Scene from the Ao Dai Festival Christine Jade Photo
Scene from the Ao Dai Festival (Christine Jade Photo )

More Than the War: Vietnamese Artists on Defying Expectations

More Than the War: Vietnamese Artists on Defying Expectations

Twelve years have past since Jenny Do, director of the annual San Jose Ao Dai Festival, first visited Vietnamese survivors of human trafficking in Taiwan.

“They were in captivity completely naked,” Do said. “They were frail, tiny, really skinny girls, and they spoke with such soft voices. Knowing the culture, these women would never talk about anything even remotely related to sex. And yet they came to me and hugged me and said things like, ‘If they had just raped us, that would have been a blessing.’”

Do’s experience with the trafficking victims compelled her to organize a photo exhibit via her gallery, GreenRice Art Gallery, titled Humans For Sale. The exhibit, meant to promote public awareness about the issue of human trafficking in Southeast Asia, prompted her to eventually found the Ao Dai festival in 2011. And while the festival has become renowned for its role in promoting Vietnamese art and culture in the Bay Area, its mission extends far beyond that of simply preserving Vietnamese heritage.

“Art should be a vehicle to push for social change,” Do said.

Artists on a Mission

Vietnamese artist groups in the South Bay like the Ao Dai Festival and the Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network are working to bring Vietnamese American art to the mainstream. But both organizations have unique methods for accomplishing their artistic and political goals.

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On one hand you have the Ao Dai festival, which centers around Vietnamese traditions. Through the festival, the Ao Dai, a traditional item of Vietnamese clothing, becomes a symbol of healing and legitimization, allowing survivors of various traumas to come together without the pressure to articulate their experiences to one another directly. Vietnamese artists, performers, and audiences congregate from locations all over California, including Sacramento and Orange County, and other parts of the globe to make their own unique contributions to the festivities.

On the other hand, there's the Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network (DVAN), a Bay Area organization of over forty Vietnamese-American writers and artists, which is less concerned with goal of evolving tradition. They advocate for social change in a different way: they aim to increase the diversity of voices in the Vietnamese diaspora.

"There are so many pre-determined ideas about who the Vietnamese are," says DVAN executive director, Isabelle Thuy Pelaud. "In the 90s, Vietnamese writers were growing frustrated about their representation in the media as solely connected to the [Vietnam] war. They wanted to write about it, but they also wanted to write about other things, such as race, class, gender, sexuality, fiction - subjects that were not always thought to be as valid as the subject of war."

More than the War

In 2016, DVAN co-director Viet Thanh Nguyen won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his debut novel The Sympathizer. However, he claims that publishers are even reluctant to publish stories about the war that differ from the mainstream narrative, which, as he says, is generally constructed to “placate American audiences.” He says his aggressive stance on the conflict led to 13 of 14 publishers rejecting his book submission.

Viet Thanh Nguyen interviews Canadian novelist Kim Thuy at the DVAN Literary Festival
Viet Thanh Nguyen interviews Canadian novelist Kim Thuy at the DVAN Literary Festival (Julie Thi Underhill)

“It’s been really crucial for Vietnamese writers to address the war because if we don’t, then that entire history is largely defined by Americans, mostly White Americans, and that leads to an erasure of Vietnamese voices and perspectives. Of course there are so many other things that constitute Vietnamese American life, but because the older generation was so affected by the war, it’s hard for us not to talk about it," Nguyen said.

As with the Ao Dai Festival, DVAN works with and supports other ethnic groups who share a history of oppression through colonialism and/or war. Việt Lê, one of the founding members of the organization, is passionate about the inclusion of other Southeast Asian voices in the diasporic narrative. According to him, the Vietnam War strongly impacted neighboring nations like Cambodia and Laos, yet artists from these countries lack even the level of representation of Vietnamese artists in the mainstream media.

Lê co-directed an exhibition, Love in the Time of War, at UC Santa Barbara and SF Cameraworks last fall to honor these voices. It included a screening of Trinh T. Min-ha’s Forgetting Vietnam, an experimental film filmed over the span of 25 years, “dealing with the specter of Vietnam as a feminized entity. It muses on themes of re-memory, gendered bodies and political bodies.”

“We often think of love and war as two entirely separate things, but I argue that they are extremely interconnected,” Lê said. “Here, we were thinking about love as a way to think though the rage of war, connecting the personal with the political.”

From the 2016 Ao Dai Festival
From the 2016 Ao Dai Festival (Christine Jade Photo )

Everything is Political

The release and subsequent success of Nguyen’s novel has increased readership and participation in DVAN’s events and projects, including their blog, DiaCRITICS. However, Pelaud notes that there are still political issues regarding DVAN’s struggle to obtain funding for such inclusive, globally-minded events:

“For us, since the diasporic approach makes sense, we are international. But it’s really hard for us to get funding for international projects because of identity politics in the U.S. We insist on bridging nations and bringing people together, and there is really no category for that, and so there is very little funding available.”

The Ao Dai also has its struggles, but they're less about funding and more about controversy. Although the festival continues to grow in reach each year, feedback from the public has not always been positive. One year, it became publicly known that a designer participating in the festival was honored by members of the Vietnamese Communist Party, and consequently the Ao Dai became a site of ideological struggle. Despite the political backlash, Do has no regrets.

“I got a lot of criticism from the community, but I also received a lot of support from those who believed in what I did," Do said. "No matter what you do, Vietnamese art [on a public scale] will always be political."

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To see more stories and photographs from KQED’s series about the impact of the Vietnam War on the Bay Area and other communities in California, visit kqed.org/vietnamwar

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