THE WRITERS POST
VOLUME 7 NUMBER 1
INTERVIEW WITH AUTHOR
NGUYEN MANH TRINH
TALKED WITH AUTHOR NGO THE VINH
NGUYEN MANH TRINH [NMT]: Please tell us your life history.
NGO THE VINH [NTV]: I was born in 1941 in Thanh Hoa province. That's not where my family originally comes from, but a place where my father was teaching school then. I graduated from Saigon University's Faculty of Medicine in 1968. During my medical training, I joined the editorial staff, initially as general secretary, then as editor-in-chief, of the monthly magazine Tinh Thuong (Compassion) produced by students of the Faculty from 1963 until the magazine was suspended in 1967. After graduation, I served as Chief Surgeon of the 81st Airborne Ranger Group. Some years later, I received special training in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Letterman Hospital in San Francisco. Upon returning to Vietnam, I worked at the Military Medical College. After 1975, I was imprisoned in different re-education camps for three years. I then returned to Saigon where, after a time lapse, I worked at the School of Physiotherapy and the Saigon Rehabilitation Center.
In 1983, I arrived in the United States, where I underwent five years of re-education – with a difference this time: it was voluntary – the aim of which was to become qualified to practice medicine in my adopted country. In the beginning, I volunteered as an orderly at a hospital and did some odd jobs for minimum wages after normal working hours. Eventually I succeeded in becoming an intern, then a resident physician in SUNY Downstate at Brooklyn, New York. Subsequently, I was certified by the American Board of Internal Medicine, and at present I work at a hospital in Southern California.
NMT: How did you begin your literary career? Are there noteworthy memories associated with it?
NTV: My father was a teacher of literature. At an early age I already had good opportunities to read books, mainly from my father's book case. My father died a year after the 1954 mass migration to the South, when he returned for the second time to Hue city where he taught at Khai Dinh high school. He was survived by my mother, my two elder brothers, and myself. I left home early, and lived in a university dormitory as soon as I got out of high school. A whole new world was opened to me then, with so many contradictions between dreams and reality. Against such a backdrop, May Bao (Storm Clouds, 1963), my debut novel, was written and completed when I was twenty-one. It carries many dreams and aspirations for the future, and unwittingly it also prefigures a journey full of hardship whose desired destination is never reached.
The one notable memory in relation to the "Storm Clouds" manuscript during that time involved the Ministry of Information where, for the first time ever, I was lectured to like a school kid by the Chairman of the Censorship Committee. He told me about the responsibilities expected of a writer who is obligated to reflect the bright side of society, not the wrong dark side of it. Naturally my own view of writing differed from his, and time has done little to alter this.
NMT: You were a student much involved in political activity, a doctor serving in a battle-tested corps of the ARVN, and a writer who up to the present has remained deeply concerned for the lot of the homeland. How have those different "beings", or different roles influenced your way of thinking and your style of writing?
NTV: While still a student, like my peers I was mindful of social issues. I believe that aspirations and struggle for social equality is a dream shared by youths. Of course it's never a simple matter to find a path to reach that dream. Inevitably from different perspectives and from diverse ways of action arise confrontations and varying persuasions. In a general sense, allowing oneself to merge into that common flow of socially-concerned activities can be construed as involvement in politics. However, if politics is defined in terms of opposing cliques and sides, then I have not participated in it, and will not want to allow myself to walk that thorny path.
To choose medicine from among different fields of study is often likened to committing oneself to being "a student for life". But then, whether you like it or not, you must graduate after seven years of study and put an end to your student life, and, under circumstances then prevailing, become a military doctor like myself. At the time of my graduation, the Vietnam War was at its height, and a few doctors on the battle front had been killed. Even as a requisitioned doctor, I chose to serve in the Vietnamese Special Forces whose area of operation was the Central Highlands. The choice stemmed from a predestined affinity between myself and the Thuong peoples, an affinity that had been formed back in my student days.
So you can see, all those different "beings" are but one, a consistent one at that, marking different passages of my life.
NMT: How do you see the difference between a doctor writer and a writer doctor? Which of the two designations is more suitable in your case?
NTV: A few days immediately after I had carried a rucksack to join my battalion, two of its companies were mobilized to reinforce a friendly unit. As a rule, only the medics attached to the companies and a medical assistant officer were required at that level of military operation. However, at the airport, the Major who commanded our battalion asserted his authority over me through a brief verbal order, "First-lieutenant, get your equipment ready and join the operation today." He emphatically addressed me only by my rank. In any event, I had prepared myself for such a call to action, therefore I was very calm and actually took pleasure in participating for the first time in a smooth and full-fledged operation. Though a military career was not my choice, I understood very early on how military life should be conducted. In my opinion, the most important issue is self-discipline.
A number of my colleagues make a clear distinction between lieutenant-doctor and doctor-lieutenant. But that was not an issue to me then, nor is it now. No matter which way that Major chose to address me, I remained the surgeon whose responsibility was to take care of the soldiers in my unit. I think by that little episode I've answered your question relative to whether one should call me a doctor writer or a writer doctor. Whichever manner one combines the words to designate an author, such a designation by no means assures the literary quality of his work, even when we're talking about the work of an established writer, don't you agree?
NMT: Is there reciprocal support or conflict of interest between profession and predestinate career, like between the profession of a medical doctor and the career of a writer?
NTV: Since I like both my medical profession and my writing career, for me they are supportive of each other. In my medical practice, everyday I'm in touch with those selves that are not myself. I face not only sicknesses but also the sick, each with his own circumstances, and the rapport sometimes would give me the benefit of accompanying them to climb up the steep slope of life and death which confronts each of them at a different time in their life.
Previously, writers in North Vietnam were on the national payroll and thus financially supported by the government to do field work in factories and mines and in the countryside, so as to gather material for their writing. Whether you like it or not, the medical profession is not markedly different from daily rounds of field work where experiences and emotions are aplenty, piling up, waiting for expression. Unfortunately, I have little time to write about them. In my case, the conflict between a medical profession and literary creation lies in a very tight and unbalanced schedule.
NMT: When writing, do you ever ask yourself what you write for? Among your characters there are many soldiers of truly modest low rank. Is it your view that they represent those in the Vietnam War who most deserved mention?
NTV: I only felt the need to write when inspired by a certain situation that moved me. For example, the story entitled 'A former ARVN Medical Corpsman' was prompted by an occasion after 1975 when I met a former medic. Having been discharged from the army, ironically, he stepped on a mine in his family's rice field and lost one of his feet. That courageous sergeant had survived so many fierce battles, many times being inserted into enemy territory to come out unscathed; but after the war was over, he was dealt such a terrible fate. I remember that during the meeting, we didn't have much to say other than reminding each other to take care of ourselves. Through his voice and the way he looked at me, it seemed that he had not abandoned his habitual penchant for forgetting himself while caring for the welfare of others, including me, treating me exactly the same way he had done, when I was his superior.
I hope to be able to write more about such ordinary but also significant people who fought the Vietnam War. You may say that writing is to liberate oneself from memories, but in actuality it's to relive the emotions a second time. That's happiness, but also hard work. And there's always joy during the process of creation, not only in the completion of a manuscript.
NMT: For further elaboration, what is your aim when writing? To become famous, to express your feelings and emotions, to share your ideas and thoughts with others, or…what?
NTV: To me fiction represents life circumstances as viewed through the prism of the imagination of the writer. Every author hopes that his readers participate in the life of his work. Having your writing unread is no different from displaying a painting to no viewing audience. Despite the fact that once a work is completely written and published, it has its own destiny and its own journey out there in the public domain, what we call feedback from the audience – how they share or respond to ideas and feelings in the work – cannot but exert some impact on the author.
When entering the literary arena, I was not blessed with the same experience enjoyed by many other writers, namely to start with publication in newspapers and journals of a number of short stories, from there to be encouraged further in creative writing until being recognized as an author. Indeed, I had not had any short story published before "Storm Clouds", my first novel, was completed. And even then the motive for writing had nothing to do with the illusion of seeking fame. Fame in this case is like a medal to a soldier: if he is courageous when engaging in battle, certainly it's not because he's motivated by a wish to gain a medal.
NMT: How does life at present, always with a tight schedule, affect your creative writing?
NTV: After 1975, in Vietnam, even as one always talks about eight precious hours of labor everyday as exemplified by model workers, it seems that there's still enough spare time at one's disposal, more so than is the case here in the U.S. Americans don't seem anxious to become model workers. They work only to wait for the coming of Fridays – when TGIF, 'Thanks God It's Friday', is uttered in great relief – and to welcome long weekends. Trying to assimilate ourselves into this mainstream, we seem to have the impression that we have less time for what we love to do or need to attend to. Our pleasure of watching coffee drip leisurely through a tiny one-cup filter every morning has been replaced by instant coffee consumed unfeelingly while driving a car to work, just before plunging into the eight precious hours of labor.
NMT: Let's return to the '60s when you were with the magazine Tinh Thuong and engaged in student activities. What do you think about the role of the magazine as well as that of various student-and-youth movements during those turbulent years?
NTV: The time spent at the Faculty of Medicine truly constituted "youthful years" in my life. I was preoccupied not only with my studies, but also with extracurricular activities: functioning in student representative committees and working with friends for care of Tinh Thuong. That magazine was born in the special time and circumstances immediately after the November '63 dramatic event which put an end to President Diem's regime. Almost all other faculties of Saigon University also published periodicals during that time. We students at the Faculty of Medicine took that name for our magazine because "compassion" is the sentiment suitable to the mission of medical doctors. We started with a rather large editorial staff featuring Pham Dinh Vy and Nguyen Vinh Duc as the first publisher and editor-in-chief, respectively. It must be said that from the beginning to the end when the magazine was suspended, there appeared many different tendencies or inclinations among us. Counted among adherents to the academic tendency were Nghiem Si Tuan (who was a Red Beret M.D. killed at Khe Sanh after graduation), Ha Ngoc Thuan and Dang Vu Vuong. Politically-oriented were Pham Van Luong, Pham Dinh Vy, and Truong Thin, whereas Tran Xuan Dung and Trang Chau leaned toward literature and the arts. I myself covered student activities. There were many more of us writing on diverse topics: Tran Xuan Ninh, Le Sy Quang, Tran Dong A, Tran Doan, Vu Thien Dam, Dang Duc Nghiem, Nghiem Dao Dai, Do Huu Tuoc, Duong Thien Dong. And mention must also be made of articles contributed by writers from other faculties.
Even though Tinh Thuong was called a student magazine, it was not infrequent to see appear in it contributions by faculty members like Dean Pham Bieu Tam, professors Tran Ngoc Ninh, Tran Van Bang, Nguyen Dinh Cat, Ngo Gia Hy... Layout was done and cartoons provided by two talented home-grown artists, Liza Le Thanh Y and Kathy Bui The Khai, while very beautiful covers were contributed by artist Nghieu De. Initially, the magazine depended for its existence entirely on advertisement fees collected from pharmaceutical companies, and on its sales within the medical student population. But later, when the readership expanded beyond the student circle to the general public, it became financially self-supported. We even had our own office on Nguyen Binh Khiem street where the editorial board worked and held meetings, where we received visiting international student delegations and foreign correspondents. Among them I still remember Takashi Oka, who was a reporter for The New York Times in Vietnam at that time. Moreover, within our modest means, the magazine was able to send reporters like myself to Central Vietnam, to the Central Highlands for special on-the-spot reporting. Some memories connected to those field journeys are imprinted in my mind: Quang Ngai in white mourning shrouds after the biggest ever flood in Central Vietnam; the first U.S. Marine unit landing in Le My – ‘Tears of the Americans' as the name is literally translated – in Da Nang; life in the ancient capital of Hue when students occupied the city's radio station; and especially my several trips to Pleiku, Kontum, and Ban Me Thuot, to follow closely the uprisings of the Thuong who belonged to the FULRO movement – Front Unifié de Lutte des Races Opprimées, or United Struggle Front for the Oppressed Races.
NMT: Being a medical student heavily burdened with your studies, how did you manage to have time for those projects outside the medical school?
NTV: Truth to tell, at that time I was not exactly a model medical student in the conventional sense of the word within academia. I should have graduated earlier. But even in my fourth year I still had the intention of dropping out so as to devote myself full-time to journalism, which I was very passionate about. Recalling it now, I cannot but thank one of my elder brothers for having advised me to finish up the remaining two years of medical school. His argument was that upon graduation no one could prevent me from doing what I would like to do. And so I completed medical school, and subsequently fulfilled the duties of a doctor while still having an opportunity to pursue writing.
NMT: As you mentioned before, it seems that during that period, one could not find any faculty within Saigon University that did not publish a magazine or bulletin: from the one published by the Faculty of Pharmacy to the others produced by the Faculty of Letters and the Faculty of Law, and by the General Union of Students…Do you have anything more to add about the student magazine Tinh Thuong?
NTV: In my opinion, that the magazine survived for a length of time was itself our primary success, even though we had our share of problems in internal operations and relations among the editorial staff, in addition to pressures from the outside meant to manipulate it.
With regard to the content of the magazine, now, when having a chance to look back, I recognize that besides regular columns on current affairs which addressed political, social and cultural concerns of the time, there existed also works of more enduring value which were serialized in all issues, but which were incomplete because Tinh Thuong was suspended in August 1967. I still remember the names of some of those works, like "History of Medicine" by Ha Ngoc Thuan, a translation of a well-known short story collection from German by Nghiem Si Tuan and Nguyen Vinh Duc, and "Nuoi Seo" (Nursing a Scar), a social novel by author Trieu Son of which the only copy left after his death in the 1940s had been kept by Professor Tran Ngoc Ninh – which unfortunately is now lost.
It's incredible that almost thirty years have gone by since the suspension of Tinh Thuong. If the magazine has produced an echo and borne some fruit, such success should be credited to all medical students in the aggregate, and not to any particular individual person. Indeed, the most precious experience which we gathered during that time was the democratic way of operation and unity among us in the spirit of university autonomy. In the internal situation of the editorial staff, there existed many different leanings which at times were in opposition to one another, leading to arguments and even overt polemics that were thought capable of causing a break-up, but thanks to our mindfulness of responsibility toward the survival of the magazine – a symbol of democratic activities – we eventually reconciled to a common denominator: the magazine as an open forum, a free platform for expression of different opinions on all issues, political, educational, and social.
I cannot forget the extremely chaotic times during the years following 1963, marked by a series of street demonstrations, one provoking the next. The compound of the Faculty of Medicine was a cradle for activism. Typical were the polemics, which I remember well, taken up by two men among the editorial staff. While Bui The Hoanh advocated operation in a peaceful manner, Ton That Chieu was inclined to support agitation movements. Both presented sharp and persuasive arguments for their positions. Their war of words spread to the press outside of the Faculty. Neither won, even as each commanded a following. And to me that truly was an instance of democratic working. At present both men live in the United States. There seems to be a rapprochement of sorts between them in terms of their views and evaluations of the current situation of Vietnam.
NMT: How would you describe the student and youth movements at that time? Was there any controlling or manipulating power behind them? What sort of lesson would you cull from the 1960s?
NTV: In my view, thanks to honest motives, anywhere and any place student and youth movements easily draw people's support, and their role is always like an enzyme that vivifies society. In Vietnam, the various movements did not constitute a political force in the proper sense of the term, but they were truly a pressure that impelled progress on the road toward democracy. In general, these movements demanded democracy, university autonomy, and social equality. All formulas of action were experimented with. Though their impact on society was limited, there's no denying the positive aspect which is that those young people's strength and will were put to test, and I was not surprised to see that so many years later they still found it easy to come together and work for a common cause.
However, as you can imagine, at any time and under whatever circumstances, there was no shortage of "young opportunists". Though of a small number (they were either seduced by others to join the movements, or they joined them on their own initiative), ironically this minority was the strongest divisive element causing loss of faith among the general public. Perhaps one needs to draw lessons from the student and youth movements during the most confusing years after 1963, which, with lots of anger and agitation, ended like an unfinished dream.
NMT: Having gone through so many changes, at this moment do you have any thoughts that differ from what you held in that time now in the past? Do you still like to write about that war? And do you view it as a page of history that has been turned, or do you still consider it an issue of pressing concern for us nowadays?
NTV: That war has been relegated to the past for more than twenty years now. It's not exactly wrong to say that it's like a page that has been turned. But the issue that can be raised is: What lesson have we derived from that page drenched with blood and tears? Naturally we want to orient ourselves toward the future, but the point is, How do we step onto a new page of history, without repeating the mistakes that we and our younger generations are paying for? And how can we say that the Vietnam War has been assigned to the past completely? From my own experience, not a day goes by without one or more Vietnam veterans being among my patients: there were wounds inflicted by shrapnel of the B40 and bullets of the AK being lodged in their jaws and throats, wounds that are still causing them pain after more than twenty years. They still remember and talk about Khe Sanh, Loc Ninh, Cua Viet, places where they survived ragingly fierce battles. A few vaguely recall phrases that entered the GI vocabulary like 'dinkidau', crazy and mad, derived from the Vietnamese dien cai dau, which was perhaps learned by American GIs from Vietnamese bar girls in establishments that mushroomed around American barracks back then. Some patients even refuse to let me examine them, for fear of flashbacks of horrendous experiences they went through in Vietnam. Looking at them, I can not but think of former ARVN soldiers and disabled veterans who still live in our home country, who are completely disregarded if not maltreated by the new regime. Their pain certainly is a thousand times sharper and deeper because of that. So, as you can imagine, in no way one can truly leave the war that is thought to have gone into oblivion more than twenty years ago.
As to my thoughts and view at present, they're not dissimilar to what I held during that time in the past. The only difference is, I view the war more calmly and want to explore more deeply the reasons behind it. It's not correct to say that I like to write about that war. On the other hand, memories of it will haunt me for the rest of my life. Reading and writing to me means an exploration of The Vietnam Experience. When reading articles in the press about the time past, I have a habit of collecting them if I find in them a few details that may shed light on nagging questions concerning the Vietnam War.
Let me digress here. Maybe you remember the 1954 refugee migration from North to South Vietnam. I was only thirteen then, and perhaps you were even younger. There was impressed upon me the image of the young American doctor named Tom Dooley who, newly graduated, volunteered to go to Vietnam where, from 1954 to 1955, he dedicated himself to serving refugees in transitional tent camps in Hai Phong port, those refugees waiting to depart for the South. The image was as beautiful as that of an idol. His work entitled Deliver Us from Evil, published after his return to the U.S., was a bestseller, touching the hearts of Americans. Afterwards, Dooley again volunteered his services, this time in northern Laos, where he built a hospital to care for poor and disabled children. At that time he appeared no less than a version of Schweitzer in Asia, a shining idol in the eyes of young generations about to step into the field of medicine, myself included. That idolatry continued until 40 years later when those who had collaborated with Dooley revealed that he was but a doctor discharged from the American navy when his homosexuality was discovered. Then he volunteered to become one of the first tools of the CIA in a large-scale strategic system which was designed to spread propagandistic false information in preparation for the U.S. to subsequently embark on her adventure into a turbulent area of Asia.
Another example comes to mind. More than forty years after Tom Dooley's arrival in Hai Phong, we had to witness the scene of McNamara walking unsteadily over pavements of Hanoi on his way to see General Vo Nguyen Giap to whom he posed the question of whether or not there indeed had been the claimed incident of attack against the American ship named the Maddox. After a million Vietnamese and about sixty-thousand American soldiers had been killed, he came around admitting that he himself and America as a whole had been wrong, very wrong in interfering in the affairs of Vietnam. So where was the truth behind the Vietnam War? Hypocrisy and false propaganda are the essence of communism, but how about our allies? If we do not engage in looking backward – “In Retrospect”, to use McNamara's words – and meditate on past events, won't we again be faced with the irony that Vietnam, after having once experienced the tragedy of being an outpost of the free world, in a future not far from now may again be honored, for a second time, as an outpost to prevent Chinese expansionism?
As you can see, on the page of history that has been turned is deeply buried "a death of illusions", which our generation and future generations cannot but seek to understand. Post-Vietnam syndrome doesn't pertain to the Americans alone; it applies to us Vietnamese as well. "No More Vietnams", "Vietnam Never Again" should be a constant reminder for the younger generations of Vietnamese leaders in the future, both inside and outside the country.
NMT: Do characters in your works May Bao (Storm Clouds), Bong Dem (Darkness of Night), Gio Mua (Seasonal Wind), and Vong Dai Xanh (The Green Belt) bear a slight resemblance to the real person and the real life of their author? In The Green Belt for example, one finds abundantly projected events and social reality as they existed around the time you wrote it. In light of that, what's the ratio of fictional elements in your works?
NTV: You are correct in saying that the then current affairs and reality make their appearance very frequently in my fiction, typical of which is The Green Belt. But that's not a reportage as is commonly known in journalism. Indeed, The Green Belt embodies many details drawn from real life, but in the process of creation these were sifted and selected by the author's perception so that their overall interconnections can be seen, leading to a reality in fiction.
Looking back, I remember that at that time there was no shortage of news articles dealing with upheavals in the Central Highlands. In fact, the magazine Tinh Thuong ran the reports I then wrote on this problem area. I was deeply moved by the tragic conflict between Kinh and Thuong peoples, but at the same time I also thought that it was a big issue on the national scale. Thereupon, instead of writing a reportage, I projected the collected data as literary images in a novel which I thought would have a more lasting impact on the reading public.
I began writing the novel right from the time when, as a special reporter for Tinh Thuong, I had many occasions to go to the Central Highlands and witnessed bloody uprisings associated with the FULRO movement. That conflict was devastatingly complicated, bordering on illogicality, which involved Vietnamese of different ethnic groups in both lowlands and highlands, the Americans, the communists, and also the French. Tinh Thuong devoted a few special issues to this subject, following and analyzing the events by subsuming them under a thematic slogan: "Central Highlands: a Horse Cart with Three Drivers upon It". The Green Belt, in truth, depicts a no-less-tragic war that was forgotten within the Vietnam War, the latter most intensely discussed in the history of the American press.
I still remember one detail in connection with the theme of the novel. Through the courtesy of Tap San Su Dia (Journal of History and Geography) in Saigon, I received a long letter from Professor Hoang Xuan Han, a respected Vietnamese scholar living in France. He shared my concern with the ethnic issue in Vietnam and expressed an attitude quite distinct from that of the American researchers who had visited and consulted with him. To me, the matter of ethnicity and regionalism in Vietnam is not a thing in the past. It's still a painful wound which needs to be healed by a far-reaching vision, by adequate concern and attention from future leaders of Vietnam.
Coming back to The Green Belt, I was able to complete it during the time I served as Chief Surgeon of the 81st Airborne Ranger Group. The work was published in 1971, a significant portion of it having been deleted partially by myself and partially by the Bureau of Literature and the Arts in the Ministry of Information. Regrettably, after 1975 the complete original version of the manuscript was lost.
The novel takes the form of a first-person narrative. As you know, even though the narrator speaks as "I", this "I" does not stand for the author. The protagonist is a talented painter who very much resembles artist Nghieu De, a good friend of mine. The only difference is he gives up painting and switches to journalism where he finds himself drawn deeply into the tragedy that befalls the Promised Land in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam. Readers often tend to identify the "I" in fiction with the author. Recently, I received a letter from a former student now living in Australia who had just read The Green Belt for the first time. He expressed surprise at having discovered through the novel that I'm also a painter. As you see, I like painting very much, having painters for friends, but I've never learned how to paint. The female character named Nhu Nguyen, whose presence though not prominent is felt throughout the entire book, can be considered the truly fictional part of it.
NMT: Suppose someone were to put together a collection of short stories dealing with the Vietnam War from different perspectives, do you think you would contribute your work to it if invited? Will you decline or accept the invitation? Please give us the reasons for your preferred decision.
NTV: Your question brings to mind the book The Other Side of Heaven which recently came out. It is indeed a publication of literary works about the Vietnam War seen from many angles – American, North Vietnamese, South Vietnamese – thus including "the third tear drop", to use author Nguyen Mong Giac's words, a reference to a number of stories by writers of former South Vietnam. To be absent from such a collection would mean to have no voice and hence to be forgotten.
In fact, there have been many authors writing about the Vietnam War: American, communist North Vietnamese, and naturally South Vietnamese. It has been observed that the voice from former South Vietnam has produced little echo within the international literary forum, chiefly because of a shortage of translations into English, and even works originally written in English have not achieved noticeable success.
In my opinion, the American publishing industry is regulated by the market economy. Owners and directors of American publishing houses are very sharp in detecting what investment will bring them maximum profit. Given the communist bamboo curtain that blocked the truth in favor of propaganda for so many years, the image of the North Vietnamese soldier, supposedly symbolizing the army of the people, was previously regarded mythical by many Americans. The American reading public have the need to know the portrait of the North Vietnamese enemy who was capable of defeating great America. In the meantime, they don't care to learn about the ARVN soldier who was described by the American press throughout the Vietnam War with a full range of negative attributions – to a certain level such a view seems to have served as a justification for their inability to win the war. Generally speaking, literary products and art works coming from North Vietnam, including poetry, painting, and sculpture, will not necessarily have real value, but they certainly will maintain some power of attraction responding to the taste of the American public for some time to come.
I don't mean to say that the American reading public do not know how to appraise literary works of value produced from the previous South Vietnam. Only, it's obvious that there are hindrances related to marketing, which prevent those works from reaching them. I strongly believe that when the post-Vietnam syndrome is gone for the American public, a work of literature of value, no matter which side of the Vietnam conflict it comes from, will have the proper place it deserves.
NMT: What impact did the collapse of the South Vietnamese government in 1975 have on your real life and on your literary life, respectively?
NTV: Ever since the 1960s, I had no illusion of an end to the war with South Vietnam coming out as the winner. My judgment was not based on the thought that the enemy side was very strong; rather it had to do with weakness and decline of the South through a process of self-destruction. Right on the first page of The Green Belt, I put forward an evaluation of the Vietnam War at that point in time, by saying: "When the Americans had moved beyond the advisory stage, everyone knew this was their war – a war that had developed and was dealt with in the interests of the United States." In spite of that realization, I could not help being stunned by the speedy collapse of the whole of South Vietnam while there were still a million well-armed ARVN men in place.
I chose to stay, not to run away to another shore, only to witness the last days of ARVN soldiers. Their traumatic experience did not lie in the last battle that they lost. It was rather the humiliation and the overwhelming despair they felt in face of the cowardice displayed by their commanding officers and the military leadership as a whole. It was somewhat fortunate that the war ended then. Had it been prolonged, had there been more deaths and destruction, the end result wouldn't have been any different, given the low quality of leadership.
Through sharing hardship with soldiers in battle, witnessing their shame and humiliation afterwards amidst a group of winners untidy and in not-much-better condition, I perceived it was a tragedy shared by both parts of the country. Riding out such an earth-shaking event, how could I not feel a deep impact on my real life and my literary life?
NMT: You're a soldier who writes literature. Some people have observed that you did not simply depict military life but used that environment as an excuse to embark on addressing other issues more complicated and more of a strategic nature. Do you consider that observation correct?
NTV: I've never written in the name of a soldier. Army life to me can be viewed as an aggregate of circumstances. Even when I wrote about those circumstances, I didn't stop with simply depicting army life through fragments of experience as undergone by soldiers. It's not that those fragments were not rich. Rather, as you've noticed, they formed only a starting point from which I could generate an integrated view of other complex issues. At times it would appear as though those issues were disconnected and spontaneous, but in fact they were connected in the context of causality within an evolving process, one being both regulatory and strategic.
NMT: During the war you underwent much hardship, moving from one battlefield to another. However, the element of anger can hardly be detected in your work, not even in the newspaper piece you wrote about inmost feelings of a combat soldier lost in the city amidst political turmoil. Can you explain that?
NTV: When choosing to work on battlefields, I did not view my engagement as hard and miserable. If there was any hardship or misery, it was nothing in comparison to that suffered by soldiers during the war and in its aftermath, not to mention the tragic consequences that befell their families. Having to live for a considerable length of time with adverse circumstances in the war, including sacrifices and deaths, only to witness a society filled with injustices, who would not feel anger and indignation? Only, the manner of expressing it varies. The day a soldier spends in the city away from his familiar combat environment seems to have been described rather frequently in literature of the former South Vietnam: in a tea house cum night club, or in a theatre, there often occurs a scene where a male singer or an actor is dragged away from the stage and attacked by some soldiers because he wears combat fatigues and sings a soldier's song while he himself is a draft dodger, so on and so forth. I can understand and appreciate the anger of those soldiers, but in my view that singer or actor is also a victim. The furious reaction by those soldiers is called, in psychological terminology, "displacement", or displaced response. Angry with a slippery fish, the soldiers whack the cutting board, as a proverbial saying goes. I'm not defending the soldiers' action, but at the same time I'm not a moralist to condemn it either. As a writer, I want to explore hidden reasons rather than overtly expressed feelings. You say the element of anger is rarely seen in my writings, but actually it's there. Only, it takes a different form, and as always I'm situated at neither one or the other extreme. Even at a young age, when trying my hand at writing through working as a student reporter, I kept a proper balance in what I wrote.
NMT: Some time before 1975, you were summoned to court because of a publication. How did that happen? Can you relate it to the readers?
NTV: As you know, our 81st Airborne Ranger Group was a general reserve unit whose area of operation embraced the mountains and forests of the Central Highlands. But members of the Group also proved to be excellent in battles that were waged in the city, an example of which was our wiping out concentrations of enemy troops at Cay Thi and Cay Queo in Saigon during the Tet Offensive of 1968. Perhaps because of that, in 1971 the central government recalled this battle-tested group from the highlands to Saigon for the purpose of suppressing the series of demonstrations that had gone on for a long while in that city.
As I remember it, it was also the time when reconnaissance teams of Airborne Ranger Groups discovered that the Ho Chi Minh Trail had become as broad as a superhighway on which supplies were being transported day and night all the way to the Tri-Border Area. The trail was like a knife stabbing into the throat of that strategic border area in the highlands at that time. From the President's Palace down to the General Staff office, no one could have been uninformed about this.
Let me digress here. Up to this day, I cannot understand why at that point in time there was no effort whatsoever, not even by the Americans with their surplus of B-52s, to eliminate that strategic target.
Against that back drop, the 81st Airborne Ranger Group was recalled to Saigon, as I have mentioned. Instead of being surrounded by green forests, the courageous soldiers of the Group were confined to Tao Dan Park behind the Presidential Palace and adjacent to Hoi Ky Ma, the Equestrian Club. They found themselves bewildered and lost, like wild animals deposited in the city. They were given gas masks and bayonets and ordered to break up and disperse demonstrations. But who were among the demonstrators? They might be youths and students enthused with idealism; they might be hungry orphans and widows; or they might very well be war invalids – those disabled fellows who, at one time or another, had wielded their weapons and fought alongside these soldiers.
Indeed, the soldiers found themselves posted in the heart of Saigon, surrounded by high-rise buildings bustling with prostitutes, next to the Equestrian Club where constantly were seen plenty of stud horses with their glossy rumps. Those combat soldiers could not help but realize that in this life, not only the sorrowful war afflicted them; but more than that, in this motherland of theirs, no farther than on the other side of the fence, there existed a separate high society, magnificent and gloriously bright, wrapped in its detached happiness. That separate society was a world alien to the soldiers, drenched with a pervasive fragrance and excessive consumption. It was the world of those people who clamored for war while managing to stay above the fighting or to remain outside of it.
"The Battle of Saigon" is the title of a short story written against that background, which ends with a moment of awakening for the soldiers who realize that besides the battlefield familiar to them, they have to face a more depressing frontline – which is defined by corruption and injustice in society. That their foremost struggle is not in the border area of the highlands, but on the more challenging battleground right in the heart of Saigon.
That story was published in the journal Trinh Bay (Exposition), number 34, in 1971. And as expected, that issue of the journal was confiscated. Both the author and the director of the journal were summoned to court for the crime of militating against the morale of the army and thereby benefiting the communists. At that time I was with my unit on a military operation back in the Central Highlands. Receiving the summons to Saigon, I appeared in a court of law as the accused in full military uniform. Even though the whole affair evolved with all court rituals observed, I had the impression that I was in a play in which all actors, from the judge to the public prosecutor, no longer believed in the roles they played. The press, including the military paper, followed the trial and published updates on developments as well as their comments. All this led to a reversal of the normal situation, wherein the Ministry of the Interior found itself shifted in the view of the public from the position of prosecutor to that of defendant. The authorities then seemingly realized that it was not to their advantage to prolong the game of mimicking democratic legal impartiality, and thereupon the trial was quickly concluded with a suspended sentence for the author and a large fine for the magazine.
NMT: Before 1975, the government of the Republic of Vietnam imposed censorship and had firm measures to deal with transgressions exhibited in papers and other publications. The present communist authority is more strict and more oppressive in this area of cultural activities. Let me ask you, what do you think about the situation among the Vietnamese Diaspora? Is there actually some unofficial channel of censorship which is very influential as has been mentioned by many writers?
NTV: For a moment I was surprised at this question. Is there really a system of censorship among overseas Vietnamese? But then I knew what you mean. Though living in a country full of freedoms, the writer is still under constant pressure from the public, from fellow Vietnamese immigrants. In extreme cases, the pressure is expressed in the form of a gun that immediately and effectively silences the voice of the writer. Less violent are newspaper articles and radio messages carrying heavy criticism, ascribing political colors that are not there in his work. Even more deplorable is the practice of labeling the writer a communist sympathizer. But in so far as I am concerned, if one believes in what one writes, if one believes in justice with all sincerity, and if one does not nurture the bad intention of doing harm to others, why should one be afraid and influenced by outside pressure? And to submit oneself or not to outside influence depends on the strength and spirit of oneself as a writer.
Looking into the overseas Vietnamese press, one recognizes that there really are very subtle forms of censorship or sanction. One such is through manipulating the survival of the paper in question: reduction and withdrawal of advertisements. That kind of threat is real when it comes from those groups having financial and economic power. Concerning this, one should remember that this phenomenon happens not only within the limits of the new Vietnamese community; the American mass media is not free from the control of capitalist forces either. The second type of censorship is achieved through monopolization of a paper by a person or group of persons who publish only their own articles and publicize their own opinions, who even in the name of freedom and democracy assume exclusive right to criticism and at the same time block and reject a dialogue with any other voices in their forum.
In life, even in American society supposed to be most free, the choice of a particular attitude always comes with a price you have to pay. I'm thinking much about the circumstances of a Phan Nhat Nam, a Nhu Phong, a Doan Quoc Sy – those writers with an eventful past, none of them struggling in the communist prisons for less than 10 years. Had they died in prison they might have been honored as heroes; unfortunately, to use the word of author Thao Truong, after they survived the ordeal and chose to live abroad, they would easily be abused if what they expressed were not exactly to conform to what a number of people among the Diaspora expect.
When in prison, at least it was clear to these writers where they stood, one position or its opposite, black or white. Now that they are back in the outside world, they have stepped into a gray area amidst shouts of applause and of disapproval. Their paths suddenly become complex and much more difficult to tread. Thus, in no time and in no place is there a secure refuge for writers. A writer with a chosen attitude finds every circumstance a challenge.
NMT: Even today, the demarcating borderline between nationalism and communism still exists in both the thought and the actions of a number of people. How about yourself? Have you ever had the feeling that you are a stormy petrel, a bird that forewarns the coming of a storm, when your intuition predicted a few tragic events that befell our people?
NTV: What borderline are you alluding to: the Ben Hai river, the 38th parallel, or the Berlin wall? Is there really an orthodox communist regime, or is it simply a feudalistic authoritarian system in Vietnam at present? Communism is dead, and the capitalist model cannot serve as an example for Vietnam at the threshold of the 21st century. If you look toward the Asian dragons – Taiwan, South Korea, and Singapore – which model do you think fits Vietnam most? There's a very clear borderline between democracy and dictatorship, including the kind of dictatorship promulgated by those who call themselves nationalists but who appear to be no less inclined to violence than did the communists previously. A writer stands on neither side of that artificial divide. Instead, he must look forward to the future. If he is not one endowed with the power to foresee things, he should not be an obstructing force that blocks new visions for a renewed Vietnam.
NMT: When writing do you ever see yourself standing on one side opposing the other side? A writer must be a fighter also, must he not?
NTV: I like the simple, almost rough sentence expressed by author Hoang Khoi Phong in an interview conducted by the journal The Ky 21 (21st Century): "Just to be a writer is enough." It's not necessary to affix a label or any phrase to a writer. The debates that have wasted so much paper and ink, like that between "art for art's sake" and "art for life", or literature of commitment versus literature of fantasy, all are rather contrived, not of any help to both the writer and his audience. Whether he likes it or not, the author's written lines are seen to embody his chosen attitude essentially born of independence and freedom of expression, two ingredients that also mark his dignity as of a writer.
NMT: What do you think about cultural exchange between Vietnam and Vietnamese Diaspora? Unilateral or bilateral? At present and in the future?
NTV: Whether it's a one-way or two-way exchange, we don't need any traffic policemen on either side to monitor the communication process. The most important quality of literature and the arts is freedom of expression; therefore, any restrictions imposed by whichever side deserve condemnation. To have published overseas those works that are banned in Vietnam is meant to not only serve the limited readership outside the country, but partially also to reach the reading public inside the country through avenues provided by current information technology. Everyone can see that freedom of literature and the arts is not a gift that one waits to be given by the government; no matter where he might be, a writer has a price to pay for his chosen attitude.
NMT: Have you read any works published in Vietnam? Can you give us your general impression?
NTV: Before 1975, during my student years and later, I always tried to search out and read books and papers published in the North, including books on literature. Honestly speaking, to a certain extent, the North Vietnamese produced a number of good research works in the social sciences. It was due to a collective effort on their part, coupled with direct financial support from their government. Putting aside the so-called Marxist-Leninist research viewpoint, one should recognize that those published volumes contain a vast amount of data valuable to objective research works in the future.
However, in so far as literature is concerned, in which creativity is of the essence, we cannot but notice that the contrivance of socialist realism has killed off real talent in the generation of writers and artists of the pre-World War-II period and their successors. Having to create under constraints, adhering to the Party's ideology, it's not surprising that what they produced is a type of conformist literature, a whole garden of nothing but uniform marigolds, to quote Phan Khoi who was a member of the Nhan Van Giai Pham group of dissident writers and poets in the North in the late 1950s.
Recently, in Vietnam one talked about Doi moi, or Renovation, then Coi Troi, or removal of restrictions, from writers and artists. I like what writer Mai Thao said with regard to this phenomenon, that artists and writers are not pigs and chickens to be tied and untied. Fortunately, at whatever place you can always find courageous writers who either form a movement like that created by the Nhan Van Giai Pham group, or who are independent individuals. Even though they are not successful in their attempt to affect changes, they represent the light at the end of the tunnel, those who nurture hope and plant seeds of protest which mature later on.
In the book entitled Thu cho Me va Quoc Hoi (Letters to Mother and the National Assembly) by Nguyen Van Tran, published by Van Nghe, an overseas publisher, in 1995, there is mention made of a gathering of "members of the Club of Former Resistant Fighters in South Vietnam, where forty men commemorated one man who had been of the Nhan Van Giai Pham group: poet Phung Quan who had died on the 22nd of January 1995. The living members prayed that the departed soul bear his anger while resting assured that the struggle for human rights and for freedom and democracy was being pursued without slackening." (p. 18)
Someday, when a free and democratic Vietnam comes into being, people will not be able to forget the courage and sacrifice of writers. I'm thinking in this regard of a memorial for the Nhan Van Giai Pham group built right in the cultural capital Ha Noi, at the exact place where the Lenin sculpture was previously set. That would be a symbol of freedom for Vietnamese culture. It would also serve to warn against and to challenge potential young dictators in the future.
NMT: In your opinion, have there been changes related to literature in Vietnam following the economic and social changes?
NTV: The term Doi Moi is no more than a figure of speech referring to an inevitable transformation process of communist societies, when the most important leaders themselves no longer believe in communist dogma. In order to survive, they alter and patch up their inconsistent doctrines, and combine socialism with a market economy, like mixing water with oil, no matter how vigorously you stir them they refuse to blend. But on the political level, it would be quite naïve of us, almost like wishful thinking, to demand or expect that they peacefully and smoothly transfer power to the people. Who should be people in this context if not political organizations with real strength, both internal and external?
The experience of Poland in Eastern Europe deserves our consideration. Walesa, the renowned founder and leader of the Solidarity movement that organized free non-communist trade unions, was elected President of the Republic of Poland in 1990, winning victory over the communist party. But only five years later, that very hero of the people was defeated, ironically through a democratic election, by a young former communist of a not-much-distinguished background. But everyone knows that even though the communists returned to power in that country, there is no chance of restoring the old communist regime, because the communists themselves realize what has transpired is an irreversible process.
Coming back to your question regarding changes in literature "after" economic and social changes in Vietnam: in my view, it isn't as if there were no writers as precursors to the renovation movement, though admittedly they were few. Of note was the exuberant movement of the Nhan Van Giai Pham group that exploded on the scene at that point in time when the socialist stronghold was at its most solid stage. Though the movement was crushed, in practice it succeeded in planting seeds of doubt not only among the public but also right in the ranks of cadres who were members of the Party. From the Nhan Van Giai Pham group to subsequent dissident writers and artists, they all were stormy petrels, and in that light they truly and practically preceded renovation and helped propel the collapse of communism. Of course, I don't take into account the type of writers serving the communist government, those who only put on the cloak of renovation on orders from comrade General Secretary.
NMT: What do you think about overseas Vietnamese literature? Are you pessimistic or optimistic about it? And what's your projection of its future?
NTV: Why should there be pessimism? I have a habit, probably shaped by my medical profession, of looking at the half of a glass full of water instead of at the other half which is empty. While still in Vietnam, could you ever have imagined such a scene of variegated publishing enterprises and activities in literature and the arts, in Vietnamese, as currently exists wherever the Vietnamese Diaspora concentrate and live? Vietnamese press, television and radio stations all have developed spontaneously and independently, without any need for support from any government.
Some people make a value judgment on the confused nature, the commercialization, and the low cultural level of those mass media activities. But to be fair, we should give due credit to those activities for their role in maintaining and developing the Vietnamese language as it is used overseas. Gradually we will have better newspapers and radio programs, and books of various genres that are more beautiful in both content and form, either produced by overseas writers or brought out from Vietnam. Furthermore, we have the book-promotion reception that occurs rather frequently, every month, and sometimes even every week, which is a good tradition, one that helps to foster the author-audience relationship. That is to say nothing of the influential effect that such activities have on cultural life inside Vietnam.
Given the electronic facilities for information transmission these days – the computer, the fax modem, and the Internet – when Vietnamese books and articles have begun to appear online, I believe that all efforts of censorship from whichever side will become ineffective. Therefore, I have a very optimistic vision of the future. The Vietnamese language network on the Internet can't possibly run without inclusion of Vietnamese literature. I want to suppose that if there was a second Nguyen Chi Thien, he would not have to risk his life running into the British embassy where he would seek help smuggling out of the country Hoa Dia Nguc (Flowers from Hell), a collection of his poetry of protest. By the most simple method, he would be able to use a small diskette which stores not only his manuscript but also all available literature of dissent written by people inside Vietnam, and there would not be any difficulty exporting it abroad. As for posting works on the Internet…Well, as an electronic expert yourself, certainly you have clearly visualized what that projected future is likely to be.
Now, with a vision of "The Road Ahead" (to borrow the title of a book by Bill Gates), it's not too early for us to ask ourselves how to use that great freedom on the information-technology superhighway to our benefit. Wouldn't this be a very interesting subject for the second round of interviews you will conduct in the year 2000?
NMT: Do you think there is a standstill in the writing of overseas authors? If you do, can you give some reasons why? And if you see no indication of a deadlock, please also explain your thoughts on this.
NTV: I don't think there is a standstill. Isn't it possible that such an observation has resulted from people's placing too much hope in seeing great works of literature?
When you stop and look at the situation of our writers, you must remember that the earliest date of their arrival in the U.S. was only 20 years ago. There followed batches of them since then. All of them have had to start from the beginning; they have had to adjust to a new way of life – the length of time required for re-settlement being reckoned in terms of years. Uprooted from the homeland, arriving in a place quite unfamiliar and alien, having spent not long enough a time in their adopted country, and seeing their free time reduced almost to non-existence by unavoidable preoccupation with the practical matters of survival, they can't be expected to immediately produce good and substantial works. I think such an expectation is an excessive demand on writers and artists. To my knowledge, at present there exist talented authors who don't announce any grandiose plans for writing, who are quietly and patiently laboring on substantive works that they have long nurtured. Moreover, based on common experience of the aftermath of any war, one should realize that a sufficient distance in time is necessary for past events to settle before one can hope to have great works drawn from them. Indeed, a distance both in time and space is essential for a panoramic view of experience. Many people are worried about the future of Vietnamese culture abroad, when the second generation of Vietnamese immigrants will soon be completely assimilated into the American mainstream, the majority of them forgetting their mother tongue and having no necessity to read printed works in Vietnamese. It is believed that when that situation reaches a pinnacle, the dilemma as to whom to write for will be a type of negative feedback to overseas writers. I myself have a different idea: the Vietnamese language will persist in the Vietnamese Diaspora and will develop further when it targets and is determined to serve the more than 70 million people inside Vietnam.
I also want to refer to the image presented in the LA Times of the American Secretary of State's visit to Hanoi after normalization of relations. He was aware enough to seek a dialogue with students and youths as symbolic of a future Vietnam. Witnessing that scene in the Vietnamese capital, 20 years after the defeat of the Americans, an American journalist expressed his impression that only now did Americans win the war in Vietnam, not by the use of firearms but through the agency of a body of entrepreneurs who, equipped with laptop computers, freely enter and exit Vietnam with the aim of building a network for a market economy.
Then I think of the role of two million Vietnamese living overseas. Gone is the time when anti-communist resistance armies were organized, when establishment of a government in exile was advocated, a government in name only without any substance, as everyone knew. Instead, the strength is vast knowledge of science and technology exhibited in a young generation that boasts of a large number of experts, coupled with the economic potential possessed by businessmen. It's precisely these types of people who will form a strong army whose task is not only to liberate but also to contribute to development of a future Vietnam of more than 70 million people, development not meant for any temporary political regime.
In fact, I don't think it's too much of a dream to envision a near future in which we will have books, newspapers and periodicals printed simultaneously inside and outside of Vietnam. There won't be any iron or bamboo curtain to hide realities, and any effort to maintain censorship will become an obsolete utopian exercise. Readers' letters sent out from Vietnam, from Lang Son in the North to Ca Mau in the South, will provide great encouragement to overseas writers and journalists. Wouldn't you think so?
NMT: What great hope do you have for the role of literature in life at present? Do you think you can make out, even very much subconsciously, the fundamental mission that is a haunting question for writers?
NTV: The country was divided and the war lasted for more than 30 years, during which time the language was abused to the utmost in the service of divisive and deceptive political purposes, so much so that it became corrupted. The word and the true meaning it's supposed to carry don't move in the same direction. One talks about damage and loss in terms of human lives and material destruction. But to me it was destruction within living beings who survived the war, and sadly even within the hearts of children whose inborn compassion was decimated by corruption of language as one among a complement of destructive factors. Now I ask myself how many more years it will take to restore the purity of Vietnamese words. It's in this task of restoration that I have high hopes that literature will play an important role. Really, I'm thinking of the function of writers through their authentic works of art which are capable of deeply evoking emotions in the hearts of readers, works in which word and meaning will be joined together as an integral unit, returning to full functionality language as a connecting bridge for communication and dialogue in society.
NMT: How about a day in the life of the author Ngo The Vinh?
NTV: Usually I don't have a day like any other day. Nonetheless, I have a habit of getting up early, taking a brief look at the daily newspaper and watching morning news on TV. Then I arrive at the hospital also very early. If there's no need for me to check on the hospital ward, I will have almost a quiet hour in my office to take care of whatever comes along. I have a flexible schedule, but generally speaking, I devote eight hours a day to my job as a doctor. To me, happiness, in a manner of speaking, is the evening hours in the familial atmosphere where if I don't read, I can sit down at the computer to write or to edit the pages half finished.
NMT: Have you any plans for writing right now? It is said that you are about to have a work published . If possible, would you brief us on the content of the work?
NTV: By chance, a friend from London sent me a copy of my short story "The Battle of Saigon" that was published in the journal Trinh Bay (Exposition), number 34, in 1971. As I have mentioned, that issue was confiscated because of my story, followed by the troublesome episode of my having to appear in court. Anyway, the copy from my friend gave me a chance to re-read this piece and a number of short stories I wrote afterwards. They were created at long intervals between 1970 and 1990, but they show consistency in content. Therefore I am planning to have the Van Nghe publishing house put out an edition of a collection of twelve stories: "Mat Tran o Sai Gon" (The Battle of Saigon) will be the first and "Giac Mong Con Nam 2000" (A Small Dream) the last. "The Battle of Saigon" will be the title story, and the book is expected to be available at the beginning of 1996.
NMT: Do you have a lot of dreams? And do your dreams transcend time and space?
NTV: After having gone through experiences of disintegration and circumstances thought to be devoid of all hope, at the age of 50 looking backward to the past and forward to the future, I seem to still nurture many dreams, "great dreams, small dreams" – to quote poet Tan Da's expression. After 1975, while still in Vietnam and confined in prison, like my friends and colleagues, I hoped and dreamed of what to do once set free. At that point I did not think of returning to medical practice, but only dreamed of a book I would write. But eight years after that, upon coming to the U.S. for the second time in my life – this time as a refugee – I had to temporarily shelve my literary dreams, so as to cross a river where I would either swim or drown. At times I had the impression of having drowned in the river I had chosen to throw myself in. Eventually I returned to the practice of medicine at the age of 50. In a certain sense, I still love the medical profession, so it's not an exaggeration to say that it's a channel through which I pay my debt for survival to society. Now I have more free time to think about and to work on that book of short stories.
Your question as to whether my dreams transcend time and space reminds me of the point of view expressed by the renowned novelist Nhat Linh, that a good novel remains good no matter where and when it is read. To be able to produce a good work of true value is always the dream of a writer. I'm especially fond of the image in a line of verse by poet Tan Da: "The load on my shoulder is heavy, while the road is far." As to how far one can walk, it depends on the heart and mind as well as the strength and spirit of each writer, doesn't it?
I have another dream, which is not exactly related to literature, but certainly one shared by all members of the Vietnamese Diaspora: the construction of a Cultural Park complex in the year 2000. It should be completed about the same time, if not earlier, as Valor Park which is to be built by Americans in Maryland. Valor Park is to comprise a series of museums dedicated to the seven wars in which Americans were directly involved since the formation of their country, including of course the Vietnam War. From possibility to actual realization, there is a distance; the distance can be covered by knowing how to reach a common denominator that unites Vietnamese people's hearts.
A doctor friend and colleague of mine, of Jewish extraction, was rather surprised to see the high ratio of Vietnamese resident interns who came to our hospital to undergo practical training. He observed that it took our Vietnamese community only twenty years to progress as much or better than other Asian groups who had arrived here a hundred years ago. When he held in his hands a CD-ROM featuring songs by the well-known Vietnamese composer Pham Duy, and another featuring Chopin music played by the award winning pianist Dang Thai Son, my friend added that he could not have imagined us to have entered high technology fields so early. And I'm sure you agree with me that his was not merely a diplomatic comment.
NMT: Lastly, readers would appreciate hearing whatever else author Ngo The Vinh cares to share with them.
NTV: I have always hoped to share thoughts and feelings with my audience through the books I have written and am currently writing. I think also of the readers inside Vietnam.
Interview conducted by Nguyen Manh Trinh
Little Saigon, California, January 1996.
(English version 2004)
Editorial note: Works published in this issue may be simultaneously published in the printed Wordbridge Magazine Issue 6 January 2005 (ISSN: 1540-1723).
Copyright © Nguyen Manh Trinh & The Writers Post 1999-2005. Nothing in this issue may be downloaded, distributed, or reproduced without the permission of the author/ translator/ artist/ The Writers Post/ and Wordbridge magazine. Creating links to place The Writers Post or any of its pages within other framesets or in other documents is copyright violation, and is not permitted.