Book of the week–The Unwanted

This week I read Kien Nguyen’s haunting memoir, The Unwanted (Little, Brown, 2001). Instead of offering a summary upfront, I thought I’d share an early scene (page 10):

Finally, my mother burst into the room with enough exuberance to burn out a lightbulb. Her off-white evening gown embraced her, gushing down her body like a stream of silver water. Her hair was bound above her neck in a complicated knot, revealing a diamond necklace and two small diamond earrings. She looked foreign, formidable, elegant as an Egyptian queen. She smiled through her makeup, as she reached for us with bare arms that sparkled with diamonds. We entered her cloud of perfume, and together, hand in hand, we walked into the noisy brightness outside.

This scene takes place at 5 year-old Kien’s birthday party at his mother’s three-storey mansion in Nhatrang, South Vietnam. The year is 1972 and Kien and his younger brother Jimmy are the only children at the evening party. Kien and Jimmy also differ in that they’re both the children of American men (two different ones) with whom their mother had longstanding relationships before the dads returned to the US.

The Unwanted is the story of Kien’s devastating childhood. But it also represents the stories of the 50,000 children in Vietnam left behind by American fathers.

When I went to Vietnam in 1991, I imagined running into Amerasian children, who would be teenagers at the very youngest, and talking to them in my native English tongue. Because if they had American fathers, their mothers could surely speak English and would teach it to their children, right?

Wrong.

As Kien tells it, Amerasians were shunned by the Vietnamese, even in their own families, and weren’t raised knowing any English unless they learned it at school. What was more troubling was that even though these Vietnamese-American relationships were much more than a one-night stand, they may as well have been just that. Oftentimes the men didn’t even know the names of their girlfriends. In Kien’s case, his father called his mother Nancy Kwan, after the popular Eurasian actress.

The Nguyen family’s story is a rags to riches one, as they lived an opulent life in the capitalistic South Vietnam. But once Saigon fell, things were never the same. Kien Nguyen writes of a horrible scene at the US Embassy just before the fall. He was there, as were his family and close friends. It’s a scene I’ll never forget. In fact, this is a book I’ll never forget.

There’s so much to Kien’s story that I can’t write it all here–and wouldn’t want to spoil the story. I love how he describes Nhatrang and Saigon. The smells, the flowers, the heat, and the food are all so vivid to the reader. His characters, no matter how seemingly minor, end up being important to his story.

His mother’s story is also a powerful one. Although she may seem to be selfish and mean-spirited, I grew to love his mother and found her to be a very strong and complicated woman who never gave up or pitied herself for all that she lost (in love and in material possessions) when the political and economic conditions fell apart. The women in this story are smart and resilient. Besides Kien’s lovely grandfather, most of the men in the story are scum.

During my trip to the southern part of Vietnam 21 years ago, I did meet a couple of Amerasians on the beach in Danang. And as Kien Nguyen explains in his book, they were very poor and spoke no English. I hope the ones I saw were able to find better lives.

Since writing this book, Nguyen has published two novels, one based on his grandfather’s story. I’m now anxious to read them and hope he’ll continue to write for decades to come.

Comments

  1. Mikhail Rivera says

    I’m currently reading this book for my East Asian Humanities class, and boy oh boy is this book such a heartbreaking book. Some of the stuff that he and his mother had to endure were so saddening. I think the excerpt you mentioned was about one of the only “happy” parts of the book.

    Kien Nguyen is adequately able to place readers in his own shoes, and I look forward to reading his other pieces of work after I’ve finished this one :)

    • Susan Blumberg-Kason says

      Thanks so much for your comment! Your class sounds wonderful, and while it’s important to know about this time in Vietnam, I do agree that this book is very depressing. I totally agree with what you write and feel like it’s a miracle he became so successful in leaving Vietnam and establishing a nice life for himself in the US. I didn’t want to spoil the story because it all came as a surprise to me and wouldn’t want to ruin that for others.

      He has written a couple of novels set in Vietnam. They’ve received great reviews, so I hope to read them soon, too. He is a great writer.

  2. says

    As I said on Facebook, this sounds intriguing, and I’m even more determined to get my hands on it after reading your full review. In the novel I’m working on right now, the main character is half Vietnamese, so I think I should buy this book in the name of research. :)

    • Susan Blumberg-Kason says

      Thank you for both comments! Your novel sounds great! Kien Nguyen’s book is not a happy one, so just be warned that it’ll be very upsetting. I mean, every possible horrible thing that could happen did happen. But I think it’s such an important story to tell because there were so many Amerasians left behind in Vietnam during those turbulent years. Have you read Dana Sachs’s books? She wrote a Vietnam memoir and also a novel about adopting a baby from Vietnam.

    • Susan Blumberg-Kason says

      Thanks for your comment! He’s a dentist in New York! I read that just after he finished his training and had taken his boards, he started writing. It all came together at once. Later on, he left his private practice and joined a group so he could work part-time and write full-time. He was also on faculty at the New York University dental school.

      We need to figure out how to get you some books over there.

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