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One Book One San Diego 2011

The Gangster We Are All Looking For

by lê thi diem thúy

Image of The Gangster We Are All Looking For Cover

About the Book

This acclaimed novel reveals the life of a Vietnamese family in America through the knowing eyes of a child finding her place and voice in a new country.

In 1978 six refugees, a girl, her father, and four uncles are pulled from the sea to begin a new life in San Diego. In the child's imagination, the world is transmuted into an unearthly realm: she sees everything intensely, hears the distress calls of inanimate objects, and waits for her mother to join her. But life loses none of its strangeness when the family is reunited. As the girl grows, her matter-of-fact innocence eddies increasingly around opaque and ghostly traumas: the cataclysm that engulfed her homeland, the memory of a brother who drowned and, most inescapable, her fathers hopeless rage.

Excerpted from

The Gangster We Are All Looking For is the first-novel by Vietnamese-American author lê thi diem thúy, published in 2003. It was first published as a short piece in The Best American Essays of 1997 and was also awarded a Pushcart Prize Special Mention.

The novel is a fragmented sequence of events recollected by a nameless narrator. In a first-person narrative, the narrator tells the stories of her past experiences as a Vietnamese immigrant. Time and place shift continuously throughout the novel; the story takes place both in Vietnam and America. The novel is concerned with themes of identity, family dynamics, war, and liberation. Images of water are prominent symbolically and literally throughout the novel.

Narrative Style

The novel is told through the voice of the immigrant girl when she is six and keeps building until she is 26.

The flow of the prose is anachronistic, often jumping from life in America to life in Vietnam and even to a time in Vietnam before the narrator's birth. The tenses also switch from present tense to past and back. The novel is also told episodically, fractured, because as the author stated, "memory, by its nature, is very fragmented"


The narrator comes to California from a refugee camp in Singapore with four other immigrants whom she refers to as uncles, although they are not blood related. They are sponsored by a retired Navy officer named Mr. Russel. Mr. Russel passes away, and under the pressure of Mr. Russel's dying wish, his son Melvin houses the immigrants. The grandmother of Mel oftentimes takes the narrator and her father on drives to the mountainside. To compensate for housing, the uncles, as well as the narrator's father, Ba, paint homes.


Mr. Russel's collection of miniature glass animals are transported into Mel's home, and Mel commands the immigrants to not touch the glass objects. Secretly, the narrator often plays with the forbidden objects. She imagines that the butterfly inside the glass is alive and dreams that it wants to escape. One day she attempts to free the butterfly by throwing it, breaking the butterfly as well as the collection of glass animals. The four uncles and Ba rush into the room. The uncles tell the narrator to run and "shuh-shuh/shuh-shuh," unable to properly pronounce Stop. Ba is a little closer in that he says "Suh-top!/suh-top!"


The mother of the narrator and wife of the father makes her way to America and is reunited with her daughter and husband. They live in an apartment complex with palm trees and a pool. The mother works as a seamstress. The mother accidentally crashes her Cadillac into the apartment gates. The boys of the apartment complex, on hot days, would jump from the second story into the pool. In response to this, the landlord has the pool emptied and filled with rocks and cement. A baby palm tree is planted on its surface. Following the change, Ba and Ma argue.

At the abandoned home next door, the neighborhood children play and set up a large cardboard box they find. One summer, the narrator enters the box with a boy, who begins to touch her chest. The narrator continues to enter the box with the boy.

One day, the narrator is sent to run an errand, and as she is returning home, she feels the terrifying presence of her brother who seems to have been left in Vietnam.

the gangster we are all looking for

This section begins with a description of a black-and-white photograph of the narrator's parents in Vietnam. Before the narrator's birth, when Ma, a Catholic schoolgirl, decided to marry Ba, a Buddhist gangster, Ma's parents were outraged and disowned their daughter. The narrator was born in Vietnam in an alley behind her grandparents' home.

The narrator recalls her father's face at a military camp in South Vietnam. The family moves from the Red Apartment with the palm tree to the Green Apartment. Because the manager murdered a woman, family moves again to Linda Vista. Ma shaves her head because she is angry at Ba for gambling and drinking. After the arrival of the aforementioned photograph, Ma and Ba get into fights. Kids outside the apartment wonder what is happening, and the narrator goes outside, wildly dancing in front of the crowd.

The family is ultimately evicted from their home. The Linda Vista home is ultimately demolished. When they leave, Ma remembers that she forgot the photograph of her parents in the apartment and frantically cries to return to her parents.

the bones of birds

The narrator runs away from home to the East Coast. The father finds a new occupation as someone who mows lawns and one day digs a trench in someone's lawn without being told to. When the narrator returns one night, Ba tells her that he is in trouble.


In the final section of the novel, two narratives seem to run alongside one another, alternating every few paragraphs.

The first narration takes place in America, where the father, in order to ignore the ringing phone, does various things to preoccupy himself. The mother works at a Vietnamese restaurant which overcharges their customers for foreign cuisine. There are rumors that their daughter has moved to the East Coast to become a writer.

The other narration takes place twenty years ago, in Vietnam. The narrator's brother's body was pulled from the South China Sea. He is said to have been jumping from one boat to another when he suddenly slipped and fell. Ma's father brings the narrator's dead brother back home, where people say he has cursed the home with bad water. Ba is currently fighting in the war.


Throughout the novel, water is the most prominent motif. From the beginning, lê thi diem thúy inserts that In Vietnamese, the word for water and the word for a nation, a country, and a homeland are one and the same: nuc. In a similar sense, water plays a symbolic role in diverse ways in the text-often, with dual/opposite meanings. Most of the themes within the text are somehow related to and entwined with the flow of water.

the mobility of memory through the photograph

Through the photograph, The Gangster We Are All Looking For explores the nature of memory and its ability, or inability, to travel from generation to generation. In les narrative, the photograph can be understood not only in terms of reference and time, but also perspective of mobility.

the textual representation of a visual representation

Through le's language, to the narrator and to the American reader, the photographs meaning slides from being the grandparents to being Vietnam. This is due to le's language in introducing the photograph as Vietnam is a black-and-white photograph which invokes other images of black-and-white photographs regarding Vietnam that the collective American memory may recall such as the photograph of a girl running from a napalm strike or the close range shooting of a Viet Cong suspect.

Vietnamese American Literary Context

Since 1963, over 100 volumes of literature (generally focused on tales of witness, education, and life in America) have been published in English by Vietnamese American authors. For the most part, they have gone unnoticed by the public eye because they were not useful to America in the years following the Vietnam War.

Michele Janette, specialist in Vietnamese American literature and film, proposes that the reasoning for obscurity lies in the claim to victimhood. The Vietnam War is the only war America lost. It is a war understood as having no winner, only victims. America tends to see this war as one in which Americans fought themselves, not the Vietnamese. Thus, Vietnamese American literature challenges the legitimacy of the claim shared by American citizens: Victimhood.

Published Vietnamese American literature (here defined as literature written by people with shared ethnic Vietnamese heritage) before 1995 was almost exclusively authorial biography. From 1995 and onwards, there has been a blossoming of Vietnamese American literature from writers who identify themselves first as writers, concerned with the craft of writing as well as the content of what they are writing about.

As Americans are distanced from the war temporally, as Vietnamese American literature moves away from victimhood and the war America lost, Vietnamese American literature has been more easily accepted and recognized in America.

About the Author

Image of l thi diem thy

lê thi diem thúy was born in Phan Thiet, southern Vietnam. She and her father left Vietnam in 1978, by boat, eventually settling in Southern California. lê is currently a Radcliffe Fellow and resides in western Massachusetts.

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