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Having Freedom to Write Stories of Oppression : Vietnamese Author Recounts Hardships of His Homeland

April 24, 1987|PENELOPE MOFFET

Santa Ana writer Bui Nhat Tien, 50, does not look like a man who has been through hell.

But the mild-mannered novelist, who won Vietnam's National Literature Award in 1961 and served as vice chair of South Vietnam's PEN Club from 1965 until the 1975 Communist takeover, carries harrowing memories of his escape from his country.

Known among Vietnamese readers simply as Nhat Tien, he has written 10 novels and 11 collections of short stories. He's also written one nonfiction account of how he and others seeking to escape Vietnam by sea survived vicious attacks by pirates in 1979 and 1980.

"Pirates on the Gulf of Siam," which has been translated into English, is a compilation of testimony about the torture and murder of boat people trying to reach sanctuary. It was co-written with writers Duong Phuc and Vu Thanh Thuy and published in 1981 by the San Diego-based Boat People SOS Committee, a refugee-assistance group.

Since arriving in the United States in 1980, Nhat Tien has also written two short story collections, "Tieng Ken" ("Sound of a Trumpet") (1982) and "Mot Thoi Dang Qua" ("A Period Is Passing By") (1985).

"Nobody can make a living by writing these stories" about Vietnamese in Southeast Asia and the United States, Nhat Tien said. Yet he's impelled to continue as "a way to preserve the culture, to transmit the message" of Vietnamese roots from one generation to another.

Many writers would be satisfied at having written three books and seen them into print in 6 1/2 years, particularly while settling into a foreign country, starting to learn a new language and acquiring new job skills.

But Nhat Tien is not content with his literary output. In Vietnam before 1975, he wrote one book a year, he said.

Here he must find what little writing time he can in between his daytime job, family life and political activities. In June, he organized Project Deliverance, a group of 15 people, mostly Vietnamese now in this country, to help refugees living in the Dong Ruk relocation camp in Thailand near the border of the People's Republic of Kampuchea (Cambodia).

The group, which writes articles about refugees' problems and letters to U.S. and Thai politicians and the United Nations, was the inspiration for a UC Irvine class geared to helping refugees still in Southeast Asia.

Married to fellow short-story writer Do Phuong Khanh since 1954, Nhat Tien and his wife have seven children. Two live with the couple, along with Do's parents.

Both writers work in the computer repair department of an Anaheim electronics company. Nhat Tien, who works Monday through Saturday, can write only during late-night hours and on Sundays.

He writes mostly fiction rather than non-fiction, he said, because "the people who are resettled here--if they read (their undisguised stories), they'd remember" and be hurt.

In Vietnam, Nhat Tien was a high school physics and chemistry teacher as well as an author. The Communists allowed him to continue teaching, but he was forbidden to write.

"It was very dangerous to be writing at this time," Nhat Tien said. "The policy of the new government (was that) every book--even just a dictionary--nobody can keep inside the house (because) every book has an idea inside it that does not fit into the new regime."

Nhat Tien's home library of 2,000 books was taken away from him, he said.

"If they found out I am writing something like this one," he said, holding up the manuscript pages of "One Day on Ko Kra," an excerpt from the diary he kept during a particularly tormented part of his journey from Vietnam, "they could put me in jail."

While he could not write short stories, Nhat Tien could write poems. "I would write them and hide them (under furniture in his house), but I could feel safety only one or two hours" after hiding the pages. So after a while, "I put them in the fire" rather than risk discovery if a security officer should unexpectedly search his house, he said.

Nhat Tien's three sons escaped from Vietnam on boats in 1975 and 1979. In October, 1979, he and two daughters boarded a small boat with 78 other people and also set off for Malaysia. (Five months later, his wife and two other daughters left Vietnam on another boat.)

Nhat Tien's group of refugees never reached its destination. Bad weather forced the boat into the Gulf of Thailand, where the engine died. Drifting for 10 days, the party ran out of food and water. Then they were repeatedly attacked by Thai fishermen, who first robbed and then assaulted them, according to Nhat Tien's account of the journey in the "Pirates" book.

Later the fishermen towed Nhat Tien's boat to Ko Kra Island, just off the coast of Thailand, and dismantled it, leaving the refugees on the island. Different bands of fishermen returned at intervals to torture the men while interrogating them about any valuables they might have hidden on the island and to rape the women.

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