In March, writer and Lousiana Tech University professor Genaro Kỳ Lý Smith visited Hendrix College for a public reading, sponsored by the Hendrix-Murphy program. In addition to this reading, Smith spent two days on campus, in creative writing workshops with students, at Literature and Language over Lunch, and speaking to Dr. Vernon’s English class on Vietnam-centered literature and film.
Smith’s Vietnamese mother met his father, a black American solider, during the Vietnam War. In his book of narrative poetry, The Land Baron’s Sun, Smith imagines the life of his maternal grandfather, Lý Loc and his seven wives, as they transition from prosperity to poverty after the fall of Saigon. In The Land South of the Clouds, Lý Loc reappears as the grandfather of narrator Long Vinh, a “con lai” (half Vietnamese and half black) boy whose mother longs to return to Vietnam and her father. During his visit, I spoke with Smith about this story—one that so closely traces his own life.
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You mentioned in the acknowledgements for The Land Baron’s Sun that you made the trip back to Vietnam in the summer of 2002—for yourself and for your mother, who never returned. Having left Vietnam for the U.S. at a young age, did your trip feel like a return?
It felt like a return. When I landed it was on my younger brother’s birthday, June 17th. The thing I wanted though—not only was it a vacation, but a return to my birthplace—but I wanted to absorb as much as my birthplace, the scenery, the culture, in order to use what I experience as an adult into my writings, so that I can get two perspectives: one as a child, as a three-year-old kid, and one as a thirty-something kid—I mean, adult. I felt like a kid some days, when I was there, because I was just marveling over the marketplaces for instance, where you can saddle up to a booth and order sea snails, and they’ll cook it right there in front of you. Or they’ll make fresh spring rolls right there in front of you. so it was a great experience as well.
And the scenery, is that something that you feel is key in writing about and conveying Vietnam accurately?
It is. you have some poor places, and you have some places that are being redeveloped, renovated. that was one of the things I noticed while walking the city in Ho Chi Minh city or Hanoi. It’s just the constant renovations going on with old buildings. It’s like they’re preserving history, or they’re trying to recoup what they remember from decades ago, and I was fascinated by that and that worked into the poems and the novel—the idea of trying to sustain or remember how it was before the war, before the destructions occurred.
So like almost creating memories for yourself, about your grandfather, for yourself?
Exactly. For myself, especially.
As it says on the back cover of The Land South of the Clouds, 1979 is “the year of Apocalypse Now.” The moments where Long Vinh first sees the movie and the dream sequence that follows, in which his grandfather becomes a character in the movie, are both fascinating. How complicated is it to have this film that’s so western defining American cultural consciousness of Vietnam? How does that complicate your relationship with Apocalypse Now and other films that portray Vietnam similarly?
I wanted to show the things that they haven’t shown, write about the things that haven’t been written. They have been written, but they haven’t been as popular as the western portrayal of the Vietnam war. So that’s my goal, is just to make that mark—like okay you have this portrayal, but have you seen this one or read this side?
I remember when I was struggling to write short stories about Vietnam and my family, my undergrad professor at the time, Jack Lopez said, “Have you seen any films about Vietnam?” and I said, “Yeah, Apocalypse Now.” And I said it with pride, and he said, that movie is complete B.S. And he said, that’s just Hollywood’s rendition of the war, and Francis Ford Coppola is cramming all the things he heard about into one film. That’s why the film had problems in the four years of its making. And so, the moment he said that film was B.S., I realized what he was talking about at that moment—that we’re not getting other perspectives on the Vietnam War. and that changed my approach to how I write short stories and poems. it’s like dividing that line between the western perspective and the Asian perspective, the eastern perspective of Asia, Southeast Asia. I love the movie, my students love the movie, but I want to give a different analysis or view and portrayal of what they didn’t see or experience. so that’s the basis behind The Land Baron’s Son. The idea of going from riches and just being a pauper.
Which was common experience for a lot of Vietnamese during the war?
Oh, all of them.
What about the transition from poetry to novel? Why did you choose a different form for each book?
I’m primarily a fiction writer, and when I learned that there was such a thing as prose poetry, I thought it felt like a cheat sheet. Like, oh, I can make this transition easily to poetry, and I had to approach each poem like it’s the shortest short story imaginable. That there’s a beginning, a middle, and an end. And what I wanted for my readers was that by the time they get to the end of the poem, they’re not lost—that they understand what’s going on.
Because that happens sometimes with poetry…
My poet friends, some of them who almost won the Pulitzer for poetry, I read their stuff and I think, man I gotta re-read it. I don’t know if I got it, but yeah. A lot of the times it’s like, I don’t know what I just read. and I don’t want to embarrass myself and ask my friends, oh hey, what did you mean by this?
And the sad assumption is that because I’m published or because I teach creative writing, because I go on book tours that I’m supposed to be this smart person, and it’s ok to admit, no you’re not. And I’m not. I don’t always get everything that I read. and I want my students to understand that it’s ok to admit your flaws in how you read or what you read. Because I do it all the time—almost all the time.
I was drawn to the chapter in The Land South of the Clouds called “Beautiful.” For one, that’s a place where I can see the author behind the character. Do you feel like Long Vinh ever accepts or become comfortable with his biracial identity, or is that something that’s going to be an ongoing struggle for characters?
It’ll always be an ongoing struggle for characters. For instance, personally, I never had any problems with it growing up, but it’s at the point where you start dating—that’s when it becomes a problem, because you’re not sure who to date. You’re not sure about the other person, if they’re completely accepting of who you are, or will they use that biracial makeup as sort of a scapegoat of getting out of a relationship? And I’ve had that happen so many times. So, it’s funny you would bring up the chapter beautiful; that’s probably the favorite chapter by my friends who have read the novel, and they’ve often remarked on that chapter, because they have seen me go through that whole scenario before. And so that chapter, they keep asking me—some who know, know the truth and some who know me as a colleague at school will ask—how much of that is true, and it’s basically all. Like, all. And so that was the easiest chapter, of all the 34, 35 chapters, that was the easiest one to write, because I didn’t have to make up anything.
Lastly, you’re working on a novella, The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born?
Yeah, it’s a collection of short stories and novellas. and each one takes place during a different decade, so like 1960, 1970, all the way to 2010. Different characters, all told from the point of view of Vietnamese characters, whether it’s in Vietnam or America. And the last one, called
“The Ugly Duckling,” is told from third person, but it’s about a white American family. The boy, the sixth grader—his father has a gay relationship with a Vietnamese guy that he brought over from Vietnam before the fall of Saigon occurred. so that’s a different take of all the stories—now it’s told from a white American family, and how they’re dealing with the aftermath of the war.