chocolate for turtles
Hanoi Ink interviews author Brenda Schuster about her book on expats in Vietnam
When the word first went around a few weeks back about Brenda Schuster’s new book, Give me my chocolate or the turtle dies: the tantrums and trials of expats in Viet Nam, my immediate reaction was to drop a quick email to my old friend Bren to check whether any of my more embarrassing Hanoi moments had been recorded in print. Being somewhat prone to lapses in judgment, and having shared some intensely wonderful amateur theatre moments with the author as well as the inevitable crush, I felt it best to know the worst immediately.
Brenda replied—almost immediately, to her credit and my relief—with a very sweet retort that she was writing light comedy rather than War and Peace, and hence my particular life experiences were somewhat surplus to requirements.
She did agree to answer a few questions about the book, giving Hanoi Ink its first big scoop in the Vietnam literary scene, and more than justifying a slight departure from the usual focus on Vietnamese books and writing.
HI: Hanoi Ink has always been a huge fan of Ms. Brenda Schuster: on stage, in person and now of course in print. But was a little nonplussed by all the talk of little black dresses, broken heels (you have heels?), pop quizzes and ‘Bren in the City’ scenarios in the book. Super funny. But not quite the Brenda of political convictions, Uighur scholarship, Ramadan fasts, sustainable energy, obscure Wilfred Burchett references, recycled clothing, organic vegetables and all-round activism. What gives?
Oh, the book is all invention. I never intended it to be autobiographical. If I had, I certainly wouldn’t have put my real name on it! I like my privacy. The idea was to celebrate stereotypes. (And anyway I’m not sure a satire of spirulina-obsessed speechwriters would have appealed to a niche market any larger than say, my mother.)
But that said, on some level it’s also a sort of personal protest – because I don’t wear little black dresses or heels or ride a motorbike or even care about shopping for clothes and I get tired of feeling like I am supposed to. In this book, I get to laugh at all that. Why obsess over your tailor’s stitching? Why move to Asia if you loath the heat? Can you really be THAT vain about the size of your breasts? It’s me trying to understand my world and at the same time, paradoxically, grudgingly, proving to myself I’m not so different from that world that I’m laughing at. (Even if I do love a good organic banana-algae shake.)
HI: Another tough question (I realize I am probably guaranteeing an unflattering reference in your next book): you make some pretty big generalizations about both expats and Vietnamese people in the book. You also refer to a possible threat to the famous turtle of Hồ Gươm lake in the title of the book, which many Hanoians would say very sincerely is not something to be joked about. How do you see the line between satire and appropriateness in material like this, especially cross-culturally? Any questions from your Vietnamese publishers about the turtle reference?
Ah, the Turtle. Hm, never thought about it. (I would, after all, never hurt a turtle; I can’t even kill a cockroach.) I’m guessing he was overlooked in the panic to obliterate my snappy references to Uncle H. and Mr. Marx (regrettable deletions).
Satire, as I understand it, is the magnification of stereotypes and unfounded fears for the purpose of making a political/socio-cultural point. It isn’t something to be taken literally. (Check out Jonathan Swift, the first satirical master, most famous for Gulliver’s Travels.) Satire is glorious. I love it. Everything can be funny. EVERYTHING. I have some Israeli friends who tell the most shocking jokes about the Holocaust. It’s all about imagination. We imagine the world we live in. When you take yourself too seriously you become egocentric and lose all sense of proportion. You definitely can’t laugh at yourself. And you can’t imagine a world any better than the one you have painted around you. I believe we HAVE to be able to imagine and laugh at ourselves, as individuals and as a society, or we have no space for tolerance. (Dictators, fascists, suicide bombers, petty bureaucrats = NO sense of humour.)
When I was 21 I went to live in a remote Central Asian village. At that time there was a drought, a famine, runaway inflation and ongoing environmental collapse. Soon after arriving I sat down to tea with a group of women older than me. I had just finished university and thought I knew all about cultural relativism; I was even prepared to eat meat (that didn’t last long). I was the first foreigner they had met and they wanted to ask what I thought of their lives. How, they asked, do you see the situation of women here, as compared to women where you come from? I responded at once with big smiles and platitudes about culture and We Are One and your traditions are so unique. They just rolled their eyes and looked at me like I was a moron. Look, one of them said, I’ve never in my life been more than 10 kilometres from this village, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt when my husband beats me. They treat us like dogs. In your country, they don’t treat you like a dog. You think that’s ok just because our clothes are different? And I said, Ah.
Culture is interesting but tears taste the same and smiles are universal, right? We give group identifiers too much power. Loving other people does not mean accepting whatever they do as OK in some vague, amoral universe, it means striving to see things as they are and not judge what you find there.
This book is a caricature. I’ve been an expat for the better part of ten years and continue to be impressed at how negative—almost murderous—expats can be about their host country. Especially when they cluster together and reinforce one another’s whining. The stereotypes are already there. What this book tries to do is drag them into the spotlight so they lose their power. Once we’ve popped a hole in them, our prejudices and pettiness become something we can, a little shamefacedly, laugh about.
So in conclusion, I am not joking about the Turtle. I am saying that, in caricature, an expat in Viet Nam feels like a superior being. Even a mouthful of chocolate is more important to the stereotypical Westerner than thousands of years of Vietnamese history and culture. Isn’t that silly? Of course it is. So the idea is, you read that and think, oh silly me, and you remember it the next time you are swearing at the guy who cuts you off in traffic, and, for the first time, refrain from condemning him and his entire nation and seeking revenge by cutting off five other people and breaking a series of traffic laws with all the confidence of one who knows that, passport politics being what they are, s/he will not be stopped by the police.
HI: Some readers (to be specific: me, W1) have commented that you managed to inspire some, well, genuinely inspired writing from Joe Tây in the Foreword. Any comments on the creative process here, sauna time with Joe, or the strange reference to flights and family issues at the end of the Foreword?
Joe and I have never, ever, ever—that I recall—shared sauna time. But I once gave him a bottle of bee pollen and I think that may have done it. Vitamin B is just amazing. Joe is an enormously creative and talented guy. I admire him a lot. He’s also enormously stubborn. I mentioned in passing that I was thinking to put out a small book and he pounced on the idea, wouldn’t let it go. I was very complimented that he offered to write the foreword. I don’t entirely understand it but I’m sure it makes sense in that dimension where his brain exists when it is not super-charged on Vitamin B.
HI: Finally, do you really miss the place? Any plans for a triumphant return? Or a sequel?
I miss my friends. A lot. I miss all the cafes, and walking along the lakes, and spending the small hours of the night in Puku or at karaoke or dancing salsa. There are so many things I miss! I try not to think about it.
As to a sequel, I’m working on some USA-related stuff. This place is just hilarious. And because most Americans never leave America, I’m not sure they really know how funny they are. Sarah Palin is like the tip of the iceberg. But I generally do more ‘literature’ type writing (under a pen name) than humour, so I guess it will depend on how much I need to make myself laugh!
Give me my chocolate or the turtle dies: the tantrums and trials of expats in Viet Nam by Brenda Schuster was published by The Gioi Publishing House in January 2011. This lovely little book is available at The Bookworm in Hanoi (44 Chau Long, Ba Dinh), at Mekong Merchant and The Deck in Ho Chi Minh City (23 Thao Dien and 38 U Di, both in District 2), and at Randy’s Book Exchange in Hoi An.