Viet Nam News
By Hồ Anh Thái
It would be a waste to stay inside during a Northern European white night, the writers tell each other. They have come to attend the International Writers’ Conference being held in the old quarter of Stockholm. Alright. Gaggles of writers surge out of the hotel, cross Kungsgatan or King Street to Drottninggatan or Queen Street, then walk along the latter to get to the Royal Palace.
Ten in the evening and the sky is still as bright as midday, the sun shining radiantly. Midnight: the sky still blue, the clouds still white. As time moves towards morning, the air remains luminous, the leaves in the surrounding trees glowing incandescently as the sunlight shines through them. The writers sit on a bridge behind the Royal Palace, talking all night in reverent murmurs. Would the sun that has shone so brilliantly all night long ever stumble, relent even a little bit to allow a transition into a new dawn?
She remembers her first white nights in this Northern European land. She is an Asian writer from a country of deserts and arid mountains, a so-called republic where the clergy wielded unlimited power. They had banned her novel; the supreme leader had sentenced her to death by beheading. Any believer living in or out of the country could prove his faith by carrying out that sentence. Secular powers supported her. Democratic countries supported her. But each seemed to be waiting for the other to act first. Meanwhile, hostile mobs laid siege to her house. They threw stones, broke her windows, piled sand bags around her house like a fortification. She had no doubt that someday somebody would pick up a knife or a gun and kill her. But then this remote Northern European country had stretched out its hand. While still living in her homeland, she had been granted political asylum, and by that same evening had become a Swedish citizen. That fast. But just in time. She went to the airport in the morning as if she were going to work. That morning she had still been in a relationship with a man. The next day she was in a new country and on her own.
We stroll over a bridge behind the Royal Palace, and look across at the opera house which glows golden under the midnight sun as she tells me her story. I already knew it; it had been all over the international media for decades. Even so, when I first saw her in person, I was a bit surprised. She calls herself Swedish, yet her hair is black and her skin brown. It was still a bit disconcerting, just as seeing a black-skinned or Asian person calling themselves Dutch or French may have seemed somewhat jarring a few years ago. But with the waves of immigrants pouring onto European shores over the past decades, Europe was being colonized in reverse, its demographics gradually taking on darker hue, its cultural life gradually assuming countless new habits and customs not native to the continent.
So she had become a European. She hadn’t suspected that when she had begun to write her first novel, she had effectively started to put herself into exile. What did she write? Her novels continued the same fight for women that she had always fought as a lawyer. For years, she had defended underprivileged women free of charge; as a novelist she told stories about rural girls who suffered genital mutilation due to religious customs. Women were second-class citizens. Women were filth, their orgasms were a shame that needed to be eradicated. Women were property, breeding machines for their husbands. They didn’t have the right to reach orgasm. Such was reality, but who in her country would allow a writer, a female writer especially, to expose it! She was a writer. She was a lawyer. But she was only a woman. A second-class citizen. And If a second-class citizen insulted God, that second-class citizen must be killed.
Coming from a hot climate, she had immediately been assaulted upon her arrival in Europe by her first freezing winter. In this northern land, for six months every year the sky is dark and dreary, the drab gray light of day only lasting from ten in the morning to three in the afternoon. October to April. Unless they had some special purpose, nobody bothered to venture out of their homes. Throughout that first winter, even though the weather was freezing, she boiled inside. In the following winters, as she gradually cooled down, the weather seemed to grow colder. Her work was to do public readings and discussions. Her novel had been translated into English and Swedish. Many libraries, clubs and schools invited her to come and speak about the social issues brought up in her novel. Emotional moments. Moving details. But her audiences seemed ignorant about both her subject matter and the art of literature itself. Their questions seemed irrelevant and strange. Did she write factual stories or did she make things up? Did somebody suggest ideas to her or did she come up with them on her own? Did she write better in daylight or in the evening?
For six chilly, gloomy months, she stayed at home and wrote. She wrote until she felt empty. Until her mind didn’t seem to contain anything anymore. She became inert. She visited nobody and nobody visited her. She was given a house in the countryside. If she wanted to see her nearest neighbor, she would have to drive ten kilometers. She raised a few cows. At the end of each harvest season she would drive out to buy grass. And hay. The hay was bound and rolled up and resembled big round rolls of paper in a printing house. In her home country she was a lawyer. Here she was a dairy farmer. She visited nobody and nobody visited her. She wrote and milked cows. She milked cows and ate. The colder the weather, the more she ate. She gained weight very fast. 62 kilos. 71. 79. 85. One day she was startled to realize her weight had almost reached 100 kilos. Separation from one’s native culture, cold weather and weight gain were all related to each other. Gradually her public readings thinned out. People let her resume a normal life. To be normal was good; one couldn’t live perpetually agitated. Some political refugees were forgotten right after they set foot in a new country. Completely forgotten. Once business was done, it was done.
The perpetual cacophony of gunfire and bomb blasts that marked her country dimmed from her memory. So did her former lover. At the time she left her country, he had been seized by panic. She had been sentenced to death and he was associated with her. When someone fired a gun at somebody else, the bullet often ricocheted into some bystander. He couldn’t follow her to that cold land and leave behind his parents and family. He couldn’t abandon the law firm that he and she had built together. You go first, I’ll follow in a few years. So he said. Or perhaps in a few years, when the situation changes, you can return. So he said. It was impossible. The death penalty was imposed for eternity.
One day, strangely enough, she had a visitor. One had to drive for a long time to get to her house. Nobody came to her nor did she call on anybody. Her visitor was a native of the country, with golden hair and blue eyes. He had attended two of her public readings and had read her novel so many times that he had memorized certain paragraphs. He arrived at the house during one of those white nights, in the middle of summer. She had drawn shut all curtains in her house and rolled down plastic blinds to create darkness. Yet throughout the night sunlight still pierced through the valances. She lay sleepless. Only sick people could lie in bed in broad daylight. She threw the window wide open, sat down and looked out across the river. It was three in the morning. The sun was still flaming over the church steeple on the other side of the river.
Her visitor couldn’t sleep either. He sat with her and they stared out at the white night. Her house was so close to the artic that the white nights there lasted for a whole month. He invited her to go with him to the capital, further south: white nights there only lasted two weeks. She would be spared half a month of white nights.
Yes. The two of them jumped in his car and drove until they got to his apartment in the ancient quarter in Stockholm. She fled from the white nights by wearing a black band over her eyes while sleeping. You can’t flee the light forever like this, the young man said. You should return to your home country, where there is no white night, where you won’t have to flee the light. She said, I’m just an immigrant here. He said, it’s your country’s fault. She said, I’m so fat. He said, it’s my country’s fault.
He urged her to return to the land with no white nights. Did he want to push her away so soon after they made love? No, if she went home he would go with her. He would follow her wherever she went. She had accidentally chosen a soldier’s life. And a true soldier should fight on the front line, rather than stand behind it, broadcasting through a loudspeaker. So the two packed up and went to West Asia, where they were given residency in a country neighboring her own. She was not permitted to return home. The court there was still enforcing the ban on her novel and the death penalty was still in effect.
The neighboring country in which she found refuge supported democracy and religious diversity. She was permitted to speak. To read in public. But in one such exchange with readers, religious extremists in disguise infiltrated into the audience. They asked provocative questions, insulted and cursed her, and screamed protests. Down! Down! Down! They flooded into the room waving banners marked with slogans. The copies of her book piled on table became weapons for the attacking mass. Hard-cover books flew like bullets toward her. More. More. More. Protesters rained their banners down on her head. Bam! Bam! Bam! The young Northern European man bent his tall frame over her body and branched his limbs out to protect her. When her fans jumped in to help her, he led her out of the ensuing chaos, suffering beating and serious injury. He decided to re-examine his theory of struggle. A true soldier didn’t have to always fight on the front line. At least not in this literary struggle.
So they returned to the land of white nights. It was the middle of summer. On the literary scene, the International Writers’ Conference was honoring another Asian female writer. Her hair was as white as snow; if she had carried a magic wand, she would have made a perfect fairy. She slowly walked into the center of the stage and sat down on the chair reserved for her. I’m 70 years-old now and have lived for half a century in exile from my home country, she said. Why was I expelled? They charged me with breaking taboos by writing about the oppression of women. But why is it taboo for a woman in particular to reveal the double standard with which our gender is treated?
The younger author stared at that aged lady and thought, when I’m 70, will I still have enough inspiration left to sit on that chair, on that stage?
At that moment a young woman in the audience stood up and a member of the organising board passed a microphone to her. She stood with her feet apart, planted firmly and aggressively, as she asked her question: Dear madam, did you actually fight for women’s equality there in your own country or did you only do it safely here for the last half a century, in the pages of your books? The writer raised her right hand over her eyes and peered into the darkness: Who is speaking? Let me see your face. The young woman turned away, embarrassed. She was standing in a dark corner of the auditorium away from the spot light. The old woman slowly stood up, toddled a few steps to the edge of the stage and said again: Let me see your face. I’m not used to talking to someone I can’t see.
Not used to talking to someone speaking from the dark. Like a ghost. Again the young writer thought: when I’m her age, will I sit home and rock myself, or will I still have enough will power to appear before a crowd, as she does?
For now, she is sitting here, talking to us, on the bridge leading to the stone gate of the Royal Palace. It is a white night. If she goes home now, even if she draws the curtains, she still wouldn’t be able to hide the sunlight that shone from midnight to morning.
* * *
She remembers her first white night sitting by the window with her Northern European boyfriend.
At two in the morning she asked him when the sun would set.
At three in the morning she asked if the sun was going to set. The sun had remained in the same place, above the steeple on the other side of the river.
At four in the morning she asked when the sun would fade away below the trees on the other side. It should go down a little at least, before rising again for a new day. She raised a hand before her face, using the vertical distance from the forefinger to the thumb to measure the distance of the sun from the river. The sun was one span away from the river. She dozed off, leaning on his shoulder.
At five in the morning she was startled awake and sat up straight. Oh. She exclaimed. Oh, she exclaimed once more. It took her a while to speak. Oh, why? The sun had never set. Its distance from the river was still one span between her fingers. Earlier it had been right above the steeple. By now it had slid to the right, hanging like a red balloon above a green grove.
The sun didn’t set. It had moved horizontally. VNS
Translated by Thùy Linh
Adapted by Wayne Karlin