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  • Writer's pictureAudrey Chin

Writers I Read: If You’re a Vietnamese Woman in Singapore then You Must Be…

Updated: Jun 10, 2022

Monique Truong

Monique Truong – An award winning American writer and you’re discovering something new about how an American woman of Vietnamese descent might be perceived in this Little Red Dot you’re visiting for the first time.

In the first of this series on Vietnamese Artists in Singapore I interview Monique Truong, the award-winning author of The Book of Salt and Bitter in the Mouth who was in Singapore for the 2012 Singapore Writers Festival.

The Book of Salt has been nominated for the Lambda Literary Ward and received the 2004 Young Lions Fiction Award, the 2003 Bard Fiction Prize and 2003 New York Times Notable Book award.

Monique’s books are for me wonderful explorations into identity and finding a home in one’s own self in a world where one is different. Our e-conversation turned up many of these issues too. READ ON

This is what Monique learnt about who she was and how she might be perceived in Singapore:

In her first panel at SWF 2012, Diaspora and Dislocation, Monique spoke about identity and how even when nothing has changed, relocation and dislocation can change one’s way of being.

Monique, is a Southern girl twice over, having been born in South Vietnam and then lived in Boiling Springs North Carolina.  Leaving Vietnam in the aftermath of the war and settling in a town where she was seen to be strange, even ugly, have inflicted wounds. But as Monique says pertinently, only one of these wounds is evident on her body and in her name.  Yet, we are not just our looks and our names, we are a product of where we have been, how we grew up and also where we now are.

She recalled the shock of going to school in a small town in North Carolina when she was eight, how she was told that her skin was yellow and her hair was too black, how although nothing had changed in the mirror, she had suddenly turned into a freak.

I asked her how she felt in Singapore, where everyone pretty much looked like her. And again, there was the echo of how one’s identity changes with location…

It turned out that in Asia Monique felt acutely American in the body -“Whenever I’ve traveled to an Asian country (China, Japan, Laos, Vietnam, for instance), I’m acutely aware of how American I am. I mean culturally American. I speak English with what is clearly an American accent. I carry my body like an American, shoulders pulled back, back straight, claiming my personal space as if it was my right, some would call this posture arrogance.”

She also realized how connected she was to being an American citizen –  In her panel, she shared how outraged she was that the front desk clerk at her hotel listed her “nationality” on the check-in form as Vietnamese. “When I see the word nationality I equate it with citizenship. I am a citizen of the United States. I carry a U.S. passport. I vote in U.S. elections. I am in every way a U.S. citizen. Ironic, that I have to leave the U.S. in order to feel my connection to it, my desire to claim it.”

It’s so true. We need to get out of ourselves and our familiar environments to see who we are.

It’s also in an unfamiliar place that we discover we may have to fight against other stereotypes than those we usually battle.

In Singapore, Monique didn’t have to confront assumptions about how she might be a boat-person or a war refugee or a typical over-achieving Asian-American.

She explains – “I received a surprising and, I have to admit, disturbing e-mail from a young man who attended some of the panels… I do believe that he meant to be complimentary, but the content of his e-mail made me incredibly sad nonetheless. He wrote that it was great to see a Vietnamese woman in Singapore who was educated and successful as opposed to the Vietnamese women who were there only to sell their bodies…it was not in the forefront of my mind while I was in Singapore that this was how some Singaporeans could view me. That to be a Vietnamese woman in Singapore could mean (or, perhaps, most likely mean) that I’m a sex worker.”

“I was at the Festival thinking I was more American than Vietnamese and Asian. While at the same time I was being viewed by a Singaporean as a laudable exception to the Vietnamese prostitutes who populated their country.”

It was sad that I had to write Monique and tell her that the young man was accurate; in Singapore, this might indeed be the most likely perception of a Vietnamese woman. Or if not a sex-worker then a catalogue bride. It’s a different Vietnamese diaspora over here.

Turning the mirror the other way, this is what Monique thought about Singapore:

I did a lot of people watching while I was in Singapore. I enjoyed seeing the mix of Asian, Southeast Asian, and South Asian faces. I kept on thinking that this particular mix of races and ethnicities is the future, as in the future of the U.S., the future of the world. I felt like a time traveler. I’m surely not the first to say this: the dominance of the Western world is ebbing. The future belongs to Asia, Africa, and South America or rather the mixing of the peoples from these continents.

I also did a lot of listening while I was in Singapore. I enjoyed the different cadences of English spoken there. I love to hear English, reinvented and reinvigorated or in some cases preserved. It keeps a language alive and lively.

Turning the mirror the other way, this is what Monique thought about Singapore:

And if she were to write about us…

It would be interesting to write a piece of speculative fiction set in Singapore. A short story that takes place in the near future, a future that mirrors in many ways the present day of Singapore but with an infusion of one or a few new communities, South Americans or Africans, for example. The introduction of the new group(s) to Singapore could serve to highlight the complexities and realities of forming and maintaining a multicultural nation-state. In essence, what has gone right and what has gone wrong. This is beginning to sound more like a novel.

Actually, I’d rather read this novel than to write it. I invite someone to take up this idea and run with it, please.

BECAUSE ACTUALLY, this is what she’s working on next –

I’m working on a historical novel based on the life of the Greek-Irish writer Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904). He was a traveler and a consummate outsider. He eventually went to live in Japan, changing his name to Koizumi Yakumo. I’m going to let the women in his life tell his stories. Hearn also had an interesting relationship to food. While my previous two novels have been about food and flavors, I think this novel will be more about hunger.

Thank you Monique! We’re glad the Little Red Dot mirrored different parts of who you were and who you were not to yourself. 

As for what you thought you might write about Singapore but not yet … Well, it’s a great insight. It’s precisely the introduction and assimilation of new migrants that we’re struggling with currently as a people and a country. YOU GOT IT!

It must mean that it’s an idea that’s calling to you.

For those who haven’t read Monique’s 2 books, The Book of Salt and Bitter in the Mouth, I highly recommend them. They are beautiful grapplings about identity and being at home with oneself despite being different.

And for those who have read the books and would like to share a review – DO LEAVE A COMMENT HERE.



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