Essays

Gutters of Relationality and the Visibility of Vietnamese American Experiences in Bao Phi’s A Different Pond

Thai Luong discusses how Bao Phi’s autobiographical picture book, A Different Pond, resonates with his own experiences and memories. Examining illustrations, gutters, and silences in the book, Luong shows that the text invites members of the Vietnamese American community to identify with its representation of the challenges of life in a new country.

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In the autobiographical picture book, A Different Pond, written by Bao Phi and illustrated by Thi Bui, Phi recalls a fishing journey with his father after they moved to Minneapolis at the end of the Vietnam War. On this fishing trip, the young Phi learns about his father’s traumatic involvement with the Vietnam War and the family’s struggle with poverty and adjustment to America—themes central and visceral to most Vietnamese American refugees and immigrants who are adjusting to a new life in America.

Reading A Different Pond as a Vietnamese American, I felt a close bond with Phi’s story and his struggles with his experience in America. Although Phi’s book is autobiographical, I felt as if he was writing a chapter of my life, too. This relationship between the reader (myself) and Phi amplifies the book’s themes of family and immigration. G. Thomas Couser and many life-writing theorists have argued that self-representational genres are relational, that they represent lives of others beyond the author’s own intention. I expand Couser’s definition further by exploring Leigh Gilmore’s definition of “representativeness”—that is, how one’s trauma can represent another group’s experience, which Gilmore describes as the “intertwining of individual and collective representation that demonstrates the close relation between representing yourself and participating in a representative structure in which one may stand for many” (19). A Different Pond operates as a dual representation of both the author’s experience and the reader’s by depicting the Vietnamese Americans’ experiences of immigration, war, and adjustment to life in America.

Phi’s memory of his trip with his father is built on the Vietnamese community’s shared experience of immigration and economic and social struggles. In this way, the work exemplifies Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson’s concept of collective remembering, the idea that personal memory is social and shared between a community. In A Different Pond, gutters—that is, the empty spaces, silences, and distances between textual boxes—contribute to this experience of collective remembering by allowing the reader and the Vietnamese American community to fill in those spaces with their own relatable experiences. My reading builds on Scott McCloud’s argument that these empty spaces between panels where meaning is filled or closed by the reader. In this act of closure, the reader “observ[es] the parts, but perceiv[es] the whole,” allowing them to mentally “complete what is incomplete based on past experience” (McCloud 62). Together with the book’s autobiographical avatars, these gutters cause the reader to reflect on their positionality within the story and ask them to fill in meanings of trauma. Consequently, in using gutters in the panels to fill in spaces of closure and relationality, Phi not only represents himself and his family’s trauma and experience, but he allows the collective memory of the countless Vietnamese refugees and immigrants, including myself, to fill in the emptiness of that space.

In the opening pages of A Different Pond, the illustration of Phi’s parents’ room and house evokes a nostalgic remembrance of Vietnam. The artifacts in the room signify the crossing of Vietnamese culture and experience across different geographical borders. These mundane items at first may not look all that special to a reader outside of the Vietnamese American community, but K. Tsianina Lomawaima suggests that focusing on “mundane moments” and objects can be productive in revealing “what life story they build” (256). I find myself drawn to the Vietnamese artifacts and household items in A Different Pond’s illustrations because I grew up with those items as well. In his parents’ room are paintings of flowers, fishes, and the shadows of Vietnamese people living their lives. In this same room, Phi shares the bed with his father and mother, a common practice in Vietnam. On their bed lie two orange hugging pillows (gối ôm) covered with maroon flower patterns. Hugging pillows are a common item in bedrooms of Vietnamese homes across the diaspora. The hugging pillows’ appearance in Phi’s memory of his childhood home emphasizes their significance not only to Phi but to the Vietnamese American community as well. Collectively, the homey Vietnamese items bring an authenticity of relationality of the Vietnamese American experience to the reader.

After being awoken quietly by his father, Phi climbs out of their bed to accompany him on a fishing trip. In the car, the young Phi listens to his father’s stories. As Phi’s autobiographical avatar is looking out of the window, he remembers a conversation in which a kid at his school teased him about his father’s accent: “A kid at my school said my dad’s English sounds like a thick, dirty river.” The spatial distance between Phi’s memory of his father’s accent being ridiculed and his response—printed at the bottom of the page—imposes a moment of silence on the page. McCloud suggests that in closing the notable spaces between text, the reader fills them in with meaning and information from their own previous experiences (62). Phi’s memory of his father’s accent being teased is a common experience amongst not only Vietnamese Americans but also in many other immigrant communities as well. The noticeable space between this memory and his response allows the reader a moment of self-reflection about their own related past experiences with racism. After this space, at the bottom of the page the young Phi challenges the prejudices against his father’s accent stating softly, “but to me his English sounds like gentle rain” (4). Phi inverts the image of the “thick, dirty river” of his father’s voice to characterize the sound of his father’s voice as instead soft and peaceful like the gentle rain. Through this inversion, Phi helps the reader close the gap created by the gutter, letting the reader fill in the spaces of traumatic memories of racism but concluding that moment with something positive.

In the Vietnamese American community, the Vietnam War is a traumatic experience for the survivors and their families. As Viet Thanh Nguyen hauntingly writes, “All wars are fought twice, the first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory” (1). The latter part of Nguyen’s statement speaks directly to what the young Phi learns about his father during their fishing trip. After buying the fishing bait, the young Phi and his father arrive at an isolated pond and start a fire to so the two of them can see better in the darkness. As the two sit together, eating their bologna sandwiches and waiting for a fish to take their bait, Phi’s father reminisces about his past: “I used to fish by a pond like this one when I was a boy in Vietnam,” to which the young Phi curiously asks: “with your brother?” (14). The young Phi’s question invokes traumatic memory for his father which prompts him to “nod and look away” (14). Again, each exchange is spaced apart, allowing the gutters of silence and meaning to operate. At the bottom of the page, the young Phi communicates to the reader that “Dad tells me about the war, but only sometimes. He and his brother fought side by side. One day, his brother didn’t come home” (14). For Phi’s father, fishing at this pond with his son provokes a nostalgic remembrance of his own childhood; however, in recalling his childhood, he inadvertently remembers the loss of his brother and the Vietnam War. The pond is thus a site for childhood memories and a space of traumatic silence.

For Smith and Watson, sites of narration are important in analyzing memory and experience regarding place and space. The pond for the father is a geopolitical space, which Smith and Watson define as “complex spaces of citizenship, or multiculturally across nations with histories of conflict, questions of migration and the negotiation of borders or points of transition engage contradictions of geopolitical space” (45). In remembering the pond of his childhood in Vietnam, Phi’s father is both located within and dislocated from Vietnam, further complicating his positionality in the United States. This traumatic experience that Phi’s father has on the pond represents what Gilmore considers a collective suffering for one’s in-group, in this case, Vietnamese Americans. Gilmore writes that the representativeness of trauma, which connects the individual and collective histories of suffering, compels one to “consider that cultural memory, like personal memory, possesses ‘recovered’ or ‘repressed’ memories” (31). The pond for Phi’s father not only represents his personal memory of war but the collective suffering for the Vietnamese American community as well. In this sense, the pond is not just a pond, but a body of suffering, of escape, of the dangerous journey in boats across the ocean, of loss, and of new beginnings and hope in America.

Phi wrote A Different Pond to give his daughter the opportunity to read stories that she can relate to (Hidle), but selfishly, I believe that he also wrote this story for me and the Vietnamese American community. Through their illustrations, gutters, and silences, Phi and Bui create a transformative space of relationality, of connecting with each other’s trauma, of sharing the immigrant experience in the United States, and of giving voices and representations to a community that is often silent and invisible. I remember fishing, laughing, and throwing stones with my relatives in the ponds that I grew up with in Vietnam; I miss them dearly, but as the young Phi says when we sleep, “we will dream of fish in faraway ponds.” And I will dream and remember the ponds in my homeland.


Works Cited

Couser, G. Thomas. Memoir: An Introduction. Oxford UP, 2012.

Eakin, Paul John. How Our Lives Become Stories: Making Selves. Cornell UP, 2005.

Gilmore, Leigh. The Limits of Autobiography: Trauma and Testimony. Cornell UP, 2001.

Hidle, Jade. “A Conversation about A Different Pond with Bao Phi and Thi Bui.” DiaCRITICS, 2 Apr. 2018, diacritics.org/2018/03/conversation-different-pond-bao-phi-thi-bui.

Lomawaima, K. Tsianina. “A Principle of Relativity through Indigenous Biography.” Biography, vol. 39, no. 3, 2016, pp. 248–269. doi:10.1353/bio.2016.0035.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. 1sted., HarperPerennial, 1994.

Nguyen, V. T. “Just Memory: War and the Ethics of Remembrance.” American Literary History, vol. 25, no. 1, Jan. 2013, pp. 144–163. doi:10.1093/alh/ajs069.

Phi, Bao, and Thi Bui. A Different Pond. Capstone, 2017.

Smith, Sidonie, and Julia Watson. Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives, Second Edition, U of Minnesota P, 2010.

Watson, Julia. “Autographic Disclosures and Genealogies of Desire in Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home.” Biography, vol. 31, no. 1, 2008, pp. 27–58., doi:10.1353/bio.0.0006.



Thai Luong

Thai Luong is a graduate student in the department of English at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. He is currently in his second year of the Master’s program. His interests revolve around Vietnamese American literature, Asian American literature, and diaspora studies.

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