The 1.5 Vietnamese-American Generation

Vietnamese novelist Lan Cao artfully illuminates the destructive power of the Vietnam War through the eyes of a young girl and her father in her latest book,The Lotus and the Storm. In a beautifully crafted novel filled with love, pain, and betrayal, Cao transports the reader back to the troubling times of the twentieth century and the impact it had on the South Vietnamese. Author of critically acclaimed Monkey Bridge, Cao spoke at an ASNC and Mechanics' Institute event on September 10 about her newest book from the perspective of the “1.5 generation of Vietnamese Americans,” who were born in Vietnam but moved to the U.S. at an early age. Together with award winning journalist and short story writer Andrew Lam, Cao described growing up in the shadow of the Vietnam War after fleeing her country with memories of love and terror.

For Cao, The Lotus and the Storm is not just about the loss of a country, or the journey from the East to the West, but also why Vietnam was lost at the end of the War. To her, there is a greater purpose in understanding the reasoning behind why the United States retreated and the impact it had on the Vietnamese population. Cao describes her novel as an attempt to “introduce the perspective of a country that served the geopolitical purposes of US foreign policy” and what happened to Vietnam when it no longer served the interest of the superpower.

Cao was surrounded by the War for her entire childhood and feels “her past never left her.” Despite leaving Vietnam in 1975 at the age of 13 she was obsessed with the war because unlike other Vietnamese American fighters, most of her family fought in the War. However after coming to the United States, a feeling of discomfort kept her story and her perspective on the War in the shadows. It was as if “I had left Vietnam but Vietnam had lever left me” she says. Childhood memories, both good and bad, continued to appear as if they happened yesterday, and helped her find inspiration to write her novel. For example, Cao immediately thinks of firecrackers during Tet when she sees red while walking down the street. Or if she sees smoke, she “literally think[s] of the Tet offensive.”

Cao’s ability to illustrate relationships that humanize the war distinguishes her from her peers. Cao fought to write against mainstream academia on the Vietnam War, wanting to break away from the conventional in-depth research and analysis and add an experience-driven point of view on the War. Combining stories from family members and close friends with personal experiences, she helps readers understand the intimate, traumatic, and personal quest to survive.