Reviewing Dao Strom’s We Were Meant To Be A Gentle People feels like writing a clumsy thank you note for an incredibly generous gift: I doubt my ability to articulate the sheer scope of this project, let alone the magnitude of its emotional resonance. A remarkable polyphony of words, sounds, and images, spanning 188 pages of an 8 x 8 art book and 2 CDs (titled East and West), this text is literally much more than a novel. It is a work that reverberates with all the ontological desire of Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida, all the bleary longing of Anne Carson’s Nox, and, just as with these texts, it is an act of raw assemblage, an arrangement of fragments infused with their need to fill some ghostly outline. Even more-so than these texts, however, We Were Meant To Be A Gentle People is a work of hybridity, a story not only filtered through the gauze of memory, but through the elusive telling of Strom’s mother, father, and brother. This text performs Strom’s experience as an immigrant from the Vietnam War, as a woman whose legacy was filtered through many conflicting channels, a woman who never fully belonged to her birthplace or adopted home, a woman who’s learned—necessarily—to inhabit unstable territories.
Strom’s text encourages us to inhabit these spaces as well, aptly dedicating her book to all of you in the in-between spaces. Her text is mindfully shaped as an art book rather than a novel or collection, a project that wanders and contemplates rather than drives toward a single, stable ending. It is an album to pick up, put down, then pick up again, to forget, remember, reconsolidate. Our corresponding interpretive anxieties—Wait, where was I? Where was that? Who said that?—are an imperative aspect of Strom’s reflective, self-questioning narrative. Though the book’s many narrative threads are beautifully interconnected, they are revealed in fragments whose significance is not initially clear.
For example: toward the beginning of the book, Strom breaks from an essayistic tone into a poetic register, beginning with a white page, a pale gray line: i don’t know if i can fake it anymore. On the following page, she shows us a small, clipped image of a boy’s face, framed in an inverted triangle on a black background.
The next page is another white canvas with more pale gray text: i’ve lied long enough for you. (Who? Why? We don’t know yet.) On the following page, Strom reveals part of the photograph from which this clipped image is taken (though she cuts the image off, not yet revealing the full photograph.) A red circle is drawn around the boy’s face with an arrow and the word Thai
(though we do not yet know who Thai is or what he means to Strom). The next page finally reveals the whole photograph (or, rather, just the tail end of the photograph cut off on the previous page). is every word a cataclysm, asks the pale gray text, without a question mark, an answer, or a qualification.
In essence, by denying access to the full picture, by revealing an image in strategic fragments, Strom provides everything we need to synthesize our thoughts (and our gaze) with an atmosphere of seeking, yearning. The next page tells a story that reveals who Thai is—Strom’s brother—where this was—a refugee camp—and when this was—1975, just after the Fall of Saigon. It is not until the reappearance of Strom’s brother toward the end of the book that we come to understand—in another aching moment of revelation—why Strom feels compelled to revisit this photograph. This is to say, Strom’s text is filled with such moments, where the weight of accumulations hits you, though these moments of scattered presentations resist easy interpretation as narrative epiphanies.
The hybrid nature of text and photographs prevents us from (comfortably) settling on a single narrative arc. The images blend family photos from Strom’s childhood with more recent photographs of Strom amid gray skies, rocks, hills, and foggy beaches. There are photographs of documents, screen shots from films, segmented, showing a progression, an expression as it changes. And then, of course, there are the image clips, such as four tiny thumbnails juxtaposing two detached hands, holding feathers, two smooth, round, stones, possibly the same. Her fragmentation is a means of panning inward, compelling us to peer in closer, notice one small aspect of the bigger picture.
Strom also encourages us to step back from the book, to contemplate—and thereby fully absorb—the movement between sections. Whenever the formatting, font, and appearance of the text change—as they frequently do—I read this as the suggestion of an intermission, a pause for such absorption. The text is destabilizing both in its form and content, incorporating a mix of autobiography, inscriptions, transcriptions, lists, poems, song lyrics, and historic contextualizations. Visually, the text drifts around the page, sometimes right aligned, sometimes centered, sometimes left aligned, sometimes diagonal. The text also performs as many different forms, sometimes as diminutive footnotes, interrupting the photos, apologizing for the interruption. Sometimes it appears as two columns, side-by-side, whispering to one another, and—as with the images—panning the reader back and forth. Sometimes pages are flooded from top to bottom with words, and sometimes the language is very sparsely arranged, as with an entire black page devoted to [SILENCE], and a companion page which directs as to turn, to look out ~ON AN OPEN FIELD……………………..
SOMETIMES, I FEEL LIKE A MOTHERLESS CHILD, the text murmurs, repeatedly, SOMETIMES I FEEL LIKE I’M ALMOST DONE- BUT SUCH A LONG WAY FROM HOME. Whether we absorb Strom’s delicate, plucked notes and reedy vocals amid or apart from the corresponding textual landscape, this plaintive refrain resonates as a kind of misty connective tissue.
I am conscious that this is where I’m supposed to offer a summary thesis for this project’s hybridity, providing a cohesive image of the text’s background story, Strom’s familial legacy as a Vietnamese immigrant who fled to the US with her brother and her mother. The text, however, resists this narrativization; if a thesis must be delivered from these multitudinous forms, it is the very impossibility of assemblage, of assimilation into one, singular body:
The fragments have faces, stone faces, that will not tell you which way to go.
The fragments are neither here nor there, boy nor girl, naked nor clothed, sharp nor dull, happy nor sad, sure nor doubtful—
—the fragments are sometimes (no, often) self-doubtful.
The fragments don’t agree with each other or you or themselves, much of the time.
As Strom beautifully illustrates, her immigrant legacy was formed of such gauzy, indecipherable materials, many differing narrative strains and accounts from many different voices. In a sense, her story was inherited through the telling of others, including Strom’s mother, whom we learn was a rather notorious Vietnamese writer. Strom asks,
And why is it, I wonder, that we are prepared to read stories of the material travails of immigration, but not of the ennui, the existential uncertainty, the inexplicable discontents, of immigration’s innheritors? Why are we more comfortable with stories that show characters only at the brink of assimilation, in situations where the difficult, or humorous, or ironic incongruities of adapting to the physical props of the new arena take centerstage?
Through its hybridity, We Were Meant To Be A Gentle People both vividly performs Strom’s immigrant experience and challenges the readerly expectations for immigrant stories, questioning the stories that we tell, the stories we do not.