Foreword: Like elsewhere in Southeast Asia, Vietnamese literature in translation, for the most part into English, continues to be confined to classical epic poems, such as the race to translate the best English version of The Tale of Kieu (cf. Penguin Classic’s disastrous 2019 rendition), and avant-garde works of post-modernist writers. The first aims to promote Vietnam as a nation of a long cultural tradition and grand literary splendour – an apolitical entity whose history is rendered a kind of Oriental decoration; whereas the latter paints Vietnam in the light of a country that, decades after the war and reforms, remains a backward places where literary talents and voices are subjected to censorship and suppression. The truth is that the most exciting things that happen in, among, and to the literary scene in Vietnam neither takes place in the endorsed export of epics nor in the fight against censorship, but in the heart of local activities where so many events, figures, and scandals continue to shape the course of literary development. In this retrospective of 20 years of Vietnamese literature, Dr Quyen Nguyen reflects on her engagement and involvement with the scene as a translator, an editor, a publisher, and most important of all, an avid reader who once measured books by the kilo. A James Joyce scholar, she tirelessly (literally) channels her streams of consciousness that leads us from one story to the other, from surprises to scandals caught up in a tangled net, of tangled realities. Some of the names in here may be familiar to the non-Vietnamese readers, especially if they have been translated into English and/or won prizes, while others may not have their moment in translation yet. All and all, the imperative is just to “make it fun”.
A note on the translation: This translation was produced during my participation in PUBLIC/SCHOLARSHIP: Workshop on Translation and Southeast Asian Studies, convened by Tyrell Haberkorn, Professor of Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. After deliberating and considering many possibilities/options/choices/chances, I decided to translate this essay, firstly due to my love, admiration and support for Zét Nguyễn, and secondly, for everything that this essay stands for (and not) (see foreword: to some, this is a given, but to me, this is a very important reckoning). I started this project in the second week of September and finished by the first week of October, but I kept coming back to make adjustments and corrections, even for this publication, given that it is such a tour de force for the writer, writer-translator, and the reader/audience/comprehender/understander. This essay employs a mix of academic discussion, literary review and commentary in the fashion of someone shooting the breeze while drinking iced tea on the sidewalk, that is to say, a casual and almost devil-may-care tone laden with jokes, references and Easter eggs. I am aware that these may not be familiar to non-Vietnamese readers, yet I choose not to use footnotes nor any annotations, firstly given the length of the main text, and secondly to excite you or even prompt you to do your own little research. With regards to the tone, I try to render almost the same feeling by appropriating English counterparts of memes, slangs, internet phrases and expressions whenever and wherever possible. So that when you read it, everyone – every name, every author, event, scandal, or reference – will come and go naturally, like an endless conversation you have while “blowing water” on the sidewalk.
WiFi Iced Tea Shooting The Breeze On
Vietnamese Contemporary Literature
“And just as it is in any other government unit, the literary scene distributes prizes through an approach based solely on the love for humanity or the practice of taking attendance. Criticism also follows this same rule of total social empathy that the best criticism is no criticism at all, and if yes, then you have to be subtle, be considerate, and give three full compliments before administering a slight slap on the wrist.”
(Thuận, Made in Vietnam)
To slice through this past 20 years for a piece of early 21st century Vietnamese literature – to put down some sketches, jot down some observations, thinking aloud, will sooner or later, more or less, immediately be considered juvenile. The last 20 years have seen the rise (and fall) of countless authors, literary works, genres, and phenomenon in both mainstream publishing and underground press, those who have made headlines or been spread around by word of mouth, ending up producing a mass of mismatched puzzle pieces that no matter how hard you try to squeeze them into a tight net, they will inevitably fall out and fall down; not to mention the fact that you have to try identifying a certain timestamp and assign temporary meaning(s) to each year, marking a mini-end somewhere, only for them to say: oh why haven’t you included Mr A, oh what about Female Writer B, what about the Travelogue, what about the Era of the Declined Essays? And does it really exist – the practice of listing works in a chronological order that happen to share the same theme(s) because we were all born into a shared zeitgeist?
If the doctoral thesis ‘Some aspects of the vaginal system of the flea’ that Terry Eagleton cited as an example of an appealing modesty in The Meaning of Life can be interpreted as Eagleton’s lamentation on the dwindling role of the critic in contemporary society, those considered “intellectuals” as opposed to academics neck deep in their research, then an attempt to write an account of literary history by a critic-intellectual would be considered crazy, bombastic, or even delusional, yet it can also become a space in which one can manifest their own (unpopular) opinions (if have) completely untouched nor scathed by power dynamics, political differences, and tangled relationships. And even more importantly, one would not fall into the terribly banal trap of reflections of essays of theses of dissertations that deal with the art of narrative and the representations of characters and the poetics and the formalistics. And even though the word “intellectual” has, in the last 10 years, become a taboo word because of the endless struggling and grappling with one’s self-proclaimed responsibility, I still want to believe in Eagleton’s reading of the term, that is
“Intellectuals are not only different from academics, but almost the opposite of them. Academics usually plough a narrow disciplinary patch, whereas intellectuals. . . roam ambitiously from one discipline to another. Academics are interested in ideas, whereas intellectuals seek to bring ideas to an entire culture. The word ‘intellectual’ is not a euphemism for ‘frightfully clever’, but a kind of job description, like ‘waiter’ or ‘chartered accountant’. Anger and academia do not usually go together, except perhaps when it comes to low pay, whereas anger and intellectuals do.
Above all, academics are conscious of the difficult, untidy, nuanced nature of things, while intellectuals take sides. [Being] both angry and analytic, [they are] aware that, in all the most pressing political conflicts which confront us, someone is going to have to win and someone to lose. It is this, not a duff ear for nuance and subtlety, which marks them out from the liberal [academic].”
When Thuận, an author who first appeared at the turn of the new millennium, begrudgingly picked at her keyboard these final words, “Finally, Hanoi has made it to the year 2000,” circa 1997-8, alternative realities had launched an invasion campaign in Vietnam, one of the culprits being none other than yours truly: the Internet. This is absolutely wicked but I have to spill the tea and say with all my naivety that till this day at this moment there are still people who struggle to (and even resort to bribery? I heard? Please tell me it’s not true) become a member of Vietnam Writers’ Association: what an alternative reality indeed.
I was completely shocked the first time I stumbled upon this terra incognita via an interview with Mr Hoàng Ngọc Hiển conducted by Phạm Thị Hoài and Trương Hồng Quang in 2004:
“[Nguyễn Huy] Thiệp went to the Writers’ Association Publishing House, at the time [I think] it was still called The New Work Publishing House (Nhà xuất bản Tác phẩm mới). Xuân Quỳnh was the prose editor in charge there. They said Xuân Quỳnh never came to the publishing house, so Thiệp brought his manuscript to Xuân Quỳnh’s house. Thiệp recounted his visit to me: [he had to] entered into an alleyway, passed through a long corridor, along which were four or five water taps. Xuân Quỳnh was sitting there doing her laundry, facing the wall. They showed Thiệp, the lady sitting there washing her clothes, that’s Xuân Quỳnh. Thiệp came to stand behind Xuân Quỳnh’s back and said: ,,Dear chị, I came to the publishing house and they said you only receive manuscript submissions at home. I have come to hand in my manuscript.” Xuân Quỳnh didn’t even bother to turn around and replied: ,,I only take submissions at the publishing house, not at home.” Thiệp left, Xuân Quỳnh definitely did not know who was standing behind her.”
Any reader who read this today would immediately harbour some judgemental thoughts towards Xuân Quỳnh the female poet whose love(s) is almost always the same, then towards the New Work Publishing House regarding the process of submitting manuscripts to a state-backed publisher, then from the tip of our tongue: why don’t you just send an email to a private communications and cultural production company? If they don’t take it, why don’t we just publish everything online? Or even self-print if absolutely needed?
Essentially, this 20-year period is radically different from all of its predecessors, not only in that it cost an arm and a leg to have a table phone set up in your household, and if you could use your relationships to ask for a job in the post office then you were set for life; nowadays, faced with a myriad of platforms from forums, blogs, e-zines, Facebook, Instagram (if you want to be even more sophisticated, then you can also divide this period into two halves of ten, starting from those early days when just a brick of a Nokia cell phone was enough to make you gloat to this smartphone age, as if you have died then been reincarnated through at least a dozen lifetimes. I still recall those days when I had to jump over the firewall to get onto Talawas, shocked and filled to the brim with overflowing emotions flooding Yahoo Messenger and Yahoo 360 Blog in a thousand-word diary entry, all leading up to that exodus when everything was moved to Facebook which was originally used to take silly quizzes only. And does anyone still remember that compulsory motorbike helmet that we thought had been around ever since we were born but in fact was only reinforced in 2007?) so on and so forth, writers have a zillion and more ways to get published. Writing in Thi nhân Việt Nam (Vietnamese Poets) in 1942, the late critic Hoài Thanh had called out everything from western oil western matches western fabric western threads western needles western nails to signify how times had changed and to frame the opposition between us and them, between the young and the old. If so, then anyone who has lived through the past 20 years must understand how technology has influenced our lives and lifestyles, our cultural and behaviour, how familial you are in mindset (most particularly the ability to perform our individual “self”) so much that you don’t even bother to buy the book to listen to the author’s reading, not to mention Youtube and Tiktok.
And of course it must be worlds away from the era immediately following Đổi Mới when you would already be considered of a higher social class if you were able to name a series of western liquors like in Nguyễn Việt Hà’s The Chance of God (Cơ hội của Chúa), nowadays with cars lining up both sides of the street in the capital city, with Gogi House, The Coffee House, and KFC feel free to insert your favourite restaurant here with endless rows of apartment buildings shooting up to the sky unyieldingly mincing Hanoi’s real estate, with thousands of books translated into Vietnamese every year and if need to we can just buy the original and have it shipped to us from “over there” or else libgen is always here for you, and with CGV the Korean cinema franchise and phimmoi the pirated website that just got pulled down (now alive and kicking as phimmoizzz), with Netflix and Spotify (how do you Netflix and chill asking for a friend?) or thepiratebay, with the new middle class rising up to the surface creating a discourse of fear for food hygiene that helps boost sales from I have Uncle Viettel quickly innovated to oh I have this uncle who has a farm up in Sơn La and fruits have to be purchased from the imported goods store in order to guarantee the health of the new bamboo shoot generation, when travelling in the old days was a matter of pure luxury vacationing with your parents’ company now has become a trend of move or die for both the young and the old, terribly pushed by young money and Pick up your backpack and go (which gave birth to a whole new genre of travelogue and novels set in faraway places where lavender is a kind of property, Mekong through closed eyes, tired legs alone in Italy, donkeys don’t cry in America), descendants of Âu Lạc now no longer only study and play in Eastern Europe with Soviet friends but hundreds of eggs have spread throughout the world of capitalist extravaganza: the dawn of a new era, o my brothers and sisters in arms! Listing out this breathless list is not to show you that the old has died: it is not, never has been: these realities exist together in the same dimensional plane, and more importantly, the crucial point is whatever reality you perceive to be stronger and more powerful.
I have to pitch such a lengthy introduction just to sweetly whisper into the ears of the lovers that this past 20 years have been a convergence of all streams, all genres, all phenomenon, and no matter how it would be reconstructed at anywhere in anytime then still this sidewalk refreshment stall with wifi readily available is an incredible feat of existence that no other nation on this earth is capable of. To talk literature, including written and published works, both mainstream and unconventional in this era, is a compelling yet painstaking task. But to jump back into the link between state-backed and privately-owned publishing, of modernism versus traditions, rotating endlessly like that phone wallpaper you never bother to change, please allow me to cite the first work I believe to be the hyphenating link of the post-Đổi Mới literature, the era in which writers were drunk on the gush of culture and literature about to be liberated come on my brothers and sisters get set go, when Dương Thu Hương was still excitedly upbeat on the other side of illusion with The Writers’ Conference and hoped that young writers “have to seize the right to voice the decision in issues of literature and issues of the [Writers’] Association.” You see, this is definitely the new era, I told you so.
20 years, what has become of our literary scene? We managed to turn Nguyễn Việt Hà from a young aspiring writer to not so young anymore (and Nguyễn Bình Phương into not so new of a writer, put Nguyễn Xuân Khánh on the pedestal, confirmed that Hồ Anh Thái’s fame is lame beyond salvation, and paraded a band of young turks battling for the new crown only to be quickly grouped into the category of “young adult literature”). The Chance of God came out in 1999, writing about the social reality of the 1980-90s like a gust of wind blowing through the North down South, to cosplay the late Hoài Thanh. People pestered each other into reading it, and read in the middle of the deep dark night, and now lament an era when literature could command such an important position in the socio-cultural life (but this does not happen to Vietnam only, nowadays people worldwide can’t stop complaining about those yesteryears when the artistes were the center of the universe, but let’s face it, you can’t have your cake and eat it all; and anyone smart enough to snatch a piece of spotlight better perform for your life until you’re overthrown). This phenomenon of literature being zealously pushed and pulled happened again in 2005, then unfortunately stopped for the next 15 years. Works are born and immediately fall off the proverbial cliff, sometimes even without leaving an echo behind, no matter if they have won Prize A or B in the young writers’ contest, be it from the Writers’ Association or any independent organisation, be it National Prize or ASEAN Awards, conventional or underground. Everything fades right into oblivion faster than an acid trip.
The Chance of God was like a shooting star blazing the trail of post-Đổi Mới that could evoke “the very social atmosphere of today” (Nguyên Ngọc), is the peak from which Nguyễn Việt Hà goes downhill perpetually with his subsequent works, the last of which (so far) Urbanite Novel (Thị Dân Tiểu Thuyết), a work that tries so hard yet fails to become a kind of (awkward) street history told with a tone fresh from the drinking table, guaranteed to feed one or two more generations of MA degree holders whose theses deal with oral history, was awarded the Writers’ Association Prize exactly 20 years after The Chance of God was born. Thanks to which, 1999 became somewhat of a controversial year as whenever Spring comes Tết returns people would bring Vietnamese literature out for a year-end retrospective and conclude with the phrase “what a sad year” that has now become the norm. These days whenever I reread it I just feel a fleeting sense of disbelief and bewilderment as to how this novel could have been loaded with so much praise and worship: because of the new novel technique at the time with alternating perspectives, for the bold tone that exposes the whole corrupted capitalistic society of fame liquor power fuck bitches get money masquerading as intellectualism, or what?
There remains a vast array of issues that can be assigned then shoot the breeze further on the birth of The Chance of God (anyone who wants to research into private publishing and its role in contemporary literature definitely has to take a look at Dương Thắng’s Knowledge (Kiến Thức) Bookstore which had printed a bunch of names that would go on to be controversial later like Đỗ Hoàng Diệu or Thuận, not to mention Western books such as Atomised and Dictionary of the Khazars) and its reception. One of the many unsolved murder mysteries may have everything to do with what I’m about to spill next: was The Chance of God ever subjected to a written or verbal ban (one useful delicate sophisticated skill especially needed in the age of keeping screenshots as receipts), or did it give up completely under the incessant caning by the critics? I reminisce the time of my youth when around Thanh Xuân neighborhood a bowl of phở was worth 5,000 VND and with almost the same amount of money you could fill up a tank of gas (the price has magically returned to this original threshold when the whole country went into covid-19 lockdown), I passed by a bookstore on the way to the University of Social Sciences and Humanities to see The Chance of God on centerpiece display in a glass cabinet, only to turn my broke ass away after inquiring the price. That 250,000 VND! The practice of inflating the price to the nine heavens after a book is banned became a common practice after that (on this note, see also Tạ Duy Anh’s Lord of the Termites, Mối Chúa), and price is not the only thing inflated – even its reception and judgement of quality as well.
Then came 2000, and while many lived in a state of constant existential dread waiting for the end of the world, The Tale of 2000 (Chuyện kể năm 2000) happened. Taking baby steps into the new millennium, a book was born in the last days leading up to Tết Canh Thìn amidst thousands of untold secrets and suspended thrillers that many years later when reading about the 200 copies placed on the floor right next to its author Bùi Ngọc Tấn’s marriage bed in his autobiography, I couldn’t help but tear up (This I quote never made up: see Post-Tale of 2000 – The Age of Genetic Modification, Hậu Chuyện kể năm 2000 – Thời biến đổi gien). Brutal reality still ground him and his works to the last minute. And if you look into the history of publishing in the past 20 years through the lens of publication events then Bùi Ngọc Tấn is truly a rare case.
With the influx of translated literature right on time with their publication in the US, convoluting with a global readership, with Hollywood and Chinese blockbusters vying for our attention, with the latest fashion clothing sunglasses watches real luxury brands and fake 1 fake 2 fake 3 knock-offs, with sushi and pizza, with everything you can ever ask for and get it in this modern day and age, with postmodernism with imported discourses though belated still became trendy even after 2000, sometimes we open our eyes and feel like we’re already living “overseas” and forget that it is just the new reality growing upon its old foundation: there is no private publishing in Vietnam and certainly everything that has to do with publishing are placed under the control of the Bureau. If you look through the lens of censorship, then The Tale of 2000 is the most scandalous of all because it was the first book in the past 20 years to ever be beaten into pulp (or have there been more that the Internet doesn’t let me know?) Thanks to the dedication of keyboard heroes running on home-cooked meals who had worked tirelessly to scan the book onto the Internet as early as 2001 that the book continues to be passed down to later generations.
Vladimir Nabokov had vehemently claimed that, “There can be no question that what makes a work of fiction safe from larvae and rust is not its social importance but its art, only its art.” And even though I don’t even like Nabokov to begin with, sometimes I have to acknowledge that the man is right. In terms of its socio-historical values, The Tale of 2000 must be the pinnacle of the Gulag genre. Combined with the terrible effect brought upon by its confrontational content, Bùi Ngọc Tấn’s autobiography about the 5 years he spent in jail for reeducation without parole, I totally understand why so many people love it. When I read it, I myself felt utterly touched and for him, for his wife, for his children, for his fellow inmates. So many guts, so much pain, so many wrongful accusations and vengeance poured into words into lines into pages. The case of Bùi Ngọc Tấn and The Tale of 2000 is so painful that as we engage with his work our sympathy and conscience would take over and overwhelm our ability to judge its artistic qualities. And anyone who dares to swim against the current and raise a judging word would immediately be sentenced to the guillotine. At least in a certain field, the practice of putting someone on a pedestal and worshipping him is guaranteed in that way. Got complaints? You’re the temple burner.
With all due respect for a senior who loves literature dearly, who goes through hell with an unchanging devotion and loyalty toward literature, who shakily opened the cover of his first book, then all of his four books as his dream came true, I believe we can’t enforce upon autobiographical works the same standards of criticism even if they’re labeled novels. It is because the value of this genre is not in its artisticity but in the values of the events recovered and recounted. Therefore with The Sea and The Kingfisher (Biển và Chim bói cá) and The Antkeeper (Người chăn kiến), it’s easy to set the record straight that there remains room for improvement.
Adam Thrilwell in The Delighted States wrote that Tolstoy viewed life in opposition to history, whereas Perec saw reality in opposition to journalism. If we look at literary history through the lens of notable events, or see it within the dynamism between the government and the writer, then 2002 again shocked us with another book ban: Tạ Duy Anh’s In Search of The Character (Đi tìm nhân vật). And every time the stars aligned in the last 20 years, Nguyễn Bình Phương’s Truck up Truck down (Xe lên xe xuống), originally had to be published “œover there” in 2011, made its in-country debut in 2015 and bam! Awarded a prize. The 2002 In Search of The Character was banned only to make its comeback in 2016 like a real MVP. Other incidents also share the same fate: Nguyễn Xuân Khánh’s Hysterical Swine (Trư Cuồng) was considered a national-level contraband so much so that anyone who made a slight mistake of touching it was considered a co-conspirator (or did I just imagine that?), yet in 2018 was awarded the Best Book Award for the Photoshopped version that airbrushed away a few problematic facial hairs. (Nguyễn Xuân Khánh is actually a very interesting case who, from exposing societal problems existential angst prose, parachuted into historical epics to avoid casualty, but I’ll stop here now). No one can keep up with, let alone react to, these mood swings. Award-wise, even Trần Dần was finally awarded the National Prize for Arts and Literature in 2007 and the Hanoi Writers’ Association Award for Lifelong Contribution, and even if the age of liberalism is here for the return of Crossroads and Lampposts (Ngã Tư và Cột đèn) and Lotus Nippled Nights (Đêm Núm Sen) yet Trần Dần Poetry (Trần Dần Thơ) is still worth two and a half million VND a copy on the black market. This mercurial nature of literary publishing, well, is business as usual. If we must choose a year of unforgettable literary events, then 2005 is that year. Around April, Chinatown by Thuận dropped, then in July Last Night I Dreamed of Peace: The Diary of Dang Thuy Tram (Nhật ký Đặng Thuỳ Trâm) was born, Đỗ Hoàng Diệu unleashed her Incubus (Bóng Đè) around August – September, and when everyone hadn’t quite recovered from this series of drama (which on hindsight entailed heated discussions on talawas as if judging the panel on Miss Vietnam) Hurricane The Endless Field (Cánh đồng bất tận) by Nguyễn Ngọc Tư approached in November and wrecked full havoc the next year in March 2006, at the literal end of Vietnam, as Cà Mau province tried to impose disciplinary action against the writer – the magical papaya stem the blew her name through the bamboo roof. The moral of the story? Being sentenced to a book ban is good for business lah.
What else was there in 2005? By the end of 2004, Vietnam had joined the Berne Convention. From now on say goodbye to unlicensed translations (even though works continue to be translated and published without paying royalties). Private publishing companies seized at the chance and joined in on the start-up, monopolising the market. And if there’s any horrible impact on Vietnamese Literature I must say it right here and now that it is the Event of the Translated Literature. It outrageously bullies its native buddy: it quenches the thirst for books and caters to the very vain yet righteous need of rubbing shoulders with powers of the five continents, even only by consuming products of readers’ culture of all genres, from trashy Chinese romance novels for teenage girls, shocking detective pulp fiction, to high-fashion high-class literature, from local awards to Nobel Prize Man Booker Prize Pulitzer Prize, it shakes the readers up so much that we have turned our backs to made-inVietnam products, and even more brutally, it makes our countrymen question and look down on each other so much that we won’t even touch Vietnamese original writings. What can we fight back with now, nationalism? Alright, let’s essay for a bit. We have poetry already, now make some more space for essays, a corrupted literary bush is a healthy bush after all.
Of course this is just for fun, the situation is not at all dire – translated literature has fed endless cultural workers and creating a new generation of translators and editors (kudos to those who have to compare manuscripts and pickup endless trash and poops on the way), helping endless young buffaloes to release their pent up energy of fervent devotion and the ready-to-kill mentality on the pen-and-paper frontline. And it has even trained new writers and their audience. No need to cite anyone so far away: Svetlana Alexievich the 2015 Nobel Laureate in Literature with her brand of literary documentary had given birth to 03 spawns after being translated into Vietnamese: Võ Diệu Thanh with her combo of Returning from the Planet of Memories (Về từ hành tinh ký ức), Phan Thuý Hà with Don’t Say My Name (Đừng gọi tên tôi), I Am My Father’s Daughter (Tôi là con gái của cha tôi), Family (Gia Đình), and Đặng Hoàng Giang with Finding Ourselves in A Post-Adolescent World (Tìm mình trong thế giới hậu tuổi thơ). I wonder how Alexievich would react when she knew about this – would she scream bloody murder at that family ruiner when she found out that her youngest protegee surnamed Đặng has stolen her secret and cooked up his own recipe for immortal alchemy I mean chicken soup for the soul spiced with poisonous parenting, under whatever cover?
Going back to 2005, there are so many things to talk about and so many things not worthy of being talked about. Incubus rightly falls into the second category. With regards to Nguyễn Ngọc Tư I sincerely hope that I have not been lied to, because I have a nagging feeling like this is a terrible prank, unless I have fallen into the trap of over-reading into her texts. Reading her works continuously from her debut Unextinguished Light (Ngọn đèn không tắt) (awarded the 20 Years Old Literary Prize, a scheme heavily financed to sow the seed for budding literature, of which Nguyễn Ngọc Tư and Dương Thuỵ are two biggest ROIs), but to The Endless Field and Wind of Solitude (Gió Lẻ), to her first full-length novel River (Sông), then Island (Đảo) I made a discovery: Nguyễn Ngọc Tư’s writing gradually transformed itself from the initially moderated and watered down colloquial accent embedded in a relatively smooth prose to full-blown accented texts. Another aspect also escalated in extremity: the cruelty that grew through her works accumulated in River like a season in hell (© Nguyen An Ly ripping off Arthur Rimbaud). Yet it is so easy to condemn her to the lower tier just because of the pretext of cheesy romance hovering over a field of cải lương grassroots. Not to mention how unfortunate it is when her books immediately sell out right after hitting the market, thousands and thousands of copies, with everyone rushing to make Nguyễn Ngọc Tư audiobooks, every household citing Nguyễn Ngọc Tư: a best-selling author that is also a talented writer, how furious can we ever fully be at this lucky bastard? Moreover, in Nguyễn Ngọc Tư’s works there is no singular story that can be deemed perfect, as there will always be a breaking point, usually at the end of the story. Reading Nguyễn Ngọc Tư is forever a process of searching for gold in a never-ending field of sand. But if you read closely, you will notice she has stealthily thrown into the mix a bunch of extremely dark and cruel crimes then wiped off her hands with a poker face, as if nothing ever happened. In the corner of the small kitchen or a wing of the house, rape, incest, domestic violence, and stabbing people to death happen as if they are the most natural things, which are then covered up by a layer of hay set to a sorrowful soundtrack of the monochord zither, turn it up for some bolero remixes, but no one can ever suspect any of the characters to be the culprit. Not to mention disappearances, abandonments, and dislocations that destroyed entire families and communities. Reading the Mekong Delta through the literature of Nguyễn Ngọc Tư is like finding traces of fresh blood stark against white snow in Scandinavian detective fiction, that faraway Northern European fairytale land that every Vietnamese covets from do-it-yourself IKEA shelves to genius child education to lagom to finding your inner hygge and maximising your full potentials.
The practice of imagining up a fictional world closely resembling real life has everything to do with The Endless Field and how it was censored for reasons of casting a bad shadow onto reality, because in the eyes of the Department of Culture and Information of Cà Mau Province, Nguyễn Ngọc Tư was a counter-revolutionary writer to be persecuted. Any reader in need of an entertainment may I suggest the keyword “Vưu Nghị Lực” and Nguyễn Ngọc Tư Colonialism on Trial proudly placed on the newspaper, which I shall quote below:
If you all still insist on preserving this sickly child and even plan to adapt it to the silver screen, then on behalf of 80% of the grassroots farmers population including my parents, my grandparents, and even your parents and grandparents, I beg you to reconsider from the bottom of your heart to remove the word “field”. In its place you should substitute with the word “endless dump”, because to you “the field has ended”.
So many people went ballistic because Nguyễn Ngọc Tư had dared to lie and distort reality: “For example, NTT describes the prostitute by the phrase “making waves on the river bank”, which never happens in real life,” “or this detail: the old man screwed the hoe then gave her the money right in front of his child, nonsense.” From criticising Nguyễn Ngọc Tư for calling a deer a horse, people came to question: the existence, to the point of irrationality, of the reality exactly like in When The Light Is Out (Tắt đèn) back in the old days when “chị Dậu carried her children with the litter of puppy to go sell at the market, that in itself is already the ultimate critical reality so the revolution has to overthrow it.” Then the audience made some final conclusions: (i) this work does not have any educational values – be it humanistic or societal, and (ii) this writer does not have love for humanity at all. Nguyễn Ngọc Tư’s literature has failed when it fails to fulfil its function of educating and pointing to the right direction. Reading her prose makes people lose faith in humanity. Please let me have my moment of naivety and believe that those harder-than-steel accusations coming from the mouth of gatekeepers like Vưu Nghị Lực and Dương Việt Thắng – Head of the Propaganda Department of Cà Mau Provincial Committee are the real beliefs from the bottom of their hearts. Who knows, maybe they are just the product of a public education system that dictates that literary realism must expose the corruption within society and overthrow them by the revolution, by socialism; that it must evoke the bright and beauty brought about by the communist utopia, and now that we are already living in this socialist heaven, constructing a dark and perverse reality seems illogical, no? The daughter in the family who dares to read The Endless Field and praises must be slapped on both cheeks, the author who shits on the field must be severely reprimanded. Their interpretations, within their community, by this virtue, is completely reasonable.
In fact, this story of moralising literature has become such a cliché, because even the same people who spoke up in defence of Nguyễn Ngọc Tư also happen to be in the same community of interpretation when they praise her for her vast love for humanity as wide and deep and undulating like that of the Pacific Ocean making readers shed tears with tales of broken families and human lives at loss “endless sadness and happiness, joy and hope of a human’s life.” Concluded by a dream of hoping children would one day be able to go to school in the name of love then oh my god who’s not crying here. This defence has also become as old as the hills and there would be nothing more to say about this story had people not start criticising Nguyễn Ngọc Tư for becoming a kind of celebrated spokesperson for a brand of young writers compromising with a safe and sound way of writing despite the corroding reality of Vietnam (sounds so familiar, it seems like Nguyễn Nhật Ánh also got speared by the same argument). I can’t help but feel utterly shocked that after hundreds of years, from scholars of the old Confucian tradition grappling to contain their feelings within the rules of poetry, the righteous pen unflinchingly stabs at bandits that every kid entering the National Competition for Gifted Students would have to memorise by heart that symbolises the đạo way carried by literature, to now when there should be a bit of metal or steel within poetry so as to draw blood from your enemy, we have gone from one battle to another beating the living daylight out of any writer who we believe is unable to carry out the politics that we want (or need).
The issue of the representation the Mekong Delta in Nguyễn Ngọc Tư’s fiction leading to it being “severely reprimanded” makes me wonder on ends about the representation of reality and what constitutes the “truth”, which surprisingly, Edward Said has said it ages ago:
“The real issue is whether indeed there can be a true representation or anything, or whether any and all representations, because they are representations, are embedded first in the language and then in the culture, institutions, and political ambience of the representer. If the latter alternative is the correct one (as I believe it is), then we must be prepared to accept the fact that a representation is eo ipso [by its very nature] implicated, intertwined, embedded, interwoven with a great many things other things besides the ‘truth’, which is itself a representation. What this must lead us to methodologically is to view representations (or misrepresentations – the distinction is at best a matter of degree) as inhabiting a common field of play defined for them, not by some inherent common subject matter alone, but by some common history, tradition, universe of discourse. Within this field, which no single scholar can create but which each scholar receives and in which he then finds a place for himself, the individual researcher makes his contribution.”
(Edward Said, Orientalism, pp. 272-3)
How a writer processes reality, how their fictional world exists independently of the realms of reality, and how a writer is free to dream and conceive is one thing, but how this fictionality is reconstructed through the medium of language and spatial confinements for interpretations is another story.
The drama of Nguyễn Ngọc Tư, Đỗ Hoàng Diệu, Đặng Thuỳ Trâm demanded the readers’ full attention in 2005 so it’s easy to understand why Thuận’s Chinatown didn’t make much of a splash back then. To me, this is the best work by Thuận, and if I’m corrupted enough to vote for a top 10 must-read Vietnamese books then I would definitely nominate Chinatown. I remember how captivated I was by passages that read like water swirling down the sink once you pull the plug. Add in the heart wrenching story of the star-crossed lovers as it is difficult to write such a good romance nowadays. After Chinatown, Thuận immediately gave birth to another baby girl of more or less the same style, Paris August 11 (Paris 11 tháng 8) with newspaper clippings that would go on to be recycled in Letters to Mina (Thư gửi Mina), which I had loved for its hilarity. This story would bore you to death had it not been for the “15 years later” sequel. 15 years later, I reread Thuận’s works in a marathon and had an epiphany: Chinatown still doesn’t let me down, but Paris August 11 does. And anyone who moves on to read T Missing (T Mất tích) would detect a change of style, drastic or not, depending on how you see it. If I have to choose the face of Vietnamese literature in the early 21st century, I choose Thuận for both quality and quantity. If I have to give a vague sketch of her style, then here goes: Thuận is the one who weaves in together the realities of Hanoi, Moscow, and Paris. Thuận, with Made in Vietnam full of concentrated unfiltered essence of Vietnamese reality, Chinatown with slanted Vietnamese-ness, then press the button so the process of cutting the umbilical cord begins (© 2020 Nguyen An Ly) via Paris August 11, straight to T Missing almost completely clean and clear. Keeping with this way of reading, you’ll see a total counter-clockwise turn in the subsequent works (and we can even see spoilers of future works pushed into the spotlight like the number 4 in Only 4 Days Left of April, Chỉ còn 4 ngày là hết tháng Tư). Furthermore, if Nguyễn Ngọc Tư is all about disappearances and the spaces they left behind waiting to be filled up again, then Thuận’s writing is a pursuit and imagination of the disappeared. And here’s one more thing, Thuận, with her talented manipulation of the fictionality of the text: her skill of conjuring up the protagonist who’s writing the titular book, sprinkles in some Kafka Kundera Duras, glimpses of an autobiographical labyrinth, spiced enough and skilfully to taste. With 4 Days Left Of April, readers get to see a different Thuận. The American veteran critic Kazin has said, “We live in an era of specialization and fragmentation, a discounting of literature in favor of criticism. Melville, Proust, these writers made you feel they were reconstructing you. After you’d read them, you were a new self. Today writers are admired for technical reasons.” He concludes, “They get admiration, not love.” The operative word is “love.” Chinatown I love but 4 Days Left of April got the admiration and worship of countless readers.
The process of re-reading helps me realise another thing which further proves the legitimacy of the reader-response theory: myself of 15 years ago received Thuận, Đoàn Minh Phượng, and Nguyễn Ngọc Tư in a totally different way from the I of 2020. I came to a realisation as to why the fact that Writers’ Association awarded prizes for And When This Dust (Và khi tro bụi) and Paris August 11 made sense at that point in history, when we were still young, and now I will not hesitate to rate them a few stars lower. In this current moment, I can unhesitatingly group Dạ Ngân’s An Insignificant Family (Gia đình bé mọn) and Đỗ Phấn’s Thick Through the Endless River Rain (Dằng dặc triền sông mưa) under the category of “badly written literature”, even though they were also prize-winners. (Disclaimer: I have made a lot of references to the Writers’ Association because this is the only legitimate conventional prize one can parody off and have a little fun, not because I staunchly believe in and champion it, in case anyone’s reading too much into this, this kind of misunderstanding is worth ten times lovers’ discourse oh no).
And it is also Chinatown that makes me want to quit halfway through. I know for sure that Tim Parks – a figure to whom I just want to bow three times and call him my shifu, for his very sharp observations – is not afraid to call out anyone for being boring or bad. Parks cites literary boy genius Kafka that passed a certain point, a writer can decide to end his novel wherever he wants to, with any sentence, which he calls “a catharsis of exhaustion”. Parks then goes on to reference Elfriede Jelinek, Thomas Bernhard, Samuel Beckett, and Christina Stead. “Beckett’s prose fiction gets shorter and shorter, denser and denser as he brings the point of exhaustion further and further forward.” I reread Chinatown and had this feeling where I could just call it quits anywhere I want to after reaching halfway through, at any given page, because indeed I too have arrived at the point in the work that satisfies me.
“To put a novel down before the end, then, is simply to acknowledge that for me its shape, its aesthetic quality, is in the weave of the plot and, with the best novels, in the meshing of the writing style with that weave. Style and plot, overall vision and local detail, fascinate together, in a perfect tangle. Once the structure has been set up and the narrative ball is rolling, the need for an end is just an unfortunate burden, an embarrassment, a deplorable closure of so much possibility….”
Like Ulysses, I searched high and low in this vast ocean of contemporary literature that exhausts us to no end. Then as 2010 closed in, Death on Domingo (Chết trong ngày Chúa Nhật) was born.
(To be continued. Or not.)
Translated from the Vietnamese