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   a n    i n t r o d u c t i o n    t o    t h r e e    v i e t n a m e s e    p o e t s

--- L I N H   D I N H

The two Vietnams became one in 1975. The years that followed turned out to be some of the darkest in Vietnamese history. A quarter of a million people, soldiers, intellectuals, clergymen, were sent to prison; tens of thousands were kicked out of their own homes; more than a million people escaped overseas-a startling phenomenom, considering that Vietnamese had never emigrated in substantial numbers before. The term "boat people" entered the English language (to be translated into Vietnamese as "thuyen nhan"). Books were banned and confiscated.

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 food."

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 reactionary."

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:

   A bill of money

   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

   Your belly

   Is stuffed with my empty belly

   My belly

   Is swollen with your flat belly

   A ladder like a toothpick


   Poking at the sky, a mouth without teeth.

But Chanh really hit his strides with his second book, "Inanimate Weather," which came out in 1997. That book is represented here with the sequence "Seven Untitled Poems." The other poems by Chanh are translated straight from manuscripts, of works unpublished, or unpublishable, in Vietnam.

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 Vietnam.

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.

Linh Dinh

[to order "Three Vietnamese Poets," send $9 to Tinfish, 47-728 Hui Kelu Street #9, Kaneohe, HI 96744]

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