It is said that on the day when some one woman, any woman, finally succeeds in telling the truth about her life, the world will be split in two. Millions of us are waiting for that day, watching for it, nurturing its possibility.
Le Ly Hayslip's memoir of the War in Vietnam is not the book that will split the world in two, but it is that kind of book. It should be required reading in military colleges and in high schools and universities looking for broader, more personal interpretations of geo-politics. It may speak most piercingly to Asians and Amer-Asians, especially Amer-Asian children, but it should be heard by any man--and especially any woman--who cares about life on our planet.
These are strong words about a book that has some troubling flaws. But its overarching theme--that the innocent victims are not nameless people but individual human beings--is an essential message in a world that measures history by its wars and body counts. Le Ly Hayslip's narrative of her life as a child in a Vietnamese village overrun by the French, the Viet Cong, the Republican Army of South Vietnam, the Americans, the Viet Cong, the Republicans, the Americans, etc., etc., etc. is painful stuff. Of course it is. It's real.
At the same time her life is the stuff of a mini-series--or would be if television ever learned to view Eastern lives as fully human and not simply as a part of the scenery behind Western lives. Le Ly Hayslip lives with war as a child. At puberty she is tortured, then raped. Later, and not because of the rape, she has a child out of wedlock. She buries her father. She reveres her ancestors. She struggles, survives, marries one American, then another. Peasant child, she becomes successful in the world of capitalism and returns to her home in Vietnam with a book in mind.
Of course. She is an American now, a Southern Californian. She has an individuality, a story to tell, a purpose. Her purpose is to heal, to tell what it was and is like to be nothing more than the dust of the earth in the eyes of men who carry weapons and to rise from that dust a functioning, generous, alive being. To illustrate her message that the victim is not nameless, not powerless, she tells how she survived, whom she met and how she felt as a Vietnamese woman in horrific times and circumstances.
Her story, "When Heaven and Earth Changed Places," is the private side of the Vietnamese war. The private side of any war is rarely told, and it is, supremely, the woman's side. We are used to war stories told from the point of view of the soldier, the journalist, the historian, the expert. Hayslip gives us the point of view of Anywoman, combining her autobiography with an eyewitness acount of Vietnam's history over the last 40 years.
As a memoir her story is a revealing disclosure of her feminine psyche. I suffered with her through her descriptions of torture. I was with her as she crawled into bed with her pain and virginal blood after the rape. I understood why, when still a young woman, she took her employer into her bed. What I did not and do not understand is why, given her history, she remains a romantic.
When Hayslip makes her return trip to Southeast Asia after a decade and a half in the United States, she meets a Norwegian working there, describing their encounter with a wistful, helpless romantic view. Norwegian men, who live in a country run by women, are notoriously unmoved by helplessness; and either I missed some subtext in this encounter, or Hayslip looks on any man as a helpmeet. Hopeful about men I can understand. But romantic I cannot quite grasp. When Hayslip, with her experience, drifts into thinking of a man as a source of protection, someone who will make things better, I conclude that romance outlives all political regimes.
As autobiography, this book is beyond criticism. Who has not the right to tell her story as she experienced it? But as history, the book lacks specificity. Specificity is what makes history work. On such and such a date, in a town of so many people, at a spot x meters from the edge of town--coordinates like these fix things in our minds and clarify the muddy whirl of events. That Le Ly Hayslip, given her age at the time and her circumstances, may be unable to recall such key details would not be important if she admitted it or, better, if she could offer some reasons for her selectivity.
But she does not, and I got lost in her text trying to figure out what was happening when. I could see her standing in her worker's pajamas in the rice fields, giving warning to the Viet Cong, but I could not place that scene on a larger landscape. As a result, the endless wars and invasions became merely the backdrop of her personal life. Legitimate and deeply revealing as those events may be when seen in this way, they do have another kind of meaning for millions of others.
The line between individuality and history is a fine one, of course, and individuality in Asia may be at a kind of turning point--witness China today. As a book poised on this line, "When Heaven and Earth Change Places" is of considerable importance. It could have been better. The definitive book by a Vietnamese woman in this last half of the century has yet to be written. While we wait for that book, however, Le Ly Hayslips' is the book we must read.