reading the war
The inspiration for this post comes from the wonderful Chris Galvin Nguyen, a super talented and very cool writer who divides her time between Montreal, Canada and Hue, Vietnam. Chris recently reviewed The Lotus Eaters, a Vietnam war novel by Tatjana Soli, published by St. Martin’s Griffin in December 2010. The main characters in the book are Helen and Sam (both Americans) and Linh (Vietnamese), who work together as photojournalists based in Saigon. Her book review has just gone up on the DiaCRITICS website.
I haven’t read The Lotus Eaters yet, but Chris and I exchanged a couple of messages while she was finishing the review. She mentioned that the book—which she basically liked—is mostly very well researched, but that the extensive bibliography contains very few works written by Vietnamese authors. This is a recurrent issue with English-language fiction and non-fiction on the Vietnam.. American.. uh, i’m going to call it the 2nd Indochina war, ok? Apparently there is a similar situation in French, with literally hundreds of books on the battle of Dien Bien Phu but only a handful of works by Vietnamese authors.
After the review went up, as well as a related post on her regular site, Chris asked me what books by Vietnamese authors I would suggest on the war. It was a fair question given our previous discussion, and it certainly got me thinking.
To be clear, I’m really not sufficiently well read to suggest a definitive list. I’m also constitutionally lousy at short lists when it comes to any complex question. And most questions worth thinking about are complex, right? Conclusions on wars, and on this war in particular, are so contested that i think the only valid option is to expose yourself to lots of different perspectives and build up a gradual and inevitably incomplete picture, holding each individual account pretty lightly while slowly and gently sifting through facts and opinions to build a kind of composite and often contradictory working model.
For me the ideal set of resources would include perspectives from NLF, PAVN and ARVN combatants as well as officials and civilians from all sides and none and from different parts of the country. It would also include both unreservedly positive accounts of the victory of the NLF and PAVN, the liberation of Saigon and the reunification of the country, and equally polarized views of the defeat of the southern forces, the fall of Saigon and the loss of the country. And, hopefully, more reflective works from the range of perspectives listed above, including Vietnamese voices from within the country as well as from the diaspora in America, Australia, Canada, France and elsewhere. It would include both fiction and non-fiction accounts, noting that there are strong and differing views on the facts and significance of key events, even to the extent of continuing arguments over “who really won”.
One thing I realize is that a lot of my own perspective on the war has been reached kind of obliquely. What I mean is that reading, for example, about Vietnam in the 1930s, or about the period from 1954-1958 in Hanoi, or the basically sincere propaganda from reunified Vietnam in the late 1970s and damning accounts of the same period from abroad, has informed my views of the context for war and the experience of the periods of war themselves. Much more than reading about battles or strategy, and probably at least as much as accounts of political decision-making or everyday life during the war.
Anyway, I thought it might be interesting to take a look over my own collection and to list out what I find there, limiting myself to books directly about or largely set during the war itself, written by Vietnamese authors and published in English. I’m hoping that Chris and others will respond to identify works that I have missed, and maybe also to question a few of my selections.
- Bui Tin, Following Ho Chi Minh: memoirs of a North Vietnamese Colonel, translated and adapted by Judy Stowe and Do Van, University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, 1995.
- Duong Van Mai Elliott, The Sacred Willow: Four Generations in the Life of a Vietnamese Family, Oxford University Press, USA, 1999.
- General Van Tien Dung, Our Great Spring Victory: an account of the liberation of South Vietnam, translated by John Spragens, Jr. for Monthly Review Press, New York in 1977 and reprinted in Hanoi by The Gioi Publishers in 2000.
- Luu Van Loi, 50 Years of Vietnamese Diplomacy: 1945-1995, The Gioi Publishers, Hanoi, 2000.
- Luu Van Loi & Nguyen Anh Vu, Le Duc Tho-Kissinger Negotiations in Paris, The Gioi Publishers, Hanoi 1996.
- Thich Nhat Hanh, Vietnam: The Lotus in the Sea of Fire, SCM Press, London, 1967.
- Truong Nhu Tang with David Chanoff and Doan Van Toai, A Viet Cong Memoir: an inside account of the Vietnam War and its aftermath, Vintage Books, USA, 1985.
- Various editions of the journal Vietnamese Studies, published by Xunhasaba Publishing House from the mid-1960s onwards, covering topics like The Failure of “Special War”, 1961-1965, Glimpses of US Neo-Colonialism, The Catholics and the National Movement, and Chemical Warfare.
- Vu Can, A Daily Resistance, Foreign Languages Publishing House, Hanoi, 1975.
- Bao Ninh, The Sorrow of War: a novel, translated by Frank Palmos, based on the translation by Vo Bang Thanh & Phan Thanh Hao, with Katerina Pierce, Secker & Warburg, London, 1993.
- Duong Thu Huong, Novel Without a Name, translated by Phan Huy Duong & Nina McPherson, W. Morrow, New York, 1995.
- Le Luu, A Time Far Past, translated by Ngo Vinh Hai, Nguyen Ba Chung, Kevin Bowen & David Hunt, University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst, 1997.
- Nguyen Trung Thanh, Dat Quang: A South Vietnamese Novel, translated by Han Giang, revised by Elizabeth Hodzkin, Giai Phong Publishing House, 1974.
So what is missing from my shelves? I suppose a couple of the most obvious non-fiction works would be Le Ly Hayslip’s memoir When Heaven and Earth Changed Places, which became the basis for Oliver Stone’s movie Heaven and Earth, and also Last Night I Dreamed of Peace: the diary of Dang Thuy Tram.
I don’t have any fiction on the war itself from the Vietnamese diaspora. Apparently, one of the first such works published in the US was Tran Van Dinh’s 1983 novel, Blue Dragon, White Tiger: a Tet story. A detailed article on that book is available here. There must be others as well. I’m also pretty light on works of non-fiction from the Vietnamese diaspora. For example, Nguyen Cao Ky, former Prime Minister of South Vietnam has written a couple of autobiographical works: How We Lost the Vietnam War and Buddha’s Child: My Fight to Save Vietnam. His works have come in for some criticism, but still form part of the overall mix.
While preparing this entry, I also came across references to some other English translations of non-fiction works published in Vietnam, including:
- Ho Khang, Tet Mau Than 1968 in South Vietnam, The Gioi Publishers, Hanoi, 2001.
- Hoang Van Thai, How South Vietnam was Liberated, The Gioi Publishers, Hanoi, 1996.
- Nguyen Khac Can (Ed.), Vietnam, The war: 1858-1975, NXB Van Hoa Dan Toc, Hanoi, 2000.
- Nguyen Khac Vien, The Long Resistance, 1858- 1975, Foreign Language Publishing House, Hanoi, 1978.
That pretty much ends my list. I’d love to hear of other works, as well as reactions to those listed above, in the comments section. Keep an eye out here also for a further post by Chris.