JW: In December of 2009, the government of Viet Nam awarded you the Commemoration Medal for the Advancement of the Arts and Literature in Viet Nam. What contributions to the literary culture of Viet Nam that led to your award? What happened at the ceremony?
FM: Thank you, Joyce. The award was given not only to me but to several members of the large international group of scholars, translators, and writers who were attending the conference. In that group of approximately eighty foreigners, as many as twenty were awarded medals for their work on behalf of Vietnamese literature in their respective countries. There were six of us from the William Joiner Center for the Study of War and Social Consequences at UMass Boston, and each of us was honored with this medal, commonly referred to as a “Friendship Medal.” It was awarded to us by Mr. Hu’u Thinh, head of the Viet Nam Writers Association.
Our delegation consisted of Kevin Bowen, director of the Joiner Center, Nguyen Ba Chung, chief translator for the Joiner Center, Bruce Weigl, Martha Collins, Larry Heinemann, and myself. Kevin Bowen and Nguyen Ba Chung have facilitated many translation projects over the past twenty years, and they themselves have translated individual poets. Bruce Weigl has not only translated many individual poems, but has also translated a collection of “poems from captured documents,” poems that had been in the possession of Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers, collected on the battlefield. Martha Collins has published translations of the work of two Vietnamese poets, Nguyen Quang Thieu and Lam Thi My Da. The novelist Larry Heinemann has spent a Fulbright year in Viet Nam recently and has translated a collection of Vietnamese folk tales. So you see, I was in very distinguished company.
My contribution to this Joiner Center effort was to co-translate, with Nguyen Ba Chung, the work of a poet named Tran Dang Khoa [NOTE: See Marchant’s translation of the poem “Con Son” by Khoa on The Poetry Porch.] I first met Khoa in 1994, at the Joiner Center, when he was part of a group of four writers who had been invited by the Joiner Center to spend three months in this country. Khoa was born in 1956 in a small village west of Ha Noi, a village near a river crossing that was bombed regularly. He began writing poetry at an early age, and as the times would have it, in the middle of the American war years. He wrote about village life, and each of these poems evinced not only great linguistic skill, but an abiding faith that the cycle of agricultural life in the village was the truly enduring, perservering soul of Viet Nam, and would long outlast the B-52 raids of the United States Air Force. His poems became famous throughout what was then North Viet Nam, published in newspapers, and eventually in books.
Early on in his young writing life, at age twelve, he took what he said was his “best twenty poems,” wrote them out by hand, created a hand-sewn chapbook, and sent it off to President Ho Chi Minh on the occasion of his birthday. Even though the poems themselves were later published in many places, that pamphlet seemed to slip from view and into the files and the collection of the Ho Chi Minh Museum. In 2005, Ms. Lady Borton, an American woman who had worked for many years with the American Friends Service Committee in Ha Noi, realized that this chapbook was in the museum and proposed that the museum sponsor a bi-lingual translation and publication of the pamphlet.
Since Nguyen Ba Chung and I had already translated some of Khoa’s work, but not these poems, we were asked if we would like to engage in this process. The end result a year later was From a Corner of My Yard, a booklet that is both historical document and aesthetic object. The poems, despite the fact they are written by a youngster, are genuine poems. The goal in English was to render some of the music and as much of the feeling as the originals. Our goal also was to re-produce photographs of Khoa and his parents from those years, and perhaps just as important, to present facsimile versions of the handwritten poems. The poems were so strong that some wondered over the years whether Khoa had had adult help or supervision with them. To verify their originality, Khoa agreed happily to publish this document with his own hand-written versions.
From a Corner of My Yard came out in 2006, and has since sold out completely. A second printing is underway even as I write this. We hope it will continue to be a valuable historical document, as well as some of the most pure examples of Vietnamese lyric poetry I know. It was for this work primarily that I was awarded the medal. I would also say that my teaching at Suffolk did in fact play a part in this award as well. Over the past fifteen years, because of my association with the Joiner Center, I have been fortunate enough to be able to bring to Suffolk some of Viet Nam’s most important contemporary poets and writers, including Nguyen Duy and Nguyen Quang Thieu, just to mention a couple. Suffolk University is definitely on the map and on the schedule for visiting Vietnamese writers, and I think this institutional fact has also been another way in which I have helped make Vietnamese literature available to American audiences who would otherwise have little chance of learning about it.
To conclude this part of my narrative, let me say that the medals were given at the main building of the Viet Nam Writers Association. There was significant media coverage, and, in addition to the medal, we were all given giant bouquets of flowers. Then it was off to Ha Long Bay, a stunning area of limestone outcroppings, for the weekend readings and papers delivered there.
JW: The December ceremony was held on the eve of the 2010 International Conference on Vietnamese Literature. Sponsored by the Viet Nam Writers Association, the conference drew more than 300 writers and scholars from more than 16 nations to Hanoi and Ha Long Bay. What can you tell us about this conference? What are prominent themes? Is it an academic conference? Is the competitive level fierce or are participants congenial? Are writers in the East Asian countries having as much difficulty publishing their work in book form as we are in the US these days?
FM: Entry into the rolls of the Viet Nam Writers Association is itself a competitive, rigorous process, requiring I think two books as a minimum. The assembling of the entire Association to read and listen to papers was itself a major event. Some two hundred of the attendees at the conference were members of the Writers Association. The presentations were broken down into three basic categories: Classical Vietnamese Literature, Folklore and Mythology, Contemporary Literature. I presented on Tran Dang Khoa, what his poetry has meant to me, and what it might mean to an American audience. I spoke in English and my remarks were translated on the spot by Nguyen Ba Chung. My impression of the Vietnamese speakers and readers is that there was an immense curiosity about what Americans knew (or did not know) about Vietnamese culture. Just as significant, however, was a growing sense that Vietnamese literature was about to enter a world-stage. The delegation from India and the Philippines, for example, seemed also to hold great interest for the Vietnamese. There has, for instance, been practically no Vietnamese literature available in the Philippines until very recently. Indian publishers, now, have also taken a tremendous interest in bringing this South Asian tradition to an Indian readership.
So, while the American delegation and presence was substantial, it was not the only one that had captured the attention of contemporary Vietnamese writers. Interestingly enough, fellow Communist countries China, Cuba, and North Korea sent only one delegate each. Ex-Communist countries such as Russia and Poland also had one delegate each. In this one might discern some of the rich complexity of the Vietnamese political landscape.
I cannot speak for the way the delegations were put together, or how competitive they were, but once I arrived, the gathering was immensely congenial for over a week. The opening day of the Conference was held in what was a convention center, a massive auditorium complex where, among other events, the Communist Party holds its annual gatherings. We were also wined and dined by the various Ministries and the Mayor of Ha Noi. And at each of these, there was also the joy of listening to authentic Vietnamese folk music and witnessing folk dances from the countryside.
JW: In 1994, when I was working at the Woodberry Poetry Room of Harvard University, I recorded the readings of four poets from Viet Nam: Tran Dang Khoa, Pham Tien Duat, To Nhuan Vy, and Nguyen Quang Thieu. [NOTE: These recordings can be heard at The Woodberry Poetry Room and they might be available online. Call 617-495-2454 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to set up an appointment to listen to them.] I remember that you and Kevin Bowen introduced them to Boston audiences and I think it was the first time most of them had been to the US. You have related a great deal about Khoa. What has happened to the others? Is it fair to say that one wrote in the style of Horace offering satiric commentary on life and society while another was really a popular singer? How would you characterize their work and has their work changed in the past decade and a half? Are these writers still prominent in Viet Nam? What are they doing now?
FM: Yes, I was there in 1994, with Khoa, Vy, Duat, and Thieu when they made their recordings at the Poetry Room at Harvard. It was their first time in this country. Khoa I have told you about already. Let me add that he is now, after two very important prose memoirs, a “Charlie Rose” type figure, hosting a weekly radio program on the arts. He is, as one friend put it, a national icon, but he is the most unassuming and truly warm person I know. When we published From A Corner of My Yard, he took me and my wife to meet his mother and father, now quite elderly, in his native village. We sat and talked and had lunch in the corner of his yard, literally the place where those poems were composed during the war years.
Pham Tien Duat was another iconic figure from the war years, and his poem “Drivers of Lorries Without Windows,” remains the paradigmatic poem of the Vietnamese soldier during that era. But Duat also in his later years wrote about the psychological and social toll exacted by thirty years of war. Sadly a couple of years ago, Duat passed away. He was, I might add, probably the one who sang folks songs in that recording session. He had made the collection and singing of the songs of the ethnic minorities in Viet Nam a life-long avocation.
To Nhuan Vy is very much alive. After serving as head of the Hue city Arts Association and then serving as minister of foreign affairs for his province in Central Viet Nam, he has returned to his fiction. His daughter, I should add, has moved to the United States, and has married an American, and Vy and his wife now visit at least once a year.
Nguyen Quang Thieu remains one of the single most important poets of his generation, which is the generation which came of age immediately after the war. He publishes books of poetry regularly, and has been the editor of several major journals, including the national literary journal. An accomplished painter and musician, he is understood to this day to be a driving force in contemporary Vietnamese culture. And yes, he is probably another poet you might have thought was somewhat satiric.
JW: I’m still curious about Tan Dang Khoa. What about his work appeals to you?
FM: I have visited Viet Nam five times now, usually in two week units. I have told you about Khoa’s life story, but let me add now a personal connection. I had been in the United States Marine Corps from 1968-1970. I left the service in 1970 as a conscientious objector, discharged from Okinawa, not having gone to Viet Nam. For all those years after, up until the summer I met Khoa and other poets from Viet Nam, I knew absolutely nothing about the Vietnamese culture, the rich and varied literary tradition, the ways in which poetry itself had helped create the Vietnamese sense of identity. Meeting Khoa, and the other writers, was an intense “immersion experience” in the culture, and to this day I feel profoundly grateful to them for helping me see poetry and Viet Nam itself as if for the first time. My first visit to Viet Nam was not on behalf of the military might of the US, but on behalf of poetry, to work with Khoa and Chung and others. I will always be grateful to my Vietnamese writer friends for this gift of cross-cultural conversation.
JW: Khoa sent his best 20 poems to Ho Chi Minh in 1968. A hand-sewn copy of the book of twenty poems was discovered later in the Ho Chi Minh Museum. What about the poetry do you think Ho Chi Minh liked enough to save the book?
FM: This is what I have heard about Ho Chi Minh’s response. Lady Borton and others have told me that the President (himself a considerable poet) instantly recognized that this boy’s work was the real thing. Ho’s advisors asked if he would like to bring this peasant boy to the capital to help him be known and recognized by all. It is said that Ho told his advisors that no, do not bring him to Ha Noi. All that recognition would harm his poetry and harm him as a writer. Let him keep writing, and let him grow up as a writer. And so it happened that Khoa to the best of my knowledge never met Ho Chi Minh, though it is said Ho followed with pleasure the poems that came out. The story is in part or whole apocryphal, but one senses in it the way in which poetry is held in special esteem in Vietnamese culture. Sure, Ho must have realized that the poetry would in some way be good for the “morale” of his people, but he also seems to have recognized that poets need to be treasured in their own right.
There is another story I have heard, though it is even more apocryphal. I heard that there is a legend that in times of national crisis, a child prodigy of a poet will appear. Khoa was that figure during the years of the American war. To this day I cannot find where that legend is written down. Maybe it was made up just to provide a context for the miracle of Khoa’s childhood poetry.
JW: In a recent article [The New York Times Book Review, April 4, 2010], “Reading Tim O’Brien in Hanoi,” Matt Steinglass observes that the Vietnamese don’t read those stories about war that US audiences like so well. Our taste for the amoral chaos does not appeal to them, for example. Do you have impressions about what the Vietnamese people are reading these days? What perspectives about war, or about their lives and society, do they look for? Can we find a common ground?
FM: For the Vietnamese, the American war years were the painful, brutal culmination of a decades-long anti-colonial struggle. Some Vietnamese might say it was a millennium of such struggle, but certainly, beginning in 1945 and going to 1975, there was armed conflict with first the French and then the Americans. From the Vietnamese point of view, the French were colonizers of the old-fashioned sort, while the Americans were colonizers in regard to the Cold War and Communism. One of the great disappointments of Ho Chi Minh’s life as leader was to realize that our country, whose Declaration of Independence was the literal model for the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence, had lined itself up with colonial French, and later with the then-South Vietnamese government.
So, for the Vietnamese national story, the war was not quite as much a descent into moral chaos as it was for us. But it is also true that our war—and its atrocities—deeply scarred the Vietnamese psyche and countryside. Agent Orange remains, for instance, one of the great unspoken miseries. Unlike us, however, the Vietnamese have had a long time to “process” the war years. We by contrast just tried to “get beyond it” or “put it behind us.” For Americans the war, and its later manisfestations in Baghdad and Kabul, remains a great existential mystery.
So, it is true that Tim O’Brien’s books and Larry Heinemann’s books are for the first time being published in Vietnamese this coming fall, 2010. But I would also add that the Vietnamese have had their own novelists who have plumbed the depths of their suffering: Bao Ninh, for instance, who wrote The Sorrow of War.
Can we find a common ground? Well, the process is ongoing. The whole work of cross-cultural exchange, especially with writers and educators and scholars, is to constantly create and expand those spots where we can stand together and begin to understand.
JW: What are your plans to bring more Vietnamese artists, performers, and writers to Suffolk University and to Boston in the future?
FM: Our plans will always include Vietnamese poets and writers, and we have an ongoing, mutually beneficial relation with the Joiner Center. Bringing these writers and artists, however, requires more than the usual advanced planning, especially in terms of funding. Also at Suffolk we try to join such visits with times when relevant courses are offered. With our new Asian Studies program, and the Rosenberg Institute for East Asian Studies, I expect that we will find many new opportunities for cross-cultural exchange. Speaking purely of poetry, my hope is that Nguyen Quang Thieu will make a return visit at some point in the near future.
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