Dao Strom: We Were Meant To Be a Gentle People

Review by Karolina Zapal

(PAPERDOLL WORKS/PRESS OTHERWISE, 2015)

I. We Were Meant To Be a Gentle People by Dao Strom impulsively invents its own genre by reinventing what it means to assemble a hybrid text. Hungering words of familial strife, painful tribulations experienced during and after the Vietnam War, and faithful concessions to personal remorse choose their weather in this text to create a unique compositional patchwork. By weather, I mean photographs and text carved into pointed shapes, long-form poetic meld, and everything else about ancestral grief that inevitably leads to an emergency. In his essay, The Emergency, Andrew Joron states, “If poetry ‘makes language new,’ then it must be defined as the translation of emergency.” Gentle People, while inciting a reading inspired by the quote, flips the quote on its head: if a writer translates emergency, one inevitably creates a new avenue for form to take. Strom, by translating the (personal) inhalations and (public) exhalations of a nation at war, figures a hybrid text into a unique combination of textual and pictorial sequences, and thus makes language new.

II. This genre names itself toward the end of the book: “A photographic autobiography involving nine geographies // or: (im)(e)migrant family in gold country // or: scattered triangulations from the diaspora.” Strom wrestles with the broad idea of representation in a memoir: how to map a multitude of physical and personal geographies in two dimensions; how to merge immigration to America with emigration from Vietnam; and how to plead with political constraints to exclude her family’s history from their blessed triangles. She reconciles this by cutting a lot of images into either upside (down) triangles—the reasoning behind which exists in the form of definition: “Triangulation (n.) 1. (in surveying) the tracing and measurement of a series or network of triangles in order to determine the distances and relative positions of points spread over a territory or region…3. (in politics) The establishment of a political position that differs from two existing or opposing positions, especially in being moderate.” The triangles work to caption the uncaptioned images with personal and political exactitude: representing relative positioning pre/post migration as well as a stamped political stance nostalgic of Saigon.

III. A bio reminiscent of memoir. Parsed together based on informant clues strewn throughout the book. Strom believes to have been conceived near The Street of Horror on an expedition spurred by a promise between two press members (also lovers) to document the death-site of a thousand refugees who were “felled by shells and gunfire from Communist fighters” and “lain unattended for two months.” Her parents, both writers, were devoted “to fuel the general public’s motivation to keep fighting, both against the corrupt South Vietnamese regime and the oppressive North Vietnamese Communist threat.” Strom’s mother, along with her two children, fled Vietnam in 1975, whereas her father stayed on in the mistaken belief that he had more time to do his work; he was sent to “reeducation camps,” where he spent eleven agonizing years. Strom met him for the first time when she was twenty-three, traveling to Vietnam on a scholarship from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Even after Strom’s birth father relocated to America, the relationship she had with him was steeped in invalidating reverie due to the language barrier and emotional distance, never culminating in critiqued understanding or gratitude.

IV. Both of Strom’s parents were active writers in their young careers. In this book, Strom makes a valiant attempt to access their voices and allocate equal space to the mother and the father in relation to the country and the I. As regards her mother, she includes an excerpt from the Encyclopedia of Censorship, which quotes her mother’s distant pen name and deems her writing destructive to the literature of South Vietnam. Pieces of this excerpt appear already highlighted and underlined, revealing careful, if not also emotional, analysis of the text on the part of the writer rather than the reader: (highlighted and underlined) “A slap in the face of an ethical system that has attached a strong stigma to such sexuality and has relied on a narrow concept of chastity.” This forces readers to acknowledge what’s missing from their own family’s voice and to withdraw artifacts from time’s grasp on genealogical matters. The voice of Strom’s father emerges in a realization of its lack. On one of their visits, he confesses to his daughter that he has written a memoir but has deleted it, and when she asks him why, he replies with, “I cannot, so I delete.” To honor this, the next two pages in the book are blank, which showcase Strom’s mastery of sympathy, bravery, and form; while the blank pages can be understood as an appropriation of the erased memoir, they can also be read as a recontextualization of the erasure: as a moment of silence for her father’s continual shame.

V. As mentioned previously, images play a crowded role in Strom’s memoir, representing life on both sides of a stormproof window. The sources of the images range from the archives of Ngy Thanh–a photographer who worked on the same newspaper as her parents during the Vietnam War–to her family’s photo albums, and include photographs from a recent trip to Vietnam, as well as a spare photo from Time magazine. This concoction of images complements the text and shapes the readers’ ingestion of it but is in no way privileged over the text (or vice versa). In brilliant pairings of text and image, Strom follows a portion of the images with lengthy captions, some of which travel from head to head describing personality and importance: “But it is the one in front of her who (for me) begins to give the picture away…he or she is the only one who appears to notice the camera and is actually looking, with brows slightly furrowed, in the direction of the picture’s shooter.” In this particular instance, as well as others throughout the book, the camera or the person behind the camera is mentioned, suggesting a metanarrative; maybe the representation doesn’t fall in the image at all, but in what’s behind the image, before or while it was taken. A sizable fraction of the images from Strom’s most recent trip to Vietnam feature her wearing wings. Aside from the obvious symbolism, which speaks to Strom’s continual gratitude for the freedom to come and the freedom to leave, the wings ground memory in that particular trip and authorize use of those images for the book, as they’re all sealed with a sign of approval.

VI. Lastly, the experience of Strom’s memoir wouldn’t be complete without listening to its component CDs, East and West. Performing her own songs, Strom imagines a world where language nurtures not only our intellectual seed–that which is literate and modern–but also a place from inside that bridges the gap between a voice that is silenced and a voice that is free. The lyrics to these songs behave on a similar plane of noise-making throughout the book, allowing readers to let go of the word-following constrictions that plague our listening and instead enjoy a sense-driven ride through feverish music. We Were Meant To Be a Gentle People believes in its own (possibly temporary) location, wherever that may be. Vietnam, various cuts of American landscape, or between the lines of text, image, and song.