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 What people are saying about Haunting Legacy

"What a terrific book!"

Lesley Stahl, correspondent for 60 Minutes

"This is great narrative history and biography combined to create informative case studies."

Walter Isaacson, president and CEO of the Aspen Institute

"Marvin Kalb and Deborah Kalb’s account of this phenomenon is studiously researched, vividly narrated, and, above all, highly readable. It will stand as a major contribution to the subject."

Stanley Karnow, author of Vietnam: A History and winner of the Pulitzer Prize


To read more reviews of Haunting Legacy, click here.


Q&A with writer Lynn Kanter

Lynn Kanter is the author of the novel Her Own Vietnam. She also has written the novels On Lill Street and The Mayor of Heaven. She is a writer for the Center for Community Change, and she lives in Washington, D.C.

Q: You've said that your own youth was shaped by the Vietnam War. What impact did it have on you, and how did that affect your decision to write this book?

A: When I was a teenager, the Vietnam War was everywhere: on TV, in the newspaper, the subject of heated discussions at home and at school. The anti-war movement too was all around me, in the streets, on the news, even reflected in the clothing people my age wore and the music we listened to. I was only a dabbler in anti-war sentiment, but two things happened in 1970 when I was 16 that profoundly shook me.

One was that my older brother turned 18. Draft age. His fate would be decided by a man who reached into a large transparent canister and pulled out a blue plastic capsule about the size of a ping-pong ball. In the capsule was a date, and that date would determine the order in which boys would get drafted, based on their birth date. It was a lottery straight out of Shirley Jackson. My brother got lucky; other boys didn’t.

The second pivotal experience took place in May of 1970, when members of the Ohio National Guard took aim at college students protesting the Vietnam War on their own campus at Kent State University. The Guardsmen fired into the crowd, killing four students and injuring nine others.

As a child, I had struggled with the notion that not long ago, millions of people in Europe had been slaughtered simply because they were like me: Jewish.

Now I had to grapple with the idea that my own government had murdered four kids simply because they were what I hoped to become: politically engaged college students.

I felt a deep sense of alienation from government, from authority, from the older generation, from the way things were. Kent State was the spark that turned me into a lifelong activist.

(Years later I would realize that there had been another yet another layer to this twist of history. Just a few weeks after the Kent State massacre commanded headlines across the country, two students at Jackson State in Mississippi were killed when authorities decided to quell a campus protest by raking a women’s dorm with gunfire. They were African American students at a historically black college, and their deaths drew little notice.)

If I were to draw a line between the influence of the Vietnam War in my life and my decision to write Her Own Vietnam, it would be long and jagged.

In fact, I wouldn’t even say I decided to write the book; it was more that I was thunderstruck by a question. What would it be like to be a woman who had served in Vietnam? A woman who had been inside the experience that overshadowed my youth, and who now carried it inside herself? The only way for me to find the answers would be to write the novel.

Q: How did you come up with your main character, Della, and why did you choose to focus on a woman who served as a nurse in Vietnam?

A: I knew that the majority of the women who served were nurses, so I began to imagine the character who would become Della Brown. How did she end up in Vietnam as a young woman? Did she volunteer, was she running away from something, was she shocked to find herself deployed there?

I thought about what kinds of economic forces or personal choices might motivate a young woman to join the service in those years. Which ideals did she think she was serving?

While I loved doing the research to be able to portray her experiences in Vietnam, I was particularly intrigued by the question of what Della’s life was like now.

If you looked at her you would see an unremarkable middle-aged woman going about her business. You would never guess that Vietnam smoldered inside her. What pressures might shift and build to make the war come alive for her again, after all these years?

Q: What kind of research did you need to do to write the novel?

A: …A few of the books I read included A World of Hurt, by Mary Reynolds Powell, American Daughter Gone to War by Winnie Smith, and A Piece of My Heart by Keith Walker, all of which contain personal reflections by women who had served.

I also read journalistic examinations of the Vietnam War, including Long Time Passing by Myra MacPherson and Winners and Losers by Gloria Emerson, as well as articles and interviews online. I studied photos and videos of the places my characters would have worked and lived in Vietnam.

[After joining a listserv for women Vietnam veterans, I met a group of women.] Many were nurses, some had held other military jobs, and one was a civilian who had served as a librarian on an Army base in Vietnam.

They shared their own memories and helped me pin down the details that can help make a story come alive, like the kinds of junk food they missed while they were in Vietnam. It was important for me to try to get the small things right, so no nurse or Vietnam vet who read the book would feel that their experience had been disrespected.

Q: The book jumps from one period in Della's life to another, and back again. Did you plot out the entire book before you started writing, or did you come up with ideas as you wrote?

A: …I never know where the book is going or how it will end. I start with a situation or a question, and then discover the plot as I write.

I knew that this book would have sections that take place in the present day of the novel, which is 2003 just before the Iraq war begins, and in Della’s war experiences in 1969-1970. But after writing those scenes, I spent a lot of time moving them around and trying to figure out the right sequence and balance.  

Q: Do you think there are parallels in Della's experience to the experience of women serving in combat areas today?

A: I do think women serving in the military today will recognize some of Della’s experiences. For instance, only in December 2015 did the Pentagon announce that women can now serve in combat posts, although in reality women had been fulfilling combat roles for years, taking the same risks as the men but without gaining the same recognition and respect.

Della and the other nurses didn’t fight, but they did live and work in a combat zone, in constant peril from bombs and bullets.

Although my book doesn’t focus on this, it does allude to the fact that much of the danger the women faced was from some of the men they served with, who wore the same uniform but saw the women as prey rather than partners. I think that is an outrageous reality for many women serving today.

Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what do you see as the Vietnam War's legacy today?

A: The title Her Own Vietnam has a few layers of meaning for me. One is that each person experiences war alone, although they’re surrounded by others. That’s why you sometimes hear veterans refer to “my war,” even with other vets.

Della carries her war inside herself, rarely attempting to share her experiences with her family and perhaps unable to make them understand even when she does try.

I also think it’s interesting that the word “Vietnam” has come to mean a quagmire, a terrible situation you can’t escape. Of course, the Vietnamese people don’t think of it that way. They call it the American War.

My father, a World War II veteran, once told me, “The difference between your generation and mine is that my generation trusted our government.”

The Vietnam War is one reason why that changed. For the first time in history, regular people could watch the war on TV every night, and anyone could see that our political leaders were lying to us. The shimmer of righteousness that had illuminated the U.S. since WWII began to flicker out.

Certainly the shadow of the Vietnam War continues to shape American foreign policy, as you discuss in your book Haunting Legacy. So many decisions about how we engage with the world, and how we treat our own veterans, are based on what we have learned or failed to learn from Vietnam.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on some research for my next novel.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Her Own Vietnam is my third novel, but the first where I’ve gotten to interact with book groups that are discussing the book. I’ve found this completely fascinating.

People bring so much of their own perspective and life experience to reading a book that I’ve learned to see my own novel in new ways as a result of readers’ insights. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Lynn Kanter will be participating in the Temple Sinai Authors' Roundtable in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 27. This Q&A can also be found on


Q&A with writer Vu Tran

Vu Tran is the author of the new novel Dragonfish. His work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The O. Henry Prize Stories and The Best American Mystery Stories. Born in Saigon and raised in Oklahoma, he now teaches creative writing at the University of Chicago.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Dragonfish?

A: In 2008, I was asked to contribute a short story to the crime fiction anthology Las Vegas Noir, and my assignment was Chinatown. The story I wrote, “This Or Any Desert,” ended up in The Best American Mystery Stories 2009, and since I was struggling with another novel at the time, I decided to put it aside and expand “This Or Any Desert” into something longer.  

It’s now essentially the second chapter of Dragonfish, but at the time something about the four main characters in the story—Robert, Suzy, Sonny, Junior—felt nascent and worth further exploration, and so I thought it would be interesting to expand the world around them and connect them all in a backstory that takes place in the immediate wake of the Vietnam War. 

The short story was very much a pastiche of noir fiction, but I wanted the novel to use those noir conventions to tell what was basically an immigrant narrative—or more precisely, a story about refugees.     

Q: Can you say more about Las Vegas as the setting for the novel?

A: As I mentioned, the setting was Las Vegas because the original short story was a contribution to a crime anthology about the city. 

As I expanded the story into a novel, though, I gradually recognized some metaphoric value in setting it there. In our popular imagination, Vegas has become a place of secrets and illicit behavior, and while the reality of the city is much more normal, boring, and suburban than people would think, part of that reality does match this romanticized notion of the city. 

Most Vegas citizens are from elsewhere, coming to the city to make a better life for themselves and carrying all the stories from their previous lives that they might share only in part, in altered form, or not at all. This is similar to the immigrant who comes to a new and alien country with all the stories from their homeland that they often keep to themselves or share with only a few other people. 

Refugees, in particular, whose departure from the homeland could have been extremely traumatic, will carry around these hidden stories and, in effect, hide a significant part of themselves.  

Sometimes, the desire is to remake or redefine themselves in some way. There are plenty of immigrants who have no problem talking about the life they lived before coming to their adopted country, but I’ve always been interested in the reasons why certain immigrants do not share the stories they’ve been carrying around for so long. 

So Las Vegas became a setting that framed those reasons in a dramatic and compelling way.   

Q: While the story is told from Robert’s perspective, you include letters written from Hong/Suzy’s perspective. Why did you opt to write the novel that way?

A: For a while, the novel was basically operating as a crime narrative with Robert at the center, but once I got a few chapters in, that felt insufficient to me. His story alone wasn’t interesting enough, and it just felt like the novel had to be more than just a crime story. 

It wasn’t until I reached into Suzy’s backstory and fleshed out her reasons for doing what she did in the past, for behaving the way she did with Robert and other people in her life—only then did I find the heart of the novel. 

In many ways, Suzy’s letters provide an emotional foundation for the story that ties all the main characters to each other. In a sense, it’s in how she has hurt others and been hurt by others that ends up explaining so much of her behavior and the behavior of those in her life.  

So when I finally figured out her letters, I ended up writing all of them before going back to page 70 or so of the “crime narrative” and then continuing it until the end.

Q: How did you choose the novel’s title, and what does it signify for you?

A: The working title of the novel was actually the title of the original short story,  “This Or Any Desert,” which was more literary but also—my editor thought—not as memorable as it could be for a crime novel. 

Because I couldn’t come up with a better title, she ended up suggesting Dragonfish, which is a reference to the Asian Arowana fish in the second chapter. 

To be honest, it doesn’t mean very much and hopefully just sounds cool. After the title change, though, I went back and added a line about how Asians believe dragonfish bring good luck, keep the family together, and ward away evil. I like the irony that they don’t do any of those things in the novel.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I haven’t actually started writing anything new just yet, but I was rereading Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier recently and was fancying the idea of writing a Vietnamese Gothic novel. 

I haven’t developed the idea enough to talk about it with any clarity or certainty, but I do like the idea of using that framework—the atmosphere and style of the gothic tradition—to tell a story about colonial Vietnam, the impact of the French and American footprint there, and how it has shaped the resulting Vietnamese diaspora. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. This Q&A also appears on


Q&A with novelist Marian Palaia

Marian Palaia is the author of the new novel The Given World. Her work has appeared in a publications including TriQuarterly and The Virginia Quarterly Review. She lives in San Francisco.

Q: How did you come up with your main character, Riley?

A: Riley was originally a sort of version of me, for what was meant to be a stand-alone short story. It was never meant to be a novel (then, about 15 years ago), and Riley was simply a girl with a missing brother, working in a gas station and driving a beat-up Mustang convertible.

It wasn’t until I started working on my MFA at Madison that she began to show up in other places, and began to become more and more her own person. The more she became that, the better the story got.

Q: Why did you decide to include the Vietnam War and its legacy as one of the main themes in the book?

A: I grew up during that war, and its aftermath. I also lived in Vietnam for a time in the ‘90s, and have read dozens of books about it, in all its stages of existence.

It’s a fascinating place, and it was a fascinating time. I think my generation may have set the bar for ruffian behavior, and no generation has come along yet to match it. Whether or not that’s a good thing, I don’t know.

Q: Did you know how the book would end before you started writing, or did you make many changes along the way?

A: I had no idea how the book would end until I was about two-thirds of the way through it. I didn’t even know what the second chapter would be. I don’t write like that. I set out with a character and a situation, and just let it roll.

Q: How was the book’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?

A: My agent and I searched for a long time for a title. She really saw the book as one of redemption and hope (and I agree with her) and wanted the title to reflect that.

Poems are always a good place to look for sets of words that resonate and are beautiful, and when I found the Jane Hirshfield poem that opens the book, I said, “Oh, that’s it.”

“The given world, flaming precisely out of its frame.” Wow. The significance to me is this: we are each given “a world,” our own world, and then we have to learn how to live in it. It took me a long time to learn that, and it may have taken Riley even longer.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on another novel, called “The Hello Kitty Justice League.” It has several story lines, but the Justice League is two women in western Montana burning down/blowing up math labs. It’s sort of “Thelma and Louise” meet “Walt White,” but not really, but, yeah, kind of.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: A reiteration of sorts. It is a book about redemption. Yes, it does take Riley a very long time to get it together, but it isn’t as if she isn’t trying, and isn’t making progress all along (in fits and starts). That is the way it is for many people, and if you can’t scrounge up some empathy for the deeply wounded, this probably isn’t the book for you.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. This Q&A also appears on



Q&A with Professor Christian G. Appy

Christian G. Appy is the author of the new book American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity. His other books include Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides. He is a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Q: You write that "the Vietnam War shattered the central tenet of American national identity"--the idea of "American exceptionalism." What were the main reasons you believe this happened, and is this reversible?

A: The idea that the United States is a superior and invincible force for good in the world, always on the side of democracy and freedom, has deep roots in our history and had its broadest appeal, I believe, in the 1940s and ‘50s.

In the 1960s, with the escalation of warfare in Vietnam, a majority of Americans gradually came to the conclusion that the war had been initiated under false pretexts, was fought to prop up an unpopular authoritarian South Vietnamese regime, and was waged with a kind of ruthlessness that could no longer sustain any illusion that we were “saving” or “defending” the people of South Vietnam.

In 1969, when the public finally learned about the My Lai massacre (the close-range murder of some 500 unarmed and unresisting South Vietnamese civilians by a company of U.S. infantrymen), that seemed to confirm for many that the U.S. was waging an aggressive and unjust war.

Others continued to defend the war, of course, but many pro-war Americans responded to My Lai by saying that all sides commit atrocities in war. But to say that is itself an admission that America is not exceptional, that it does not put a “higher price” on life. And when the war was ultimately lost, the idea of “invincibility” went out the window as well. 

I don’t think we will ever recover the faith in American exceptionalism we had before Vietnam.  Nor should we. The historical record does not justify it and we’d be better off, I believe, to dispense with a dangerous myth that makes us too willing to acquiesce to the misuse of power by the tiny elite that makes foreign policy in our name.

The faith is deeply damaged, but still with us. After Vietnam, it was cobbled back together again, but in a more beleaguered and defensive form. It is also more bombastic. American exceptionalism is now such an endangered faith that those who uphold it most fervently often berate anyone who challenges it.

Q: How did you research this book, and what surprised you most in the course of your research?

A: My research was wide-ranging and included everything from movies, songs, and memoirs to presidential speeches, government documents, and contemporary journalism. I wanted to recover a sense of how Vietnam came into American consciousness in the 1950s and how our perceptions of the war changed over time.

With that in mind I explored a lot of primary sources. I also relied heavily an extraordinary body of secondary sources produced by historians and other writers.

One major goal of the research was to put the war in a larger cultural and political context than most books on the subject. I tried not only to illuminate the history of the Vietnam War but to show how we have wrestled with the myths and realities of our global war from the earliest days of the Cold War to the present.

I understood when I started that the war in Vietnam had a profound impact on our national identity but I was surprised by the depth and breadth of those legacies and how even our efforts to forget the war, or to repackage it into something more palatable, showed the intensity of its persistent impact. If the war had been less significant we would not have tried so hard to find ways to “get over it.”

Q: What impact do you think the Vietnam War has had on U.S. policymakers' decisions about whether to send troops to war in subsequent conflicts?

A: The most important lesson we might have learned from the Vietnam War is to dismantle the imperial presidency and to make foreign policy far more transparent, democratic, and accountable to an informed public. In the 1970s Congress made some efforts to curb the war-making power of the executive (e.g. the War Powers Act) and to open up public debate about foreign policy.

However, those efforts were incomplete and easily overwhelmed by a foreign policy establishment (including the military-industrial complex) that sought ever more power and ever greater secrecy.

As a result, there was never any fundamental rethinking of America’s role in the world and no internal challenge to the persistent effort to maintain and enhance global military superiority.

In fact, when the Cold War ended and another round of major reform and military down-sizing might have occurred, instead we doubled-down on the goal of full spectrum military dominance and extended our colossal network of foreign military bases. 

However, I can identify one positive impact Vietnam had on policymakers. From the end of the Vietnam War in 1975 until 9/11, policymakers understood that the public would not tolerate long, massive, indecisive wars with high American casualties, especially when there was no clear threat to national security.

Although the U.S. intervened directly and indirectly in dozens of places, during the quarter century after Vietnam only about 800 Americans died in combat. In that sense, the memory of Vietnam served as a modest brake on military adventurism.

After 9/11, however, all the brakes came off and once again we waged open-ended and seemingly endless wars to support unpopular regimes in countries where American troops are widely regarded as unwelcome foreign occupiers.

And, as in Vietnam, we have fought long after the majority of Americans opposed their continuation. And, once again, our leaders have failed to achieve their stated objectives.   

Q: How did you decide on the book's title, and what kind of reckoning has America had as far as the Vietnam War is concerned?

A: I’m full of ideas for titles of other people’s books, but find the process agonizing with my own. I usually don’t settle on one until they are almost finished.

However, when “American Reckoning” finally popped into my head it felt instantly right. I wanted the title to evoke a serious struggle over politics, conscience, and morality.

Reckoning has a number of possible meanings, but when linked to the Vietnam War I think it strongly suggests the ongoing process by which we have evaluated and judged that war and how that soul-searching reshaped the way we think about ourselves as a nation and a people.

The book argues that the war did indeed produce a serious reckoning but it remains incomplete. In the decades after the Vietnam War our public culture has not fully grappled with the war’s hardest questions and realities.

Instead of focusing on the damage we did in and to Vietnam, we have generally focused on our own war-related wounds, real and imagined.

While dissenting memories survived, the dominant voices in our culture have been quite successful in refocusing attention on the war as an American tragedy.

For several generations our children have been taught to honor the American veterans of Vietnam, but they have not been encouraged to explore deeply the history of the war itself and why it was so destructive and controversial.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I haven’t settled on a new project but I’m thinking of writing about World War II and American memory, another enormous topic. There is still a great deal about that war we have forgotten, or badly distorted, or never knew.

Part of the mystery of the subject is personal. My father was a Marine Corps dive bomber in the Pacific in 1944. He died in 1990 having told us very little of his experience. We have only his aviator’s log book and a few stories.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: There’s a lot more we all should know, me as much as anyone, but I remain hopeful that studying the past can help us in the present. I wouldn’t do this work otherwise.

And while recent years have been very depressing by many measures, one thing history does suggest is that fundamental change can sometimes happen at unpredictable times and in unexpected ways.

Lately I’ve been thinking more and more about what kind of world my two-year old granddaughter will inherit and hoping we won’t leave behind more of a mess than any generation could reasonably be expected to fix.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. This Q&A also appears on


Q&A with novelist and scholar Viet Thanh Nguyen

Viet Thanh Nguyen is the author of the new novel The Sympathizer. He also has written the academic book Race and Resistance. His stories have appeared in various publications, including Best New American Voices and TriQuarterly. He teaches English and American Studies at the University of Southern California, and he lives in Los Angeles.

Q: How did you come up with your main character, the narrator, in The Sympathizer?

A: One of the more fascinating kinds of characters from the history of the war was the communist spy who had infiltrated the South Vietnamese military, government, or civil society.

The most famous was a journalist who became the confidante of the most influential American reporters, and whose secret reports were so important that he was promoted to general during his clandestine service.

When it came time to write the novel, this kind of character leapt immediately to mind, because I knew I could hang a compelling story of intrigue on him.

I made him of mixed-race background because there were many Eurasians present in Vietnam as a result of French colonization, and it seemed to me that such a person likely would experience ambiguity if not outright conflict around his identity.

This kind of ambiguity or conflict would be perfect for discussions of cultural misunderstandings and divisions between East and West, but would also transform him as a spy, from someone who was simply living among his enemies to someone whose personal struggles would affect his political sympathies. Not only would be he be a man of two cultures, but a man of two beliefs as well.

Q: The narrator seems torn or divided in many ways. Can you say more about why you made that a key part of his persona? And how was the book’s title chosen?

A: The country itself had been divided by the French when they colonized it, into Tonkin, Annam, and Cochinchina. Then the country was divided again by the great powers of the Soviet Union, China, and the United States in 1954, into north and south.

So conflict and division were fundamental aspects of Vietnamese history in the 19th and 20th century, and our narrator's personal and political divisions are both a product of that history and come to represent that history.

Because he personally experiences what it means to be divided and rejected by others because of his mixed-race background, he becomes someone who is able to see both sides and sympathize with both sides.

This is the more subtle meaning of sympathy in the title. It seems to me that what is necessary in colonizing a people, or going to war with them, is the refusal of sympathizing, so the narrator's insistence on sympathizing with everyone is meant to be an antidote to such a worldview.

But the other meaning of "The Sympathizer" as a title is that it refers to someone who's taken sides with some ideology, which our narrator has also done. So he's torn again--between taking sides and sympathizing with all sides. That's his drama, his tragedy, and his absurdity.

Q: What do you think are some common perceptions and misperceptions about the impact of the Vietnam War, and what do you hope readers take away from your novel?

A: Perhaps the most common is that the war was fought in Vietnam and involved only Americans and Vietnamese. The war was also fought in Cambodia and Laos to devastating effect, and the postwar ramifications extended into those countries as well.

And while the Soviet Union and the Chinese helped the north, the Americans pulled in many countries to help them in the south, including South Korea, whose economic takeoff was enabled by what the U.S. government paid for the use of South Korean troops and corporations. In short, it was not a "Vietnam" war but a global one condensed into one region. 

I hope that readers take away that it was not a war about right versus wrong but right versus right, which is what defines tragedy, according to Hegel.

And what that means, why the novel has any universal meaning, is that we, each of us, will also be confronted at some moment in our lives with having to choose between right and right, as our narrator must.

In that situation, what is required is sympathy--the sympathy needed to make a choice and take a side, and the sympathy needed to see how all sides might be doing the right thing.

Q: You’ve also written nonfiction, as well as short stories. How do your various types of writing complement one another?

A: My nonfiction has taken the form of blog-writing and academic writing.

Blog-writing has been key to developing a more audience-friendly voice in which humor can play a key role. It was really through writing my blog (my essays can be found on , the leading online source on Vietnamese and diasporic arts, culture and politics) that I learned how to be more playful and funny. That shows up in the voice of my narrator.

As for my academic writing, I am a scholar of literature, ethnicity, war, and memory, and my reading into historical matters and literary and cultural theory has deeply informed the novel.

Choosing a narrator who is torn between two sides and who is capable of sympathizing with anyone is an outcome of my academic thinking about how relations with self and other are fundamental to how war and imperialism are carried out, as well as movements of resistance to them.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm finishing an academic book, War, Memory, Identity, which I think of as the critical bookend to a creative project whose fictional bookend is The Sympathizer.

War, Memory, Identity makes explicit my theoretical thinking about war, memory, and the other that the novel deals with through plot, character, theme, and symbol. After that, I'll turn to writing the sequel to The Sympathizer.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Thanks for giving me this opportunity!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. This Q&A also appears on