In its own unfortunate way, the movie "Forrest Gump" provides the most realistic portrait of Vietnam from the American perspective: a place without Vietnamese. Gump and his fellow innocents play out their defining experiences and are transformed into the expected roles of vet-victims in a land blanked of inhabitants. The film, like much of the American films and literature inspired by the Vietnam War, reflects (rather than exposes) not only popular attitudes but the very policy that started the war in the first place and then allowed it to continue. As that belated prophet Robert McNamara--3 million Vietnamese and 59,000 American lives later--recently told us in his book "In Retrospect": "Our misjudgments of friends and foe alike reflected our profound ignorance of the history, culture and politics of the people in the area."
The murderous solipsism that sees Vietnam only as a place to test some vision of ourselves and the Vietnamese only as shadowy figures in a landscape of war is what provokes the scream at the heart of performance artist Le Thi Diem Thuy's "Shrapnel Shards on Blue Water," part of a one-woman show in which Thuy uses photographs, music, poetry and monologues to recapture her family's life in Vietnam and in passage to America. Assuming the voice--as she has assumed the name of her sister, a boat person drowned off a Malaysian beach--Thuy cries: "Tell people / VIETNAM IS NOT A WAR . . . / VIETNAM IS NOT A WAR . . . / VIETNAM IS NOT A WAR."
Le Thi Diem Thuy is one of the many writers from both Vietnam and the Vietnamese refugee community--that is, both sides of the war--who have started being published in this country over the last few years. They offer the rest of us the voices and stories we never heard--or never wanted to hear. "Stories save lives," Tim O'Brien has written. "Not bodies but lives." Good words and true. But perhaps one can be forgiven for hoping that imaginative fiction's ability to help us enter the inner lives of those considered enemy, or alien, or not at all, might make the decision for the next war that much harder and save a few bodies as well. At the least, the work of writers such as Le Thuy finally lets us see Vietnam and America through Vietnamese eyes and understand the common wounds to our humanity wrought by the war and its aftermath.
Fiction and poetry still occupy a place in Vietnamese culture that might be envied by American writers. Or maybe not. A writer friend in Hanoi once laughed when I complained about the woes I had as an American midlist author, and said: "You're cursed to come from a country where literature isn't taken seriously; I'm cursed because I come from a country where it is." In Communist Vietnam before 1986, the interest authorities paid to literature was a curse: The only writings that could be published were works of Socialist Realism. Art and literature were to be judged strictly in terms of their service to the party and the state. Characters were flat: good proletarian heroes, evil or weak counterrevolutionary villains, all equally asexual.
The boundaries of free expression in Vietnam are still, to say the least, fluid. But after 1986, when the policy of Doi Moi (Renovation) allowed broad economic reforms and the loosening of state controls, writers for the first time could publish socially critical works, peopled by complex characters who changed, developed and even had sex lives. And though (unlike American authors) none of the writers doubted the essential justice of their side's cause of reunifying the country and freeing it from foreign control, they began to depict not only the heroism and glory of the war but its human cost as well.
First published in the United Kingdom in 1993, Bao Ninh's "The Sorrow of War" is the best war novel to come out of Vietnam. The author was one of nine survivors of an North Vietnamese Army brigade that started with 500 men. His protagonist, Kien, becomes the voice of the generation that was decimated by the war in both body and soul. The narrative twists between Kien's need to write about the war and his struggle with memories so terrible he doesn't know if he can write about them or if he should depict them honestly. "Why must he write of the war? His life and the life of so many others were so horrible it could scarcely be called a life. How can one find artistic recognition in that sort of life?" The book was controversial in Vietnam for its depiction of the way combatants are brutalized by combat, the bitterness of neglected veterans, the nightmares of memory they suffer, all once forbidden subjects.