Review: Shannon Burnson André Dao

Notes of an Anxious Son

Brian Castro’s Shanghai Dancing (2003) – a fictional autobiography and a generically hybrid family chronicle – was published twenty years ago to great critical acclaim. In an essay that was written close to its composition (‘Dangerous Dancing’ from Looking for Estrellita), Castro discusses his decision to pursue autobiography: ‘I knew all autobiographies were highly inventive acts of dissimulation which sometimes had real or unfortunate consequences. I knew the public reaction to autobiography was one of overlooking its fabrication. Then why not write a novel instead?’ Castro says that he chose autobiography because it amplifies ‘the element of risk’ and ‘because writing doesn’t arise from absolute freedom and lack of constraint’. In autobiography, he writes, aesthetic value and moral value are opposed, and the conflict between them is generative. To transgress against moral feeling in the service of an aesthetic goal, or against an aesthetic principle in the service of a moral goal: these are the excitements that arise out of – and energise – artistic production.  

The question of morality is muddied when it comes to family. One gets the impression, reading Castro, that he embraces his status as a fly in the family ointment. The writer writes against their wishes; even becoming a writer is an act of rebellion, a way of disinheriting. ‘A writer inherits nothing from his family without having to steal it first,’ writes Castro, before quoting Faulkner approvingly: ‘Everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency, security, happiness … If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate.’ Castro particularly emphases the straining and breaking of family ties. ‘In order to write,’ he argues, you have to live with the constant threat of disinheritance’ – before he ultimately defines autobiography as disinheritance. Castro does not ask for permission, or hope, for familial approval. Autobiography is a way of crossing boundaries: you enter a territory without the authorities’ blessings and risk the consequences. 

Shanghai Dancing is a literary precursor to André Dao’s Anam in many ways. It is a fictionalised auto/biography, a submersion in history, a communion with ghosts, and a cross-cultural dance, but Dao’s narrator asks for permission where Castro’s doesn’t. He records family stories and lets the subjects know he is recording, and thereby implicitly invites them to perform their preferred or ‘authorised’ accounts. This is not the writer as rebel stealing the family jewels; instead, it is the writer striving to be worthy of his inheritance. 

Anam revolves around the narrator’s grandfather, a Catholic lawyer and intellectual (or propagandist) who, after supporting the independence movement in Vietnam married into a wealthy family with political ties. He then wedded himself to a nationalist regime – supported by the U.S. – that brought him into conflict with his communist brother. These elected loyalties ultimately led to his imprisonment without charge, and he was chained to the wall in a crammed and unforgiving Chí Hòa prison while his family escaped to France. His son (the narrator’s father) then moved to Australia.  

Part of the impetus for collecting these family stories is an awareness of gaps in the historical record. About Chí Hòa, Dao writes: ‘The evidence … is almost entirely contained in the memories of the men and women who were there, men and women who are now all dead, or soon will be. And when that happens, when all the forgotten prisoners from this forgotten prison have gone, what evidence will there be?’ Elsewhere, the narrator is dismayed that enormous suffering – such as a famine that wipes out up to two million people – can leave almost no mark in (popular) historical consciousness. There is something unjust about suffering that goes unremarked or unremembered, a sentiment that ties memory or memorialising to the possibility of justice. To this end, the narrator fantasises about ‘a machine for perfect remembrance’ which ‘runs on ghosts’.  

Some of the ingredients of Anam are unpromising: a postgrad wandering around Cambridge thinking about his family’s history; a writer weighing up the best ways to write the story he is compelled to write during a writer’s residency; a lawyer who is worried about squandering the opportunities arising from the money invested in his education; a writer in search of identity, belonging, a true home, and a way of evading the troubling complicities that have made it possible for him to become a writer who worries about identity, belonging, a true home, and those troubling complicities. That Anam largely succeeds despite these hollow and exhausted scenarios is testament to the power of its core material, and to Dao’s expressive talents. 

Like Shanghai Dancing, Anam is presented as a novel, so we can’t confidently call Dao its narrator. Its form is partly circular. We begin at the end, ‘after all this writing and reading and imagining and remembering’, but the end and the beginning are not quite identical. The first block of text, all in parenthesis, is concerned with conflicting images of the same couple, who prove to be two different versions of the narrator’s grandparents. ‘Both couples are elderly and Vietnamese and live in an apartment outside Paris with their eldest daughter’, both have endured a serious hardship over decades, with and without each other’s support, and both address the narrator ‘in a mix of Vietnamese, French, and a smattering of English’. One version of the couple ‘speak[s] to me of suffering, loss, exile, forgiveness and redemption, and the other couple do not’. Instead, they are a pair of doting grandparents: ‘I think of them saying to me over and over and over again, We want you to be.’ The second pair cares about his nourishment, his future, and not the past. The narrator is troubled by his inability to bind these two versions of his grandparents together.  

We end at the beginning, except the end achieves what the beginning can’t. The block of text in parenthesis reappears, transformed. While much of the content is the same, the two pairs of grandparents are combined into one, and what had seemed like a conflict becomes a coherent whole. The journey from one side of the book to the other has brought about this resolution.  

Anam might have a circular frame, but its lessons are linear, and the bulk of those lessons are catalogued only three pages in. By the end of the odyssey, we are informed, the narrator ‘will have learnt what we receive from our ancestors and what we pass on to our children’. There are no surprises, but there are curiosities. The narrator’s ancestry does not meaningfully extend beyond his grandparents, so his concern with inheritance is circumscribed. When he visits his paternal family’s ancestral village, he participates in a prayer to ‘the Primary Ancestor’ and wonders if his Catholic grandparents ‘would count this as apostasy’. Though he experiences a sense of wonder at his paternal family’s long-lived rootedness, he sees himself as a product of post-Christian restlessness and cosmopolitanism, and does not feel that he belongs there. It’s noteworthy that the rupture described here – the narrator’s feeling that he does not belong to the ancestral village and cannot partake of its worldview – originates from before revolution, before forced migration; his ancestral homeland is not the home he yearns for. Instead, he pines for an invented ideal that he links, obscurely, to memory.  

Dao sketches the historical formation of Việt Nam, with its diverse, intersecting and conflicting histories and geographical centres, one of which is ‘Annam’ (meaning ‘Pacified South’), which becomes ‘Anam’ in Dao’s chronicle: ‘a place with a curious topography, bending as it does towards memory, and whose guiding principle is anamnesis which, according to one’s persuasion, might be the Ancient Greek belief that our eternal souls have forgotten all there is to know, or the Catholic act of salvation through worshipful remembrance’. Anam is simultaneously a lost and remembered homeland, a home that never existed, and a home that lives on as an idea(l) or a future (impossible) destination. The ancestral village is replaced by this free-floating, migratory dream, a shadow-world that accompanies the narrator on his travels to France, Australia, Britain, and Vietnam, and his long walks around Cambridge.  

Dao’s ‘Primary Ancestor’ is also symbolically replaced by his grandfather, particularly the image of his grandfather chained to a wall in prison. This is a familiar transposition: the suffering and persecuted man in chains is the suffering and persecuted man on the cross who demands our worshipful remembrance.  

In this sense, Anam is a very Christian novel; its narrator is a fervent believer in the centrality and meaningfulness of suffering. This is why ‘Chí Hòa is the innermost citadel of Anam, a magic, perhaps even sacred place, as any place where so many souls have suffered and died must be …’ His grandfather’s suffering in the crucible of capital H History and his apparent Christlike capacity to forgive his tormentors prompt this attentive, prayerful remembrance. If his grandfather were not imprisoned and instead lived out the decade as a thwarted Catholic anti-communist, he would not warrant the same attention. Similarly, if he emerged from prison possessed by a soul-destroying rage against his captors and the wider world, he would not be enigmatic enough to stimulate the quest for understanding. Chí Hòa is sacred partly because it gifts the narrator a grandfather who is, in a sense, transfigured by suffering, and in doing so offers a way of propping up the narrator’s own sense of self.  

He writes: ‘I have been imagining and reimagining Chí Hòa since I was a teenager, when I first found out that my grandfather had been imprisoned there by the Communist government.’ Dao’s narrator is drawn to those ten years of imprisonment, which ‘impressed people most when I told them about my grandfather’, and he is puzzled by their significance:  

My grandfather spent a decade in prison without being charged or tried. In my late teens and early twenties, as I finished school and entered university, it served as the anchor for my self-image. I was the son of refugees, the grandson of a political prisoner. There was an authoritative weight to that way of thinking and talking about myself that most of my classmates lacked … all of them as middle-class and well educated as me, but without that aura of authentic suffering.  

The sense of transmission – the idea that his grandfather’s suffering is passed down to him – coincides with a social and educational context that valorises suffering, prizing it partly because it is a foreign, far-off experience. Dao writes of abandoning religious observance in his youth, in favour of reading books ‘that seemed, at the time, to be magical firstly because they were about other places, far away from the south-eastern suburbs of Melbourne, and secondly because they connected me to stories and ideas that promised to give weight to my otherwise too light life’. Again, he signals that the highly educated, suburban middle-class child’s experience is one of lightness, which induces a sense of his own vacuousness. I have not suffered, therefore I am not.  

So Dao sets out in search of adventure, danger, peril, and knowledge – first in the world of books and then by writing a book about suffering. Anam is an Odyssey, but our Odysseus is a researcher-tourist visiting libraries, resorts, and abandoned prisons while making use of writing residencies and postgraduate degrees.  

He recalls a ‘Christian Living Camp’ he attended as a teen, where he first told the story and experienced the thrill of significance, identifying it as ‘the beginning of all this remembering’. Dao is careful to show that ego is involved, that authorial vanity coincides with concerns about truthfulness or justice. Anam amplifies this egotism by foregrounding the narrator’s personal history of academic success, cosmopolitan mobility, and search for identity with the more compelling but fragmentary accounts of his grandparents’ lives. The story that he knows people want to hear – the story of suffering and endurance – is fully woven into the comparatively banal personal account. This is, I think, a way of figuring the discontinuous nature of inheritance: the fact that one kind of story or life can lead to (and be part of) a substantially different kind of story or life. 

Dao’s narrator has been a human rights lawyer, and he is alert to the injustices and difficulties endured by refugees trapped on Manus Island. He positions himself as a humble advocate who cares deeply about grave injustices but has never experienced them personally. Yet he does have a claim, along conventional (legal) lines of inheritance, to his grandfather’s and grandmother’s experiences of famine, revolution, exile, and imprisonment. Their suffering is part of what he regards as his inheritance – he is a kind of custodian – and the narrator is in no doubt that, via them, he is in possession of a worthy story. The question is only: how to tell it?  

Dao stages multiple beginnings and allows room for different emphases throughout Anam. The story is always suspended and diverted: if x, then y, but perhaps not x, therefore not y. Another story (or interpretation of the story) is proffered, and a speculation or memory or fabrication arises that is equally contingent. He makes use of different genres and forms of rhetorical address, including quotations from official documents, letters, an obscure philosophical treatise, mythology or folklore, as well as religious and supernatural tales. This is a sophisticated approach, but Anam is not difficult to follow. While its structure is complex, the prose is mostly clear and elegant, and Dao is careful to guide his readers to the required destinations. 

There is a classical dimension to the broad range of rhetorical positions Anam occupies, with its conflicting, qualifying, and supplementary arguments. Its rhetoric is largely ornamental, multiplying the ways of framing and understanding his grandparents’ stories without necessarily adding anything definitive or convincingly transformative. Dao tries to avoid reproducing the kind of narrative that refugees are forced to write when they apply for a visa, one that emphasises the hardships endured and the petitioner’s worthiness and innocence via an uncomplicated appeal for sympathy and acceptance. He suggests that his first telling of his grandfather’s story, at the Christian Living camp, may be the ‘best’ because it was light on detail and the audience could project and sympathise with ease. Yet Dao’s complicating strategies don’t really limit sympathetic engagement. That his grandfather is on ‘the wrong side of history’ might unsettle some readers, but for most the idea that history has ‘sides’ that are ‘wrong’ and ‘right’ is too simple-minded to entertain. An alternative explanation for these ‘complicating’ strategies – which are presented as a way of striving for truthfulness – is that the simple version of the story would make the author redundant. To complicate is to make room for a strong authorial presence, to make his own interventions necessary. Dao happens to write exactly the kind of book that showcases his strengths.  

Some of the narrator’s personal concerns stretch the reader’s patience. For instance, he refers to ‘a tension I faintly felt in the foundations of my relationship with my family, whose recognition of me had given licence to an intellectual life that was gradually erasing them’. This sentence says something about his willingness to entertain concepts (like ‘erasure’) that are fashionable but not particularly potent; perhaps the ‘intellectual life’ produces some level of alienation from your origins, but it’s difficult to see how a family can be meaningfully ‘erased’ as a result of a member’s intellectual pursuits, especially given the history that this intellectual life replicates. He writes: ‘My grandfather had also gone to the best schools; he, too, had spoken more French than Vietnamese as a child.’ Instead of ‘erasing’ his family he seems to reproduce it, but the idea of ‘erasure’ fits within a larger body of exaggerated personal sins and anxieties in Anam

Until the novel’s final pages, the narrator is reluctant to think of Australia as home due to its colonial foundations. He notes that Cambridge, ‘just like Hà Nội, is reclaimed swampland. Here it was monks and scholars who clawed back territory from the fen to build the university – destroying, in the process, an indigenous culture’. He tells his daughter that all those histories of appropriation and displacement would have to be forgotten in order to call any of them ‘home’. Home and belonging, for him, are synonymous with innocence, and to be Australian is to be stained with guilt.  

But guilt is also the foundation of his relationship with his grandfather – ‘I, more than others, have been guilty’ – and this guilt arises, he says, because he was born while his grandfather was imprisoned. ‘Guilty from birth, and after too: guilty of not knowing, and not asking – and then, when I did ask, and when I finally knew, guilty of squandering that inheritance.’ Guilt places him within a familiar narrative fame: sin leads to guilt leads to confession leads to forgiveness and redemption (in Anam, the final phase is always deferred). The guilt before birth stands in for original sin and signals the narrator’s desire for innocence even as it proclaims his guiltiness. Yet the narrator’s actual sins are minor. The worst sins he can charge himself with are that he lived well, as a child, while his grandfather was imprisoned; that he remained ignorant of his grandfather’s story until his teens; that he tends to beautify his material as a writer and thereby subvert its political potential; and that he has benefitted from colonial invasion as an Australian. This is a lot like confessing that your worst quality is a heightened sensitivity to injustice. Dao melodramatises the narrator’s guilt to raise the stakes of his own journey, but he thereby places the neurotic writer at the heart of a story that is, nominally, about ‘other people’s suffering’.  

The weakness of Anam, in my view, is that the narrator is too concerned with his responsibilities (as a grandson, father, husband, citizen) to take the kinds of risks that might produce a bracing work of literature. Anam could do with a genuine transgression or sacrilegious act, something that truly unsettles the reader’s relationship to the storyteller. One option would be Castro’s writing as disinheritance – a betrayal of family – but Dao’s narrator is too dutiful for that; he embraces the role of a responsible custodian rather than rebel. Anam is cast as a complex novel about an enigmatic man, but it’s also a simpler story about a writer who strives to be good. It is the kind of book a family can be proud of.