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Saigoneer's Guide to What to Read While Social Distancing

“In good times arts are magical, and in tough times they are essential. That’s when you need them the most. Art makes you human.”

I find myself returning to this quote from Wisconsin poet laureate Bruce Dethlefsen often in these difficult days. He offered them in a different context, but they seem apt for the moment. On some mornings, it feels like the walls are closing in, and in some ways, they are. Reading opens a metaphorical window.

As the world struggles to adapt to the new normal that is quarantines, social distancing, uncertainty, dread and dismay, people have found different ways to cope. We’ve given ourselves permission, as we should, to embrace at-times frivolous, if not outright counter-productive, pursuits and hobbies: put together a jigsaw puzzle even though you know it will mirror the image on the box; sync classic hip-hop songs to old cartoons; make and then devour an entire plate of Rice Crispy squares? Yes. Do whatever it takes.

Many of us are finding it hard to focus amidst all the turmoil; and let’s be honest with ourselves, even in the best of times, most of us don’t read as much as we wish we did. But as we look to make the most of the situation, and perhaps even turn it into a positive, there may never be a better opportunity to find solace in great pieces of writing.

These books, pieces of long-form journalism, web comics, zines and graphic novels all come with Saigoneer’s highest stamps of approval, and are all accessible without having to leave your home; either as free online reads or for e-book purchase. 

1.  The Weight of History: Writing From Vietnam

“Writing has proceeded to overcome the prison of space-time, resisted its imagined fate,” writes poet and scholar Nha Thuyen in the introduction to a 2018 special issue of Words Without Borders focusing on contemporary Vietnamese writers. Curated by Nha Thuyen and fellow AJAR poetry collective co-founder Kaitlin Rees, the assemblage of poetry, fiction and nonfiction reveals the ingenuity, experimentation and diversity of writers operating at times beyond the margins or expectations of society.

The translated stories deal with the complexities of failed and successful marriages and depict the tenderness of love, as well as the tumult of dysfunctional families. The poems flaunt traditional forms, narratives and conventions as they grapple with the ways languages, meanings, thoughts and emotions collide in the world, the self and the art form. While not always an easy read, The Weight of History is perfect for those looking to discover Vietnamese writing that can’t be found on Saigon's book street or in airport gift shops — but should be.

Read the issue at Words Without Borders.

2. Holy Dragon Imperator (Long Thần Tướng)

Like an imaginative anime film, this graphic novel, written by Nguyen Khanh Duong and illustrated by Nguyen Thanh Phong and Nguyen My Anh, blurs the lines between fantasy and reality. Taking place simultaneously in 2014 and 1285, it features violent rebels who engage in gruesome ambushes, mysterious strangers of unknown origins with dubious intentions, and even a little girl who simply wants a balloon flower. The plot can sometimes be a challenge to follow, but the striking black-and-white watercolor artwork is worth flipping the digital page for alone.

The project originally began in 2003 when Thanh Phong and Khanh Duong were 11th-grade students at Tran Phu High School in Hanoi, and although they completely redesigned and re-wrote it over time, it’s easy to see elements of their adolescent love of writing and drawing. While clearly influenced by Japanese manga, it’s refreshing to see Vietnamese scenery and history in a graphic novel, something that is not translated into English nearly often enough.

Four volumes of Holy Dragon Imperator have been released in Vietnamese, the first of which has been translated into English and is available as an e-version here. The product of a crowd-funding campaign, there is no official word on when the next issue may be available. 

Photo via Phong Nguyen Thanh's Beehance page.

3. Terror in Little Saigon

A stellar piece of investigative writing, this thoroughly researched long-form piece of journalism from A.C. Thompson looks at the differing viewpoints of re-settled Vietnamese living in the US after the American war. It’s filled with questions, what-ifs, frustrations and, ultimately, reasons to re-examine a binary understanding of the political leanings of first-generation Vietnamese-Americans and critiques of the American justice system. Such responses remain essential for people in Vietnam, as distant communities continue to connect in search of ways to understand and cooperate. 

Read 'Terror in Little Saigon' at Pro Publica.

4. The Mountains Sing

This newly released novel tells the multi-generational story of a Vietnamese family spanning the colonial period, Japanese invasion, American War and challenging post-war years. Amidst the great tragedies, atrocities and moments of depravity, there are glimmers of hope and cause for optimism. The Mountains Sing is the first English-language novel written by a Vietnamese native that's released by a major American publisher, and has received rave reviews from The New York Times, NPR and The Washington Post.

“The war was essentially between the northern Vietnamese and southern Vietnamese. So much has been written about the Americans and they are always the center of attention, but I wanted to talk about the things that are deep and still very painful; the relationships between the Vietnamese,” author Nguyen Phan Que Mai told Saigoneer earlier this year. The book’s hopeful message and depictions of endurance resonate, especially in today’s climate. It reminds us that humans have endured and overcome much.

Read the full Saigoneer review here and purchase the e-version via retailers like Amazon.  The audiobook is also available for download.

5. Vietnam's Empty Forests

Photo by David Rama Terrazas Morales for The New York Times.

Tigers, bears, rhinos, leopards, a slew of monkeys: Vietnam's forests once teemed with a great variety of animals, but the verdant natural areas have gone mostly quiet in recent decades. Hunted to fuel the illegal wildlife trade, trapped for basic sustenance and victims of the deforestation that accompanies the nation's economic growth — there are many reasons for the decimation of Vietnam's native species. This article by Stephen Nash published last year takes an in-depth look at the complex issue. He traveled extensively through the country, visiting many national parks to get a first-hand understanding, and his chronicling helps articulate what many of us already know in theory but don't see in practice. And though he doesn't provide much cause for optimism, he does offer details on the tangible steps that would be required to rescue endangered animals. As Ho Chi Minh is quoted in the article as saying in 1962, “The current destruction of our forests will lead to serious effects on climate, productivity and life. The forest is gold. If we know how to conserve and manage it well, it will be very valuable.”

Read "Vietnam's Empty Forests" in the New York Times.

6. Rainbow Bunny 

Images via Rainbow Bunny's Facebook page.

One of reading’s most overlooked qualities is its ability to make us laugh. In the same way a meal should be balanced, on every bookshelf, a few comics should sit beside the classics. “Rainbow Bunny,” a cartoon series written in Vietnamese and translated into English, features the whimsical, at-times poignant adventures of a rabbit, bear and the occasional human. They often make humorous observations about friendships, romance and the absurdities of societal norms. Never more than a few panels long and lacking any overarching plot that connects them, they can be gobbled up in a single bite, the way one pops a grape into their mouth after dinner. Need a justification to check it out? Just consider the "About Me" section on Rainbow Bunny's official Facebook page: "I'm just cute =.=" 

Explore the artwork via the Rainbow Bunny Facebook page.

7. Vanguard 

 

Illustration by Kim Co, featured in Vanguard issue #2.

Bold, eclectic, subversive, humorous, taboo-defying: there are a lot of adjectives that can be used when trying to describe the zine Vanguard. Founded in 2014 with the self-professed "mission of connecting and uplifting LGBTQ+ Vietnamese creatives through art, literature, and activism." They hope to establish a safe platform where freedom of expression and individuality can thrive. While available in hard copies, all five issues are all visible online along with an extensive selection of photographs and illustrations.

No singular visual style unites the issues or image galleries, with some work embodying the zine ethos of DIY construction and distribution, while other pieces reflect great time and polish. While frequently graphic (i.e. not safe for work) and concerned with sex, there is no obsession over it, rather a celebration of creativity and ingenuity. As one of the co-founders, Aiden, explained to Saigoneer: “We also find that Vietnamese people’s view of the LGBT community is very stereotypical: we dress in eccentric clothes, we are infected with diseases and we spend our lives partying. We hope to contribute to changing people’s mind-set.” 

Read Vanguard here

8. The Women on the Island

 

Set 35 years ago, Ho Anh Thai's novel is unique in the ways it deals with the aftermath of the American War. Battles and bloodshed are never depicted, yet the effects of them reverberate in the characters' predicaments and views. The surviving members of an all-female Production Brigade are forced to work in near-isolation on Cat Ba Island. Struggling to adapt to a changing economy while robbed of their chance to marry and thus have children, they're faced not so much with breaking taboos, but determining what taboos even remain amidst such societal upheaval.

Thai's gifts to create complete characters who we simultaneously root for while condemning some of their actions further sets this book apart from much of the post-war literature that has been translated into English. Reading it today allows one an opportunity to reflect on not only aspects of human behavior related to feminism and economic hierarchy, but given Cat Ba's transformation into a tourism destination, reading about the island when it was little more than forest and turtle nesting ground makes one question what price Vietnam has paid to recover from its horrifying war years. 

The e-version of The Women on the Island is available for purchase at Amazon.com.

9. Maika Elan: Ain’t Talking Just Lovin’

One benefit of the enforced social distancing has been the opportunity to have heart-to-heart-s with our pets. Whether that means telling your cat your views on transcendentalism, finally opening up to your parakeet about your childhood or simply narrating your frequent trips to and from the fridge with your dog, our non-human companions have been great sources of comfort in recent days. But for some people, life alone with pets isn't a new development, but a preferred way of life. Award-winning photographer Maika Elan created the series "Ain't Talking Just Lovin" as covered in an article by the photography journal matca. Elan reveals in the piece that all the isolation is chosen, as each subject featured has friends, family or loved ones they could stay with, but prefer to cohabitate with only their pets; be that snake, rat, hawk or goat.

Read about the photos at matca.

Read Saigoneer's guide on what to watch while staying at home here.

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