Saturday, December 2, 2017

Review: Inheriting the War

When I was about ten, a Vietnamese student joined our predominantly white, middle-class elementary school. She spoke little English, but was sweet and drew exquisite, exotic-to-my-American-eyes flowers. We didn't talk much, but we smiled often and awkwardly, and drew flowers together, and became friends of a sort.

Middle school took us our separate ways, and it did not occur to me at the time - or for long afterwards - to wonder how she came to live in our (as eventually canonized by Billy Joel) waning, steel-manufacturing era, Pennsylvanian city. Like many kids, I don't remember being especially aware of current events until my tweens or early teens, and by that time the Vietnam war had been over for several years.

While the world has its way of moving on, Laren McClung's poignant anthology Inheriting the War: Poetry and Prose by Descendants of Vietnam Veterans and Refugees (W.W. Norton, 2017) makes it clear that, in ways that are deep and profound, the conflict in Vietnam continues to shape the lives of both children of American soldiers and of the children of families who fled to America following the Fall of Saigon.

The collection is extensive, and it took me several weeks to work my way through, a few stories and poems at a time. As you might imagine, the emotions are powerful, with many pieces conveying painful memories of growing up witnessing parents struggling with divorce, post-traumatic stress, depression, or substance abuse. Among my favorites were Nick Flynn's portrait of his stepfather Travis, who grappled with the moral injury he sustained as a soldier and his personal struggle to find meaning; Andrew Pham's first-hand, unfolding account of living through the Fall of Saigon; Bich Minh Nguyen's affecting story of being an immigrant student in a midwestern elementary school; and Ocean Vuong's gorgeous and piercing elegy for a cousin who took his own life.

I loved the range of voices - male and female, children of veterans and children who were refugees, American and Vietnamese. Each awakened me to a different perspective, or a new fact, or a detail I hadn't considered before. Some sent me turning to Google for more context.  (I learned, for example, that Fort Indiantown Gap, not far from where I grew up, was a designated refugee resettlement camp. How had I not known this? Had my friend's family come through there? What would that experience have been like?)

Because there are so many writers, and so many pieces, I did think the anthology might have benefited from, if not more curation (for I can see why it would have been difficult to leave any of the pieces out), a clearer thematic structure. I felt this especially for the poems, which while lovely, often felt as if they floated, unmoored between other pieces. But even the prose pieces could sometimes have used a little more context to anchor them in the reader's mental geography or timeline. Nonetheless, I couldn't help but be moved by both the individual pieces and by the collection as a whole, and I came away with a richer understanding of the war and its legacy.

I must also call your attention to the stunning cover art by Binh Danh, whose artistic concept so perfectly expresses the soul of this collection:  "The images of war are part of the leaves, and live inside and outside of them."



  1. I often have a hard time seeing how poetry and fiction go together in the same book because we are not typically readers of both and thus feel ambivalent about half the material in such works.--Grab the Lapels

    1. Yes, true. I appreciate both, but do find it hard to switch gears back and forth.

  2. I loved this anthology too. And the cover art is gorgeous.
    The inclusion of poetry and prose pieces in the same volume seems to be on the rise. I don't mind it, but it makes me read individual pieces more out of order than I might otherwise—I'm likely to read several prose pieces, then go back and read a few of the poems before moving into the prose again. It's rather like reading a themed issue of a lit mag. The book I'm reading now, Tales of Two Americas: Stories of Inequality in a Divided Nation (Penguin), is built the same way, and I find I'm jumping back and forth. Luckily, the pieces don't require to be read in any specific order. Perhaps both of these books could use a a clearer thematic structure, but I don't really mind them as they are.


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