Dissertation working title: “Uncovering the Plot: Genre and the Vietnamese Diaspora’s Narrative of Collective Identity”
One of the central claims of cultural trauma theory—the theory that provides the framework for this project—is that such a trauma fundamentally alters the self-conception of the affected society. It is my contention that the Vietnam-American War has become a cultural trauma and has therefore fundamentally altered the identity of the various societies it affected. However, cultural trauma is not inherent in the event itself (i.e., the Vietnam-American War), but is socially constructed over time. This process of cultural-trauma creation involves a struggle between divergent narratives, each of which is championed by a particular group within the larger society. In my investigation, I combine (a) interview data collected from a variety of Vietnamese-Americans (about 50 in all), including artists, academics, journalists, community leaders, and veterans of the South Vietnamese military with (b) analysis of the literary, graphic, and plastic representations of the war created by the diaspora’s various carrier groups. In analyzing this data, I show the sundry ways in which the Vietnamese diaspora in the U.S. has come to narrate their collective identity in light of the war. Specifically, I analyze how the genres of the diaspora’s divers trauma narratives serve to explain some of the otherwise confounding characteristics of the war’s representation in the arts, including the lack of combat imagery, the lack of reference to enemy atrocities, and the focus on boats and water, when in fact the war was fought by the South primarily by land and air.
As a result of this research, I have developed a number of theoretical contributions to the concept of collective memory specifically, and cultural sociology more generally. Chief among these include 1) a novel conception of how the narrative genre of a collective memory can—and cannot—affect its content and 2) a theory that describes the ways in which meaning can inhere more durably in visual representations than in textual descriptions of the same subject.