I’m thinking a lot about family and history these days.
April 30th is the day that Saigon fell in 1975. I was in college in Austin. Later, I would work in Houston helping resettle Vietnamese people, many of whom had worked for the US forces. My husband, like many Osages, was a veteran of that conflict. He served in the Navy, had been home for six months that April.
Author Viet Thanh Nguyen was a child in 1975, four years old when his parents fled their home in Ban Mê Thuột – now Buôn Mê Thuột – Vietnam ahead of the North Vietnamese. He’s a professor of English and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California, an award-winning author whose work examines his experiences as a refugee, and the way Americans and Vietnamese view those events. “The Sympathizer,” a New York Times bestseller, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2016.
The Nguyens were initially sent to a resettlement camp in Pennsylvania at Fort Indiantown Gap. His memories begin at the barracks there.
The family moved to San Jose, where his parents opened a grocery they called Sàigòn mói, part of a growing Vietnamese community settling in a distressed downtown. In an essay he read on CBS This Morning, Nguyen said he didn’t question why his parents didn’t translate the name. “They were Vietnamese, we were Vietnamese, our language was Vietnamese.”
Nguyen said, “Refugees and immigrants become Americans by buying property, putting their language on it, and making everyone see it.” The experiences of the Osages forced from Kansas and the Vietnamese fleeing chaos illuminate each other.
We had a treaty and purchased the reservation, although we were forced to allot it in the face of political pressure. The power of language to signal an intact ethnic community, or a Nation, is clear. The pressure from the dominant culture to remove or erase it signals its power.
Now, 51, Nguyen wrote on social media about being asked to speak about his experience of April 30th to the Vietnamese Student Association where he teaches. The perspectives of the students he visited, whose associations of that chaotic escape come from parents or grandparents, made me think about Osage history and the inexorable changes time brings.
We see this in the way the stories of the 1920s have flowed through the Osage, whispered sometimes, sometimes unspoken, in the century since they took place.
Nguyen’s stories are like the Osages’ in that he tells a different story than the mainstream, which is only beginning to acknowledge and recognize Osage and indigenous perspectives.
Last October, the Nation memorialized our forced departure from Kansas. In trying to imagine that time, the faces of Vietnamese children in the midst of the war make clear how young and vulnerable Osage children would have been and how frightened their parents would have been.
Art can carry history forward, can preserve oral history, or at least a version of it. I look forward to more Osage stories, novels and poetry. “Killers of the Flower Moon,” focusing on a traumatic time in Osage life, is scheduled to be released in October.
“The Sympathizer,” an HBO series described as part espionage thriller and part cross-culture satire, based on Viet Thanh Nguyen’s novel, will be released in 2024.