Dust Child: A Novel
- By Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai
- 352 pp.
- Reviewed by Alice Stephens
- March 22, 2023
A veteran returns to Vietnam to search for those he abandoned.
Often, a society’s most virulent prejudice is saved for those of its own whose blood is mixed with the DNA of outsiders, polluting the supposed purity of the majority race. As a mixed-race Korean adoptee, I and others like me were ethnically cleansed from our country by the South Korean government through a robust intercountry adoption program. In a homogeneous society, the taint of the foreign cannot be hidden.
This is especially true if one’s father is Black, as is the case of Nguyễn Tấn Phong, a Vietnamese Amerasian trying to obtain American visas for himself and his family under the Amerasian Homecoming Act at the opening of Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’s Dust Child.
“A country that voted for a Black president had to be better than here, where Black people were sometimes called mọi — ‘uncivilized’ or ‘savage,’” he reasons. “Once, an owner at a food stall had laughed at him when he applied for a job as a dishwasher. ‘Look at your skin,’ she sneered. ‘My customers would run away because they’d think you make the dishes dirtier.’”
Phong’s visa is denied because on a previous application he tried to include people unrelated to him as his blood relatives. He committed this fraud because, abandoned by his mother at birth and raised by a nun who has since died, Phong had been taken in by those people and given the comforts of home for the first time. But they were only scheming to get to America, and when the ploy didn’t work, the family kicked him out.
After Phong is rejected for the visa a second time, he encounters an American couple, Dan and Linda. Linda thinks they have come to Vietnam as therapy for Dan’s Vietnam War trauma, but Dan has an ulterior motive that he hasn’t revealed: He wants to find Kim, the local woman he kept as his mistress when he was a helicopter pilot in the war.
The story switches between Phong’s and Dan’s present-day narration and Kim’s war-era story. Her real name is Trang, and she and her sister Quỳnh come to Saigon to earn money to pay their parents’ debts. They find work as bar girls, coaxing American soldiers to buy them drinks (tea made to look like whiskey) and occasionally sleeping with them for more money. At the bar, Kim meets Dan and falls in love.
He moves her into an apartment of her own so that she can be exclusive to him. But the war changes Dan, and he becomes distant and abusive. When she breathlessly tells him she’s pregnant, “She saw fear cross his face. As she stood there, stunned, he turned, and without a word, walked away from her.” He leaves Vietnam without seeing her again.
Dan is white, so he cannot be Phong’s father, but he and Linda are moved by Phong’s plight and befriend him. He tells them how difficult life is for him because of the systemic discrimination he must endure both for his skin color — in a society that fetishizes whiteness — and for being the offspring of a defeated enemy. He also shares the names he is constantly called, like “dust of life,” “Black American imperialist,” and “Amerasian with twelve assholes.”
Meanwhile, through the help of a local man, Dan puts advertisements in newspapers for Kim and their child, and eventually someone responds. Soon, all three storylines come together for an implausibly neat, happy ending.
Author Nguyễn skillfully conjures the atmosphere of war-era and contemporary Vietnam in adroit and accessible prose. She incorporates Vietnamese dialogue that is not translated but whose meaning is conveyed from context, and she makes generous use of Vietnamese proverbs and sayings. She occasionally transliterates English into Vietnamese, too, giving a poignant glimpse into the challenge of language barriers and foreign pronunciations. In the author’s note, Nguyễn explains that she based the novel on seven years of doctoral research on Vietnamese Amerasians.
The care she took with the historical and cultural details transports the reader to a richly described land, but the story itself seems whitewashed and sanitized — particularly in its depiction of prostitution catering to the U.S. military — to play to the expectations of an American audience. Kim and Dan are little more than tropes, and the predictable, sentimental narrative arc leaves the story lying flat on the page.
The novel closes with a character deciding to disseminate a lie in order to spare the feelings of others rather than make them face the harsh truth. In this way, the author has employed the art of fiction to rewrite the U.S. incursion into Vietnam, turning a senseless, brutal tragedy into a heartwarming tale of love and reconciliation.
Born to a Korean mother and an American-soldier father, Alice Stephens was one of the many mixed-race Koreans adopted out of the country. She is the author of the novel Famous Adopted People, co-founder of the Adoptee Literary Festival, a book reviewer, and a columnist for the Independent.