If heaven forces us to be naked,
Then we are naked.
If heaven allows us to have an undershirt,
Then we wear it.
— The Tale of the Kieu
One pole of my discussion is delineated by Wendy N. Duong in an article entitled “From Madame Butterfly to the Statue of the Awaiting Wife in
And eventually she turned
into stone, a rock, lonely yet persevering,
on top of the mountain overlooking the immense sea and forests of
Thus the ideal of the long suffering, ever patient, ever resilient Vietnamese woman is the first pole of my argument.
For the other side of the proverbial coin, I turn
to Stephanie Fahey’s article, “
The French Indo-China War and Its Aftermath
Let us consider the fictional depiction of the early
years in the struggle for Vietnamese independence, the French Indo-China
War. Nguyen Thi Vinh’s poignant story, “Two Sisters,” was written during the
war, but because of French censorship was not published until 1958.
It appears in James Banerian’s collection,
Vietnamese Short Stories: An Introduction,
published in 1985. It is worth noting that Banerian
dedicates his anthology “to all Vietnamese writers and artists who
are still imprisoned or suffering under communist persecution.” The
story itself, however, is beyond politics, echoing a legendary chord.
In it two sisters, both with infant children, are separated from their
husbands. Both are encouraged by letters from their absent husbands
to await their return patiently. Dung, the elder sister, is advised
by Lam, her husband, an officer in the colonial forces, that if he
should be slain, “then do all you can to raise our child to take after
me” (60). Much later Nhan, the younger
sister, hears from her spouse, Tuan, who writes, “In this stage, there
are more duties for me. Take care of the baby and wait for my return.
That day our country will be totally independent” (68).
In the meantime, Dung learns of her husband’s death defending
Though their lives are difficult, united the two strengthen
each other. Then Nhan learns that Vietnamese
are returning from
Perhaps even more wrenching in its depiction of the heroic female is Le Minh Khue’s story entitled “A Small Tragedy,” written in 1990, and published in her wonderful collection, The Stars, The Earth, The River, published in 1997. The focus of the story is on the terrible consequences of self-protective behavior — the selfish action of an eventually successful cadre who abandoned his wife and child to the rigors of the land reforms during and shortly after the French Indo-China War.
The narrator of the story, an impoverished female
newspaper reporter who makes her living writing sensational stories
As “A Small Tragedy” progresses, however, the narrator gradually reveals her uncle’s responsibility for sins closer to home. “I used to think,” the reporter writes, “that in old times, people just made up the story of ‘The Stone Woman Waiting for her Husband’s Return’” (206). But for her aunt, her Uncle Tuyen’s first wife, a woman of noble blood, the motif becomes a cruel twist of fate. In the time of the Land Reform Campaigns of the 1950s, Tuyen’s now pregnant wife worked the land alone, simply because “it was forbidden to hire anyone to work for you” (207). Her husband, more concerned for his life and career than the safety of wife and future child, “disappeared into the boiling sea that was politics in those days” (207), abandoning her to her destiny. The narrator writes:
By early 1953, Uncle Tuyen, who had joined the government in the provincial town, could already sense the smell of death pervading the political atmosphere in the countryside. He wrote a letter telling his wife not to worry because he would return when peace was established. (207)
The narrator’s mother is imprisoned for trying to
provide her starving and dispossessed sister-in-law with food, her
father is bludgeoned to death by an enraged mob for the crime of owning
a small tract of land, and decades later her brother is fired from
his job for daring to mention the murder of his father in those savage
times when the phrase “class warfare” became all too real. Before
Tuyen’s first wife dies of a severe case
of tuberculosis, she is able to give up her son to a kinswoman, who,
in turn, spirits him away first to Haiphong, then to Saigon, and finally
in 1970 to France. Uncle Tuyen resurfaces
years later, with a revolutionarily pure new wife and an enviable
political status in
Her uncle, who had planned his own career and those
of his children by his second wife so well that they had secure positions
in post-war Vietnam, and he himself a comfortable retirement complete
with villa and automobile, had not counted on his first son’s return
to Vietnam, that son’s falling in love with his daughter by his second
marriage, and their incestuous living together before marriage. The
sad news is revealed to his first son, who flees the scene only to
commit suicide in a
The American War
By 1968, the bloodiest year of the American War, female
heroism extended beyond those stoic wives and mothers who waited for
their men to return to encompass teenage girls caught, whether voluntarily
or involuntarily, in the crossfire. The Vietnamese women writers,
one from the south, Tran Thi Thu Van who
writes under the pseudonym Nha Ca, and one
from the north, Le Minh Khue, present the
war through the eyes of idealistic teenagers. The earlier tale, the
tripartite “A Story For Lovers” by Nha
Ca, takes place during the Tet Offensive in the occupied city of
In this story, found in Banerian’s collection, the enemy is clearly the North Vietnamese who summarily execute students, conscript male townspeople as fellow liberators, and force teenage girls, first, to become carriers of ammunition and then to serve as bearers of the wounded. Entire families are either killed outright in the crossfire or decimated by slow attrition. With no rations allotted to civilians, who can only rely on food they may have stored, hardly enough for a month-long siege, starving dogs become predatory, scavenging dead bodies. Diem and some members of her family decide to flee, while her grandfather and wounded sister remain behind to fend off the dogs from devouring the body of her dead brother, who accidentally fell to his death trying to avoid conscription by the North Vietnamese. The postscript reveals that the bodies of her sister, brother, and grandfather were partially devoured by dogs, Diem was killed by a bomb and her body, too, partially eaten by the predatory canines. There is furthermore a gruesome twist to Diem’s promise that “If this ring should ever fall off my finger, I’ll die” (131), for she is found without a finger or ring on it by Phan. We read, “When her body was taken to be wrapped for burial, they found her ring finger lying in her entrails — no one knew why this was so — and the ring was gone” (137). As the story concludes, Phan rides along with an empty bicycle beside him with his own ring tied on its handlebars.
Perhaps more highly motivated, many a North Vietnamese woman volunteered to be in harm’s way, a point amply illustrated in LeMinh Khue’s story “Distant Stars,” a tale in which uncommon valor becomes a common virtue. Listen to the narrator Dinh comment on the random hazards of keeping the Ho Chi Minh trail clear of unexploded American bombs:
The girls detonate bombs in broad daylight, often under fire from enemy aircraft, take pride in not requesting help from men, refuse medical aid for bruises, abrasions, and cuts, and boast about holding their ground, not withdrawing from a strategic hill under bombardment. Yet, for all their heroism, they remain teenagers, dwelling upon their hair and makeup, striking attractive poses to be admired by passing soldiers, and gossiping about male compatriots in the region. They even dream about future careers, but as Dinh notes:
They were filled to the brim with enthusiasm, filled with love for their comrades, or as Dinh observes: “That was the love of people in smoke and fire, the people of war. It was a selfless, passionate, and carefree love, only found in the hearts of soldiers” (20).
The Postwar Years
Le Minh Khue also bears
witness to the disillusionment after the war, particularly with the
empty comforts of peace. A case in point is her story “A Day on the
Road,” in which an unnamed female narrator registers the increasing
consumerism not only in non-combatants but also in veterans after
the war. In a clever twist, the narrator is the one who went off
to war, while her lover Duc stayed behind
They are separated for a year during which the narrator
notices the increasing buying and selling even on the streets of
Metaphorically, Duc is a veritable prisoner of material desires.
The narrator wonders what happened to the shy young
man, one frightened by wealth of any kind, and contrasts the now transformed
Duc with a young female soldier, a naïve country girl, who
was killed at seventeen years of age while at her post. Knowing that
her relationship with Duc is over, she muses about the past and present, “Such simplicity,
that pure rhythm of life that my generation had known and embraced,
would be hard to find in the city Duc had
come to love” (49). Later she rationalizes that those who participated
in the revolutionary struggle were made stronger by their efforts,
but her creator Le Minh Khue is quick to
illustrate the erosion of wartime idealism in modern
Indeed the further one moves into the bowels of
Quyt now acts as a pimp,
bringing prostitutes to the Westerner’s room; his wife not only flirts
with him, but at least on one occasion services the Westerner herself.
Another neighbor, Toan, who after the war
became rich by accepting bribes in
In this tale, the waiting North Vietnamese wife is transformed into an angry spouse waiting for her philandering husband to return from his sexual escapades. And there is yet another reason for her to wait. Despite the couple’s best intentions, and the quite accidental braining of the old man by a tossed brick, the doctor tells Toan and his wife: “He can’t walk yet, but he’s still very strong. If you take good care of him, he may even live to be a hundred!” In “Scenes from an Alley,” we have filial piety, that cornerstone of traditional Vietnamese values, in name only.
Relationships in the Renovation Era
In brief, within the confines of
Another interrupted automobile trip—perhaps a metaphor of the disruption inherent in modern life—is used by Le Minh Khue in a story entitled “An Evening Away from the City” to further contrast the self-sacrificing past with self-indulgent contemporary life. When the story’s protagonist Tan and her dearest friend served in the military, they were inseparable. Even at the war’s end, they enrolled in the same school. While Vien quickly became pregnant by a medical student and left her studies, the more vivacious and opportunistic Tan climbed the social ladder, making friend after friend of those “notables” who had parents in high positions. Unlike Vien, who married out of passion, Tan marries a considerably older, wealthier man out of convenience.
Realizing that her friend resides in the region where
her car broke down, Tan decides to visit her former colleague. Appalled
by the two bratty school-age children, and a diarrhea-stricken baby,
not to mention the sordid condition in which her friend lives, where
the family dog devours the infant’s fecal matter, Tan promises to
have her friend re-enrolled at school; relatives would have to care
for Vien’s children, she believes. But
Tan’s compassion in the country dissolves once she returns to
No less self-centered is the female protagonist of
Pham Thi Hoai’s “Nine Down Makes Ten”
who, in excruciating detail, delineates her relationships with nine
previous lovers, listing their virtues and flaws, analyzing their
temperaments and appearances, recording their treatment of her and
hers of them. Seemingly every type of male in
At our final meeting, he said, “In all areas including marriage, I am always faithful to a single measure of value: practical advantage.” And on considering this measure, he determined that I was not the one to satisfy his requirement. Now he must bear the responsibility for his heartlessness. (86)
Too young to serve in the American War, having been born in 1961, Pham Thi Hoai, has no sense of idealistic struggle, revolutionary fervor, or even sentimental romance to fall back on. In the world of “Nine Down Makes Ten,” men and women make commodities of each other.
The Best Generation
With the exception of one story taking place on the Ho Chi Minh trail, too often, the stories under consideration either deal with city life or a journey returning to it. Le Minh Khue’s final story in her marvelous collection, this one entitled “The River,” reverses the process, as the narrator, a male veteran, returns to the countryside to honor the aunt who raised him, in the traditional Vietnamese ceremony marking the hundredth day of her death. His journey home is a transition from the artificial to the natural, from the trite to the substantial, from modernity to history, from fragmentation to wholeness. As he returns to his roots, he is reconnected to his family, his land, the strength of his people.
Despite the perilous location of the family plot, his aunt and uncle, his surrogate parents, perform triple duty as parents, school teachers, and citizen workers required to build and rebuild trenches and bomb shelters. The family home is destroyed on three separate occasions by American planes and on three separate occasions rebuilt. During the last B-52 strike in 1972, while the husband was on a week-long labor detail, his aunt gave birth to her last child with her frightened eighth-grade son serving as midwife, attentively following his mother’s agonized directions. The same son took care of the family while the father was away, supervised the reconstruction of the bombed out house, and later served in the North Vietnamese Army. Their many children, insufficient teacher’s pay, and constant hardship never detracted from their selfless behavior. The narrator, as an NVA veteran no stranger to hardship himself, muses, “I still wonder if, were I in their position, I would have the strength to do the same” (225).
Reminiscing, wandering back in time, the narrator remembers a childhood haunt, a ruined fortification of the Le Dynasty that his aunt used to take him to. It is appropriate that he remembers a warrior king, as he lights the stick of incense in honor of his deceased aunt, a true heroine, an inspiration to her own family of patriots. The importance of the journey homeward, essentially a spiritual journey, is stressed below:
Patriotism, loyalty to family, love of native soil, enrich, revitalize, rejuvenate not only our narrator, I believe, but all Vietnamese as well.
In the streets of
Duong Thu Huong.
“Reflections of Spring.” In Night Again: Contemporary
Fiction from Vietnam. Ed. Linh Dinh. New York,
Duong, Wendy N. “From Madame Butterfly
to the Statue of the Awaiting Wife in North Vietnam.”
In Vietnamese Studies in a Multicultural World. Ed.
Nguyen Xuan Thu.
Fahey, Stephanie. “
Le Minh Khue. The Stars, The
Earth, The River. Trans. Bac Hoai
Tran and Dana Sachs. Ed. Wayne Karlin.
Nha Ca. “A Story for Lovers.” In Vietnamese Short Stories: An Introduction. Ed. & trans. James Banerian.
Vinh. “Two Sisters.”
In Vietnamese Short Stories: An Introduction.
Ed. & trans. James Banerian. Phoenix,
Pham Thi Hoai. “Nine Down Makes Ten.” In Night Again: Contemporary Fiction from