Vietnamese Americans use art to tell their stories | KBIA

Vietnamese Americans use art to tell their stories

May 22, 2020

Art is a broad term that covers — but is not limited to — visual, spoken and written work. These three Vietnamese Americans come from different walks of life. Each person incorporates their identities into their work, but the ways they each do that are unique.


Quyên Nguyen-Le

Quyên Nguyen-Le fell into filmmaking by accident.


They grew up in Los Angeles, known for Hollywood, the Academy Awards and having the oldest film school in the United States. In high school, they took a film class that was one of the options to fulfill a graduation requirement. Around the same time, the movie Journey from the Fall, which was about a family’s experience in a North Vietnamese reeducation camp and their escape after the Vietnam War, was released.


Nguyen-Le and their family traveled an hour and a half to a theater in Little Saigon in Orange County, California, to see it.


“It was the first time I had ever cried watching a film,” Nguyen-Le said.


It was also the first time Nguyen-Le had seen a Vietnamese movie on the big screen.


“I think the combination of me taking the film class and seeing that film ignited something that I didn’t feel in any of my other classes,” Nguyen-Le said.


Fast forward to almost a decade later, when they directed, edited and released their first documentary: “Queer Vietnameseness.” The film is about three queer second generation Vietnamese Americans who share a similar intersection of identities, but they all have very different lives.


One person was an insurance agent. Another person was a “punk” scene writer. And the other person was an activist.


“It was when I made that film that I both delved into what it meant for me to be Vietnamese and what it meant for me to be queer,” Nguyen-Le said. “So that film was really important in my own personal development as person.”


Through the film, they were able to network and build a community for themselves.


“In the process of making that film, I feel like I’ve met so many other people who share that identity,” Nguyen-Le said. “It really created the foundation for my career as a filmmaker that came after this film.”


Nguyen-Le went on to direct several short films, including “Nước,” which means water and homeland in Vietnamese, and “Hoaì,” which means ongoing and memory. Nguyen-Le compared “Queer Vietnameseness” to an essay, while “Nước” is more like a poem. Both are about the same topics, but they’re articulated in different ways.


In “Nước,” they ask the question, “How do you speak about trauma when you don’t even speak the same language?”


The story is about a queer main character talking with their mom, but the character goes into a fantasy sequence where they reimagine their mom’s experience. It’s a comment on second-generation Vietnamese Americans who inherit different narratives that they didn’t directly experience, Nguyen-Le said.


“The film is trying to show how a second-generation person can come to understand the trauma that their parents might have gone through,” Nguyen-Le said. “And, I think arguably the other way around, too, which is how parents think about the trauma that their queer child might have gone through and how it’s not a one-way street.”


One of their latest works is a documentary called “The Morning Passing on El Cajón Boulevard.” It is about a second-generation Vietnamese American woman who is a funeral director.


“I feel like maybe all of my films have taught me healing is, one, it’s a process, but two, it’s also a two-way street,” Nguyen-Le said.


Because of social distancing and COVID-19, they had to hold off on screening their new documentary, but Nguyen-Le hopes to be able to show their film in the future.


Denise Hạnh Huỳnh

Shadow puppetry by Denise Hạnh Huỳnh
Credit Courtesy Andrew Young

Growing up, Denise Hạnh Huỳnh thought learning was fun when her family was involved. She was raised in Minnesota where there weren’t a lot of resources for learning Vietnamese, but it was important for her father that she learned to speak the language.


She has memories of her grandmother reciting Vietnamese poetry to her before going to bed and watching martial arts movies dubbed in Vietnamese.


Huỳnh is now an educator, artist and PhD student based in St. Paul, Minnesota. Her work primarily focuses on healing trauma through education, specifically informal education.


During her undergrad, her interest was in English as a Second Language students because she was an ESL student herself. In grad school, she delved into immigration, specifically Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, more commonly known as DACA, and the DREAM Act.


Denise Hạnh Huỳnh and her family in Vietnam in 1997.
Credit Courtesy Denise Hạnh Huỳnh

  “I kept thinking about my own family history growing up with a really big Vietnamese refugee family. Eventually, I had to figure out how to connect the dots and the missing pieces when we look at education through the lenses that are more set up in the colonial frameworks, such as anthropology and psychology,” Huỳnh said.


When Huỳnh began to look at these frameworks from a holistic point of view, she saw a common link: unresolved trauma.


Huỳnh uses multiple artforms like poetry and puppetry to educate, discuss and decolonize trauma. Huỳnh says decolonizing means thinking about what is lost and what the community wants to gain.


Vietnam has a long history of being colonized by foreign nations like China, Japan and France. Even though it has been more than 60 years since the last colonial power left Vietnam, the effects of colonialism continue on.


“Sometimes when we talk about decolonizing, we think of it as past, as over, as something that happened before,” Huỳnh said. “It is something that is a part of our history, but it is also important to remember that it’s a part of our present that is happening right now.”


Huỳnh describes herself as an interdisciplinary artist. She incorporates various artforms to tell a story. In one of her shows, held at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, Huỳnh used shadow puppets, gamelan, which is traditional music found in Indonesia, and the flute. She collaborated with Andrew Young and Ty Chapman to bring these different components to life.


The performance also featured poetry that her father wrote when he was a refugee in Indonesia. It was the first time that her father saw his translated poems performed for a wider audience.


Denise Hạnh Huỳnh and her family in 2019
Credit Courtesy Denise Hạnh Huỳnh

“He had been asking me to translate some of his poetry for a long time, and I kept putting it off because it felt like such a big task and I wanted to do it justice,” Huỳnh said.


After her father saw the show, he started to write again.


“This is my example of my hope that this work can be healing because I think that sometimes with trauma, we start losing our own voices,” Huỳnh said.


While her work can be healing, it can be triggering as well.


“I’m still trying to figure out how those things go hand-in-hand, including this idea that sometimes triggers are actually places that are asking for healing. When a wound is noticed, that doesn’t mean that you should turn away from it. It’s just how do you heal it? With the work I’m doing right now, that’s something I don’t have an answer to but that I’m still trying to figure out,” Huỳnh said.  



Kimberly Nguyen

Kimberly Nguyen
Credit Courtesy Kimberly Nguyen

Maybe it was fate that Kimberly Nguyen became a poet. When she was one year old, her parents placed 12 objects in front of her, which was a ceremony to foresee her future career. Nguyen ended up picking the pen, but she didn’t know the story until much later on in her life.


Nguyen hails from Omaha, Nebraska, but she now lives in New York City. She has released two collections of poetry, ghost in the stalks and I Am Made of War.


Most of her inspiration comes from her own personal life.


“There's a lot to unpack when you grow up in a refugee family in the United States, especially when you're living in the Midwest,” Nguyen said. “There's just not a lot of people who look like you.”


In ghost in the stalks, Nguyen touches on topics that include language in relation to colonialism, history and identity. When Nguyen wrote the book, she was interested in linguistics, so she did research on Vietnamese linguistics during different colonial eras.


“I just found it really interesting to delve into what past colonialism has had on language,” Nguyen said.


She also explored intergenerational trauma, a concept that she had learned about while attending college.


“There were all these new terms to describe the things that I had been feeling but didn’t exactly know that there was terminology for, like intergenerational trauma and having a ‘safe space’ to unpack your trauma,” Nguyen said.


  Writing poetry has allowed Nguyen to understand more about herself and heal.


“First and foremost, it allows me to really declare exactly what is hurting me…sometimes you’re not really cognizant of exactly what is causing you pain,” Nguyen said.  


Nguyen says healing is not an end product but rather a process.


She hopes her readers feel a sense of camaraderie and belonging when they read her poems.


“When I was growing up and writing these poems of how I felt alone, I felt like my peers didn’t get me. Even among my friends, it was difficult for them to understand exactly what I was going through,” Nguyen said.


When she reads works by other Vietnamese Americans, she can resonate with and relate to their stories.


“I want readers to take that same sense of validity of themselves and reclaim their own identities through my work,” Nguyen said.