Book cover: Portrait photograph of a middle-aged man  in white shirt and tie.

André Dao

Anamnesis: a recollection of a previous existence. André Dao’s sprawling, ambitious debut disposes of the word’s latter half to present a buried place of the imagination. Anam, as in Annam, as in the old colonial name for Vietnam. Anam, as in a place in stasis.

Writing about the diasporic experience, especially as a child of refugees – one who did not experience the trauma firsthand but feels its intergenerational impact – often falls into two categories. It can either be didactic or mawkish and voyeuristic, turning trauma into lovely sentences that are beautiful to swallow but hard to digest. I know this, because for many years I tried to write it. I turned my family’s story over and over, and every angle looked wrong. Sometimes it felt almost pornographic.

Dao imagines a novel titled The Crowned Mountain, a cog in what he calls the “empathy machine”. The reviews, he writes, are fawning: “––––’s achievement is stunning: he has succeeded in truly humanising the Vietnamese.”

“Remarkable … for how beautifully it achieves its daring project of making the Vietnamese real.” He imagines another version, “the Great Anamite Novel”, switching perspective again to cement a longing for a home into something tangible.

Anam is all, and none, of these novels. It offers something defiant and distinct, unsentimental yet tender. Its structure and narrative are not definitive: it is an open-ended and polyphonic series of intertwined ponderings and vignettes, moving from Vietnam to Paris to Melbourne as the narrator becomes a father and ponders his family’s long, knotty histories. They largely centre on his grandmother and his grandfather, a Catholic intellectual who spent a decade as a political prisoner in Chí Hòa prison. The narrator calls his grandfather, and people like him, Anamites: “… so good at remembering that they remember things that never happened, and things that are best forgotten”. They are stuck, he feels, in the past.

At first, the narrator is stuck too. He tries to write this history as a memoir, interviewing family members and attempting to interweave their stories, but the past is a slippery thing. He then turns to something more abstract: a dissertation about complicity in remembering and unremembering, in being a non-white settler on stolen land, in making art, in life itself. The thesis is the work is the book, writing theory, philosophy and family memories on top of one another until the truth, or reality, is obfuscated. Anam is concerned with the limits of writing but also pushes them.

Dao’s narrator is in constant conversation with both himself and the past, whether it is his family memories or the words of thinkers that shape his world view. He considers how easy it is to garner sympathy by trotting out his family’s story of suffering, while living a comfortable, white-collar life himself.

As a human rights lawyer for refugees, his professional work rubs against his history. Preparing paperwork, he plays up his clients’ trauma to argue for a positive outcome. One client rejects this rewriting: “He had read the appended imagining of his life – which had been based on my lengthy conversations with him. He said that I had taken his life, which was hard and unrelenting, and I had transformed it into something soft and beautiful … reading what I had written made him feel like his life had been stolen all over again.”

The narrator questions the ethics of these reconstructions – the ghostly pain of a trauma that is, and is not, your own. He asks: “What should we keep uppermost in our minds when translating the suffering of others? Should we let the people have what they want? Should we avoid inserting complexity between the audience and their desire for cleansing, edifying pathos? Should we let them sympathise?” That question again: who, or what, is this for?

Dao often comes back to the idea of redemption. Does writing about these things, particularly as an observer, erase their pain or complexity? “We can’t redeem the past for those who lived through it,” he writes at one point. At another: “Even if you can’t redeem the past, you can at least make it beautiful … you can at least make it useful.” Another, more conclusive: “The very fact that you know that the past needs redeeming means that any redemption is going to be false.”

In a letter to his infant daughter near the novel’s end, the narrator writes of a house with many rooms and windows, through which the same world is seen from slightly different angles and perspectives. I suspect this novel will inevitably be read differently by those who do not share a similar background – they will look through another window and see something I cannot.

I wonder, as I turn over my abandoned manuscript in my mind: am I an Anamite? Who am I if not the sum of the history that came before me? Can I be that history and something else as well? At times, Anam made me uncomfortable: I instinctively baulked at some of Dao’s rejections. But nothing else in Australian literature has challenged me in a way that feels so profoundly personal. Even when I disagreed with Dao, I felt grateful for this new window, in a room that perhaps had always existed but had been locked shut.

Hamish Hamilton, 352pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 6, 2023 as "Anam".

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