Duong Thu Huong was born in 1947 in the midst of war. She came of age in wartime. She has personally suffered from and born witness to the many violences of this world. That of the West that came to Vietnam first from France and then the United States. And that of the power to the North, beyond the mountains – the violence of China. Most of all, she has suffered from the violences of her own country: the ancestral violence of a feudal and patriarchal society against women and the poor, and the totalitarian violence of the ruling Communist Party.
She has never written about the violence she herself has endured. She rarely speaks about this experience, preferring instead to devote her energies to denouncing the violence suffered by others. She first told me of her own suffering when we met in 1994, during her visit to France. We were walking along the banks of the Seine. It was a beautiful, sunlit afternoon. As we walked over the La Tournelle Bridge, we watched rays of sunlight scatter amidst the waves. I told her: “Tell the story of your own ordeals, about the time in prison. It’s important that we remember. One day I’ll publish it all.”
The violence and the suffering began very early in her life. She finished her studies at a Hanoi art school that had been evacuated to the countryside to avoid the devastation of the bombs. She was 20 years old when she suffered the ultimate violence a woman that age can imagine: a forced marriage she was beaten into accepting, a pistol literally aimed at her head.
The violence continued with the war, along the 17th parallel, in the most heavily-bombarded region of central Vietnam. Under the American bombs, she discovered the arrogance and contempt of the Communist party cadres who had led her generation into the Vietnamese war effort. She remembers how she and the artistic troupe she led to the front were greeted by the Party Secretary, how he had barked the haughty order:“Give them the third rank rations.” The best rations had been reserved for high-ranking Party cadres. She remembered thinking to herself: They treat us like dogs.
It was then that she received her first lesson in courage from a poor, dark-skinned, illiterate peasant woman whose husband had been killed in the bombings and who had raised her children alone by gathering firewood from the forest. One day, when this frail and tiny woman discovered Duong Thu Huong’s husband beating her, she chased him away with a machete. Then she turned and told Huong something she would never forget: “Sleep with a man only if you like him. If not, just kick him out.”
And the violence continued after the war, though in a new, insidious form. When Duong Thu Huong entered Saigon with the troops, she was struck not by the material wealth of the southern city, but by the variety of books she found in the stores and in the street stalls. Here, one could even find the work of Karl Marx, whereas in the North where she had spent her youth, they had only had access to books authorized by the Party. And she thought to herself: Heavens! All along, I’ve lived like a mare locked in a stable.
She reproached herself for having submitted to the shotgun marriage, for her cowardice. She dared to divorce her husband, defying her father and the Confucian morality of her society. This rebellion freed her from fear, opening the door to all forms of revolt against all forms of tyranny and submission.
Ever since, she has struggled for the cause of freedom and human dignity. Though faced with a totalitarian power, Duong Thu Huong is a woman who - in her words, in her actions, and in her everyday life - dares to live openly and freely, with dignity and in full possession of her human rights.
She never aspired to be a writer. She would have preferred a life of action. She began to write when she could find no other way to act. So she wrote of the pain of being Vietnamese in times of misery, war, and oppression.
“I never intended to become a writer. I wrote because of the pain. Pain is the precise word. My novels are cries of pain. My work is inseparable from the society in which I live, the country, Vietnam that forged me. During the war I had time to reflect. I took note of the destinies of my compatriots. Little by little, this became an obsession and, in the end, I had to write. I share the opinion of Henry Miller, whose work I have read in translation: ‘To write is to emit toxins.’ Many other people share my struggle. I am fighting for my rights as a free citizen, right here in my own country. Writing is my way of freeing myself, of making myself a free woman. I could have left for the United States in 1980, thanks to invitations from my relatives, but I wanted to stay in Vietnam. I decided to devote my life to writing and to making films about my country. If they decide to put me in prison again, I’m ready.”
She calls herself a traditional woman. In fact, she cherishes certain of Vietnam’s traditional cultural values, most notably tinh nghia. Tinh means love, all human love - conjugal love, friendship, fraternity… Nghia means integrity, or loyalty to one’s commitments, and it implies a responsibility to the beloved that extends even beyond death, to the debt of memory.
We can only strain to understand or imagine what, in this traditional culture, forged a woman of this mettle at this historic turning point, when her entire people was thrust from a kind of Confucian Middle Ages to what Eric Hobsbawm calls “The Age of Extremes” (1999). For this traditional woman is the same woman who dares to defy the most fundamental taboos of Vietnamese culture, most notably its slavish obedience to the Communist Party. In 1987, with her novel “Beyond Illusions,” Duong Thu Huong became the first writer to decry the Party’s dictatorial grip on art and culture, and to castigate Vietnamese intellectuals for their cowardice, their willingness to barter lies for sustenance, glory, and power. In 1989, with the publication of “Paradise of the Blind” the author became the first to denounce the violence of the Party’s bloody, Maoist-style land reform campaign (1953-56), which it used to terrorize society and to liquidate thousands of founding comrades and resistance heroes. In 1992, when she dared to send her banned “Novel Without A Name” abroad– where it was published first in the France and then in the United States - she became the first Vietnamese author to denounce the betrayal of the patriotic war effort by a dictatorial, corrupt, and nepotistic Party apparatus. In “Memories of A Pure Spring” (1998) and “No Man’s Land” (forthcoming in translation), she went even further, daring to speak of the pain of those who have lived and suffered in vain, who have submitted to the dictatorships of the Party and of tradition, and even to that of money.
Duong Thu Huong’s work is suffused with pain. And yet she is never despairing: Sustained by an infinite striving for dignity, she exudes generosity from head to toe. “My father taught me this principle: ‘You can afford to lose everything except your honour.’ Of all the values it takes to create a human being’s dignity, the two elements of self-respect and fidelity are closely linked.” This, no doubt, is why Duong Thu Huong’s work is so beloved, not only in Vietnam, but all over the world.
At the dawn of this violent, chaotic, disoriented century, I love to hear this voice. She whispers to me: We have only one life. Let us live freely, with dignity, with magnanimity. Of this life, of this struggle, something will always remain. For those to come.
© Copyright Phan Huy Ðường, 2001
By Phan Huy Duong
Translated from French by Nina McPherson