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In Xuân Diệu's Tender Poetry, a Reminder to Love Honestly and Courageously

“Tenderly, fondly, Xuân Diệu held on to my wrist, caressing it up and down. Our eyes locked in affection…Xuân Diệu loved me.”

This emotive sentence is an excerpt from writer Tô Hoài’s memoir Cát Bụi Chân Ai, published in 1992. Most well-known for the children’s book Diary of a Cricket, Hoài is one of Vietnam’s most prolific writers, with over 100 literary works in a range of genres. During the First Indochina War, Tô Hoài and Xuân Diệu were stationed in the remote border areas, where they formed a close bond that might have blossomed into something more, according to Hoài’s recollection in the memoir.

Xuân Diệu.

Across modern history, there are accounts and written records that show Tô Hoài wasn’t Xuân Diệu’s only romantic interest. He also has a relationship with poet Hoàng Cát. Through his tender stanzas, Diệu has professed his love for a number of male contemporaries, despite homosexuality being deemed a deviant illness by much of society at the time. Perhaps that’s a major factor why his poetry is drenched in longing and a hopeless sense of loneliness.

It has been almost four decades since Xuân Diệu passed away, and we can only learn of his life and relationships via poems and anecdotes. A significant portion of Xuân Diệu’s oeuvre belongs to the love poetry genre, so it’s natural that the fragments we can now glean from his life might help soothe a new generation of Vietnamese experiencing love the same way Diệu once did.

The king of love poetry

Ngô Xuân Diệu was born in 1916 in Bình Định. His literary talent flourished early. When he was 21 years old, he became the youngest member of Tự Lực Văn Đoàn, or the Self-Reliant Literary Group in English, a collective of distinguished writers in the mid-20th century. Diệu was introduced to the public by earlier member Thế Lữ as a “wunderkind” with “a radiant and ardent soul living in gentle yet sensual, passionate yet impulsive verses.”

Xuân Diệu is the only member of Tự Lực Văn Đoàn who was honored with a street in Vietnam. Photos by Linh Phạm.

And what did that “radiant soul” imbue in his poetry? According to Associate Professor Trần Văn Toàn of the Modern Vietnam Literature department at the Hanoi National University of Education, there is ample evidence of same-sex romance in Xuân Diệu’s poems.

Toàn explains: “For example, in the poem ‘Với bàn tay ấy’ [lit: With that hand] dedicated to Huy Cận, the couplet ‘with your hand holding mine / the pain of my days subsides’ has the sentiments of a lover’s sweet nothings. An intimate atmosphere permeates the poem.”

He also quotes a handful of other doting lines such as “On a dark night, full of clouds / a tree seeks a flower, bending down / the flower seeks the grass, while the grass / leans on the moss, night enshrouds” — as if the entire universe is in love, folding in within itself. The passion reaches a crescendo in the last two lines: “Beneath the joyous moon, my gaze still seeking / the trace of that hand within mine.”

It is widely believed that Xuân Diệu (left) and Huy Cận (right) shared something more than friendship. Later on, Huy Cận married Ngô Xuân Như (middle), Diệu's sister.

Professor Toàn shares another example of Xuân Diệu, in the poem ‘Tương tư, chiều…’ [lit: Afternoon longing…], there are lines like:

I miss your face, your shape, your sound.
I miss you, so much! Darling!

One might easily interpret this as the love profession of a heterosexual relationship, but in Xuân Diệu’s first poetry collection Thơ thơ (Poésies), this poem is positioned right before ‘Với bàn tay ấy.’ The last line of ‘Tương tư, chiều…’ seems to have a smooth connection with the first line of ‘Với bàn tay ấy’:

 Darling! Come closer! Give me your hand!
— 'Tương tư, chiều...'
With your hand holding mine
— 'Với bàn tay ấy'

Toàn believes that there could be a thematic progression that reflects a same-sex subtext quite clearly. When Thơ thơ was published in 1938, Xuân Diệu was also writing Chàng với chàng, or Man and Man. Unfortunately, this collection was never published.

When Thơ thơ was published in 1938, Xuân Diệu was also writing Chàng với chàng, or Man and Man. Unfortunately, this collection was never published.

However, these traces of same-sex affection were not mentioned when Xuân Diệu was alive. They were only recognized later on after stories of the poet’s private relationships were publicized. According to Professor Toàn, this obfuscation could be explained by the societal context of the time, as for an extended period of time the mindset of Vietnamese readers was entrenched in the depths of heteronormative culture.

A view from education

Each reader can form their own interpretation when faced with literary texts, but in the context of Vietnam’s public institutions, a “standardized” viewpoint is often imposed on students. That perspective can alienate some students who might not belong to the norm.

Trần Nhật Quang, an officer in charge of the LGBTI rights program at the Institute for Studies of Society, Economics and Environment (iSEE), says of his own experience learning about Xuân Diệu in school: “When we were taught his poetry, I heard talk that Xuân Diệu might not be straight. So when my teacher went through the lesson and mentioned how Xuân Diệu was into some lady, I felt a little annoyed inside. Because I thought that it was an incorrect literary interpretation, especially rendered through the teacher’s lens of male-female heterosexuality. Everyone was taught that love is just something between a man and a woman, but to me, love is so much more than that.”

In 2018, Quang collaborated with Hà Nội Queer, a group of young people passionate about changing the public perception of the LGBTQ community in Vietnam. Quang created scripts for the project’s informative videos on Vietnam’s queer history. He explains that after he could hear more stories about his community through history including that of Xuân Diệu, that childhood frustration turns into contentment.

Xuân Diệu (right) and Huy Cận (left).

“I was very happy to learn about such episodes of history, knowing that in actuality, there are many figures in the literature syllabus or elsewhere that were not as heterosexual as the teachers were saying,” Quang recalls. “I could somehow see myself in those lessons in class because they have always referred to heterosexual love when teaching about love, so I never felt myself in those lectures, I didn’t feel that I belonged to whatever was being taught.”

Regarding the vague discussion of Xuân Diệu’s orientation in a pedagogical setting, Professor Toàn says that he could understand the teachers’ reservation in alluding to same-sex love because it still generates polarizing views in the community. But personally, Toàn actively encourages his students to research and discuss this aspect of Xuân Diệu’s life when teaching his poetry.

“When I teach, I myself do mention it [Xuân Diệu’s same-sex relationships],” he shares. “Because I think it’s a factor that will help us gain a deeper understanding into the realm of emotions encapsulated in Xuân Diệu’s poetry.”

“Moreover, this discussion will also help students learn how to behave in an environment with diversity. How we treat people who are different from us defines our culture.”

From forbidden to accepted

During Xuân Diệu’s era, homosexual relationships were marginalized, even demonized. Phạm Khánh Bình, Hà Nội Queer’s co-founder, explains: “Before, the word ‘same sex’ didn’t exist, they [homosexual people] were referred to as ái nam, ái nữ [lit: hermaphrodite]. And it’s in my understanding that people view it as something unscrupulous, deviant, debauched, or even perverted. So there’s no doubt that LGBT people back then would feel suffocated, especially when your own identity is seen as something sick, something sinful.”

In the memoir Cát Bụi Chân Ai, Tô Hoài writes that, for two nights in a row, Xuân Diệu was disciplined for fraternization. He was heavily chastised, and not a single soul, not even his friends or alleged lovers, stood up for him. Xuân Diệu didn’t deny the charges, just “said through his tears 'that’s my man love… my man love…!' At once, he couldn’t speak anymore, tears filled his eyes, but he resolutely did not make any promise to stop.”

The villa at 24 Cột Cờ (now Điện Biên Phủ street) in Hanoi where Xuân Diệu and Huy Cận used to stay.

Perhaps, living through those hardships, to Xuân Diệu, “to love, is to die a little bit inside.” But even then, he continued to love, and to spread that love in his poetry. Such self-honesty turns his story into priceless materials for people like Quang and Bình to share with their community. 

“When I learned that there are queer, non-conforming people in our books, in our history, I felt represented, and I realized that Vietnam is actually very diverse,” Quang says. “And when members of our community know that somewhere in our history, there are people who were like them, those who differed from the labels out there, people will feel that they belong — it’s a time-transcending connection.”

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