Publication Date

Fall 2016


Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States





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This article considers how recent narratives about Vietnamese refugees engage with the Vietnam War’s visual archive, particularly iconic photographs from the war and ensuing “boat people” crisis, and contribute to present-day discourses on American militarism and immigration. The article focuses on two texts, a National Public Radio special series about a US naval ship (2010) and Thanhha Lai’s Inside Out & Back Again (2011), which recounts a Vietnamese child’s refugee passage. By refiguring famous photojournalistic images from the war, the radio series advances a familiar rescue-and-gratitude narrative in which the US military operates as a care apparatus, exemplifying a cultural habit Yến Lê Espiritu dubs the “we-win-even-when-we-lose-syndrome.” Lai’s novel, by contrast, represents a new generation of Vietnamese American texts that find narrative possibilities outside the teleology of the grateful refugee, in part by challenging a hegemonic visual culture that has rendered refugees frequently seen but seldom heard. Refugee narratives stemming from the Vietnam War continue to find an eager audience, as they prime the social imaginary to make sense of the newest US wars; the article concludes by analyzing echoes of the sentimental rescue-and-gratitude narrative in media coverage of the recent Iraq War and its refugees.