ARC Review: Dear Diaspora by Susan Nguyen

This book has been on “Read Now” a few months ago in Netgalley, and I am so glad that I made the decision to download and read this beautiful poetry collection.

Publication Information

  • Date of Publication: 1 September 2021
  • Publisher: University of Nebraska Press
  • Series: The Raz/Shumaker Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry
  • Age Category: Adult
  • Genre: Poetry
  • Book design: L. Auten

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About the book

Dear Diaspora is an unapologetic reckoning with history, memory, and grief. Parting the weeds on a small American town, this collection sheds light on the intersections of girlhood and diaspora. The poems introduce us to Suzi: ripping her leg hairs out with duct tape, praying for ecstasy during Sunday mass, dreaming up a language for buried familial trauma and discovering that such a language may not exist. Through a collage of lyric, documentary, and epistolary poems, we follow Suzi as she untangles intergenerational grief and her father’s disappearance while climbing trees to stare at the color green and wishing that she wore Lucy Liu’s freckles.

Winner of the Raz/Shumaker Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry, Dear Diaspora scrutinizes our turning away from the trauma of our past and our complicity in its erasure. Suzi, caught between enjoying a rundown American adolescence and living with the inheritances of war, attempts to unravel her own inherited grief as she explores the multiplicities of identity and selfhood against the backdrop of the Vietnamese diaspora. In its deliberate interweaving of voices, Dear Diaspora explores Suzi’s journey while bringing to light other incarnations of the refugee experience.

On-page representation: Author of color (Vietnamese American), diaspora representation (second-generation Vietnamese American)

Trigger and content warnings: violence, captivity, torture, death (recounted in The Boat People), racism (major theme)


Review

Disclaimer: I received an Advanced Review Copy (ARC) from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book.

Growing up in diaspora really does a number on defining one’s identity and memory, since many of the anchors our peers use are unavailable to us. We can’t keep collections or return to homes that held generations, simply because there is no space for the past. Memory, therefore, is relegated to the few snatches that do not weigh us down while we are continuously on the move.

Dear Diaspora perfectly captures this perspective. It lays out the fragmented memory of someone who grew up in diaspora: snippets of survival, snatches of words and sounds and images from different languages, longing and colors. The words, the imagery, and the themes all come together to portray a haunting remembrance of generations of Vietnamese American families, and in turn, gave my own broken, disparate diaspora memories a shape and language to hold on to. It is a blessing to find it when I did, especially now that I am trying to put into words all the memories lost to life.

The themes and motifs are bold yet shyly intimate: this is a peek into Nguyen’s childhood diary, and it feels like an honor to be trusted with such secrets. The act of confession is not for the reader to make conclusions about Nguyen’s life, but rather, the works make it clear that it is solely for the poet’s expression and release. Instead, we are invited to a private undoing, and all that is asked of us is a safe space and an understanding heart.

This book is one of the few poetry books I’ve encountered that set the relationship of the body and the language as a central concept. I love the ruminations and persistent questions on demarcations between abstract ideas. I can relate so much with the struggle of fitting my mouth and lips over alien sounds and never fully being comfortable in my language. It reaches its height in the poem If I Say My Body is Grieving, which is also my favorite text in this collection. Over and over again, Nguyen asks her parents and the reader: which language fits my whole reality? This is the kind of concept I love so much because of personal reasons, and I am overjoyed to see it executed so well.

I love how well thought-out this project is because of how all of the pieces come together as one beautiful yet pained picture. The repetition of forms and titles, like in the various iterations of Letter to the Diaspora, feel so much like this gnawing compulsion to revisit and reframe what few memories we have especially in light of new experiences. You Google Vietnam delivers a flood of search results that form a stark reality you cannot unsee. The Series of Questions just shows how much falls into the cracks: which unanswered questions could have been the missing pieces I needed?

Each succeeding installment adds another chapter to the same narrative, and when I step back to view the whole picture, I cannot help but mourn with the people living in these poems. Though it’s not meant to be binge-read in one sitting, Dear Diaspora commands all of your attention with its sweet and haunting tone that follows you while you pause to reflect and even long after you have closed the book.

Its longest poem, The Boat People, pulls together fragments of memory to unveil the horror behind the everyday, throwaway insult FOB or “fresh off the boat”. This collage of a poem is built with interview snippets, excerpts from existing records and letters, and reimaginings of the horror many Vietnamese suffered during and after the war. In addition to being a great standalone piece, it also provides context for all the unexplainable silences and unspoken trauma undergirding contemporary struggles with identity and memory.

Overall, I really love this book. It is a deeply moving project that deconstructs the body and memory as a series of puzzle pieces, waiting to unlock a grander narrative about the self and diaspora. For diaspora readers like me, it hits too close to home–wherever or whatever that may be.


Let’s chat:

  • Do you also love reading poetry collections? What’s your favorite one? Please comment your recommendations!
  • Are you also part of a diaspora? Are you also super attached to one thing that you feel can define your identity? Let’s cry in the comments hahahaha

6 thoughts on “ARC Review: Dear Diaspora by Susan Nguyen”

  1. i’m so glad you found a book you resonated with, because feeling represented in media is always the best feeling! i’m not diaspora, but it was so wonderful reading your review, and i’ll definitely be checking dear diaspora out! lovely review, nae 💕💕

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Poetry is not something I reach for generally but this sounds so good! I’d definitely go for this if it was prose but I’m afraid I might not understand it fully since it is poetry? I’ll try it one day, let’s see! Love this review, Nae 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, I understand that poetry can be intimidating! I think this particular collection is right in between the more accessible emotional kind and the more academic, crafted kind. I do hope you get to try it some time!

      Like

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