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AALR: “(Re)Collecting the Vietnam War”

aalr header(Re)Collecting the Vietnam War is a new special issue of The Asian American Literary Review (AALR), guest-edited by Cathy J. Schlund-Vials and Sylvia Shin Huey Chong, commemorating the 40-year anniversary of the Fall of Saigon and examining the complex gacgacies of the Vietnam War.

Cathy J. Schlund-Vials is Associate Professor of English and Asian American Studies at the University of Connecticut. She is also the director of the Asian and Asian American Studies Institute (UConn). She is the author of two monographs: Modeling Citizenship: Jewish and Asian American Writing (Temple University Press, 2011) and War, Genocide, and Justice:  Cambodian American Memory Work (University of Minnesota Press, 2012). She was recently named a series editor (with Linda Trinh Vo and K. Scott Wong) for Temple University Press’s Asian American History and Culture initiative and is presently the President-Elect for the Association for Asian American Studies.

Sylvia Shin Huey Chong is Associate Professor of English and American Studies at the University of Virginia, where she also directs the Asian Pacific American Studies minor and is affiliate faculty in the East Asia Center. She is the author of The Oriental Obscene: Violence and Racial Fantasies in the Vietnam Era (Duke University Press, 2012), and has also published on film censorship, psychoanalysis, obscenity, American orientalism, and the Virginia Tech massacre. She is currently researching yellowface minstrelsy and racial performance in mid-20th-century Hollywood cinema.

Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis is founding director of the Washington, DC-based arts nonprofit The Asian American Literary Review and co-editor-in-chief of its critically acclaimed literary journal. A consultant with the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, he also serves as adjunct faculty for the Asian American Studies Program at the University of Maryland. His fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction have appeared or will appear in Ploughshares, McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Kenyon Review, Gastronomica, AGNI, and Fiction International, among other publications.

Cflipbookan you briefly describe the edited collection and teaching program?

Cathy:  April 30, 2015 marked the 40th anniversary of the Fall of Saigon, the end of a war that claimed the lives of an estimated 58,260 American troops and over 4 million Southeast Asians across Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. In the U.S. today, “Vietnam” signifies not a country but a lasting syndrome that haunts American politics and society, from debates about foreign policy to popular culture. But what about the millions of Southeast Asian refugees the War created? What, in this year of commemoration and reflection, are the lasting legacies of the Vietnam War / American War for Southeast Asian diasporic communities?

(Re)Collecting the Vietnam War, a special issue of The Asian American Literary Review slated for release in mid-August 2015, poses these questions to leading artists, writers, and thinkers. Novel in form and approach, the issue is an innovative teaching tool, contemplating the conflict as both a remembered and traumatic event through a wealth of original multimedia art, a sweeping flipbook animation running the length of the collection, literary and scholarly engagements, and more.

Sylvia and I guest-edited the issue together, with Mariam Lam, Viet Le, and Chuong-Dai Vo serving as guest curators. The amazing lineup of contributors—poets and writers, visual artists, filmmakers, scholars, and activists—includes Monique Truong, Lan Cao, Kao Kalia Yang, Yen Le Espiritu, Anida Yoeu Ali, Thuy Linh Tu, Hoi Trinh, Sayon Syprasoeuth, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Soul Vang, Bryan Thao Worra, Peter Kiang, Yong Soon Min, Nguyen Tan Hoang, Cathy Linh Che, Bao Phi, Mai Der Vang, Jai Arun Ravine, Bee Vang and Louisa Schein, Thi Bui, and Simi Kang, among others.

Lawrence:  The teaching program is something we’re building around the special issue to connect teachers and students using it in the classroom. We’ve invited a group of instructors (30 and counting) to teach the issue this Fall 2015 term, and we’ll be providing the pedagogical “scaffolding:” additional resources, curricular materials, and perhaps most importantly, opportunities to connect with other participating classrooms—interactive online projects and assignments, video conference match-making between classrooms. What we’re hoping to open up is a new kind of teaching and learning experience, dynamic, interactive, and resource-rich. And user-friendly! The central platform will be a closed Facebook group, meaning, hopefully, that most participants won’t need to learn any new technologies. The program’s open to whoever’s interested and able to course-adopt the special issue, and we’ll be running it again in Spring 2016, possibly Fall 2016 and Spring 2017, if we don’t sell out of the issue first. Anyone interested in taking part can contact us at

What are some of the legacies of the Vietnam War that the project describes? Does this reshape, unsettle, disrupt historical accounts of the war in the U.S.?

Cathy:  (Re)Collecting the Vietnam War is divided into distinct sections: “Cartographies,” “Beyond,” “Collateral + Damage,” “Return Engagements,” and “Ghosts / Specters.” As suggested by these subtitles, the collection is organized to make visible the expansive geographies and extensive legacies of a conflict that—even at the level of nomenclature—remain contested. Indeed, while the collection’s title accesses a mainstream characterization (as the Vietnam War), we as editors were reminded that the conflict was by no means contained to one nation. Instead, its fronts included bombing targets and “secret wars” in Cambodia and Laos; it was waged from military installations in the Pacific and bases in Thailand. Whether geographic or temporal, to read the war as restricted to 1964–1975 misremembers a longer history of U.S. involvement in the region. Such limited timetables likewise forget how Cold War policies of Southeast Asian containment created refugees who sought asylum in the days, weeks, months, and decades following the so-known “Fall of Saigon.” The issue’s re-calibrations and re-mappings reflect curator Mariam Lam’s rightful insistence that terms like “the Vietnam War” and the “American War in Viet Nam” obscure the regional complexities and national contradictions which were part and parcel of a more expansive second Indochina War. Such reconfigurations also presaged Chuong-Dai Vo’s curation of a section that pushes us as readers to think “beyond” war via a consideration of contemporary Southeast Asian art politics and art history.

As editors, we were charged with the task of laying bare the heterogeneous, contradictory, and unreconciled nature of a war that is represented in the mainstream as a seemingly simple U.S.-Vietnam conflict. The curators for each section had to ensure that the simplistic master narrative was reshaped, unsettled, and disrupted to include, accommodate, and contemplate Southeast Asian bodies and diasporic Southeast Asian subjectivities. This master narrative—which privileges U.S. soldiers, forgets Southeast Asian allies (such as the South Vietnamese and the Hmong), and fails to recall the multinational reach and scope of the war—is repeatedly upended in the collection, which features a diverse array of diasporic Southeast Asian artists and writers. For example, in “On True War Stories,” Viet Thanh Nguyen extends “war stories” beyond the battlefront to include those who have lost “home, business, family, health, sanity, or country.” As Nguyen writes, “…what if we understood that war stories disturb even more when they are not about soldiers, when they show us how normal war is, how war touches and transforms everything and everybody, including, most of all, civilians?”

Such “destabilization work” is not limited to those immediately impacted by the war (as firsthand witnesses to militarized violence). Instead, it extends generationally and diasporically to include 1.5-generation and 2nd-generation points of view, a point made clear in curator Viêt Lê’s section, “Return Engagements.” Accessing the “many valences of the terms ‘return’ and ‘engagement,’  Lê in his curatorial essay asks, “What engages us to return, time and again, to places painful and pleasurable?” The answer is war, which for the diasporic artists and writers included in “Return Engagements,” serves as traumatic connective tissue between Cambodia, Vietnam, and the United States. This revisionary labor also operates inter- and intra-ethnically, as evidenced by Yen Le Espiritu’s evocative consideration of how refugee migrations out of Southeast Asia dramatically impacted and displaced what she names “other Others” in places like Guam.

The special issue includes fiction, history writing, cartography, interactive art, and more. Can you discuss how the use of multiple mediums has shaped the project?

Sylvia:  There is already an extensive historiography and literature on the wars in Southeast Asia, but much of this written work is separated by disciplinary and institutional boundaries from work by visual artists, screenwriters, spoken word performers, experimental filmmakers, graphic novelists, and others. We have sought to break down some of these boundaries by actively seeking out visual and aural artists as well as poets and writers throughout all of our thematic sections. Curators Viêt Lê and Chuong-Dai Vo both drew on their background as visual artists, museum curators, and scholars of visual art to assemble a rich panoply of visual responses to war and diaspora, while Cathy and I, as well as curator Mariam Lam, mine our scholarship in film and cultural studies to dialectically engage with the overwhelmingly present visual representations of the war period. In addition to individual artistic pieces, this special issue introduces a new feature that runs diachronically throughout the volume—a flipbook of animated images, all specially commissioned for the issue, that intersect with the content in each section while creating their own visual cross-narrative of the Vietnam War. All together, we hope that these multiple media both spark connections and highlight dissonances in the ways the wars in Southeast Asia have been (dis)rememberered, visualized, and retold.

Vandy Rattana, Prey Veng, from the Bomb Ponds series, 2009. Digital c-print. 98 x 111 cm. Photo courtesy of the artist and SA SA BASSAC.Why is a teaching component important to the project?

Lawrence:  It’s shaped how we envisioned the issue from the outset. We didn’t simply create the issue and then start advertising it to instructors; we built it at every step with networked classrooms in mind. Cathy and Sylvia, as well as Mariam, Viet, and Chuong-Dai, were able to conceptualize and grow the issue not only as a multidisciplinary engagement with the War but as a connective teaching and learning tool, the central node to the program that would develop in concert with the issue. The issue is an end-product, but it’s also the start of a larger intervention, an opportunity to open a larger conversation about the War and its legacies, how they’re taught and learned.

This is part of AALR’s organizational vision to create something like a community-curated model of publishing. We want to drive timely, ethically engaged art projects that produce real social change, both in- and outside of academia. This means participatory editing and publishing, really listening to what our audiences want or need and working to involve them in the processes of conceptualization, development, and dissemination.

We piloted earlier versions of this model with our 2011 special issue Commemorating the 10th Anniversary of Sept. 11 and our 2013 special issue Mixed Race in a Box. (Our next special issue, and teaching program, slated for 2016, will focus on Asian American mental health.)

Can you discuss the classroom-to-classroom collaboration built into the teaching program? What are the pedagogical goals behind it?

Cathy:  We’re in the process, now, of building a shared curriculum of activities and projects based on the issue, including interactive virtual spaces designed to put students in conversation with one another. For example, we’ll be hosting a collective mapping project that will allow users to trace War legacies, and diasporic circulations, visually and spatially. We’ll be creating communal online spaces for responses to particular pieces in the issue, as well as for engagements with particular histories or ideas across multiple pieces in the issue. We’ll also open an interactive archive that brings together artists, scholars, instructors, and students to create and develop new research inquiries together. Finally, we’ll help seed one-on-one video-conferencing amongst participating classes for those interested. The goal is a conversation that builds academic community among students and teachers across the U.S. and challenges and expands understandings of the War and its complex aftermath.

Lawrence:  We like to think of AALR’s teaching program, collaborative in nature, as a kind of alt-MOOC prototype. MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses, with their content open to any and everyone, leverage technology to make the “large lecture format” as large as enrollment allows. Our teaching program additionally wants to expand the possibilities of the seminar format, where student interaction is the focus. Creating one big seminar, or a series of networked seminars, potentially opens up a broader range of interactive possibilities, both in terms of numbers and, just as importantly, regional and cultural difference. War legacies, of course, shift across geographies and place, of course, shapes our understandings of history and race. A key goal of networking classrooms is foregrounding these realities, making them part of student inquiry and discovery.

As Cathy mentions, we envision a set of collaborative projects, some analytical, some archival, that allow students to put the local in conversation with, well, the local all across the country (and beyond—we have a classroom in Hong Kong participating). We also want to put teachers in communication with one another, facilitating resource-sharing, growing networks beyond our program.

Thi Bui, “Sai Gon, 1968″. Excerpt courtesy of the artist.Would you describe the use of digital technology in the teaching program?

Lawrence:  We’re making a point to use tried-and-true, easy-to-use platforms—Facebook as a central site; Skype, Google Hangouts, and Facetime for video-conferencing; and Google Docs for collaborative archival projects. It’s important that digital technology is a facilitator and not a hurdle for the program. We want participating instructors and students to be able to plug in easily, and have flexibility in the use of materials and opportunities for exchange as it fits for their particular classes and classrooms.

I know for instance I’d like my literature class at the University of Maryland to video-conference with at least one other classroom, hopefully two, and I know I want my students to be involved in a number of the interactive projects, but I realize some other participating classrooms—a history class, say, or an art history class—will have different points of entry and possibly divergent schedules. The digital offerings need to accommodate those differences and open up limited and fuller possibilities for engagement.

Sylvia:  The mapping project Cathy mentioned earlier will use the Neatline platform, which allows for collaborative projects that map ideas and issues across space and time. The Neatline maps and timelines which we’ll provide can be used either as reference material, or as jumping-off points for new maps and timelines created by students.

We’ll also be offering a range of digital extras to supplement the special issue. The extended curators’ notes give insight to the thought processes behind assembling our collection. Other materials will extend the content of the issue beyond the confines of the written page, including authors’ readings, animations of the various flipbooks, and some video extras.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Sign up for the teaching program! (Email We’d love to have more folks taking part, Fall 2015 or Spring 2016. And purchase the issue here.