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Vivian Pham’s debut novel The Coconut Children is a beautiful Australian novel. If you cannot guess from the opening sentence, there might be some gushing in this review. In The Coconut Children, Sonny and Vince are two first-generation Vietnamese Australian teenagers navigating adolescence, living between two cultures, and finding love and acceptance. The novel is set in Cabramatta, a suburb of Western Sydney which is home to a prominent Vietnamese diaspora. The city is full of amazing Vietnamese restaurants where you can find everything from Vietnamese coffee and also get my favourite refreshing drink Chanh Muối – lemon, sugar, and soda water or the absolutely divine Muc Nhoi Thit – pork stuffed squid.
For those readers outside of Australia or perhaps not familiar with the Vietnamese diaspora, the Vietnamese conflicts which began in the 1950s and extended through the mid-late 1970s saw the displacement of Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian peoples. Specifically, Vietnam experienced the devastating effects of colonisation from the Chinese and the French, and then the interference of the American and Australian military through operations that targeted the rise of communism.
The extended war and conflict saw the displacement of many Vietnamese citizens. Fearing for their safety, many fled the country to seek asylum in countries like Australia, U.S., and Canada. I can only speak from assumptions here, but I would think that many Vietnamese citizens ended up in Australia because of the close proximity to Asia. And since many refugees arrived by boat, this was another reason why Australia might have been a popular destination.
The trauma and the subsequent intergenerational trauma that has sadly stayed with the Vietnamese community still in Vietnam and the diaspora is difficult and complicated to unpack. My very brief two paragraphs above do not do it justice. Also, for those Vietnamese immigrants now living in Australia, one of the countries instrumental in so much death, violence, and pain for Vietnam, I can only assume there are mixed and complex feelings.
So let’s jump to Pham’s novel. Sonny and Vince are two very different people, yet they are drawn to each other. Vince is seen as a bit of a heart-breaker and bad boy, which for the Vietnamese and Asian community defies the Western stereotypes that emasculate Asian men. His time in juvenile detention sets Vince apart from his friends, and when he comes back to school it is clear that this has had a life-altering effect on him. Vince has a troubled and turbulent upbringing, much like Sonny. However, for Sonny, it is for very different reasons.
For me, Sonny seems to struggle with figuring out her identity in the wake of the sexual assault she experienced as a child. She is smart and shy – and in many ways seems to want to uphold this idea of a model minority while still being able to explore her sexuality and identity. Pham plays, challenges, and subverts the Western imposed stereotypes on her characters, and we can see this as Sonny explores her sexuality and identity throughout the book.
Sonny and Vince find each other in the chaos of trying to unpack their parents’ struggles and traumas as well as navigating the two worlds of Vietnamese culture and Australian culture. And possibly even a third culture – Vietnamese Australian identity. It is a beautiful and bittersweet teenage love that just had me sighing and clutching my heart.
The title of the novel comes from a story told to Sonny (although my memory is a bit fuzzy if it was her father or not?). Coconut trees live near the water and drop coconuts into the ocean to send them off to faraway places for them to grow. This metaphor is used throughout the novel to talk about the Vietnamese diaspora, and so Sonny and Vince are then coconut children. Growing up far away from their original cultural roots. I cannot help but feel a little sad at this metaphor and it makes me wonder if this is a way to come to terms with the trauma of displacement or if this is how many Vietnamese Australians see themselves and their family?
Buy your copy of The Coconut Children from Book Depository here.
Buy your copy of The Coconut Children from Booktopia here.
The Coconut Children is a great piece of Australian literature and loved being able to read the stories of Sonny and Vince. I look forward to reading more of Pham’s works in the future. Tell me your favourite Vietnamese author in the comments below. As always, share the reading love.