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The Fraught Human-Earth Dynamics in 'Revenge of Gaia,' a Collection of Vietnamese Eco-Fiction

Stories focusing on the natural world and humanity’s relationships with the environment existed before the term eco-literature became popular in the west in the 1970s, but since its coinage, writers and scholars have passionately debated different definitions for it along with arguments for its importance in various literary cannons.

As environmental awareness and concerns attracted increased global attention in recent decades, the genre has become more popular. Thus, Revenge of Gaia, the first English anthology of contemporary Vietnamese eco-fiction, edited and translated by Chi P. Pham and Chitra Sankaran, comes at an opportune time. 

Homo sapiens is simultaneously a species like all others and also unique in certain ways, namely the complex intellects that have allowed mankind unprecedented domination of the planet. We struggle to rectify the needs of societies constructed via rules and customs with the evolutionary instincts and desires we share with other creatures. Religions and philosophies have sought to create strict boundaries between mankind and the rest of the natural world wherein humans are not just different, but were made or can strive to be morally superior to other animals. In this framework, a person must fight instincts and temptations to regress for the sake of society at large. This broad theme is explored in 'Facing Up' by Nguyễn Minh Châu.

Nature from the viewpoints of its residents

The story focuses on domestic cats torn between a savage world of sex and violence and the home settings their owners desire to confine them within. It juxtaposes human notions of morality and goodness with the natural inclinations of wild animals via a narrator who anthropomorphizes the felines. Thus, her cat, “a romantic queen,” sneaks out to be impregnated by a feral tomcat likened to a “devil or a ghostly spirit” despite the care and pampering she provides it at home. The narrator’s absurd application of ethical frameworks to non-human animals effectively illuminates the challenges humans face in separating themselves from their biological urges, even if the story doesn’t engage in a more difficult examination of the value of striving for such a separation, or positing what alternatives may exist.

Revenge of Gaia, the first English anthology of contemporary Vietnamese eco-fiction, edited and translated by Chi P. Pham and Chitra Sankaran, comes at an opportune time.

The first two stories in the collection, both by Trần Duy Phiên, concede even more power to nature. In both 'Ants and Humans' and 'Termites and Humans,' insects overpower efforts to bend nature to human desires in the pursuit of comfortable existences. Both were written in 1989, and their depictions of human attempts to extract value from the earth reflect the Marxist belief that nature exists solely for the benefit of mankind. But the stories also caution that industrious perseverance and technological progress do not guarantee success in such endeavors. In their man-versus-nature conflicts, nature emerges as the unquestioned victor. However, both stories can be understood as detailing battles lost in a greater, inevitable war wherein humans will ultimately triumph over nature without any ethical implications.

Literature frequently fails to understand the natural world without relating it to human emotions or experiences. One merely has to look at the plentitude of poems comparing flowers to beautiful women or the novels that depict rainstorms as metaphors for sorrow as proof. So it is with the blind protagonist in 'Black Carp' whose sense of direction is said to be like “herbs, which instinctually but surely put out leaves, blossom and patiently seek the light, regarding the changing seasons and harsh weather conditions.” He struggles to acknowledge his aging body and the loss of his wife, as Trần Trung Chính’s technically astute story leaps from the image of two carp on opposite sides of a serving bowl that the elderly man’s wife purchased before her death to his attempts to land a fish despite his withered strength. With his line cast, he reflects on the beauty of their relationship and the regrets he harbors about it. To come to terms with his own mortality he seeks to prove his value to his late wife in an ancient way: to make nature submit to him. In doing so, he reminds readers that as much as humans like to see themselves apart from nature, the facade crumbles and we make the natural world an ally or adversary as death arrives for people no differently than it does all animals. 

'Hoya' by Y Ban presents the conflicts between man and the environment in more visceral contrast. Focusing on the dire living conditions of people in the postwar period, it details the hardships endured to satisfy the most basic of human needs including food and shelter. Obsessed with latrines, the meandering story, made up by anecdotes, presents vivid descriptions of daily life including the use of human excrement to fertilize vegetable gardens and people shitting their pants due to public toilet door-lock vandalism. Seen outside of this collection, one may interpret the tale as a condemnation of collective living or a political commentary on the embargoes and economic policies that followed reunification. But in the anthology’s context of eco-literature, it reveals the ever-looming role of natural forces in one’s life including their exacerbation of poverty. Readers realize that people pay so much attention to bathrooms and clean water because of the threats of disease including dengue which infects the narrator and many other children in the community. It reminds us that even today, homes, schools and factories are built not out of aesthetic traditions or cultural values but in response to the wild environments we are forever seeking protection from. 

Nature as a reflection of human society

“Humans punish nature by humiliating and destroying it. And do you know how nature has avenged humans? By disappearing,” the vice-director of a heritage center says in Nguyễn Ngọc Tư’s 'The Glorious Unsullied Smoke.' A stand-out story in the anthology, it provides the most overt focus on environmental degradation by following a young woman’s childhood abandonment and failures in love against the backdrop of vanishing forests, lost species and modernizing communities that are turning away from traditional lifestyles. Wounded by her own losses and emotional torments, she retreats to a remote island and attempts to preserve a young child’s sense of innocence in the same way she does the “the forlorn, helpless and despairing signs of a lost civilization” at the cultural museum. 

The field agents she works with hold differing opinions about what artifacts have the most importance with staff from the department of nature claiming “humans were the greatest predators on the planet and that they were the cause of all planetary destruction,” while those from the department of humanities “declared that nothing on this planet held pre-eminence in beauty as much as the human species.” Despite these seemingly different views, the protagonist’s own happiness, human society and the natural world weave together and the pessimism that binds them provides the book’s most compelling, if bleak, statement on the fate of the environment as influenced by humanity.

Humans punish nature by humiliating and destroying it. And do you know how nature has avenged humans? By disappearing.

Despite the cataclysmic power of nature that the anthology repeatedly showcases, it also argues that nature may not be enough to distract us for long from the wholly human world of politics, careers and romantic yearnings. The story 'A Strange Letter' for example, depicts a fragrant flower grove as a magical, transitory escape from unrequited love that is followed by decades of domestic familiarity. Trees wither and orchards get uprooted, but the societies we build continue trudging ahead unchanged. In the story, a blossom tucked into a letter is the only reminder of a naive childhood belief that nature has the potential to bring seismically blissful changes to one’s life. It’s a short, bittersweet story that holds a poignant truth about the peripheral role many give to the natural world in our lives.

Revenge of Gaia’s brief length should not be a significant surprise given the minimal emphasis on ecological awareness in Vietnam when understood via a western perspective, even though one could make a case for countless other Vietnamese stories fitting within the broad definition of eco-fiction due to the natural world’s role in human lives. But I would caution against drawing too many conclusions about Vietnam’s views on the environment from the book. Rather, it is a valuable means through which to consider the complex relationships between humanity as a whole and the rest of the Earth and how the environment factors into all human stories, at least tangentially. After all, we have no plots to develop, no characters to complicate, no metaphors to extend and no settings to explore without the planet we inhabit.

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