Where you are from: the poetry of Vaan Nguyen.
In her debut collection The Truffle Eye (2014), the Vietnamese-Israeli poet Vaan Nguyen brings a mix of cultural and linguistic affiliations to her Hebrew writing that is arguably standard in today's multilingual and multicultural Israeli society, particularly in the cosmopolitan milieu of Tel Aviv, where she locates much of her work. But as the daughter of Vietnamese refugees who have settled in Israel, Vaan also engages and challenges--through the double position of the insider/outsider--the discourse of exile and return and the politics of memory in Israeli culture. In the 2005 film The Journey of Vaan Nguyen, the Israeli filmmaker Duki Dror offered a nuanced portrait of the friction between Nguyen's Israeli and Vietnamese identities and her family's Israeli present and Vietnamese past. In this article, I address how Vaan negotiates and articulates her double position through a close examination of scenes from the film and selections from The Truffle Eye. Against the problematic reception and reading of her poetry as exotic, I argue that the cosmopolitan and transnational movements that shape her work evince a characteristically twenty-first century Israeli mode of travel and translation.
THE JOURNEY OF VAAN NGUYEN
On June 10, 1977, the Yuvali, an Israeli freighter helmed by Captain Meir Tadmor, was on its way to Taiwan when it came upon a dilapidated boat carrying 66 Vietnamese refugees. (1) After days drifting in open waters in the South China Sea, the refugees were in need of immediate medical attention, so Tadmor took the refugees on board and attempted to disembark in Hong Kong. The ship was refused entry; their reception in Taiwan and Japan was no different. In Israel, the plight of the Boat People, as the refugees were called, stirred analogies between World War II and "the trauma of the 1940s when refugees seeking to escape death at the hands of Hitler were refused entry into British Palestine and other Mediterranean ports." (2) Then Minister of Absorption David Levy chastised the refusal of developed nations to come to the aide of the refugees and in his rebuke he emphasized Israel's status as a home for exiles: "Let them do as we have," he said, "May they lend a hand to save women and children who are in the heart of the sea without a homeland, and lead them to safe shores." (3) Menachem Begin, fresh from Likud's historic electoral win, extended to the refugees a guaranteed offer of asylum and resettlement, his first official act as prime minister. (4) With this commitment in place, Taiwan agreed to bring them to shore, and from there they eventually made their way to Israel and were relocated to an absorption center in Ofakim, in the Negev, a place that one Associated Press report described as "a desolate Israeli desert town." (5) This also marked the first time that Israel had granted political asylum to a group of non-Jews, but Begin and other Israeli officials specifically invoked comparisons to WWII Jewish refugees in their public support of this initiative. Indeed, Begin famously declared that "the Israeli people, who have known persecution, and know, perhaps better than any other nation, what it means to be a refugee, couldn't watch the suffering of these wretched people. It's only natural to grant them a refuge in our country." (6)
Former Prime Minster Golda Meir also weighed in--"would one not rescue a stray dog or a wounded bird?" (7) Eventually, three groups of refugees from Vietnam came to Israel (one in 1977 and two in 1979), totaling over 300 people, but most of those who arrived eventually left for the United States or other countries. (8) Those who stayed were offered job and housing assistance and the opportunity to apply for Israeli citizenship after five years. Of those who stayed, some started families in Israel, either marrying other Vietnamese immigrants or intermarrying.
Duki Dror's 2005 documentary, The Journey of Vaan Nguyen, revisits this history through the story of the Nguyen family, retracing their life in Israel from the moment of their arrival in 1979 to the film's present day. Two narratives run through the film: the first is a portrait of the Israeli-born poet Vaan Nguyen, the friction between her Israeli and Vietnamese identities, and where they come into conflict and contact in her every day life. The figure of Hoimai Nguyen, Nguyen's father, and his efforts to reclaim ancestral land in Vietnam constitute the second narrative. (9) The film, clearly the work of a sophisticated filmmaker, has a rough, almost unfinished quality that leaves these narratives largely unresolved. While scenes of natural and urban landscapes are very crisp and vivid, most of the footage of Nguyen and her father conveys the intimacy and spontaneity of a home video. The film also includes archival footage of the 1979 arrival of Vietnamese refugees, where they are greeted by a crowd that includes immigrants from the 1977 group, some holding signs, in both Hebrew and Vietnamese, proclaiming "Welcome to Israel, Our Second Homeland." The refugees' encounter with Israeli Jewish culture and the Hebrew language contextualizes the story of the Nguyen family in Israel's ongoing discourse on exile and immigration, assimilation, and multiculturalism.
In one of the film's opening scenes, several members of the Nguyens' immediate family and friends have gathered in the family's living room around a television set to watch this archival footage. Dror's film cuts to a clip of an accordion player playing and singing "Days of Hanukkah" for the refugee audience. (10) After singing the first stanza, the singer, who is standing next to a map of Israel, asks the audience if they would prefer a "shir be-anglit? shir be-yapanit" (a song in English or in Japanese?) and begins playing the traditional, festive tune. The hilarity of the musician's cultural insensitivity notwithstanding, the juxtaposition of the blank expression of the recent immigrants with the still incredulous and unresponsive expressions of the present-day viewers (some of whom recognize themselves in the footage), after almost twenty-five years of residency in Israel, to this Hanukkah song raises questions about the relation of this song to an acquired Israeli identity. Hanukkah's celebration of restoration, survival, and ritual doesn't inspire the participation of the immigrants, at least in the film's composition of this scene, but these themes are evident shortly after, when Nguyen's parents and their friends sing karaoke versions of nostalgic Vietnamese songs with lyrics like "the mountain's green hair is wild / There are moments when no one / believes you are coming back ... but then ... my heart returns to the village." (11) As Nguyen relates, these gatherings have become a weekend ritual at the Nguyen home. To the extent that this archival footage highlights the cultural and linguistic gap these immigrants encounter, it also constitutes a shared memory for this community. These old friends recognize each other in the footage, cracking jokes that are not translated, one of many strategies that Dior uses to create a feeling of a culture that remains private, insular, and apart from the Israeli Hebrew mainstream. (12) A 1979 article on the Vietnamese refugees in Israel noted that assimilation was harder for older refugees, who "stick together at home and reminisce," a practice that continues in the present day, with the younger generation occupying simultaneously the roles of participant and observer. (13) But Nguyen's younger sister's unsuccessful attempt to translate the conversation the adults are having in Vietnamese, raises the question of where--linguistically, geographically, culturally--the younger generation feels more at home. A 1986 Associated Press story described Vietnamese and Jewish Israeli cultural relations in spatial terms:
Vietnamese cooking skillets and the small Buddha sculptures on the sideboard under a photograph of Huynh Minh's goateed grandfather compete for space with a hannukiah [sic]. The eight-limbed candelabra is lit on the Hannukah [sic] festival to commemorate a Jewish victory over foreign occupiers 2400 years ago. The family celebrated the festival at the insistence of Huynh Minh (who arrived as a child in 1977), who learned about it at school. (14)
Vietnamese and Jewish Israeli cultural practices "compete for space" in the domestic sphere of immigrant lives. The younger generation's performance of these acts of cultural translation not only activates an encounter between these elements but also clears room for accommodating an Israeli identity. In the film Nguyen observes that Israeliness is "what I acquired as a child," despite her parents' efforts to impart a Vietnamese identity. Though she concedes that maybe "it's there somewhere."
Nguyen's father, Hoimai Nguyen, arrived in 1979 and belongs to a small fraction of Vietnamese refugees who remained in Israel. Like Nguyen's mother, he was born and raised in Vietnam; in his case, to a wealthy family that lost its property with the Communist takeover of the country. Nguyen, who was born in 1982, in Ashkelon, grew up in Jaffa, along with four sisters who are also Israeli born and raised. The daughters feel at home in Israel despite constant reminders that they are perceived as outsiders, though we see them speak Hebrew to each other, pack for their army service, listen to Israeli hip hop. Their parents, on the other hand, remain ambivalent about the lives they have fashioned in Israel. Hoimai works in a restaurant kitchen and writes poetry in Vietnamese in his spare time. Nguyen's mother, who in her own words, in Hebrew, "[has] nothing to do here" (ein li mah la'asot) is shown repeatedly telling her daughters of her plans to return to Vietnam, a conversation that in one scene brings the girls to tears. (15) Hoimai has harbored a long desire to reclaim his family's land; indeed, the narrative of its loss, and its transmission, constitute a core, shared memory in the family. (16) The film charts his return to Vietnam after almost thirty years, in the company of Nguyen, who has never been there but is seduced by the promise of status and ownership that this claim implies, at one point referring to her trip as a "return."
The film anticipates, even before it follows Hoimai and Nguyen to Vietnam, that they will experience their homeland as outsiders, particularly Nguyen, who remarks at one point that she "feels Vietnamese in Israel and Israeli in Vietnam." Hoimai won't reclaim his ancestral home--the functionary who took it from him at gunpoint will congenially explain to him that this act can't be undone, but, to Nguyen's dismay, he agrees to let the family live next door. "Keep longing for the village," he tells them. Dror leaves it to the viewer to draw connections between these narratives and Jewish narratives of exile and homeland, and particularly to the vexed politics of home and settlement in Israel/Palestine, but hints of these relations are evident throughout the film. (17) Nguyen laments the childhood that could have been in these open, green spaces, and specifically imagines herself running barefoot (yechefa) in the field, a detail that not only expresses a desire for an immediate and unmediated relationship with the Vietnamese landscape, but also recalls the romantic archetype of the Jewish chalutz (pioneer) in the pre-statehood period. (18) But with her stylish sunglasses and music player, it is also clear that Nguyen is more at ease at a local internet cafe, where she connects online to post to her blog, "A Jaffan in Saigon," a chronicle of her travels and of the anxieties that this trip has stirred. (19)
The film thematizes the relation between writing, memory, and belonging through scenes that show both Nguyen and her father engaged in acts of writing. In one scene, Nguyen is filmed typing in the cafe, using a crib of Hebrew letters in the order that they appear on a Hebrew keyboard. This is one of several scenes in the documentary that shows Nguyen in the act of composition and in communication with an audience--an Israeli Hebrew readership--that lies outside of the film's frame. Presumably reading from his journal, Hoimai's voiceover recounts the political upheavals that led to his emigration; however, in order to connect with an audience outside of the page, his voice requires mediation and translation. On the other hand, Nguyen's connectivity to an Israeli audience brings into sharp relief her observation, "I walk around as a tourist, as an Israeli." Nguyen's digital and public missives reach Israeli readers almost in real time, thereby underscoring how new technologies of writing shape audience and affiliation in a time of globalization, and how digital culture, in particular, is facilitating, and even activating, transnational relations between authors and readers. (20) Both narrations also constitute a form of "writing back," of articulating and inscribing personal memories and histories that have been marginalized, unaccounted, and unaccommodated in both Vietnamese and Israeli national contexts. In her reading of the film, the scholar Vo Hong Chuong-Dai characterizes these narrations as "sources of diasporic history [that] do not offer a progressive narrative of diasporic subject formation and easy return
to the nation." (21) She calls attention to the use of the intermediary--Hoimai's daughters, the internet, the camera--in bringing together past and present narratives, as well as highlighting distinctions between official and unofficial historical accounts, but also argues that these visible tools and figures of mediation "implicate both the Israeli state's marginalization of a minority population and the Vietnamese state's repression of a defeated population." (22) In the case of Hoimai, his personal account of the aftermath of the fall of Saigon is placed over a montage of archival footage, which is edited to privilege his voice, memory, and narration, and thereby challenge the hegemony of Vietnam's triumphalist national narrative and the Israeli narrative that casts the Boat People as helpless, defenseless victims. Instead, Hoimai's account constitutes an alternative narrative that has shaped Nguyen's relation to an imagined Vietnamese past and future, constituting what Marianne Hirsch has called a "postmemory." (23) In a voiceover that accompanies the ritual of packing her suitcase for her trip, Nguyen describes how she is "a loop loosened, stretched, torn and tied up in what my father told me, a trip he imagined in sentimental language, the eternal words of an adventurous soul ... I didn't read this tale (aggadah) up close even though I could. It's simple. You just get on a plane." (24) In Multidirectional Memory, Michael Rothberg describes the continuous encounter between past and present in the act of memory as "the source of [memory's] creativity, its ability to build new worlds out of the materials of older ones." (25) Nguyen's loop represents a "knot of memory" that is entangled in various ways in a mutable narration of the past. (26) Hoimai's recollections form a narration that becomes the official history that Nguyen carries to Vietnam, in a suitcase covered with a vintage map of the world, the portable "house" that translates this tale between Jaffa and Saigon. (27)
These scenes also contextualize her mother's urgency to return to Vietnam with Nguyen's youngest sister. In one scene, Nguyen's mother observes that since her daughters speak but do not write Vietnamese, she remains the only active link between the family in Israel and the family in Vietnam. "Who will write to my family to tell them that I'm dead?" she wonders, calling into question the viability of translation. Hebrew literature offers several germane examples of texts that engage issues and themes of memory in the epistolary mode, but the question that preoccupies Nguyen's mother articulates a relation between memory, text, and afterlife that resonates in particular in Avot Yeshurun's epistolary poetic cycle Shloshim 'amud shel Avot Yeshurun, Thirty Pages of Avot Yeshurun. (28) Published in 1964, the first poem of the cycle opens with the elegiac lines, yom yavo ve-ish lo yikra mikhtavei imi, "the day will come / and no one will read my mother's letters." (29) Yeshurun's assertion not only implies a relation between reading and remembering, but also advances the argument that memory resides in language in ways and forms that are not always translatable, though translation may be a strategy for its duration. Nguyen's mother sees her daughters as an unreliable "hinge generation" and worries that the failure to teach her children to write in Vietnamese will result in a total rupture between their Israeli present and their Vietnamese past, and with it the possibility of a Vietnamese future. (30) But the very question of who writes and restores the family's personal history (and the individual histories that comprise it) also extends beyond the grave; indeed, what is at stake in writing a death announcement or obituary are claims of agency and authorship that shape the afterlife of these narratives. The deeply personal way in which Nguyen's parents experience these concerns is evident in their visit to the grave of twin daughters who died stillborn. Hoimai recounts how the Jewish and Christian cemeteries they approached refused to grant them permission to bury on their grounds. In the end, a Muslim cemetery allowed them to bury their daughters on its property, and as they pray over the graves and speak to their daughters, the camera zooms in on the tombstones, which includes Vietnamese and Arabic scripts. (31) It is hardly incidental, in the context of this scene, that Hebrew contains several words for cemetery for which the common element is the word for home, "bayit." (32) While Dror's film indicates the irony in the family's frustrated efforts to find a home in the Jewish cemetery for their daughters, he contextualizes this dilemma in the broader politics of home and identity that still shape and contest Israeli identities in the twenty-first century.
The film also includes footage of a late 1970s Hebrew lesson that addresses the challenges and failures of intercultural and intergenerational communication and translation that the film itself thematizes. The class is taught to the Vietnamese refugees in immersion style ('writ be-ivrit), and it highlights the incongruous relation between the course objectives and the participation of the students, who range in age, gender, and language proficiency. As they work their way through vocabulary connected to the subject of families, the students and instructor giggle and smile as they haltingly shape sentences about missing their homes and families. When the teacher responds jovially, "tov me'od," very good, to the students' use of "lehitgage'a," to miss, the dissonance is risible but problematic. A longing for one's native home, language, and parentage is understandably thematized in the film, but the film's juxtaposition of the Hebrew language lesson, the conversation between Nguyen's mother and her daughters, and Nguyen's Hebrew blogging underscores how different understandings and experiences of exile, as well as acts of nostalgia and memory, are privileged in Israeli society. At one point, Nguyen remarks that being Israeli has meant "identifying with the forced exile so familiar to the Jewish people," but even though Jewish Israelis were asked to identify with the plight of Vietnamese refugees on similar grounds, this identification did not extend beyond arrival, and remains neither reciprocal nor inclusive in Israeli society. The Hebrew lesson and the scene at the Muslim cemetery are just two of many examples the film draws on to make this point. And yet, as the film closes, Nguyen acknowledges that despite her parents best efforts, she was raised Israeli. "I can rest here, but it feels foreign," she says referring to Vietnam, "I want to be home with my sisters. But I also want so many other things."
VAAN NGUYEN'S THE TRUFFLE EYE
The Journey of Vaan Nguyen introduced Nguyen as a poet; in fact, it is in this documentary that her writing was first presented to the public, in the snippets quoted in the film. (33) Nguyen broke into print in 2005, the year of the film's release, in the literary journal Ma'ayan, which featured several of her poems in its second issue. (34) Through Maayans publishing imprint, in 2008 she published a digital and print chapbook titled Fin ha-kemehin (The Truffle Eye), which was reissued in 2013 in a revised and expanded book edition under the same title. (35) The Truffle Eye opens with the poem "Mekong River" (Nehar Mekong), which takes its name from the transboundary river that runs through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. (36) The relation this title bears to Nguyen's cultural background is evident, but the rest of the poem plays with and even undermines this relation. The poem opens with the following stanza:
Tonight I moved between three beds like I was sailing on the Mekong and whispered the beauty of the Tigris and Euphrates under an endless moment looking under the left tit I have a hole and you fill it with other men. Notes of Tiger beer on your body. (37)
The suggestive image of the three beds in the poem's opening may signal the speaker's ongoing displacement (particularly when read in the context of the author's cultural background), and as Nguyen's collection unfolds, this line also resonates as shorthand for twenty-first century (Israeli) travel, a persistent theme of this collection. In Nguyen's poems, travel is not always transformative or instigated by a feeling of being "out of place" (as is the case in the documentary); rather, the speakers of her poems move between various cities in Europe, Asia, and North America as though they form part of a personal map. (38) The Mekong River, in that respect, is both the location of the speaker and a simile to describe the kind of movement that has taken place. The Tigris and Euphrates, like the Mekong, are rivers that flow through various national borders and carry significant cultural and historical baggage; indeed, the area between them was the location of ancient Mesopotamia. But more importantly, by invoking the Tigris and Euphrates, which form a river system in Western Asia, alongside the Mekong River, the speaker of the poem brings two distinct and otherwise separate (cultural) systems into relation. According to Jewish tradition, the biblical patriarch Abraham hailed from Ur, a major Mesopotamian city. And Vaan's reference to these rivers may constitute as well a possible intertextual relation to Chaim Nachman Bialik's poem, "Bein nehar prat u-nehar chidekel" (Between the Tigris and Euphrates), a poem that draws from Jewish folklore and formed part of a series of "folk poems" that Bialik (1873-1934) published in the early twentieth century. In Bialik's poem, a young woman requests, in vain, the matchmaking skills of a golden hoopoe (dukhifat zahav), a mythical bird of the Jewish folk tradition, and also, as of 2008, the national bird of Israel. (39) In Nguyen's poem, the speaker is on the Mekong but "whispering," that is relating, the "beauty of the Tigris and Euphrates." In the act of narration, she brings these two systems together, but talking about a lover while you are in bed with another may be an indication that you have placed your affections elsewhere. In the context of reconciling Vietnamese and Israeli identities, this possibility is particularly suggestive. In the second stanza, the speaker asks her lover to:
Sketch me a monochrome flow chart on fresh potted flowers. I'll release roots at your feet ...
By definition, a flow chart is a diagram that represents a process; each step is contained in a box and is connected to other steps by an arrow. Divergences are carefully plotted so that all possibilities are taken into consideration. Potted plants and flowers are ubiquitous during Tet, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year, one of the most important days in the Vietnamese calendar, suggesting that the imposition of this flow chart represents a Western fixation with order. But how can you sketch on fresh potted flowers without causing considerable damage? If the lover can connect the dots--meaning the images in this poem, the speaker's "baggage"--she promises to "release roots at your feet." (40) But the damage that this threatens suggests that giving this kind of homogenizing order to things--to this kind of poem--is both impractical and dangerous. Although the speaker herself desires this order, Nguyen's poem undermines this controlled flow of activity and information by applying the techniques of collage, particularly its rejection of coherence, as part of an embodied poetics of travel. (41) By redirecting--through her movement--the flows of the Mekong, Tigris, and Euphrates, Nguyen offers an alternative and personal map where they are brought into contact. The line "ink stain on the belly" that precedes the command to sketch may be a sign that the damage of order and organization has been done, and is irrevocable, or that the speaker has preempted the desire for order by writing this indelible movement on her own body. The closing line of the poem--"who abandons an illness in open sea?"--not only recalls the history of Israel's Vietnamese refugees but also the ethical considerations that brought these cultures into contact and are still germane in contemporary debates on the status of non-Jewish refugees and migrant workers in Israel. Nguyen's Hebrew should translate literally as "the middle of the sea," but my translation "open sea" refers, by definition, to the part of the sea that is out of view of land, and in some cases, outside of a country's territorial jurisdiction or maritime belt. In this space, lines between native and foreign blur--as they do in Nguyen's poem--through the poetic force of collage.
Roy "Chicky" Arad, one of the founding editors of Malayan, has edited the various editions of The Truffle Eye, and from her first publication, critics have read Nguyen's work in relation to the aesthetic and political program of the journal. 2005, the year of Malayan's debut, proved to be a banner year for Israeli literature, which welcomed to its fold the journals Ho!, Mita'am, and Dakah. From the onset Maayan aligned itself with social justice issues and protest activity, and this relation between poetry and politics has shaped the journal's literary and visual content. Writing about the fourth issue of Ma'ayan, the critic Eli Hirsh characterized its output as a "rock 'n' roll version of Hebrew literature":
The most radical aspect of the Ma'ayan project is related to its interest in the margins of Israeli society (immigrants, the homeless, Palestinians), and its punk determination to subvert all social distinctions--including the most persistent distinction, the one the literati hold most dear: namely, the distinction between those "who know Hebrew" and those whose Hebrew is "out of order." (42)
This issue of Malayan included, as a separate supplement, Nguyen's chapbook, which Hirsch praises, but he also cautions that Malayans antiestablishment attitude at times undermines its own output, citing the vocalization of Nguyen's poems as an example ("cruel in its carelessness" is how he puts it). (43) The critic and scholar Arik Glasner describes the journal's writing as a whole as "idiosyncratic," and specifically addresses Nguyen's poems, which in his view remain incoherent despite his best efforts at organizing them into a cohesive reading ("the chaos surrounding us doesn't allow for even short-lived order in the act of reading"). (44) At the time of the chapbook's publication, Arad offered the following description of her work: "She is like a dinghy moving quickly on a river; there is something eel-like, elusive, shimmering about her poetry. Nguyen's poems just glow off of the page." (45) Eli Eshed, author of a blog on Israeli pop culture, also addressed the issue of accessibility, opening his review of Nguyen's work with the assessment, "Vaan Nguyen's book is not as simple as it may first appear." (46) Eshed is referring specifically to the poetics of collage that shape the poems (like "gluing together newspaper clippings"), as well as to the ready-made frameworks of identity, difference, and diaspora through which her work may be read. He is skeptical of readings that situate Nguyen as a yelidat aretz (native-born Israeli) but also acknowledges that Nguyen locates her Vietnamese-Israeli identity in relation to other localities (Paris, Hollywood, New York, to name a few). Arad's commentary emphasizes the exotic element--his comparison of the poet to a dinghy recalls the inflatable boats of the Vietnamese refugees but by characterizing Nguyen's work as "elusive," Arad's reading touches on longstanding anxieties in Israeli society of the non-Jew as an interloper. Eels, a popular delicacy in Vietnam, are flexible creatures and mold themselves to their habitat, but the image and etymology of the eel also suggests the figure of a snake, the cunning prelapsarian intruder of Jewish tradition. Nguyen's poetry may offer to the Israeli reader a new poetic idiom and with it a different understanding of Israeli identity, but it does so through the stealth and seduction of a foreign interloper. (47) However problematic this formulation appears, it is clear why Nguyen's work appealed to Arad, who as Hirsh noted, was invested (and remains so) in illuminating the margins of Israeli society and bringing voices from the Israeli cultural sidelines to center stage, with the aim, I would contend, of unsettling readers.
But in its enthusiasm, no review compares to the one that poet and critic Menachem Ben penned for Ma'ariv under the title "The Critic in Love." (48) Ben's review opens with the proclamation that "not since Yona Wallach in the sixties, seventies, and eighties have we witnessed such a phenomenon--a poet whose first book positions her at the center of Israeli poetry." Ben is referring here to the 1966 publication of Wallach's landmark collection Devarim (Things), which established Wallach as a major, central, and radical Israeli poet, but he also positions Nguyen in a more expansive constellation of modern Hebrew women's writing when he adds, "not even since Elisheva, that fascinating, non-Jewish Hebrew poet who immigrated here from Russia in the 1920s, a contemporary of Rachel, Esther Raab, Yocheved Bat Mirant ... the founding mothers of modern Hebrew Poetry." (49) The Truffle Eye heralded, in Ben's view, a sea-change in Hebrew and Israeli poetry, but the way he positioned Nguyen in this group of archetypal modern Hebrew women poets is problematic. On the one hand, Ben wanted to assert this book, by a non-Jewish Israeli, as a legitimately and potentially canonical Hebrew text by aligning Nguyen to poets like Rachel and Yona Wallach. Invoking the name of Elisheva Bikhovsky also demonstrates that there is a precedent for including a non-Jewish female poet in the Hebrew canon, though the comparison itself is misleading. Elisheva was born Elizaveta Zhirkova in 1889 to a Russian Orthodox father and an Irish Catholic mother. Though she initially wrote in her native Russian, her interest in Jewish culture and study of Yiddish and Hebrew encouraged her to pursue writing in those languages. With her husband, the Zionist thinker and writer Shimon Bikhovsky, she emigrated to Palestine in 1925, where her first book of poems Kos ketana (Little Cup) was published in 1926. (50) Unlike Elisheva, Nguyen was born in Israel, and Elisheva, unlike Nguyen, was Russian, and therefore culturally more closely aligned to the Ashkenazi Russian Hebraists who served as the early gatekeepers of modern Hebrew literature in Palestine. And yet, the attraction of this book, for Ben, undeniably lies in Nguyen's non-Jewish Vietnamese background, and in the book's embodiment of Israeli and Vietnamese intermixing. This double position--of being simultaneously an insider and outsider--is one that Dror thematizes in his film and certainly one that Nguyen interrogates in this book, but Ben also situates Nguyen's first book within a problematic gift economy, whereby her writing returns to Israel the favor of refuge.
According to Ben, the mere mention of the Mekong, Tigris, and Euphrates is indicative of Nguyen's foreign idiom. Their movements, he implies, are exotic, which disregards how "Mekong River" as a whole--and Nguyen's work as a whole--thematizes Israeli travel in particular. Arguably, the heterogeneous cultural and linguistic affiliations that Nguyen brings to her Hebrew poetry are standard in today's multilingual and multicultural Israeli society, particularly in the cosmopolitan milieu of Tel Aviv, where Nguyen locates several of these poems.
In The Truffle Eye, poems may move between Hollywood, Manhattan, Tel Aviv, Herzliya, Jerusalem, Paris, Amsterdam, and cities in Vietnam, of course, but these global flows are true for a lot of contemporary Israeli poetry--so what makes Nguyen's movements different or notable? Ben's enthusiastic reception is problematic in that it casts these affiliations as exceptional and exotic in Nguyen's case because of her non-Jewish, Vietnamese-Israeli cultural background, and ascribes an exotic currency to her references to other locations, especially Vietnam, in light of her cultural heritage. They very well may carry a different charge, after all, Nguyen's experience of Vietnam differs from that of other Israeli travelers in that Nguyen grew up speaking Vietnamese, as a non-Jew in a Jewish State, and to immigrant parents still emotionally and materially attached to memories of their native home. But growing up bilingual or multilingual, to non-Jewish parents, with "the pain of two homelands," is a common ground that Nguyen and her family share with many other Israelis. (51)
In Dror's film, Nguyen expresses exasperation with her Vietnamese relatives who maneuver the discussions on land reclamation "too nicely," in her view, and who push back against her idea to use part of the family's land to build a resort. Nguyen imagines herself as an intermediary for Israeli travelers and the Vietnamese homeland, but she is more of a traveler herself than a native informant. Indeed, in Nguyen's poetry the figure of the traveler--both at home and away--dominates the poems, more so than claims to a diasporic or immigrant identity. For example, the speaker of the poem, "Shir 'arim chorpi" (Winter City Poem), moves between Israel, France, and Vietnam without indicating points of departure and arrival. (52) Rain in Herzliya, one of Israel's most affluent cities, introduces the rain in Paris, which in turn becomes the backdrop of a scene in Da Lat, a Vietnamese city and popular tourist destination that retains its French colonial boulevards and villas (indeed, various travel guides refer to it as "Little Paris"). The speaker recalls: "In Da Lat, I slept alone on a big bed, in a beautiful hostel, in picturesque / Da Laaat / I read magazines in English to the tune of alooooooone ," (53) Though slippages between speaker and author pervade readings of Nguyen's poems, the cultural identity of the speaker is left unstated, as is the case in most of Nguyen's work. This has the effect of complicating efforts to locate the speaker and thereby assess her relation (native? tourist?) to a place. Indeed, Nguyen's work argues that the experience of travel, whether it happens within or outside of one's native home, activates the blurring of native and foreign distinctions.
The Truffle Eye i ncludes the poem "Ketem tarbut," Culture Stain, which opens with the call to "dig" (54):
Dig before you extract the empty seeds along the bank with the village wind and the roads and onward.
"Culture Stain" exemplifies Nguyen's collage technique. It consists of three stanzas, each one introducing disparate sets of images that remain inconclusively related by the end of the poem. In this stanza, the pointless act of digging up empty seeds calls the nature of origins into question, but how a reader identifies words like "village" and "bank," referents that the poem does not provide, shapes distinct readings of the poem. In the Israeli context, one can draw a line between this act and the pioneering labor of early twentieth-century Jewish settlement and thereby argue that it does so to undermine the Zionist project. It is also possible to read the "empty seeds" as an image of discontinued legacy that takes on different resonances depending on whether they are located in Vietnam or elsewhere. The act and effort of digging may be what produces this "culture stain," and so what appears initially to be an ungenerative act proves to be radically creative. In the second stanza, a "wax poet without a patron / or fanzine" stands at the entrance of a city holding a cellphone, introducing an image that suggests a relation between the unproductive seeds of the first stanza and the space of literary culture, only to cut away abruptly to a romantic encounter in the third stanza: (55)
A rosy sun sets on a musical Monetbach lake in your eyes when we embrace you'll ask where I came from. I'll say I came from this rot. Where did I come from, you ask, I mean, [your] parents? (56)
The question of identity disrupts a romantic, synesthetic encounter that underscores their different ways of seeing. And yet, the syntax of these lines dislocates the subject, creating the effect of redirecting the subject. In the second to last line, the placement of the comma encourages this possibility. "Where did I come from" is both a question posed to the speaker and one that the lover appears to ask himself. The evasive reply "from this rot" doesn't quite resolve the question (and, in fact, could refer to the encounter itself), but images of rot, wrecks, and pestilence do pervade Nguyen's first book, where they often appear in relation to Tel Aviv. (57) For example, in the poem "Tel Milim" (Hill of Words, a play on the city's name), Tel Aviv is described as "a dank barrel of sludge." (58) But the question "[your] parents?" reaches toward more distant roots, and returns us to the empty seeds of the first stanza. In the poem "Orkhideia" (Orchid), the encounter between the speaker and her lover is damaging (they tend to be in this particular book), but from the wreckage they create--"on my lips / filthy corduroy cover, street trash"--emerges the speaker's sense of where she is. "I am Florentin!" she declares at the end of the poem, a reference to Tel Aviv's trendy, bohemian southern neighborhood. (59) The question "where are you from?" also appears at the end of Nguyen's short story "The Truffle Eye," published in 2007, which opens with the premise that "a man wakes up one morning in a city and decides to change his identity." (60) He becomes a woman with truffle eyes, which cause a frenzy among the men in her neighborhood, who knock on her door screaming, "you're interesting!" and demand that she sell them her eyes. Later, after making love to one of her admirers, she replies, "I'm from here ... From this city." Orchids and truffles resist domestication, a quality that Nguyen's work invokes. Indeed, in her incisive review of Nguyen's chapbook, the poet Tali Latowicki aptly observed, "This poetry succeeds in being a local poetry wherever it wanders." (61)
In English, the word truffle may derive from the Latin tuber, but the Hebrew kemehin, a word that traces back to rabbinic literature, may find its origins in the root from which words of quantity (kamut) and longing (kemihah) derive. Truffles are mycorrhizal, meaning that they form symbiotic relations to various tree and plant species and are often found below ground or in the space between soil and leaf cover; in Israel a variety of desert truffle, kmeha, grows in the Negev but doesn't have the particularly pungency of the European variety. (62) The lore surrounding desert truffles includes the speculation that they form where lightning strikes and that thunder coaxes them to the surface. (63) The title of Nguyen's collection invokes the image of the truffle in opposition to domestication, settlement, adaptation, and absorption, points of contention in the poems as well. The "eye" of the truffle is both a source and a center, but Nguyen's use of 'ayin also addresses its relation to appearance (in Biblical texts, the eye was frequently invoked as a synecdoche for the face), as well as simile, as in the expression ke-'eyin (like, kind of, similar to). Nguyen's reception, including Ben's exuberant reading of her work, fixates on her foreign and exotic appearance, the way the text incorporates foreignness in a material way--through the use of certain images and place names--but also way the body of the poet herself is a site of contestation and critical engagement. Nguyen arguably brings a self-awareness of this interest into her work--in fact, the 2008 chapbook version includes a close-up of her face on the cover.
Nguyen's work interrogates the tension between perception and reality and how it shapes the relation between appearance and identity. In the film, this is a tension that Nguyen hopes to resolve in Vietnam, where her appearance will be at home. The voiceover that accompanies her preparations for her trip to Vietnam advances a manifesto against the ways that Israeli society both commodifies and marginalizes her foreign body and cultural background. Framed as a series of responses to an imagined interrogator, Nguyen addresses the ways in which she is misread within a national culture that she, on the contrary, intimately knows:
Goodbye wonderful country, your humble servant offers you this song (shir mizmor) on the way to Vietnam. This journey is made out of bitterness and anger--may I never return. I'm not accepted ... because of my appearance, my religion, my nationality, my immigrant soul. Enough. I'm tired, fed up, traumatized by life's experiences. I want to write. I want to go to the store without having people pry into my private life, asking so many questions because I look suspicious or so very interesting. I want them to quit the UFO investigations and the demand that I politely clap my hands and sing: "I was born in Israel, my parents are Vietnamese refugees, who came in 1979, when Prime Minister Menachem Begin Z"L who had just been elected, decided that his first official act would be to let in some Boat People as a humanitarian identification with the exile so familiar to the Jewish people. No, I'm not Jewish. I don't know if I'll convert and whether or not my child will be circumcised. I don't know in what section of the cemetery I prefer to be buried or according to which religious affiliation. Yeah, I feel sorry for everyone who died or was jailed regardless of whatever religion or nationality was reported in most recent statistics of the last Intifada. I observe Holocaust Day ... and anyhow I'm not fucking any Arabs at the moment. I have no idea how you tell the difference between Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Philippine, and Korean. I don't think that my eyes are slanted because I grew up eating rice every day. Yes, 1 bet my skin is smoother. Yes, I do have cellulite. No, I don't comb my hair a hundred times a day. No, I'm not related to Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan. Hello in Vietnamese is chao, I love you is Anh yeu em. And Nguyen is a synonym for cloud. Now can I have some peace and quiet? (64)
In the Hebrew dialogue, Nguyen describes the supermarket interrogation as a chekirat abamim, a UFO investigation. The Hebrew word for UFO is formed from expression 'etsem bilti mezuheh (an unidentified object), almost a direct translation from the English, but in Hebrew, 'etsem is also bone, thereby highlighting the relation between body and object that is implicit in Israeli formulations of Nguyen's identity, in part, as Nguyen herself observes, because Jewish Israeli identity itself is embodied, as in the case of circumcision. The comment that she's not "fucking any Arabs at the moment" addresses fears of assimilation and infiltration that shape the politics of identity and citizenship in Israel, but also suggests that Nguyen's background allows her to cross these lines. (65) Nguyen's claim that she can't tell the difference between different Asian ethnicities rejects the cross-race effect, the idea that we perceive differences within our own race but not in others, and challenges the assumption that Asian groups share a common body language that transcends cultural, linguistic, and geographic differences. But this last observation not only underscores the way that Nguyen's appearance is a conspicuous marker of her ethnic difference in the Israeli context, but also positions Nguyen in the problematic role of informant, as someone who can decode and translate otherness for the Jewish Israeli reader.
The duration of this voiceover includes scenes of Nguyen waiting for her flight to Vietnam at the boarding gate, suggesting an analogy between the daily curiosity to which she is subjected and the security questions that bookmark trips into and out of Israel. These interrogations share a desire to locate and identify Nguyen in a space that is presumed to be non-native, as well as an understanding of the foreign body as a chefetz chashud, a suspicious object. A chefetz chashud masquerades as an ordinary object of everyday life--a bag back, suitcase or grocery bag--so identifying this object, sniffing it out like a truffle, keeps the categories of difference intact, contained, and under control. Truffles lie under the surface, just out of sight, but an understanding of their rhizomatic and mutually symbiotic relationship to their environment can help locate them. Disregarding this relationality, Nguyen's poetry argues, damages the social fabric in ways that can't be undone easily, and so she turns the question back to the interrogator, as in the case of the poem "Culture Stain," where the syntax of the poem redirects the question of origin to the addressee.
As Nguyen explains, the name "Nguyen" is not a translation of the word "cloud" but a milah nirdefet, a synonym. While the term synonym usually applies to words within a language, translation often characterizes an interlinguistic relation. Instead, in keeping with her collage aesthetics, the proximity between the two languages that Nguyen imposes makes them almost, but not quite, alike. In so doing, she also problematizes locations of source and origin that continue to trouble acts of translation (in other words, which word is the translation?). In Hebrew, the word nirdefet also means "pursued" or "persecuted," and it is repeated in this passage in the expression galut nirdefet, which the subtitles render as "forced exile." In 1977, Begin appealed to the sympathies of the Jewish Israeli public, and to his political constituency, by asserting the synonymy of Jewish and Vietnamese exiles. The desire for synonymy continued at the moment of arrival, when immigrants received a kova tembel, a brimless hat (kova) that today symbolizes the pioneering spirit of the pre-statehood period and remains an iconic detail in representations of the sabra (native-born Israeli). (66) But placing this hat on the head of a Vietnamese refugee clearly did not transform or translate the Vietnamese body into an Israeli one, at least in so far as Israeli identity was then, and still is, understood and defined. This formulation is challenged in the very opening words of this voiceover, which are taken from the popular Israeli song "Shalom lakh eretz nehederet" (hello, wonderful country). (67) Ilan Goldhirsch penned the Hebrew lyrics, but the music is an up-tempo rendition of "City of New Orleans," written in 1970 by the American singer-songwriter Steve Goodman. (68) In the Hebrew version, the speaker describes his travels around the world ("I was in Paris and also in Rome"), but with each successive stanza, his worldview closes in on the Israeli landscape, affirming in the refrain, "even if I sometimes wander around / however good it is to wander, it's even better to return." (69) In Hebrew, "shalom" means both goodbye and hello, which allows Nguyen to recast the Hebrew lyric from a commitment to return to a declaration of departure. While the question that underlies the English version, "see, don't you know me, I'm your native son"--resonates in Nguyen's quest for a place for her identity, and ultimately in her declaration that she "walks around like a tourist, like an Israeli," she also rejects the Zionist claims of the Hebrew version, which privileges return over travel, Israel over Diaspora.
The poet Caroline Bergvall refers to the sites and spaces through which languages move, exchange, and transform as "a point of traffic." (70) "Language circulates in this conduit of air," Bergvall writes. In this passageway, wax poets and lovers cross paths; Da Lat, Centre Pompidou, and Herzliya form their own map; and an American lyric meets its Hebrew adaptation in the poem of a Vietnamese Israeli poet about to get on a plane. There is no question that Nguyen's Vietnamese background has drawn attention to her work, but for a literary culture that takes its Jewish identity for granted, it is no small matter that a poet from Nguyen's background has created and claimed a place in contemporary Israeli letters for her point of traffic, the roots she releases and the baggage that she carries as she travels both within Israel and outside of it.
Packing Poem In the rice bowl unripe banana peels and dry castor beans in ajar feathers and mulch outside the window how you still gather evidence. The chopsticks rest diagonally matching the movement of birds along the waterfall how do they stall the transmission and keep eating rice before the night migration? Under the cover of delusions, I just wanted to point out "there's Armageddon" and ask whether the foreigners have inflatable boats. And those paranoid, paranoid women have nothing but this gallows for pulling muscles for stretching the body in the gym a woman lying naked in the sauna gossips under her breath the thoughts escape her all at once either the meds work or the mind is numb but sometimes, if you concentrate, you can hear an airplane landing. (71)
(1.) The fall of Saigon to the North Vietnamese Army on April 30, 1975 marked the official end of the Vietnam War (1955-1975), resulting in the displacement of thousands of Vietnamese from the South, as well as North Vietnamese accused of collaborating with the United States.
(2.) "Israel Will Offer Asylum to 66 Vietnamese Refugees," New York Times, June 21, 1977, 7.
(3.) Menucha Chana Levin, "Vietnamese Boat People in the Promised Land," Aish.com, November 19, 2011, http://www.aish.com/jw/id/Vietnamese_Boat_People_in_the_Promised_Land.html.
(4.) On May 17, 1977, for the first time since the establishment of Israeli statehood, Likud won a plurality of seats in the Knesset and was able to form a rightwing government, thereby ending three decades of Alignment (left-wing) rule.
(5.) Associated Press, "Begin Gives Refugees Asylum," Lakeland Ledger, June 27, 1977, 7A. This same report noted that the refugees received upon arrival "$70 in local currency, canned food, a packet of tea and a 'kova tembel,' a cloth work hat worn by Israeli farmers." Ofakim ("horizons") was founded in 1955 as one of several development towns (ayarat pitu'ach) built in that period to accommodate the influx of Jewish immigrants from Arab countries. In press reports of the time, it is described as a new town with a large population of Soviet Jewish immigrants.
(6.) "Begin moreh liklot 'aserot plitim viyetnamim" (Begin Mandates the Absorption of Vietnamese Refugees), Haaretz, June 24, 1977. This news item was republished in Haaretz on the 32-year anniversary of its publication: http://www .haaretz.co.il/news/education/1.1267511. Unless otherwise noted, all English translations from Hebrew sources are my own.
(7.) This particular quote appears in a few news items, including Associated Press, "66 Vietnam Refugees Find Asylum in Israel," The Victoria Advocate, June 26, 1977, 24.
(8.) An Associated Press report in early October 1977 noted that the immigrants studied about 15 hours of Hebrew a week and received shipments of rice from the Catholic Relief Service. Immigrants with relatives in the United States were encouraged to join their families there. Associated Press, "Refugees Build Life in Israel," Wilmington Morning Star, October 6, 1977, 3B.
(9.) For the sake of clarity I will refer to Vaan Nguyen's father by his first name. There are several possible transliterations for Hoai My, the name of Nguyen's father. Alt hough his name appears as HoaiMy on Facebook, I have opted for the transliteration Hoimai, which is how his name appears in press coverage and academic articles related to the film. According to Nguyen, he also goes by the nickname "Ami" (Hebrew, "my people").
(10.) "Yemei ha-chanukah" (Days of Hanukkah), traditional music with lyrics by Avraham Avrunin, http://shironet.mako.co.il/artist?type=lyrics&lang=l&prfid=806&wrkid=3640.
(11.) One of the songs they are shown singing, "Nhung Doi Hoa Sim" (Hills of Myrtle Shrubs), is a popular Vietnamese song written in the 1960s by Dzung Chinh, who based the lyrics on the 1949 poem "Mau Tim Hoa Sim" (The Purple Shade of Myrtle Flowers) by the Vietnamese poet Huu Loan (1916-2010). The speaker of Huru Loan's semi-autobiographical poem recounts his brief, wartime marriage. Following his wedding ceremony, he returns to his unit and learns, a few months later, that his young bride has died in a flood. Huu Loan, "Mau Tim Hoa Sim" (The Violet Shade of Myrtle Flowers), trans. Huynh Sanh Thong, The Vietnam Review 1 (Autumn-Winter 1996), http://www.hocxa.com/Tho/DichTho/DT_HuuLoan.html. I am grateful to Souris Hong for confirming this source.
(12.) In her article on contemporary documentaries on the Vietnamese diaspora, which includes an analysis of Dror's film, the scholar Vo Hong Chuong-Dai provides her own translations of the film's dialogue, noting that the film's English subtitles translate the Vietnamese dialogue imprecisely. The same is true for the English translations of the Hebrew dialogue, which problematically "correct" the Hebrew grammar of Nguyen's parents and their older Vietnamese peers. The English subtitles serve a crucial mediating role, in this case by translating for an English-language audience the film's multilingual audiovisual material. Where necessary, I have modified the English translations of the Hebrew but also acknowledge that my reading is shaped by my reliance on the English translations of the Vietnamese dialogue (and my inability to offer any sort of correction to this output), as well as by the particular demands and constraints that shape the process of subtitling. See Delia Chiaro, "Issues in Audiovisual Translation," in The Routledge Companion to Translation Studies, ed. Jeremy Munday, rev. ed. (London: Routledge, 2009), 14165; Vo Hong Chuong-Dai, "When Memories Collide: Revisiting War in Vietnam and the Diaspora," in Film in Contemporary Southeast Asia: Cultural Interpretation and Social Intervention, ed. David C. L. Lim and Hiroyuki Yamamoto (London: Routledge, 2012), 91.
(13.) Nick Thimmesch, "Israel and the Boat People," Sarasota Journal, November 29, 1979, 6A.
(14.) Jonathan Immanuel, "Viet Refugees, Though Welcome, Find They are Outsiders in Israel," Schenectady Gazette, January 4, 1986, 2.
(15.) A 1986 article on Israeli Vietnamese refugees includes a quote from Dr. Hoa Tran Quang, who arrived with the 66 and was their unofficial spokesperson at the time: "This society looks western, but in its depths it is basically religious. Can we really be Israeli without being Jewish?" he asks. Immanuel, "Viet Refugees," 2.
(16.) In Vietnam, Nguyen's encounter with the antagonist of this narrative will challenge the authority of this memory, and with it, her father's narration of the events leading to the loss of the family's land. See Avishai Margalit, The Ethics of Memory (Boston: Harvard University Press, 2002).
(17.) The theme of displacement runs through Dror's extensive filmography. Dror, the son of jewish refugees from Iraq, turns the lens to his own familial past in the 2001 documentary, My Fantasia. See also Yael Munk, "Duki Dror's journey of the Displaced," Cinematheque (January 2006), http://www.dukidror.com/articles.html.
(18.) See Oz Almog, "Monks in Khaki," in The Sabra: The Creation of the New few, trans. Haim Watzman (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 209-25.
(19.) Nguyen's blog was hosted by Ma'ariv from 2002-2003 but is no longer active.
(20.) I discuss the immediacy of online writing in my work on Israeli protest poetry and digital culture. "From IDF to .pdf: War Poetry in the Israeli Digital Age," in Narratives of Dissent: War in Contemporary Israeli Arts and Culture, ed. Rachel S. Harris and Ranen Omer-Sherman (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2013), 153-66.
(21.) Vo Hong Chuong-Dai, "When Memories Collide," 80.
(23.) Hirsch's emphasis on transmission and modes of transmission accords with Nguyen's recollection of how she received and processed her parents' past and their narration of it. According to Hirsch, "postmemory describes the relationship that the generation after those who witnessed cultural or collective trauma bears to the experiences of those who came before, experiences that they 'remember' only by means of the stories, images, and behaviors among which they grew up. But these experiences were transmitted to them so deeply and effectively as to seem to constitute memories in their own right. Postmemory's connection to the past is thus not actually mediated by recall but by imaginative investment, projection, and creation." Marianne Hirsch, "The Generation of Postmemory," Poetics Today 29, no. 1 (2008): 106-07.
(24.) I have modified the translation of the subtitles, notably the film's translation of aggadah as "myth." In Hebrew, the word aggadah refers to narration and encompasses a variety of forms including tales, legends, and parables.
(25.) Michael Rothberg, Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009), 5.
(26.) Rothberg proposes "knots of memory" as an alternative to Pierre Nora's influential conceptualization of lieux (sites) de memoire. "A project oriented around noeuds de memoire ... makes no assumptions about the content of communities or their memories. Rather, it suggests that 'knotted' in all places and acts of memory are rhizomatic networks of temporality and cultural reference that exceed attempts at territorialization (whether at the local or national level) and identitarian reduction." Rothberg, "Introduction: Between Memory and Memory: From Lieux de memoire to Noeuds de memoire," Yale French Studies 118/119, Noeuds de memoire. Multidirectional Memory in Postwar French and Francophone Culture (2010): 7.
(27.) In Hebrew, the word "bayit" is both house and stanza. In the panel where I first presented this work, Home and Migration in Modern Hebrew Literature, Vered Shemtov addressed the 2011 housing protest in Israel (also referred to as the "tent protest") and how contemporary poets activated a relation between politics and prosody in their poetic engagement with this social crisis. Vered Shemtov, "Wandering and Dwelling in the Poetic Home: From Pagis and Amichai to the Tent Poetry," paper presented at the annual meeting for The National Association of Professors of Hebrew, The Jewish Theological Seminary, New York, NY, June 24-26, 2013.
(28.) See, for example, Leah Goldberg's 1937 novel Letters from an Imaginary Journey (Mikhtavim mi-nesiyah medumah) and Reuven Ben-Yosefs poems "Letters to America" (Mikhtavim la-Amerika), which were composed in the 1970s and recently brought into English by the scholar Michael Weingrad. Leah Goldberg, Mikhtavim mi-nesiyah medumah (Letters from an Imaginary Journey) (1937; repr., Bnei-Barak: Sifriyat Po'alim-Ha-kibbuts Ha-meuchad, 2007); Reuven Ben-Yosef, Letters to America: Selected Poems, ed. and trans. Michael Weingrad (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2015).
(29.) For a more extensive reading of these poems and the relation they draw between memory, translation and writing, see my chapter, "Hebrew Remembers Yiddish: The Poetry of Avot Yeshurun," in Choosing Yiddish: Studies in Literature, Culture and History, ed. Lara Rabinovitch, Shiri Goren, and Hannah Pressman (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2013), 296-313.
(30.) In her article on "the generation of postmemory," Hirsch cites Eva Hoffman's description of the responsibilities of the second generation of Holocaust survivors. This "hinge generation," as Hoffman characterizes it in her book, After Such Knowledge: Memory, History, and the Legacy of the Holocaust (New York: Public Affairs, 2004), retains a "living connection" to the past and serves as its custodians. At the same time, Hoffman describes the way that memory is transmitted by this generation as a "transmutation," emphasizing how the act of transmission alters the shape and content of memory. Hirsch, "The Generation of Postmemory," 103.
(31.) The Arabic includes the words "Al-Fatihah," invoking the first verse of the Quran, followed by the standard address in Arabic, "for the dearly departed," and their Vietnamese surnames.
(32.) Examples: "beit kevarot" (house of graves), "beit 'aimin" (house of eternity), "beit mo'ed le-khol chai" (from Job 30:23, a house appointed for all the living).
(33.) Nguyen is a member of "Gerila Tarbut" (Guerrilla Culture), a collective that stages "poetry demonstrations" (in Hebrew and Arabic) in Israel and organizes cross-disciplinary collaborations between Israeli and Palestinian artists and social activists. She has worked as a journalist, covering arts and culture for the periodicals '/man Tel Aviv and Ma'ariv, as well as other publications in Israel. As an actress, Nguyen has appeared on Israeli TV in the shows Hasufim and Lo hivtachti lack, and recently in the film Kidon, directed by Emmanuel Naccache.
(34.) Vaan Nguyen, selected poems, Malayan 2 (Winter 2005-06).
(35.) The 2013 book publication caught the eye of Tablet Magazine, which published a brief profile of the poet. Dana Kessler, "Israeli Poet Chronicles Vietnamese Exodus," Tablet Magazine, April 18, 2014, http://tabletmag.com/scroll/169769 /israeli-poet-chronicles-vietnamese-exodus.
(36.) Vaan Nguyen, "Nehar Mekong" (Mekong River), in Kin ha-kemehin (The Truffle Eye) (Tel Aviv: Ma'ayan Press, 2013), 5. A clip of Nguyen reading the poem is available on YouTube as part of Culture Buzz's Hebrew Writers-Readers series: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yOQlQvOPIsU
(37.) Vaan Nguyen, "Nehar Mekong" (Mekong River), trans. Adriana X. Jacobs, Gulf Coast: A Journal of Literature and Fine Arts, 27, no. 2 (2015): 56-57.
(38.) This is also the case in the work of Israeli poet Hezy Leskly (1952-1994). Hezy Leskly, "Shirat he-'arim" (Poem of the Cities), in Be'er chalav be-emls'a 'ir: Kol ha-shirim, 1968-1992 (Collected Poems) (Tel Aviv: 'Am 'oved, 2009), 1979-80.
(39.) Chaim Nachman Bialik, "Bein nehar prat u-nehar chidekel" (Between the Tigris and Euphrates) in Shirat ha-techiyah ha-'ivrit: antologia historit bikortit (Hebrew Renaissance Poetry: A Historical-critical Anthology), vol. 1, ed. Benjamin Harshav (Jerusalem: Mossad Bialik, 2000), 122-24.
(40.) I would like to thank Evyn Le Espiritu for this observation.
(41.) Maijorie Perloff emphasizes "coordination rather than subordination, likeness and difference rather than logic or sequence" as the major principles of a collage poetics and practice (Perloff, "Collage and Poetry," http://maijorieperloff .com/stein-duchamp-picasso/collage-poetry). See also Maijorie Perloff, "The Invention of Collage," in The Futurist Moment: Avant-Garde, Avant Guerre, and the Language of Rupture (1986; repr., Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2003), 44-79.
(42.) Eli Hirsh, "Ma'ayan 4," Eli Hirsh: Koreh shirah (Reads Poetry), March, 14, 2008, http://elihirsh.com/?p=735.
(43.) Hebrew poetry, unlike prose (with the exception of religious texts and children's literature), is typically published with diacritical marks (nikkud). The rules of nikkud are complex, so most presses send these texts to be marked and reviewed by professional nakdanim (punctuators).
(44.) Arik Glasner, "Kamah devarim 'al ketav ha-'et Ma'ayan" (A Few Remarks on Ma'ayari), Mevaker chofshi (Free critic), March 28, 2008, https://arikglasner.wordpress.com/2008/03/28.
(45.) Coby Ben-Simhon, "In Her Words," Haaretz, March 27, 2008 (English version), http://www.haaretz.com/in-her-words-l.242793. For the Hebrew version, see "Ani katalog begadim, ishiyut du-kotvit" (I am a clothes catalog, a bi-polar personality) Haaretz, March 25, 2008, http://www.haaretz.co.il/misc/L1314597. I have cited from the English version.
(46.) Eli Eshed, "Ha-ayin shel Vaan Nguyen," Ha-multiyekum shel Eli Eshed, September 27, 2008, https://no666.wordpress.com/2008/09/27.
(47.) In her reading of authors and texts that move within and between the Hebrew/ Arabic "no-man's land" (shetach hejker), Lital Levy uncovers, in her words, the "space of poetic trespass": "Through those very wanderings, we uncover a space of alternative poetic visions and cultural possibilities. This space emerges from the ground up through individual acts of translation and literary imagination; it provides a zone of passage for symbols and ideas to migrate between the two languages." While Levy attends specifically to Hebrew/Arabic relations and to the Israel/Palestine fault line, her observations can apply more broadly to other forms and combinations of intercultural and linguistic encounter. Lital Levy, Poetic Trespass: Writing Between Hebrew and Arabic in Israel/Palestine (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014), 3.
(48.) Menachem Ben, "Ha-mevaker ha-meuhav" (The Critic in Love), Ma'ariv, April 11, 2008, 29.
(49.) Dan Miron's landmark book, Imahot meyasdot, achayot chorgot (Founding Mothers, Step-Sisters) (Tel Aviv, Israel: Ha-kibbuts Ha-meuchad, 1991) was one of the earliest academic studies to organize the category of women's writing in Hebrew. See also Wendy Zierler, And Rachel Stole the Idols: The Emergence of Modern Hebrew Women's Writing (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2004).
(50.) For an overview of Elisheva's oeuvre, see Dan Miron's two-part essay, "She'atah shel Elisheva" (Elisheva's Hour), Iyunim bitkumat Israel (Studies in Israeli and Modern Jewish Society) 12 and 13 (2002; 2003): 521-66; 345-92.
(51.) The expression "the pain of two homelands" (ha-ke 'ev shel shtei ha-moladot) is a line from Leah Goldberg's poem "Oren" (Pine), included in her 1955 collection Barak ba-boker (Lightning in the Morning). Leah Goldberg, "Oren," in Shirim, vol. 2, ed. Tuvia Reuvner (Tel Aviv: Sifriyat Po'alim, 1973), 143.
(52.) This poem appeared in Ma'ayan' 2 but was not included in The Truffle Eye.
(53.) Vaan Nguyen, "Shir 'arim chorpi" (Winter City Poem), Ma'ayan 2 (Winter 2005-06).
(54.) Vaan Nguyen, "Ketem tarbut" (Culture Stain), in Pin ha-kemehin (The Truffle Eye) (Tel Aviv: Ma'ayan Press, 2013), 16.
(55.) Nguyen was one of the founding editors of Shelosh nekudot, a very short-lived fanzine (the August 2005 issue was the only one). Rotem Rozental, "Shnat ha-fanzin" (The Year of the Fanzine), Walla! Culture, June 14, 2015, http://e.wallaxo.il/item/730845. This issue is available to view on Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/7603420@N02/with/442642966.
(56.) In Hebrew, the question "ha-horim?" (literally, the parents) implies the parents of the addressee.
(57.) This poem recalls Dahlia Ravikovitch's sensual and violent poem about Mediterranean identity, "Shokhevet 'al mayim" (Lying upon the waters). By leaving the city unnamed, Ravikovitch allows readers to impose their own identity and location onto the place the poem describes.
(58.) Nguyen, "Tel Milim" (Hill of Words), in Ein ha-kemehin (The Truffle Eye) (Tel Aviv: Ma'ayan Press, 2013), 8.
(59.) Ibid., "Orkhideia" (Orchid), 25.
(60.) Ibid., "Ein ha-kemehin" (The Truffle Eye), Ma'ayan 3 (Winter 2007): 9-11. This story appears in the book version.
(61.) Tali Latowicki, "Ein ha-kemehin, Vaan Nguyen," Talila, April 3, 2008, https://talilato.wordpress.com/2008/04/03.
(62.) In the story of Honi Ha-me'agel, Honi the Circle Maker, which dates back to the first century CE, the eponymous protagonist encloses himself in a circle he has drawn on the ground and refuses to leave until God brings rain to his community, thereby relieving them from a long drought. When the downpour ends, after various narrative twists and turns, the people set off to gather truffles and mushrooms (kemehin u-pitriyot, Talmud Bavli, Ta'anit 23a).
(63.) Tom Volk, "The Lightning and the Truffle," Tom Volk's Fungi, January 2007, http://botit.botany.wisc.edu/toms_fungi/more.html. See also Geoffrey Clough Ainsworth, Introduction to the History of Mycology (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1976), 12-13.
(64.) I have retranslated most of the Hebrew dialogue into English but relied on the subtitles where the spoken dialogue was not clear.
(65.) In their writing, Palestinian Israeli authors as far back as Atallah Mansour (b. 1934) and, more recently, Sayed Kashua (b. 1975) have examined and thematized fears of assimilation and infiltration in the Israeli context through the portrayal of characters who seemingly and seamlessly "pass," linguistically and physically, between Israel and Palestine. In her comparative reading of Kashua's novel Second Person Singular (2010) and Ayman Sicksek's ToJaffa (2010), Harris addresses the reading and treatment of "passing" that both novels engage in relation to representations of the "foreign interloper" in Israeli literature and cinema. Rachel S. Harris, "Hebraizing the Arab-Israeli: Language and Identity in Ayman Sikseck's To Jaffa and Sayed Kashua's Second Person Singular," Journal of Jewish Identities 7, no. 2 (2014): 35-58.
(66.) The word most likely entered Hebrew through Turkish and Arabic, where tembel (or tambal in Arabic) refers to a fool or idle person (hence it's alternate name "fool's hat"), a usage that persists in Israeli Hebrew slang. Photographs of Vietnamese children wearing the kova tembel were distributed by Israel's Government Press Office. These photographs are available in the "Refugees" album of the GPO's Flickr page, https://www.flickr.com/photos/government_press_office.
(67.) The song was first recorded by Yehoram Gaon and included in his 1977 album 'Od lo ahavti dai (I still haven't loved enough).
(68.) Goodman included the song his eponymous 1971 album, but it achieved popular status when Arlo Guthrie recorded the song for his 1972 album Hobo's Lullaby.
(69.) For the full Hebrew lyrics: http://shironet.mako.co.il/artistPtypeHyrics&lang=1&prfid=465&wrkid=3068
(70.) Caroline Bergvall, "A Cat in the Throat: On Bilingual Occupants," Jacket 37 (2009), http://jacketmagazine.com/37/bergvall-cat-throat.shtml.
(71.) By Vaan Nguyen, from The Truffle Eye (2013); translated by Adriana X. Jacobs, by permission.
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|Author:||Jacobs, Adriana X.|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2015|
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