Eating Vietnam: Souvenir-Literature, the Tourist Gaze, and Book Club Readers in Camilla Gibb’s The Beauty of Humanity Movement

Hannah McGregor, PhD Candidate
School of English and Theatre Studies
University of Guelph

This paper will examine representations of tourism and the “foreign” culture of Vietnam in Camilla Gibb’s 2010 novel, The Beauty of Humanity Movement, in light of Gibb’s claims that the book was actively shaped to fit the expectations of a Book Club readership. The novel takes place in contemporary Hanoi and centres on three characters: Hung, an elderly pho-maker; Tu’, a young tour guide; and Maggie, a curator born in Hanoi, raised in the U.S., and now residing in the city of her birth. Based on the author’s travels in Vietnam, the novel can be read as a form of literary tourism that produces “representations that in turn become commodities (souvenirs)” of the culture represented (Zilcosky 10). The narrative twines together Hung’s history of ad hoc pho-making, the mystery of Maggie’s father’s lost art, and the commodified and globalized image of Vietnam being produced by Hanoi’s contemporary art scene. Via the figure of Tu’, the novel also explores the thriving Vietnamese tourism industry, including Western tourists’ perception of Vietnam not as a “real” place, but as a mirror for Western desire, in which “Our gazes fail to reach beyond Ourselves” (Alneng 482). My paper will foreground the novel’s struggles to complicate the category of souvenir-literature through its complex treatment of the commodity status of works of art, while also emphasizing how the fixation on food as an assimilable (or digestible) form of culture ultimately produces an image of Vietnam that Book Club readers can consume as the “authentic spice” of cultural difference (Ahmed 118).

Works Cited
Ahmed, Sara. Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality. London and New York: Routledge, 2000. Print.
Alneng, Victor. “‘What the Fuck is a Vietnam?’: Touristic Phantasms and the Popcolonization of (the)Vietnam (War).” Critique of Anthropology 22.4 (2002): 461-489. Web. Sage Journals. 5 Sept. 2010.
Gibb, Camilla. The Beauty of Humanity Movement. Toronto: Doubleday, 2010. Print.
Zilcosky, John. “Writing Travel.” Writing Travel: the poetics and politics of the modern journey. Ed. John Zilcosky. Toronto: U Toronto P, 2008. 3-14. Print.

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