On Refugee Worldmaking

While seared into the memories of most survivors who lived through the war first-hand, audiences here in Canada likely remember experiencing the last days of the Vietnam War from a distance, as they watched the scenes of frantic helicopter refugee evacuations in Southeast Asia flood the news. As I write this editorial for the special issue on Refugee Worldmaking: Canada and the Afterlives of the Vietnam War, these scenes of wartime upheaval, refugee evacuations, and people left behind in the ruins and ravages of war to fend for themselves are with us once again—not from Cambodia, Vietnam, or Laos this time, but from Afghanistan.

Today, it is not uncommon to come across references to the “Cambodian precedent” or the “lessons” from Vietnam in discussions about the nature of the contemporary conflicts in Afghanistan, Syria, or Iraq. In his New York Times op-ed, “I Can’t Forget the Lessons of Vietnam. Neither Should You,” Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen writes,

[t]wo decades, billions of dollars and tens of thousands of deaths later, Taliban forces are now in Kabul, having secured control of the country with dizzying speed. As much as some American leaders resist it, the analogy presents itself again, with the fall of Saigon and resulting catastrophe foreshadowing the possible fate of tens of thousands of Afghans.

Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, similarly invokes the form of the analogy as he writes,

there have been many references to the United States’ withdrawal from Vietnam as an important historical analogy in assessing the implications of the situation in Afghanistan; however, a better analogy is Cambodia. The history of Cambodia offers . . . important critical insights into the implications of the current situation in Afghanistan.

A recent conversation I had with Vietnamese Canadian author Kim Thúy about her 2021 book Em also pivoted around the topic of the Vietnam War’s lessons for the present. I asked Th y about the last chapter of her novel, entitled “Cold War,” in which she likens Vietnam to a chess piece in the Cold War and describes how the “abandonment [of the Vietnamese] by the three great powers forced the two Vietnams to find themselves, to live together despite the discomfort” (148). In our conversation, Th y acknowledged that over forty-five years later, the Communist Party remains in power in Vietnam and the major superpowers (the United States, China, and Russia), it seemed, were coming back to the region to “play” on the chessboard once again, if they had ever left at all. Th y also noted the parallels between then and now: “There are some pictures,” she recounted, “that people are posting. You see the helicopters and the people running. They are basically the same pictures, with forty-five years in between. . . . Did we learn anything from the first time?” What these writers and scholars elucidate is the porousness and permeability of imperial wars and their afterlives.

Some wars that we think are over are merely on hold, in a lull. The afterlife of one war bleeds into, and merges with, the afterlife of another, forming an entangled web of death, injury, loss, and heartbreak for victims and perpetrators alike, albeit asymmetrically. To name Cambodia, Vietnam, or Laos as a precedent for Afghanistan, Syria, or Yemen today does the important work of illuminating the global and temporally unconstrained infrastructure of US permanent war, in which peacetime, rather than wartime, is the exception to the rule. As the Costs of War project at Brown University explains, the human, economic, and socio-political costs of the US wars in the Greater Middle East since 2001 alone include an estimated 929,000 people killed, 38 million people displaced, 85 countries targeted, and $8 trillion in US budgetary costs. The only lessons learned from the Vietnam War, it seems, were ones the US military learned about how killing with impunity could be done more expansively and more indiscriminately. But there are also limits to this analogical form of reasoning. To what extent do the unresolved inheritances of past wars and conflicts become legible only insofar as they offer “lessons” for the contemporary moment? And to what degree is it even possible to cite Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos as a meaningful lesson or cautionary tale for the present when we have yet to adequately look at the example itself, on its own terms? Such rationales also rely upon liberal positivist assumptions of Enlightenment progress, which as critical theorist Alexander Weheliye argues, presuppose “that suffering must always follow the path of wounded attachments in search of recognition from the liberal state” (14). This “liberal notion of wounding” (14) confers legitimacy onto the site of injury only insofar as it illuminates a larger structural pattern. The “exampling” or “lessonification” of suffering also temporally demarcates the event of wars abroad as something that is over and done with, rather than something that is structurally endemic to the enduring imperial conquests of US empire.

This special issue joins the chorus of scholars who have been attending to the afterlives of violence (across multiple sites and scales) that turn out to be no afterlives at all. As a descriptor, “the Vietnam War” signifies differently across spatial, temporal, and geographical boundaries. Some of its variants, metonymies, proxies, sideshows, and postscripts include the American War in Vietnam, the Second Indochina War, the Cold War in Southeast Asia, the hot wars in Southeast Asia, the Secret War in Laos, the US bombing of Cambodia, and the Cambodian genocide. Collectively, these asymmetrical wars of empire contributed to the suffering of people in these regions on a scale that Michel Foucault described in 1979 as “unprecedented in modern history.” These wars also disproportionately enlisted the labour of Black, Indigenous, and brown bodies to fight on the front lines of the war in the name of securing the extractive economies of Southeast Asia for US-led global capitalism. Canada’s involvement in the Vietnam War was marked by both complicity with and resistance to empire.

On the one hand, Canada offered sanctuary to 30,000 US war resisters and 60,000 Southeast Asian refugees, more refugees per capita than any other nation in the world. At local levels, Canadian groups mobilized in support of Southeast Asian refugees (e.g., Operation Lifeline) while others (the majority of the Canadian public polled at the time) were against the government’s asylum policies. On the other hand, over 30,000 Canadian troops crossed the 49th parallel and voluntarily enlisted to go to war in Southeast Asia. Canada provided the US military with war material, and allowed the testing of chemical weapons, such as Agent Orange, on Indigenous lands in Canada. Southeast Asian refugees arrived in Canada at a moment in history when the nation-state was invested in bolstering its “humanitarian character” and image of exceptionalism relative to the United States (Madokoro 188). Just as scholars have argued that the US Refugee Act of 1980 constituted a “key site for the production of Vietnamese refugees as grief-stricken objects marked for rescue and the United States as the ideal refuge for the ‘persecuted and uprooted’ refugees” (Espiritu 21),1 the Canadian government’s Special Indochinese Refugee Program of 1979-1980 afforded an opportunity for Canada to promote its humanitarian image and to efface its involvement in the Vietnam War.2 Canada’s granting of asylum to 60,000 refugees from Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam allowed Canada to present itself in many ways as the ideal haven for the victims not only of Southeast Asian communism, but of America’s brutal war in Vietnam. The Special Indochinese Refugee Program, which allowed for private groups and organizations such as church collectives to participate in refugee resettlement through sponsorship agreements with the federal government, was heralded as a resounding success in Canadian refugee resettlement history and a model for the world (Employment and Immigration Canada 7). This celebratory narrative is exemplified by an official report in which the Canadian government proclaims as follows:

The 60,000 Indochinese who were welcomed by Canadians in 1979 and 1980 are the latest chapter in the ongoing story of Canada’s humanitarian tradition of accepting the displaced and persecuted for permanent resettlement. . . . This situation created a kind of partnership between the Canadian people and government at all levels which was sudden, new and different from anything that had happened before—and it worked! (7)

As Robert McGill, author of the book War Is Here: The Vietnam War and Canadian Literature, notes, “It isn’t a coincidence that the years of the Vietnam War, 1964-75, coincide with the rise in Canada of the ‘new nationalism’: a nationalism bent on establishing the country’s political, economic, and cultural independence from the United States.” Through attention to the Vietnam War-era writings and archives of Canadian authors such as Earle Birney, Margaret Atwood, Al Purdy, Michael Ondaatje, Timothy Findley, Roch Carrier, Anne Hébert, Louis Caron, and many, many others, McGill’s book illustrates how the years of the Vietnam War, also not coincidentally, coincided with the flourishing of Canadian literature, as “writers sought to characterize Canadians as coming to a humanitarian reckoning with the war” and with their own national identity.

The contributions in this special issue query how we might begin to reconcile Canada’s humanitarian image of benevolence with its complicitous actions. How do the literary and cultural works that have been routed through Canada engage with the recurring presence of the Vietnam War and its afterlives? To what extent does the Vietnam War as an imperial formation offer possibilities for rethinking the paradigm of Canadian literature as a field? In response to decades of knowledge production that has centred the wounding of white (American) soldiers, veterans, and publics (as well as white authors writing about Vietnam), this special issue contributes to the growing body of scholarship that has sought to bring a focus to refugee perspectives and ways of knowing in the collective conversation about the legacies of the Vietnam War. In the introduction to their edited collection Refugee States: Critical Refugee Studies in Canada, Vinh Nguyen and Thy Phu argue that “[b]y centring the figure of the refugee and the concept of refuge, [their] book builds on and expands well-established critiques of Canadian nationalism, nation-building, and settler colonialism” (5). Their critical

approach is less concerned with critiques of the state, and more with the ways in which refugees take up, work with, challenge, and transform state directives and agendas, asserting their subjectivities variously in opposition to and in parallel with other categories and subject positions as well as carving out ways of living and being with others. (5)

Building on Nguyen and Phu’s work, I conceptualize this refugee labour of challenging, transforming, asserting, and carving out ways of living as acts of “refugee worldmaking.”

On the one hand, refugee worldmaking refers to interlinked structures of imperial, racial, and gendered violence that make, and bring, the material worlds of refugees into being in the first place through imperial wars, occupation, and mass displacement of populations. On the other hand, refugee worldmaking encompasses the reparative acts of creativity that refugees deploy to remake themselves and their worlds. In her book Worldmaking: Race, Performance, and the Work of Creativity, Dorinne Kondo defines “worldmaking” as the creative acts of “making” and “crafting” that “transform the ‘material’ world” (28). As Kondo writes, “[w]orldmaking is always collaborative, in relation with other people, abstract forces, objects, and materials that are themselves imbued with potentiality” (54). Worldmaking is reparative in orientation since it involves practices of “navigat[ing] through violence, devastation, shattering, to work toward integration” (33). Through acts of scholarly and artistic making and through political activism, “we try to transform the worlds we inhabit, despite inevitably partial outcomes” (53-54). For Kondo, “worlds” indicate the multiple levels at which such attempts at transformation occur: “the world of ” creative work, the social world, the inner world of the mind, and “the worldmaking assumptions of theory and culture” (54).

Worldmaking also invokes the concept of “worldbuilding” that derives from the field of speculative fiction. As Nora K. Jemisin explains in an interview, worldbuilding refers to the process that a writer uses to come up with the imaginative world of their story. Worldbuilding creates the atmosphere and environment of a story’s setting and can also provide allegories for problems that people are dealing with in our own world by presenting similar situations in the world of the text. Acts of speculative worldbuilding can include the conjuring of the fictional world’s elements of syncretism, differentiation, cosmogony, economy, and “element x”—a “point of utter weirdness” that signals to the reader that the world of the text is different from our own (Jemisin 00:19:19 – 27). As erin Khué  Ninh’s contribution to this special issue demonstrates, there is a fascinating blurring of the generic boundaries between the post-apocalyptic speculative narrative and the refugee narrative: the worldmaking of both genres is concerned with similar themes of life and death at the end of the world, of lives destroyed and remade, of aspirations for more livable and just futures.

This special issue collects five articles, five reviews, and two forums that all take up the topic of refugee worldmaking via the pathway of Canada and the afterlives of the Vietnam War in their own original and groundbreaking ways. One essay, by Timothy K. August, addresses the goals and elements of Southeast Asian Canadian refugee aesthetics through specific attention to Lao Canadian author Souvankham Thammavongsa’s How to Pronounce Knife and Vietnamese Canadian author Philip Huynh’s The Forbidden Purple City. The latter text is also the focus of an essay by Lindsey Diehl, who examines the theme of homeland return in the Vietnamese diaspora to destabilize the familiar scripts of refugee gratitude and thankfulness to the Canadian nation-state. Analyzing two works of documentary film, Jason Coe’s essay in this special issue explores the painful legacies of loss, trauma, and silence that continue to reverberate in the long wake of the US bombing of Cambodia and the ensuing Cambodian genocide, as well as the possibilities for reconciliation and recuperation through refugee worldmaking. In Coe’s essay, the entangled afterlives and futures of Canada and Cambodia come into view through attention to the figure of Cambodian Canadian graffiti artist FONKi Yav, who is also featured in one of the forum essays. Wesley Attewell and Danielle Wong’s essay engages the space of the Vancouver donut shop Duffin’s, an establishment owned and sustained since 1987 by Cambodian refugee couple Tony Chhuon and Paula Sim. Attewell and Wong discuss the practices of refugee worldmaking at Duffin’s in terms of the circuits of refugee labour that intersect and saturate the 24/7 temporality of the landmark donut shop. Finally, erin Khu  Ninh’s essay blends autotheory and textual analysis, querying the points of overlap and divergence between mainstream apocalyptic narratives and the refugee narrative, touching on a broad range of works saturated with the afterlives of the Vietnam War, whether implicitly or explicitly. The book review section of this special issue engages an impressive lineup of new works of scholarship and literature related to the topic at hand, including Vinh Nguyen and Thy Phu’s Refugee States: Critical Refugee Studies in Canada; Cathy J. Schlund-Vials, Guy Beauregard, and Hsiu-chuan Lee’s The Subject(s) of Human Rights: Crises, Violations, and Asian/American Critique; Thy Phu’s Warring Visions: Photography and Vietnam; Timothy K. August’s The Refugee Aesthetic: Reimagining Southeast Asian America; Monica Sok’s A Nail the Evening Hangs On; and Greg Santos’ Ghost Face. Finally, this special issue includes two themed forums, the first on the poetry of Hoa Nguyen, and the other on the exhibition Remembering Cambodian Border Camps, 40 Years Later.

Coming from all over the world, over the course of a pandemic, the contributions to this special issue deepen our understanding of refugee worldmaking, Canada, and the afterlives of the Vietnam War in ways that expand the parameters of what has traditionally been thought of as “Canadian literature.” Collectively, they reimagine this category for a new generation of scholars, writers, artists, and activists. While I began this editorial with an ominous commentary about the lessons of war not learned, I end on a lighter note: a heartfelt thanks to all of the contributors and people who made this special issue possible. Of all the projects I have worked on in my career so far, this one has imparted to me some of the most valuable lessons of collaboration, friendship, mentorship, community building, and joyful revelation.



1 Espiritu’s citation here is from Victor H. Palmieri, who held the position of US Coordinator
for Refugee Affairs during the Carter presidency.
2 See Victor Levant, Quiet Complicity and Yves Engler, The Black Book.


Works Cited

Chhang, Youk. “Afghanistan: Lessons from Cambodia.” Diplomat, 11 Sept. 2021, thediplomat.com/2021/09/afghanistan-lessons-from-cambodia/. Accessed 24 Oct. 2021.

Costs of War. Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, 2021, watson.brown. edu/costsofwar/. Accessed 24 Oct. 2021.

Employment and Immigration Canada. Indochinese Refugees: The Canadian Response, 1970 and 1980. cihs-shic.ca/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/Indochinese-Refugees-Cdn-Response-report-ENG.pdf. Accessed 24 Oct. 2021.

Engler, Yves. The Black Book of Canadian Foreign Policy. Fernwood, 2009.

Espiritu, Yến Lê. Body Counts: The Vietnam War and Militarized Refugees. U of California P, 2014.

Foucault, Michel. “The Refugee Problem Is a Foreshadowing of the 21st Century’s Great Migration.” 1979. Progressive Geographies, interview by H. Uno, translated by Felix de Montety, 29 Sept. 2015, progressivegeographies.com/2015/09/29/michel-foucault-onrefugees-a-previously-untranslated-interview-from-1979/. Accessed 24 Oct. 2021.

Jemisin, Nora K. “N. K. Jemisin’s Master Class in World Building.” YouTube, uploaded and hosted by Ezra Klein Show, 27 Aug. 2018, www.youtube.com/watch?v=I6xyFQhbsjQ.

Kondo, Dorinne. Worldmaking: Race, Performance, and the Work of Creativity. Duke UP, 2018.

Levant, Victor. Quiet Complicity: Canadian Involvement in the Vietnam War. Between the Lines, 1986.

Madokoro, Laura. Elusive Refuge: Chinese Migrants in the Cold War. Harvard UP, 2016.

McGill, Robert. “Introduction: The Vietnam War and Canadian Literature.” Canadian Literature of the Vietnam War, edited by Robert McGill, canlitofthevietnamwar.utoronto.ca/? page_id=743. Accessed 24 Oct. 2021.

Nguyen, Viet Thanh. “I Can’t Forget the Lessons of Vietnam. Neither Should You.” New York Times, 19 Aug. 2021, www.nytimes.com/2021/08/19/opinion/afghanistan-vietnam-war-refugees.html. Accessed 24 Oct. 2021.

Nguyen, Vinh, and Thy Phu. “Introduction: Critical Refugee Studies in Canada.” Refugee States: Critical Refugee Studies in Canada, edited by Vinh Nguyen and Thy Phu, U of Toronto P, 2021, pp. 3-22.

Thúy, Kim. Em. Translated by Sheila Fischman, Penguin Random House Canada, 2021.

Weheliye, Alexander G. Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human. Duke UP, 2014.

This editorial originally appeared in Canadian Literature: 246 Refugee Worldmaking: Canada and the Afterlives of the Vietnam War (2021): 6-14.

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.