a southern deluge
[Lately, I seem unable to escape the pull of Ho Chi Minh City and the south. This is probably the first of three entries that are in some way or other related to southern poetry.]
This is not an entry about The Deluge: New Vietnamese Poetry, the English-language anthology of Vietnamese poetry translated by Linh Dinh that Vietnamese-American poet Hai-Dang Phan writes about in this recent essay for Asymptote Journal. It can’t be, really, as the anthology itself won’t be available until later this year. (Hai-Dang Phan’s essay will apparently be the introduction to the anthology.) So lets just say that it is a reflection on his essay, which is a long and very worthwhile read in itself.
Obviously Hai-Dang Phan’s introductory essay got me thinking. For days. I love writing like this: well-written, thoughtful and sincere, informed by a wide range of sources, and about a topic I’m deeply interested in. Best of all, he is not just writing stuff that confirms my existing opinions or biases. In some ways quite the opposite in fact. Hence the days of thinking.
I read it straining to see Vietnam through the author’s eyes. At least until after the half-way mark, it felt like I was looking through a backward telescope, all circular borders and reverse magnification, with no overall sense of the wider scene. Peephole glimpses of both the anthology and of Vietnam itself. At some point I realized I was maybe looking for more of a catalogue, an explanation, even a taxonomy of the anthology contents and what they have to say about Vietnam right now. A Wikipedia entry perhaps?
I wondered what this said about me. Particularly when, in fact, among many, many other things he does offer lists of poets, and categorizations:
“This anthology consists of twelve poets living and writing in Vietnam, and of nearly an equal number overseas. Also, nearly half represent the generation who witnessed the war in Vietnam as either civilians or combatants, and the other half the generation who either grew up or were born after the war.”
Maybe it is just that I am proving one of Hai-Dang Phan’s key points. That—apart from Bui Chat and Ly Doi from the Mở Miệng (Open Mouth) group and a couple of others—I am not familiar enough with poets rarely published here to quickly assimilate his ideas into my existing reference points and mental maps. A poet’s name is also a shorthand for his writing and experience; not recognizing enough names or having the anthology itself in hand I’m somewhat broadsided.
He writes of visiting bookshops in Ho Chi Minh City and Da Nang, looking for evidence of the state of things, much as I do and probably equally obsessively. Though to some extent it feels like we are in different Vietnams, noticing different authors, drawing different conclusions. Perhaps we are just drawn to different embers, hoping to fan different sparks into flame in our search for heat and light. I have some small advantages, time in country and some inside access to Hanoi political culture. And my life was not torn asunder by this all before I was even born. But those things of course are also half my problem, with the other half being the persisting language barrier. Clearly the balance of clear-sightedness is tilted in his favor.
And Hai-Dang Phan is certainly aiming for balance in his comments on Vietnam here and now and developments over the past couple decades. His paralleled “it must be admitted… it must be admitted…” tracks this, weighing the reality of opening up against ongoing constraints. He quotes in support a northern émigré voice, Pham Thi Hoai no less, with her wry comparison of the different extents to which domestic products (“bath soap, toothbrushes and tampons”) and culture have been privatized. But it leaves me, admittedly long enmeshed in Hanoi politics and perspectives, wanting a more precise definition of the direction and pace of change and endpoints that diaspora poets and writers would commit to and applaud.
A decade ago, the direction of change seemed to me, from my limited personal perspective sitting in Hanoi, to be all positive. The only real argument was over the pace. But things are becoming much more complicated now as the market starts to bite. Better and worse, better and worse, all the time. Though sometimes it seems like the debate over culture is whether to acknowledge the worse, to bring it into creative works and then maybe to start to grapple with it and transform it. Countered as ever with the concern that bringing such ugly realities into so-called ‘pure’ literary forms both debases those forms and popularizes ugliness. That is kind of how I see the debate over Nguyen Thanh Phong’s recent book of illustrated slang, and it maybe also explains the current suspension of its distribution.
Hai-Dang Phan doesn’t say much about the Vietnamese language of these domestic and diaspora poets. I want to know more about his: how do they draw on, and maybe play with, older forms, currents and traditions in Vietnamese poetry? If I recall correctly, Ho Xuan Huong’s exquisite command of language carved a space for her poems, despite their racy half-hidden meanings (okay, maybe also because of them). Do these poets make a way for themselves, and their ideas, through a breathtaking mastery of Vietnamese language? I really hope we will see Vietnamese originals alongside translations when the anthology comes out.
Linh Dinh apparently worked on these translations while staying in HCM City in daily contact with many of the Vietnam-based poets. I’m deeply curious about Linh Dinh’s translation process: How far has he come with “relearning” Vietnamese? Did any of the poets (including those born or educated outside Vietnam and presumably in at least most cases fluent in English) comment directly on his translations of their work? What were his, and maybe their, key struggles and contentions in the always contested terrain of translation?
There is clearly an aspiration to share southern writing. Hai-Dang Phan states that southern voices were written out of the national literature after 1975, noting the exception of Bui Giang. In fairness, he also alludes to northern voices, Hoang Cam and others, that were basically unheard for decades after the 1950s. But these northern poets at least have been given some attention of late. And I guess he captures what I also see, 1930s writings being re-loved and reconsidered as Vietnam again grapples with how far to embrace the West, and 1950s poets being published, read and discussed again though mostly now posthumously.
Some of the hard work of reconciliation of different perspectives seems to be underway currently, at least looking backwards. I hope that this anthology, though published in English and overseas, becomes a part of what is being and must eventually be reconciled. Especially as this essay has been translated into Vietnamese by Hanoi lecturer in literature Hải Ngọc. And Hai-Dang Phan’s own English-language poetry has also been translated into Vietnamese. As Hai-Dang Phan notes, Vietnamese literature is online and finding life in Paris, Sydney, Berlin and of course the US. Though always, and most importantly, in Vietnam itself.
As for me, Hai-Dang Phan’s article pushes me into an area that has been hovering at the back of my mind for quite a while. The feeling that I should seek out more new poetry here, although I’m pretty much assuming that translation of modern forms into English will be beyond me. Nguyen Qui Duc’s translations of another southern poet, Vu Thanh Son, one of which he read at the recent Noi Ha Noi spoken word event, have given me a similar push. Though if I’m completely honest my historical bias will probably take me first to a poet whose works are still widely available and apparently undergoing something of a revival, the “brilliantly mad” Bui Giang, characterized by Hai-Dang Phan as “perhaps the closest thing Vietnam has ever produced to a beatnik poet”.