Talking Vietnamese American Literature with DVAN Co-Founder Isabelle Thuy Pelaud

Throughout 2021, our 50th anniversary year, we will not only reflect on past publishing endeavors but also look ahead to fresh initiatives. One of our most exciting new ventures is a series collaboration with the Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network (DVAN). Beginning in spring 2022, we will start publishing books selected by DVAN’s many writers and artists. TTUP has long supported literature and scholarship about the Vietnam War. With this partnership we hope to build our publishing program and diversify the voices and stories being told.  

Our acquisitions editor Travis had a conversation with DVAN founder and executive director Isabelle Thuy Pelaud about the organization and the new publishing initiative. 

Can you talk a little bit about the origins of DVAN? When did it get started, who was part of it, and what did y’all get up to? 

The Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network started in 2007. I called my friend from college, Viet Thanh Nguyen, and asked him if he was interested in starting Ink & Blood again, but this time at a global scale. He said yes. Ink & Blood was a small organization we joined as students in the early ’90s that brought together established writers and aspiring writers to present works to the public and to hang out. At the time, there were hardly any public forums for Vietnamese American writers, so we created them. We all became friends and we were so encouraged when people from the community came to listen to us read.  

DVAN started with five people. Our first activity was a San Francisco literary event with an audience of 400 people. Twenty years after Ink & Blood started up, community members were still showing up at Vietnamese American literary events, and this demand is what kept us going.  

And then can you compare that to the makeup and mission of the group now? What are your big initiatives? How many folks are involved?  

DVAN went through different phases in 14 years. More people joined, and with them came more ideas. In addition to organizing literary festivals, we organized film festivals, art exhibits, and summer youth programs and produced the award-winning anthology Troubling Borders: An Anthology of Art and Literature by Southeast Asian Women in the Diaspora. Our team was composed of passionate volunteers, but we did not have enough financial support to sustain our effort. About five years ago, we paused to take our breath, and decided to reduce our scope to focus on literature.  

We went back to organizing literary events only. But then DVAN began to grow again. Viet’s winning of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2016, followed by the MacArthur Prize, brought an electric jolt to DVAN. Three years after he committed to fund diaCRITICS with part of his MacArthur Prize for five years, we received a substantial grant from the Surdna Foundation, and since then community members started to donate substantial amounts as they see in DVAN a unique opportunity to put forth diasporic Vietnamese American cultural productions, and this is relevant and empowering to future generations.  

But look at Vietnamese American literature today. It is flourishing, and works of fiction and poetry are blooming.

With this financial support that we lacked in 2007, DVAN is now developing and strengthening six robust programs: 1) We are continuing with our public events—currently adapted during the COVID-19 lockdown by our online series ÁCCENTEDiRL: Dialogues in the Diaspora, hosted for the most part by Viet Thanh Nguyen; 2) our biweekly journal diaCRITICS that highlights art, literature, and stories from writers, artists, and cultural makers of the Vietnamese and Southeast Asian diaspora; 3) an experimental collective named “She Who Has No Master(s),” to support women writers and poets to collaborate and imagine otherwise; 4) three residency programs in the United States and France for established and emerging writers who wish to be in dialogue with each other; 5) an institutional branch called “DVAN Center @SFSU” in the College of Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State University to train and support undergraduates to become the next generation of artists and community organizers; and 6) a publication branch. For this program, we publish our own books and build long-standing relationships with publishers to expand DVAN’s literary community. Our next book will be a collection of dialogues between Vietnamese writers and poets living in different countries, most of which we collected from our public events and residencies. We are also working with Kaya Press to translate books from other countries, the first one being Line Papin’s Les Os des Filles. We are now collaborating with you at Texas Tech University to uncover and uplift new Vietnamese, Vietnamese American, and other Southeast Asian American writers and poets.  

The mission between the DVAN of 14 years ago and the DVAN of now remains the same. As scholars, Viet and I have identified three main issues that impact the production of Vietnamese American literature, namely the relative invisibility of Vietnamese American perspectives in American society, tokenist practices due to race (as Asian American), and the external and internal pressures exerted on writers. Too often is Vietnamese American literature used and read as social commentaries of a war lost, and too often writers have been concerned about upsetting an audience seeking resolution of the war and community eager to project a most positive image of itself given the fact that immigrants and refugees of color are historically the first to blame in time of economic difficulties. The difference is that we can do more now to support writers and the stories. To be involved in the publishing industry itself is very important for us, as we are well aware that it is not a given for minoritized artists. 

DVAN has about 15 dedicated staff and a growing network of volunteers. What is very special about DVAN is that most of us are Vietnamese American writers and/or academics. This year we are filing for non-profit status and seek to build an endowment, so that DVAN can be sustained on the long haul as we expand. 

We have seen recently a relative Vietnamese American renaissance in American publishing. Big books have come out from the likes of Viet Thanh Nguyen, Ocean Vuong, Phuc Tran, and Quan Barry. Besides the outrageous talent of these writers, what do you think drives interest in these stories? Furthermore, if a reader really loves those books and wants to read more, what are some names they should know? 

Other big books, which I think by this you mean books that have garnered national and international attention, that have come out also recently are Monique Truong’s The Sweetest Fruits and Nguyen Phan Que Mai’s The Mountains Sing. These books among others receive accolades and much recognition because they are well written and are captivating. It is also clear that the word “Vietnam” still has a special place in America due to the outcome of the Vietnam War, and Vietnamese American writers have been reductively expected to represent Vietnam and the aftermath of the war. 

Vietnamese American writers have offered a different perspective of the war than those found in Hollywood movies and GI literature; it is unfair to expect them to represent Vietnam and the War. Like books by any American writers, those like Monique Truong’s The Sweetest FruitsDao Strom’s The Gentle Orders of Girls and Boys, and Abbigail Rosewood’s If I Had Two Lives ought to be read and appreciated on their own terms for their originality and craft. I am looking forward to reading Eric Nguyen’s Things We Lost to the Water that is coming out in March about a Vietnamese American family in New Orleans. One of my favorite books is Kim Thuy’s Ru. The writer is from Canada, but since the corpus of Asian American literature includes Obasan by Canadian Asian writer Joy Kogawa, I do not see why Ru cannot also be seen as Vietnamese American literature.  

We recently posted 119 literary books on the DVAN under our new digital “DVAN Bookshelf” and are now putting together readers’ guides for our members (in the meantime, you can find Viet’s book recommendations on the website under CV). One way to support and join the DVAN community is to become a paid member and subscribe to diaCRITICS. By reading diaCRITICS you will get a nuanced and critical introduction to diasporic Vietnamese culture.  

A lot of white readers expect certain tropes from what we think of as “immigrant” literature. But of course immigrant literature can be anything (and doesn’t have to be about immigration at all!). Can you talk a little bit about the rich variety of art and themes explored by Vietnamese and Vietnamese American artists?  

In my book, this is all I choose to tell, I have a chapter titled “Overview” that traces the themes of Vietnamese American literature through time, ranging from nostalgia to reflections of home and a pull toward Vietnam and its history. I’ve explained that the evocation of the country from which one comes seems stronger for refugees than for immigrants due to the forced nature of departure. One thing that complicates this pull toward Vietnam is the demand in America for stories that shed light on the Vietnam War. But look at Vietnamese American literature today. It is flourishing, and works of fiction and poetry are blooming. Of the 119 books we were able to post on this platform (there are more that for some reason we cannot post), forty-one are fiction and thirty-one are books of poems. Nineteen are nonfiction, fourteen are for young adults and children, and fourteen are literary texts from other countries outside of Vietnam. That says a lot. Diasporic Vietnamese literature, it should not have to be reminded, are creative works, and as such push boundaries. 

At the time, there were hardly any public forums for Vietnamese American writers, so we created them.

This is where DVAN steps in. We wish for diasporic Vietnamese writers to write about Vietnam and the war if that is their choice, and if so, on our own terms. If we wish however to write about other topics, we want to help improve our chance to be published and be read as literature and not as social commentaries. We also wish for established writers to give a hand to the next generation of writers by presenting alongside emerging artists and dialogue across national borders. And as Viet Thanh Nguyen now argues, we want Vietnamese American literature to be diverse, not only in content but also in genre and qualities. Vietnamese American literature, we do not have to remind, is American literature. 

We at Texas Tech University Press have long published books about Vietnam. We’re the home of a large archive about the Vietnam War. One of my personal hopes in working with DVAN is to broaden this horizon for us and to expand the perspectives on this moment in history. At the same time, the Vietnam American war is not the whole story of the Vietnamese people in American and it certainly isn’t the whole story of Vietnam. There is so much more to say. What are some of your hopes for the kinds of books that DVAN and TTUP will be able to bring out in future years? 

To tell you the truth, I would not have thought of reaching out to Texas Tech University Press because I associated it with a strong emphasis on GIs’ perspective about the Vietnam War. But when you invited us to create a DVAN series, I saw it as an opportunity for us to contribute to a shifting of gaze toward the people or the descendants of those that GIs have fought side by side with, without necessarily seeing, and thus representing, our full humanity.  

You have been instrumental in making this collaboration between DVAN and Texas Tech University Press come to fruition, Travis, by assuring us that we will have a full say of who will be published and by providing meaningful support in searching for new manuscripts. Our hope for this DVAN/TTUP initiative is to support innovative literary and poetic Vietnamese American voices that broaden the scope of what constitutes Vietnamese American literature, as well as Southeast Asian American literature as a whole. We want to use our current success to support writers from communities that have garnered less attention due to geopolitical, racial, and economic reasons. We are also thinking of writers in Vietnam. We trust you in working with us to give long-due recognition to Vietnamese and Southeast Asian American perspectives.  

A part of me is grateful to you for this opportunity, and another thinks that it is time, and that our effort will be beneficial not only to our community but also to the Press you represent as well as its readers.