Diasporic (Be)longings

Reviewed by Brooke Xiang

Philip Huynh’s The Forbidden Purple City is a collection of nine short stories that feature distinct, lovable, but often repressed characters whose lives and relationships are unravelled and simultaneously pieced together by their positionalities as Vietnamese immigrants and refugees. Echoing the text’s preoccupation with postcolonial subjecthood, the collection’s title recalls the Imperial Palace in Hue, Vietnam, much of which was destroyed during civil wars and the Vietnamese War. Huynh is a reflective and reticent writer whose characters are otherwise strangers bound together by familial obligations and happenstance; the craft of Huynh’s writing appears in the ways it unpacks the aftermath of loss, of what wasn’t there, and of what could have been.

Huynh’s subtle, often tongue-in-cheek critique of class and racial privilege can be found in many of the stories. The aptly named “Gulliver’s Wife” is the story of Josephine, a young mother who is neglected by her husband when he sets sail in the fruitless pursuit of a PhD in Economics. Josephine’s complicated admiration for Camus’ L’Étranger, an admiration developed while she taught French to children in Saigon, nearly leads her to an affair with Paul, her son’s French teacher. Josephine’s feelings of inadequacy about her Vietnamese-accented French are sharply contrasted with Paul’s ease with the language by virtue of having grown up bilingual as a white man in Montreal. Moreover, Josephine’s painstaking efforts to rid her son of his inherited accent echo the insecurities of many postcolonial subjects in contemporary literature, whose mastery of the language of the colonizer never seems to be enough to cleanse them of their otherness.

“Mayfly,” a story from much later in the collection, in many ways presents a foil to “Gulliver’s Wife.” Here, Huynh writes from the point of view of a white Canadian man who grows up in an impoverished and racialized suburb of Vancouver. The protagonist becomes a member of a local Vietnamese gang because of his perceived infallibility in the eyes of law enforcement, then subsequently loses his place due to his inability to recognize his own arrogance and sexism. “Mayfly” is the only story in the collection told in the second person, and evocatively so; its form is simultaneously a reflection on the unattainability of whiteness for racialized subjects and a critique of the condescension and false sense of superiority that often comes with white privilege. Huynh’s style is understated, measured, and steadfast, making the stories a pleasure to read.

If Huynh’s stories lament the quest for what could have been, then Sally Ito’s text is the story about what was never known, explored through retellings and reiterations of intergenerational trauma in a myriad of narrative styles and forms. The Emperor’s Orphans spans four generations, and details the transpacific lives and journeys of Ito’s ancestors from both sides of her family tree. Ito’s narrative is part confessional, part imagined family history, and part translations of her maternal grandfather’s journal, the sum of which parts gesture towards the auto/biographical nature of the text. But it is difficult to categorize Ito’s text by genre; in the preface, she requests it be read ambiguously as Ito’s “personal myth with some parts imagined, some parts true…set before the reader who undertakes the journey of [her] tale.”

Similar to the text’s evasion of genre, its narrative voice is equally erratic and difficult to follow. Ito first throws the reader into the translated pages of her maternal grandfather’s journal, then into the narrator’s inner monologue, and subsequently into an imagined monologue in her paternal grandfather’s voice, set beside the Yellowhead highway in 1942 —all in distinct voices, and all within the space of two pages. These hurried transitions, or lack thereof, make Ito’s text seem fragmented and unfocused—but that may very well be the point, if frustratingly so. As an account of how her family’s history has been disrupted by World War II and by the subsequent Japanese internment and repatriation, the text’s lack of cohesiveness gestures towards how, like intergenerational trauma, the retelling of these traumatic events is never linear, but by necessity often needs to be translated, reimagined, and retold through many different voices. In its refusal to be a cohesive and palatable whole, Ito’s text demands the reader to reconsider what makes a narrative worth reading.

This review “Diasporic (Be)longings” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 19 Feb. 2020. Web.

Please note that works on the Canadian Literature website may not be the final versions as they appear in the journal, as additional editing may take place between the web and print versions. If you are quoting reviews, articles, and/or poems from the Canadian Literature website, please indicate the date of access.

Canadian Literature is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.