Vietnamese Perspectives on the War in Vietnam

VIII. Fiction from the Non-Communist South

Includes fiction written in South Vietnam by Vietnamese living under the authority of the Government of the Republic of Vietnam, the government the U.S. was assisting. Many of these writers are now in the U.S. Writers who lived and wrote in South Vietnam during the war came from all three geographical regions--north, central, and south. The introduction discusses the importance of understanding these three regional perspectives in assessing this literature.

Discussion: Complexity of Vietnamese Regionalism

The paucity of works in this category reflects not low output but lack of translations. Hundreds of fictional works have been written by non-communist writers (See Vo~ Phie^'n's Literature in South Vietnam for a listing), but to my knowledge the works cited below are the only translations. Section X, Vietnamese Exile Narratives, includes some fictional works--Vo~ Phie^'n's Intact, for example--that discuss life in Vietnam during the war as well as life in the country of exile. Included in this section are works written in Vietnam or works that may have been written abroad but focus primarily on life in Vietnam.

Literature from the communist areas is fairly easy to characterize because so much of it was written according to the rules of socialist realism. Literature in the South, however, is much more diverse and therefore much more difficult to summarize. Drawing heavily on Vo~ Phie^'n's Literature in South Vietnam, however, we can venture a few remarks.

One way to introduce literature in the South is to group writers by their home region--north, central, and south. The advantage of this grouping is that it provides an opportunity to convey some important facts about Vietnamese history, language, and culture. On formal occasions Vietnamese no matter what their political orientation will always speak of Vietnam as one country from Ca` Ma^u to the border with China, and the communists gained converts by making "tho^'ng nha^'t" (unification) their goal. But Vietnamese also have intense regional loyalties, a fact which must be born in mind in trying to understand a great many aspects of Vietnamese life.

What is referred to as "Southern literature" is written by Vietnamese from the north, from central Vietnam, and from the south. The Geneva Accords of 1954, the treaty that ended the first Indochina war, established a temporary demarcation line at the seventeenth parallel which divided communist North from the non-communist South. This line went through central Vietnam, leaving some central Vietnamese in communist-controlled areas and some in the non-communist part of the country. In other words, this political line was superimposed on older divisions between north, central, and south--divisions which reflect distinct cultural and linguistic traditions.

Southerners from the North

In 1954 many Vietnamese living in the North, including many future writers, fled to the South to avoid living under communism.1 Vo~ Phie^'n talks of two generations of northern refugees: an older group who were involved in the Resistance against the French but became disenchanted with communism and another group who were too young to be involved in the first Resistance (124). Doa~n Quo^'c Su~, for example, belongs to the first group. His short story "The Crimson-Bordered Straw Mat" (in War and Exile) takes place in the north during the war with the French. After 1954, the narrator of this story, like its author, moved to the South.2 This move to the South by northerners involved in the first Resistance was more than a simple change of location: it was, as Vo~ Phie^'n points out, a complete transformation of their lives. For years they had devoted body and soul to a cause; now they had to find new reasons to live and to write. Initially after the end of the first Indochina war, this older generation was consumed with politics, the issue of communism vs. anti-communism (124).

The younger generation of northern refugee writers is represented in this bibliography by Du+o+ng Nghie^~m Ma^.u, Duye^n Anh, Le^ Ta^'t DDie^u, Nha^.t Tie^'n, and Tha?o Tru+o+`ng. Before the war intensified in the mid-60's this generation was less obsessed than was the older generation with political issues; they were more interested in the "subjects of all times: the joy and pain of love, the suffering of the have-nots, the travails of human destiny, etc." (Vo~ Phie^'n 124). From 1954 to 1963 South Vietnam was relatively peaceful and relatively stable politically and so it is natural that when this younger generation of writers first began to write, they took up less political topics.

From 1960 on, however, the war heated up, and most of the translated stories by these younger northern refugees reveal its effects. One effect was the experience of being uprooted from their homes. Some stories like Duye^n Anh's "The Thie^n Ly' Flower" (in Vietnamese Short Stories) reflect nostalgia for a native village in the North and resentment at the communists whose takeover of the Resistance forced the villagers to move. In this story, the narrator, now in the South, dreams of returning to the North and marrying a northern girl. Other stories reveal the effects of war in the South. Du+o+ng Nghie^~m Ma^.u's "The Day the Milk-Breast Tree Was Cut Down" (in War and Exile) takes place during the second Indochina war and describes the plight of a couple living in a contested area of South Vietnam. The couple have one son fighting for the communists, the other for the Saigon government. Le^ Ta^'t DDie^u's story "One-Sixtieth" in the Banerian collection describes how war impinges on a school teacher and his class of 60 students. Tha?o Tru+o+`ng's "The Bullet," structured around a conversation between a young girl and a passing soldier, reveals the effect of war on a sensitive child (in War and Exile). Two of Nha^.t Tie^'n's stories ("The Khaki Coat" and "A Pot of Gruel") describe the poverty and desperation of people trying to live under the communist regime after 1975. (The first appears in War and Exile and the second in Vietnamese Short Stories.)

Southerners from the Central Region

Central Vietnamese writers are represented in this bibliography by Vo~ Phie^'n, Nha~ Ca, and Nguye^~n Mo^.ng Gia'c. Vo~ Phie^'n, a highly respected literary figure both in Vietnam and in the exile community (He now lives in California), groups himself with writers, mostly northerners, who immediately after the settlement in Geneva wrote political works addressing the issue of communism and non-communism (Literature, p. 124). Both he and the younger Nguye^~n Mo^.ng Gia'c are from a region of central Vietnam that was under Vie^.t Minh control before 1954, and so they shared with the northern refugees the experience of living under communist rule. Later Vo~ Phie^'n turned to other subjects. His well-known story "Love Cherished for a Thousand Years" in the Banerian collection describes a young girl's developing awareness of the varieties of love. Nguye^~n Mo^.ng Gia'c, from the same province as Vo~ Phie^'n, is represented by three stories about life in Vietnam after 1975 (in To Be Made Over; see Section IX).

Nha~ Ca is from Hue^', which like most larger coastal cities in central Vietnam was not under communist control before 1975. She is best known for her semi-fictionalized account, unfortunately not yet translated, of her experience in Hue^' during the Tet Offensive of 1968: Gia?i Kha(n So^ Cho Hue^' [A Cloth of Mourning for Hue^' ] (1969). Fortunately her short story, "A Story for Lovers," which takes place in Hue^' during this battle, is available in both the Nguye^~n Ngo.c Bi'ch and Banerian collections. And an earlier (1966) novel by Nha~ Ca has been translated, one that describes the effect of war on a Saigon family (At Night I Hear the Cannons [DDe^m Nghe Tie^'ng DDa.i Ba'c]).

Southerners from the South

Southern writers are less well represented, a significant fact. Literature in Vietnam, particularly literary history and criticism, has been dominated by northerners (with some help from central Vietnamese) for years. The causes of this dominance are complex, having to do with north Vietnam being the site of the original land of Vietnam, the home of the ancient capital. As Vietnamese moved southward, conquering and pushing back the Cham and Cambodians, they settled in what was for them a frontier region. Northerners, who have always favored a more refined and formal style, have often found southern writing to be too colloquial, too simple, not polished enough. Writers from the southern region have had to struggle for respect and recognition. For example, though the available evidence suggests that the first prose novel in Vietnamese was written in the South, northern literary historians, unaware or unimpressed by southern novelists, have insisted that the Vietnamese novel began in the North.3 In a well-known critical work published in 1941, Vu~ Ngo.c Phan, a northerner, surveys 78 writers, almost all northerners. Only ten per cent come from below the seventeenth parallel and in this group there is only one writer of popular fiction (Vo~ Phie^'n 87). Southerners had to struggle not to internalize a sense of cultural inferiority vis-a-vis the North. Some southerners, the poet DDo^ng Ho^', for example, were so in awe of northern literary accomplishments that they wrote not in their native southern idiom but in the dialect of the north.

Vo~ Phie^'n sees these attitudes changing between 1954-75. He speaks of a "Southernization" of literature, by which he means a growing confidence on the part of southern writers in their region and in their style of writing. Northern refugee writers began to express their appreciation of southern culture and even began to have characters in their works speak in the southern dialect. This recognition by notherners excited "the pride and creative juice" of southern authors (80). It was during this period that southern writers like Bi`nh Nguye^n Lo^.c and So+n Nam, whose works focus on the way of life and customs of the south, became appreciated by both southerners and northerners alike. Unfortunately I know of no stories by So+n Nam that have been translated, but both the Banerian and Nguye^~n Ngo.c Bi'ch collections contain a story by Bi`nh Nguye^n Lo^.c.

The interaction in Saigon of refugee writers from the North and the previously communist- controlled areas of Central Vietnam with writers native to the South, coupled with the relative political stability, made the late 50's and early 60's a period of confidence and enthusiasm. With the overthrow of Ngo^ DDi`nh Die^.m in 1963 and the ensuing political instability, the escalation of the fighting, and the arrival of large numbers of American troops, this mood of hope and optimism soon changed to despair and confusion. Southern residents were shocked by the rapid social changes, the corruption in government, and the decadence, including rampant prostitution, in social life.

What Vo~ Phie^'n calls a "Culture of Entertainment" developed (143), partly in response to people's need to be distracted from their daily troubles. Readers became addicted to translations of Kung-fu novels and sentimental romances by Taiwanese writers. Writers began to write daily installments of stories, or feuilletons, for the many new newspapers that were springing up in Saigon. Translations of books by Jean-Paul Sartre, Graham Greene, Herman Hessse, Leo Tolstoi, Eric Segal and other well-known (and not so well-known) Western writers were all available in Saigon bookstores. Though not new in the West, this Culture of Entertainment represented a radical departure from past practice in Vietnam, where literature has traditionally been associated with education and moral improvement.

Writers in the South began to treat emotions like love, anger, joy and hatred much less delicately than was the custom in pre-war literature. Chu Tu+?, a northern refugee writer, wrote Ye^u [Love] in which a single father sleeps with a woman after a date arranged by his two daughters. Nguye^~n Thi. Hoa`ng, from central Vietnam, wrote a widely-read novel, Vo`ng Tay Ho.c Tro` [In the Arms of a Student], which described a female high school teacher who falls in love with one of her students. We see some of this boldness in treating love in Vo~ Phie^'n's "Love Cherished for a Thousand Years" (Vietnamese Short Stories, ed. James Banerian) and in Nha~ Ca's At Night I Hear the Cannons.4

Vo~ Phie^'n laments the fact that even though during the past thirty years Vietnamese writers in the South have been exposed to "countless subjects of incredible variety and fascination," they have not yet produced "works of fiction the quality and scope of which would be on a par with the incredible richness of the subjects at hand" (179). As an explanation he mentions the difficult wartime conditions under which writers worked, including economic pressures which forced writers to dash off feuilletons quickly to make ends meet. In speaking of the absence of great novels of action, he offers another explanation. Most fiction writers lived during the war in the coastal cities where except during the Tet Offensive there was rarely any fighting. So they did not observe battles first-hand. Writers from the North, on the other hand, were ordered to observe battles first-hand, but were not given the freedom to write as they wished (177).

Though Vo~ Phie^'n may be too modest in his comments about fiction in the South, too fearful of being the cat that praises his own long tail, as the Vietnamese say, there is some truth in what he says. Instead of expecting grandiose tales of adventure, readers of Vietnamese fiction should look for other pleasures. Gia?n di. [simplicity] and ta^`m thu+o+`ng [the commonplace] are, Vo~ Phie^'n suggests, "the major characteristics of our art works." Part of adopting a Vietnamese perspective involves understanding this--understanding that "[the Vietnamese] are not usually given to colorful flourishes: even the most magnificent act of sacrifice takes place quietly, without anyone knowing about it, or is cloaked under a simple, modest appearance" (176).



1. There was movement in the other direction as well. Quite a few southern writers "regrouped" (ta^.p ke^'t) in the North. During the war they were sent back to the South to gather material for their writing and to carry out propaganda activities. Usually these writers wrote under a pseudonym. Included in this group are: Bu`i DDu+'c Ai (Anh DDu+'c), Nguye^~n Quang Sa'ng (Nguye^~n Sa'ng) and Nguye^n Ngo.c (Nguye^~n Trung Tha`nh). See the Ivory Comb (Section VII) for works by these authors.

2. From 1976 to 1980 Doa~n Quo^'c Su~ was in a reeducation camp. He was arrested in 1984 and brought to trial in 1988. Found guilty, he was imprisoned until 1994. He now lives in Houston, having come to the U.S. under the Orderly Departure Program. The official media in Vietnam have accused him of "distorting the history of the Resistance" and of being an "opportunist," a "reactionary artist," and a "psychological warfare cadre of the USA." His works, along with those by most of the writers mentioned in the introduction to this section, are not allowed to circulate in Vietnam. See Amnesty International's Vietnam: "Renovation" (Doi Moi), the Law and Human Rights in the 1980's (Feb., 1990): 27-28.

3. See John C. Schafer and The^' Uye^n, "The Novel Emerges in Cochinchina," Journal of Asian Studies 52 (1993): 854-884

4. Works by Chu Tu+?, Nguye^~n Thi. Hoa`ng, and Vo~ Phie^'n are not published in Vietnam today.

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