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Testimonies and Memories

“Writing about War”: Dương Thu Hương’s Representations of the Vietnam-American War

« Écrire sur la guerre » : les representations de la guerre du Vietnam par Dương Thu Hương’s
Subarno Chattarji

Résumés

Si le 30 avril 1975 marque la fin des hostilités entre le Nord et le Sud du Vietnam, ce n’est pas la fin des conflits internes. Les communistes victorieux traitèrent les Sud-Vietnamiens avec mépris et les soumirent à des humiliations et des violences, y compris l’incarcération dans des camps dits de rééducation. Dương Thu Hương servit dans la Brigade des Jeunes Femmes pendant la guerre et espérait que la victoire conduirait à l’établissement d’une société plus égalitaire et démocratique. Dương fut consternée lorsque le parti communiste mit un frein à toutes les libertés et elle exprima son désaccord en public et à travers sa fiction. Cet essai analyse deux de ses romans en traduction anglaise, Novel Without a Name (1995) et Memories of a Pure Spring (2000), en se concentrant sur les thèmes récurrents qui sont au cœur de ces œuvres, notamment les paradoxes du souvenir, les critiques de la guerre, l’idée de la fiction comme témoignage, et les mises en accusation de l’orthodoxie communiste et des doubles standards.

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For Jon Stallworthy

  • 1 Initial research for this paper was conducted at the Imaginative Representations of the Vietnam Wa (...)
  • 2 Cited in Patricia Pelley, “The History of Resistance and the Resistance to History in Post-Colonial (...)

1For Vietnamese, whether Northern or Southern, living in Vietnam or in exile, the past is a living presence animating the present. In Northern pro-communist narratives, Vietnam’s history is one long glorious “tradition of resistance to foreign aggression” which culminated in victory on April 30, 1975.1 This teleological history was constructed by communist apologists and emphasized the role of Hà Nội (rather than Sài Gòn). The historian Trần Huy Liệu, a primary proponent of this strand of patriotic and nationalist historiography, wrote: “Việt Nam was unified through a process of revolutionary struggle. […] As everyone knows our national history is, broadly speaking, the history of protracted struggle against invasions; and so, early on, we became a heroic people.”2 Writing in 2001 Huệ-Tâm Hồ Tài observed how the communist state continued to structure collective memorialization of the war:

  • 3 Huệ-Tâm Hồ Tài, “Introduction,” in Huệ-Tâm Hồ Tài, (ed.), The Country of Memory: Remaking the Past (...)

Even now that the need to mobilize for war is gone, the leadership retains a stake in promoting a version of the past that inscribes it as the legitimate inheritor of the Vietnamese patriotic tradition and the dominant force in the recent history of the country.3

2Such reconstructions of the past ignore the fact that the Vietnam-American War was also a civil war, and that the nature of internal divisions were exacerbated in post-1975 Vietnam when the Northern armies behaved like a conquering force, driving “puppet” collaborators into re-education camps and/or new economic zones, and humiliating Southerners who had also suffered during the war. Doctrinaire socialism combined with totalitarian measures and corruption helped to further the “boat people” exodus, and exacerbated disillusionment across ideological divides in Vietnam.

  • 4 The two novels were published in English translation more than twenty years after the end of the wa (...)

3Dương Thu Hương served in the Women’s Youth Brigade during the war, and believed that victory in war would lead to the creation of a more peaceful and egalitarian society. As a committed communist and veteran of the Vietnam-American War, Dương offers an insider’s view of the war and its violent aftermaths and dwells on the promise of the revolution as well as its failures. Her novels focus on the realities of combat, the detritus of war in terms of lives destroyed, and the bitter hatreds that continued to disinter Vietnamese families and society after the war. While analysing two novels, Novel Without a Name (1995) and Memories of a Pure Spring (2000), this essay focuses on certain recurrent thematics that are central to these works, including the paradoxes of remembrance, critiques of war, the idea of fiction as testimony, and indictments of communist orthodoxy and double standards.4

Contexts, impetus for writing

4Dương’s status as a war veteran made her an ideal representative of the inclusive commitment that the communists projected as having led to victory in war. Dương’s disillusionment in post-war Vietnam, however, led her to write of the failures of the revolution. She became a prominent critic of the communist government and for her dissidence she was imprisoned, and her works banned in Vietnam. Her imprisonment in 1991 led to international condemnation and newfound fame among readers outside of Vietnam. She spent seven months in prison and in her first interview after release, Dương articulated her reasons for writing:

I never intended to write. I write because of the pain. Pain is the precise word. My novels are cries of pain. In this way, my work is inseparable from the society in which I have lived, the country that has forged me. During the war, I thought, I observed the destinies of my compatriots. Little by little, this became an obsession, and I had to take up my pen. I share Henry Miller’s view – which I read in translation: ‘To write is to emit toxins.’ My struggle is one that is shared by many others: To gain respect for my rights as a free citizen, here in my own country. Writing is the way I free myself; the way I make myself a free woman. [...] I have decided to devote my life to writing and making films about my country. If they decide to put me in prison again, I am ready.5

5Although any criticisms of communist policies as well as articulations of post-war traumas were repressed by the government, this “pain” haunts post-1975 Vietnam, and Dương is committed to not only expressing the “pain” of war and its aftermaths, but also the intimate links between public and private “pain.” In conjoining public and private traumas, Dương’s novels are a mode of expressive freedom, enabling forbidden articulations both as a citizen and as a “free woman.” The readiness articulated by Dương is thus not just the steadfastness of principle – commitments to freedom of expression and citizens’ rights but also to the life of the imagination, a writerly investment in her country and its peoples. These investments are evident in the novels discussed in this essay, which were written and published before she finally took exile in Paris in 2006.

6Dương’s writings are “inseparable from the society in which” she has lived not only in their representations of war, but insofar as they are written and published during the period of Đổi Mới, the opening up of Vietnam’s economy as well as relative freedoms of expression in the mid-1980s. In his introduction to Hồ Anh Thái’s Behind the Red Mist, Wayne Karlin writes of the impact that Đổi Mới had on Vietnamese literature:

  • 6 Wayne Karlin, “Introduction,” in Wayne Karlin, Chief Translator Nguyễn Quí Đức (eds.), Behind the R (...)

[...] Đổi Mới [Renovation] has left an indelible mark on writing in Vietnam in many ways: both the inefficiencies and corruption of the orthodox communist system and the disruptive and corruptive effects of the market economy on Vietnamese society and culture have become the subject of some of Vietnam’s most perceptive and imaginative writers.6

  • 7 These works include Lê Minh Khuê’s The Stars, The Earth, The River, trans. Bắc Hoài Trần and Dana S (...)

7The communist government’s tolerance for dissident views was short-lived but the period of Đổi Mới revealed the difficult and traumatic afterlives of the war within the country. The period also offers us a glimpse of a literary field rich in critical imaginative works.7

8In the short story “The Seal of Sirius”, Kim Sa Trung presents a satire on superstition combined with free market economics and its concomitant greed. Trung observes the frustrations of life post-1975:

  • 8 Kim Sa Trung, “The Seal of Sirius,” Literature News: Nine Stories from the Viet Nam Writers Union n (...)

... the majority of our leaders, in the economic as well as the political arena, are irresponsible. Like gangs of fortune-tellers, they scatter rash, baseless pronouncements in all directions ... They are unsophisticated and thoughtless even when entrusted with the very life of the nation.8

9Trung’s story was published in Literature News, a weekly established in 1948, with an average print run of 40,000. For a journal devoted to poetry, fiction, literary criticism, photography and graphic art, the print run as well as the longevity of Literature News is impressive and indicative of a dedicated readership invested in thinking about the problematic of the communist revolution and its aftermaths. It is within these literary, cultural, and material contexts that Dương’s novels were written and circulated and they represent both the terrors of war as well as their sedimentation in everyday life in peacetime.

Combat realities, nostalgia

10In an essay titled “Writing About War,” Nguyen Minh Chau emphasized the ways in which individual life and that of the nation are intertwined in war literature:

  • 9 Nguyen Minh Chau, “Writing About War,” From Van Nghe Quan Doi, Translated Huỳnh Sanh Thông, in The (...)

Writing about war […] Those words do not simply mean a matter of literature, do they? […] There is one’s own flesh and blood. The living and the dead. There are one’s memories, one’s fellow fighters, one’s comrades. There is one’s personal life and the life of the nation.9

  • 10 Shaun Kingsley Malarney, “‘The Fatherland Remembers Your Sacrifice’: Commemorating War Dead in Nort (...)

11Dương focuses precisely on the inextricability of the self and her comrades in combat, and how memories of the “living and the dead” haunt the narrating self, long after the war is over. This haunting is linked to the terrible, terrifying, and inestimable violence and trauma experienced by the North Vietnamese, where levels of destruction are unimaginable from an American point of view. As Shaun Malarney observes: “For both combatants and non-combatants alike, the war was a period of relentless fear and intense anguish. […] Six North Vietnamese soldiers died for every one American. Going off to the front was itself a kind of death.”10 As a member of the Women’s Youth Brigade, Dương spent seven years in the Central Highlands singing and performing for troops as well as tending to wounded soldiers and burying dead ones. Her war experiences are reflected in the manner in which she brings a first-hand, survivors’ visceral picture of combat and its realities in her fiction.

12Novel Without a Name and Memories of a Pure Spring interweave two narrative strands: one is a critique of war and the second is a damning indictment of communist orthodoxy, lies, and hypocrisy. The two coalesce to give us portraits of individuals in a society struggling to cope with the aftermaths of a war which promised much and delivered only further divisions and conflict.

  • 11 The title highlights the anonymity of millions of the dead and injured as well as the problematics (...)

13Novel Without a Name11 dwells on the following descriptions of rape and mutilation within the first three pages:

  • 12 Dương Thu Hương, Novel Without a Name, trans. Phan Huy Dương and Nina McPherson, New York: William (...)

We found six naked corpses. Women. Their breasts and genitals had been cut off and strewn on the grass around them. They were northern girls. [...] The soldiers had raped them before killing them. The corpses were bruised violet. So this was how graceful, girlish bodies rotted, decomposing into swollen old corpses, puffy as dead toads. Maggots swarmed in their wounds, their eyes and mouths. Fat white larvae.12

14The protagonist and narrator Quan’s observations are clinical yet bound by pre-war conceptions of “graceful, girlish bodies” violated not just by men in war but by those who gaze upon them in death. The horror arises from that perceptual gap, the violation of innocence stereotypically attributed to women. Rape was a common weapon of war, a mode of asserting power in circumstances that were often confusing and brutal, a constant reminder of the insignificance and vulnerability of the individual male combat soldier. American soldiers also testified to rape as a mode of gaining control over confusing battlefield conditions where US soldiers could not distinguish between Vietnamese soldiers and civilians. While the identity of the rapists is not spelled out, the novel shows how a similar logic of masculinist assertion and insecurity operates among Vietnamese soldiers. Quan’s witnessing is implicated within these structures of gendered violation and he is haunted by what his fellow Vietnamese have done.

  • 13 Christine Pelzer White points to a paradox in communist valorization of women in the revolution: “W (...)
  • 14 See Subarno Chattarji, The Distant Shores of Freedom: Vietnamese American Memoirs and Fiction, New (...)

15While the protagonist and narrator in Novel is a man, Dương consciously highlights the heroic yet precarious positions of women during and after the war. Quan is an insider insofar as he is a veteran, and yet the narrative dwells not just on the immediacy of experiential accounts, but also observes the lives of others, especially women during and after war. Conceivably Dương’s first-hand experience of war undergirds the detailed narrative and grants authenticity to the fictional account. Dương is careful, however, to distance herself in and through a male narrative voice. Such a strategy enables granular descriptions of war horrors and trauma because it is a man’s voice that embodies authority in a post-war society where women warriors, though selectively heroized, were increasingly marginalized in public discourse.13 Dương’s novels retrieve experiences that were disappearing from public memory although some oral histories have documented roles played by women in the Vietnam-American War. Oral histories, such as James Freeman’s Hearts of Sorrow: Vietnamese American Lives (1989), recover Vietnamese voices within the U.S., but they privilege only a specific set of voices located within anti-communist, refugee matrices.14 In their accounts of North Vietnamese women in combat, historians Karen Turner and Phan Thanh Hao cite innumerable instances of heroism and courage born of necessity as well as commitment to the communist cause. They write of a woman who lost four family members during the U.S. bombing of Hà Nội and joined the war to take revenge:

  • 15 Karen Gottschang Turner with Phan Thanh Hao, Even the Women Must Fight: Memories of War from North (...)

She reminded me, as others would time and again, that as teenagers they fought for the future, to preserve their homeland as a safe place, where they could one day live as whole human beings, raising children and grandchildren, worshipping the ancestors. One woman […] said to me, ‘The North is our homeland. If it was destroyed, we would have no place to raise future generations. We had no choice.’15

16Turner and Hao’s interlocutors emphasize not just communist heroism but a more quotidian resilience that enables them to survive day after day, to cling onto vestiges of dignity and humanity. The women fought not so much for socialism as for their homeland (although the communist party conflated the two) and for the future. In the aftermath those sacrifices melded into futility, anger, and frustration as the grinding incompetence and venality of party cadres took over their lives and destroys the futures they had dreamed of and fought for.

17Novel and Memories do not lay claim to the ethnographic, nor do they have the academic heft that comes with such claims. As a novelist, however, Dương is able to mine the lives of her characters in ways that an oral historian cannot and this is what enables readers to access the lived realities of post-war disillusionment, of re-education camp, of the rippling of hatred across generations. The less-than-ideal aftermaths of war lead occasionally to nostalgia for pure(r) pasts. For instance, when Quan meets Hoa, his boyhood love after a ten-year gap and Hoa tells him she is pregnant and has been cast out of the village as she will not name the father, Quan muses:

  • 16 Dương Thu Hương, Novel Without a Name, op. cit., 148.

We never forget anything, never lose anything, never exchange anything, never undo what has been. There is no way back to the source, to the place where the pure, clear water once gushed forth.16

  • 17 Christopher Shaw, Malcolm Chase (eds.), The Imagined Past: History and Nostalgia, Manchester: Manch (...)

18Quan’s desire for the retrieval of perfect beginnings is comprehensible given the traumatic period of the war and its equally disappointing results. Like all nostalgia his desire is mired in a “presentist bias”, looping back to either imagined or ever-receding pasts. As Christopher Shaw and Malcolm Chase write: “What we are nostalgic for is not the past as it was or even as we wish it were; but for the condition of having been, with a concomitant integration and completeness lacking in any present.”17 “There is no way back to the source” of youthful aspiration and idealism, even naïve belief, in the futures outlined by party cadres not only because such pasts are themselves flawed and fraught with the weight of unrealized memory and desire, but also because as a comity who went through the war to create better futures, they are now steeped in years and decades of suffering, hate, misery, and resentment. Later in the novel, Quan returns to reflections on the valorization of war and its corrupting aftermath:

  • 18 Dương Thu Hương, Novel Without a Name, op. cit., 193.

Me, my friends, we had lived this war for too long, steeped ourselves for too long in the beauty of all its movements of fire and blood. Would it still be possible, one day, for us to go back, to rediscover our roots, the beauty of creation, the rapture of a peaceful life?18

  • 19 Ibid., 205. Vu’s question is reminiscent of John Balaban’s in his poem “After Our War”: “After our (...)

19“The beauty” of war seems paradoxical but was also attested to by American soldiers when they observed the distanced, almost dislocated beauty of tracer fire or bombing raids by night. This perception of “beauty” is also tied up with the camaraderie of “fire and blood,” of initiation into rites of masculinity and death dealing. Quan’s meditation on the “beauty” of war quite clearly sees it as a decisive rupture, making impossible any return to a peaceful pre-war existence – “the rapture of a peaceful life” – and this before-after time lapse haunts the narrative. Vu, a truck driver, who lost his way in the Valley of the Seven Innocents, where Quan found a soldier’s skeleton, asks a question that illustrates this point: “‘After the war, will they come back and look for all the soldiers’ bones?’”19

Critiques of war, communism

20It is precisely because post-1975 Vietnam is a betrayal of all that the North Vietnamese fought and sacrificed for that the aftermaths are seen as acutely unbearable. Memories of heroism and courage turn to anger and criticism of the Revolution, the party, and corruption. Dương turns to generic characters such a Fat Party cadre to savage the hypocrisies of the communist revolution. The Fat man says: “‘Revolution, like love, blooms and then withers. But revolution rots much faster than love, ‘comrade’. The less it’s true, the more we need to believe in it. That’s the art of governing.’” Similarly, Mr Buu, who has dedicated his youth to war, cannot acquiesce to the venality he sees everywhere:

  • 20 Dương, Novel Without a Name, 161, 133.

Before, out of every ten of them you could find at least seven who were honest, civilized. Even during the worst intrigues, at least they feared public disgrace. Now the ones who hold the reigns are all ignoramuses who never even learned the most basic morals. They study their Marxism-Leninism, and then come and pillage our vegetable gardens and rice fields with Marx’s blessings. In the name of class struggle, they seduce other men’s women.20

21Mr Buu’s construction of a more perfect past where most cadres were honest and civilized is rooted in nostalgia, an idealization of revolutionary pasts which ignores, for instance, the brutality of cadres involved in the land reform movements in North Vietnam. However, his critique acquires its bitter edge based on the stripping away of doctrinal or ideological justification, a transparent cynicism that guides material and personal relations in united Vietnam.

22In Memories of a Pure Spring, Dương delves further into the structures of feelings of post-war disillusionment through the characters of Hoang Hung and his wife, Suong, both of whom dedicated their lives to the revolution in the hope of better futures. “When the end of the war came, they waited, expectant, for a new life.” That “new life” never dawns; instead Hung muses on his investment in the war when he is fired as head of the cultural troupe he had led during the war:

  • 21 Dương Thu Hương, Memories of a Pure Spring, trans. Nina McPherson and Phan Huy Dương, New York: Hyp (...)

I invested everything, bet everything on that romantic war! The honor of the nation. The meaning of life. All my youthful ideals. And how does it end? Watching people ecstatic with joy over a jeep, an apartment, and old armoire.21

23Once again, the gap between expectation and reality seems unfathomable and, as in Quan’s case, Hung too repeatedly dwells on the betrayal of revolutionary ideals:

  • 22 Ibid., 59, 79.

Gone is the voice of solidarity, of human feeling. Success belongs to the usurpers. […] And all those long years people didn’t think of themselves, nor had they ever imagined that after victory the day would come when they would be cast out, left helpless by the side of the road.22

24These reflections may seem mawkish, expressive of the regrets of individuals who failed to adjust to the politics of post-war Vietnam, but they are representative of millions who gave their youth and lives to create a better Vietnam, only to see that future destroyed. As Gabriel Kolko points out in his study of peacetime Vietnam, perhaps the biggest failure of the communist revolution was its inability to better the lives of its heroic people.

  • 23 Gabriel Kolko, Vietnam: Anatomy of a Peace, London and New York: Routledge, 1997, 7, 153.

For the irony of Vietnam today is that those who gave and sacrificed the most, were promised the greatest benefits, are gaining the least. […] While party ideologists reiterate socialism’s efficacy, other members fill their pockets.23

25Post-war Vietnam was transformed into, as Dương and Kolko point out in different ways, a society riven with cynicism and hypocrisy which are reflected as a profound anomie that one finds in her novels. Having believed in the revolution and the possibility of equal, equitable, just futures, Quan and Hung find themselves out on a limb, as if they are at fault, as if their vision of solidarity and peace were illusions.

26Mr Buu’s critique in Novel is reminiscent of Colonel Bùi Tín’s memoir, Following Hồ Chí Minh, which highlights aspects of betrayal and corruption that Dương takes up in her fictional representations. Bùi Tín played a vital role in the surrender of the Republic of Vietnam and speaks as an insider. Throughout his memoir Tín repeatedly focuses on gaps between precepts and realities in revolutionary Vietnam during and after the war.

  • 24 Bùi Tín, Following Hồ Chí Minh: The Memoirs of a North Vietnamese Colonel, translated and adapted b (...)

So what was all the sacrifice of the Revolution about? Was it so that our people would suffer more hardship after our victory than during the war? […] The whole nation (that is, the North of the country) abandoned its intrinsic values to embrace the concept of the pure peasant. And among the masses, the rights of freedom and democracy were obliterated. […] We were arrogant in our ignorance. The Party claimed to be the servant of the people but it did not listen to them at all.24

  • 25 Quan thinks of his youth as having “ticked by in long, merciless years of pain,” an acknowledgment (...)

27Bùi Tín’s and Dương’s focus on bitter aftermaths, on the hiatus between expectation and reality, are expressive of alienation and exile. Coincidentally both took exile in France, yet what is significant is not geographical distance but the sense of internal exile, of being strangers and enemies in their own land, and ideological spaces and political diktats which they now recognize as flawed and inimical to freedom, equality, and democracy. The “pain” which motivates and inspires Dương is perhaps connected to this exilic condition, a refusal to accept the present as it is, a desire to hold the revolution to its best possibilities.25

Fiction as testimony

  • 26 Mieke Bal, “Introduction,” in Mieke Bal, Jonathan Crewe, and Leo Spitzer (eds.), Acts of Memory: Cu (...)

28To compare Bùi Tín’s and Dương’s works is not to suggest that the generic distinction between their works – memoir and fiction – can be conflated. Rather their distinctiveness enables an understanding of the ways in which fiction performs testimonial acts, contributing to and enlarging what Mieke Bal calls “cultural memory”: “Cultural memory can be located in literary texts because the latter are continuous with the communal fictionalizing, idealizing, monumentalizing impulses thriving in a conflicted culture.”26 Dương’s novels work at this intersection of individual and communal memories, articulating both the “idealizing” (through Quan and Hung’s nostalgia) and “monumentalizing impulses” (through the critiques of war deaths, trauma, and post-war disillusionment) in a post-war Vietnam that is deeply fractured.

29The relationality between novel and society is not, of course, a direct or transparent one, as John Beverley contends:

  • 27 John Beverley, “The Margin at the Center: On Testimonio (Testimonial Narrative),” in Sidonie Smith (...)

… it would be naïve to assume a direct homology between text and history. The discourse of a witness cannot be a reflection of his or her experience, but rather a refraction determined by the vicissitudes of memory, intention, ideology.27

  • 28 Ibid., 94.
  • 29 Marita Sturken, “Narratives of Recovery: Repressed Memory as Cultural Memory,” in Mieke Bal, Jonath (...)

30Arguably fiction too represents varied refractions, albeit in narrative forms which are distinguished from that of testimonio. Beverley, however, argues that testimonio and novel are quite distinct: “Unlike the novel, testimonio promises by definition to be primarily concerned with sincerity rather than literariness.”28 The distinction is a neat one but it seems to set up a false dichotomy between “sincerity” and “literariness”, as if literary works are by definition unconcerned with “sincerity” in the sense of truth-telling, of insights into the human mind and condition, particularly in extreme conditions such as war and its traumatic aftermaths. Further, if “sincerity” is conceptualized in terms of critical awareness of the self and its place in the world, literary representations also serve as engaged and imaginative testimonio. The term “sincerity” is freighted with a moral valence and in that sense, it is applicable to the quality of committed writing that Dương practices. Testimony also involves, as Marita Sturken points out, a “constitutive relationship between speaker and listener. […] The listener is the means through which the traumatic memory can be spoken, known, and made real.”29 If we think of Dương’s novels as testimonial narratives of trauma and its aftermaths, it is possible to conceive of them as positioning the reader as listener who enables the rendition of “traumatic memory”, memories which neither the community nor the state wish to acknowledge in independent Vietnam.

31Throughout Novel Dương presents the horrors of the battlefield and contrasts it with communist war propaganda. Quan recollects the battles in the autumn of 1968:

  • 30 Dương Thu Hương, Novel Without a Name, op. cit., 218.

Every night, through a twilight swirling with ash, smoke, and dust, we dragged the corpses of our comrades away from the battlefield, from an earth soaked in blood, strewn with human flesh – that of the day’s combat, the putrid shreds of the previous day, and the rotting debris of a whole week shrouded in fog. No words will ever be able to describe the stench.30

  • 31 David Jones describes the presence of death in World War I thus: “But sweet sister death has gone d (...)
  • 32 Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World, New York, Oxford: Oxford Uni (...)

32This hellscape is reminiscent of First World War trench warfare with their rotting bodies piled one on top of the other, the mud and slime of the “earth soaked in blood,” of death stalking the land.31 As with the description of the raped, rotting bodies of women at the beginning of Novel, Quan focuses on details of human bodies stripped of humanity and dignity. In doing so, the narrative focuses on the fundamental site of war: the human body, its vulnerability, disposability, and its violated sanctity. Acts of injuring and killing, as Elaine Scarry observes with respect to war discourses, disappear through redescription, so that Kamikaze pilots are described as “night blossoms” or civilian deaths as “collateral damage.” Injury, Scarry argues, is not only made invisible but relocated as a “by-product” of war, or as a road to another goal, or as cost. The effect of acts of redescription and relocation is that “the movements and actions of the armies are emptied of human content and occur as a rarefied choreography of disembodied events.”32 The injured and the dead are written out of strategic, military, and political accounts of war which represent the “rarefied choreography” of great events. Dương, however, refuses to glorify war and her forensic detailing of its impacts on human bodies recovers those sites of war that the communists would rather erase.

  • 33 Dương Thu Hương, Novel Without a Name, op. cit., 30. Capitals in original.

33Dương also points to the rhetorical and ideological seductions of war when she contrasts Quan’s experiences with the slogans that rent the air the day he was mobilized: “LONG LIVE THE NEW COMBATANTS FOR OUR COUNTRY! … LONG LIVE INVINCIBLE MARXISM-LENINISM!”33 A little later Quan thinks about war as a mode of national renewal:

  • 34 Ibid., 31.

This war was not simply another war against foreign aggression; it was also our chance for a resurrection. Vietnam had been chosen by History. After the war, our country would become humanity’s paradise. Our people would hold a rank apart. At last we would be respected, honored, revered. […] Ten years had passed. None of us spoke about this anymore. But none of us had forgotten.34

34As with the celebrations that greeted the declaration of the First World War, the advent of and participation in war in Vietnam is heralded as the beginning of a new era; History begins from this moment at the same time that the glorious history of Vietnam is reinforced through revolutionary battle, which in turn leads to the creation of “a heroic people”. Like all wars preceding it, the war against America requires the blood sacrifice of its youth, the valorization of soaking the earth with blood. While these myths of heroic renewal were debunked in the writings of soldiers in World War I and II, its persistence in another age and cultural frame indicates the power of ideological war-making, the mythos that persuades generations of young men and women to kill and be killed for glory. Memory functions in Novel not just as nostalgia but as trauma and Quan articulates the classic repression accompanying traumatic memories. However, as the novel progresses, Quan expresses with increasing insight and bitterness the gap between propaganda and the realities of war, between expectation and post-war realities, as “humanity’s paradise” promised before and during wartime stands invalidated, offering only the savage ironies of betrayal.

Re-education camps and failures of governance

35What made a terrible state of affairs intolerable were the ways in which the communist party treated all who disagreed with them as enemies and incarcerated them in re-education camps. In Memories Hung is branded a counter-revolutionary and Dương conveys the terror and dehumanization that the camps engendered:

  • 35 Dương Thu Hương, Memories of a Pure Spring, op. cit., 124, 126.

Here, men lost the look of human beings: Those vacant eyes, faces as shrivelled as dried fruit, hands that swung limply, heads silently bent over – there was something rotten in them. […] In their [prisoners’] faces, their eyes, their way of speaking, there was a strange terror. Human terror, fear of man. Birds, beasts, domestic animals, never show this kind of fear.35

  • 36 See Tran Tri Vu, Lost Years: My 1,632 Days in Vietnamese Reeducation Camps, trans. Nguyen Phuc, Ber (...)

36The camps served as blunt instruments of exclusion and the communist party created an absolute dichotomy between “the People” who were coterminous with the party, and the non-people. Nguy was the term used by the North Vietnamese to denigrate Southern opponents, which translates as “traitor” or “puppet” and “false, deceptive” in its adjectival form.36 The majority of re-education camp memoirs are written by former South Vietnamese officials who spent time in camps and then settled in the US or France. Such accounts have been translated into English and are available outside Vietnam. Dương’s fictional account of re-education camp is significant because it offers a more nuanced picture of the people caught up within webs of communist totalitarianism; not all were “puppets” or “traitors” in the sense that all who collaborated with American forces or held nationalist and anti-communist views were perceived by the communists. Many, like Hung, were former revolutionaries who had given their lives to the party that then turned viciously upon them.

37On one of her arduous trips to visit her husband in re-education camp Suong thinks about the implications of internecine violence for her people:

  • 37 Dương Thu Hương, Memories of a Pure Spring, op. cit., 129.

[…] she knew that their world wasn’t just violent, barbarous, it was sad, an infinite, torturous, unbearable sadness. She suddenly felt a wave of pity … but for whom? The prisoners, or their jailers? She didn’t know anymore.37

  • 38 Ibid., 311.
  • 39 Gabriel Kolko, Vietnam: Anatomy of a Peace, op. cit., 166.

38This “unbearable sadness” clings to individuals, it is a miasma that chokes the voices of the people who fought for freedom, and who are now in a labyrinth from which neither jailer nor prisoner can escape. The “unbearable sadness” that strangles the life of the nation and the melancholy that Suong articulates are both expressions of loss and betrayal as well as incomprehension in the face of “barbarous” outcomes of the revolution. Her melancholy is partially a result of her inability to fathom the logic of the revolution and the party that was geared toward perpetual class war, but not prepared for governance and the everyday problems arising thereof. As Dam puts it: “‘If we don’t understand our people, their lives, how can we hope to govern them humanely?’”38 The rupture that Dam refers to is thus not only between past hopes and present disillusion but between the rulers and the ruled, the people and the non-people. Gabriel Kolko points to the failure of imagination in communist parties generically, but his observations are equally apt for the Vietnamese communist party. “The absolutely essential freedom of imagination and analysis they required was axiomatically precluded in the case of the Communist parties. It was this, above all, that led to their ultimate failure.”39

Paradoxes of remembrance

39The failures of governance in post-war Vietnam are exacerbated, Hung realizes, by an inability, indeed refusal, to lay the enmities of the war at rest, to move toward reconciliation. The Vietnam-American War was not only a war against American imperialism or capitalism, but a civil war and its bitter hatreds were nurtured by the communists after the end of the conflict.

  • 40 Dương Thu Hương, Memories of a Pure Spring, op. cit., 147. Italics in original.

Now that the same melody [‘Don’t forget the hate, never, never, through the thousands of generations, never forget’] echoed in his head, not for the [communist] prisoners of Phu Loi, but for himself, for the boat people who had shared that wretched soup of water spinach and human shit: Never forget, never forget, even after a thousand generations.40

  • 41 Todorov makes an argument against Manichaeism in his study of genocidal violence and its commemorat (...)

40Memory serves not as accounting for pasts to regenerate presents and imagine better futures or, to use Todorov’s phrase as a “remedy for evil,” but as a static template for vengeance, for actions rooted in past resentments to perpetuate present-day barbarisms.41 Hatreds are nurtured intergenerationally and ripple across time and space, encompassing the inmates of re-education camps, citizens of the country, and boat people. Although it is not explicitly stated, Suong’s perception of “unbearable sadness” is equally sensitive to the registers and realities of perpetual hate, and the fact that her relationship with Hung breaks apart is indicative not just of personal distances but of social anomie which corrupts all.

Conclusion

  • 42 Viet Thanh Nguyen, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, Cambridge, MA., and London: Ha (...)

41Dương’s critique of war, communism, and the interminable wars within Vietnam are an insider’s critique and they express regret, anger, “pain”, but no triumphalism at sad, often hopeless outcomes. While US leaders such as President Nixon leveraged post-war oppressions in Vietnam to justify American intervention, Dương holds up portraits both intimate and political of the failures of communism with anger, an anger arising out of her desire to hold the party to its professed ideals. However, in her remembrance of others, of that which may not be recalled, “she risks,” as Viet Nguyen points out, “being called a traitor.” “At best, those of her own side may call her a cosmopolitan, with the pejorative connotation that she may be a citizen of the world but not of her own nation.”42 This was exactly how the Vietnamese communist party reacted, expelling Dương from the party, imprisoning her, and finally forcing her into exile in France. Remembrance, as Viet Nguyen observes, is never innocent.

  • 43 Ibid., 62.

[…] while the party considered her a traitor, Western publishers and readers considered her to be a dissident who spoke for justice, a heroic author who could not be contained by communism’s provincial ideology. Banned at home, her novels were published abroad, for the West likes to translate the enemies of its enemies.43

42Nguyen’s argument about the paradoxes of remembering others and the price one pays is valuable. Dương does not justify the American invasion. Instead, she offers more nuanced, visceral portraits of her country during and after decades of violence. Dương’s novels excavate the sorrows of war, its pyrrhic victories and hopeless aftermaths, and what ensues when a people’s revolution built on the labour of its citizens turns in on itself and oppresses its own. Her writings expand the canvas of literature on the Vietnam War beyond the better-known and more voluminous expressions by American and Vietnamese American authors. More vitally, her dissidence allows for conversations within Vietnam, however limited or forbidden, and it creates spaces for conversations among Vietnamese in the US and the global Vietnamese diaspora.

43In an essay on representing suffering, David Morris writes about the role of literature:

  • 44 David B. Morris, “About Suffering: Voice, Genre, and Moral Community,” in Arthur Kleinman, Veena Da (...)

Literary inclusions and exclusions usually reflect dominant values of the community in which a text is written, but one important function of literature is to challenge and stretch – even to transgress the boundaries of a moral community.44

44The novels discussed in this essay are valuable precisely because they express how the “dominant values” of post-war Vietnam stifle every possibility of hope and freedom, creating communities of melancholy and hate, and thereby refuse solidarity and reconciliation. By refusing to toe the communist party line, Dương’s novels “transgress the boundaries of a moral community”, articulating the “pain” she felt as a citizen and writer. In mapping transitions from war to peace Novel Without a Name and Memories of a Pure Spring reveal impacts of war that are either not articulated or are repressed by the communist state. The experiences and memories of Quan and Hung, while offering personal perspectives of the war and its aftermaths, raise questions about the place and role of the individual within particular historical moments. These negotiations between the past and present, between hope and despair add particularly poignancy to portraits of a revolution gone awry. The fact that the locus of her novels is not the US permits a crucial de-centering and reconfiguration of the subject that is Vietnam and the rendition of its subjectivities. In doing so Dương’s novels are crucial interventions in fraught and binary debates steeped in ideological othering decades after the end of the war.

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Bibliographie

Balaban John, Locusts at the Edge of Summer: New and Selected Poems, Washington: Copper Canyon Press, 1997.

Bal Mieke, “Introduction,” in Mieke Bal, Jonathan Crewe, and Leo Spitzer (eds.), Acts of Memory: Cultural Recall in the Present, Hanover, London: University Press of New England, 1999.

Beverley John, “The Margin at the Center: On Testimonio (Testimonial Narrative),” in Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson (eds.), De/Colonizing the Subject: The Politics of Gender in Women’s Autobiography, Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 1992.

Bùi Tín, Following Hồ Chí Minh: The Memoirs of a North Vietnamese Colonel, translated and adapted by Judy Stowe and Do Van, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1995.

Chattarji Subarno, The Distant Shores of Freedom: Vietnamese American Memoirs and Fiction, New Delhi, New York, London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019.

Dinh Linh, “Introduction,” in Linh Dinh (ed.), Night Again: Contemporary Fiction from Vietnam, New York: 7 Stories Press, 1997.

Dương Thu Hương, Novel Without a Name, trans. Phan Huy Dương and Nina McPherson, New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1995.

Dương Thu Hương, Memories of a Pure Spring, trans. Nina McPherson and Phan Huy Dương, New York: Hyperion East, 2000.

Fritzsche Peter, “Spectres of History: On Nostalgia, Exile, and Modernity,” The American Historical Review, Vol. 106, No. 5 (Dec. 2001).

Huệ-Tâm Hồ Tài, “Introduction,” in Huệ-Tâm Hồ Tài (ed.), The Country of Memory: Remaking the Past in Late Socialist Vietnam, Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 2001.

Jones David, In Parenthesis, London, Boston: Faber & Faber, 1937.

Karlin Wayne, “Introduction,” in Wayne Karlin, Chief Translator Nguyễn Quí Đức (ed.), Behind the Red Mist: Fiction by Hồ Anh Thái, with translations by Regina Abrami, Bắc Hoài Trần, Phan Thanh Hao and Dana Sachs, Willimantic, CT: Curbstone Press, 1998.

Kim Sa Trung, “The Seal of Sirius,” Literature News: Nine Stories from the Viet Nam Writers Union newspaper, Báo Văn Nghȩ, Selected and translated with introductions and illustrations by Rosemary Nguyen, New Haven, CT: Yale University Council on Southeast Asia Studies. Lac Việt 16, 1997.

Kolko Gabriel, Vietnam: Anatomy of a Peace, London and New York: Routledge, 1997.

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Nguyen Minh Chau, “Writing About War,” From Van Nghe Quan Doi, Translated Huỳnh Sanh Thông, in The Vietnam Review 3 (Autumn-Winter 1997).

Nguyen Viet Thanh, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, Cambridge, MA., and London: Harvard University Press, 2016, 61.

Pelley Patricia, “The History of Resistance and the Resistance to History in Post-Colonial Constructions of the Past,” in K.W. Taylor and John K. Whitmore (eds.), Essays into Vietnamese Pasts, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, Studies on Southeast Asia No. 19, 1995.

Scarry Elaine, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World, New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985.

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Sturken Marita, “Narratives of Recovery: Repressed Memory as Cultural Memory,” in Mieke Bal, Jonathan Crewe, and Leo Spitzer, (eds.), Acts of Memory: Cultural Recall in the Present, Hanover, London: University Press of New England, 1999.

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White Christine Pelzer, “Vietnam: War, Socialism, and the Politics of Gender Relations,” in Sonia Kruks, Rayna Rapp, and Marilyn B. Young, (eds.), Promissory Notes: Women in the Transition to Socialism, New York: Monthly Review Press, 1989.

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Notes

1 Initial research for this paper was conducted at the Imaginative Representations of the Vietnam War Collection at La Salle University, Philadelphia, on a Fulbright Senior Research Fellowship. I am grateful to John S. Baky, formerly Director of Libraries at La Salle, and to the Fulbright Foundation for enabling my research. I am grateful to the two anonymous readers for their incisive and critical reading of the essay and their suggestions.

2 Cited in Patricia Pelley, “The History of Resistance and the Resistance to History in Post-Colonial Constructions of the Past,” in K.W. Taylor and John K. Whitmore (eds.), Essays into Vietnamese Pasts, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1995. Studies on Southeast Asia No. 19), 235.

3 Huệ-Tâm Hồ Tài, “Introduction,” in Huệ-Tâm Hồ Tài, (ed.), The Country of Memory: Remaking the Past in Late Socialist Vietnam, Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 2001, 3.

4 The two novels were published in English translation more than twenty years after the end of the war. The gap is unsurprising since many combat narratives are written years, if not decades, after the end of hostilities. This could be related to the ways in which temporal distancing permits more thoughtful engagement with traumatic events. In Dương Thu Hương’s case the partial loosening of censorship laws in the 1980s created a sustainable environment for publishing her novels in Vietnam in Vietnamese.

5 Cited in Nina McPherson, “Dương Thu Hương,” Viet Nam Literature Project, <http://www.ibiblio.org/vietnamlit/wiki/index.php?title=Duong_Thu_Huong>, accessed May 20, 2022.

6 Wayne Karlin, “Introduction,” in Wayne Karlin, Chief Translator Nguyễn Quí Đức (eds.), Behind the Red Mist: Fiction by Hồ Anh Thái, with translations by Regina Abrami, Bắc Hoài Trần, Phan Thanh Hao and Dana Sachs, Willimantic, CT: Curbstone Press, 1998, xiii-xiv.

7 These works include Lê Minh Khuê’s The Stars, The Earth, The River, trans. Bắc Hoài Trần and Dana Sachs Willimantic, CT.: Curbstone Press, 2000; Ma Van Khang’s Against the Flood, trans. Phan Than Hao and Wayne Karlin, Willimantic, CT.: Curbstone Press, 2000; Lê Lưu’s, A Time Far Past, trans. Ngo Vinh Hai, Nguyen Ba Chung, Kevin Bowen, and David Hunt, Willimantic, CT.: Curbstone Press, 2001; and the novels of Dương Thu Hương. As Linh Dinh observes with regard to the literature of the Đổi Mới period: “In place of what the historian Peter Zinoman termed a ‘canned cheeriness […] central to the ‘moral building’ function of the revolutionary writers’ are bleak portraits of a backward, rundown and corrupt society.” Linh Dinh, “Introduction,” in Linh Dinh (ed.), Night Again: Contemporary Fiction from Vietnam, New York: 7 Stories Press, 1997, xiv.

8 Kim Sa Trung, “The Seal of Sirius,” Literature News: Nine Stories from the Viet Nam Writers Union newspaper, Báo Văn Nghȩ, Selected and translated with introductions and illustrations by Rosemary Nguyen, New Haven, CT: Yale University Council on Southeast Asia Studies, Lac Việt 16, 1997, 163.

9 Nguyen Minh Chau, “Writing About War,” From Van Nghe Quan Doi, Translated Huỳnh Sanh Thông, in The Vietnam Review 3, Autumn-Winter 1997, 438.

10 Shaun Kingsley Malarney, “‘The Fatherland Remembers Your Sacrifice’: Commemorating War Dead in North Vietnam,” in Huệ-Tâm Hồ Tài (ed.), The Country of Memory: Remaking the Past in Late Socialist Vietnam, Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 2001, 58, 59.

11 The title highlights the anonymity of millions of the dead and injured as well as the problematics of naming itself. A Novel Without a Name names realities and traumas that individuals have forgotten or repressed and that those in power would rather not resurrect.

12 Dương Thu Hương, Novel Without a Name, trans. Phan Huy Dương and Nina McPherson, New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1995, 2, 3.

13 Christine Pelzer White points to a paradox in communist valorization of women in the revolution: “While advocacy of equal rights for women as workers and as citizens was revolutionary in the Vietnamese context, the Communist Party’s conception of the interests of women as women stressed women’s traditional roles as wives and mothers.” After 1975 women who had fought the war were pushed back into these traditional roles. Christine Pelzer White, “Vietnam: War, Socialism, and the Politics of Gender Relations,” in Sonia Kruks, Rayna Rapp, and Marilyn B. Young (eds.), Promissory Notes: Women in the Transition to Socialism, New York: Monthly Review Press, 1989, 179.

14 See Subarno Chattarji, The Distant Shores of Freedom: Vietnamese American Memoirs and Fiction, New Delhi, New York, London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019, Chapter 2, for a discussion of problematics in Freeman’s oral history.

15 Karen Gottschang Turner with Phan Thanh Hao, Even the Women Must Fight: Memories of War from North Vietnam, New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1998, 16, 82.

16 Dương Thu Hương, Novel Without a Name, op. cit., 148.

17 Christopher Shaw, Malcolm Chase (eds.), The Imagined Past: History and Nostalgia, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1989, 30, 20. Italics in original. “Nostalgia,” as Peter Fritzsche observes, “not only cherishes the past for the distinctive qualities that are no longer present, but also acknowledges the permanence of their absence.” Quan and Hung’s recovery of pasts are steeped in this awareness of their permanent absence. Peter Fritzsche, “Spectres of History: On Nostalgia, Exile, and Modernity,” The American Historical Review, Vol. 106, No. 5 (Dec. 2001). 1592.

18 Dương Thu Hương, Novel Without a Name, op. cit., 193.

19 Ibid., 205. Vu’s question is reminiscent of John Balaban’s in his poem “After Our War”: “After our war, how will love speak?” John Balaban, Locusts at the Edge of Summer: New and Selected Poems, Washington: Copper Canyon Press, 1997, 41.

20 Dương, Novel Without a Name, 161, 133.

21 Dương Thu Hương, Memories of a Pure Spring, trans. Nina McPherson and Phan Huy Dương, New York: Hyperion East, 2000, 26, 56.

22 Ibid., 59, 79.

23 Gabriel Kolko, Vietnam: Anatomy of a Peace, London and New York: Routledge, 1997, 7, 153.

24 Bùi Tín, Following Hồ Chí Minh: The Memoirs of a North Vietnamese Colonel, translated and adapted by Judy Stowe and Do Van. Introduction by Carlyle A. Thayer, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1995, xvi, 37, 89.

25 Quan thinks of his youth as having “ticked by in long, merciless years of pain,” an acknowledgment of his severance from ideals which failed. Dương Thu Hương, Novel Without a Name, op. cit., 72.

26 Mieke Bal, “Introduction,” in Mieke Bal, Jonathan Crewe, and Leo Spitzer (eds.), Acts of Memory: Cultural Recall in the Present, Hanover, London: University Press of New England, 1999, xiii.

27 John Beverley, “The Margin at the Center: On Testimonio (Testimonial Narrative),” in Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson (eds.), De/Colonizing the Subject: The Politics of Gender in Women’s Autobiography, Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 1992, 101.

28 Ibid., 94.

29 Marita Sturken, “Narratives of Recovery: Repressed Memory as Cultural Memory,” in Mieke Bal, Jonathan Crewe, and Leo Spitzer (eds.), Acts of Memory: Cultural Recall in the Present, Hanover, London: University Press of New England, 1999, 237.

30 Dương Thu Hương, Novel Without a Name, op. cit., 218.

31 David Jones describes the presence of death in World War I thus: “But sweet sister death has gone debauched today and stalks on this high ground with strumpet confidence, makes no coy veiling of her appetite but leers from you to me with all her parts discovered.” David Jones, In Parenthesis, London, Boston: Faber & Faber, 1937, 162.

32 Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World, New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985, 70.

33 Dương Thu Hương, Novel Without a Name, op. cit., 30. Capitals in original.

34 Ibid., 31.

35 Dương Thu Hương, Memories of a Pure Spring, op. cit., 124, 126.

36 See Tran Tri Vu, Lost Years: My 1,632 Days in Vietnamese Reeducation Camps, trans. Nguyen Phuc, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988, Chapter 1.

37 Dương Thu Hương, Memories of a Pure Spring, op. cit., 129.

38 Ibid., 311.

39 Gabriel Kolko, Vietnam: Anatomy of a Peace, op. cit., 166.

40 Dương Thu Hương, Memories of a Pure Spring, op. cit., 147. Italics in original.

41 Todorov makes an argument against Manichaeism in his study of genocidal violence and its commemorations which is apposite for Dương’s novels. “The memory of the past could help us in this enterprise of taming evil, on the condition that we keep in mind that good and evil flow from the same source and that in the world’s best narratives they are not neatly divided.” Tzvetan Todorov, Memory as a Remedy for Evil, trans. Gila Walker, London, New York, Calcutta: Seagull Books, 2010, 83.

42 Viet Thanh Nguyen, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, Cambridge, MA., and London: Harvard University Press, 2016, 61.

43 Ibid., 62.

44 David B. Morris, “About Suffering: Voice, Genre, and Moral Community,” in Arthur Kleinman, Veena Das, Margaret Lock (eds.), Social Suffering, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997, 40.

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Subarno Chattarji, « “Writing about War”: Dương Thu Hương’s Representations of the Vietnam-American War »Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], vol. 20-n°53 | 2022, mis en ligne le 20 juin 2022, consulté le 25 juin 2022. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/lisa/14228 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/lisa.14228

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Subarno Chattarji

Subarno Chattarji is Professor in the Department of English, University of Delhi. He has also taught in Japan and Wales. He studied at the universities of Delhi and Oxford. He was Fulbright Senior Research Fellow at La Salle University, Philadelphia (2004-2005), the recipient of a Kluge Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Library of Congress in 2006, and awarded an Academic Writing Residency at the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center, Italy (2017). His publications include: The Distant Shores of Freedom: Vietnamese American Memoirs and Fiction (Bloomsbury Academic, 2019); Reconsidering English Studies in Indian Higher Education (Co-author, Routledge, 2015); Tracking the media: interpretations of mass media discourses in India and Pakistan (Routledge, 2008); Memories of a Lost War: American Poetic Responses to the Vietnam War (Clarendon and Oxford University Press, 2001).

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