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Saigoneer Bookshelf: 'Other Moons' Aims to Amplify Voices of Vietnam's Wartime Writers

Why must we continue talking about war?

Modern Vietnamese society can reductively be understood as forward-looking. The young population largely concerns itself with emerging, global styles, trends, influences and economics and, on the whole, shows little interest in dwelling in the painful experiences of past generations. In contrast, the west seems preoccupied with seeing Vietnam only in the context of war, never missing an opportunity to cite current tourist hotspots as former battle sites or produce countless combat-obsessed works of film and literature from an American perspective. Lost somewhere in this dichotomy, however, are the Vietnamese voices who are concerned in preserving previous experiences. Vietnam’s post-war writers dutifully explore the tragedies they witnessed and translating them into English helps rectify many of the ignorant mindsets, prejudices and misconceptions outsiders have of Vietnam.

Other Moons, released by Columbia University Press earlier this year, is a collection of 20 short stories written by Vietnamese authors and originally published in Vietnamese between 1967 and 2014. The book was edited and translated by Quan Manh Ha, a literature and ethnic studies professor at the University of Montana who was born and raised in Da Lat, and Joseph Babcock, a writing professor at the University of California, San Diego.

It was assembled via the many books, anthologies, journals and magazines that Quan picks up on his frequent trips to Vietnam with the assistance of members of the Vietnamese Writers Association and other friends he has in the local writing community.

Quan explained to Saigoneer via email: "What really motivated me to publish Other Moons is this: I teach Vietnamese American Literature here, and it is all about how the refugees are victims of the war and how their voices/experiences are not heard in both VN and the US. Many even believe that, because the Vietnamese communists won the war, they, the victors, are not subject to suffering and trauma. In addition, the Vietnamese soldiers who fought on the communist side are often dehumanized in both American films and literature AND in Vietnamese American literature. Other Moons attempts to correct these biases and wrong assumptions."

Indeed, the diverse collection of stories — from both prominent writers such as Bảo Ninh, Tạ Duy Anh and lesser-known voices — aims to present the hardships, endurance and humanity of individuals during and directly after the country’s war with America. The stories depict women who must suffer great loneliness waiting for men that never return from the battlefield and, when they do, are too traumatized to contribute to a healthy domestic life; childhoods accompanied by crippling poverty and arduous physical labor; lingering grudges and suspicions between former enemies that were forced to become neighbors; and the physical effects of chemical weapons. 

There are no heroic combat scenes or uplifting feats of physical strength in the stories, but rather depictions of the grievously slow moments that surround and follow them. The stories’ dwelling on unglamorous situations — such as a man’s work harvesting crabs, the challenges of seeking love when something as simple as cutting an apple can cause flashbacks, and attempts to recover the remains of a deceased brother — highlights how Vietnamese literature has changed in the last half-century. In his insightful foreword to the book, Bảo Ninh explains that, during and directly after the war, fiction entered a dark period where works of social realism had overtly political aims to glorify the war. Đổi mới, however, ushered in more realistic depictions of people’s experiences and "the literary reform since 1986 and the topic of war and its aftermath are a return to the theme of humanism that has always existed in Vietnamese culture and literature for thousands of years," he writes. 

The switch to overt realism with no particular agenda ushered in the acceptance for a wide variety of topics, tones and perspectives. In 'The Most Beautiful Girl in the Village,' readers encounter a woman who refuses to marry out of convenience; the decision ultimately leading to her neighbors concluding "If only Tuc had not been too picky and married Hao, she would’ve had a great life.... Nobody remembered that Tuc had once been the most beautiful girl in the village."

In 'An American Service Hamlet,' Vietnamese women rent rooms in a neighborhood to meet the various needs of US G.I.’s stationed nearby. The story is the only time Americans appear in the book, in accordance with Quan’s belief that "literature in English translation about the war from the Vietnamese side was and still is rather limited in terms of quantity" and the short story genre in particular "isn't appreciated and doesn't get substantial attention from the readers because they prioritize novels or long non-fiction books."

In addition to diversity in subject matter, the style of the stories varies as well. Many aim to tell a character's entire life trajectory from childhood through their death. Yet, other stories focus on a single scene or day, such as 'White Clouds Floating' which involves characters who lived through the war flying on a commercial airplane for the first time. And while mainly rooted in realism, some surrealism slips in, such as the story 'Love and War' in which a character is forced to earnestly ask his wife: "While I was asleep last night, did you eat my other leg?"; ghosts occupying a central role in 'The Person Coming From the Woods.'

Quan says that given the book’s subject matter and university publisher, the average readers are likely to be students, researchers and those with a special interest in Vietnam and war. But one would be wrong to assume the book, therefore, holds no value for readers here. A combination of cultural preferences to not speak of the past, and younger generations’ tendency to not ask, means many of these stories will be fresh to people even if they have friends and family members who experienced similar situations. 

Reading Other Moons makes clear how much life in Vietnam has changed in just a few decades. Most obviously, many of the characters hold jobs that will seem foreign to the average urban dweller. Farmers, soldiers, peasants, buffalo herders, rubber plantation laborers and low-level civil servants are subject to daily concerns and rhythms that will be unfamiliar to people who read these stories, either in translation or in their original Vietnamese. Literature, perhaps more than any other art form, provides an essential tether to a collective history, allowing one to connect with one’s heritage. So while valuable to outsiders aiming to learn more about Vietnam, the book is also essential for those here eager to know more about where they came from. 

Many of the stories' focus on romantic relationships provides further opportunities to reflect on changing norms in modern Vietnamese society. Love, in part due to circumstance and setting, often appears more simple compared to today. Engagements come quickly with little courtship and people express great longing for partners they only know from a few moonlight conversations and short letters. The narrator of 'Out of the Laughing Woods,' suggests "only those who have experienced war and utter loneliness and who have been on the precipice between life and death can understand" such love. 

Yet, the amount of heartbreak, unhappy marriages and domestic misery in the collection should caution anyone from thinking relationships were somehow easier in the past. Moreover, the infidelities, abuse and unplanned pregnancies help remove some of the stigmas of a modern society that often likes to frame previous generations as somehow more virtuous or innocent.  

PTSD is another important reoccurring theme. The subject has long been taboo in Vietnamese society, or as writer Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai puts it: "In Vietnam, the traumatized are considered to be possessed by ghosts." These stories, however, don’t shy away from mental wounds. For example, in the story 'Storm,' a character "seemed unable to get over his memories of the war. He still heard artillery fire during meals and while he slept. He was suspicious and exacting in everything he did, as if he were still psychologically preparing to fight the enemy." The ripple effect of such a condition causes tremendous damage to his family. 

By openly discussing trauma, the stories normalize it, which is an important step towards healing. Simultaneously, the depictions serve as a call for future peace. As Bảo Ninh says in the book’s introduction, contemporary authors "write to express their love for peace and promote cross-cultural understanding and global love." Sometimes making room for that love requires explorations of painful realities such as the horrors of war. 

The general dearth of Vietnamese writers represented in English and a desire to "debunk certain myths and stereotypes of the Vietnamese" in America, as Quan says, make it obvious for why Other Moons will find a place on many university syllabi for years to come. But as importantly, the accessible, entertaining and empathetic collection can be picked up by anyone that enjoys a good story or wants to be welcomed into the interior worlds of people who too rarely have their stories heard.

Details on how to purchase Other Moons are available here and you can receive a 30% discount with the offer code: CUP30.

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