Vietnamese writers

This review originally appeared in The Kyoto Journal.

Manao Journal

New Vietnamese Writing
from America and Viet Nam
Summer 2002 (vol. 14, no. 1)
186 pages

Two Rivers: Vietnamese writers

By Roy Hamric

Even as more recent wars and conflicts push memories of the Vietnam War farther into the past, the effects,  though lessening with time, go on within Vietnam and in the Vietnamese diaspora. “Two Rivers”  is an apt title for an issue of Manao, the literary journal published by the University of Hawaii, whose mission is to publish literature from Asia and the Pacific region.

This issue, featuring the work of 23 writers – in poetry, fiction and critical essays – captures the ironies, passions and lifestyles among Vietnamese in the homeland and the United States. Contemporary Vietnamese literature is as varied and complex as the country’s winding history – ranging from classical romantic poems to gritty nonfiction tales of Vietnamese gangs in the industrial suburbs of California.

The title “Two Rivers” carries multiple symbols: for the past and the present, for the Red River in the north and the Mekong River in the south, and for life today, as lived in Vietnam and in the United States. At its core, literature always carries a political-cultural subtext, and these stories and poems are no exception. Younger Vietnamese today in both countries are less attached to the nostalgia and loss experienced by their parents or grandparents but even so, their lives have been profoundly affected by the war.

Older Vietnamese-Americans were uprooted, fleeing the country in 1973, forcing many intellectuals and educated professionals into new lives, where they worked in menial jobs to survive in a new country. In the late 70s and early 80s, a second wave of “boat people” endured horrific experiences of brutality, rape, starvation, abandonment and long processing in refugee camps. In the late 80s, another wave immigrated, including political prisoners and offspring of American soldiers. Today, there are a little more than one million U.S. Vietnamese, compared to 80 million in Viet Nam, and another one million scattered around the world. The past’s shadow casts a stark dividing line across the work of many of these Vietnamese writers.

The poems of Nguyen Duy, one of Vietnam’s most respected writers, mourn the fading of traditional Vietnamese village culture, the source of so much wisdom and folklore.

“Viet Nam is, in a way, the name of a poem, not a war,” he writes in an essay, adding that Vietnam, in its rush to forge a more secure future, has itself contributed to cultural erosion while at the same time improving the economy. Traditional family life breaks down , as well as in the new-found homelands in the West, leaving the “deepest imprint on each one of us.”

Lyrical power flows through the work of many of the writers in this collection. The stylistic contrasts are greatest, perhaps, in the poetry of the homeland and the United States. Much of the homeland poetry is imbued with the echoes, imagery, flavor and wisdom-tradition that goes back to the “One Sourced Triple Teaching,” a treatise which united Viet Nam’s Buddhist, Confucian, Taoist, Zen and home-grown wisdom traditions during the Ly Tran dynasties (11th to 15th centuries). Anti-romanticism and a more post-modern tone flavors the US-based poets.

The last stanza from the “Cricket Song” by poet Lam Thi My Da of Hue, who served in a youth brigade engineering unit, reflects elements of the traditional style:

Please just let me be a cricket
Lying down in the green cradle where I began
While the dying day releases a single dewdrop
That trickles into my soul as a kiss, a tear.

Generally, the poetry and literature of the diaspora is more sardonic and clinically objective. The first stanza of the poem “In the Silicon Valley” by Phan Nhien Hao, who was educated in Saigon and Los Angeles, reflects a more detached, ironic view:

There are climates that can wear out shoes like acid
The view out the window is always cut by rain and sunlight,
And fuzzy calculations on a computer. I live in a valley where people will saw off their own leg to sell to buy a house.

The American poet and translator, Nguyen Ba Chung, in a critical essay surveying the past several decades, notes that overseas Vietnamese have recently acknowledged the blooming of a probing, more critical literature by Viet Nam writers, such as Nguyen Huy Thiep, Bao Ninh, Pham Thi Hoai, Nguyen Duy and Bui Ngoc Tan, dispelling the view held by some that the overseas community was the main hope for an esthetic and critical advance in Vietnamese literature.  The younger U.S. generation of writers, such as Barbara Tran, Christian Longworthy, Le Thi Diem Thuy, Mong-Lan, Le Bi, Thuong Quan and Khe Iem, are more focused on writing about their dual-identity lives than the political issues of the past.  Both approaches are serving to enrich Vietnamese literature.

Chung points out that the work of both groups, the two rivers, comes together in the overseas Vietnamese journals, such as Hop Luu (Confluence) Van Hoc (Literary Study), Van (Literature) and Tho (Poetry), which publish the work of both  homeland and overseas writers plus translations into Vietnamese of essays on Western critical theory, an important source of new ideas for Viet Nam writers.

Manoa editor Frank Stewart and his guest editors, Kevin Bowen and Nguyen Ba Chung, have assembled a rich sample of creative and critical literature that captures the crosscurrents  of Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American writers.

The journal itself plays a significant role in putting back together at least some of the pieces of a literary culture that was shattered by decades of war.

Information on Manoa can be found at

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