Gió-O Hai Mươi Năm Nắn Net

None of us could ever imagine the magnitude of a calamity which befell South Vietnam in April 1975 and afterwards. The event caused an unparalleled mass exodus of South Vietnamese from their country to the United States and Western countries.  The world was shocked to learn about untold tribulations and sufferings experienced by the refugees on their harrowing journey to freedom, but was amazed at their phenomenal achievements in many fields, notably education, business, science, politics, art, and literature.

It is in literature that former Vietnamese refugees have been   actively involved since their arrival in America. Claiming to uphold a so-called continued South Vietnamese literary tradition when the pre-1975 one was banned by the communist victors, former Saigon artists and writers and a group of new authors have contributed to a flowering of overseas literature.  Writing in freedom and benefiting from the best of world literatures, these authors produced a vast amount of significant writings that won critics’ admiration and respect.  

Gió O, a California-based online literary magazine, well illustrates overseas artists’ and writers’ efforts to reach the unfinished goal after their uprooting from their native land. Its recent anthology of selected writings by 18 authors over the last two decades deals with a gamut of themes ranging from the search of the past to feminist assertion of identity and protest against a proletariat system, to reflections on matters related to artistic/literary creativity and spiritual salvation.

Home is an overarching theme in the entire anthology. For involuntary exiles and/or former refugees, home is both unreal and real. It is unreal because you have lost it and “can’t go home again”; but it is real because it exists in your unconscious and dreams. Thi Vũ explains this paradox as follows: “Gone is the cry of cicadas, but their voice still lingers on.  Gone are scarlet flame trees. But summer continues to simmer and cause pain to one’ s heart …. The past [home] reverberates through sounds and colors.” Because home has become a memory, to be home again Nguyễn Tà Cúc, TrangđàiGlassey-Trầnguyễn , and Hồ Đình Nghiêm turn home into concrete things and real fellow people they come across in the land of their exile. Thus, for example, familiar food cannot be missed out on former refugees’ dinner table.  What is touching is unknown people one met by chance become close companions. A full-fledged acculturated American, Nguyễn Tà Cúc nevertheless declares that the graceful ao dais she sees at a  meeting instantly transport her back to “South Vietnam,” her former home country.

No other author’s claim of home as her rightful ownership is more compelling and forceful than Nguyễn Thị Hải Hà’s in “Hẻm Saigon trong tôi” [Saigon Alleys in Me].  By providing an accurate recollection of Saigon alleys where the narrator lived and frequented, she asserts her rightful ownership of home.  Assertion of home through memory is perhaps the most effective way to protect home for refugees. “Saigon alleys belong to me. Nobody can take them away from me because they exist in my memory.”

While Nguyễn Thị Hải Hà challenges the communis regime through memory, Lê Thị Huệ confronts it with her physical presence in her former homeland. Shocked by its unbelievable physical and intellectual poverty, Lê Thị Huệ accuses the regime of “torturing poets and turning beauties into princesses in tattered clothes.”[DQHT1]  A social critic with a feminist bent, Lê Thị Huệ contrasts her former hometown’s genteel tradition with communist Vietnam’s belligerence. Home for Lê Thị Huệ is her Dalat people’s range of rich tonal accent she hears at Dalat Central market. In Dalat, she recalls, “I fell in love immediately with the rainfall of speeches. How important mother tongue and memories are!”   

For writers in exile, as a Russian exile writer Marina Tsvetaeva  puts it, their homeland “is not a geographical convention, but an insistence on memory and blood.” Home, a combination of memory and emotions, is the apotheosis of artistic creativity, which Lê Thị Huệ calls hồn (poetic spirit, poetic soul). Similarly, Nguyễn Thị Khánh Minh in her excellent essay compares poetic inspiration to a buoyant helium balloon. This is when hồn materializes itself into language or words. Differently put, language or words is the medium through which hồn or home incarnates itself.  For writers in exile, home is the driving force of literary and artistic creativity. It is their raison d’être which compels Lê Thị Huệ to stealthily return to her former hometown and which provides for her colleagues rationale for awaiting an exhilarating eventual repatriation.

Thus far the dominant theme of Vietnamese exile literature we have reviewed is the search for home through memory and art. The concern with the nature of art and literature and by extension theory of literary creativity we have seen in Lê Thị Huệ and Nguyễn Thị Khánh Minh stems from the author’s individual preferences as well as the growing complexities of exile literature. Thus, in a significantly entitled essay “Quá khứ không có mặt” [The past is not present], an apparent counterpoint to the prevalent literature of memory which emphasizes the importance of the past in this anthology, Tường Vũ Anh Thy echoes the  Buddhist view that all things, including time, are mind-wrought, that is, subject to a “tâm lung linh” (flickering  mind) which begets all mental states.  While recognizing the existence of the present which “manifests the overflowing source of art,” Tường Vũ Anh Thy points out that the present is “fragile, uncertain.” This is why Trần Quí Phiệt can’t hear again the same cicadas he had heard as a child before he went into exile. This is also why Vũ Hoàng Thư isn’t sure if he is “catching sunshine” with the same hand he used some decades ago. Real or unreal, such entities as home, the past, art, literature are what exile writers can’t live without. They are, to use Đặng Đình-Túy’s beautiful expression, like “the flair of autumn, useless but indispensable” to former South Vietnamese refugees.  


Tran Qui Phiet is an emeritus professor of English at Schreiner University. His publications include a study of William Faulkner’s influence on modern French literature and essays on U.S. literature and Vietnamese American literature in various anthologies and journals. His translations of contemporary Vietnamese literature into English have appeared in Vietnam: A Traveler’s Literary Companion (Whereabouts, 1995), Of Vietnam: Identities in Dialogue (Palgrave MacMillan, 2001), Michigan Quarterly Review (Fall 2004), and elsewhere. Since his retirement in 2002 he has devoted himself to writing and studying Marcel Proust. He has recently completed his literary memoir based on his one-year appointment as a Fulbright scholar in Vietnam in 1999-2000.


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Trần Quí Phiệt