In September of 2011, I paused for a while before a new name on the Tuoi Tre news website - Zac Herman. A photo showed him as a red-haired young man with a homely smile, against a backdrop of bookshelves at a shop in Hanoi. The few lines about this American living abroad, dedicated to learning and writing the mother tongue of his wife, stirred me inside. The simple fact is that I love my country’s language, and appreciate foreigners who can speak a little Vietnamese, not to mention publish stories in it. Moreover, at that time, I was dedicated to learning and writing a novel in English. During the four years we’ve kept in touch through email and few times met for beers, it seems Zac and I know only how to converse in the language of our countries’ literature. For Zac, literature is a bridge, deeply and earnestly connecting cultures. Truth be told, I get the feeling Zac doesn’t consider writing the first choice in his literary career, but rather translation. He has spent much of his time translating into English Vietnamese Tales and Legends (World Publishers) and my own book of short stories, The Dusk Wolf (Writers Association Publishers). And yet, I hold in my hands this little collection of bilingual stories, Who Can Fly?/Ai biết bay?
I also get the feeling Zac loves poetry more than he does prose, and thought his first work would be a collection of poems. However, in reading Who Can Fly?/ Ai biết bay, I meet page after page of poetic quality, from the structure to choice of words. Take “Cotton clouds, reed ladder”:
These clouds floating by are cotton I picked in a field by the forest. Trudged through brittle reeds that crunched underfoot, tripped over hard rocky earth. As I picked them, I decided I’d make something beautiful...
If this passage were arranged line by line, we would indeed have a free-verse poem.
The stories are concise, yet their meanings profound, and they combine many forms: rhythmic like a poem, confiding like a short story, lyrical like a diary, philosophical like a treatise. So, what has Zac done with this new style? An excerpt from “Who can fly”:
The streetlights on the lake’s far side glowed like a warm mirage, more beautiful than where I stood. At that moment, I became invisible; but not just then, even now I am. No one can see me. Success. Now, the next part: I went home and climbed onto the roof, then jumped off.
His stories often ponder the question “yes or no?,” real or empty. In “Notes on a dream after waking,” the author dreams he is in a large train station, seemingly somewhere in China since everyone around him is speaking Chinese. Some aspects are remembered quite clearly, while others that had taken place earlier cannot be recalled. In the end, he concludes that nothing there is familiar to him. In “The sax man,” the author is never completely sure whether the images he sees and the sounds he hears are in fact real:
I paused at the window. My own reflection, no one else. I flexed my fingers. Few things in life felt real to me then. My hands felt real. And so did the music.
Sometimes I wonder if it really happened.
Dreams are a recurring theme in Zac’s stories. “Thomas returns” and “The oak tree” are inextricably linked. Intriguing and moving in their sincerity, they are driven by a series of dreams connecting past and present through an unquelled regret. The author tries to free himself from the shadow cast by a friend who hanged himself some years ago:
“No regrets,” I say out loud to him, and maybe to myself as well, “a luxury we can’t afford in our short lives.”
“What’s done is done. You are gone, but we’ll be gone too... some day. When those who knew you have forgotten, maybe then you won’t exist. At least I have not forgotten. At least, until I die, you will exist. But after that, I can’t promise anything. Thomas, this is all I can do.”
Sometimes I think Zac’s stories are like a meeting point of East and West in their observations, reflections, and style. This young American writer once told me that he first discovered Asian culture at the age of fourteen:
Among an aisle of films at the central library, I rented a documentary about Tibet. Even now, I don’t know why I chose it. I just know that the East attracted me; it led me to explore the philosophies of India and China, until I had the chance to study these subjects at university. After a while living and working in Hanoi, I confirmed my book learning through first-hand experience. I grew up in the US; however, I see myself more as a world citizen than only as an American. So, if my stories are tinged with shades of the East, it’s only natural - an extension of myself.
In an interview with Zac, writer Ngo Thi Kim Cuc said: “With stories published in Vietnamese newspapers, Zac Herman has pleasantly surprised readers, especially in his expressive use of the country’s language... Thank you, Zac, an American friend of Vietnam; we hope you will enjoy a long journey with Vietnamese literature as an ambassador of culture.”