HL90 ET: Asian America’s Vietnam War

We’ve got one final HL90 to share before applications to enroll in one are due tonight. Catherine Nguyen shared more about her new class, “Asian America’s Vietnam War,” the texts that made the cut, the texts that might have, and food!

What inspired you to teach this class?

I’m excited to be teaching a seminar on the history and literature of the Vietnam War! When I was trying to figure out what class to offer as a HL90, I was looking around the course offerings at Harvard, and I saw that there is a history course on the Vietnam War. The syllabus provides a thorough account of American history and Vietnam War, and if I were a student, I would definitely take it. At the same time though, I was struck by the few Vietnamese names included. As a second generation Vietnamese American and as one who never had an opportunity to take a Vietnam War class, I was looking for more, for narratives that might speak to my family’s history and to my own experience. Given the opportunity to teach a Vietnam War seminar through History & Literature, I worked to design a course that put front and center the Vietnamese experience—the opposing sides, soldiers and civilians, and the diaspora in the United States, France, and Australia. Moreover, the Vietnam War affected the larger Southeast Asian region and is a major moment for Asian American history, so we’ll be reading narratives from the Southeast Asian diaspora and Asian America. So, my hope is that the seminar and its syllabus will offer you something that speaks to the complexity of the Vietnam War and its aftermath.

What’s something you’re excited to share with students?

The boat narrative is the story of the Vietnam War and of the Vietnamese refugee. I’m excited to share with you the different ways that authors and artists have represented the boat narrative because it reflects an important history at the same time working through how the boat narrative is carried through in the diaspora and through the second generation. For example, we will be looking at a short story by a Vietnamese writer who lives in France but writes in Vietnamese alongside a picture book by a Vietnamese American author and an online interactive drawn by a Vietnamese Australian artist. We’ll think through what does each medium offer and how might it be constructing a particular vision or memory of the boat narrative.

Do you have any cool projects planned?

Given that we’re going to explore a lot of different things in the seminar—Maya Lin’s the Vietnam War Veterans Memorial to Hmong American stories—the final project is open in its subject and possibilities, as you can pursue a research paper or a creative project with an artist statement. So you can develop a podcast on generational memory, write a family memoir, draw a comic on Southeast Asian American student experiences, and more.

The seminar also has a mini-speaker series, and we will be inviting emerging scholars of critical refugee studies as well as creative artists who work in mix media, poetry and photography. This is required of students and provides you with the opportunity to have a conversation with them about how they approach the legacies of the Vietnam War in their work.

It always feels like there’s too much to read and not enough time. What are some other works that you considered assigning?

Thanhha Lai’s Butterfly Yellow that’s about a Vietnamese girl in Texas; Ocean Vuong’s poetic On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous; Quan Barry’s epic She Weeps Each Time You’re Born; Aimee Phan’s We Should Never Meet that tracks stories between Vietnam and Little Saigon in California; Viet Thanh Nguyen’s story collection The Refugees; and Thi Bui’s beautifully drawn The Best We Could Do.

What’s your favorite Vietnamese dish?

That’s such a difficult question, but it would be bánh cuốn, rolled not folded and with all the trimmings. Ngon quá!

How should students contact you to find out more?

I’d love to see you at the Shopping Week Info Session TODAY at 1:00-2:00pm ET on Zoom. And if you’ve any further questions, feel free to email me at chnguyen@fas.harvard.edu.

Published by Hist & Lit

Committee on Degrees in History & Literature at Harvard University

%d bloggers like this: