Sunday, July 19, 2009

Christina Schwenkel's "The American War in Contemporary Vietnam"

Christina Schwenkel is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Riverside.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, The American War in Contemporary Vietnam: Transnational Remembrance and Representation, and reported the following:
This book is about the complex assemblages of cultural memory in postwar Vietnam. It focuses on diverse and intersecting forms of remembrance that different groups of people – both national and transnational – bring to contemporary Vietnamese spaces of memory-making, including museums, photography exhibits, memorial sites, and war tours. The book charts the ways in which memory of the war with the United States has become increasingly pluralized with the emergence of new historical knowledge and memorial practices in an era of post-economic reform.

Page 99 is a good representation of the book’s contents as it gets at one of the key memory dilemmas that I examine in my research: how highly visible acts of war commemoration coexist with silenced histories that aspire to find new venues for self-expression and public circulation. Here we find multiple actors and their dynamic memories shaping an increasingly commodified landscape of history. Page 99 begins with a paradox: international tourists are in Vietnam to consume memory of the war; but soon tire of it. They want more sensory stimulation to recreate “experiences” of the battlefield, but at the same time, they are suspicious of official war scripts that glorify the revolution and the defeat of the United States. Alongside tourist spectacles of memory is another telling concern addressed in the book: the crisis of forgetting. Here is where the role of ARVN veterans, now working as tour guides, becomes important. As men who found themselves on the “wrong” side of the war, their pasts have been officially “forgotten” and their war dead uncommemorated. Yet now, with new economic opportunities, these veterans/tour guides are able to communicate their knowledge and counter-memories to international tourists who anticipate alternative scripts that are critical of the Party and government. But, as Page 99 shows, this is not always the case as lingering postwar animosity and desires for reconciliation are much more complicated than simple, enduring binaries that distinguish between “us” and “them.”
Read more about the book at the publisher's website, and visit Christina Schwenkel's faculty webpage.

--Marshal Zeringue