Larry Heinemann: Born to belong to Việt Nam

January 24, 2020 - 12:52

Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai recalls memories about the veteran who wrote some books "about the war that leaves no doubt about our treatment of the Vietnamese as a culture and a people".



by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai

Recently, at the news of Larry Heinemann’s death, I went to my bookshelf and held the Vietnamese translation of Paco’s Story*, the novel for which he won the National Book Award in 1987. Larry had signed it for me in Hà Nội in 2010, and excitedly requested I read it carefully and let him know my thoughts.

Before that, the novelist Bảo Ninh, author of The Sorrow of War, had asked me to serve as translator when he came to the Rising Dragon Hotel for his meeting with several American writers who had fought opposite him during the war that had killed 490 out of 500 soldiers from his unit. As Larry Heinemann drank whiskey with Bảo Ninh and other veterans from both sides, the men chatted casually about how they would have shot each other had they met during the war. After several hours, Larry told Bảo Ninh: “You’re the brother I’m supposed to have”. “You’re my brother, too,” Bảo Ninh said, patting Larry on the back. The two men hugged each other goodbye, and I was drowned by the sadness in their eyes.

That sadness was manifested in big drops of tears, rolling down Larry’s face two years later in Huế. He was about to depart for Trường Sơn Cemetery for fallen soldiers, as part of the US-Vietnam Literature Conference. When I asked him why he was crying, he placed both hands on my shoulders and said: “I’ll visit ten thousand graves. Ten thousand graves, you know?” I nodded and assured Larry that everything would be okay, but I was lying. Having read his books, I knew Larry hadn’t been at peace since he left the war in 1968.

Later, he would write to me about his visit to Quảng Trị ancient citadel and Trường Sơn Cemetery: “Such painful places, you could feel all that pain seeping up through the ground. I was in one battle where there was much carnage; it was the worst night of my life. I cannot conceive of the 81 days and nights of fighting in Quảng Trị. And Trường Sơn Cemetery was about as much as I could bear. So, yes, tears.”  

Bảo Ninh and I, as well as many of our Vietnamese friends, could not imagine how the compassionate and soulful Larry could have been a combat soldier. As Bảo Ninh once asked in a New York Times essay: “What could the novelist Larry Heinemann have in common with a combat soldier in the 25th Tropic Lightning Division who fought in the bloody battles in Tây Ninh?”

Translating Larry’s essay about his return trips to Viet Nam intensified my own love for my homeland. On his visit to his former battlefield at Núi Bà Đen – the Black Virgin Mountain – Larry wrote: “Getting to Bà Đen’s temple is not an easy climb, but you stand there looking out at the broad panorama of earth, and your heart fills with delight. There is a quality of light, a deep panorama of green, stunning in its richness. It has always seemed to me to be the green of all green.” Later, he would tell me: “The mountain is a remarkable place: it gave me something all those years ago that I didn't even know I needed. It is my home.” 

Perhaps it was our common love for a peaceful Viet Nam that rooted my friendship with Larry – someone whom I had once considered the enemy of my family: my parents barely escaped American bombings. It is ironic that Larry’s books helped me imagine how the war was for my Uncle Hải who had fought opposite him and who was never able to talk about his war-related experiences. The insightful conversations I had with Larry as we walked Ha Noi’s Old Quarter, sat side-by-side at the conference room in Huế, or cruised the Perfume River let me understand more about war’s devastating impact on the human soul.

Reading Larry’s novels, one might think that he is an angry Viet Nam veteran, but deep down, Larry is “a generous, great-hearted, truth-telling man whose spirit, like the words he left us, burned hard and bright and beautiful,” according to the novelist Wayne Karlin. I have seen such bright light in Larry’s eyes whenever he talked about his son Preston, his daughter Sarah, and his grandchild Clementine. He revealed to me that he was planning on writing “a bunch of short little 'ditties' titled The City of Bears” – a book dedicated to his granddaughter.

Sadly, Larry’s health did not let him continue this last important project. A few weeks before his death, he wrote to me that his doctor had given him only a few months to live, and he had been concentrating on surviving until Tết – the Vietnamese New Year. “I tell you Quế Mai, I never thought I would last this long – I'll be 76 in January – and truth to tell I thought that I was coming home in a bag in 1968. So, this has all been gravy, as Americans like to say. I've been lucky; survived the war without a scratch, discovered a craft that I love and am pretty good at, and wrote a couple of books about the war that leaves no doubt about our treatment of the Vietnamese as a culture and a people. I have been blessed with many Vietnamese friends, perhaps the best of friends…”

I deeply regret I wasn’t able to meet Larry one more time as I had hoped for. There are still many things we need to talk about, and I need to tell Larry in person how much his work has inspired me. As Viet Thanh Nguyen wrote after Larry’s death, his books “taught me that a writer cannot flinch, cannot editorialise, cannot sentimentalise, in order to make himself and his readers feel better.”

Larry’s family has informed his friends that those who would like to make a charitable donation in memory of Larry could consider donating to The Midwest Shelter for Homeless Veterans which finds permanent housing for homeless veterans in the Chicago area. This wish is in the true spirit for the many things that Larry did for so many others.

Larry’s partner, Kathy Favor, told me that Larry had requested that he be cremated and his ashes spread across Lake Michigan in Chicago where he spent most of his life. Since the lake is frozen, a ceremony will take place in the summer. I would like to send along something special from Viet Nam for the ceremony. And I can already see Larry’s soul rising up from Lake Michigan occasionally, travelling back to a country where he had fought and lost his youth, the same country which had become his heart’s home. And there, his many friends, myself included, will be opening our arms to welcome him back because Larry is our family.


  • Chuyện của Paco, translated by Phạm Anh Tuấn, the Women's Publishing House of Viet Nam, 2019.