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Voices of Vietnamese Boat People, Nineteen Narratives of Escape and Survival, Mary Terell Cargill & Jade Quang Huynh

Jefferson, NC, & London: Mac Farland, 2000, 180 p.
Didier Bertrand
p. 139-140
Référence(s) :

Mary Terell Cargill & Jade Quang Huynh,Voices of Vietnamese Boat People, Nineteen Narratives of Escape and Survival, Jefferson, NC, & London: Mac Farland, 2000, 180 p.

Texte intégral

1This book provides stark and moving narratives of the Vietnamese boat people’s flight in the years following the fall of Saigon (1975). The life stories were collected and edited by Mary Cargill, an associate professor of English at Christian Brothers University (Memphis, Tennessee), with Jade Quang Huynh, assistant professor of English at Appalachian State University (Boone, California).

2The people escaping from the Communist regime and various forms of oppression set sail on rickety boats on the South China Sea, where they faced constant and sundry perils. Many died before reaching refugee camps in Hong Kong, Singapore, the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, or Indonesia, where they sometimes faced new horrors while waiting to be resettled in a third country (mostly Europe, the United States, Canada, and Australia).

3The publication of this book, twenty-five years after 1975 and after so many books have already been published on the subject, is quite surprising. Unfortunately, the reader will find nothing new in these stories.

4The takeover of South Vietnam by the Communists was followed by political repression and discrimination against those who had supported the Americans or were suspected to have had links with the former regime. People tried to conceal their past. Families were transferred to “new economic zones,” where they had to clear the jungle in a situation of deprivation, hardly surviving in a hostile environment. Others were sent to “reeducation camps,” where they were brainwashed to learn the new ideology. Harassed, they developed a feeling of having no future in the country and decided to leave. Until 1989, as any Vietnamese escaping from Vietnam was recognized as a refugee, over a million of them left, which stresses how diverse their profiles and experiences were, from intellectuals to farmers, fishermen, and Eurasians, all attracted by the Voice of America radio propaganda.

5Three refugees wrote their stories themselves for the book, while sixteen more were interviewed and their stories written by the co-authors. The tone of the book, therefore, is rather uniform, whatever the stories, which do not really form a representative sample of all those who left the country. The narratives very much focus on technical aspects of the flight, with some sentimental touches, and there are very few developments about what the people thought or felt before leaving. Some of the narrators left as children and their stories are obviously mixed with what their parents told them later.

6One major theme recurs through the narratives: the love of the family. But generally, the content is rather poor, as the refugees, facing yet another interview (they had given so many in their lives), did not go very deep into details and only gave a kind of standard story very well known to all those who have worked with Vietnamese boat people. (Leaflets of standard stories were even distributed in camps to help refugees prepare for selection interviews for resettlement with foreign embassy delegations.)

7The book includes an appendix of UNHCR statistics, but no map or bibliography. Family photographs are incorporated to all the stories and it seems that real names have been used, which is unusual practice when dealing with refugees’ privacy.

8It is always a good thing – for the refugees themselves, those working with them, and researchers – that refugees’ testimonies be published, as they give voice to those who suffered and help others to understand them better. But this voice is not easy to collect and obviously this could not be achieved here, and the result remains very basic and poor in content. There is a lingering suspicion that the American co-author, describing only the hardship of life in Vietnam and the atrocities suffered by some boat people on their way out of the country, just wanted the reader to feel pity for the refugees. One of the first conditions in this kind of research is to ask the refugees to speak about what is important to them, rather than to try to expose the reasons why they left – in order to gain a better statute as a victim, which is what the resettlement authorities expect them to be.

9As Cargill mentions in the preface (which she wrote alone), a Vietnamese leader stated that few Vietnamese had the ability and the confidence to express themselves in written English and that “they would be unwilling to tell their stories because they wanted to put their terrible experience behind them” (p. 2). But Cargill wanted to do this book, and she relied on the Catholic charities refugee resettlement project, which was strongly supportive of her project, obviously more than the refugees themselves!

10As most of the earlier books about the boat people saga are now probably out of print, this new book is an opportunity for those who had missed their chance. Nowadays, however, it would be much more interesting to let these people say what they want to say – maybe, about their life in the United States, what they were expecting, and what they found – rather than focus on twenty-year-old events, especially with memories distorted by being collected in a foreign language and rewritten by a non refugee. Finally, this book tells more about the charity business’ representations of the refugee than about refugees’ life histories.

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Référence papier

Didier Bertrand, « Voices of Vietnamese Boat People, Nineteen Narratives of Escape and Survival, Mary Terell Cargill & Jade Quang Huynh »Moussons, 4 | 2001, 139-140.

Référence électronique

Didier Bertrand, « Voices of Vietnamese Boat People, Nineteen Narratives of Escape and Survival, Mary Terell Cargill & Jade Quang Huynh »Moussons [En ligne], 4 | 2001, mis en ligne le 21 novembre 2017, consulté le 24 mai 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Les contenus de la revue Moussons sont mis à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d’Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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