The growing interest that surrounds representations of trauma and traumatic memory in literature appears to be fueled, in part, by the critical stance that traumatic experience precludes knowledge and language. Cathy Caruth argues that trauma is defined by a literal reenactment of an event as well as by a temporal gap that makes the actual experience of trauma unknowable and unrepresentable. Yet literary representations of trauma, beginning with ancient poetry and continuing to the contemporary era, consistently refute Caruth's theory. Rather than turn to the vast literature and entrenched debate within psychology research regarding the causes and effects of traumatic experience and memory (a debate, incidentally, that ultimately reveals no therapist or theorist has a definitive answer to what trauma is or does), I let literature itself flesh out the alternative meanings ascribed to trauma. Fictional texts, such as Lan Cao's Monkey Bridge (1997), provide a theory of trauma that challenge the currently popular trend in literary criticism that celebrates the "unspeakable" quality of trauma by showing through innovative narrative strategies the varied ways trauma is represented in language and explores how traumatic events are experienced, remembered, retold, and rewritten. Trauma in Cao's novel alters how the female protagonists remember or forget the past which forces a rearticulation of identity, and, importantly, demonstrates the ways immigration and assimilation inform trauma's impact on memory, identity, and relation to place.
Comparing the ways Cao's female protagonists experience traumatic events enhances current understandings of trauma and its relation to immigration and social assimilation theories by showing that trauma is not experienced in universally similar ways, but tied to specific historical periods and places. Thanh's journal writing that her daughter labels "gorgeous fictional remembering" further solidifies the novel's claim that trauma can be represented in language and that the remembering and reinvention of the past through a fictional narrative administers a type of healing that can be found nowhere else. Rather than glorifying the gap of dissociation or potential disintegration of meaning that may be produced by traumatic events, Cao's novel reveals the specific meaning that is newly created from trauma that emerges to reformulate subjectivity and perception of reality. One significant meaning that arises is a newly formed knowledge of self and society; rather than claiming that trauma shatters identity, the novel argues that trauma disrupts and causes a reformulation of previous conceptions of self and relations to the world. Moreover, the novel provides non-Western views of coping with trauma, such as found in the protagonist's belief in Karma or the national Betel Nut mythology, that enrich current Western psychological theories about trauma. (1)
Monkey Bridge is narrated by Thanh and her daughter Mai who describe pre-war and wartime Viet Nam, as well as life in the United States. Mai narrates her life as a teenager in urban Saigon, which includes her work at a hospital during the war, immigration to the United States in 1975 (the year of the actual exodus of Vietnamese assisted by U.S. airlifts), and her current preparation for college in Virginia where she lives with her mother. Thanh departs after Mai but does not bring her father, Baba Quan. The yearning to find out what happened to Baba Quan is the mystery that Mai intends to solve when the novel begins. When Thanh joins Mai in Virginia they relocate to a Vietnamese immigrant community called "Little Saigon." Baba Quan never arrives in Virginia, nor does Mai or her mother return to Viet Nam find him. Mai eventually learns about Thanh's departure from Viet Nam and the real reason Baba Quan never met Thanh to fly to American, which is revealed in Thanh's suicide letter at the end of the novel.
Mai's accounts of Saigon and Virginia are paired with Thanh's nostalgic recollections written in her diary that Mai finds and reads. Thanh's entries record her childhood in Ba Xuyen, a small village in the Mekong Delta, her marriage, and her father, Baba Quan. Baba Quan is a "flamboyant" farmer in the rural village of Ba Xuyen, a "rice-growing province in the Mekong Delta" (5). Baba Quan rents his land from Uncle Kahn, the benevolent landlord who aids Thanh's education. Importantly, Baba Quan represents qualities of the national Betel Nut myth that defines ethnic identity in relation to family, land, and ancestors. The Betel Nut myth is a central source of conflict for Thanh who cannot follow its directives. The myth asserts that ethnic identity is tied to native lands; therefore, one must reside next to ancestors' graves in order to guard their spirits. The human spirit, according to the myth, "can only live in the village land" and the Vietnamese must inhabit the land of their ancestors so that the ancestors' souls achieve eternal life and regeneration (84). The myth describes two brothers and a woman who leave the village only to all die next to a river where their souls turn into a limestone boulder, areca tree, and betel nut vine. The tree and vine wrap around the boulder and survive periods of "infertility and drought" when other vegetation dies (84). Baba Quan explains that the king learns of the story and proclaims, "There is luminous motion that binds family together for eternity" (85). The betel nut becomes a symbol of "eternal regeneration and devotion" and when people chew it they think of their family and "the inextricable connections that keep them tied forever" to their souls (85). For this reason, Baba Quan declares, "There is no death" (85). (2)
Thanh's identity in these journal entries are tied to her relations with her family and native lands. These written memories establish the importance of the rice fields of the rural Mekong Delta landscape to the protagonist's understanding of self and remembrance of the past. However, she creates a past that hides the truth of Thanh's last months of life in Ba Xuyen which are marked by war and the betrayal of her father, Baba Quan. As the U.S. intervention in Viet Nam's civil war escalates, Thanh returns to her village to take care of her parents. They are forced to live in a military compound, or "strategic hamlet," built by the U.S. Thanh returns to her village, traveling across the "free-fire zone" to bury her mother in traditional burial grounds according to traditional customs. Before she can bury the body, she witnesses her father murder their landlord, Uncle Khan, and discovers his Viet Cong affiliation that contradicts his professed alliance. The murder disrupts the burial ritual and she is forced to flee from the site of the crime across the fields near the river to the compound. While running to safety, Thanh is shot down next to the river by military jets in the "free-fire zone." She flees to America soon after this incident. Thanh cannot maintain loyalty to her ancestors or land as dictated by the betel nut myth due to her forced departure from Ba Xuyen that forecloses any possible redemptive return to her homeland. The disjunction between traumatic past and present is caused by the inability to reconcile, on the one hand, mythic notions of cultural identity defined by inhabitation of native homelands and loyalty to ancestors' spirits, and, on the other hand, traumatic departure and modern diasporic life in which return to the native land is impossible. If one cannot return to the land, yet the land defines identity, how, the novel asks us, is the self imagined, constituted, and expressed?
Trauma in Monkey Bridge adds a new element to the cultural dilemma often depicted in Asian American fiction between Old World and New. In the commonly portrayed "immigrant conflict" in fiction, the protagonist is caught between the values and perspectives of the "original" culture and those of the adopted culture. As Monkey Bridge opens, Mai has already left Viet Nam, but her thoughts are consumed with the "old world" as she situates herself in the new nation. She escapes the chaos in Saigon during wartime only to be socially marginalized and "out of place" in the United States (66). Throughout the novel Mai feels unseen, silenced (often by her mother), or blind to the reality in front of her. For example, in the first scene Mai is portrayed as confused about the place and time, and "blinded" by the "expanse of white" in trying to locate her mother within the hospital (4). There indeed exists a tension for Mai and Thanh between the country they left and the one they currently inhabit, primarily due to the wartime conditions under which they departed. Both characters have contradictory desires to remember and forget the homeland that bespeaks not only the experience of displacement and exile, but also the experience of trauma. The dialectic between native past and immigrant present, and the related tension between traumatic memory and reality, creates the central conflict Cao employs to depict Mai and Thanh as Vietnamese immigrants in Monkey Bridge.
That the experience of displacement is traumatic comes as no surprise. However, it is necessary to understand the function of trauma in Monkey Bridge; it is not a pathologic symptom, but a significant force that shapes how the past is remembered and how identity is articulated in the new nation. Representations of psychological trauma in Monkey Bridge show a disruption of identity and memory that is caused by war and loss of land, family, and community. Trauma is generally understood as an external event that threatens one's life and elicits an intense emotional response. Psychiatrist Judith Herman offers the following definition of trauma: "Traumatic events are extraordinary, not because they occur rarely, but rather because they overwhelm the ordinary human adaptation to life. Unlike commonplace misfortunes, traumatic...