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Mobilizing the Vietnamese Body: Dance Theory, Critical Refugee Studies, and the Aftermaths of War in Andrew X. Pham’s Catfish and Mandala By Quynh Nhu Le and Ying Zhu Scholars in Vietnamese American Studies have long discussed the centrality of the Vietnamese body as a conduit through which issues about geopolitics, nation, and identity emerge. During the 1960s-1970s, the Vietnamese body (displayed, immolated, and in pain) circulated in cultural productions as visual rhetoric for and against the American War in Vietnam. With the “Fall of Saigon” in 1975, these figurations transformed with the renewed purpose of reckoning with the aftermaths of war, particularly in response to reconstructions of U.S. national identity. For example, scholar Yến Lê Espiritu argues that depictions of the South Vietnamese refugee body in particular (as transformed from abject and stateless to living the “American Dream”) works to re-narrate U.S. geopolitical loss into U.S. moral victory. For Vietnamese diasporic cultural producers, these spectral images haunt and inflect their own memories and prefigure the representational politics central to Vietnamese American identity formations. The contestation over the body as discursive matter thus seems to overdetermine the identity formation of the Vietnamese refugee subject in the postwar era.

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Abstract

Mobilizing the Vietnamese Body: Dance Theory, Critical Refugee Studies, and the Aftermaths of War in Andrew X. Pham’s Catfish and Mandala

Through analysis of Andrew X. Pham’s Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam, this collaboration between a literary scholar and dance scholar joins methodologies from their respective fields to explore the politicized dimensions of the Vietnamese body-in-motion. Published in 1999, Pham's memoir documents his journey, as a Vietnamese refugee living in the U.S., as he travels throughout Vietnam on a bicycle. We argue that through the literal and theoretical mobilization of his body, Catfish and Mandala constitutes a choreographic text that animates the Vietnamese body as making meaning within and beyond post-Vietnam war geopolitical formations. As such the text productively critiques the dyad of resistance and accommodation that have long structured and haunted critical inquiries into power.

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