Why would I choose a novel about a war that was fought half a century ago? To see what sort of feminist perspective or critique Her Own Vietnam would offer. The story is told from the point of view of a middle-class Caucasian nurse who was abandoned by her father and raised by a single mother.
The author Lynn Kanter does a fairly decent job of showing the horrors of warfare, the scars it left on American soldiers and those who nursed the injured and dying.
It is also a story of Della Brown’s deep bond with her mother, her daughter Abby, her younger sister Rosalind and her partner Anne. Her friendly ex-husband makes cameo appearances. So does the absentee father and that is when the effort to revive a relationship between them bites the dust.
A letter arrives in the first pages and unravels Brown’s world. It is an old trope but it works. The reader wants to know the source of her nightmares. Although it is not a mystery novel, a skilful reader knows Brown needs therapy, just as soldiers do. Despite never having been in combat situations, she too suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder — a common malaise in the US — because of her obsession with perpetual warfare. (It is commonly acknowledged that veterans make up a large chunk of the growing homeless population in American urban centres).
The letter is penned by Charlene Johnson, who’d accompanied Brown when they were both first deployed together and became close friends. Johnson is black and does not find common cause with America’s imperial pursuit; she joined the army so her younger brothers wouldn’t become cannon fodder. Johnson is sent back after being told that her brother’s been killed in combat. She wants Brown to be with her in her hour of emotional breakdown but Brown doesn’t have all this information, so she takes her time enjoying intimate moments with a soldier. When she finally arrives the damage is done.
Though both women have tried looking up the other, it’s taken 30 years for them to reconnect. They meet and patch up. While the women are catching up, Brown receives a call from her mother, the anti-war activist, and learns that her daughter’s met with an accident. The daughter has survived but Brown is shaken and Johnson is there for her and ensures that Brown reaches her daughter safely.
Kanter has done her homework and is able to create a world which is believable, whether it revolves around a young woman of flesh and feelings in the midst of a war or a single mother dealing with the aftermath of the last war as a new war is about to start. She also succeeds in doing away with the male gaze paradigm as her post-war world is surrounded by women surviving without men. In fact, during the war, it is the female gaze that is brought upon the soldiers when they are rushed in to the hospital.
But the novel cannot look beyond its white, middle-class nose despite roping in cordial race relations into the picture. Kanter is also influenced by the Huck Finn syndrome, where a white heart, in which good and evil have locked horns, needs anchoring by the oppressed – our noble savage.
The biggest disappointment of the novel is the lack of Vietnamese people; the novel might have been set in Uranus. The novel is about the effects of war on precious American lives. In Her Own Vietnam, Vietnam is a canvas filled with the horrors inflicted on young Americans, a canvas where white feminism battles the male narrative for space.
This has been the major critique of American films and literature dealing with the Vietnam War. One would have expected a more sensitive and inclusive exploration under a feminist gaze. The iconic feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey’s groundbreaking essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” was faulted by latter theorists for restricting her thesis to white male gaze and the white female object. Kanter’s work follows Mulvey’s vision.
I’d highly recommend a little known American film Dogfight (1991), with River Pheonix and Lily Taylor as leads, about a bet by a group of young Marines to bring the ugliest date to a bar during their one night stay in San Francisco before flying to Vietnam. Director Nancy Savoca very carefully sets up a scene where the lead female character shares a moment with the bet winner – the whore with missing teeth one of the Marines has brought – to burst the other woman’s bubble of innocence and gullibility when exposing why all the six women are at the bar, referring to the Marines as a bunch of creeps.
Kanter, on the other hand, has a soft corner for the empire’s foot soldiers. In a telling scene Johnson asks Brown to come along and guard the bathroom door while they are in flight. When Brown wonders, “Guard you from what?” Johnson answers, “Gee, I dunno — two hundred sex-starved Gis, maybe?” “How can they be sex-starved already? They just left California.” “You must not have any brothers,” is Johnson‘s explanation.
“They had almost reached the rear of the plane when a soldier leaned out and smacked Della on the bottom. She whipped around, but couldn’t tell who did it. All the men within reach were hooting and laughing. She stood paralyzed”.
When the soldier is reminded that that he just hit a nurse, he responds: “What are they gonna do, send me to Vietnam?” This exchange sadly reflects her concern for the poor American soldiers who are being pushed “through Vietnamese nights as hot and moist as a dog’s mouth . . .”
Kanter’s inability to visualise Vietnamese lives as the subject of her story pushes her towards false feminism, weaving race relations myth. Unless American authors learn to shift the focus from their own suffering towards those who suffer because of American policies, US foot soldiers will have little opportunity to reflect after murdering African Americans on American streets, or destroying economies overseas.
Author: Lynn Kanter
Publisher: Shade Mountain Press