Genaro Kỳ Lý Smith’s The Land Baron’s Sun: The Story of LýLoc and His Seven Wives (2014) tells Lý Loc’s story from childhood through his time in a reeducation camp after the fall of Saigon. Along with Lý Loc’s story, Smith chronicles the stories of Lý Loc’s wives, children, and grandchildren. Some remained in Vietnam and other left, even settling in Louisiana. It is the latter part of this narrative, the ones who came to American and specifically Louisiana that I want to touch on in this blog post.
The poem in Part III, “What of My Wives and Children,” records the stories of those who sought to come to America for a better life and those who actually did. In “The Letter Readers,” Lý Loc’s Thursday wife Phựợng speaks about her job censoring incoming mail to Vietnam. For twelve to sixteen hours a day, she applies a black marker to incoming and outgoing letters. The fleeing letters seek those who escaped to England, Canada, and America
where pockets are filled with loose change for payphones, keys to apartments and rent houses,bus transfers to get from one city to the nextto purchase abundance in bulk and cart it home. (73)
Phựợng sits oppressed as she looks through envelopes that contain words and Polaroids of a better life,where Halloween and Christmas picture emerge. These images, along with the “loose change: and “abundance in bulk” paint a picture of happiness and freedom; however, the actual existence becomes one of discrimination and aggression as those who fled encounter a society that views them as “Other,” as people who must assimilate or perish.
In many ways, the ways that Smith describes those who immigrated to America can be viewed in relation to the African American experience in the South. Writing about fisherman on the Gulf of Mexico in
Seth picks up an onion from my colander of harvest
And hurls it like a baseball and the proud Boudreaux’s smile;
Noah lifts a leg against the lemon grass
And I grip tight the trowel: “Yes, I will go.”
Their smiles take in more joy than they deserve,
Their eyes glint with the prospect of witnessing,
Smith shows the similarities between the African American and Asian American experience. On the water, the fishermen continually encountered “the parade of boats brandishing burning crosses/ to ward off the Negro and Asian fishermen” (82). They experienced deception when returning to land only to discover that the “market prices” for the gifts they hauled in had “dropped suddenly” and without explanation. Even with all of this, though, the men make a living and hold out hope for the American Dream, thinking about the day they can buy that “building long abandoned/ on 9th Avenue and 7th Street” and convert it into a restaurant where the community can gather, recall home, and “let loose the weight/ of [their] language’s syllable to stress [their] loses” (83). For me, this discussion recalls the sharecropping experience of African Americans and the hope of building a better life, one that could support the community. Unfortunately, that life, in both cases, would not come so easily.
Following “The Bottom Dreamers,” Smith provides a poem about immigrants who settled in the predominately protestant North Louisiana town of Ruston. “Fidéle” explores the aspects of religious assimilation that I touched on briefly in the “Civilization (Bongo, Bongo, Bongo)” post from last week. In the poem, the narrator relates how her neighbors continually ask her to go to church with them and pray to God. At first, she politely declines, but eventually she tells them she will attend services with them, However, when she mentions that next week they should come with her to a Buddhist temple in Shreveport, the couple shuts down and leaves. The narrator tells them,
“I will pray to your God, and next week you can light incense sticks,
kneel and chant prayers to Buddah for my dead ancestors.” (85)
Immediately after this, the man tugs on the dog he is walking and leaves. Since the family does not “convert” to teh dominant religion, they experience discrimination and ridicule: “the words gooks and slopes accompanied with go home spray-painted on our driveway” (85). Wrath consumes the narrator as she envisions the “Christians” festering with sores. The community’s “faith [exists] as tiny as the type” on the thin Bible pages (86). Because of the “forced” attempts at conversion, the narrator and her family leave for California where they can live in “a place called Little Saigon,” a place that does not force them to assimilate to a new religion in order to succeed and receive acceptance (86).
“The Starving City: Nha Trang ’75” concludes The Land’s Baron’s Sun, and one can read in the closing lines a comment on the false hope of the true accessibility of the American Dream for everyone. Walking through a market, the speaker describes the scene of market stalls and vendors selling various items. The closing image is of
fish whose lips part for air
only to discover the world outside their oceans
is empty of the promise of breathing. (96)
The promise of a better life outside of Vietnam and in America proves false. Rather than acquiring an existence that frees the immigrants from oppression, they encounter new forms. In this case, the American Dream does not exist for them; instead, what awaits is the crushing feeling of defeat as they try to only live their lives and provide a better existence for their children.
For more about the idea of the American Dream, look at my post “The City in American Literature” and “Lecrae’s ‘Welcome to America’ and the American Dream.” What are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments below!
Kỳ Lý Smith, Genaro. The Land Baron’s Sun: The Story of Lý Loc and His Seven Wives. Lafayette: UL Press, 2014.