Beyond the sorrows of war

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For Vinh Quyen and Edward O'Connell, there is no such thing as a language barrier.

They did not exactly make this claim.

But what they have done - the former has written a novel about postwar life in southern Vietnam in English and the latter has managed to find an American publisher willing to print a work by an unknown writer from a foreign country - has shown language barriers their proper place.

The making of Hue writer Vinh Quyen's first English novel, "Debris of Debris," had much to do with what is more common than language differences: the empathy of human hearts.

It started with an acknowledgement in David Bergen's "The Time in Between." The Canadian writer thanked Quyen for the conversations and late night company that helped him create a moving story of a Vietnam War veteran's troubled journey back to the former battlefields.

Bergen could not have known that his expression of gratitude would trigger a daring act. Bergen's novel, with images of locals so familiar to Quyen, made the bureau chief of Lao Dong newspaper in central Vietnam ask a question that had never before crossed his mind.

"Why don't I directly tell the story of my people to foreign readers, and to the whole world?"

From what he'd heard, no Vietnamese writer living in Vietnam had ever written a novel in English. Yet, to be the first to do so was not important. Quyen didn't aim to impress. He was motivated by whatever it is that sparks all acts of creativity.

It was exciting, he said. So at a "ripe" time, he started "Debris of Debris," with "self-taught English." The work wasn't easy. The writer, whose forte is anything but English, soldiered on with the help of a friend, Tran Thanh Lieng, who is fluent in the language.

But Quyen completed it at last. And the novel, which Quyen says delves into everything that isn't touched by Bao Ninh's famous novel "The Sorrow of War," found its first foreign reader.

"An English novel right in Vietnam? This interested me, to be exact, made me curious," said Edward O'Connell, an American education investor in Vietnam who accidentally met Quyen while drinking beer with their common friend, Tran Thanh Lieng, on one fine day by the Han River in Da Nang last year.

Afterwards, things happened as they should happen.

O'Connell struck a friendship with Quyen, read his novel once, re-read it a few times to dig for the meanings hidden between the imperfect English lines. He found enough to recommend the story to the College of St. Benedict and St. John's University in the US.

The schools added "Debris of Debris" to their reference book systems and introduced it to

Graywolf Press, a non-profit publisher. Graywolf Press took it further and the novel will hit the bookshelves later this year.

"American readers have very few books or other information about postwar Vietnam to read, to understand," said O'Connell, who understood the American publishing world well enough to know that "Debris of Debris" would have no chance with a commercial publisher.

As far as the novel's literary worth was concerned, he didn't feel qualified to comment. Yet, its cultural value was so obvious once he read it that he tried to have it published only because he wanted other Americans to have a chance to read it too.

The story, about southerners who chose to stay in Vietnam after 1975 and struggled to integrate into a new social order, would help Americans understand Vietnamese better, he said.

O'Connell is not worried this understanding could be hampered by the difficulty in reading an English novel written by one whose first language isn't English. For him, the more slowly "Debris of Debris" is read, the deeper the understanding.

That said, it is fortunate that there are not-for-profit publishers like Graywolf Press, which, is supported by the academic and literary communities, can afford to publish the likes of "Debris of Debris."

Graywolf Press saw the novel's cultural significance as clearly as O'Connell did and has decided to keep as much of Quyen's original English as possible.

For his part, Quyen said he has also aimed for better understanding - not just between Vietnamese and Americans, but among Vietnamese as well.

He said more than 30 million southerners who stayed in their homeland after the war aren't sufficiently represented in contemporary local literature.

Bao Ninh has dealt with "The Sorrow of War," but the toil and tears of healing that sorrow, especially in the south, is another story.

"Debris of Debris" sifts through the rubble to deliver that narrative.

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