "John Wayne" reinvents Vietnam as a new "American West", a speculative frontier for the imperatives of manifest destiny. This attempt to distort wartime malaise via the triumphalism of film overshadows the innocence of the "newborn", oblivious to the racist construction of the Vietnamese as "brown [gooks]".
The poem moves from this mythic distortion to the trauma embedded in Vuong's heritage. The crassness of "grandfather fucking / the pregnant farmgirl in the back of his army jeep" is set against the backdrop of chemical warfare, affecting "his future daughters" whose fingers are "blistered with salt & Agent Orange". Vuong's family bears the traces of American intervention, both in the biological trace of their white American ancestry and the physical scarring of chemical warfare. As Vuong encodes the trace of war in his poetry, he outlines the precariousness of bearing its trace in his flesh. It is here that Vuong concludes his poem, attempting to weave these disparate threads into a single subjectivity:
Vuong claims the pejorative "Charlie" from the military code "Victor Charlie", used to describe the Viet Cong, to position himself as seeking precision in his view of his familial history. Being literate and articulate in the English language, Vuong assumes the task of locking down the lingering trauma of wartime memory, one that remains both elusive and quotidian.
There is an adumbrated shape to the memory of war in Cha and Vuong's writing. Neither the Korean War nor Vietnam War remain detached from a critical sense of affinity. They are consigned to experiencing the trauma of war by their estranged experiences of becoming American. As forms of cultural memory, the mediated narratives of parental experience provide preliminary ciphers for understanding the fracturing of nations and families. The construction of the displaced subject in America, then, is contingent on recuperating wartime memory by writing a counter-history into being. The haunting of militaristic violence suspends the precision of prosaic meaning, leaving poetry as the vehicle by which Cha and Vuong's histories can be recovered, owned and articulated. The elliptical nature of their poetry bears testament to the difficulty of doing so.QLRS Vol. 20 No. 2 Apr 2021