Content warning: war, racism, sexual assault, violence
As a history student who has only briefly learned about the horrific legacy of the Vietnam War – confined within the realm of academia – I’ve always remained curious about the lived experiences of survivors. So, at the start of this year, I decided to pick up a book that explores the embodied realities of the Vietnam War in various contexts through historical fiction. McGill alumnus Caroline Vu’s latest novel, Catinat Boulevard (2023), offers a compelling insight into the complex experiences of survivors through the lenses of cultural and racial identity. The McGill Daily had the pleasure of reconnecting with Vu almost a decade after our previous interview on her novel Palawan Story (2014), to discuss her newly released work.
Caroline Vu was born in Vietnam in 1959, only four years after the start of the war. Due to the increasing danger, Vu was forced to flee to New England, and eventually settled in Montreal. After living in various parts of the world – Latin America, Switzerland, and Ottawa – the author now resides in Montreal where she works as a family physician when she isn’t writing. Vu published two award-winning novels, Palawan Story and That Summer in Provincetown (2015), before releasing Catinat Boulevard in October 2023 to much critical acclaim – it was even a finalist for the 2023 Hugh McLennan Prize for Fiction. The novel dives into the turbulent lives of best friends Mai and Mai Ly in the city of Saigon during the Vietnam War. Mai flirts with American GIs in bars along Catinat Boulevard, eventually becoming pregnant by Michael, an African-American soldier. The turbulence of the war leaves their son Nat tragically abandoned in a Saigon orphanage. Meanwhile, Mai Ly rises in the ranks of the communist resistance and becomes a prominent figure who writes propaganda and rallies others to join the socialist struggle. The novel travels across decades and continents, eventually ending in present-day New York.
Catinat Boulevard’s narration left a stark mark on me as a reader. Vu presents her story in the third-person through the eyes of Mai and Michael’s child, Nat. Whilst I initially felt slightly confused by this literary choice, I was able to fully digest its intent the more I read: the narration style became a powerful tool for accentuating Nat’s abandonment and isolation. One event in the novel especially stood out to me because of this choice. Upon hearing that she is pregnant, Mai’s father hits her and kicks her down the stairs. Vu writes this scene through the eyes of Nat: “It was my first exposure to physical violence. Surprisingly I didn’t feel any pain. I only felt a loss of grip as my world tumbled downstairs. I wished my mother had held out her hands to protect me. Instead, she used her own fists to repeatedly hit herself. Then she howled.”
This is just one powerful instance of many granted by Vu’s unique style of writing that left me curious about her reasons behind narrating in this way. In an interview with the Daily, she replied: “Nat is a kid abandoned by his parents. In the orphanage, he is bullied because of his dark skin. The voice of a kid is more touching. It moves us more because we can identify with it. We understand that voice because we’ve all been kids ourselves.”
In a time when historically-marginalized readers are increasingly conscious and critical of how literature can evoke wounds caused by physical, emotional, and intergenerational abuse and oppression, writers have to be careful not to produce “trauma porn.” Frankly, although Catinat Boulevard does contain depictions of trauma, it does so in a sentimental way that is necessary to portray the devastating disorder that came with the war. The exploration of trauma in this narrative depicts the calamitous circumstances and consequences of the war and the global 1960s more generally, in a sobering way that should not be dismissed. It is the characters’ beautiful complexity and their very different experiences of trauma that elucidate this reality. From racism to abandonment to sexual abuse, Catinat Boulevard covers it all. But Vu makes it clear that the trauma she expresses can also be processed in complex ways, and can even be intricately embedded with humour. Having experienced much of this trauma herself in her own life, it was important for Vu to explore these wounds creatively in her writing, whilst being cognizant of their effects on marginalized communities.
Vu told the Daily: “Yes there is a lot of trauma in the novel. From war to racism to abandonment etc… To lighten up the story, I added humour. I made each chapter short. There are no drawn-out sobbing scenes. No trauma porn! You know, I’ve experienced the same trauma Nat did: the war, the abandonment, the racism… Adding humour and laughing at certain situations in the book is perhaps a defence mechanism for me.”
The process of writing is central to this narrative. Not in a self-explanatory way, but in a way that is visible and thematic to the reader. Letters appear recurrently throughout the book, which function to connect together the different characters who find themselves spread across Vietnam and the United States. Vu’s frequent adoption of the epistolary form serves to help us as readers get to know each of the characters in a deeper way. But for Vu, writing emerges as a theme not only to foster more complex characterization, but also to reflect her own love of the craft.
Vu explained: “Catinat Boulevard is an ode to the written word. There are letters written by Michael to Mai. Letters written by Nat to Mother Superior. There are imaginary stories that Nat writes about his mother Mai. There are stories Mai presents to her writing group. There are entries Mai keeps in her diary. There are real-life stories Amanda writes for her newspapers. There is the email Mai Ly sent to Nat. There is the manuscript Nat tries to get published. There are the letters of rejection.
For Nat and Mai, writing is therapeutic. It gives meaning to their loveless lives. Although they’d never met in person, they’d conversed through their writing. This is the power of the written word. It can transcend time and space. It can bring people together. Even dead ones!”
Mai and Nat’s love of writing is intimately interwoven in the ending of the novel. Whilst Mai discovers her love for writing as a Vietnamese immigrant in search of community in California, Nat uses writing to escape the horrors of living as an abandoned Black child in an orphanage in Saigon. Their writing transcends time and space to reveal parallels despite their isolated lives. Mai writes “problems started long before the kid walked this earth,” reflecting Nat’s words which read “trouble started years before my birth.” Catinat Boulevard ultimately reminds us that though physically far apart, Nat and Mai remain close, their lives forever interconnected despite all their troubles and despairs.