Migrant Melancholy and the Diasporic Imagination

GRAPHIC BY BEAU TATTERSALL/SAN FRANCISCO FOGHORN

Van My Truong, a Yale educated author and activist, was the honorable speaker for the seventh annual Andrew Goodwin Pop Culture Lecture. Truong’s talk, titled “These Oceans Among Us,” sent waves through the in-person and virtual crowd on April 19.

Truong began her talk with this theoretical guidepost: “Who we think we are is no more or less than a complex collection of stories.” She spoke about the lived experiences of migrants, from Tunisia to Haiti to Malaysia, and through all those stories emerged a single narrative about desperate resilience and despondent endurance through migration. 

Truong’s presentation wasn’t theoretical or purely academic. She shared the story of her parents fleeing Vietnam while she was still too young to remember. She showed old photographs of her parent’s wedding, which was keenly 70s in nature, with undersaturated colors and candid poses. The photos’ rough white edges and water spots exhibited the damage caused by the young family’s trans-Pacific passage. “When I look at these photographs, I’m no longer thinking about my parent’s wedding,” said Truong, “I am thinking about their trauma.”

Truong said her father’s connection with music was one way she learned the meaning of her parents’ journey. She played the audience Biển Nhớ, a beautiful Vietnamese war-era song written by Trịnh Công Sơn and performed by Khánh Ly. “Tomorrow you’ll depart,” says the song’s refrain. Truong, along with several audience members, was brought to tears by the memory of her father sharing this music with her. “Through this music, he found a language to talk about a difficult part of his life,” she said. 

As part of her discussion, Truong also explained the importance of Sound Hall, a speaker and performance series in New Haven Connecticut that originated from Yale University. She explained that before the series came about, there had been a glaring disconnect between the broader New Haven community and the people at Yale. Sound Hall closed this gap by creating a space to be with the community “in a grounded way,” she described. The focus is to learn from, teach, and dynamically interact with the city through meaningful and educational interactions. “Sound Hall is my dream,” Truong said. She related this example to how meaningful local connections can be fostered by any institution with the right intentions, and provided an inspirational lens through which to view the USF student body in relation to the San Francisco community. 

Following her lecture, students were given a chance to ask questions and engage in conversation with Truong. Appreciation and excitement radiated from the audience during this portion of the event. Samantha Berlanga, a senior media studies major, asked Truong, “How have you worked to reclaim your identity?” This question was in reference to Truong’s experiences as an immigrant, as well as how she has molded who she is to fit into her environment while holding onto her cultural roots. 

“I feel like the older I get, the more I realize that the identity categories we are presented with are stories there to tell us who we should think we are,” Truong said. She further described that it is not necessary to fit the expectations and stereotypes associated with the communities we belong to, and that we should define what constitutes our identity on our own terms. 
The event allowed for the examination of complex community histories while emphasizing the importance of the smaller, more intimate connections that can manifest within them. The discussion closed with a few pondering thoughts about how integration of cultural experiences and ethnic roots play into the personal identity of individuals. On both an academic and emotional level, Truong’s talk and her candid conversation with students demonstrated a growing awareness of migrants’ fight to reclaim their identities.

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