The Innocents: Reading Refugees in National Culture and Diasporic Literatures

Early in Lê Thi Diem Thúy’s novel The Gangster We Are All Looking For, Lê’s first-person six-year-old narrator finds herself in communion with the glass animals locked in a display case in the office of the Russell family, which sponsors her, her father, and four other men—”the uncles”—who accompanied them as they fled from Vietnam to the United States. She tells the animals about her journey on the boat and rescue at sea by the U.S. Navy, memories of her mother from whom she and her father have been (temporarily) separated, and about her dreams in which her family is reunited. Ultimately, she smashes the display cabinet, hurling a glass disk containing a motionless butterfly whose captivity has fascinated and troubled her:

The disk flew hard and fast, but not where I had sent it. It crashed through the glass doors of the display cabinet. The animals’ knees buckled. As they fell, some of the animals lost their heads while others’ bodies broke in two. The broken bodies of some protected the bodies of others from shattering completely. Some lay on their sides, staring out the window.1

The act of destruction brings the makeshift Vietnamese family’s residence with the Russells to a rapid end, and the novel moves on to narrate accounts of life after the narrator and her father are reunited with her mother. It centers in particular on the family members’ growing estrangement from one another, especially as they belatedly grapple with the loss of the narrator’s brother, who had drowned in Vietnam before the family’s departure.

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