Photo for Approaching Vietnamese Refugee Stories from

Left: Evyn Lê Espiritu Gandhi / Right: Still from Máy Bay (Airplane) (2011)

UCLA Professor Evyn Lê Espiritu Gandhi shares about her background in comparative research and how that led to rooting her work in Indigenous and critical refugee studies.

By Kitty Hu (UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies)

Transnational Vietnamese refugee experiences

"Where did Vietnamese refugees end up around the world outside of the United States?  What stories do they tell?"

These questions are central to Evyn Lê Espiritu Gandhi’s research and approach to understanding the range of transnational experiences that resulted from the Vietnam War. She is currently an assistant professor in the UCLA Department of Asian American Studies. 

Gandhi’s mother and grandmother were both refugees who left Vietnam in 1975. As a history and media studies undergraduate student, she began a series of film projects that tied in her family’s oral histories and explored acts of sustaining state-suppressed refugee memory.

As a graduate student at UC Berkeley, Gandhi was inspired by campus activism around Palestinian liberation as well as a class on Jewish and Black Atlantic diaspora theory, both of which encouraged her to consider her own positionality in relation to larger movements happening globally. She wrote her final paper for this class on Vietnamese refugees in Israel-Palestine, unpacking ideas of nationalism, citizenship, and belonging.

During her third year as a graduate student, she co-facilitated a course with a colleague who brought in perspectives from Indigenous critical theory, which has continued to shape Gandhi’s work today.

In her research, she asks, "What happens when Vietnamese refugees are resettled in settler colonial states and have to negotiate their positionalities with those of Indigenous peoples who are also negotiating the very existence of that state?"

The refugee settler condition

In writing her book tentatively titled Archipelago of Resettlement: Vietnamese Refugee Settlers in Guam and Israel-Palestine, Gandhi coins the term, "refugee settler condition," which she explains as the "vexed positionality of refugee subjects" who experience displacement, but as a result of their resettlement in settler colonial states, must also hold onto complexities in relation to Indigenous movements.

A current example of this "vexed position" is Tony Pham's recent role as the interim Immigration and Customs Enforcement director in relation to his background as a refugee to the United States.

Historically, another example of this is the U.S. military’s use of Guam as one of the first processing centers for Vietnamese refugees from April to November of 1975. The focus of the majority of existing scholarship and media on Vietnamese refugees has centered resettlement to the continental U.S., exacerbating how the Pacific Islands have been overlooked throughout U.S. history. Building on Jana Lipman's recent book In Camps, Gandhi uses an interdisciplinary approach to analyze how the U.S. government and military rationalized and represented the processing of Vietnamese refugees on Guam. Through archival research and interviews, she argues that Vietnamese refugees were politicized to bolster the humanitarian image of settler colonial states such as the United States.

She hopes to unpack the militarized conditions that settler colonial systems deploy to pit communities against each other and instead envision spaces for on the ground solidarity.

"If solidarity is not happening in the social sphere, what can it look like and what are the vocabularies that we don’t have yet to imagine these solidarities?" Gandhi stated.

The last part of her book looks specifically at artistic and cultural forms produced by the communities themselves to speculate emergent forms of Vietnamese refugee solidarities with both Palestinians and Chamorros.

In her interviews with Vietnamese refugees in Israel-Palestine, some of whom became citizens, Gandhi said some individuals would identify with the Israeli state, voicing the fear of a second displacement if Palestine were liberated. Gandhi hopes to quell such concerns.

"Particularly when we talk about Indigenous decolonization, it’s more about self-determination over borders and land," Gandhi elaborated. "It’s inviting people to understand the histories of the lands upon which they are resettled and have a more open relationship with the traditional caretakers of these lands."

Critical theory in the classroom

In the Asian American studies department at UCLA, she teaches a class on critical refugee studies that utilizes a comparative approach to understand different refugee populations across the globe. At the end of each class, her students contribute to Distorted Footprints, a podcast which seeks to critique and reframe narratives that characterize refugees as victims or threats.

"I think it’s really exciting that we have so many different ethnic studies departments at UCLA, which leads to a critical mass of activism and research, but one potential concern is that we are siloed," she said. "Along with other professors, I’m pushing for more comparative, relational frameworks towards the promise and potential of cross-racial, transnational coalition building."


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Published: Tuesday, January 19, 2021