Viet Nam News
Last Friday, Vietnamese poet Mai Văn Phấn received the prestigious Cikada Prize from chairman of the jury, Dr Lars Vargo, a distinguished fellow from Sweden’s Institute for Security & Development Policy at the Temple of Literature in Hà Nội.
Lê Hương spoke with Dr Vargo, who has been ambassador of Sweden to South Korea (2006-11); ambassador of Sweden to Japan (2011-14); and most recently a guest professor at Josai International University in Tokyo (2015-16), in addition to working as a writer and translator himself.
Please tell us a little about the Cikada Prize. Who can enter?
The prize is first of all open to poets from East Asia, who live in [mainland] China, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Việt Nam. Most of the poets eligible for the prize are from these countries [and territories]. We have not decided exactly how East Asia should be defined, but it’s for East Asian poets. The poet, male or female, should clearly show sensitivity, specifically in defence of the inviolability of life itself. Entrants should treasure life and regardless of cultural background or religion, simply think that man is supposed to live in harmony.
What do you think about Mai Văn Phấn’s poetry?
I think it’s great. There are so many aspects to his poetry. He writes some short poems, which remind me of Japanese haiku and tanka. He also writes longer works on philosophy and also poems that remind me of French symbolism. So he has a lot of richness in his poetry. His work covers a wide variety of themes. He’s a very good poet and has also been translated into several languages. This of course is important that we have translations into local languages as well. Although we have some people in Sweden that can read Vietnamese.
Does this mean you only judge poems in English or French?
No. We have several people who can read other languages. Like myself, I can read Japanese, some Chinese. We have other specialists to read Chinese, we have others who can read Vietnamese, and Korean also. We consult with them and then we make our own translation and we try to read as much as possible in the original languages although everyone in the jury cannot read every language. We discuss and talk about it.
What do you think about the chance of co-operation between the Swedish Writers’ Union and the Vietnamese one?
Oh I think it’s wonderful. I think it’s good. The co-operation does exist between individual writers and poets but this is something we can build on and I think we can go much further. I myself am a member from the Swedish Writers’ Union, and I will be happy to work with the Việt Nam Writers’ Union and other people in the union will be happy to do that too. Although I don’t represent the Swedish Writers’ Union, I’m just a member of it. But I’m sure the union would be happy to co-operate.
Have there been any co-operation activities between the two organisations so far?
One concrete activity is to translate poetry. So we have already published Mai Văn Phấn’s work in Swedish. Based on that, we can have seminars, workshops to discuss.
Is this your first trip to Việt Nam?
This is probably my 7th or 8th time in Việt Nam. I was here two years ago when Phan Ý Nhi received the Cikada Prize, and I was here the year before that when the Swedish Embassies had their regional meeting in Hà Nội.
Earlier, when I worked at the Swedish Parliament, as Head of the International Section, I visited Việt Nam in connection with our co-operation with the National Assembly. I don’t remember exactly, but it was three or four times.
Việt Nam is a very nice country, full of charm, history and culture. The most obvious change that I notice is that cars have now increased greatly in number. There are hardly any bicycles around any more.
People have also become more internationalised and more and more people speak English.
What do you think about contemporary Vietnamese writers?
That’s a difficult question, since I feel I haven’t read enough pieces by Vietnamese writers.
But my impression is that Vietnamese writers are in an interesting position, where they can combine the heritage from their rich cultural traditions with modern challenges and rapid changes. There is so much left of what one could call the "real Việt Nam". When this is combined with today’s modern world the results become both creative and sensitive to the importance of cherishing true human values. — VNS