Writer Nguyen Huy Thiep, 62, has written a new book unlike anything he has done before. Vong Buom (Butterfly Spirits) marks a change for the famous prose writer as it is in the form of cheo (traditional opera) scripts. Thiep published his first book, Tuong Ve Huu (The Retired General), in 1987. He quickly came to fame and became the Vietnamese writer with the largest number of works translated into other languages. He spoke to Culture Vulture about his career and his new work.
Many readers are surprised that you can write cheo scripts since you're best known as a master of the short story. How do you explain your new style?
I think that fate led my way naturally because I love cheo. It's the appealing art of the Vietnamese stage and it's authentically Vietnamese. A cheo script is written in luc bat verse (couplets of six and eight-word sentences). In my opinion, poetry is the root of all literary genres. If a writer improves his fund of poetry, his writing may be more profound and meaningful. In the past, I have included verses in my short stories. This is the first time I have written a work solely in verse. The book consists of two piece of cheo in which I tell the stories of people searching for a peaceful and happy life.
Do you expect to preserve cheo's value through Vong Buom?
I do. A while back, I saw an updated cheo which was directed in very modern way. I really didn't like it. I think updating decreases the value of traditional cheo. The effort and money spent to stage it were wasted. But it gave me an idea to write a traditional cheo script.
In modern life in a time of globalisation, literature, culture and the arts are updated and, in some cases, hybridised to make something ridiculous. It's time we have to learn from and preserve the original.
Do you think that Vong Buom will be staged and embraced by audiences?
That's not important. I just try my best to create good work. I have had successes and failures in the 20 years of my career. Sometimes, people praise my books, while others criticise them. Releasing a new book doesn't change anything. There will be some that value my work and some that don't.
I don't expect to save traditional cheo, compete with other playwrights or work with any other great purpose. I just work with my all heart, mind and soul.
At the ceremony in Ha Noi to announce the publication of your book, some critics said your cheo scripts would not be easy to direct on stage. Do you agree?
I have written plays and now a cheo scripts. They are not difficult to act. I haven't always been satisfied with the way my dramas have been staged. If I were a director, I might do it in another way. Over the past 20 years, I have followed theatre groups with interest, and I have found some private groups in the southern provinces who work with professional skill and enthusiasm. I believe that they could successfully adapt my cheo scripts to the stage.
Is reading still popular in Viet Nam?
Vietnamese people still love reading. Well-known works by foreign writers are bestsellers in Viet Nam. Reading helps people improve themselves. If your children love reading and read good books, you can feel secure about their future and morality. — VNS