Literature opens my path into Vietnam

February 18, 2019 - 05:53

Literature transformed what was to be a short meeting to schedule a tour of Kontum into a four-hour conversation. Once we found out we shared a love for books, myself and Huyh the operator of a travel company in the central highlands, spent hours citing and quoting authors.

Paul Christiansen. — Photo courtesy of the author
Viet Nam News

by Paul Christiansen*

Literature transformed what was to be a short meeting to schedule a tour of Kontum into a four-hour conversation. Once we found out we shared a love for books, myself and Huynh, the operator of a travel company in the Central Highlands, spent hours citing and quoting authors. The next day, the standard trip around the countryside quickly morphed into a series of visits to his friends’ homes. At each stop, we were invited into living rooms, offered spreads of food and engaged in thrilling conversations. Hours past after the tour was scheduled to conclude, and I found myself in a home filled with 10 Vietnamese from the north, south and central regions, talking about our hometowns, backgrounds and lives. It was not the first time people here have shown me such generosity nor was it surprising that literature occupied a central part of the experience.

“I need to come back,” I said to myself while boarding a plane in Hà Nội bound for the US after a semester abroad in 2007. Because of the kindness people showed, Việt Nam’s rich cultural history and our countries’ complex relationship, I knew I needed to return to learn and contribute. It took a bit longer than expected, but after finishing my master’s degree in poetry, I received a Fulbright Fellowship and was finally able to move to Vietnam in 2015. Many of the travels, friendships and publications I’ve enjoyed during the past years have been encouraged and informed by Vietnamese literature.

In America, Việt Nam is unfortunately often seen as synonymous with a war whose narrative is shaped by Western writers. Works of literature, however, reveal inner thoughts. By reading and gaining a more intimate and complete understanding of other perspectives, people from different cultures realise what they have in common and why differences should be explored and celebrated.

As a staff writer for Saigoneer, an arts and culture publication based in Việt Nam, I have dedicated my time to introducing people inside and outside of the country to Vietnamese writers. By profiling authors such as Dạ Ngân, Đoàn Lê and Quế Mai Phan Nguyễn, I strive to not only champion the craft but share stories that reveal cultural values and their origins. Whether its descriptions of post-war poverty, societal transformations during Đổi Mới or the beauty and challenges of modern lifestyles, the books allow foreigners to view the country beyond conflict and stereotypes.

Literature also has the power to connect Overseas Vietnamese who sometimes experience a precarious relationship with their home country: it’s where they and their families are from and yet they might not feel fully acquainted. Reading Vietnamese writers lets them understand the country and its people, allowing them to retain ties. Similarly, many Vietnamese here have relatives living abroad, but may not understand what their lives are like. What does it even mean to be a “hyphen” Vietnamese? Literature can help answer these questions and I have therefore published articles on the works and lives of diaspora writers such as Teresa Chuc Mei and Hoa Nguyen.

Even before I began writing articles and interviews with Vietnamese authors, I experienced the power of literature to educate. The major aim of my Fulbright Fellowship was to engage in cultural exchange with the students at a gifted high school in Quy Nhơn.

Students and friends in Quy Nhơn were eager to help me explore Việt Nam, and literature again was at the centre of much of the exchange.

In addition to educating, cultural exchange is a great source of inspiration. The swirl of new ideas, sights, tastes, language and customs jolts the imagination. Much of the poetry I have written recently is very rooted in these intellectual and sensory encounters. Not only can the works help share my impressions with people outside of Việt Nam, but sometimes a foreigner’s perspective reveals aspects of culture that goes unnoticed or unremarked upon by people within it.

Many of my experiences regarding exchange via literature have relied on institutional support, be it government fellowship, schools or publications. There is, however, a rich and vibrant community that exists beyond formal avenues. Books borrowed by friends, debates in coffee shops and impromptu readings in bars - I’ve come to understand that literature and cultural exchanges can exist as long as there is passion, interest and attention.

The variety of means for encountering literature is important because one barrier to cultural exchange is always financial. Budgets are limited and a business-minded economy often dismisses arts as having limited value. Nowadays, no one becomes a writer because it is a financially prudent decision, but because of an innate compulsion and belief that arts make the world a better place. But just because writers create for reasons beyond mere money, that doesn’t mean they can go without it. Needing to work day-jobs takes away from the time they can compose while a lack of funding for events, visits and readers limits the encounters for students and fans. This is why the International Conference introducing and promoting Vietnamese literature and the International Poetry Festival are so important.

Further compounding the problem, with social media and the internet, people’s attentions are bombarded with options for entertainment and seemingly old-fashioned hobbies like reading are increasingly abandoned. The challenge, therefore, becomes not only how to get literature in front of people’s eyes, but how to make them want to even read in the first place. Awareness and opportunity seem to be the best answers to these questions. Thanks to the high-profile attention they attract, the conference and festival, once again, serve as powerful ways to disseminate literature.

Language barriers represent another challenge for connecting with people from different countries. If people cannot communicate with one another, how can they understand each other? Music and visual art may need no translations, but literature certainly does. While there are many Vietnamese and foreigners dedicating their free time to publishing Vietnamese works in other languages, they will never be able to keep up with everything that is being written, to say nothing of all that already has been. One motivation I have for attending this conference is to connect with Vietnamese writers who I can collaborate on translations with.

Without literature, my understanding of Vietnamese culture would be significantly less, my friendships fewer and less fulfilling and my general ability to connect and contribute greatly reduced. My impact on Việt Nam and on its people may be modest, but whatever I can contribute will hopefully be done through the promotion and preservation of poems and stories: an aim exemplified by this conference. — VNS

*Paul Christiansen received his BA at St. Olaf College and his MFA at Florida International University. A former Fulbright Fellow and winner of two Academy of American Poetry awards, he currently lives and works in Hồ Chí Minh City, writing for Saigoneer, where he has published several articles about Vietnamese literature as well as stories about Vietnamese culture such as whale worship, the history of rice wine and the legends and cultivational practices of lychee. This is an edited version of his speech at the 4th Conference on Advertising Vietnmamese Literature held in Hà Nội.