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From The Asian Reporter, V14, #6 (February 3, 2004), page 16.

Who wants freedom, who needs surprises

Love After War: Contemporary Fiction from Viet Nam

Edited by Wayne Karlin and Ho Anh Thai

Translated by Bac Hoai Tran, Cari Coe, Ho Anh Thai, Birgit Hussfeld, Wayne Karlin,

Viviane Lowe, Nam Son, Nguyen Huy Dzung, Nguyen Quang Thieu, Nguyen Qui Duc,

Rosemary Nguyen, Dana Sachs, Nina McPherson, Phan Huy Duong, Phan Thanh Hao, Peter Saidel, Ton That Lan, Tran Qui Phiet, Tran Thanh Giao.

Fifty short stories by 45 Viet writers, with author biographies

Curbstone Press, 2003, Paperback, 626 pages, $19.95

By Polo

In her short story "Stairs," author Nguyen Thi Thu Hue writes:

One … Two … Three …

One … Two … Three …

As soon as Tran came to the turn, she began counting under her breath. The first three floors went by without a hitch. As she reached the fourth, she stopped for a while to catch her breath.

One … Two … Three …

The fifth floor. Now there were hiccups. Her throat and mouth dry and bitter.

Two more floors before she could get to her office …

She still remembered the day she had chosen her office. Some of her colleagues had asked, "Tran, why did you agree to work on the seventh floor when you know the lift is very unreliable?"

Tran smiled. They could not guess that she felt her best as she walked up the stairs. She always hoped to find something behind the door at the top that would surprise her. It was so difficult to find freedom for oneself these days.

Lucky for Ms. Thu Hue, lucky for her climber Tran, they still thrill after feeling free. They still imagine surprise. They are an endlessly optimistic folk. It’s in their Viet blood, in their history.

Writer Nguyen Thi Thu Hue is a 37-year-old northerner; her father was a Ben Tre journalist who repatriated to Ha Noi after their nation’s uneasy 1954 division. Her mother is the well-known writer Nguyen Thi Ngoc Tu. And that says so-so much. Whether we’re talking frenetic Ho Chi Minh City or ferocious Little Saigon, the Viet nation is dense with complexity. Communal emotions run so deep, so violent, so sustained, not even Geneva conventions, not Paris Peace Talks, not a dark big blue between can quell the bitterness.

Still, people try.

And it is trying that counts. Among those working to soothe all that anger are folks at Curbstone Press, a nonprofit arts and humanities foundation-funded organization. Likewise, the esteemed editors of Love After War are not associated with any government or ideology. That’s not to say there’s no politics in this five-pound volume of post-1975 Viet Nam writing. There’s plenty. There’s simply no pre-emptive way to dump our prejudices — the accumulated agendas of karma, of Repatriation, of Reunification, doi moi Renovation, or trade Normalization. Fine.

"When I first began to meet writers from Viet Nam …" writes Love After War editor Wayne Karlin, "I found a common humanity … they reflected our (mainstream America’s) heartbreaks … and at the same time offered glimpses of a world formed by its own unique experiences and perceptions. But given the killing we had all come out of … we all knew that if we’d met decades earlier we would have tried to murder each other … (this) evoked in me a deep sense of grief and waste and, in the end, a renewed faith in the ability of imaginative fiction to create that basic shift of consciousness that allows us to live for a time inside … others, and … makes us hesitate to kill and open to love."

A beautiful thought. But maybe a bit ambitious.

Some disclosure is necessary. I read Love After War, both the love and the war parts, with a certain Asian American bias. Like many friends and family, I am embittered by the betrayals that expelled us to this side of the big Deep Blue. Unlike mainstream America, we lack Yank soldiers’ remorse for their excesses in Viet Nam. The war.

Having said all that — and this needs to be carefully said — Professor Karlin (College of Southern Maryland) and Love After War co-editor Ho Anh Thai (of World Affairs Weekly) may just meet their lofty goals.

This is a heartfelt volume, fifty short stories divided into five sections reflecting five contemporary periods of Viet fiction. These five chapters they title: "Love After War," "Couples," "Love in a Time of Renovation," "Lost Love," and "Last Love." It is a typically elegant and intense Viet mélange of old masters, including 73-year-old Nguyen Khai, author of over 30 novels, and fellow anti-French fighter Bui Ngoc Tan; indomitable middle-agers such as Bao Ninh, internationally acclaimed for his somber novel Sorrow of War; and a number of post-American-War writers including Ho Anh Thai, whose novels and short-story collections have been translated into English, French, Japanese, and Russian.

All contributing writers and translators are undoubtedly CP sanctioned; there’s no other way for a writer’s labor to make print or bookstore shelves in the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam’s centrally controlled economy. But there’s also no doubting the brilliance between the covers of Dr. Karlin and Editor Anh Thai’s beefy new book.

And while Professor Karlin’s achy premise — that we are not likely to kill strangers when they are no longer strange — probably runs contrary to what profits those powerful enough to keep us strange enough to kill each other, this lovely volume may yet soothe if not mend bones broken on both sides of the shattered Viet family.

Sure, reunified Viet Nam failed to deliver. But so does America. Same disappointment, same Viet heart gets broken.

 

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