Cinematic depictions of American-fought wars in Asia usually focus on the physical aspects of action – the momentous violence and fighting. Once in a while, a film will come along to challenge the glorification of such violence; however, both types of film tend to use an American soldier’s viewpoint that is limited to the physical and time parameters of war (as in Apocalypse Now or Platoon). Absent from these depictions are the voices of the natives and a dialogue on the lasting effects of war that follow native people long after American troops pack up and leave. Lê thi diem thúy’s The Gangster We Are All Looking For fills in this gap with its semi-autobiographical narration of the refugee experience of the author’s family upon fleeing from Vietnam to the United States. The heart of the novel centers around her coming of age in a waxing and waning group of relatives. The work focuses on how war and its repercussions form a paradoxical bond between the narrator and her parents that both holds them together yet also pushes them apart. In particular, by examining the relationship between the narrator and Ba, we can see how the events and memories surrounding the Vietnam War profoundly haunt and affect their lives.
The narrator’s relationship with Ba is deeply rooted in and affected by events that occurred during and immediately after the war. Her conceptions of her father are inseparable from war: “My first memory of my father’s face is framed by the coiling barbed wire of a military camp in South Vietnam” (82). This is not the normal first memory a child has of their father and as such it sets the tone for the rest of the relationship. Like so many other novels about war, the duty of a soldier removes him from his family, straining familial ties. As Thúy remarks, “Early memories of my father are always of his leaving. He didn’t live with us, was only, my mother would remind my older brother and me in her steady voice, visiting” (104). It is interesting to note that the narrator rarely sees Ba as a soldier, partially because Ba seems to never talk about those experiences with her. She instead must have learned such details from another source (perhaps Ma) and then fills in the rest with her imagination.
As a result, the narrator never completely knows the source of Ba’s grief, yet clearly there are traumatic memories in his past that cling to him. In language that is commonly employed with soldiers experiencing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), we get a sense of Ba’s war trauma. On p.103, Thúy writes, “He jumped out of airplanes and disappeared for weeks into the jungles and hill towns. His friends fell around him, first during the war and then after the war, but somehow he alone managed to crawl here, on his hands and knees, to this life.” Such an experience surely has serious consequences for a person’s persona. Even though Ba has survived the war and fled to the US, we see that the war “was [his] youth and how when it ended it was like waking from a long dream or a long nightmare. And how the war was in the past” (113). Though the war is in the past, Ba cannot move past this “long nightmare.” We get a glimpse of this nightmare in one passage when Ba is watching a woman on the news: “Now he had a feeling that the woman was pointing to bodies, unseen bodies, under the grass. As she directed the eye of the camera back to the grass, she kept crying because of what it could not see and what she could not stop seeing” (152). The last sentence of this quote parallels Ba’s experience. Replacing the woman with Ba, we get the sentence, “Ba kept crying because of what it [the “it” here can refer to the narrator, other family members, or we as readers] could not see and what he could not stop seeing.” Later, Thúy more explicitly tells us what Ba cannot stop seeing – “the bodies that floated through the rice paddies during the war. All those badly burned bodies” (157). The tragedy of Ba’s experience is that the horrors being replayed in his mind are his alone. He is unable to share these memories, and so there is no one to help him when he cannot move on.
While the narrator cannot see what Ba sees, she can perceive his inability to move on and the resulting gradual break down, which is the part that more directly pushes and pulls at their relationship. When they are fleeing Vietnam, Thúy writes, “I remember no one other than my father… He picked me up and kissed my hair. He stroked my face and rocked me, even though I wasn’t crying.” She seems to not quite register the trauma that everyone else feels in having to flee Vietnam, and Ba is the one in need of comfort. In some ways, it feels like the roles of child and parent are inverted – “When I touched a finger to his spine, he curled upon himself like an anemone. It was then, as he pulled away from me, that I realized the crying came from” (109). I think the phrase “he pulled away from me” carries both a literal and figurative description for their relationship.
In the latter half of the novel, there is a reoccurring symbol of an unanswered phone ringing in the house. Ba avoids answering the phone, continuing to watch his television or choosing to water plants outside, doing anything to pick it up. On p.137, Thúy offers insight on Ba’s evasion of the phone: “The phone was ringing and my father was afraid that instead of the usual telemarketers offering credit cards, it was someone calling from Vietnam. His fear was vivid and though probably unfounded, it pinned him to the bed like a weight.” An unanswered phone continually ringing sets many people on edge. There is something about the impending conversation and the repetitive ringing that insists on being answered. Yet this is lost on Ba, whose greatest fear is the literal and figurative past calling him, insisting with its continual rings to be answered. This metaphor aptly describes Ba’s avoidance of dealing with the past in a productive manner, which produces his unraveling.
As is often seen, veterans with PTSD can turn to alcohol as a coping mechanism, which the narrator perceives in Ba. On p.100 she says, “Growing up, there were nights when I would hear him staggering in the alley outside my bedroom window. I listened as he tackled the air, wrestled invisible enemies to the ground, punched his own shadow. Drunkenly, he would yell, “I’m not scared! Come out and fight me. I’m here!” Ba is wrestling with his demons, but, like the invisible enemies, his demons are as elusive as shadow – always there but untouchable.
Ba’s spiraling out of control must certainly strain his relationship with the narrator. He doesn’t sleep, instead “[driving] down to the beach and [spinning] the car wheels in the wet sand, daring himself to drive into the sea” and “becomes prone to rages…[smashing] televisions, VCRs, [chasing] friends and family down the street, brandishing hammers and knives in broad daylight” (115-116). We see that Ba begins to physically abuse the narrator and presumably Ma. In one passage, the narrator runs away to a shelter after one of Ba’s drunken rages literally displaces her from home. Still, Thúy’s gives an almost sympathetic description of Ba’s response: “He apologized for what his hands had done. The counselors understood this to mean he was taking responsibility for his drunken rages…But then he drew his palms together and apologized for all that his hands had not been able to do” (118). She chooses not to vilify him but rather paints him as her father, first and foremost, albeit with his failings.
Even as Ba’s unraveling strains his relationship with the narrator, there is still a strong connection between the two of them. While we might expect Ba’s drunken rages to permanently severe the parent-child relationship – and certainly they might have been a driving factor in her eventual departure – the narrator has an inseparable tie with Ba. In reference to the scene at the shelter, Thúy writes, “I thought they [the counselors] had no right to frown at my father. I could not wait to get us out of there…I remember crossing the parking lot, my hand in my father’s hand, the two of us running to the car as though we were escaping together again” (119). She wants to escape together with her father, just like when they escaped from Vietnam together. Perhaps she also wishes to help him escape his traumatic past. Regardless, she makes it clear that her lot is with Ba. We see another example of this after she has left San Diego and is living on the East Coast. The narrator has a series of dreams or nightmares about her and her father as detailed on pages 119-123. At the end of this dream sequence she flies aloft, suspended by a parachute, surveying all the places she and her family have lived until she lands “on the soft dirt of the canyon, [catching] my father dancing” (123). The word choice of ‘dancing’ seems odd; it may mean dancing as an act of joy, so perhaps the narrator is dreaming of a time when Ba will move past his memories. Another interpretation is that dancing is an act in which while there is movement, the dancer ultimately stays in the same spot. Either way, we see that even in her dreams or nightmares, when she is far removed from Ba, she keeps returning to her father.
This connection is likely rooted in the similarities and parallels between Ba and the narrator. Physically the two share many features; in one section Thúy notes that Ma would often look in her face to tell if Ba was okay while away fighting. The narrator also sees the similarities between them, though she suggests some differences in how they respond to grief. On p.116, Thúy writes, “I grew up studying my father so closely as to suggest I was certain I saw my future in him…Shame would crush me. I would turn away from the people I loved…Whereas my father would disappear into himself when haunted, I would leap out of windows and run…I would choose falling asleep on rooftops to lying in my own bed, surrounded by knots of memories I had no language with which to unravel. Yet exactly like my father, I would become suspicious of tenderness and was calmest when I had one hand quietly lying over the other.” She sees herself and her future in Ba. While she chooses to run in response to shame and grief as opposed to Ba retreating within himself, they both are “surrounded by knots of memories” with “no language with which to unravel.” The parallel in the last sentence of the quote is particularly important, showing that while she runs and he sinks into himself, both father and daughter return to a state of chaotic calm with the potential to snap.
Still, there seems to be a reactionary relationship between her and Ba, in that while she may be a continuation of her father’s personality, the narrator is a product of Ba’s grief. We get a sense of this on page 122, where Thúy notes, “People who, feeling they have no recourse to change the circumstances of their lives, fold down, crumble into their own shadows. This is what I saw my father do. He made himself small, so that in the world there was very little left of him, even while within me his hunger grew.” This novel suggests that Ba’s shrinking and withdrawal into himself propels the narrator forward. He imparts his hunger and grief to her, which she carries forward. At the root of this push-pull relationship is the trauma of war and being refugees, which produces a paradoxical bond that both separates and ties father and daughter together, like waves pushing against and pulling away from the shore.