Azen Jaffe: Okay, my name is Azen Jaffe. Today is November 1st, 2019. I am with Hannah Crummé and we are talking to Dao Strom in Portland, Oregon. Thank you for speaking with us.
Dao Strom: Thanks, sure.
AJ: Could you start maybe just by introducing yourself and telling us a bit about your life?
DS: My name is Dao Strom and I live in Portland, Oregon. I have been here since about 2010. Previously, I lived in Alaska and Austin, Texas, and I grew up in a small town in Northern California. I was originally born in Vietnam, in Saigon, Vietnam, and I came over in 1975 with my mother and my brother at the time right at the fall of Saigon. Do you want me to start from there?
Hannah Crummé: Sure.
DS: It just seems like a really far way to go back.
HC: Well, you can start anywhere that seems sensible to you. We have got questions about your childhood and your immigration process, and we have got questions about your life in Portland and your career. So, what sounds most logical to you?
DS: What is the first question on your list?
HC: The first question is: when and why did you leave Vietnam? And how much of that experience do you remember?
DS: Yeah, okay, I do not remember any of it. I was two at the time that I left. My mother, before 1975, was a writer and a publisher in Vietnam. She was a publisher of a daily newspaper that was kind of controversial. Their mission was fighting against government corruption and also both anti-communist. They were based in South Vietnam. My mother was a writer. She was also a writer of fiction and stories and she was among a group of women writers that were sort of pioneering at the time. My birth father was her colleague in the newspaper, also a writer and a publisher. So my history kind of connects to that. The foremost reason that my mother left was because she feared government persecution from the Communists, when the Communists took over in '75. That was the choice that she made, was to leave, and my father stayed. They were not married, and he chose to stay because that was his -- he felt committed to staying and seeing what would happen to the country. He ended up spending ten years in a reeducation camp. That was the Communist reeducation camp.
We landed in Camp Pendleton in San Diego, my mother, my brother, and me. My brother is seven years older than me, so he remembers more. I do not remember anything from that time period. Our story is unusual, it is atypical as far as Vietnamese communities probably. My mother was kind of a radical woman, she was different, not very traditional, basically. When she was in the camps -- we actually ended up in another refugee camp or place outside of Sacramento and she had some interaction with the local newspaper, The Sacramento Bee. They did a story on her and our situation. Then from that story, she met my stepfather. He wrote to the paper, and they ended up meeting. He's Danish-American. He came over to the states in the 1950s, I want to say, from Denmark, and he was living in Sacramento and they ended up meeting, they got married, and then our family was this mixed, cultural family pretty quickly. We lived in Sacramento for a few years, for the first early years, and then we moved to a small town in El Dorado County.
HC: What was the name of the town?
DS: Placerville. And my stepfather built a house there and so we grew up. The only Vietnamese refugee family probably for a long time in that area.
HC: Can you tell us some memories from that town?
DS: There are so many. It is very hard to sum up.
HC: You do not have to sum up. Tell us some that really stand out.
DS: A lot of this material has gone into my work too. But we grew up in -- at the time that we moved into that area, it was dirt roads and a lake. We lived in a trailer for the first two years. My father, stepfather, built a house, and we had dogs and chickens and then eventually we had ponies. So I grew up -- like, it was like we were camping for two years. I went to a school that was mostly White people, out amid cow pastures, it was very rural. Historically, that area is famous for being the place where gold was discovered in 1848 on the American River. So that is sort of the history of El Dorado County area where I grew up. We were the only -- throughout my childhood and adolescence, really just a handful of other people of color or kids that were not White. A lot of Mormons and Christians, a pretty conservative area. I mean, I do not know, it is hard to go into specific memories. I would visit my relatives in Southern California, so that was sort of my contact with the Vietnamese-American community, so I kind of grew up outside of that. One of the definitive things that happened was that we did not grow up learning Vietnamese because of having a Danish-American stepfather. So that was kind of, that was something that my mother was not able to pass onto us. That maybe kind of separated me from other Vietnamese communities. What else do you have there?
HC: Were there organizations, family members, or friends who helped your family establish itself in the US?
DS: Not that I really know of, those are kind of vague times for me. Because my mother married somebody, we were not -- that was not the path, I guess, it sort of changed the path.
AJ: Was it otherizing, being just one of a few people of color in that area?
DS: Definitely. I think that my experience is, I grew up with two parents who were -- my stepfather being an immigrant by choice, he was unusual. He grew up during World War II in Denmark, and there were issues with his family. Something happened, and it is a little vague, I do not know. I mean there is more to it, but he basically never went back. So he left in his twenties and he never returned, even to visit. Which is an interesting choice in itself to make, just psychologically and emotionally. I think I kind of realized the psychic weight of that as I got older. It really was this unusual choice to make. I mean there was a mother back there waiting for him. We would receive Christmas gifts sometimes from Denmark, in the early years. And then my mother could not go back, and so kind of throughout the 80s especially, that was a really dark decade in Vietnam. So Vietnamese people were living with the feeling that they would never go back, or they would never be able to go back. What I would hear was like my mother's name was on a list, that she could not go back, that things would happen.
So that was like they were trying to find a way, I think, to survive. So what the philosophy that my family, my mother and my stepfather, kind of passed on was that you have to cut off the past and don't look back, and just focus on the future. I think that that is a survival tactic and that is a way of dealing with trauma that was very -- it still has its consequences. Even if you are functioning and your life is successful, it definitely still has its psychic consequences. I think we absorbed that during the time we were growing up, there was still the effects of intergenerational, invisible trauma. My mother -- that generation still -- she was always, even after, she was still trying to do her work, as far as being a journalist. There were groups of Vietnamese in her generation who were still trying to write and trying to have influence on what was happening in Vietnam and be engaged and my mom eventually stopped doing that. I think that something happened where she kind of stepped back from that cause. Probably to her own mental health, as far as living her life in the states. One of the things that I was always told growing up was that my father, my real father, had died in the war. Then when I was thirteen, my mother told me that, "Actually, your real father is still alive, and he's in prison, in the reeducation camp.” He was also a writer, and the person who had died was somebody else, that people thought was my father. So basically what had happened, and I have talked about this other times, my mother married somebody else when she became pregnant with me. Because her and my father were not -- he had a family, and she ended up -- the person that she married was a friend of hers.
DS: That is my son, hold on, can we pause?
[Side conversation from 00:12:45 until 00:12:55]
DS: That was sort of the definitive events, growing up thinking that my real father was no longer alive and then finding out that he was alive. That was 1986 or '87 when she told me, I would have been thirteen or or fourteen
HC: Why did she tell you then?
DS: I do not know. I kind of think about what was going on at that time. That would have been about the time that he was getting out of the reeducation camp. So I think that maybe it occurred to her that he might--
HC: Be in touch.
DS: Find me or something, or that I might learn about him or something.
HC: How did that affect you?
DS: At the time it was just like a story. At the time, I was really not emotionally equipped to really fathom it. It was just this crazy story. “Oh, this is my mother's past. What we came out of.” So I really didn't think about it and she was basically like, "You will probably never meet him." Because she could not imagine that he would be able to leave, or that anyone would ever be able to go back. So it was really this sense of -- I mean, I try to think of what my mother was wrestling with and what her generation was wrestling with. Just this sense that really this -- there was no access, and they did not know that there would be again. So I guess I kind of just put it aside. I did not really think about it until in my twenties, early twenties. I went to the Iowa Writers Workshop in my early twenties. I had a travel stipend and it occurred to me that I could go back to Vietnam. That was the first time I thought that I could try to meet my father. So that is what I did when I was twenty-three.
HC: How was that?
DS: It was really an emotional, pinnacle experience to go back that first time. I think that that was kind of coming from that past of growing up in a family where the past does not matter. It was a revelation to me to realize that going back. It was very emotional and I felt things even though I did not remember them -- like the collective sorrow of, especially in 1996, people had not gone back. When I went back that first time, I felt something, I realized that there was a collective -- that you can collectively experience something. It can kind of be in your cells without you remembering it consciously. It was a six-week trip and I visited cousins, and I did not even try to visit my father until the last week of it. I was really not knowing what to expect, or even that it mattered. But it was a really good experience. I met my father and his family, and my half-siblings and half-brothers, and it was good. It was very emotional and difficult -- just language barriers. Since then I have been in contact with him sporadically and he lives here in the States now, they emigrated.
HC: What brought you away from California, to Austin and Alaska?
DS: Just life after college. I moved up to New York City after college. I went to college in San Francisco, and then I applied to graduate school and ended up in Iowa. Then I moved back west, and then I had a son, and decided to move to Austin, Texas, because I thought I would like it there. So really just, we have moved around, a little bit on a whim, but places I wanted to be.
HC: What brought you to Portland?
DS: My stepfather, after he retired, he bought property up on the southern Oregon coast in Bandon, Oregon. So that was really my entry to Oregon, was when he bought that property and then he died in 2003. The family ended up coming out to the coast. So that was maybe one of the first times that I had come to Oregon. And then my mom lived in that place for a few years.
HC: In Bandon?
DS: Yeah, so she stayed there. I would go out there to visit and I would take my son when he was little and that was just-- there were a few summers that we would go to the coast and when we decided to leave Texas we decided to move to Oregon and Portland seemed like a good town. We were not going to be able to live in Bandon, there were too few options, things to do there.
HC: What were your first impressions of Portland, and the city?
DS: It is nice. [laughs]
HC: That's what everyone tells us! [laughs]
DS: It is a very loaded “nice.”
HC: Everyone's nice also feels loaded.
DS: It is a very nice place, it is pretty. It has a very nice natural setting, it is very pretty, people seem nice. I think it took me a little bit of time to realize how White this town is, and the particular type of liberal culture that is here. It has its pressures and sort of not visible or not easily visible ways. I know that a lot of people of color who move here feel very alienated.
HC: Can I ask about experiences that have made you feel that way?
DS: I mean, it is hard to say. I have spent a lot of time in recent years in the arts community, and kind of organizing the arts community and kind of doing things. So my lens is kind of through that, being a writer, and realizing there's certain-- the curation of things aligns with the certain type of white culture. I think that especially post-2016, things have kind of shifted, the concern has kind of shifted. I am trying to find a starting point...
HC: One of the questions we have is: "How has Portland changed since you moved here?" So that leads me to ask how you have seen the culture shift?
AJ: Especially after 2016.
DS: Yeah, I mean I think I moved here thinking that this was a really nice place. I liked the art that I had seen come out of it, music, and writing. And I was not really thinking about -- I am kind of used to being out of place. I grew up in a rural, White town, so I was kind of always used to being the exception and navigating that, and then places like Iowa and Texas, that was always the case. So it is hard to explain why Portland is different than that. Except that I think I have met other people -- there is a community of color, other writers, that the pressure just feels alienating but it is hard to say why. Or maybe just like -- you do a reading and you’ll be the only person of color in a lineup of all White writers. And there is a little feeling of being tokenized, which has happened before. I guess after 2016 it felt like people were wanting to do something about it. I was part of, with another writer, starting a project that was a library project that focused on writers of color. We started this thing called "De-Canon" and kind of like crowdsourced, curated a popup library of books that were only authors of color. We had that installed in a space, initially in an art gallery, and it now lives with APANO in the Milepost 5 space. So that has been part of my community engagement. I have worked for a literary organization here in Portland. So, I have kind of -- I do not know how to say it simply -- I see that people and organizations and people are trying to be more diverse and be more equitable in their programming and in who they include. I see that there is still a segregation, and some failure to really see or to really engage with communities. It might be the numbers, like there are fewer artists or creatives of color in Portland that make it harder to mobilize or just feel like you are part of something bigger. I think I need more -- I am not sure how to articulate all that.
HC: I want to be cognizant of time, so we are about thirty-five minutes into, actually according to this we are only twenty-five minutes into the interview, maybe I am -- but Azen is about to say something.
AJ: Just that at 3:15 it would be forty-five minutes and we definitely want to be out of here by 3:30. So we can check again in ten minutes.
DS: Yeah, I can talk more about any of those projects. Maybe I will think of my specific... go ahead.
AJ: You mentioned that you are a writer and an artist. Can you tell us a bit more about your work?
DS: Yeah, I am a writer first. [conversation in background] I studied film as an undergraduate, so I started out as a filmmaker or aspiring filmmaker. I went to a graduate writing program for fiction. So I started out as a fiction writer, really influenced by the Western canon, you know, I read Ramond Carver and Denis Johnson and Ernest Hemingway. I think I went through that and I published a first novel-- I basically started out in literary fiction and I ended up digressing to poetry and this hybrid form of music and poetry and visual art. Part of the reason that all of that happened I think was because I could not really conform to what was expected to be successful as a literary fiction author in the publishing industry. But I think all of that was good for me. A lot of my work is influenced from personal experience, but not entirely. My concerns are aesthetic as well as content. I have written two books of fiction, and then I have written an experimental memoir with a music album. My most recent book is a bilingual poetry art book which was actually published with a press that is based in Hanoi. So that was a really important interaction for me to have. To be able to do this where I am connecting with Vietnam and with Vietnamese writers that are from Vietnam.
I also edit a blog called diaCRITICS which is an arts and culture blog of the Vietnamese diaspora. It is a project of the Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network, which is not officially a nonprofit but is an arts organization that is incubated by another, Intersection for the Arts, in San Francisco. The founders of that project are Viet Thanh Nguyen, who is probably the highest profile Vietnamese author in the country, presently, and Isabelle Thuy Pelaud, who is a professor in San Francisco. So I am connected with a lot of the academics who were pioneers of talking about Vietnamese American literature and diasporic literature. And there is definitely a mission that DVAN, the Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network, is committed to, which is just about increasing representation and complicating the narrative for what the Vietnamese narrative in the West is. So that is a big part of my work. I consider myself an experimental writer and artist. Not really traditional.
HC: Azen wrote the questions, so I am looking at Azen...
AJ: One thing I read from you is something about how the nature of the gatekeepers in America -- sorry, due to the nature of who the gatekeepers in America are, Vietnamese people and Vietnamese art only becomes visible and relevant when it is made in reference to America's war in Vietnam. I was wondering if you could talk more about that and the injustice it creates?
DS: Well, I feel like this is the frustration that probably a lot of Vietnamese people feel. In American culture, the word Vietnam is synonymous with "war." There is a lot of trauma associated with that. There is the trauma of the veterans, and then there is the trauma of Vietnamese people. I think that the trauma of American people and the veterans has probably been given more attention in our media, and the understanding that our culture has of the circumstances. So as a diasporic artist, I am watching the narrative get a little -- it gets a little more complicated and a little more nuanced. The first step has been trying to understand the fact of the war history, the war experience, the refugee experience, with Vietnamese people included in that story. That is starting to happen now. And I think the next step might be to also realize that there are Vietnamese stories and experiences that have nothing to do with war. Also, I guess the project of -- I am also just talking from the perspective of an artist, really we should be able to write any kind of story, or make any kind of art and not necessarily always have to connect that to why we got here, or how we got here. I think that I have had experiences with -- often, you cannot go to a reading of a Vietnamese writer without there being an American vet who stands up or middle-aged white man who asks some question. It is so complicated and I do not want to be offensive or anything but there is so much -- where like the Vietnamese person is not actually a person, an individual, they are just a representative of an experience. Then our bodies become a catalyst for processing that experience -- for Americans to try to interact and have whatever process they need to go through for it.
So I feel like -- I think that what you read that quote from -- I was writing about art and just wanting to see more curations of art that don't involve connecting Vietnamese artists to the American war era or experience or pairing them with American artists who were working at that time. I mean, even my first novel came out and it was blurbed by Robert Olen Butler, who was a white writer who wrote a book about Vietnamese refugees and it won a Pulitzer. There are all these connections and there's lots of reasons, for readership and familiarity, the industry might be going for but basically I guess I am angling to see like, I guess the word I've come up with lately is “interiority.” I am interested in art that explores the interiority of our beings. And looking from within out, rather than always having to contend with the projections and the gaze that is put on us. A lot of writing, ethnic writing, it has to deal with how we are seen by other people outside of our community. We are often having to spend so much time writing about that or resisting it, and I guess I am kind of like -- what is it like to look out from within?
HC: I am conscious of time...
DS: I do not want to rush you, it is like-- yeah, whatever you need.
HC: We can go on and on, we can pause and do follow-up interviews, or keep going. I do not know-- having identified that you would like to spend forty-five minutes to an hour, I do not want to…
DS: Well, I can put a little bit more time in. Do you want to kind of move toward your closing or do you have other questions that are kind of--
HC: Well I think -- you are very thoughtful, and a good question to ask you is: What do you think we should be asking? What do you want to tell us that you would like recorded in this kind of archive?
DS: Yeah, I mean, it is so hard to say. I mean-- I do not know who you are talking to or what the diversity of--
HC: Hopefully everyone...
DS: Yeah, I wonder how much, if people are willing to share, there are a lot of stories far more dramatic than mine too. I know that the older generation, there are people who would have resistances to sharing -- people are still grappling with trauma. The second generation, even the younger generation, is still wondering what happened to their parents and why they are the way they are. So I feel like there is definitely this process of healing that is still -- I mean, I guess it takes generations for it to be gone through. What do I think you should be asking?
HC: You do not have to do our job for us, but I mean, are there stories that you have not told us yet that you think should be in this archive?
DS: Well, I think that one of the things is recognizing South Vietnam as its own agency is something that -- I think that that is where a lot of this sort of angst of the older generation lies. Their history has been erased. It has been erased by their country, by Vietnam, the Communist government, and it has been erased by America, so there is a lot of knowledge and stories that are only being held essentially by that generation, like my mother's generation. And there is a lot of content in Vietnamese that is not accessible to someone like me who does not know the language and it is not in an official history so, and I feel like America is maybe, or just a lot of American people are not as interested in the agency of South Vietnam or really kind of understanding also the atrocities that the Communist government did to South Vietnam because that would sort of -- that would threaten the narrative that Americans are concentrated on. Which is, that for the average liberal American, the war was bad. Or just, I am simplifying, but I think it is like, to realize that it's so complicated, there were atrocities that Communists -- and I guess it is just not fully understood. It is easier to look at South Vietnam as like this corrupt, inefficient entity that could not take care of itself and that sort of justifies the narrative of the Communists taking over and justifies the narrative of South Vietnam needing American military support. Maybe my mother's generation would feel more seen if people knew more about what they were doing to really resist. There is so much angst and anger and bitterness and woundedness that still exists in that generation. I do not fully understand it either and I feel like maybe that is the part of the history that still is -- it would complicate the narrative even more if people understood what was happening for South Vietnamese people.
[side conversation from 00:39:41 - 00:40:00]
HC: Azen, what questions have I skipped or failed to ask that we should have asked?
AJ: I think that we did cover a lot of the written questions, at least. One thing I was wondering is, you mention contemplating the intersection of personal and collective history, and just if you could speak a bit-- you have mentioned that here too, but...
DS: Well, I guess it’s just there is a collective history which involves politics and war and our exodus and then there's my own personal experiences. I guess one of the lines that I have is just: “All these memories that I belong to that do not belong to me.” Which is this idea that there is like this sort of collective experience that has all of these implications and this entanglement. But I do not have any memory of that, so as a person I am often just dealing with memory and also the construction of memory. Can I show you something from my...
[side conversation from 00:41:26 - 00:41:40]
DS: I will show just something briefly from the memoir, which is an example. So in this book, there are images and some of them are archival images. This image, which is an image of refugee children at Camp Pendleton, was published in Time Magazine in May 1975. This is my brother, he was one of the children in the picture and my mom had a clipping of this or whatever. For the images, the archival images that I used in this book, a lot of them are sort of connected to some moment of documentary but also some personal connection. There is this image, this image of a road right here, this is an image that was taken by a photojournalist in my mother's newspaper and it was printed in her newspaper. It was about an incident that happened in 1972 where the Communists shelled this road and there were a lot of refugees fleeing south at the time. The reports are that a lot of the people who were killed on that stretch of road, at least a thousand were citizens who were just refugees. Then my mother's newspaper, they wrote about this incident and they called it, "The Street of Horror."
So I used it in my book because there is a personal connection to it, but then it is also like, this episode of history is something that my mother's generation is kind of obsessed with, because for them it is this example of over a thousand people were killed, and the area was closed off and they -- the bodies stayed on the road for two months. When the South Vietnamese military came back in they were trying to identify the bodies and my mother's newspaper was actually involved in this effort to bury the bodies and to try to identify them, bury them, and it had this importance because Vietnamese people care about where their ancestors are buried, so it is of spiritual importance too. And a lot of things happened in 1972. But in the American military history, that incident is not talked about and that was something that the South -- the US was kind of exiting at that time -- so that was happening and no one was really paying attention. Then of course, in the Vietnamese sort-of-official history books, that is sort of erased also. So there are people like my mother's generation [who] are still talking about it and they are still trying to document it. I am not a historian, so I am kind of dealing with the pieces of memory that I encounter and trying to make sense of them from my own lens.
HC: Do you have an archive?
DS: An archive, what do you mean?
HC: Of your work?
DS: Well, I mean I have a website and I have these books. So yeah, they are available if you are...
HC: Great, if they exist only in published form then we can purchase them but if you had a million drafts going back ages and wanted to document your process, I would say, do you want your archive to be housed at Lewis & Clark so when people study you they have somewhere to go?
DS: Oh, okay, interesting.
HC: But a lot of people now, their drafts have all been the same draft on the computer that is not
DS: Yeah, there is a lot. I mean, my father is still publishing. He still publishes Vietnamese writers and I do not know a lot about his work. I am trying to learn more and I am trying to learn more about this particular episode. Like, what happened in 1972. The other reason that this connects is that I was born in 1973. So this is essentially what my parents were doing together at the time that I was conceived. So that is where the personal intersects with the collective.
AJ: Well, thank you so much for speaking with us and sharing. Again, my name is Azen Jaffe, I was with Hannah Crummé and we have been talking to Dao Strom on November first .
For more information about Dao and her work, please visit http://daostrom.com/.