One result of the specific history between Vietnam and the Anglophone world, including still significant language and cultural divides, as well as the hard-to-shake legacy of the old bi-polar world order and certain aspects of the socio-political situation in Vietnam (phew!) is that we English-speaking Westerners who wash up on these shores often have a tendency to mistrust mainstream accounts and mainly value voices from the fringes.
Once we get beyond the ever-multiplying ‘Vietnam: a country not a war’ expat travelogues, the Vietnamese-American tales of departure and return, and Bảo Ninh’s “The Sorrow of War”, we are probably most likely next to encounter the work of writers like Dương Thu Hương and Phạm Thị Hoài. There is a certain frisson in reading such works, particularly if we are actually in Vietnam. Being considered suspect by the authorities, and particularly being banned and/or in exile has become not only a badge of honor, but also a signifier of honesty, truth, clarity and precision. Even Bảo Ninh’s ubiquitous (and important) novel is probably given additional weight for mainly being encountered in photocopied form, and bolstered by rumors of official disapproval.
There is so much good to be said about authors such as the fearless (and fearsome) Dương Thu Hương, now at last living in France. And Phạm Thị Hoài, in Germany. And the wonderful Bảo Ninh in Hanoi with his joy, humility and seemingly perpetual writer’s bloc. I am much richer for their work. Challenged by their lives and words. And a grateful member of their now I suppose often non-Vietnamese readership.
But writers who walk the line of what truths are able to be printed in complex contexts, and who subject themselves to the scrutiny of the most engaged readership possible—those actually living in the same country, society and political system—and to the white light of the market—are they actually read in that place?—may also reveal subtle, precise and compelling truths about a place. And perhaps ultimately participate more openly and directly in the ongoing work of any society grappling with change and struggling to renew itself moment by moment, rather than being read only furtively or by foreigners.
This online scrapbook was started with a fairly uninformed sense that most of the really exciting writing in Vietnam happened only in the 1930s, for a few heady years in the mid 1950s, and then for a brief moment in the second half of the 1980s. With not much of great note since.
But just as the best fictional writing in any tradition goes beyond two-dimensional characters and simple narratives of good/evil or true/false, I am finding myself challenged by other voices, by a growing realization of the continuing dynamism and passion in the literary world here, and by the insistent and tantalizing possibility that all sorts of interesting and important work is out there all the time.
Which is all basically a rather long-winded way of saying that Hanoi Ink will be attempting a kind of monthly literary round up, starting immediately. Let’s see what is out there.