--- L I N H D I N H
Food shortage became a daily fact of life. Sorghum and cassavas were often
substituted for rice in people's diet. Salt, sugar, and MSG were rationed.
Fish sauce turned into salt water. Wine was made by fermenting the core of
a pineapple. Phan Nhien Hao recalls his student days in the late 80's: "I
was hungry all the time. All the students living in the dormitories were
really walking skeletons. Most of the time you could think of nothing but
Nguyen Quoc Chanh remembers: "Before 1975, our family grew sugarcanes.
Then my father was intimidated into giving much of his land to the
government. They would have taken it away from him anyway. It didn't take
long for the entire country to become destitute. We would eat this yellow
sorgum, imported from India, which tasted really rubbery, for months at a
time. And once a week we had to hear some idiot stuttering and lisping his
way through an incoherent lecture on the glories of Marxism."
In the face of such dire realities, the literature that was disseminated
by the state was, unbelievably enough, cheerful. As Maxim Gorky wrote, the
job of socialist realist literature is to provide an optimistic
outlook on life. Literature must also educate. Hanoi's chief ideologue,
Truong Chinh (whose name means "Long March") defined "correct" literature
as: "Artistic creations which portrays the truth in a society evolving
towards socialism according to objective laws." But the "truth" was
whatever the state said it was. The catchword was "typical" [dien hinh].
In literature, the truth meant the presentation of typical characters in
typical situations behaving typically. A corrupt Party official is
certainly not typical because he is a gross abberation, an evil rumor, a
freak; to portray him is to slander the Party. A frightened Revolutionary
soldier, a caring priest, boat people, and homosexuals, etc., are also
abberations. Gorky: "Socialist realism is a programmatic literature
that affirms something." That something, of course, is socialism.
It was imperative that writers be clear about their intentions. Ambiguity
and ambivalence were no-nos, a sign of fuzzy ideology, or worse,
subversiveness. But living in such a stifling environment, a person had to
become subversive to be nourished intellectually. He had to find the
banned books. Hao explains: "It was very hard to find good books in
Vietnam after 1975. Fortunately, I had an uncle who managed to keep a very
good library. I grew up reading a lot of translated literature, especially
French, and, later on, Russian. I enjoyed the French Existentialists very
much, Camus in particular. At a very deep level, Existentialism has
influenced the way I look at life. I quickly realized, however, that its
writing style was not what I wanted to follow. Existentialism showed me
the beauty of man's loneliness and made me rely on my own inner strength."
This inner strength not only allowed Hao to endure life in Vietnam, it
also helped him to survive the US, where he emigrated in 1991. Collective
suffering is now replaced by solitary enjoyment. Hao writes: "This strong
belief in the essential isolation of man has helped me cope with the
isolated life of an immigrant in the US. Without this philosophical
foundation, I must have already killed myself just by living here."
One of Hao's early influences, while he was still in Vietnam, was poet
Thanh Tam Tuyen (b. 1936). Tuyen's crisp, clear language provided Hao with
an alternative to the Romantic tendencies gushing from many other
Vietnamese poets. Arriving in America, Hao then encountered what he calls
"low key" literature: "Being educated in Vietnam, where the highly
cultivated literature of the French had been the model for so long, it
was difficult for me to accept, at first, the 'no ideas but in things,'
plain-speech writing style of much of American literature. Over the years,
however, I've developed a passion for this 'low key' literature. I feel
much more healthy as a writer now, although the isolation of life in this
country is unbearable at times."
It should be added that the bombast of Mayakovski was held up as a model
in Vietnam. The emphasis was on his late, hate-filled work, however, and
not on the seminal, Futurist poems.
Surrealism is also an ingredient in Hao's work. Although Surrealism has
nothing in common with Socialist Realism, the government allowed the
Surrealists to be translated into Vietnamese because most of them were
Communist sympathizers. Marquez, another Communist synmpathizer, also has
a huge influence in Vietnam, although the steamier sex scenes in "One
Hundred Years of Solitude" have been expunged in the Vietnamese version.
It's also true that poetry is monitored much less tightly than fiction.
"These censors can't really read poems," Nguyen Quoc Chanh explains, "they
will comb through a poem for "reactionary" words. If they can't find them,
then they have a very hard time making an argument that the poem is
Before any literary work can reach the censors, however, it has to pass
through an editor at a goverment owned publishing house. It is this editor
who may lose his job, or worse, if the wrong work is published. I'll give
you a concrete (and personal) example of how this works: Some of my
friends were trying to get a poem of mine published. They told all these
different editors, "He's not an overseas Vietnamese writer, he's an
American writer," but these editors didn't buy it. They were afraid they
would get in trouble if they published a Vietnamese-American poet. There
were three different translations of this poem floating around. All were
rejected. One editor told me through an intermediary that he couldn't
publish the poem because it wasn't clear which army the injured soldier in
the poem belonged to [!].
Chanh, who lives in Saigon, recounts his beginning: "I was drafted into
the Army in 1979, but I faked an illness and wasn't sent to Cambodia.
While in the military hospital, however, I was diagnosed with a (real)
ulcer in my stomach. After I was honorably discharged, I enrolled at the
university as a literature major. Many of the banned books, published
before 1975 in Saigon, were kept at the school library, but only certain
people were allowed to go into the stacks. I managed to be one of them. It
was thanks to this access that I was able to read translations of Rimbaud,
Kafka, Freud, Heidegger, Neitzche, and especially the Existentalists:
Kierkegaard, Sartre and Camus."
The disintegration of the Soviet Union had major repercussions in Vietnam.
A series of policy reforms was finally introduced by the government.
Vietnam became a budding Capitalist society ruled by an oligarchy of
Communist bosses who don't even believe in their own ideology. Any change
is welcomed, however. In the cultural arena, it meant a degree of
liberalization that allowed many writers to emerge, including two of the
poets included here: Nguyen Quoc Chanh and Van Cam Hai. (Phan Nhien Hao,
as an overseas Vietnamese, remains unpublished inside Vietnam.)
Chanh's first collection, "Night Of The Rising Sun," came out in 1990 and
was greeted by a degree of hostility almost comic in its intensity. In an
article titled "The Bizarre in 'Night Of The Rising Sun,'" the newspaper
Youth compared Chanh's work to "a cemetery of the spirit and of the
body. There is nothing left for a person to look for or to lean on. [...]
This work can only lead man towards madness, irresponsibility,
obliviousness towards the present, humans and objects, the lofty and the
abject, the real and the fake, right and wrong, virtues and cruelties are
here mixed together in a slimy disgusting gob." In an article titled "An
Unhealthy Book," the newspaper The People began by complaining of
the "somewhat murky and entirely irrational title." Then it evoked Chanh's
poem "Prometheus" to predict that both the poet's life and career will
perish in a flame he's "toying with."
So what's all this brouhaha about? Aside from a few missteps, common in
any first book of poems, in any book of poems, period, Chanh's
volume is made up of fine lines such as these:
Reeks of gunpowder
And your wage
Is a war casualty
You have to hold the past in your hand each month
Blood from the head
Drains to the feet
Is stuffed with my empty belly
Is swollen with your flat belly
Poking at the sky, a mouth without teeth.
Van Cam Hai debuted with his 1995 collection "Man Who Tends The Waves."
The poet wrote these poems before he was twenty years old. Hai's jamming
together of incongruous words owed something to Le Dat (b. 1922), but the
yonger man's language was more tactile, more concrete, his verbal
collisions more violent, than in the work of the older poet. Hai's music
was also more varied. It was clear that a fierce imagination was at work,
as is evident from "Death and Sister," the first of Hai's poems presented
here. The rest come from his even more astonishing second manuscript,
which has yet to find a publisher in Vietnam. Hai relates: "The editors
are telling me to lighten up. Most of these poems are too heavy." That is
a common, cliche advise. Vietnamese writers are constantly told by editors
to lighten up.
Hai admits to sending $14 a month to a senior official in the
government-sponsored Vietnamese Writers Union. This is no chum change in a
country where a college professor makes about $100 a month (excluding
bribes for fixing grades). Hai is convinced that this monthly tithe will
help him to publish poems in the future. The fact that a young poet has to
think this way says it all about the politics of poetry in contemporary
Slandered and excluded from all anthologies, the three poets in this
volume represent the fringe and vanguard of Vietnamese poetry. In a less
corrupt environment, they would surely be seen as the best, and the most
courageous, of their generation.
[to order "Three Vietnamese Poets," send $9 to Tinfish, 47-728 Hui Kelu Street #9, Kaneohe, HI 96744]
© crossconnect 1995-2002
published in association with the |
university of pennsylvania's kelly writers house |