Perilous Pacific: Thanatic archive and Vietnamese refugees

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While deadly scenes of air raids and land battles have dominated the historical archive of the war in Vietnam, commonly assumed to last from 1955 to 1975, not much systematic attention has been paid to the thanatic aspects of refugees’ oceanic exodus, which can help revise the temporal and spatial frames of the Asian conflict. As an attempt to address this critical lacuna, this essay examines fatalities at sea in refugee narratives pertaining to what some Americans designate the Vietnam War or what some Vietnamese call the American War. Specifically, through a comparative exegesis of two English short stories by Nam Le and Viet Thanh Nguyen, namely “The Boat” and “Black-Eyed Women,” this essay illustrates how both Vietnamese refugee authors construe the Pacific Ocean as a lethal material space–time traversed by Vietnamese boat people. If Le’s story rhetorically enlivens the ocean in order to accentuate its mortal impacts on refugees during their voyage, Nguyen’s story stylistically revitalizes the ocean as a spectral force that continues to unsettle resettled refugees. Taken together, this essay argues for the centrality of the perilous Pacific in constituting an alternative archive of the Vietnam crisis that recognizes departed and disavowed refugees as historical agents. In so doing, it contends that an oceanic view of the Vietnamese warfare is key to enacting postcolonial critiques of both imperial (American) and national (Vietnamese) regimes of exclusion. By demonstrating how Vietnamese refugee writers thematically and formally animate treacherous oceanic routes of escape, this essay redirects critical attention to the hitherto neglected maritime spaces as conflict spaces. This literary rearticulation of the sea as thanatic history allows us to supplement both aerial and terrestrial modes of knowing the debacle in Vietnam, as it radically expands the temporality and spatiality of the tragic episode in Asian history. Copyright © 2023 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)52-69
Issue number1
Early online dateApr 2023
Publication statusPublished - 2024


Tse, K. Y. N. (2024). Perilous Pacific: Thanatic archive and Vietnamese refugees. Interventions, 26(1), 52-69.


  • Blue/oceanic humanities
  • Critical refugee studies
  • Pacific Ocean
  • Vietnam
  • Nam Le‌
  • Viet Thanh Nguyen


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