Representing Reconciliation: Le Ly Hayslip and the Victimized Body

“Representing Reconciliation: Le Ly Hayslip and the Victimized Body” was originally published in Positions: East Asia Cultures Critique, volume 5, issue no. 2, pages 605 – 642 (Fall 1997).


Le Ly Hayslip now has the dubious honor of being the best-known Vietnamese person in the United States, joining the ranks of other best-known Vietnamese that have included the politically unsavory Ngo Dinh Diem and his sister-in-law, Madame Nhu (who clapped her hands at the sight of Buddhist monks “barbecuing” themselves). Of course, Hayslip is a very different person from Diem and Nhu, but she shares at least one thing in common with them, namely their status as useful symbols in the United States’ debate over its involvement in Viet Nam during the course of the war and after. Diem was the great American hope and then the great American policy disaster, a puppet dictator who proved to be too inflexible to be useful as a nationalist hero; and Nhu, nicknamed the “Dragon Lady” by the American press, preceded Imelda Marcos in the American imagination. Hayslip stands as if in contrast to these and other assorted, lesser politicians and generals who came to represent for Americans either the incompetence of a client-nation or the villainy of a repressive nationalist regime.

Through her autobiographical books When Heaven and Earth Changed Places and Child of War, Woman of Peace, Hayslip has become representative of those anonymous millions of Vietnamese in whose name the war was fought by both sides. Through her extraordinary personal story, she not only symbolically bears their collective pain, but also the victim’s burden of  forgiveness.’ Her credibility as witness, survivor, and moral truthsayer all depend upon the evidence of her body – that is, her pain and her experiences, and their consequent rewriting-and upon how this display is read, by both Americans and Vietnamese Americans. Hayslip stresses her lack of
education and seeming rustic simplicity as a disarming stratagem to win over the reader; her artlessness is designed to draw attention away from her narrative’s artfulness, lending more credence to the visceral pain of her life and its seemingly direct relation to her narrative. In doing this, Hayslip joins the ranks of many other witnesses to history whose authenticity and value for a political debate over history, memory, and responsibility is staked upon the body and its experiences.

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Category: Essays


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