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Meet the Author of the Most Important Vietnamese Novel You've Never Read

When the wind strafes Da Ngan’s window, seedpods shake and rattle like spent bullet casings in the tamarind tree that Americans planted decades ago. They also built the large apartment complex where she now lives. It’s an ironic place to call home, considering Da Ngan was a resistance fighter in the south during the American War.

It’s one of the countless incredible details in the esteemed writer and journalist’s life. Her 66 years have been filled with instances of extreme hardship, tragedy, perseverance and rebellion that may have been common for Vietnamese of her generation, but are rarely articulated. The experiences serve as inspiration for her acclaimed short stories and books, including her career-defining novel, An Insignificant Family.

The walls of Da Ngan’s Saigon apartment are covered with large photographs of family members. She points to each face and explains to me who their fictionalized counterparts are in An Insignificant Family. There is Aunt Rang — the powerful matriarch that could “split a hair into quarters;” young Thu Thi — the daughter who collects and splits spent coconut shells from the trash piles in front of the market’s drink stands to use for fire material; Dinh — the author of “sorrowful, trembling, and yet extraordinarily romantic” stories who becomes Tiep’s soulmate; and of course Tiep, the book’s main character and stand-in for Da Ngan herself.

A photograph of Da Ngan's father and her husband's family. Photo by Kevin Lee.

After showing me the photographs, Da Ngan brings out several large notebooks filled with delicate handwriting: the original manuscript for An Insignificant Family. It took her more than five years to complete the novel, and she finished and abandoned numerous full drafts before sitting down for one month on the banks of the Dai Lai Lake near Hanoi to pen it in its entirety. As the silt-rich waters slithered past mountains silk-screened with fog, she wrote for 20 days straight — a full chapter each day.

Photo by Paul Christiansen.

Da Ngan explains to me through her grandson’s translations that the book is at least 80% true. Understanding that makes the novel all the more remarkable. First published in 2005 in Vietnamese and translated into English in 2009, it focuses on Tiep, a woman from Diep Vang — a small hamlet in southern Vietnam —  who joins the war as a teenager after her father dies in Con Dao's infamous prison.

The book jumps forwards and backwards in time, chronicling her candlelit discovery of literature while stationed in guerrilla camps; her miserable first marriage to a callous bureaucrat; raising two children on the pittance salary afforded a writer; falling in love with a married man living in the north and the struggles of maintaining their relationship while separated by the full length of the country; the familial and societal ostracism associated with extramarital affairs and divorce; and rectifying the disparities between post-war hopes and the realities of poverty and corruption. As Wayne Karlin notes in the book’s introduction, after the war Vietnam transitioned through three distinct periods, and “Tiep’s story occurs within and can represent these three epochs - liberation, deprivation, and renovation.”

The most popular books focusing on Vietnam that are available to English readers are almost exclusively written by white men. While many of them do tell important stories, they are nearly always from an outsider’s perspective, which reduces Vietnamese to supporting characters at best, or racist caricatures at worst. Even if one includes the handful of books by Vietnamese writers that are translated and widely distributed, their emphasis is typically on men and battlefields. Rarely do readers get glimpses into the post-war period that don't involve fleeing the country, nor do they see the role and experiences of women during the country's painful reconciliation.

Having these underrepresented topics at the heart of An Insignificant Family makes its limited distribution in the West all the more depressing. Rosemary Nguyen’s translation came out on Northwestern University Press, a small but respected publisher that releases, among other things, a “Voices from Vietnam” series. Da Ngan was scheduled for a promotional tour across the United States when it first came out, which would have brought the book greater attention, but her editor passed away before it could begin, effectively canceling the trip. While it is still available through online booksellers in America and elsewhere, and a few professors have taken note of it, adding it to reading lists, it has largely gone unnoticed. Da Ngan herself even has difficulty getting her hands on the translated copies, especially because she so frequently gives them away as gifts.

Photo by Kevin Lee.

Thankfully, Da Ngan has achieved considerably more recognition in Vietnam for her work. Step into any chain bookstore in the city and you might find something with her name on it. An Insignificant Family won numerous awards, including the best fiction prize from the Union of Writers in Hanoi and the Vietnamese Writers Association, and has been covered numerous times by Vietnamese news outlets.

Even with these successes and accolades, many Vietnamese people remain unaware of the novel’s existence. Putting aside the dismal statistics for how many books the average Vietnamese reads a year, many native literature enthusiasts I spoke with haven’t heard of Da Ngan or her pinnacle novel. It isn’t anthologized in the national curriculum, and the last copy of the Vietnamese edition was printed in 2010, though it can be read in its entirety on her site.

Even if many family elders have stories that resemble Da Ngan’s, for cultural or personal reasons, they rarely share them with the amount of depth and honesty as her book does. Reading it can, therefore, connect Vietnamese more closely with their country’s history and foster understanding and empathy for their fellow citizens.

Da Ngan between her two children, with her mother and aunt seated in front. Photo via Da Ngan's personal site.

Put simply, Tiep is a feminist badass (and by extension, so is Da Ngan, but even though her own biography closely matches that of her fictionalized counterpart, for the sake of this discussion, I’ll reference only the character). She consistently upends concepts of the submissive female. Even surrounded by strong women, many of them widows who must raise children, take care of parents and earn money, Tiep stands out as a singularly bold and independent female.

While Tiep pursues a career in literature and journalism that removes her from the “traditional feminine attributes of industry, appearance, speech and behavior, and...peace and comfort,” it’s in her personal life where she most fully displays her rebellious form of femininity. Extramarital affairs and divorces carry certain stigmas in contemporary Vietnam, to say nothing of half a century ago. Tiep’s family fails in pressuring her into reconciling with her first husband and shuns her for unabashedly having a relationship with a married man, yet she does so anyway for the sake of true love. 

Making matters worse, at the time, adultery was an offense that could lead to jail, and mere suspicion of her committing the crime could cost her her job. Tiep doesn’t wilt under the risk, however, or genuflect and beg for forgiveness. At one point, called in by her superiors to confess her behavior, she speaks with reckless abandon, exposing the moral bankruptcy of her accusers, consequences be damned.

Strength, however, is not simply confronting adversaries and scoffing at norms, but also swallowing one’s pride. Tiep’s decisions mean she has to see her daughter clad in rags eating “pig-grade greens and slightly spoiled fish.” For much of the novel, Tiep is miserable. To meet Dinh, for example, she suffers a 60-hour hard-seat train ride to Hanoi beset by men attempting to sexually assault her, curled up on newspapers on the ground next to the bathrooms, “feeling like an animal trussed up and thrown on the floor of a truck for the trip to the butcher.” When she finally arrives, their honeymoon moments must be cloaked in secrecy and reliant on friends willing to lend a spare room and alibi. None of it is easy, and Tiep’s ultimate vindication becomes an argument for female empowerment.

A photo of Da Ngan from her personal collection.

In addition to its portrayal of determined womanhood, An Insignificant Family’s representation of post-war poverty adds important descriptions to the public discourse. Many books on Vietnam stop at the 1975 American withdrawal, and even those that continue past that date avoid some of the greater hardships endured on a national level. Da Ngan, however, includes them in precise, heart-wrenching detail. She reports that apartments in Hanoi were “monotonous, haphazardly assembled conglomerations of floors rising out of the earth, dotted with unsightly, untidy caged balconies and strung together with clothes lines that completely ignored any concern of aesthetics or propriety…odors of burning charcoal, of rats and cockroaches, of mold and mildew, and of course the ubiquitous stench of public toilets that were evidently very short of water.” 

Similarly, at a state-run enterprise phở shop, “a small, round hole had been punched” in every spoon so as to safeguard them from theft, while all shops kept strict count of silverware because patrons too poor to afford their own at home would often pocket them. Of course, such a measure means that the broth slips through, rendering the dish wholly impossible to eat. But it is just as well, because the meager broth strewn with beef scraps was “the worst we ever had.” Such hardships should be internalized by any current resident slapping down a few bills for an overflowing bowl of bún chả or scarfing down a Domino's pizza topped with plump shrimp.

Rampant crime also ravaged the country after unification. In the novel, abortion clinic nurses abscond with jars of urine so they can sell the liquid to vegetable farmers for use as fertilizer, and the vessels to bootleg liquor distillers. Moreover, the illegal diamond and cigarette smuggling efforts of an official’s wife are an open secret. The book doesn’t shy away from these realities; rather it articulates the way their prevalence impacts citizenry — effects of which can be felt in contemporary culture.

Tiep was never naive about the ability of authorities to deliver prosperity, but she also didn’t foresee the depraved depths of internal fighting and discrimination that befell the country post-unification. Healing was eschewed for the sake of retribution and personal gain. Those that were aligned with the “right side” in the war clutch their trivial positions of power and use them to lash out at their former adversaries. For example, in the novel, the daughter of a former colonel is forced to occupy a lean-to shoddily erected in the back courtyard of the villa she once lived in. Here she makes her money by doing the nails of local prostitutes.

Da Ngan doesn’t hold back on grim details or taboo subject matters. For example, she describes the graphic physical and emotional experience of having abortions and expresses opinions about post-war class and society with particular emphasis on gender that would have been impossible to publicly vocalize at the time. Similarly, the book reveals the inner thoughts that accompany adultery, romance and hardship in a raw and immediate way that has no place in polite conversation. While such honesty may have been left out by a less fierce author, Da Ngan’s portrayal brings to Vietnamese the necessary details that will be forgotten by future generations if not recorded.

Examining Da Ngan’s own life provides insight into what might have happened next for the fictionalized characters. Like Tiep, when she was finally freed from her first marriage, and after 11 years of long-distance romance, she moved to Hanoi in 1993. There she married her husband, the similarly successful and famous writer, Nguyen Quang Than, who is portrayed in An Insignificant Family as Dinh. Despite working in frequent poverty, occupying a 25-square-meter apartment that shared its bathroom with a neighbor, the two established prolific careers and became cornerstones of the country’s writing community. Da Ngan fondly recalls the number of writers she sat with, drinking, chatting and debating. By promoting and critiquing each other's work, the group of writers, in many ways, defined what constituted post-war literature and journalism.

Photos of Da Ngan and her husband, Nguyen Quang Than, as observed on their wall. Photo via Kevin Lee.

Last year, at the age of 82, Nguyen Quang Than passed away. Still in mourning, Da Ngan keeps his altar freshly adorned. Next to flowers, mangoes and bananas, several of his books, including one that came out this year, are on prominent display. Her grandson explains to me that he grew up reading these books, preferring them even to his grandmother’s, and is confident people will continue reading them in the future.

Losing her husband, being evicted from the Vietnam Writers Association, and living far removed from her group of aging writer friends in Hanoi, one could forgive Da Ngan for retreating into a quiet retirement. She, however, seems to be doing no such thing. Invigorated by her family, she continues to invite friends and writers to visit her home, promote her husband’s work and travel throughout the country. She hasn’t lost her rebellious spirit, either. After discussing some rather sensitive viewpoints with me, I assured her I wouldn’t include anything troublesome in this article. “Oh go ahead, print whatever you’d like,” she said, before adding with a laugh, “It’s not my magazine that’ll get shut down.”

I asked Da Ngan if she ever considered moving out of Vietnam, like Duong Thu Huong or Pham Thi Hoai, to benefit from a more conducive publishing environment and easier access to international audiences. She immediately brushed aside the suggestion. “Writers must live among their people,” she said. Vietnam is what she writes about, and who she writes for. As important as her work is for foreigners, its articulation of past and present conditions are crucial for her fellow citizens. As she explains in an unpublished essay, “always and no matter where in this world, writers are the pioneers who work silently, but their position is absolutely essential, [it] is able to touch deeply into one’s soul and intimately express one’s emotion.”

The truth of that quote makes it all the more lamentable that not every person, be they Vietnamese or foreigner, has read An Insignificant Family. It preserves important stories and details that might be lost, and with them opportunities for empathy and understanding.

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