Người dịch : Nguyễn Sĩ Hồng Hạnh (12- 11-2006)
Hiệu đính: Diễm Châu & Khải Thư
Chuyển ngữ từ “Ta Tìm Tiếng Ta: Nói Cùng Tiếng qua Mẫu Tính”
Bài đọc của Nguyễn Thị Minh Ngọc tại Women Playwrights International
The 7th Triennial Conference 2006, Jakarta-Bali- Indonesia.
Chủ Ðề “Tự Do Văn Hoá Trong Một Thế Giới Ða Dạng”
Finding our Voices:
Speaking a Common Language through Maternal Instinct
1. The Versatility of Language
Every morning when we read through the newspaper we see news about efforts to improve quality of life, alongside news of bloodshed in many places of the world, because misunderstanding originates from differences in political views and religious beliefs, and conflicts in language.
Greed, cruelty, aggressiveness, and hatred cause death and mutual destruction everywhere, regardless of a country’s wealth, sophistication of culture, level of development, or language of communication.
If the world were a mother, then she would writhe in pain everyday from the wounds on her body and the bruises on the bodies of her children, bruises that the children themselves create.
When I was a student, because of a play that I wrote, I went from being a top student to being expelled by the school’s disciplinary committee. In the play, I made the assertion, “It’s uncertain that my seniors or my teachers necessarily understand the deep morals of life.” Even some of my teachers and fellow students supported that idea. But because they were willing to skip school to support me, my permanent expulsion from school was reduced to a one-month suspension. From then I learned the lesson: the versatility and flexibility of language lead to open meaning but also to misinterpretation.
2. To decrease the potential of misunderstanding between those of the same nation.
Every nation has its sensitive issues. My country, especially, tells of our nation’s beginning through the tale of the first Vietnamese couple, who after having 100 children together, had to part. The husband took fifty children to the sea, and the wife took fifty children to the mountains.
Misunderstanding is common despite the sharing of one language. We often joke that in order to talk about the Vietnamese, we have to ask carefully, “which Vietnamese”? Northern, Southern, or Central Vietnamese? Overseas Vietnamese, or Communist Vietnamese, Traitorous Vietnamese?
I want to tell you about an experience of a stage performance that could be interpreted in many ways.
Often when I’m alone, I envision the characters I’ve written, directed or played, which I have used to help audiences better understand Vietnam in general and a complicated southern theater in particular.
One of the scenes I often use is of a mother who in war must leave her own children in order to save the lives of thousands. There have been at least five different interpretations of this scene from audience members:
- In the country side, where the audience members have to row boats and light torches in order to come to the show, the women cry and recognize their own life sacrifices in the story.
- A young male audience member from the United States, after watching that scene with nine other scenes in my solo performance, suggested that Vietnamese men should not see Minh Ngoc’s performance because the play condemns their irresponsibility.
- When performed at a conference on women in the theater in Manila, the performances from Vietnam were perceived as melodrama.
- A Vietnamese American suggested that American college students should not watch the performance because in American culture, it is absolutely unacceptable for a mother to leave her children.
- A Vietnamese American woman who had not even seen the performance concluded that I wanted to support the current political system by praising a woman who would later become the leader of the Vietnamese Women’s Association.
I wouldn’t be surprised if there were dozens more interpretations of that scene. When I look back at my work, even I have varying interpretations, much less others.
Sometimes I think, I am that mother, even though I had never once given birth, and no longer will have the chance to enjoy the happiness of motherhood. But my own artistic works can be seen as the child that I long for. In the cruel mandate and destiny of my country, often we artists have to cut off and cast away even our deepest intestines, our very own body parts. I have only one certainty, that when I create, I have been true to my creation. Adapt in order to exist, but stay true to yourself, isn’t that the distinctive quality of our people?
Imagine a people whose parents had to separate early, but who now have grown to a population of eighty million. In the last millennium, our country endured one thousand years of influence from the northern nations, and one hundred years in which the French split us into north, south, and center. In 1975, the price for a united Vietnam was the wrongs and resentments that would lead millions of Vietnamese to drift to foreign lands. It is this very Vietnamese diaspora that have in turn made both spiritual and material contributions back to the homeland. In the thirty years of peace within the nation, we’ve had to battle two enemies, poverty and ignorance (both of which together, lead to immorality).
Without having the generous and open heart of a mother-- as the children of a motherland whose children have been ripped from the mother’s heart and and thrown in a hundred different directions—our internal hatred and resentment would poor out endlessly.
3. “The instinct of a mother,” or the third way towards understanding and being understood
Many people (both men and women) view that my country’s culture tends towards the feminine--that we lean towards emotion over reason, amateurism over professionalism, and that we are driven by foreign influence rather than by internal will.
I prefer the idea of “maternal instinct” over that of “femininity.” When one lives in a house dominated by strident beliefs advocating for resolution only through hatred and brute strength, many children just want to love their mothers in their own individual styles. (the more power one has, the more money or more rifles he holds in his hand, the more he wants to have absolute authority over “love,” and show others that they can love their mothers only officially like they love the mother-country.)
You are an artist, and a woman, and your language is not like a gun or knife that must battle with weapons of steel, but the language of a mother that can be honed to guide and protect our children. We use this maternal language to protect even ourselves from the children who can kill us. And this maternal language is also our children. Do not forget, our artistic works are also for our children, the flesh and blood that have mouths but cannot speak.
I often tell myself to create for those who cannot speak. Those who are the innocent who die in a dark ocean or mountain far off, those who are locked away from freedom, those who are alive but really dead, those children of the later generations who have not yet been born.
To me, men will also be able to hone their language of “maternal instinct” if in addition to their talent and will, they have a heart full of empathy and tolerance.
Up to now, coming to this dangerous job of my destiny, I have been awarded in my country for many of my works, but I’ve also encountered difficulty, even had to change, or to stop not a small number of my works. In the interview entitled “I thank those who hate me,” I’ve expressed that I’ve had to, like mothers who love their most unhappy children, give more love to those “children” whose noses and hands have been cut off, or even those children killed inside their mother’s womb.
One thing is that most of the members in the censorship committee do not share the same language with those in the arts. If it wasn’t for their inability to understand my language, I wouldn’t be able to find a third path full of difficulty and enjoyment. If following the first path, I forge forward unyieldingly with my idea, I will find my artwork censured, unable to reach an audience (the people for whom I create). If following the second path, I censor my work according to the committee, the work will no longer be mine. If I want my work to be alive, and for it to still be mine, I must invent a third path.
For instance, the main character Bach in my play entitled “Behind the Smiling face,” has the ability to read people’s minds. Everybody wants to possess him for his insight; a bride wants to use him to make sure that her groom loves her and not her money; a father about to give his children an inheritance has the same concern; and crooks try to use Bach for their own evil doings. Bach tries to hide in a hospital but is pursued until he has to run further. In the end, these people threaten his mother to force him to appear. Crooks get a hold of Bach, but he becomes mute. Nine members of the censorship committee allowed for the play to be performed, but only one was able to recognize the author’s idea: “Those who know too much must keep their mouths shut.” He decided that the play could be performed only if I cut out the idea that Bach becomes mute at the end of the play. Finally, I allowed Bach to speak only one word, and the play was allowed a life on the stage.
If it were you, what word would you choose? I’ve asked many of my students this. Some say: No! Some choose, Why, Stupid, Crazy. I chose ME. (In Vietnamese, depending on how you intonate the word, it can be understood as either “mother” or “motherfucker”.)
4. The influence of “maternal instinct” on other fields
Particularly in my nation and with my people, approaching other avenues of life through “maternal instinct” can tremendously reduce feelings of greed and evil. Through it, one can learn how to better live, reduce jealousy and conflict, learn how to sacrifice, and to give. One can learn to ask himself what he will do for his mother or child, rather than ask others to give up their lives for his own flourishment.
A foreign screenwriter, after observing the state of my country’s cinema, joked that “A country that has been victorious militarily against both the French and the Americans, is now defeated in film by Asian countries such as China and Korea?”
In the year 2004, my play “Between the fields of smoke and fog” revealed that a large number of my country’s youths don’t quite remember Vietnamese history, while, as a result of our country’s television and advertisement programs, they know Chinese history and obsess about Korean stars.
Yes, while I taught, I have cried in front of my college students at the realization that those youths were so in the dark about the history and geography of my country. If they were ignorant about the people whose names designate the streets on which they walk, then how could they remember the heroes and heroines whose deaths have served those living today, but who remain unnamed because many reasons make it impossible for their sacrifices to be written down?
In order to arouse the “maternal instinct” in every citizen so that the instinct can improve all fields of human life, those who hold power, in particular, need to have the heart of a mother, the reason of a father, and a point of view that cuts across many different perspectives, a point of view full of the love and responsibility of those who carry on their shoulders the life and future of a people of a proud history.
5. The Feminine Voice in the Theater
Choosing the theater as a means of expression, a woman of my country has many advantages and disadvantages. The majority of our famous literary works, even written by male authors, uses a central female character through which to reflect the conditions and desires of the author.
Is it because the woman represents the beautiful, good, and true? Even when those values are violated, and regardless of whether she succeeds or fails at upholding this sacred image, the woman can more easily stir the hearts of the audience.
Living in a country with so many female heroes, I just hope that somehow their inner spirit and inner struggle can pass on to those living today, so that we can continue to be capable of such beautiful, life-giving acts.
Once, Duong Van Nga, the queen of my country had to become the wife of two kings in order to help the country escape the threat of foreign invasion. Every year, when they brought the sedan-chair to take her from one king to the other, they would still whip on her chair to punish her for her sin of having two husbands.
Seven hundred years ago, Huyen Tran, a princess from my country also had to marry off to another country in exchange for a large expanse of land which later became the capital of our last dynasty.
In the year 2003, my play “Missing Woman” was invited to perform in Manila. In the last minute, I received a suggestion that in order for the show to go on, I had to eliminate the image of both of these women (Duong Van Nga and Huyen Tran). If I didn’t cut out these images, the organizers would have to invite another group of Vietnamese women who would perform a Chinese play to…represent Vietnam.
As a female artist, I’ve witnessed both in my country and in other countries of the world, many female colleagues who have had to leave their work and even their locale because of sexual harassment and unequal treatment. Those who have chosen to keep working often have to feign ignorance or madness, or become unfeeling when the need arises; in order to survive, even becoming men themselves.
If the voice of the woman in Vietnamese theater can flourish, it carries with it a double function: it is the voice of those women who represent parts of the nation’s body that have been mutilated by evil and greed; it is also the silent scream of women in creative labor struggling to bring to life their unsevered and complete creative works.
6. Breaking the Language Barrier between Artists and Communities for Global Understanding
Women often outnumber men in countries’ populations. There may be few women in the arts, but their language is often the language of the majority. Even male authors use language full of ‘maternal quality” in their works. Using the language of the majority, a language full of “motherly instinct” will help communities of different cultures better understand one another.
Recently, when doing research on a nation in our country territory, we were touched to discover that there were some Indonesian words (Bahia Indonesia), that, passing through the Cham language, was preserved in the Vietnamese lexicon, i.e., pu lao, ibu, susu. We thought that the “Six-Eight” Poem (that had alternate verses of six words and eight words) was the specialty of the Viet people. Now we know that the Cham people have almost the same.
In the context of my country, sometimes it is easier to use a foreign playscript to deal with a domestic issue—in order to pass the censors. In the year 2004, through a Chinese play, we were able to send this message, “The lords need servants, not advisers.”
Of course, being able to speak our own language to discuss issues at the heart of our eighty million people brings us greater joy than borrowing the language of another people to speak. I believe this is one of the reasons why my students have learnt but have easily forgotten Vietnamese history. (To be precise, choosing to work with a foreign play is not much easier. Of the foreign plays that I have adapted and directed, several have not received permission for staging.) The issue is this: we and those in the censorship committee share one language, but are unable to truly understand one another.
Regardless of how our languages differ, we still believe that on this earth, each and every person has had a mother who gave birth to them, has benefited from the sacrifice of a mother, so that none of us would want to do anything to harm or violate the beautiful, the good, and the true.
The quest for global understanding aims to help people take more responsibility, share more joys and pains, and treat one another better. To serve that need, there is nothing more appropriate than a language full of “motherly instinct,” a language given to women at birth, and one that men can hone through hard work.
Choosing this risky road of creativity, of course we need not only to rely on what is given to us at birth, but day by day, work hard with an enduring will to overcome all who want to quench our fire of creativity, to strengthen our empathetic hearts against the temptations of fame and of everyday life, to warm up an internal hearth that allows us even to burn our very bodies for the silent voices of innocent ones around us.
7. A Mother’s Heart
Perhaps many of you have heard the story of the mother who ripped out her heart for a son whose lover wanted such a gift from him. And perhaps you also remember that on his way to bring his mother’s heart to his lover, the son tripped and fell, dropping the heart to the ground. The heart’s first question was:
-Are you hurt, my child?
To conclude this talk, let me represent both that mother of the earth and women-artists to ask those who want to quench the fire of artistic creation and destroy our love and faith in our nation, the first and final question:
-Are you hurt, my child?
Let me also honor the women artists today who represent other women artists who cannot be present. We’ve given the world our artistic creations and included our very own wounds in those spiritual children. Without the patience, tolerance, calmness, and determination born deep inside every woman, we would fail to go to the end of this road of creation that we have chosen, a road with a value others often can only recognize after we have past away, enduring the fate of all of our mothers.