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Scholarly books have long been the backbone of academia, but too often these books do not get the attention they deserve. In this series, we ask our authors which academic works have had a lasting influence on them. Follow this link to see the rest of the series.

This post was written by Jennifer Levasseur, PhD, a Museum Curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and author of Through Astronaut Eyes: Photographing Early Human Spaceflight.


 

As a high school student, I thought it terribly unfair that my history classes never reached the historical moments of interest to me—and my teachers were sympathetic to my concerns. Events just outside of my living memory, the majority of the Cold War, really, eluded me in school, but were referenced on television and in my home. As a substitute for school lessons, I watched John Wayne movies and PBS documentaries with my dad. Unless I skipped ahead in the textbooks when the teacher wasn’t looking, I felt cheated without some grounding in a period clearly influential on my daily life as child of the late Cold War. As an undergrad and then a graduate student, I vowed to learn those stories, and to understand why the 1960s held such weight in the hearts of my parents and their friends. I took what courses I could, catching myself up on the basics of the US side of the story and finally taking a Vietnam War class with Dr. Meredith Lair during my PhD coursework at George Mason University. It was a fulfillment of that craving I’d had since the fall of the Berlin Wall (when I was twelve).

My curiosity did not end with a single class. I wanted to see these places, to know the story from another side. If I had learned anything in my training as a historian, it was the complicated and subjective nature of narratives about the recent past. By the early 2000s, my scholarly attention was on this same period, only in terms of human spaceflight. The war in Vietnam obviously overlapped with my thinking about how photography plays a role in developing shared cultural memories. I felt the best way to reconcile memory-making of the two connected—but vastly dissimilar—events was to go there, see their museums, and read about Vietnam and memory from a Vietnamese perspective. During a three-week cruise in November 2018 from Hong Kong to Singapore, which included three stops in Vietnam, I read a book Dr. Lair suggested, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War (Harvard University Press, 2016). My own manuscript was in process, so this had some symmetry with how I was considering the same period from a completely different perspective.

Nguyen, just a few years older than me but a child refugee born in Vietnam and raised in the United States, presents his story as one of confusion, complication, inconsistency, and the real messiness of the era. His presentation of ethics, industries, aesthetics, and memory felt familiar to me while incredibly complicated to decipher—not as grounded in textual evidence as most scholars of this era. His story and my own are of the intangible emotions and memories, fleeting things grounded in the material and visual culture that surrounds us. It is those ethereal qualities of perception that most certainly delayed my education on Vietnam, but thanks to Nguyen, it all makes more sense now.