[Fragments from the Encyclopedia of Censorship] — Dao Strom

[1]  My mother’s pen name was Trung Duong.

[2]  “Category B: works considered as decadent by the authorities. Vietnamese authors, often women such as Tuy Hong and Trung Duong, whose works featured reasonably explicit sex or dealt with otherwise taboo sexual topics and were as such judged indecent and immoral. Various Westerners, including Henry Miller, Elia Kazan, Francoise Sagan, D.H. Lawrence, Sartre, Camus, and Simone de Beauvoir. Any celebration of sensual pleasures fell under the ban.”[1]

[3]  It was during my time studying creative writing at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the mid-1990s that I stumbled on the one essay I’ve found written in English that acknowledges the contributions of the “Five She-Devils” — five boundary-challenging women writers — to the literature of South Viet Nam. My mother was one of these five. I find this article in the Iowa City public library in an issue of The Viet Nam Forum published in 1987.[2]

The public library’s collection also houses one of my mother’s books, which was banned in Viet Nam after 1975; I recognize her pen name on the spine though I can read none of its words. It’s my first time encountering external evidence of what I hence far had only heard (from her) of my mother’s former identity.

[4]  “The policy of thanh loc (cultural purification) was established and all media were to be reevaluated on ideological lines under the direction of the new government’s propaganda branch. The old culture, it was declared … was ‘a slave culture promoted by the American imperialists in order to destroy the Revolution.’ As such it was to be checked and decadent and reactionary culture was to be extirpated.”

[5]  “A list of criteria for such an evaluation was established. It was divided into four negative categories (A-D) and two positive ones (E-F): …”

[6]  It should perhaps be noted that the period of 1954-75 was like none other in the history of Viet Nam. Those years span the duration of time that South Viet Nam existed as a (supposedly) semi-autonomous nation with a government and policies separate from and opposing those of the North. This was a fleeting era, a time of fierce hope for a “new South,” in effect a temporary country. A twenty-year country, to be—nearly—exact. Twenty years of war against the Communist North. The same twenty years of burgeoning freedom and democratic aspiration. Surely it was an ugly time, a world-stew of problematics, but (my mother is adamant to cite) within this climate an intellectual and artistic culture took quick root, flourished. South Viet Nam formed an identity that was of their singular and of-that-time-only southern world. My mother says that in this time, which was the time of her youth, it was easy to make things and to make things happen—books, films, newspapers, protests. There was a flurry of activity. People had the energy to voice and create, other people had the energy to receive. I think maybe this is what occurs nearing the brink of dissolution: knowing the center will not hold, people begin to actually heed the voices in the margins.

[7]  One of my mother’s most well-received stories was about a young woman who meets with her lover at a beachside rendezvous, a ritual they have engaged in for several seasons. But on this meeting the lover tells the woman that he wants to leave his wife and marry her, the one he usually sees only at these intermittent outposts of love. The woman, however, doesn’t want to marry him and so she refuses his offer. This story is called “Walking While Looking at Stars.” The title (as my mother herself ascribes it) refers to what the lovers in the story were doing in creating their temporary and removed state of loving; it’s also what they were doing, literally, as they walked along the beach at night enjoying their own little patch of paradise. I ponder these images. How a beach is a narrow region of geography where land and water repeatedly erase and assert each their boundaries. How walking while looking up at stars is a posture—a positioning of the body in relation to ground and sky—that is picturesque, even somewhat exalted and beautified. You are looking up, not down. You are walking without a care, at least for that heightened moment, of where you are going, because you are immersed in that sheer moment of star-gazing. You are fixated on the above, not the below. It’s a posture in which we look away from the earth, away from its ground obstacles and moorings and gritty demands, and herald instead a desire of the ideal. It’s even perhaps a noble posture, not wrong or useless or entirely silly—it may well be how things like progress and invention are seeded, out of a daring to dream, to desire. However, it’s also a highly impractical position to maintain for long. To wit: desire is an impractical position to maintain for long.

[8] [3]

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[9]  My mother’s first apparent rebellion occurred when she was 13, she will say, on the day she refused to hand out betelnuts and invitations in honor of her elder sister’s betrothal—this being the traditional duty of the younger sister in the family during rites of engagement. But my mother was not thinking of marriage or the grandiosity of ceremony or of going to live the rest of her life in the service of her future husband’s household. She had already wasted her market lunch money on books, and had snuck into French literature classes meant only for the boys, much to her father’s disliking. In her twenties she cut her hair short and donned men’s pants. A fortune teller told her “don’t try to marry before you are thirty, as those men will either deceive you or die”. But she didn’t listen to that advice either. They left her, at least two of them did; and one (yes) died.

[10]  Traditions, superstitions, either way you are trapped.

[11]  “Category C: romantic works. Any authors, both Western and Vietnamese who preferred individualistic pleasures of the bourgeouis life to the harsher demands of duty to the party. Enjoyment of nature was similarly proscribed.”

[12]  Consider this: the word desire has its roots in the stars. It comes from the Latin desiderare (which traces back to an original sense along the lines of “to await what the stars will bring”). This derives from the phrase de sidere (“from the stars”), the stem of which is sideris (“heavenly body, star, constellation”). The ancients believed or otherwise ascertained that it came from the stars, those directives of what “should” be, whenever that sense of yen awoke in them. Or we might look at it this way: desire as an audacious impetus to drag something down, from some place we should well know is unreachable to us, the stars.

[13]  The temporary country to which I was born one might also claim was a state of desire unlikely to be sustained for long. Some people of that unsteady southern world suspected as early as the late 1950s, or certainly by the time of the coup of 1963, that it would not last. Some began as early as then to say, fatalistically “we are going to lose this war.” Some, though, believed quite fervently that the dream could continue, would, must continue, and that the presence of the Americans—and looking upward toward them—was integral to the lasting of this dream. Democracy was a beautiful notion. Democracy was the future that had to come. And people clung to the signs of it—Coca-Cola, cinema, rock-n-roll, white soldiers, all the enervating possibilities that catch-words like money and freedom and America can assure. My brother (who is older than me and remembers more) recalls one Christmastime in Saigon, a decorated Christmas tree in our cousins’ home that they were so excited about, with gift-wrapped boxes underneath, but the boxes were all empty. He laughs retelling it now—how they were aware people in America wrapped boxes in ribbons and brightly colored paper at Christmas, but how they didn’t know what to put in those boxes before offering them, with the eager aplomb of pretend-entitlement (we are good at it, some of us, may I dare say), to one another.

[14]  From 1971-74 in Saigon my mother was also the publisher of a daily newspaper, Song Than, controversial for its mission to deliver accurate and scathing news to the people in a corruption-beleaguered, war-persevering society. The birth father I didn’t learn the truth about until my teen years was my mother’s partner in this journalistic endeavor. My brother’s father (the other one who left her early on and whom my brother has still never met) was the designer of Song Than’s logo—that one of the tidal wave of letters about to overtake the shore: a poetic-visual rendering of the professed mission of their words. My mother and her colleagues worked hard on this paper. It had a 100,000+ daily circulation; it was controversial but admired by many citizens of Saigon at the time. My parents’ belief was that if their newspaper could fight against government corruption and advocate for freedom of speech and expression, this might help fuel the general public’s motivation to also keep fighting, both against the corrupt South Vietnamese regime and the oppressive North Vietnamese Communist threat. My mother went to court in 1974; the government threatened the paper’s shutdown numerous times. In one act of resistance, Song Than and other newspapers banded together to stage a protest where they burned piles of their own papers in the street. When we fled in April of 1975, among the few things my mother took out of the country were a couple of thin bound volumes on the travails of the newspaper. She took our birth certificates and little else. A few baby pictures and other family memorabilia made it out only many years later, in the hands of a more sentimental, later-emigre aunt.

[15]  Fire, and the practice of violent self-eradication (think of the monks), were common motifs in that time—a voluntary destruction of the very vessel they sought of you to hinder. In 1974, at the time of the paper-burning, I was one year old.

[16]  “Category D: works on philosophy and religion, both Western and Vietnamese, Christian and Zen.”

[17]  Camus’s The Stranger was very popular among Saigon intellectuals in the pre-1975 era. My mother introduced me to this book when I was 16. She took some delight in trying to explain to me the gist of Existentialism, the astounding, inadequate profundity of it as contained in this summary: “Everything is meaningless.” She laughed as she told me this.

[18]  “Category F: works based on Marxist thought and written by true revolutionaries, even though when originally published their ideological orientation may have been disguised…” One of the exemplar literary works named in this category bears what seems to me an ironically revealing title: The Mother.

[  ]  And when it fell, it fell fast. Faster than most anticipated it would. Saigon was the southernmost urban point on the long tail of Viet Nam’s geography, the last outpost of the dream. Rivers of people flowing southward in the tens of thousands. Saigon the last bubble to burst. After that point all there was left to take refuge in was the sea.

[  ]  My father has said, when asked why he stayed, that at the time he could not hear or even think of the word “leave” without feeling “a violent torment.” And so to avoid that torment he did not leave. He stayed. He believed he would have a little more time to continue his work — publishing and writing. But they came for him sooner than he thought they would.

[19]  “The purging of literature commenced almost at once and took approximately four months.”

——

¶  Many years later—almost forty, in fact—nearing four decades since that implication of words leading up to that implementation of categories, I will be sitting with my father in a motel room in Virginia when he tells me that the memoir he has been attempting to write, he has deleted. After the years in prison communing with the ants in his cell, surviving on his memories. After the years of failed escape attempts and all the waiting that finally, eventually, got him out. It’s only the fourth time in my adult life I’ve seen him, have made my way, always somewhat awkwardly and with great logistical effort, to where he is in order that I may try, at least for short spells, to sit beside him. This time it’s winter and I’ve come to stay for three days in a motel near his apartment, which is in government-subsidized housing, a dank place where it’s hardly convenient to expect anyone to host visitors from out of town. This visit I’ve brought along my 12-year old son. Much of our time together, my father and I, is spent in a not uncomfortable but still kind of hopeless silence. My son wants to show his grandfather his iPad. Does he know what an iPad is? my son asks, and my father shakes his head. My son shows him something, some game that makes blipping noises and moves too quickly for my father to understand. He cannot explain what his reeducation term was like either, not really. He lived, he says, with only the ants in his cell (and he makes an effort to be sure I understand what he means here—that he really does mean ants, those little creatures) and my photograph as his company. He takes this photograph out of an envelope at one point to show me. A school picture of me that my mother sent in 1980-something, me buck-toothed, an immigrant American schoolgirl with a bad haircut: this picture would’ve been from the same time period during which she was telling me he was dead. Next to the ants, that photograph was his only other companion in that cell, he will say. And I think he is sincere but then a part of me wonders if it’s not also just the emotion—of seeing me now in the daze of the new life he has supposedly been granted—that stirs it up, that places the memory of my photograph in the cell with him in those dark days. Years. He stared at walls. The guards beat him, kicked him, starved him. No one spoke to him. He shared his memories with those walls. Some prisoners fed on cockroaches and the leather from their own belts to survive. Some lost their minds. Some did what they were told and still lost their minds. My father had committed himself to writing and speaking only honestly and so when he was asked to say the dog at the end of the guard’s leash was an elephant, he refused to say it. He woke mornings to the familiar rub of his ankles bound in wood blocks. He forgot words during that time, could not remember the sense of them in any of the languages that once had come easy for him, English, French, even his Vietnamese. This was ironic for a man whose crime had been one of words. He was a “gadfly,” is the term he alights on to define it, his crimes. I think of Socrates. How does one communicate this? He lost twenty years of his life to prison sentences—eleven in total after 1975, ten more in the North before ’75. Is he happy now? He laughs when I ask him that. Either it’s his way of saying it’s futile to compare the two lives, or it’s his way of saying anything is better now than that fog behind him, or it’s his way of letting me know that the concept of happiness is so irrelevant to him, so impossible to speak to, that he finds it almost funny. His explanation for why he deleted his memoir is, at first, a stilted wave of his hand then the discomfiting flash of his sad smile, as he shrugs and says: “I cannot. So I delete.”

¶  And how can I convince you or anyone that I understand what in truth I do not understand? The arrival — after so many years of vying with words and notions of truth — at the conclusion of silence. It has been this many years and more of truncated stories, of awkward silences, of the inadequacy of silence, of the playing dead that my mother, in her moments (and there are many: let’s just say it) of verbal fieriness and thoughtlessness or outright omission, insists on as the only way for one to continue. To move forward. It’s reasonable, yes. But reasonable doesn’t always mean emotional or personal or valued or done. It just is what it is what it has been. And yet I still don’t move forward. I met my father when I was 23 and in a sense it has been backwards going ever since. How I have tried and I have not tried and how I have tried not hard enough. How I have tried and failed. How I have carried it whether they wanted or expected me to or not, and how I have yet dropped it, at times stepped clear over it. How in the face of the facts and all I do not know, will never know, every word I write eventually rebounds as trite. I cannot, so I delete.


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Dao Strom is a writer and musician based in Portland, Oregon. She is the author of two books of fiction, Grass Roof, Tin Roof and The Gentle Order of Girls and Boys. She has a forthcoming hybrid music-literary-visual project, We Were Meant To Be A Gentle People (Jaded Ibis, 2015). She was born in Vietnam and grew up in the Sierra Nevada foothills of northern California. www.theseaandthemother.com@daostrom

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[1] Jonathon Green, Encyclopedia of Censorship (New York: Facts On File, Inc., 1990), 636-637; this is the source for all bolded text that follows.

[2] The Viet Nam Forum, published by Yale University Southeast Asian Studies Publication Series, no. 9 (1987)

[3] Excerpt from: Cong-Huyen Ton-Nu Nha-Trang, “Women Writers of South Vietnam (1954-1975),” Vietnam Forum, no. 9 (1987)