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Many themes can be discovered and discussed in "The Gangster We Are Looking For."

  • Loss
  • Racial melancholia (see David Eng and Anne Cheng)
  • Creativity
  • Adaptation to new culture
  • Father-daughter relationship
  • Power of stories
  • Power of silence (see King-kok Cheung)
  • Coming of age: Death/Grief, Unification/Divsion, Identification
  • Class, gender, and race as interlocking components of identity
  • Child’s perspective
  • Effects of war and displacement
  • Beauty
  • Simultaneity

Thúy said in an interview, “I was working with [the idea of] Southern California haunted by southern Vietnam in so much as these characters had come from elsewhere but were now here. They brought that other place with them in unexpected ways. They were haunted by the other place and reminded of that other place in unexpected moments.”

Literary Strategies Used to Convey Themes

(Note: Specific quotes that highlight the narrator and her contribution to the story can be found in the individual chapter guides at the main discussion page.)

  • Formal Aspects of the Book
  • Use of an unnamed narrator
  • Nonlinear, fragmentary
  • Elliptical
  • Use of silence
  • Lack of language to describe some memories and experiences: no English, no words at all, use of images, appropriate for 6-year-old narrator
  • Transitions from currently-lived experience to memory, from reality to imagination, from narrator’s perspective to other characters’ perspectives


  • Why is she unnamed?
  • Why is she a child?
  • What is she like?
  • What makes her worth listening to?
  • What is her identity? Age? Class? Gender? Sexuality? Ethnicity?
  • How does her sensibility develop? Thúy said in an interview: “She sees, she's observant, she hears, but it doesn't necessarily mean that she knows. She absorbs. This is very true of children; they absorb but they don't necessarily understand what they're absorbing.”


  • What are his challenges?
  • What is his relationship to his daughter and wife?
  • Do we care about him? If so, why?
  • To what does the title refer?

Structure of Chapters

  • What principles organize each chapter? In answering this question, consider the themes of displacement, location, and the age of the narrator.
  • Consider the development of characters and their relationships with each other, the U.S., and the past.
  • Discuss the author’s use of controlling images.

Beginning & Ending

  • What is the relationship between the first and last lines of the book, and of the significance of being "washed to shore?”

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