MODERN VIETNAMESE LITERATURE: BOOKS ABOUT WAR BY VIETNAMESE AND AMERICAN WRITERS AND BOOKS NOT ABOUT WAR

MODERN VIETNAMESE WRITERS

Vietnam also has a reputation for producing good writers. Nhat Linh's Breaking the Ties (1935) is crediting with creating a modern prose style for Vietnam "while powerfully challenging the country's Confucian social traditions." Nhat Linh gave up writing for politics with tragic results. After being arrested for being involved in an alleged coup plot he committed suicide by drinking a bottle of Johnny Walker scotch laced with poison. Lan Cao is the author of the good first novel Monkey Bridge.

Writers of modern modern Vietnamese novels and short stories that have had their works published in English include Lind Dinh, Nguyen Thi Am, Bao Ninh, Duong Thu Huong, Nguyen Huy Thiep, Le Minh Khue, Do Phuoc Tien, The Giang, Pham Thi Hoaih, Mai Kim Ngoc, Tran Vu, Do Kh, and Nguyen Minh Chau. Some still live in their homeland; others live and work in the U.S. or Europe. War is inevitably one motif of these stories, but Doi Moi economic reforms, according to Booklist, "has allowed at least some writers to consider Bloody Marys and belly dancing as well as bombs and burning flesh in their fiction."

Duong Thu Huong fought valiantly for her country during the Vietnam War but had second thoughts about the Communist party after the war was over. All four of her books have been banned in Vietnam. In 1991 she was imprisoned without a trial for seven months. Books by her that have been translated into English include Novel Without a Name by (Penguin), about a Viet Cong fighter who questions what she is doing, and Paradise of the Bind (Perennial), her first novel.

Kien Nguyen and The Unwanted, a Memoir of Childhood

Kien Nguyen (Vietnamese: Nguyen Kiên) was born in Nha Trang, South Vietnam in 1967 to a Vietnamese mother from a once wealthy family and an American civil engineer. His mother's family, who had lost their wealth when the French left Vietnam, lived among neighbors who treated them as pariahs because of their colonialist background. Kien, a child of mixed race, was especially ostracized from the community. He left Vietnam in 1985 through the United Nations "Orderly Departure Program." After spending time at a refugee camp in the Philippines, he arrived in the United States and became a dentist. He lives in New York City.

His Published works include: "The Unwanted, a Memoir of Childhood," Little Brown & Co. (2001), A childhood memoir, written in first person, with the reader seeing the boy grow, in South Vietnam, until the book's ending at age 18, on his way to the U.S.; "The Tapestries," Little Brown & Co. (2002); and Le Colonial, Little Brown & Co. (2004).

In a review of "The Unwanted, a Memoir of Childhood, " A.O. Edmunds of Ball State University wrote in Library Journal: "This is a powerful, compelling memoir of an Amerasian boy's experience in Communist Vietnam from 1975, when the United States troops pulled out, until his family's migration to the United States in 1985. The illegitimate son of an American G.I. and a wealthy Vietnamese woman, Nguyen is now a dentist in New York City. Initially, he wrote this book as a kind of personal catharsis, but he decided to publish it as a memorial to the thousands of Amerasians who have suffered and died. His story, which recalls The Killing Fields, recounts a descent from wealth and comfort into the horrors of Communist rule. In painful detail, he writes of poverty, suffering, and torture, much of it inflicted on him precisely because of his Amerasian roots. Ultimately, his tale is one of extraordinary courage and human will, for Nguyen and his mother held their family together in the face of great hardships. Beautifully written and inspirational, this memoir is highly recommended.

"The son of a wealthy Vietnamese woman and an American businessman, Nguyen was nearly eight when Saigon fell to the Viet Cong. For the next decade he and his family endured hardships brought on by the privileged lives they had enjoyed under the capitalist regime. Although his writing lacks the lyricism of recent memoirs like The Liar's Club or Angela's Ashes, Nguyen's voice is clear and strong, and he is adept at capturing both the broad sweep of life under the Viet Cong and the peculiarities of growing up in a colorful and emotionally dysfunctional family during a jarring and vicious revolution. Perhaps the most engaging aspect of his memoir is its portrayal of the ironies that ensue when the old order collapses and the social hierarchy is turned upside down. At one point, Nguyen's mother, imperious and a virulent snob, is called before the newly installed communist leadership only to encounter her former gardener, a man she barely acknowledged before the revolution but who now has the power to strip her of all she owns. [Source: Cahners Business Information, Inc. >>>]

"For the most part, though, this memoir reminds us of life's many undeserved injustices. Nguyen and his half-brother, Jimmy, who is also Amerasian, pay a particularly high price for the accident of their genealogy, enduring the scorn of their countrymen, especially the communists. At 18, the author and his family emigrated to the United States, where he now works as a dentist. With the purely personal goal of "healing" himself, Nguyen concludes by hoping that his narrative will also help other Amerasians born during the Vietnam War mourn their "lost childhoods." (Mar. 20)Forecast: This is part of a growing literature of memoirs about the horrors in Vietnam after the fall of Saigon. If well reviewed, this should sell well to readers with an interest in that conflict and its aftermath. In addition, film rights have been sold to the producer of Driving Miss Daisy, which could enhance sales down the road." >>>

Duong Thu Huong

Reporting from Paris in 2005, Alan Riding wrote in the New York Times, "Wearing an elegant tweed jacket and sipping fruit juice in a Left Bank café here, the writer Duong Thu Huong hardly cuts a threatening figure. But Huong, 58, evidently does in her native Vietnam, where she has spent time in jail, has seen her books banned and for 11 years was denied a passport to travel abroad. Her sins, it seems, are many. Her novels dissecting life under one of the last Communist regimes are published and well received in the West. She is a former Communist Party member who was expelled as a traitor. And above all, she is a dissident - a "dissident whore," one party leader said - who refused to be silenced even after spending eight months in prison in 1991. [Source: Alan Riding, New York Times, July 15, 2005 <=>]

"Now, for the second time, she has been allowed to travel to Europe. But in a sense, Vietnam has traveled here with her. She is willing to talk about her life and to discuss her five novels, including her latest, "No Man's Land," published in the United States in April. But her priority is to denounce the Hanoi government as irremediably corrupt and abusive. "It is my mission to do so on behalf of those who have died under this shameful regime," she said, speaking fluent but heavily accented French. "Because I have a small reputation abroad, I have to say these things. I have to empty what is inside me to feel my conscience is clear. The people have lost the power to react, to reflect, to think. Perhaps I will give people courage." <=>

"She feels her message is more urgent than ever. Thirty years after the Vietnam War, she sees the regime gaining acceptance abroad by opening up its economy to foreigners under a communism-with-capitalism strategy. She also noted with alarm that Vietnam's prime minister, Phan Van Khai, was received by President George W. Bush at the White House last month. "It is a brutal and ignoble regime that does lots of things to fool foreigners," she said during a long conversation. "If Bush supports this regime, it will be engaging in another war that will drive the people into the mud. This time, instead of using B-52 bombers, it will be using the hands of native turncoats." Until now, she went on, the Vietnam War served to justify the government's grip on power. "All its propaganda is designed to feed the myth of the war, to flatter and threaten the people," she said. "It tells them: 'You are a heroic people. You should be proud of your history. But never forget that it was the party that led the people to victory.' It deceives the people with blind pride." <=>

Life of Duong Thu Huong

Alan Riding wrote in the New York Times, "Huong's life, too, was inevitably shaped by the war. As a child, she said, she was refused a good education because she belonged to neither the peasantry nor the proletariat class: Her grandmother was a landowner who in the mid-1950s moved to South Vietnam. But at 16, Duong Thu Huong (pronounced zung tu hung) was allowed to join a nomadic theater troupe and, showing talent, was then sent to a college training actors, dancers and singers for popular entertainment. [Source: Alan Riding, New York Times, July 15, 2005 <=>]

"There she again did well and in 1968 was offered the chance to study in the Soviet Union, East Germany or Bulgaria. "But I chose to go to the front because our country was at war and my ancestors have always fought for our country," she said. "I joined a group of young artists performing for the troops and victims of the war. The slogan was: 'Our songs are louder than the bombing.' We would silence the screams with songs." But even then, she recalled, she noticed that party members enjoyed special privileges. A bigger shock followed when South Vietnamese prisoners arrived in her zone. "I discovered the truth that we were also fighting Vietnamese," she said. "Yes, we were being bombed all the time by the Americans, but they were high in the sky and I never saw them. I only saw Vietnamese." <=>

"She kept her thoughts to herself, as she did after the war when she met up with relatives in Ho Chi Minh City (as Saigon was renamed) and realized that the defeated were better off than the victors. By then, she was organizing artistic events in the city of Hue. When she was 30, she returned to Hanoi to work in the government's movie industry. "I wrote five screenplays which were made into bad films," she said, "but I couldn't live off my salary." One freelance job proved to be another eye-opener. Working for a group of army generals, she ghost-wrote a history of the Vietnam War. "The generals would discuss among themselves how to correct my text to suit their interests," she said. "They wanted to increase the number of Vietnamese who died to show that no sacrifice was too great for the people." <=>

Duong Thu Huong Writes Novels While Evading Assassinations

Alan Riding wrote in the New York Times, "Huong said she was invited to join the Communist Party in 1979 and did so reluctantly in 1985 at the urging of friends who hoped she could help them. That was also the year that her first novel, "Beyond Illusions," was published in Vietnam to popular acclaim, selling 100,000 copies. But two years later, she said, with the publication of "Paradise of the Blind," another best seller, her problems began. [Source: Alan Riding, New York Times, July 15, 2005 <=>]

"The party's general secretary, Nguyen Van Linh, offered me a house of the kind reserved for ministers if I would remain silent," she said. "I told him, 'I fight for democracy, I place myself on the side of the people and would never agree to be like a minister.' My principle is that you can lose everything, even your life, but never your honor." Soon afterward, she said, she evaded two assassination plots. She wrote a speech for the 1989 Congress of Vietnamese Writers called "The Party Should Thank the People" and was duly drummed out of the party. In 1991 she was jailed for selling secret documents to foreigners, the "secrets" being her manuscripts. Unsurprisingly, her next three books - "Novel Without a Name," "Memories of a Pure Spring" and "No Man's Land" - have not been published in Vietnam. <=>

"But all her novels have been published in several foreign languages. And thanks to Will Schwalbe, formerly an editor at William Morrow and now editor in chief at Hyperion, they have also appeared in English. "I first heard about her when she was in prison," Schwalbe said. "I read 30 or 40 pages of 'Paradise of the Blind' and was blown away. It was the first Vietnamese novel ever published in the United States in translation." <=>

"Huong's novels are not openly political, but their leitmotif is the disillusionment of people trapped by a fate beyond their control. Reviewing "Memories of a Pure Spring" in The New York Times in 2000, Richard Bernstein wrote: "One reads it certainly for its politics, but even more for the depth and complexity of its characters who strive to define themselves in a world that still puts everything and everybody in one or another category of ideology and national aspiration." In 1994, through the intervention of Danielle Mitterrand, France's first lady at the time, Huong was allowed to come to France to receive an award. She was offered political asylum. "I said, 'Thank you, but in my country fear crushes everything, brave soldiers have become cowardly civilians,"' she recalled. "'That's why I have to return. I return to do one thing: to spit in the face of the regime."' This time, the Italian Embassy in Vietnam obtained her passport, but after a few weeks in Italy and France, she again intends to return to Hanoi, where her two children and four grandchildren live. (Huong was divorced in 1982.) And once there, if the government has no other plans, she says she will continue writing. "I am an idealist," she said, before adding with a mischievous smile, "and an imbecile, too." <=>

In 2009, Duong Thu Huong released "The Zenith," a controversial novel about Ho Chi Minh's alleged secret lover that already has strong buzz online in literary circles.

Bao Ninh and the Sorrow of War

Bao Ninh, a former North Vietnam soldier, wrote the critically-acclaimed semi-autobiographical novel "The Sorrow of War" (1991). He was born in 1952 in Nghe An province (his ancestors were from Quang Bình province). His real name is Hoàng Au Phung. During the Vietnam War, he served with the Glorious 27th Youth Brigade. Of the five hundred who went to war with the brigade in 1969, he is one of ten who survived."

In his book the "Sorrow of War," Bao Ninh he wrote: "The sorrow of war inside a soldier's heart was in a strange way similar to the sorrow of love. It was a kind of nostalgia, like the immense sadness of a world at dusk. It was a daness, a missing, a pain which could send one soaring back into the past. The sorrow of the battlefield could not normally be pinpointed to one particular event, or even one person. If you focused on any one event it would soon become a tearing pain... envied his inspiration, his optimism in focusing back on the painful but glorious days. They were caring days, when we knew what we were living and fighting for and why we needed to suffer and sacrifice. Those were the days when all of us were young, very pure and very sincere."

Robert Templar wrote in The Independent, "Bao Ninh set off to war, at the age of 17, against a background of patriotic songs and poetry. Today, these are sounds he would rather forget. 'At the recruiting station they had singers and poets, working up the spirit of those signing up. There were two types of people - those who really carried torches for the war, full of anti- American spirit, signing their forms in their own blood. And then there were those like me. We were told to go and we went. We weren't particularly afraid. We knew we had to fight.' [Source: Robert Templar, The Independent, June 4, 1994 \|/]

"Behind Bao Ninh's prosaic view of his entry into the Vietnam War lies some resentment at its glorification, at the performers who sang as the 500 teenage soldiers of the Glorious 27th Youth Brigade went off to fight the South Vietnamese and the United States. Only 10 returned. The Sorrow of War is the first Vietnamese novel to break away from that spirit, to crack the heavy mould of Hanoi's state-sponsored literature, where all soldiers are heroes, where young girls cheerfully perform clunky propaganda plays and deaths are noble - the written equivalent of the portraits of square-jawed, sturdy peasants and workers that are still hoisted onto billboards in Hanoi. \|/

Bao Ninh is the first Vietnamese to win an overseas prize, apart from some fraternal East European awards; but he sees his novel as breaking little new ground, despite the vast interest and acclaim aroused by its descriptions of despair and bitterness, even suicide and drug taking among North Vietnamese troops. 'I wanted to make a statement about war and I wanted to define a new concept of literature but one that also goes back to our tradition of writing, a more humanist tradition that we had over 1,000 years but we have lost. For the past 40 years our literature has been more in the tradition of the Soviet or Chinese models.' \|/

"Published in 1991 under the innocuous title The Destiny of Love (sorrow and war are rarely allowed to go together, even today), the novel caught a mood of greater openness about the war itself, and also about post-war Vietnam - the country sank into an era of poverty and repression after 1975. It is this period that seems to have been truly formative for Bao Ninh: the disappointment struck home after his return to a monotonous life, when Vietnam 'failed to achieve the things we had planned for after the war. We never reached the goal we had fought for.' \|/

In the early 1990s, when he was in his early 40s, the "writer, husband and father living in a small flat in a crumbling concrete block just outside the centre of Hanoi; he writes at night and is regarded by his neighbours 'as just an ordinary guy who does some extraordinary things - I stay at home all day and strange friends come to see me.' A growing reputation abroad is a source of gratitude and pride, but also wariness. He does not wish to be seen here as too far out of step with other novelists. 'Success can become a prison for writers. Perhaps when other Vietnamese authors have their books translated it will be easier.' \|/

The book is haunted by a recurring nightmare of awful, lurching violence. At one point Kien and Phuong, the tormented lovers at the centre of the story, come upon a wrecked classroom. 'How could they destroy a school,' says Kien. 'Don't they respect life any more?' Phuong, who has just discovered how cruel and degraded war can be, replies: 'Maybe it was our soldiers. Soldiers do this sort of thing. War does this, war smashes and destroys.' Kien and Phuong go on to mourn the innocence and love that has been torn from them. But Ninh himself now expresses no sense of loss at his years spent fighting, no bitterness at the ease of life of many young people today in Hanoi, who think foremost of money, clothes and motorbikes. 'Those years were great,' he says. 'I never felt they went out the window, they weren't wasted.' \|/

On the surface, people tend to show little emotion about the war, shaking their heads silently at the memory of the brutality but saying little. 'Most Vietnamese don't want to make too much fuss but they don't want to forget either. We have very deep, quiet memories.' Vietnam would not accept war now, he says. 'People here can't stand to watch pictures of the wars in Bosnia or Somalia on television.' But the official line on the war tends to recall glorious victories. At recent celebrations to mark the battle that ended French colonial rule in Vietnam 40 years ago, speakers called on the people 'to revive the spirit of Dien Bien Phu' - not against imperialism but in the fight for market shares and export contracts. 'I don't like this sort of thing much, but I suppose it can create some sort of echo in society,' Bao Ninh says with a weariness that suggests an immunity to propaganda. 'I just really don't want to be patronised by the same people who were the singers and poets when I went off to war.' \|/

Bao Ninh and Why He Stayed Quiet After the Success of His 1991 Novel

Suzanne Goldenberg wrote in The Observer in 2006, "It was a soldier's story, set in battlefields of rotted corpses and the tortured soul of a young teenager who went off to serve his country, and when the novel was published in 1991 it brought Bao Ninh the closest thing in Vietnam to instant literary celebrity. Ninh never published again - although he is believed to have finished another novel about the war, called Steppe, that he has hesitated to submit for publication. 'I stopped myself. I kept holding myself back,' Ninh told The Observer in a rare interview at his home in a section of central Hanoi favoured by middle-ranking officials. 'I compared everything I wrote to everything I wrote in the past, and it's not natural like it was before.' [Source: Suzanne Goldenberg, The Observer, November 19, 2006 :::]

"The long silence from one of Vietnam's best-known authors is telling of the enduring sensitivities about the war with America. Washington and Hanoi have committed to a path of reconciliation. When it was first published in 1991, Ninh's novel, The Sorrow of War, was a revelation. Vietnam had seen its share of war memoirs, but no novelist had dared to write about the brutality of the war, and the lasting damage it inflicted on a generation of Vietnamese. Ninh's main character, a thinly disguised portrait of the author as a young man, enlists in the army at age 17, leaving behind his childhood sweetheart. She takes a train with him to the front, and when a bomb throws him from the car she is gang-raped by his fellow soldiers. A decade after the fighting is over, he passes his days in drunkenness and depression - permanently damaged by the war. :::

It was instantly controversial: loved by the soldiers who fought in the war - including American veterans reading it in translation - and condemned by Vietnamese officialdom, including the writers' union. Although the novel was reissued in Vietnamese last year, it has yet to be published under its original title. Instead, Vietnamese know their most famous war novel as The Destiny of Love. 'It was the first truthful book about the war,' says Duong Tuong, a poet and translator in Hanoi. 'The writing about the war was mainly speeches about heroism and patriotism - the positive side of the war. Most of the novels about the Vietnam war praised the heroism of the soldiers, and they never delved into the innermost feelings of those who took part in the fighting. They did not look at the human side of the fighters.' :::

"The English translation of his novel gave Ninh a degree of economic security after years of struggle. But the international attention also brought increased scrutiny from the authorities. Soon after the novel was published, he was denounced for a short story, published in Granta, about a village in South Vietnam. Ninh says such harsh reactions now belong to the past. 'When I wrote the book, the emotions of the Vietnam war were very different, and the relationship was different between America and Vietnam. The Cold War was still on,' he says. 'The book came out 15 years after the war ended, but people were still entrenched in the war-like propaganda of the time, so not in line with what the government was saying.' :::

"He is less forthright about his decision to forgo publishing his next novel, claiming that he has written almost constantly since 1991 as the editor of a literary weekly in Hanoi. Writing novels is slow work, he claims, and his new work has been a struggle. 'I became more famous, so people know about me and other writers respect me,' he says. 'But it also affected me badly because I become self-conscious.' :::

"He says he fully supports Vietnam's drive for reconciliation with its former enemies - although he is lukewarm about Mr Bush's presence in Vietnam. He also believes that Vietnam's programme of economic liberalisation will eventually lead to greater freedom. One day in the future the authorities may even be willing to tolerate a novel about the war. Until then, however, it seems that Ninh will keep his thoughts to himself. 'I know a lot of stories about contemporary Vietnam, but I don't write them,' he says. 'Every writer has their subject.'

"The Eaves of Heaven": a Journey of Extremes Through Three Wars

In "The Eaves of Heaven: A Life in Three Wars," author Andrew Pham tells the story of his father and how his idyllic life was vanquished by war. David Takami wrote in the Seattle Times, "In the early chapters of "The Eaves of Heaven," Andrew Pham's searing story of his father's life in Vietnam, the reader is lulled by idyllic scenes of childhood even as the country is descending into three decades of war. A sumptuous autumn feast and festival culminate in glorious fireworks. Boys roam the countryside searching for crickets and place their prize specimens in a pickling jar for a fight to the finish. [Source: David Takami, Seattle Times, July 11, 2008 \*/]

"It was the grand prelude to disaster," recalls Pham's father, Thong Van Pham, "and, for me, the happiest years of my life." The coming "disaster" was a succession of three wars, one with the French, who had controlled the country since the mid-19th century; World War II and invasion by Japan; and the civil war, the latter half of which became known in the U.S. as the Vietnam War. The remembered images of more tranquil, carefree times are what make the subsequent depictions of wartime terrors and devastation so heartbreaking. \*/

In the early part of the 20th century, Pham family members were wealthy landowners in northern Vietnam. As communist forces gained power before and after World War II, the family's status and wealth rapidly declined. When the communists defeated France in 1954, the Pham family were among the 2 million refugees who fled to the south. Each of the three wars had its unique horrors. American readers will be most familiar with accounts of the Tet Offensive and the fall of Saigon. But the Vietnamese endured waves of occupying armies, marauding mercenaries, a famine that killed 2 million people (caused by the Japanese depletion of rice fields to feed their own troops) and forbidding re-education camps. As a young man, Pham's father faced tremendous pressure to join the resistance movement against the French. He was eventually drafted into the South Vietnamese army and saw heavy combat.

"Eaves" is an unusual variant of the memoir. Andrew Pham, winner of the Kiriyama Pacific Rim Award for his own memoir, "Catfish and Mandala," provides a cogent explanation, in an author's note, for his use of the first-person voice: "I did not set out to write my father's biography. I have not written my father's memoir. I have lent his life stories my words. The perspectives and sentiments within are his." \*/

Instead of offering a comprehensive history, Pham moves back and forth in time, from war to war, with periodic returns to the subject's childhood. To help orient the reader, he lists the setting and year at the start of chapters. The contrapuntal composition creates a surprising and pleasing rhythm and reminds us that memory is neither linear nor sequential. \*/

Pham has a novelist's eye for telling detail with sentences like this: "Naked toddlers stood in doorways, knuckling sleep from their eyes."He writes equally vivid — and harrowing — war scenes. Some of the particulars of the violence are almost too much to bear. But the book is grounded in happier times. "Some joys were so simple as to be incorruptible in memory, untouchable, neither by distance nor by tragedy," he writes. Here is war and life through the eyes of a Vietnamese everyman: Although buffeted by many circumstances beyond his control, Thong Van Pham never loses his basic humanity or love of family. \*/

Book: "The Eaves of Heaven: A Life in Three Wars" by Andrew X. Pham (Harmony Books, 2008)

Vietnam's New Wave of Writers Turns Away from War

In January 2009, AFP reported: "As communist Vietnam has become more open to the outside world, and less focused on the bitter legacy of war, the country's authors too have moved on, offering readers stories about modern everyday life. The new generation of Vietnamese authors are writing books about love, sex, work and the disillusionment of a rapidly changing urban society undergoing having severe growing pains. Critics, including some of Vietnam's old literary guard, complain that today's authors are not politically engaged, but others say they are responding to readers who crave stories about ordinary concerns, not decades of conflict. "In the real lives of young people today, politics only plays a very small role," says Nguyen Viet Ha, considered one of the leaders of the new generation, who writes about city life in Hanoi. [Source: AFP, January 28, 2009 >><<]

"The "Doi Moi" policy of economic reform launched in 1986 helped bring to the fore a generation of Vietnamese writers, many of them former soldiers and revolutionary fighters who broke with the tradition of writing patriotic tales. They quickly lost favour with the authorities in Hanoi. But each in their own way, writers including Bao Ninh, Nguyen Huy Thiep and Duong Thu Huong stunned the country with vivid tales of war, postwar discontent among ordinary Vietnamese and the foibles of a fledgling communist government. They remain the standard-bearers at home and abroad. >><<

"But literary critic Doan Cam Thi says today's readers in Vietnam, a country where two-thirds of the population are under the age of 35 and don't remember the horrors of war, want books that speak to their experience. "The reality of war is getting farther and farther away," she said, adding that the writings of the old guard "don't offer young people much to help them understand the world in which they live". The current generation of writers "describe their experiences in a clear-headed way," Thi says. >><<

"In "Farewell My Turtledove," Nguyen Ngoc Tu -- popular in the south of the country -- recounts the tale of a loving couple who slowly grow apart. Nguyen Viet Ha writes about the spiritual emptiness of living in Hanoi, notably in "Late Revelation," a book within a book that describes the writing of a novel about a model. Thuan, who goes by one name and lives in France, will soon release in French "Chinatown," the semi-autobiographical story of the journey of a Viet Kieu, or overseas Vietnamese, from Hanoi to Paris via the former Soviet Union. >><<

"Critics and even some contemporary writers admit the new generation focuses less on political issues, as the regime continues to censor their work and jail journalists and dissidents deemed "reactionary". Bao Ninh, who shot to fame in the 1990s with his novel "The Sorrow of War," says the country's new writers have sold out, avoiding contentious issues. "Young writers have a tendency to give up" and avoid "the true difficulties Vietnam faces," he said. >><<

"But book critic Nguyen Chi Hoan, who writes for the weekly literary journal Tuan Bao Van Nghe, says the two generations of writers do have things in common, as all of their work focuses on individuals' struggles. "During decades of war, individuals were forced to become invisible, to step aside in favour of the community," Hoan said. But today the Vietnamese have some degree of self-expression, he said, leading to new challenges captured in modern literature -- how they can use their new-found wealth, for instance, to have an easier life while remaining spiritually balanced. "On the one hand, everyone wants the comforts of modern life, to be a part of consumer society. But on the other hand, as Vietnamese they want a family and spiritual life too," said Hoan. "This is clearly a contradiction, a daily struggle that we find in contemporary Vietnamese fiction." >><<

Harry Potter in Vietnam

In 2003, SAPA DPA reported: " He had to battle government censors and endure tortuous trademark negotiations, but boy wizard Harry Potter worked his magic in Vietnam on Monday as an authorised translation of the fifth book in the best-selling series went on sale. Harry Potter And Menh Lenh Phuong Hoang, the 124-page first installment of a 15-part serialisation of Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix, was released by the state-run Tuoi Tre Publishing House and distributed in the capital. The Vietnamese Harry is one of the first authorised translations to go on sale worldwide. Vietnam is a notorious haven for pirate versions of movies, music and software, with more than 90 percent of discs on sale reckoned to be illegally copied. [Source: SAPA DPA, July 25, 2003 ////]

"Booksellers flocked to snap up copies of the first installment, subtitled The Dissatisfaction Of Harry. The next installment is due out next week. Only one month after the English version was released, the Vietnamese publishing house printed a record 40 000 copies, twice the first print-run of the first four books. Tuoi Tre Publishing was eager to negotiate local rights to the new book. The deal was reported in state media as paying 10 percent of local sales to the author and the original publisher. The books about the young trainee wizard's adventures at Hogwarts School of Magic became the best-selling foreign books in Vietnam when they were first translated in 2000. More than 80 000 copies of the first four books sold out. ////

The latest book was again translated by Ly Lan, who first brought the books to Vietnam after reading them on a trip to the United States. She managed to convince the state-run publishing house to obtain the rights, even though foreign books are often difficult to get past state censors. Apparently, Harry bewitched the censors and children alike. The books were a runaway hit among children in Vietnam. Still, the owl post apparently has not reached all schools in Vietnam, as at least one bookseller said she was surprised the books were not flying off the shelves. "I thought that more children would buy it, but actually I only sold five of 20 today," Le Thi Tien, a bookseller at an outdoor stall on Hai Bai Trung Street in Hanoi said. ////

"Self-Orgasm" Book Censored in Vietnam

Reporters Without Borders, which ranked Vietnam 165th in the world for press freedom out of 178 countries in 2010, has said the one-party state retains a tight grip on all media. Vietnam ese officials were unable to provide AFP with figures on the number of books banned each year. [Source: Kelly Macnamara. AFP, January 26, 2012]

In 2000, Huw Watkin wrote in the South China Morning Post, "Vietnam's authorities have reportedly banned three books deemed to be morally subversive, despite a growing tolerance of new ideas. Yesterday's People's Police newspaper said the Ho Chi Minh City Department of Information and Culture seized an undisclosed number of two local novels and translations of an "offensive" French publication which explores unconventional methods of sexual gratification. According to the report, the novels encourage a "depraved lifestyle and an ideology of violence, social evils and superstition". "What is particularly dangerous is that they deny the success of [Vietnam's] communist revolution, slander and offend authority, and ridicule traditional morality," the newspaper said. "In short, they should not even be considered as books, let alone works of literature." [Source: Huw Watkin, South China Morning Post, April 11, 2000 |^|]

"The third of the banned publications is a Vietnamese language edition of a text by French doctor Laurent Chavernac, which is published under a title which translates loosely to The Discovery of Self Orgasm. "This book is a topsy-turvy compilation of European and American sexual practices which are to a large extent only suitable for foreigners," the article said. "It creates unhealthy norms for sexual relationships and even encourages people to seek sexual pleasure with animals . . . triggering the curiosity of youth and contaminating their purity of spirit." |^|

"Officials declined to comment further on the issue, but the books have been on sale for some time and the ban's publication may backfire on efforts to curtail distribution. People's Police is among Vietnam's most popular newspapers - avidly consumed for its racy yarns of life's sordid side - and duplication of difficult to obtain literature is a lucrative sideline for photocopy shops, which can reproduce books within an hour for as little as 20,000 dong (HK$11). Attempts to restrict Internet access to potentially damaging material have also proved unsuccessful. Industry insiders claim the firewall software used by Vietnam is a corporate package designed to prevent employees from abusing Internet access, but does not have the capacity to block Web sites with pornographic or even politically seditious material. |^|

Under-the-Counter Demand for Banned Books Censored in Vietnam

in 2012, Kelly Macnamara of AFP wrote: "From irreverent cartoons to "depraved" short stories, Vietnam 's pop culture is attracting the attention of print censors who experts say are struggling to accept an increasingly brash literary scene. After years spent keeping political texts off the printing presses, authorities are setting their sights on the growing market of publishing for young people, with several books prohibited in recent months. Nguyen Thanh Phong, whose collection of comic rhyming slang was recently banned, said his illustration of two gormless-looking soldiers kicking a grenade to each other may have caused the censors' ire. The caption reads "Being a soldier you must always get noticed", an attempt to poke fun at the inflated, heroic image of the country's military."I just thought it was funny," said Phong.[Source: Kelly Macnamara. AFP, January 26, 2012 |:|]

The 26-year-old artist said censorship only increased people's desire to read the book, entitled "The murderer with a pus-filled head", which aims to reflect the street patois of Vietnam 's youth. Phong said his book sold 5,000 copies in two weeks but was then discontinued, stoking under-the-counter demand that pushed prices to as much as 100,000 dong ($5) -- more than double its official cost. Censorship has proved a headache for Vietnam ese publishers eager to capitalise on a potentially rich seam of revenue from the nation's 28 million under-18s, but it has also given texts an enticing air of notoriety. "It's an unintended public relations chain effect -- in Vietnam , any banned books become best-selling, because people are curious," Phong told AFP. |:|

The controversy "sparked the interest of a lot of people who would never have even bothered to read it in a bookstore," said Vietnam expert Edmund Malesky, Associate Professor at the University of California, San Diego. He added the book "captures all the cool sayings of what they call the 9X generation, those born in the 90s", a generation surprising older Vietnam ese with its "free-spiritedness". Conservatives in Vietnam have found themselves scandalised by the tide of youth culture -- from the antics of popular singers to brazen fashion statements on the streets.

The publishing industry is seeing a boom in titles for teenagers, varying from non-fiction to translations of the internationally best-selling "Twilight" vampire series. Vietnam scholar Carl Thayer said more books are being produced aimed at young people, but that "pop culture is definitely at odds with official ideas of Vietnamese culture". "Since Vietnam is an authoritarian regime, its officials have no way of accurately capturing true public opinion... Deep in their hearts they are fearful of political humour and more overt political publications because it challenges their power and legitimacy," he told AFP. |:|

Dang Thi Bich Ngan, deputy director of the culture ministry's Fine Arts Publishing House, said sales of "The murderer" were stopped because of changes made to the approved draft. Another controversial book, a collection of short stories by journalist Nguyen Vinh Nguyen, was banned and its publisher fined for "disseminating depraved and pornographic ideas, not in accordance with Vietnam 's traditions and customs". |:|

"Readers really want the sort of products of a free publishing environment, rather than what they are given now, which are books that have undergone 'treatment' and been sanitised," Nguyen told AFP. Thayer said Vietnam 's black market "thrives because it meets a need". "It provides hard copy of facts and ideas that freely circulate in private conversations," he said. |:|

It did not take long for AFP to track down an illicit copy of "The murderer" on the streets of Hanoi. One bookseller said she did not keep it on her shop's shelves and offered to fetch one from the storeroom. But her sales pitch came with the warning that it had corrupted the Vietnam ese language: "Do not show it to your children!", she said. Many people simply went online to read Phong's book on the numerous Internet sites hosting copies. "Those who object to the book said if these sentences are circulated on the internet, it's ok, but not in books. I think because they think books are very noble, like a holy land of knowledge," Phong said. |:|

Censors have indicated a willingness to negotiate a revised version. Phong said he expects some illustrations will be removed and replaced with different popular slang and is confident a new book would not be seen as diluted. His optimism is perhaps echoed in another quintessentially Vietnamese street saying from his book. An image of a whole dead dog on a dinner plate accompanies the phrase: "Don't worry, things will be alright, because dog meat is always served with shrimp sauce". |:|

Bookstores and the Publishing Industry in Vietnam

Fareed Zakaria wrote in Newsweek: "If you want to know which way the breeze is blowing in Asia, check out a bookstore in Hanoi. The two I went to while visiting there last week were stocked with the usual stuff—the writings of Ho Chi Minh and General Giap—and many signs of the new Vietnam, which meant books on business and management plus a seemingly legal Vietnamese translation of Hillary Clinton's memoirs. Prominently displayed along with all these wares were the collected speeches of Chinese leaders Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. [Source: Fareed Zakaria, Newsweek, April 30, 2007]

The Vietnamese have no particular love for China. One official there, who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the relationship, said to me, "We are clear-eyed. China has occupied Vietnam for 1,000 years. It has invaded us 13 times since then. But China is a huge presence, our biggest exporter." And everyone I spoke to in Hanoi agreed that the Chinese were handling them with great dexterity.

In the 2006, the government monopoly in the publishing business was eliminated sort of. The government started by eliminating the monopoly in the printing of block calendars, which helped to create a more competitive calendar market to provide consumers with cheaper and better products. The investigation of the monopoly in textbook publishing business was carried out, and the Educational Publishing House proposed a plan to eliminate the monopoly in textbook publishing. [Source: Tien Phong, December 29, 2006 \=\]

In 2006, there were reports of many mistakes in the editing process of the Vietnamese Encyclopedia. In addition, according to Tien Phong, Some national prizes, and awards given by professional associations such as the Vietnamese Writers’ Association Award, as well as several nominations, were unconvincing and controversial. \=\

Books about the Vietnam War

Books: Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War by Stanley Kutler; Vietnam and the United States ; The Vietnam War: An Eyewitness History ; After the War by Neil Sheehan; Winners and Losers by Gloria Emerson; Everything We Had by Al Santoli; Flashbacks by Morley Safer; No Longer Enemies by Fred Down; Fortunate Son by Lewis Puller; Vietnam by Stanley Karnow; An American Requiem by James Carroll; The Living and the Dead by Paul Hedrickson; They Marched Into Sunlight by David Maraniss (Simon & Schuster, 2003)

Dispatches by Michael Herr (Knopf, 1977), many say, is the best written account of the Vietnam War. March of Folly by Barbara Tuchman (1984) explains how the United States stumbled into Vietnam. Vietnam: A History by Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist and historian Stanley Karnow was the companion for an acclaimed PBS television series. Bernard B. Fall was a prominent war correspondent, historian, political scientist, and expert on Indochina during the 1950s and 1960s. Last Reflections on a War is a compilation of dispatches and accounts written by Fall shortly before he was killed by a booby trap in northern South Vietnam in February 1967 when he was 40. Hell in a Very Small Place is Fall’s classic account of the Siege of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Black Veterans by Wallace Terry gives an interesting take on the war.

Fiction writers who specialize in the Vietnam War:Tim O'Brien, Robert Stone, Bobbie Ann Mason and Philip Caputo. Fields of Fire , a novel by James Webb, is recommended. Bao Ninh's 1991 novel The Sorrow of War is a good novel about a soldier who returns from the war to find his former life in ruins. In his famous short story The Things They Carried , Tim O’Brien wrote that soldiers carried "love letters from home, bags of marijuana, fingernail clippers, grenades, land mines, good luck charms, insecticide, bandages, psyop leaflets, copies of Stars and Stripes and tanning lotion. "Often they carried each other, the wounded and the weak."

Books by Vietnamese writers: Viet Cong Memoir by Trinh Nhu Tang; Where the Ashes Are by Nguyen Qui Duc; Shallow Graves by Tran Thi Nga; When Heaven and Earth Changed Places by Le Ly Hayslip. Books of the Life of Soldiers: We Were Soldiers and Once and Young by Harold Moore; William Broyle's Brothers in Arms . Books of Policy and Strategy: In Retrospect by Robert McNamara; Vietnam Now by David Lamb (Public Affairs, 2000); A Necessary War: A Reinterprection if America’s Most Disastrous Military Conflict by Michael Lind (The Free Press, 1999).

American Vietnam War Literature

Vietnam War veteran and acclaimed writer Tim O’Brien wrote: "War stories aren't always about war, per se. They aren't about bombs and bullets and military maneuvers. They aren't about tactics, they aren't about foxholes and canteens. A war story, like any good story, is finally about the human heart.

In her paper "The Literature of the Vietnam War, " Susan Farrell wrote: "America has experienced an outpouring of Vietnam War literature in the twenty-five years since the fall of Saigon. While not many works examing the war appeared in the first few years following America's withdrawal from Vietnam, in the late 70's and early 80's, the dam burst. The trickle of works turned to a torrent. The bulk of these early accounts are personal narratives which focus on the experiences of the combat infantryman--the grunt or foot soldier. Most come from people who were actually there--soldiers, reporters, medics. The best-known of these works include Michael Herr's "Dispatches" (1977), an account of the war from an Esquire magazine reporter which many critics credit as the first book to capture the real feel of the war, as well as Philip Caputo's "A Rumor of War" (1977) and Ron Kovic's "Born on the Fourth of July" (1976), both eyewitness accounts of the life-altering experiences of men who enlisted, expecting a heroic experience, but who were forever changed by the war's realities. [Source: "The Literature of the Vietnam War" by Susan Farrell ==]

"These first-person narratives usually tell anti-heroic stories which assert the moral ambiguity of America's involvement in Vietnam and deflate notions of patriotism or glory sometimes associated with war. In fact, many of these accounts emphasize the difference between Vietnam and wars such as WWII. Not only did America's involvement in WWII--sometimes even called "the good war"-- seem more morally justified than our involvement in Vietnam, but the War in Vietnam was fought differently as well. A guerilla war, American soldiers found themselves in unfamiliar, jungle terrain. There were no clear arenas of battle; many were killed in ambushes, sniper attacks, and by bombs connected to trip wires. In addition, American soldiers had difficulty in distinguishing the enemy—the Viet Cong—from South Vietnamese loyalists, a predicament adding tension and fear to everyday life. These eyewitness accounts often attempt to grapple honestly with the horror that many Americans experienced in Vietnam. The stories they convey are frequently brutally graphic and shocking, relating atrocities committed both by the Viet Cong and by American soldiers themselves. For the most part, however, these accounts do not blame ordinary soldiers for sometimes horrific behavior. The ordinary soldier is usually presented, instead, as someone at the mercy of forces greater than himself, as the victim of a bungled American policy in Vietnam, of uncaring or glory-seeking officers and politicians, or of the natural and tragic hardening that would take place in anyone exposed to brutality on a daily basis. ==

"While many veterans wrote straightforward narrative accounts of their time spent "in-country," some chose to shape their Vietnam experiences into fiction or poetry. Among the most acclaimed imaginative treatments of the war is the work of Tim O'Brien. Asking whether the human imagination is strong enough to overcome atrocity, O'Brien's novel Going After Cacciato, winner of the 1979 National Book Award, tells the story of a platoon's pursuit of a soldier who has simple-mindedly decided to walk to Paris, to simply leave the war behind him. "The Things They Carried" (1990) blends fact and fiction and probes literary form as it presents a related series of stories set not only in Vietnam but also before and after the war. Insisting that it is a love story as much as a war story, this book seeks to move readers emotionally, to "make the stomach believe" along with the mind. O'Brien continues to explore the connections between love and war in his next novel, In the "Lake of the Woods" (1994), which follows a dual mystery: the murder of politician John Wade's wife as well as Wade's concealed involvement in the My Lai massacre. Other notable fiction writers of the Vietnam War include Larry Heinemann, whose Paco's Story won the 1987 National Book Award and Stephen Wright, whose novel "Meditations in Green" (1983) surrealistically explores the life of a heroin addicted ex-soldier who can't leave the war behind him. While several collections of poetry about the Vietnam War have been published, Pulitzer Prize winner Yusef Komunyakaa's Dien Cai Dau (1988) stands out as one of the most beautiful and moving. ==

"In these imaginative shapings of war experience, the authors search for literary forms to adequately express their experiences. These writers must grapple with a question underlying much literature of the later twentieth century: how does one write about atrocity? As Kurt Vonnegut puts it in his Slaughterhouse-Five, a World War II novel actually written and published during the height of the Vietnam War: "there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre." That's why his book is so "short and jumbled and jangled," Vonnegut explains to his editor. Similarly, Vietnam War writers often use forms that may at first appear confusing, ambiguous, or chaotic to readers. Often, such formal experimentation is designed to represent the disorder and confusion experienced by soldiers in Vietnam. Critic Lloyd Lewis argues that it is the duty of the Vietnam War writer to incoporate the seeming illogic of the war into the structure of his work. The reader, according to Lewis, should be "obliged to live the soldier, adrift in an alien universe in which the familiar. . . landmarks [have] disappeared." ==

"Because of the difficulty in understanding or making sense of the war (again, we're most often witnessing events from the point-of-view of the ordinary, uninformed foot soldier), Vietnam writers often focus on the surface details of daily existence--the everyday routines of war, the jokes, conversations, superstitious rituals--rather than on larger historical or political questions about the war. The everyday experience of soldiering, then, becomes the basis for "understanding" the war. This leads to what has almost become a cliche of Vietnam literature: if you weren't there, you can't possibly understand what it was like. Vietnam literature, though, has been criticized at times for presenting just such a view. Critic James C. Wilson, for instance, believes most American fiction about the war insists that the reader is powerless to understand Vietnam. Wilson objects strongly to this notion, arguing that, while making sense of Vietnam is difficult (as so many Vietnam writers indicate), by implying that the war is impossible to understand, these writers simply play into the hands of all those who wanted (and still want) to keep the war a mystery. The very best Vietnam literature often probes this problem, raising questions about the potential for art to communicate or even transform the trauma of war experience into something meaningful. ==

"Vietnam War literature is also criticized quite often for presenting the conflict primarily as an internal war: for depicting Vietnam as a war in which the U.S. battled the U.S. The literature, for instance, often depicts disagreements between "doves" and "hawks," or between those who supported U.S. involvement in Vietnam and those who opposed it. We see many instances of turmoil within platoons, of men disobeying orders and even "fragging" (using hand grenades to murder) superior officers. But what contributes to this critique more than anything else is the absence in the literature of any significant or fully developed Vietnamese perspective. Feminist critics have also argued that much Vietnam War literature is quite sexist, that the literature reinforces a view of war in which men are the tragic victims and women are objectified or silenced. Brutal rape scenes of Viet Cong women by American soldiers are not unusual in the literature, while American women back home are often depicted as unable to understand the war in any meaningful way or to empathize with the suffering male soldiers experienced. ==

"Many more recent accounts of Vietnam, both eyewitness narratives and imaginative treatments of the war, have begun to address some of the omissions in the earlier literature. Bobbie Ann Mason's In Country, for instance, follows seventeen-year-old Samantha Hughes as she tries to learn as much as she can about the war and about her father who died in the war before she was born. This novel questions the war's effect on a later generation as well as the relationship between gender and war. Robert Olen Butler's "A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain," a group of collected short stories which explores the war's aftermath on Vietnamese expatriots in Louisiana, won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. In addition, many autobiographical accounts and novels by North Vietnamese writers have appeared in the U.S. in the last decade. Bao Ninh's "The Sorrow of War : a Novel of North Vietnam" (translated into English in 1995) has been compared to Erich Maria Remarque's classic World War I novel, "All Quiet on the Western Front." But probably best known of the Vietnamese accounts of the war is "When Heaven and Earth Changed Places", Le Ly Hayslip's story of her experiences as a young girl growing up in a central Vietnam village in the late 60's and early 70's, which was made into a film by Oliver Stone in 1993.

Whether eyewitness accounts by American infantryman, postmodern literary explorations, or the personal narratives of Vietnamese nationals, the literature of the Vietnam War is an emotionally powerful and increasingly popular category of contemporary literature. It's a literature that, as Tim O'Brien says, speaks to the human heart.

See “The Village,” “Dispatches” and “The Things They Carried” Under Vietnam War

Tree of Smoke

In 2007, Denis Johnson won the National Book Award for fiction for his monumental Vietnam novel, "Tree of Smoke." Lauding Johnson's novel as a "conventionally satisfying but formally daring masterpiece," Harper's reviewer John Jeremiah Sullivan described it as "a 614-page multigenerational, transnational, braided morality saga about Westerners in Southeast Asia and the Southeast Asians who have to figure out how to stay alive around them." "To write a fat novel about the Vietnam War nearly 35 years after it ended is an act of literary bravado," David Ignatius wrote in The Washington Post. "To do so as brilliantly as Denis Johnson has in 'Tree of Smoke' is positively a miracle."[Source: Bob Thompson, Washington Post, November 15, 2007]

Asked a few days before the awards to describe Johnson's writing, Lorin Stein, the editor who worked on "Tree of Smoke" at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, said it was hard to know where to start. Johnson is "religious-minded" and "concerned for the souls of his characters," Stein said, but he's also a realist who "writes about poor people in a way that makes you care about injustice."

Book: "Tree of Smoke" by Dennis Johnson (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 20070

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, Fox News and various websites, books and other publications identified in the text.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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