Americans have never fully understood Vietnam (or Iraq or Afghanistan, for that matter) and the consequences of our misguided intervention in that country less than 10 years after the debacle Dien Bien Phu.
Among the myriad of tragedies born of that war were the “boat people.” It is estimated that 800,000 Vietnamese endured “escape” from Vietnam via flimsy and unsafe boats not truly intended for ocean crossings. They endured storms, pirates, lack of food and water.
It is impossible to know how many people died but the UN High Commission For Refugees estimates that 200,000 to 400,000 did not survive these trips. Many of the survivors ended up in the U.S. – haunted by their memories and sense of loss.
Dragonfish, by Vu Tran, tells the story of one of these people — Hong, whose Americanized name is Suzy.
Hong escaped Vietnam with her daughter, leaving behind a dying husband. Once in the U.S., she is unable to forget the past, abandons her daughter and marries an Oakland, Calif., cop, Robert.
But the nightmares, the apparitions, and the profound sadness continue. Robert cannot know or understand the trauma of Hong’s displacement, and eventually Hong leaves only to reappear in Las Vegas with her new husband, Sonny, a violent Vietnamese smuggler and gambler.
When Suzy disappears yet again, Sonny blackmails Robert to help find her. The novel now becomes a fiction noir and mystery set against the underbelly of Las Vegas glitz and excess— a stark contrast to the culture Hong/Suzy left behind.
As the mystery unravels Hong/Suzy’s daughter appears as a hard-nosed card shark — an Americanized version of her mother. Perhaps one of the most poignant sections in the novel involves the discovery of an unsent letter from Hong/Suzy to her daughter that painfully recounts the history of Suzy’s odyssey and her explanation — not justification— for abandoning the daughter.
She wrote, “My suspicion is that you’ve grown up to see things as an American would and that you live life for yourself alone. It saddens me that you might be so distant from the world I still dream about every night but I feel envy for you and a strange relief.”
From here the plot and tension deepen dramatically — Suzy steals from Sonny in a desperate attempt to ensure her daughter’s future and to seek some redemption for past sins.
Dragonfish is part refugee story, mystery, fiction noir, and psychological study, but at its heart it is a story of the pain of the refugee’s displacement and almost impossible task of reconciling utterly foreign cultures.
In a way we are all haunted by the “ghosts” of Vietnam.
Pat Malloy and Karen Keith are husband and wife. Malloy is an attorney. Keith was a long-time television journalist and is now a Tulsa County commissioner.
Here’s what Keith had to say about how they came to read Dragonfish and the books they love:
After hearing an interview on NPR about Dragonfish, Pat and I read the book on iPads on vacation.
Vu Tran, the author, is a Tulsa Public Schools and University of Tulsa graduate and credits his teachers for his success.
Some of Pat’s favorite books include Melville’s “Billy Bud,” “Madonna’s of Leningrad” by Debra Dean and Faulkner’s “Sanctuary.”
I’m a fan of historical novels and all books by Erik Larson. He’s coming to TU October 6th.
“Kite Runner” and “A Thousand Splendid Suns” by Khaled Hosseini were great reads with insight into the challenges of growing up in Afghanistan.
I just finished “Circling the Sun” by Paula McClain and loved it. I’m grateful to my book club, Ladies of the Night, for helping me explore genres outside my norm.
I also appreciate Teresa Miller, the late Billie Letts and P.C. and Kristen Cast for their books that were a delight to read and share.