Tag Archives: Vietnam

The Other Shore (2014) – Hoa PHAM

Seizure are a publishing company based in Western Sydney—think of them as the cooler, younger sister of Giramondo. Over the past few years they have run a competition called Viva La Novella, designed to promote writers using this shorter format. This year, there were four winners, each published in print form. Hoa Pham, a former SMH Young Novelist of the Year, was one of this year’s winners.

When Kim Nguyen falls out of a boat and nearly drowns, she suddenly finds herself with the ability to speak to the dead. News of her gift, though, quickly finds its way to the all-knowing government, who want her to use it to help them. But Kim is uncomfortable with her new work, and with the arrival of a mysterious young man from America, she finds her loyalties divided.

Here’s a fun fact: the name Nguyen is the 13th most common surname in Australia. In Sydney, it’s the third most common. Australia has a strong history of immigration from Vietnam—South Australia’s Governor-elect is Hieu Van Le, a man who came to Australia in 1977 as a refugee. And yet, there is a dearth of Vietnamese-Australian voices in the literature world. Anh Do’s autobiography, The Happiest Refugee, was popular, but outside that, there are no household names. It’s refreshing, then, to read a Vietnamese-Australian voice in print.

Kim’s gift awakens her not only to the spiritual world, but to the realities of history that have been hidden from her by an authoritarian government trying to keep a lid on the past. Born and raised in Hà Nội, the stronghold of the communist government, Kim has only been told one side of the story. As she visits past battlefields, however, to help spirits reconnect with their living descendants, she finds herself talking to Americans and Southern Vietnamese people who died during the war.

The use of speculative fiction to shine a light on real-world issues is not exactly revolutionary—in fact, it is the genre’s very raison d’etre—but by placing it in this context, Pham reminds us that the effects of war live long into the future. The Vietnam War holds a particularly complex place in Western memory, and it is pleasing to see that Pham draws out the complexities of the American War from the other side. The battle may be over, but the reverberations of one death travel along family lines, forcing their way into everyday life.

More important, though, is the question it raises about the relationship between children, education and history. Kim is suddenly awakened to the reality of history—that war is complex, and that there are not usually any clear winners. Pham dares to ask the question: what happens to a young girl on the brink of adulthood when she discovers that her life is built on a lie? And here, we don’t mean a small lie, we mean a big, sociocultural lie. Literally her entire life is built on the idea that the North won, and that the Americans and the South were inherently bad people. But this is clearly not the case. Kim’s struggle to reconcile this truth with her life before her gift is deftly explored by Pham, particularly in the second half.

If Viva La Novella is a prize dedicated to finding Australian fiction that wouldn’t be published by a mainstream publisher, then it’s hit the nail on the head with The Other Shore. A genre-bending short work, it highlights Hoa Pham’s abilities to combine the everyday with the supernatural in a way that never feels forced; instead forcing her readers to reconsider their own ideas about war and memory.

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The Odd Angry Shot (1975) – William NAGLE

I have an odd relationship with Anzac Day. On the one hand, I certainly bear no grudge to individual members of the armed forces of Australia, and admire them for doing a job I never could. On the other hand, though, I can’t help but feel uncomfortable about a public holiday that seems to revel in an Australian culture that, for me, no longer exists: that of the strong Australian male bravely going out into the battlefield with his mates to defend us. It seems desperately at odds with the fact that modern Australia was not born out of violence or war, a fact of which we should be quite rightly proud.

Here, then, is Text Classics’s answer to Anzac Day 2013: William Nagle’s The Odd Angry Shot, a novel that details a year in the life of four Australian soldiers during the Vietnam War.

First things first: this is a very short novel. The Text edition is less than 140 pages. So this is not so much a huge, sprawling epic about Vietnam so much as a series of vignettes, many less than a page, providing a fractured, kaleidoscopic view of what we can probably assume to be a fairly typical Australian draft experience of the war.

Our main group of protagonists are an odd bunch. If I ever met them, I think I’d probably not like them very much. They are, I suppose, the typical Aussie larrikin, built with a quick retort, and a healthy disrespect for authority. In many ways, they seem completely oblivious to the immediate danger they are in, and their reckless behaviour, both on- and off-duty, seems to compound their ignorance. Almost all of them are draftees, and there is a clear demarcation between the enlisted officers—men who are proper military types—and those young men that have been unlucky enough to have their birthday drawn out of a barrel. The tension between enlisted and drafted plays out through the whole novel, occasionally in quite amusing ways.

And yet, so often, these shenanigans are brought sharply into focus by the horrific events taking place around them. Nagle doesn’t shy away from describing the intense results of skirmishes and attacks from the enemy. Friends are often killed, though the emotional impact of this is never physicalised by these men. The only moment of emotional pain in the whole novel comes when one man is informed by mail that his mother and fiancée, living safely in Australia, have been killed in a car accident. The irony of this is too much for Bung who breaks down.

Perhaps, then, we need to see the actions of these men in a different light. They are acting out, not necessarily because they are bad people, but because they are put under intense pressure to perform every time they leave camp. They are in a country that does not want them, doing a job for which they will never be thanked.

But again, we have to come back to the evidence presented. These men take advantage of the very people they are supposed to be protecting. Perhaps this is why soldiers now have cultural sensitivity training. The women of Vietnam seem to be nothing more than receptacles for these men to unload into, and the men and children are to be taken advantage of at every opportunity, despite being desperately poor, living in a country that has been invaded by outside forces.

The final pages of The Odd Angry Shot are reflective and quiet. Two men have arrived back in Sydney, no longer required by the military machine. They are irreparably changed. The things they have seen and done cannot never be unseen or undone. But they have fought a war that has become deeply unpopular, and are now required to never mention it again.

This is the true horror of the Vietnam generation. Left to fend for themselves, these men, many of whom had not choice in their service, were forced to reintegrate into a world that now seemed strange and superficial. It is this that Nagle leaves dangling at the end, forcing us to question our own attitudes towards the politics of war.

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Ru (2009) – Kim THÚY

This novel caught my eye a while ago for a variety of reasons. A Vietnamese-Canadian writer, Kim Thúy originally wrote this novel in French in 2009, though it was translated into English in 2011. It was shortlisted for the Giller Prize in 2012. I’m a big fan of postcolonial writings, and a short novel on the immigrant experience in Canada struck me as something perhaps something similar to that in Australia.

Nguyen An Tinh was a boat person. Escaping persecution in Communist Vietnam, her family escapes to Canada where they try to build a new life, one they never thought they would lead. But An Tinh finds herself floating through life, unable to put down roots, despite having grown up in Canada, and having two young sons. This is her story, the story of a refugee coming to the West, of a young child growing up, of a mother coming to terms with the realities of being a parent.

I read this short novel in under three hours. It’s easy to read, not just because of how it is set out (Many of the sections are less than a page, more memory fragments or musings about life than true ‘chapters’), but because Thúy constructs a tale that is engaging and well-written, stopping short of over-wrought writing. She sprinkles Vietnamese words and text throughout the novel to create that sense of foreignness that seems to be key to writing an “authentic” immigrant experience. Unrelated to the novel itself – my edition had some weird typographical stuff going on, and I’m not sure the publishers are used to using Vietnamese script in their work, because there were some iffy

Plot is not something this novel has in spades. Or at all, really. Instead, it is a series of jumbled up fragments, things that come to the protagonist as she remembers them. She wants to tell her story, but she finds herself sidetracked by other memories – from both before and after her move to Canada – that are at least as interesting as the glimpses of a privileged life in Canada. It’s an interesting point of view to take—so often, refugees are portrayed as the persecuted poor, but in actual fact, here, the protagonist’s family is the bourgeoisie class in Vietnamese society that was so hated by the Communist regime that took power in 1975. Her life is one of privilege—her mother has never had to lift a finger to do any work in her life, but she teachers her children to do some, perhaps because she is aware that the political situation is fragile.

The journey between this life in Vietnam and her adult life is the least developed section of An Tinh’s life. We get glimpses of the perilous boat trip her family took, as well as her eventual, if gradual, integration into Canadian society. There are scenes of An Tinh finding her feet in school, despite not understanding a word of French; of her teacher calling her parents to make sure she wasn’t eating rice and noodles for breakfast, even though this is a standard Vietnamese breakfast. There are hints of past relationships, of her coming to understand what it means to love and be loved.

What strikes me most of all about her character, though, is her intense isolation from the rest of the world. She is no longer Vietnamese, but does not feel Canadian. She is just as happy sleeping in a hotel bed as she is her own. If she didn’t have children, she wouldn’t be afraid of dying. These thoughts highlight her dislocation and disconnect from the world of the everyday. Thúy equates this isolation with the life An Tinh has lived, with the constant movement she has found herself undertaking, both voluntary and involuntary.

The other story that comes out of this novel is An Tinh’s life now. In many ways, it seems to be defined by her relationship with her two sons, Pascal and Henri. The younger of the two has autism, and in many ways, there is a link drawn between An Tinh’s early inability to understand Canadian society as a foreigner with his inability to read and understand social situations. Both are outsiders, and An Tinh finds herself perhaps more protective of him because she understand what it is like to be shunned by the rest of the mainstream.

By the end of the novel, Thúy has found herself in a rhythm that I wish she had adopted the entire way through: one section talks about her life in Canada, while the next subverts this happy image with an flashback to Vietnam on a similar theme. I like the idea of juxtaposing these two lives, each with its own highs and lows, each complimenting the other in terms of happiness and sadness. I don’t have a problem with the tiny, fragmented narrative, but it jumps all over the place thematically, and if she had started doing this earlier, it would have given the novel a much needed sense of cohesion.

The use of first-person lends an air of intimacy and realism to this autobiographical novel, and Thúy has mentioned that this is a form of fictionalised memoir, based on her own experiences of coming to Canada as an immigrant. It’s a story that maybe isn’t heard often enough—the exodus to the West from Vietnam was a formative experience for the countries that embraced these refugees as much as it was for the refugees themselves. There’s an interesting tale to be told here, and Thúy adds to the narrative with her own tale.

It’s deeply unfair of me to compare this work to another, but I couldn’t help but be struck by how similar this is to Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic, another short novel detailing the immigrant story to North America, told in short, alternating chapters. I love that novel, and sadly, Ru didn’t quite reach the heights Otsuka’s work did. While Otsuka manages to tell the story of an entire generation with heart and with depth, Thúy’s novel just falls short of packing the emotional punch a story like this deserves. But, then, perhaps that’s the point—the life contained in Ru suggests a deeper emotional pain than could ever be described.

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The Uncle’s Story (2000) – Witi IHIMAERA

Like the good person I am, on my recent jaunt over the ditch (to New Zealand, for those playing overseas), I sought out some good bookshops. Partially because I’m a book whore, but mainly because the book I took wasn’t nearly long enough. I managed to get some good advice about New Zealand literature from this rather wonderful second hand bookstore in Wellington. Check it out if you get a chance.

Michael chooses perhaps the most inopportune moment to come out to his Maori family – the week before his sister’s wedding. Doing so unleashes a chain of events in his own life that see both his family and partner reject him. But then, his aunt comes to him with a bundle of notes from his uncle – an uncle he never knew existed. An uncle that fought in Vietnam. An uncle carrying a secret not unlike the one Michael has just shared with his family.

This is, essentially, two novels that have collided to form one. The first is the modern coming out tale of a young Maori man in contemporary New Zealand, trying to find his way in a world dominated by white gays, and how he can reconcile is own sexuality in a Maori context, and how he can still be a Maori in a gay context. It’s a good question, and not one with an easy answer. Ihimaera, for the most part, stays away from any kind of moral preaching, though his ending implies he is optimistic about young gay Maoris. Michael’s best friend, a young women who sounds like a walking advertisement for militant feminism, occasionally comes off as ridiculous, but this is mostly undercut by her position as a Maori woman trying to fight her way in a white man’s world, and the realisation that maybe this is the only way she can be taken seriously.

It is Sam’s story, the uncle’s story, that Ihimaera seems more concerned with, and this shows in the novel’s construction. Perhaps simply because I, too, was more invested in this half, but it felt more real, perhaps, certainly I think it takes up more page space than the contemporary narrative strand. Sam falls in love with an American fighter pilot – Cliff Harper – and despite slight reluctance from Sam’s side, their relationship eventually becomes physical. It is a relationship that, in today’s terms, is nothing but homosexual, but in pre sexual revolution terms, the two men don’t seek to label it. Both have had women in the past, and perhaps because of the intensely emotional situation in which they find themselves, they have fallen in love, both emotionally and physically. Of course, the fact that Cliff is willing to follow Sam to New Zealand to meet the parents suggests this is more than just a short but intense burst of gay, but whether either

There is an inevitability to Sam’s fate – partially because it’s been foreshadowed, and partially because it seems that there is only one way out of the cycle of abuse perpetuated by his father. What was surprising, though, was the brutality and physicality of it all. Look away if you don’t want to know what happens. When Sam’s father, Arapeta, a highly respected Maori elder, and a man who seems to take great pleasure in breaking the spirit of his own children, discovers that his oldest son likes boys, let’s just say the phrase “he loses his shit” is not even vaguely appropriate. In a deeply disturbing display of masculine strength, he whips Sam until he lies bleeding on the ground, and then in perhaps the most confronting thing I’ve read in a while, urinates on his own son. It’s shocking, brutal and appalling, and really hammers home just how not ok Maori culture is with homosexuality.

Masculinity is at the heart of this novel – and at the heart of that is the the father/son relationship. Sam and Arapeta’s relationship is disturbingly dysfunctional, though in Sam’s defence, it is clear that Arapeta is a raving loony. His inability to interact with anyone outside his circle of army friends is worrying. The fact that he has broken his wife’s spirit, and is doing his best to break the spirit of his eldest son, highlights the twisted way he seems to view love. His youngest son, Michael’s father, at first seems to have similar problems dealing with his own son’s sexuality. Though, as he begin to understand the household in which he grew up, and the way in which Sam’s “abomination” was viewed, one can perhaps be a little more forgiving. Perhaps with some intense reeducation, he’ll get there. For Arapeta, though, there seems to be no hope. Too deeply wrapped up in ensuring the family line stays intact, and ensuring Maori tradition is followed to the letter, he is blinded to the fact that his oldest son is, fundamentally, a good person.

I did a course about Indigenous Australians at uni last year, and one of the questions that kept coming up was whether “traditional” Indigenous culture could survive in a contemporary, multicultural Australian setting. The corollary to this, of course, is whether this is an important question. Should we be trying to preserve Indigenous culture in some kind of vacuum, not allowing it to interact and change, just as all other cultures do over time? This was the question I kept coming back to again and again reading The Uncle’s Story. How can we, as liberal (very much with a small L) social democrats, dedicated to encouraging equality for all, simply accept that – in this case, Maori – culture dictates that it is ok to ostracise someone because they happen to be gay, all in the name of “traditional culture”?

The lessons contained in this novel are universal. Though they evoke a specific culture in a particular time and place, they are also a warning against tradition for the sake of tradition. The optimistic ending sees Maori culture taking a step towards the contemporary, and highlights the one universal constant – cultures and values are constantly changing, and one mustn’t be afraid of this. The Uncle’s Story is a story of past mistakes, and offers a way forward.

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The Sorrow of War (1991) – Bảo NINH

In my desperation to avoid writing an essay in a foreign language late at night, I thought I’d write this review instead. Having read most of this in a doctor’s waiting room this morning, I feel that it’s fresh enough in my mind to justify this. Or not. I just really don’t want to write that essay.

Kien is a veteran of the Vietnam War. He is writing a novel, based on his experiences of the war – but he is still haunted by these events, making it hard for him to concentrate. As he continues to write it down, past and present collide, along with reality and fiction. Everything is mixed up, and soon the most important story he must tell is his love story – the story of Kien and Phuong.

That plot description doesn’t do this book justice. It starts with a graphic and detailed account of skirmishes in the jungle of Vietnam during the war, and then slowly, the present Kien is revealed. The novel switches between past and present with no warning – indeed, the two collide in the same paragraph on occasion. By not using chapters, Ninh has created almost one long short story. But it’s much more than that, and the novel revels in its fractured narrative. Indeed, as he says at the end, you could scatter each incident on the floor, then pick them up again and read them, and it would still make just as much sense. It’s not just a gimmick – by meshing together the history of Kien, there is a great sense of his life as a whole, and not just one small part.

Kien is clearly based on Ninh’s own experiences of fighting during the Vietnam War, and it is beautifully evoked. There is no glory here – the tragedy of war is what this novel focuses on. When we see them fighting in the war, the characters are all young – mostly older teenagers – and while Ninh doesn’t focus on this fact for too long, he doesn’t have to. There is enough inherent tragedy in this for the reader to understand his point. For a ‘war novel’, though, there is ironically very little war in it. Well, that’s not completely true. There’s a lot of war – but that’s not the point of the novel, I don’t think. Again and again, the characters shine as the main attraction of this novel – Kien in particular. What I found more interesting than the war sections were his attempts to reintegrate into society after the war. He locks himself in a bare apartment, and has to write because of some compulsion to do so. Again, there’s clearly some kind of autobiographical element at work here, but it only serves to strengthen the novel. That, and it doesn’t feel like some of those autobiographical novels that tend to get a bit self-indulgent.

It is interesting that the second half of the novel, while still concerned with the war, actually develops into a moving, tragic love story. Kien and his lover, Phuong, seem destined to be apart for all time, and the fact that they keep meeting by chance as the years go on only serves to highlight the fact that they can never be together. One has to wonder for whom Ninh himself is pining. Still, I’m not sure I got a ‘pining’ feeling from the two. To a large extent, they had both resigned themselves to the fact that they were never going to be together, and did their best to move on. Very pragmatic. On a side note, it is interesting that the original Vietnamese title of the novel is loosely translated as The Destiny of Love, perhaps showing us Ninh’s original intention with his work.

The Sorrow of War is truly an excellent novel. I don’t care if you read it just because it’s written by a Vietnamese writer, or because you think you’ll get to hear the other side of the story. You won’t, by the way – the American Army barely feature in the whole thing, and the war is usually referred to as a civil war. This is truly a brilliant character study, and the backdrop of the Vietnamese War, and the fact that it is in translation might give some people the wrong impression. Bảo Ninh has written a universal novel of memory, history, love and loss.

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After the Fire, A Still Small Voice (2009) – Evie WYLD

I’ve been looking at the book for a long time – the early reviews were good, and Evie Wyld guest blogged on the Random House Blog for a week. I finally found a copy of it lying in the back room, and have been reading it in the gaps between rehearsals for a play. While the play isn’t over yet, I have finished the novel.

Frank has escaped to the South Coast, running away from his past and his demons. He moves into a shack owned by his grandparents, and begins to become involved in the small town thinking of the locals. Meanwhile, Leon Collard is growing up in 50s Australia, the son of immigrants, his father a baker. His father goes to war, and is never the same, though. And soon enough, he too is called to Vietnam, where nothing will ever be the same again.

This is not a complicated novel. Despite the two discrete storylines, they gel together quite nicely. They are noticeably different, but this simply serves to strengthen the link between them. I don’t know if it’s just me who’s a bit thick, but there is, eventually, a definite link between the two stories that makes everything tie together in a way that definitely makes this novel more than the sum of its parts. I’m going to talk about it here, because I don’t think I can properly talk about the novel without it, so look away if you don’t want to be spoiled.

So it turns out that Leon is Frank’s father, and this really ties into what I believe the main theme of this novel to be – that of fathers and sons, and family relationships. Both men have fathers which have been less than helpful while they were growing up, and so they are forced to rely on themselves for most of their strength. This cycle is handed down from generation to generation, and it’s a bit depressing when you think about it. What makes this better, though, is that Wyld gives us some hope – Frank befriends a young girl whose own family has its own problems, and their relationship is touching.

With two stories next to each other, it’s hard not to pick a favourite. Indeed, it seems to be human nature to compare. And, alas, I am no different. Personally, I thought the Leon half was the better of the two – but not by much. I love Leon as a character, a young man abandoned by his parents trying desperately to salvage their own relationship, with no room for their own son. Even though they constantly beg for him to join them down the coast, I wonder if they knew that he would never act upon these invitations. The Vietnam sections are also nicely done, but it is the post-Vietnam stuff that really makes this novel worth it. As you begin to realise what is happening, and who Frank and Leon really are, the novel really picks up, and the final chapters are beautifully portrayed – the introduction of religion adds something that really forces you to think carefully about the relationship between these two men. Having them not meet is also important, I think – they have nothing to say to each other, and keeping these two stories discreet is the best way to ensure the disconnect is done properly.

A quick note on the writing itself. I love it! Wyld is an excellent writer, and of particular note is the dialogue, which is beautifully done. Frank’s colloquial rhythms, and the colloquialisms of the locals with which he interacts, are perfectly done, and contribute to a uniquely Australian writing style. It’s something that I think only a few Australian authors actually dare to do, and I love that Wyld has done this in her first novel. Hopefully this is a style she will propagate and use in her later work.

After the Fire, A Still Small Voice is a strong, assured debut. It is not a complicated story, but it allows focus onto two excellently drawn men, both flawed in their own way, and somewhat dysfunctional. This is a definite ‘yes’ from me.

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