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'Longings' Brings 22 Stories by Vietnamese Female Writers to the World

Where are all the female writers?

Foreign editors asked this about an upcoming book I co-translated with Quan Ha that features a novella and 18 Vietnamese stories written between 1930 and 1954. The collection consists entirely of male voices. We wished it wasn’t that way, but literature was an exclusively male domain during that period, in part because more than 90% of the Vietnamese population was illiterate at that time.

Thankfully, literacy rates rose rapidly after colonial rule, and women experienced greater opportunities across society, including in literary communities. Today, any anthology providing an overview of contemporary Vietnamese literature would have no excuse for sidelining the many talented female writers who offer a breadth of styles, subject matters and perspectives as wide as their male counterparts. Within this context, there is a considerable need for a collection consisting exclusively of female voices. Even accounting for the recent success of writers such as Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai and Nguyễn Ngọc Tư, here and abroad, the cannon remains overwhelmingly male; the pendulum must be swung vigorously in the opposite direction. 

Moreover, gender balance has improved in Vietnam, but women remain tragically underrepresented in positions of power and reverence while being often reduced to narrow archetypes. What society-wide recognition offered to them seems steeped in patriarchal concepts of women as martyrs or objects of beauty. A recent field trip I took with novelist Dạ Ngân to the Southern Women’s Museum exemplifies the situation. The museum contains little more than an áo dài fashion exhibit and the stories, photographs and artifacts of women involved in the nation’s 20th-century struggles for peace and freedom. There was no mention of writers, teachers, scientists, mothers, chefs, business leaders, athletes, or artists. “Propaganda,” Dạ Ngân concluded. Promoting beauty queens and representatives of the heroic mother figure is fine, but it should be joined by the celebration of women valued for what they accomplish with their minds. Literature is a valuable means to showcase these individuals via stories’ authors and characters. 

Finally, while female writers are capable of producing many of the stories that male authors can, they can also offer up experiences and perspectives unique to their gender, particularly those related to motherhood, patriarchy and traditional societal roles. These stories are invaluable for both female readers who benefit from seeing themselves represented in literature as well as male readers who may otherwise have little access to the innermost thoughts, feelings and lived experiences of women. 

All that is to say that Longings: Contemporary Fiction by Vietnamese Women Writers is an important book. It collects 22 stories by female authors originally written in Vietnamese and translated by Quan Manh Ha and Quynh H. Vo. The stories from emerging and established authors were originally published within the last 30 years in various Vietnamese newspapers, literary magazines and short-story collections.

A broad exploration of the minds, desires, and hopes of Vietnamese women

While born and raised in Vietnam, both Quan and Quynh now teach at universities in the United States. Admitting that they do not read enough new Vietnamese literature each year to do this collection justice, they connected with literature professors and authors in Vietnam for recommendations. While the stories are all written by women, they do not explicitly focus on the concepts of femininity or feminism. In so much that they do come together to offer a singular comment regarding women, it’s merely that women contribute immensely to the nation’s literary landscape and are not a monolith in thought or action. There are certain themes and topics that do emerge numerous times within the book, particularly romantic love, prostitution, Confucian notions of filial piety, and one’s search for meaning in the world. Yet, the conclusions or impressions one can glean about these subjects occasionally contradict or oppose one another, which makes for a particularly rich reading experience. 

The most repeated source of tension in Longings involves romantic love. Women search for husbands, mourn the loss of lost husbands, fight with poorly behaved husbands, suffer at the hands of abusive husbands and reflect on the joys that husbands bring. Notably, one cannot separate romantic love from the institution of marriage in the works. While the collection as a whole can be seen as progressive in its aims of elevating female voices and touching on taboo subjects, many of the individual pieces reflect Vietnam’s conservative or older values that include virtue being a result of choices and marriage as a foregone conclusion along with having children. For instance, the elderly protagonist in ‘Under the Blooming Silk Cotton Tree’ by Tịnh Bảo is described as: “All she had ever wished for was a happy family, a humble life, a kind and hardworking husband, and a simple house.”

As works of realism, the stories hold a mirror to modern society and, in doing so, can question and criticize traditional values, particularly marriages, and make arguments for improvements. In ‘Selecting a Husband,’ by  Kiều Bích Hậu for example, a protagonist entertains the idea of marrying a rich man, a masculine man, a man who satisfies her sexual needs, or one who provides her with children, before reaching “the epiphany that the perfect man is one she must make for herself.” Similarly, after experiencing an abusive, morally defunct husband, the protagonist in ‘Under the Blooming Silk Cotton Tree’ advises her daughter: “Women always have stood below men. But your generation is more educated. You’ll need to live for yourself. You’ll have to live for yourself. Marriage is not the only path to happiness.”

“Women always have stood below men. But your generation is more educated. You’ll need to live for yourself. You’ll have to live for yourself. Marriage is not the only path to happiness.”

Views on marriage that deviate from norms often coincide with radical lifestyle choices in the stories. ‘Late Moon’ by Nguyễn Thị Châu Giang, for example, offers a character who flaunts notions of traditional behavior and runs off to lead a bohemian lifestyle before having a child she intends to raise as a single mother. As with much good literature, there is no simple, singular point being made or expressed through this woman’s trajectory. Rather, “her life resembled an abstract painting characterized by large, barely visible black strokes among which thin red strokes slithered in no particular order. These strokes were like the smoldering remains of a fire that could burst back into a blaze and burn everything into ashes.”

If marriage is an expected joy, then prostitution seems to be a regrettable inevitability in society. One of the most repeated topics in Longings is women depicted at their most commodified and in doing so, they give a voice to the often silent objects of desire in men’s stories. The act of selling one’s body for sex, however, is presented via different lenses. While never glamorized nor condemned as a moral failure, some stories, such as ‘Green Plum’ by Trần Thùy Mai examine root causes and explain how prostitution is the result of poverty, patriarchy and a lack of education that victimizes women. Some stories emphasize the violence and dehumanization of the job, while others stress the resilience and strength of the women forced to endure it. 

Most of the authors featured in Longings were born in or after the 1960s and thus the nation’s 20th-century wars do not overwhelm the collection, appearing in only a few stories. And except ‘The Smoke Cloud,’ by Nguyễn Thị Kim Hoà,  they are set long after peace has arrived, when characters must tend to the lingering wounds. This allows for interesting variations on the familiar theme of women carrying the greatest burdens of war. Dạ Ngân’s stunning ‘White Pillows’ for example, explores the challenges a wife must face when her husband returns physically and psychologically devastated by combat. She must find somewhere, literally and metaphorically, to stuff “half a century of emotions and suffering.” 

While domestic relationships provide the most common sources of tension in the stories, there are a few exciting deviations. ‘After the Storm’ by Trần Thị Thắng, for example, follows the life of a domestic caregiver who must work in Saigon after her family lost everything in a devastating storm in Cà Mau in 1997. The classic “human vs. nature” conflict carries a strong environmentalist message with Buddhist underpinnings when showing what happens to human lives when societies do live in sustainable partnership with the planet. Human trafficking, another important contemporary problem, is shown not via familiar journalistic numbers and statistics but by individual women and involved actors in ‘At the Border’ by Võ Thị Xuân Hà. Religion makes few appearances, but when it does, it arrives as a bold force with the potential to disrupt the societal conventions laid out elsewhere.

Contemporary and even online Vietnam as a setting

Vietnam serves as the setting for most of the stories, with several exceptions incorporating non-Vietnamese societies as sources of tension and hinting at Vietnamese peoples’ legacies of migration. The 1980s conflict between Vietnam and Cambodia and the culturally, ethnically and politically porous border between the two nations serves as the backdrop of ‘Boozing with a Khmer Rouge’ by Võ Diệu Thanh. Elsewhere, the world abroad is not a source of danger, but one of opportunity. In both Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’s ‘Buds’ and ‘Selecting a Husband,’ the main characters question whether they can find greater happiness outside of Vietnam. Similarly, the caregiver in “After the Storm” is offered the opportunity to move abroad. The decisions each of the characters make regarding life overseas underscores the collection’s commitment to diverse opinions and observations that reinforce the diversity of Vietnamese experiences. 

This breadth of subject matter in Longings is impressive, but the variety of represented regions within Vietnam might be even more significant. The editors have done an excellent job finding representation from all areas, including rural and urban settings. Whether it’s a southern island, a northwest farming village, or a Central Highlands forest, the rural settings all suggest a certain timelessness. The often miserable experiences of the characters are not dependent on where or even when they live. Endurance, suffering and acceptance are thus presented as Vietnam-wide qualities.

The editors have done an excellent job finding representation from all areas, including rural and urban settings. Whether it’s a southern island, a northwest farming village, or a Central Highlands forest, the rural settings all suggest a certain timelessness.

But other stories, particularly those set in the cities, are very much of the modern world, with references to social media, business trends and cultural changes. Those placed in the overt present allow for interesting commentary on the pursuit of happiness relevant to younger generations. In ‘The Eternal Forest,’ by Trịnh Bích Ngân, the narrator is representative of an educated, urban-dwelling class that many readers will relate to: “Like everyone else, she had experienced the vicissitudes of life. She reflected on herself and her life and dared not abandon the online masses to be alone. In addition to her few close friends, many people whom she had never met in person ‘liked’ her photos. That was sufficient for her — the ‘likes’ she received filled the days’ emptiness. An emptiness that consumed her heart even when she and her husband made love.” This particular story and several others help the collection to not only look at Vietnamese society of the recent past but also the present with the assumption that both are needed to understand where it may be headed.

Because several stories take place in the nation’s mountainous western regions, Dao, H'Mông and Ê-đê ethnic minority communities are represented. Particular customs, such as Dao women using a separate entrance to their homes for a full month after giving birth as depicted in ‘Raindrops on his Shoulders,’ by Tống Ngọc Hân, remind readers that Vietnamese is not synonymous with the Kinh ethnic majority. Indeed, Kinh Vietnamese only make up 85% of the population and it's incorrect to conflate the two when attempting to provide a panoramic view of society via literature. Some, particularly western readers, may perhaps raise issues with the fact that two of the three ethnic minority stories were written by Kinh authors, raising questions of appropriation and questioning who has the right to tell which stories. Saigoneer spoke with Đỗ Bích Thúy about her story in this collection, ‘The Sound of Lip Lute Behind the Stone Fence’ for a longer feature detailing how it became the basis for the popular film Chuyện của Pao (The Story of Pao) wherein we discussed this issue. The situation in some ways mirrors the reasons why there were no female writers during the colonial period while also leaving space to debate how matters of representation may differ in American versus Vietnamese contexts.

An unburdening rooted in realism

Much of this review of Longings has involved noticing similarities between the stories and recognizing powerful deviations. This can be done for the writing styles as well. They all fit within the larger category of realism with no wild experimentations. However, differing points of view, voices, tenses, timelines and descriptive interests keep each story feeling wholly distinct while allowing readers to grasp the variety of influences and styles that exist in modern Vietnamese literature, reflective of a vibrant and evolving scene. 

When I first read, ‘On the Rạng Riverbank’ by Trịnh Thị Phương Trà, it struck me as a familiar story. It opens with a journalist from the city working on a newspaper’s annual Tết issue, who travels to a remote, rural area to interview a widow about her experience meeting and falling in love with a local man, and her decades of isolation after he dies not long after their wedding night. Their bond is strengthened throughout the brief personal moments afforded them during the war with America. This tale of sacrifice and longing will not seem unique to anyone who has read much Vietnamese literature.

And yet, if one looks at it from a slightly different angle, it offers powerful commentary on literature generally and this book specifically. As Quan recently explained to me, the woman is only able to share her story because the newspaper wants to publish it. And she seems to have been waiting for such a moment, the narrator noting that she tells it “like she had been practicing this soliloquy before some invisible audience for years.” By unburdening her life’s narrative, she brings it to others who may have family or friends with similar stories who have never had the opportunity or confidence to share them. Literature is thus a crucial element in the dissemination of experiences. The stories in this book function the same way, and in doing Longings allows readers to engage in the construction of collective knowledge, understanding and, ultimately, empathy.

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