The Gangster We Are All Looking For

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The Gangster We Are All Looking For
Cover of the Knopf 2004 paperback edition
Author lê thi diem thúy
Country United States
Language English
Publisher Knopf
Publication date
Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback)
Pages 162
ISBN 0-375-70002-1

The Gangster We Are All Looking For is the first novel by Vietnamese-American author lê thi diem thúy, published in 2003. It was first published as a short piece in The Best American Essays of 1997 and was also awarded a Pushcart Prize “Special Mention.”[4]

The novel is a fragmented sequence of events recollected by a nameless narrator. In a first-person narrative, the narrator tells the stories of her past experiences as a Vietnamese immigrant. The time and place continuously shift throughout the novel; the story takes place both in Vietnam and America. The novel is concerned with themes of identity, family dynamics, war, and liberation. Images of water are prominent symbolically and literally throughout the novel.[5][6]

Narrative Style[edit]

The novel is told through the voice of the immigrant girl when she is six, and continues building until she was 26.

The flow of the prose is anachronistic, often jumping from life in America to life in Vietnam, at times even to a time in Vietnam before the narrator's birth. The tenses also switch from present tense to past and back. The novel is also told episodically fractured, because as the author stated, "memory, by its nature, is very fragmented".[7]



The narrator, her father, Ba, and her four uncles to whom she was related by water, not by blood, floated across the South China Sea together in a U.S Navy ship often where they stayed in Singapore refugee camp. In 1978, all six immigrants got a sponsor in the name of the retired navy officer MR. Russel while they were in the refugee camp. While their papers were processed, Mr. Russell died. Before he died, he had a dream about flying birds and told his dream to his wife. Based on his dream, she decided to take care of the six immigrants and moved them into Mr. Russell’s son Melvin’s house. However, Mel was not happy and felt uncomfortable having them stay in his house. Because of his mother begging him, he was obligated to accept the duty. After a while, Mel hired Ba and the four uncles as his crew of house painters and maintenances workers. Even though it was so hard to communicate with them in English, Ba was a better speaker and knew many more words than the other men, so that he could translate for them. Mrs. Russell was a good, kind person to the narrator and Ba. She took them to the mountains one Sunday afternoon. At that time, Ba and the narrator took a picture together for the first time. In contrast, the four uncles were spending their Sundays afternoons with Vietnamese people at the pool hall. They started smoking cigarettes and learning to bet on football games. On the negative note, the narrator did not like American culture. She did not like to wear American dresses, and felt lonely because she was the only Vietnamese girl in her school. Melvin and Mrs. Russell owned a collection of miniature glass animals that belonged to the late MR. Russell, and put the glass cabinet at the corner of Mel’s small, crowded office. Mel warns the immigrants not to touch any of them. However, they did not understand what he said, and Ba did not interpret it for them. The narrator perceived that the butterfly inside the glass was alive and trapped in the glass, and she wished that it could to escape. Even though Mel told them not to touch anything, the narrator started playing with those forbidden glass sculptures often, but secretly. She would open the cabinet doors and let the animals get some air; also, she carried the animals and told them stories. She was especially curious by one of the objects that she noticed before - a paperweight with a butterfly inside. One day in December, the narrator attempted to make her dream a reality by throwing the glass butterfly at the cabinet, shattering that piece along with the rest of the collection. Ba and the four uncles ran into the room, at which point Ba said, "suh-top” when he arrived at the scene, indicating his limited English skills. He was meant to pronounce “Stop”.


The mother of the narrators and wife of the father makes her way to America and is reunited with her daughter and husband. They live in an apartment complex with palm trees and a pool. The mother works as a seamstress. The mother accidentally crashes her Cadillac into the apartment gates. The boys of the apartment complex, on hot days, would jump from the second story into the pool. In response to this, the landlord has the pool emptied and filled with rocks and cement. A baby palm tree is planted on its surface. Following the change, Ba and Ma argue.

At the abandoned home next door, the neighborhood children play and set up a large cardboard box they find. One summer, the narrator enters the box with a boy, who begins to touch her chest. The narrator continues to enter the box with the boy.

One day, the narrator is sent to run an errand, and as she is returning home, she feels the terrifying presence of her brother who seems to have been left in Vietnam.

the gangster we are all looking for[edit]

This section begins with a description of a black and white photograph of the narrator's grandparents in Vietnam. Before the narrator's birth, when Ma, a Catholic schoolgirl, decided to marry Ba, a Buddhist gangster, Ma's parents were outraged and disowned their daughter. The narrator was born in Vietnam in an alley behind her grandparents' home.

The narrator recalls her father's face at a military camp in South Vietnam. The family moves from the Red Apartment with the palm tree to the Green Apartment. Because the manager murdered a woman, family moves again to Linda Vista. Ma shaves her head because she is angry at Ba for gambling and drinking. After the arrival of the aforementioned photograph, Ma and Ba get into fights. Kids outside the apartment wonder what is happening, and the narrator goes outside, wildly dancing in front of the crowd.

The family is ultimately evicted from their home. The Linda Vista home is ultimately demolished. When they leave, Ma remembers that she forgot the photograph of her parents in the apartment and frantically cries to return to her parents.

the bones of birds[edit]

The narrator runs away from home to the East Coast. The father finds a new occupation as someone who mows lawns and one day digs a trench in someone's lawn without being told to. When the narrator returns one night, Ba tells her that he is in trouble.


In the final section of the novel, two narratives seem to run alongside one another, alternating every few paragraphs.

The first narration takes place in America, where the father, in order to ignore the ringing phone, does various things to preoccupy himself. The mother works at a Vietnamese restaurant which overcharges their customers for foreign cuisine. There are rumors that their daughter has moved to the East Coast to become a writer.

The other narration takes place twenty years ago, in Vietnam. The narrator's brother's body was pulled from the South China Sea. He is said to have been jumping from one boat to another when he suddenly slipped and fell. Ma's father brings the narrator's dead brother back home, where people say he has cursed the home with bad water. Ba is currently fighting in the war.

In this chapter many events from the story are concluded, and many things are revealed. One event is that the narrator’s brother died 20 years when his body was pulled out from the sea. But before the author gives us this information there is lots of description of what the father was watching on TV while the phone was ringing. The author wants the reader to pay close attention to those descriptions. The girl’s father was watching the news. The phone was ringing, but he somehow did not want to pick it up. At some point, the reader knows that he gets nervous and he is resisting taking that call—he feels that something is not quite right. The author manages to give the reader a hint of what is happening, illustrated when the father changes channels. The first time he sees firemen, trying to hose down a flaming bank of trees. Firemen are always associated with danger, or moments in which someone is having troubles. Even though he is not picking up the phone, he is watching what could be happing: danger! The phone still ringing and the father changes the channel, so as to ignore the phone again. This time, he is watching footage of a flood in the middle of the country. A Flood symbolizes the conclusion of one phase or cycle; at the same time brings new things. It also symbolizes destruction and death. Moreover, the author again gives the reader a sign that danger is coming. After the flood, the father watches a boy and his father traveling on a canoe. This is very important because the images were a boy and his dad; it could have been a girl and her mom, but it wasn’t. This is a connection to the father and his son, and they were together in the water. Later on the chapter the author describes how her brother died; the women at her house whispered that her brother died because he jumped between two boats and he hit his head and went straight down to the hole. We have seen images of firemen, flood and a boy with his dad in the canoe; all of these images have a connection with what was happening at Vietnam. The phone kept ringing and the father changed the channel and saw two politicians shaking hands, a woman standing at a field of green grass—pointing at it and shaking her head. This image is very important because the woman staring at the grass could be a sign of a buried body. When people die, they are buried in cemeteries in big green fields, because somehow nature gives a sense of peace. This could be a representation of how the girl’s mother was feeling. In the chapter she did not want to bury her son—moreover, the woman on the TV was shaking her head side to side saying no, she was also sad, as she was pointing to the grass. The phone is still ringing and father changes the channel to a baseball game—he fills a pot with water to water the plants and the dog he had found a week before came toward him—and the phone stopped ringing. If we make a connection between all these images, we understand that the author wanted to gives us information of what was happening in Vietnam. The flood was the catalyst, and the water was where the boy died. The canoe could be compared to the boats, and the women starring at the field, could be the place where he was going to be buried. The author uses these descriptions so we can interpret them and make conclusions of what might be happening.



Throughout the novel, water is the most prominent motif. From the beginning, lê thi diem thúy inserts that “In Vietnamese, the word for water and the word for a nation, a country, and a homeland are one and the same: nu’ó’c.” In a similar sense, water plays a symbolic role in diverse ways in the text—-often, with dual/opposite meanings. Most of the themes within the text are somehow related to and entwined with the flow of water.

The Mobility of Memory through the Photograph[9][edit]

Through the photograph, The Gangster We Are All Looking For explores the nature of memory and its ability, or inability, to travel from generation to generation. In le’s narrative, the photograph can be understood not only in terms of reference and time, but also “perspective of mobility”.

“Arrival 1: Listening to the Mortified Eloquence of the Photograph”[edit]

From the beginning, the photograph is not presented as an object to be viewed, but as a force which disturbs the narrator’s somewhat settled family. Although the photograph is not accompanied with text or a written message, to the mother, the picture is a demand, a message which tells of a time when the mother had been disowned. Because the photograph is loaded with deep emotion and grief for the mother, “she loses herself, literally her self, to it entirely” (8). But for the daughter, who does not associate much experience with the photograph, the picture does not offer any sort of access.

“Arrival 2: (At)Tending to the Split Photograph”[edit]

Treating the photograph as if it was an actual immigrant, Ma tells the narrator that the photograph has come to move in. The narrator’s response is: “I don’t really know what she is talking about but I say ‘O.K.’ anyway,” suggesting the alienation and challenge of intergenerational remembering. Because the photograph is addressed towards the mother, the mother recognizes herself as the child, the grandparents as the parents. Since the mother is taking on the role of the child, she dislodges the identity of the narrator. Because the mother perceives the photograph as addressed towards herself, the photograph offers no connection to the narrator. Actually, it dislocates the narrator from her identity.

“The mother becomes a ‘child,’ the father a ‘gangster,’ and the daughter confronts the multiple voids of a vacated identity” (10). Because the daughter is incapable of interpreting or connecting to the photograph, since it was taken before she was born, her only option is to engage in a close examination which results in empty meaning. Lorensen states that the “daughter’s … relation to the family portrait from Vietnam [is] the mad dance before the entire neighborhood.” “The daughter’s mad dance could be viewed as a theatrical examination of a photograph that refuses to have meaning for her” (11). Lorensen claims that although the daughter can not see the photograph the way her mother does, she still recognizes its ability to disintegrate her family, the way her own body “dissolves” (12) as she dances in front of the entire neighborhood.

“Arrival 3: The Second Death of the Photographic Subject as the Catalytic Mark of Signification”[edit]

Lorensen also suggests that the since the photograph has come to represent the grandparents, when the family is evicted from their Linda Vista home, leaving behind the photograph, two types of “evictions” take place, the eviction from Linda Vista in America, and another one from the past, when the mother is evicted, or disowned, from her family in Vietnam. Although this may seem like an extravagant interpretation, the details of the narration suggest otherwise. There are two descriptions which link both evictions together. The description of the chain-link fence and the calling of each other's names, which are present in both "evictions". At the end, the mother calls out for her parents, which she’s forgotten. This has a double meaning. She’s calling for her home in Vietnam, to return to Vietnam, as well as the photographs she’s forgotten at her Linda Vista home.

The Textual Representation of a Visual Representation (Ekphrasticism)[edit]

Through le’s language, to the narrator and to the American reader, the photograph’s meaning slides from being the grandparents to being “Vietnam.” This is due to le’s language in introducing the photograph as “Vietnam is a black-and-white photograph of […]” (78) which invokes other images of black-and-white photographs regarding Vietnam that the collective American memory may recall such as the photograph of a girl running from a napalm strike or the close range shooting of a Viet Cong suspect.[10]

Vietnamese American Literary Context[11][edit]

Since 1963, over 100 volumes of literature (generally focused on tales of witness, education, and life in America) have been published in English by Vietnamese American authors. For the most part, they have gone unnoticed by the public eye because they were not useful to America in the years following the Vietnam War.

Michele Janette, specialist in Vietnamese American literature and film, proposes that the cause for this obscurity lies in the concept of victimhood. The Vietnam War is the only war America has lost. It is a war understood as having no winner, only victims. America tends to see this war as one in which Americans fought themselves, not the Vietnamese. Thus, Vietnamese American literature challenges the legitimacy of the claim shared by American citizens: victimhood.

Published Vietnamese American literature (here defined as literature written by people with shared ethnic Vietnamese heritage) before 1995 was almost exclusively authorial biography. From 1995 and onwards, there has been a blossoming of Vietnamese American literature from writers who identify themselves first as writers, concerned with the craft of writing as well as the content of what they are writing about.

As Americans are distanced from the war temporally, and as Vietnamese American literature moves away from victimhood and the war America lost, Vietnamese American literature has become more accepted and recognized in the United States.


Le's novel received wide acclaim through a multitude of book reviews ranging from Entertainment Weekly to The New York Times to Publishers Weekly. There have been some minor reserves, though, about the pace of the book and the difficulty of reading a fragmented narrative.

Entertainment Weekly: "Lovely and sparse, Gangster is like an impressionist painting-pretty strokes of prose melding to create a larger whole."[12]

Library Journal: "The story opens slowly but gathers strength, and though it remains somewhat muted, le's lyrical writing and skill with the telling vignette will reward patient readers."[13]

The New York Times: "Readers will not always find 'The Gangster We Are All Looking For' easy to follow or the narrator's viewpoint consistent, but the cumulative, almost liturgical effects of the novel is both heartbreaking and exhilarating."[14]

Publishers Weekly: "This is a stark and significant work that will challenge readers."[15]


  1. ^ thúy, lê thi diem. The Gangster We Are All Looking For. New York: Knopf, 2003. Book.
  2. ^ Gsoels-Lorensen, Gutta. “lê thi diem thúy’s ‘The Gangster We Are All Looking For’: The Ekphrastic Emigration of a Photograph.” Studies in Contemporary Fiction. Volume 48, Number 4 / Summer 2007. Print.
  3. ^ Janette, Michele. "Vietnamese American Literature in English 1963-1994." Amerasia Journal. 2003. pp. 267-286. Print.
  4. ^ Huand, Guiyou. Asian American Poets: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook. CT: Greenwood Press, 2003. 201-203. Book.
  5. ^ Baumann, Paul. "Washing Time Away." The New York Times. 25 May 2003. Print.
  6. ^ Nguyen, Chau. "In Search of the Gangster." UCLA Institute: Asia Pacific Arts. 9 April 2004. Web. <>
  7. ^ thúy, lê thi diem. "Fragments of Memory." Far East Economic Review. 11 March 2004. Vol. 167, Iss. 10, pg. 52. Print.
  8. ^ thúy, lê thi diem. The Gangster We Are All Looking For. New York: Knopf, 2003. Book.
  9. ^ Gsoels-Lorensen, Gutta. “lê thi diem thúy’s ‘The Gangster We Are All Looking For’: The Ekphrastic Emigration of a Photograph.” Studies in Contemporary Fiction. Volume 48, Number 4 / Summer 2007. Print.
  10. ^ Gsoels-Lorensen, Gutta. “lê thi diem thúy’s ‘The Gangster We Are All Looking For’: The Ekphrastic Emigration of a Photograph”Studies in Contemporary Fiction. Volume 48, Number 4 / Summer 2007. Print
  11. ^ Janette, Michele. "Vietnamese American Literature in English 1963-1994." Amerasia Journal. 2003. pp. 267-286. Print.
  12. ^ Lee, Allyssa. "The Gangster We Are All Looking For." Entertainment Weekly. 9 May 2003. Issue 709, pg. 83. Print.
  13. ^ Seaman, Donna. "The Gangster We Are All Looking For." Library Journal. 1 March 2003. Vol. 128, Issue 4; pg. 119. Print.
  14. ^ Baumann, Paul. "Washing Time Away." The New York Times. 25 May 2003. Print.
  15. ^ Zaleski, Jeff. "The Gangster We Are All Looking For." Publishers Weekly. 21 April 2003. Vol. 250, Iss. 16; pg. 39. Print.

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