In “The Unwanted”, Kien Nguyen is a child born to a Vietnamese mother and her white American soldier lover. In 1975, the time of the Communist takeover, the U.S. left Vietnam. Kien, his pregnant mother and his younger brother Jimmy, also Amerasian, made it to the roof of the U.S. embassy in Saigon, waiting for the return of a helicopter that never made it back for them to escape. The next ten years Kien and his family endured many hardships.
This book is full of extraordinary courage, determination and will. Kien was subjected to many injustices, most of which were inflicted by the males in his life and community. Kien’s mother’s boyfriend, Lam, was a cruel man who took advantage of people around him. He raped the family maid, Loan, and he raped Kien as he slept alone at night. Lam was a sociopath and very manipulative, he took advantage of Kien’s family. Kien’s cousins were also cruel to him and his brother. They were poor, and took great joy in tormenting Kien and Jimmy. His cousins were glad to have others around who were considered “lower” then they were. Tormenting Kien’s family made the cousins feel better about themselves. When the boys were given a dog, the cousins kicked it to death while laughing. It was mostly males, but there were also female figures who took part in the violence surrounding him. His aunt was a person who had the power to stop the violence, but she only encouraged it. She got a sense of power by having Kien’s family being so destitute and dependant on her.
The direct traumas that Kien endured were many. When he was a young boy, he experienced security and the joy of healthy relationships. He was surrounded by comfort and luxury. By the time the Communist party took over, his family was left with nothing. One of the first traumas he endured was being left on the roof top at the U.S. embassy. If the helicopter could have landed safely, his family would have been taken to safety. He had to leave his childhood home and move to the home near his aunt’s house, where he was tormented by his cousins. He witnessed the maid, Loan, being raped by Lam, and then he himself was raped by Lam. His beloved dog was kicked and beaten to death by his cousins. He attended school, and was a good student who forged a bond with his teacher, then his teacher mysteriously disappeared. He was instructed not to ask any questions about her disappearance. This instilled more fear in Kien. Kien wrote his biological father a letter with the hope to find him in the U.S., but his letter was returned unopened.
Kien’s life was full of structural violence as well. His community was completely changed and had turned on his family. He was oppressed, and forced to conform to the Communist party. Because they were poor, Kien and his siblings were starved, neglected and lived in constant fear. There was helplessness all around them.
Because of the traumas surrounding the family’s life, their behaviors changed. They lived as only survivors can live: doing whatever has to be done to have basic needs met. Kien’s mother, Khuon, was a very resourceful and manipulative woman anyway, but now that her desperation was at an all time high, her craft became finely honed. She was able to keep them all alive, when others around them were dieing. She used the connections she had to get what she needed. She didn’t dwell on what she couldn’t do, instead, she did what she had to do, whether it was selling her blood or prostitution. There are times in the book when I thought of her as heartless, but then she redeemed herself by revealing that she had a plan all along to get revenge on Lam for raping Kien, for using her and abandoning her, her children and his own child.
The other family members, the grandfather and grandmother, they clung to one another and their family traditions as the world collapsed around them. When grandmother died, grandfather still held tight to her memory, memories of her and the happiness of their life together kept him alive. Jimmy and Beti looked to Kien for love, hope and faith. They depended on Kien very much, and their dependence fueled Kien’s survival.
Kien’s brother and sister depended on him for their survival, and that drove him to survive, also. The fact that Kien had experienced happiness and security in the past, and the drive to find it again in the U.S., also kept him struggling to survive.
“Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” is a graphic account of one woman’s experience as a slave. Harriet Jacobs, the slave girl, writes her personal story about her experiences that fueled her determination to assure the freedom of herself and her children. The book is written in 1842, while she lived in New York, after she escaped from slavery.
The biggest tormentor in Harriet’s life was her master, Dr. Flint. Dr. Flint’s wife, Harriet’s mistress, also made her life miserable in many ways. Dr. Flint was a very cunning and manipulative man, so Harriet had to keep a few steps ahead of him, which kept her in a constant state of fear and anxiety. Harriet also experienced kindness from other men in her life, such as her brother and her uncle.
Harriet’s trauma started very early in life. At the age of 6, her mother passed away, and it was then that she was told that she was a slave. She describes a life of carefree happiness before knowing she was a slave. When she lived on Dr. Flint’s property, she wasn’t given proper, warm clothing or shoes, and she depended on her grandmother to provide them for her. She was exposed to foul language by her master, and subjected to his sexual advances constantly. Harriet witnessed violence to other slaves on a regular basis, and was reminded by her master that she “didn’t have it that badly” as compared to them. She freely admits that she wasn’t used for hard labor out in the cotton fields, but she did work hard with a needle and thread for her mistress and master daily. She lived with no sense of appreciation from those around her. When Harriet fled her master, she went into hiding for 7 years. She was kept in a very small space, with little to no exercise for long periods of time. When it rained, she was soaked, when it snowed, she was frozen, and when it was hot, she was subjected to the heat as though being in an oven. She was away from her children for many years, although the seven years she hid near her grandmother’s home, she did get to hear their voices and to get glimpses of them through tiny holes in the structure. Harriet loved her children very much and being away from them made her feel as though she were going to go crazy.
The structural traumas that Harriet endured were what every slave had to live with, racism being the biggest. Because she was black, she was considered property. And her children were property, even though they were half white. Poverty kept her down, also.
Because of her desperate situation living on Dr. Flint’s property and fearing things would get worse, Harriet was forced to do something she wouldn’t have done under other circumstances. She had sex outside of marriage, and she conceived her first child. This did have the results she wanted. She also had to be very manipulating and cunning. Harriet would have never abandoned her children, but she was also forced to do that. This was ultimately for their own good, but it was very painful for her. She was concerned with how the community would judge her. She drew on the strength of her grandmother during these times.
Knowing her grandmother loved her no matter what is one of the biggest things that kept Harriet alive. Her uncle Ben also had much love for her, and later, the love for her children, allowed her to keep her mind on the end result, which was freedom for her and her children.