Abandoned: Reconsidering the Literature of South Vietnam

November 11, 2021   •   By Anthony Morreale

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Kabul has fallen. The 20-year US occupation of Afghanistan is, for now, over. A few short weeks after American forces pulled out of the country, the Afghan Army dissolved into rocky dust, a stratum of sediment tamped beneath the Taliban assault. Now ghosts stalk the craggy graveyards of empire. A helicopter alights. A runway escape. A chaotic exit. Another Vietnam?

We should pause at these easy comparisons. It’s true that Afghanistan and Vietnam are more than wars; they’re also countries. But, at least for Americans, Vietnam is more than a country, it’s also a demon. It’s a meme, a ritual, pregnant with a half-century of American domestic strife. When the Vietnam cliché is invoked, it doesn’t refer to a people in Southeast Asia, it refers to mid-century American social conflicts. It registers the high-water mark left by a tidal wave of national struggle over ideals like freedom and civil rights. The struggles between the races, classes, and generations were condensed into a single white-hot point and projected onto a scapegoat: Vietnam.

This isn’t to litigate whether American intervention in the Indochina wars was morally or strategically justified, the point is that the midcentury American cultural revolution was quelled by inscribing Saigon with our sins and casting it into the wilderness. These upheavals saw America transformed in valuable ways. But it also transformed from a country of men and women who—whether out of cynical malevolence, vicious naïveté, or noble ideals—contributed blood and labor to the cause of South Vietnam, to one where the very soul of South Vietnam was denied. This is why South Vietnam has been so bizarrely forgotten in recent documentaries likeThe Vietnam War and literary anthologies like Other Moons: Vietnamese Short Stories of the American War and Its Aftermath. By 1975 a new myth had taken hold: South Vietnam was a ‘puppet’, it was America’s toy to toss aside. Like Cain, we shrugged, are we our brother’s keeper? Now we wander, branded vagabonds, in and out of each new war. We amble through the echos as Saigon’s blood cries out from the earth. The repressed returns, and we present each new scene in time-honored disguise. To exorcise the ghosts of our dead generations, and break from this samsara of disavowal, we must go beyond the 50-year-old consensus of 1975, and make devotions to the spirits we’ve abandoned.

A hundred years ago, Jesuit missionary Leopold Cadière described Vietnam’s hungry ghosts:

Alas so many forsaken souls! […] The souls of […] those who died violent deaths, the warriors fallen on the battlefield, those taken in riots; those who drowned, […] and so many others, thousands on thousands, millions of others, they form the vast cohort of abandoned souls. These souls suffer. None offer them the food, nor clothes, nor gold, nor silver, nor the perfumes they require. […] Thus, the souls grow terrible, they avenge themselves, they punish the mortals who’ve forgotten them. They pour out their wrath upon their parents, on their neighbors, and it is then left up to each person to seek, through divination or by all sorts of magical rites, which evil spirit is causing their afflictions, and then to try to appease, through the desired means, the enemies they’ve made in the supernatural world.

The abandoned souls demand commemoration, but our offerings must go beyond tacit acknowledgement to take a physical form. Moreover, whereas the individual ghost is appeased through offerings of joss, perfumes, and other goods, but how does one make oblations to the soul of a people? I think translating their literature can be our offering of incense at the graveyards of empire. Because a people’s literature is a time capsule of national genius. And just as history is only possible because human beings can reach across the centuries to share the thoughts of their predecessors, literature is a means to commune with the spirits, to let them possess us, to speak through us, and whisper their testimonies into our hearts.

We can’t commune now, because the current literature in translation is overwhelmingly written by Northern communist and communist-dissident authors of the post-reform era. The foundational relationships of translation were explicitly founded to reconcile the Vietnamese Communists with the American (liberal, white) intelligentsia, often against the wishes of the former South Vietnamese intellectuals and diaspora community-political leaders, who had little to gain from such a bargain. Neither did the South Vietnamese, refugees who wrote in Vietnamese, fit into the then burgeoning field of Asian-American studies. The parrallel development of these two publishing industries have dominated the anglosphere public’s consciousnes of “Vietnamese” literature: on the one side dissident and quasi-dissident reform-era writers like Bảo Ninh, Dương Thư Hương, Nguyễn Huy Thiệp, and Phạm Thị Hoài; on the other side, Vietnamese Americans like Macarthur Genius Grant winner Ocean Vuong and Pulitzer Prize winner Viet Thanh Nguyen. We should heed Cadière, “The ma and quỉ, the myriad species of demons and devil, appear to be, most often, forgotten human souls who’ve turned wicked.”   

We must propitiate these hungry ghosts. But the point is not to resurrect them, we need not fear awakening the lost cause of South Vietnam. Indeed, as the Afganistan debacle has shown, the opposite is the case. By ignoring the ghosts of South Vietnam, we’ve carried them with us like a guilty conscience. But by recognizing them, by translating their literature, we instead regain a lost piece of ourselves, and open an avenue of closure to their sons and daughters among us in the diaspora.

So, who are the South Vietnamese?  The name is misleading. Ostensibly it refers to the inhabitants of the coastline and river valleys stretching from the 17th Parallel to the Gulf of Thailand. But, in fact, many of the citizens of the Republic, particularly among the intellectual and literary elite, had recently fled from the north: more than 800,000 of them by 1956. South Vietnam was a motley crew. There were christians and buddhists, integral nationalists, Trotskyists and social democrats, to name a few. The political and ideological rivalries that divided the country first took root in the 1920s, but over the course of the Second World War they had begun their full, bloody bloom. The average Vietnamese was well aware of the struggles between the Great Viet Monarchists, the Communists, and the KMT-inspired Nationalists. Whether they revered Maurras, Sun Yatsen, or Lenin, their ideological war was not an American invention.

But a country is more than map coordinates and a geopolitical posture, it also needs a force of internal cohesion. The North’s program was legible enough: it was Marxist-Leninist. It officially mourned Stalin’s death. Its mass organizations carried out the everyday work of molding citizens’ souls. It was red, aggressive, ruthless, and effective. The South, on the other hand, was strangely hollow. It was eroded into the geography, pounded into shape by the footsteps of refugees. Like an arroyo carved out of a dry lakebed, each assassination, each denunciation, each confiscation, each threat and theft, contributed its fluid to a flood of vengeful ire. The South was a marshy basin of losers. It was a struggle among the forsaken: between religious sects, communist sympathizers, robber barons, regional magnates, and political defectors. Their fight fatefully enrolled the United States, which brought along its buffoonish formula of deep-pocketed arrogance and shallow ignorance, pouring rockets onto a funeral pyre.

What kind of national literature can grow under such centrifugal chaos? Whatever the cause, most contemporary Vietnamese literary critics agree that South Vietnam produced some of the best Vietnamese literature ever written, far better than what was coming out of the North at that time. Maybe heavy-handed censorship undermined Northern literature, while the intellectual freedom of the South gave it room to grow. Or maybe the secret to good literature is philosophy, and South Vietnam’s receptivity to luminaries such as Heiddegger, Sartre, and Barthes, mingled with a domestic efflorescence of Buddhist, Confucian, and Catholic theology, breathing fresh air into the younger generation of authors. One of my favorite explanations was given me by author and former communist guerrilla, Nguyên Ngọc. He told me that to be great, a national literature must transcend narrowly national problems and reach toward human problems. The North yoked authors to the plow of national interest, but in the South, they roamed to wider pastures. Today, the 90-year-old Nguyên Ngọc leads a cohort of intellectuals reintroducing South Vietnamese literature after four decades of suppression. Shouldn’t we do the same?

We should, because South Vietnamese authors spoke to the universal human aspects of their condition. They were a band of refugees, raised in decades of often senseless violence and vendetta. They were driven together under the sigil of freedom, so they made human freedom into an analytical problem. They wrestled with it, they doubted it, they disassembled it, and built it back again. Their standoffish obsession with freedom is visible as early as Thanh Tâm Tuyền’s 1956 poetry anthology I’m No Longer Alone. Its publication was a turning point for the psychoanalytic and existentialist strands that weaved their way through the next two decades of Southern writing. He expressed freedom by breaking with the strictures of grammar and narrative logic to more closely approach lived experience. His verse and prose were sprinkled with existentialist themes of forced freedom, alienation, as well as dirges to the Spanish Revolution and the Vietnamese Trotskyists murdered by the Viet Minh death squads of 1946.

Similar themes were picked up and intensified by many of South Vietnam’s most celebrated authors, like Dương Nghiễm Mậu. His first two novels, Mother’s Legacy and Poison Age, should be ranked among the most interesting literary treatments of the postcolonial condition ever written. Mother’s Legacy is a national allegory. It follows the four scattered bastards of two dead fathers, both casualties on opposite sides of the revolution. The children return to their shared mother’s deathbed to murder one another in a struggle over her pitiful estate. The novel includes fascinating reflections on race spoken through a métis youth conceived through rape at the hands of an African Legionnaire.

Whereas Mother’s Legacy provides an allegorical portrait of the national condition, Poison Age delves into the plight of those caught in early 1950s Hanoi. The protagonist is a college boy who wanders despondent through a city teetering on the abyss of civil war. He watches helplessly as a whole generation of young lovers, friends, family, and such seemingly stable virtues as political independence and filial piety, dissolve in a maelstrom of pointless violence. The characters rationalize the absurdity of their situations with bad faith appeals to justice and revenge, blurring the distinction between eudaemonia and euthanasia. For those trapped in the city, bloated with refugees, the only escape is to choose a side. Mậu poses to us the question, must “freedom” mean everything is out of control? Must freedom mean subjecting oneself to intangible abstract forces, and making their will your own? The book was republished again for the first time in 2018, to the chagrin of party hardliners.

South Vietnam’s grappling with freedom wasn’t limited to men. Women authors for the first time exploded into Vietnamese literary life, and they took the country’s readership by storm with a casual disdain for traditionally gendered social proscriptions. For example, authors like Trần Thị NgH scoffed at expectations that women should discuss sex with pious modesty. Instead of eschewing politics, women like Nhã Ca embraced graphic depictions of war, atrocity, and the psychology of life on the home front. Women also tackled social class, for example Nguyễn Thị Thụy Vũ documented the lives of the urban poor, and her award-winning novel, Mossy Frame, is reminiscent of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard for its psychologically and socially sensitive portrayal of a collapsing rural patriarch during the revolution. It was republished again in 2016.

Nguyễn Thị Hoàng’s 1964 The Student’s Embrace is especially remarkable, not only for its philosophical ruminations and its jarringly poetic, disembodied, yet evocative prose, it was also a literary scandal that firmly established the hitherto taboo topic of female sexual desire. The plot follows a young woman who leaves behind the libertinism of life in the city to become a secondary school teacher in the mountain town, Dalat. Like Nabokov’s Lolita, or Duras’ L’Amante, a play of seduction unfolds between the adult teacher and a young male student. The novel was denounced as debauched by some of the leading authors and critics of the time, while others recognized the quality of the prose, the sincerity of its social portrait, its innovative phenomenological sensitivity to objectification, and its implicitly feminist rejection of passivity and propriety. It made record sales and was reissued an unprecedented four times in the first few months after its release. After the conquest of Saigon in 1975, the book was banned under obscenity laws, and copies of the novel were burned in streetside bonfires “to abolish perverted cultural products”. In April 2021, the novel was officially republished for the first time after 45 years of only circulating underground or among the diaspora.

So many of the classic novels of formerly banned South Vietnamese literature have recently gained official recognition form their erstwhile enemies, but why haven’t they received any attention from their former allies?

This national literature may have been lost forever if not for the tenacity of the Vietnamese diaspora. While being spiritually annihilated, the South Vietnamese were physically digested as refugees. But their literature was salvaged by giants, like Võ Phiến, who devoted his savings and golden years to collecting, cataloguing, and analyzing South Vietnamese literature, all while holding down a day job as a minor bureaucrat for the City of Los Angeles. His seven-tome series, Literature of South Vietnam, was published between 1986 and 1999. This enormous collection introduced, analyzed, and anthologized the work of over 100 South Vietnamese writers, a painstaking process slowed by a lack of manuscripts and medical issues.

Yet Võ Phiến was more than a critic and archivist. He was also a novelist, magazine editor and talented essayist whose insightful and lyrical reflections still stand as invaluable windows onto rural violence, urban displacement, anomie, and the refugee experience. Many of his most notable essays were written in a typically Vietnamese genre called the tùy bút, a freely wandering meditative prose whose style is reflected in the genre’s name, ‘yielding to the pen’. Although Võ Phiến has been the subject of an excellent and freely available intellectual biography by John C. Schafer, his most impressive tùy bút remain to be translated. Three deserve particular attention for the insight they give on the war: Again, a Letter from Home (1962), The Neighbors (also titled Birds and Snakes 1967) and Remembering my Village (1972). These poetic essays follow the fates of Võ Phiến’s family friends. They combine moving portriats of the lowly villagers who so often remain stereotyped, passive, and anonymous in other accounts of the war. Together they amount to a kind of impressionistic history from below of his hometown on its path from the 1945 August Revolution to its obliteration during the 1972 Easter Offensive.

Diaspora figures like Võ Phiến, Nguyễn Mộng Giác, Phạm Phú Minh, and Thụy Khuê in France, built a lively Vietnamese language public sphere in print and blogs. But there are countless nameless others who spent decades crying out in the wilderness. Today their voices are channeled through the lips of their children. We can hear them echo in Aimee Phan’s criticism of the Ken Burn’s documentary. We can also hear it in EM Tran’s obituary to her father. She grieves,

The Vietnam he knew is a ghost, his identity formed around a corpse. He is an outsider wherever he is, unknown to both the country he inhabits and the country he inhabited […] With his departure, an entire history, yet another gone from a generation that exists in-between, now a pile of dust. This disappearance panics me—who will remember him when the people who remember him are gone? 

If we stay on this path, nobody will. The thin thread of memory is fraying fast. Much of the younger generation, to borrow the words of Viet Thanh Nguyen, “have lost [their] mother tongue, or had cut it off in favor of an adopted tongue.” Only a small and dwindling number of the diaspora have the skills needed to read Vietnamese literature. A portal is closing, and with it, the chance for millions of Vietnamese Americans to commune with their forebears. This is a second American betrayal.

But beyond the betrayal, we are also cheating ourselves. South Vietnamese literature is full of thoughtful reflections on freedom and national belonging under conditions of social upheaval and fratricidal violence. We are shielding ourselves from the hard-earned lessons of the South Vietnamese, many of whom are now our countrymen. They watched as brother turned against brother, partner against partner, as town and village alike crumbled under the weight of passion and revenge. Their literature cradles the most intelligent and perceptive contemplations forged out of that world-making war. Their poetry were psalms to millenarian dreams which, like great tidal forces, bore down upon them. These demons haunt us today.

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Anthony Morreale is a PhD Candidate in the History Department of the University of California, Berkeley, working on late-19th and early-20th century business history, with a focus on Vietnamese business people’s economic, religious, mutual aid, and racial politics.

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Illustration by Yui Nguyen.