Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Playing the Humiliation game; confessing; feeling unpatriotic

My mom's upset that I know too little about Vietnamese literature.
Back then, I read some. If I cheat a bit and mention all writers I've read, even if I've read only 1 of their works, my list would include Nam Cao, Nguyễn Huy Thiệp, Phạm Thị Hoài, Nguyễn Tuân, Ma Văn Kháng, Nguyên Hồng, Thạch Lam, Phan Thị Vàng Anh, Hồ Anh Thái, Nguyễn Thị Minh Ngọc, Mạc Can, Tô Hoài, Nguyễn Ngọc Thuần, Nguyễn Nhật Ánh, Nguyễn Ngọc Tư, Thuận... The list of poets would include Hồ Xuân Hương, Hàn Mặc Tử, Bùi Giáng, Trần Dần, Xuân Diệu, Nguyễn Bính, T. T. Kh, Thanh Tâm Tuyền, Trần Đăng Khoa, Phùng Quán... That is, I haven't mentioned those I had to read in school, such as Đoàn Thị Điểm, Nguyễn Du, Nguyễn Trãi, Bà Huyện Thanh Quan, Lê Thánh Tông, Lý Thường Kiệt, Nguyễn Bỉnh Khiêm, Nguyễn Khuyến, Chế Lan Viên, Thép Mới, Chính Hữu, Hồ Chí Minh, Tố Hữu, Phạm Tiến Duật, Huy Cận, Hồ Dzếnh, Tản Đà... Should I refer to internet writers as well, who became famous in the internet and got published? Then I've read Keng Link.
But that of course is cheating. That was a long time ago, I hardly remember anything. And I was a horrible reader then. Except for Hàn Mặc Tử and Bùi Giáng, I don't read Vietnamese literature any more- haven't, for a while. The only writers I can still say something about are Nam Cao, Phạm Thị Hoài, Hồ Anh Thái, Nguyễn Ngọc Tư, Nguyễn Nhật Ánh and Nguyễn Ngọc Thuần, and I still feel uncertain. In other words, let's just say that I'm absolutely ignorant. To add to that, the national epic Truyện Kiều (in English: The Tale of Kieu) by Nguyễn Du, I haven't read in full either.
Which is horrible. Embarrassing. No, shameful. Humiliating.
In fact I don't read Asian literature in general. A bit of Chinese literature, mostly poetry. A few Japanese prose writers like Haruki Murakami, Ryu Murakami, Banana Yoshimoto... Absolutely nothing by writers from other Asian countries.
Isn't that awful?
I have my excuses: determination not to use Vietnamese so as to prioritise English and Norwegian, lack of Vietnamese books in Norway, dislike of ebooks, traumatising experience at Vietnamese schools (revolutionary/ red/ propaganda writing, wrong teaching method that allows no critical thinking)... It's perhaps a matter of priorities, as I want to read the many British, American, Russian and French novels that everyone or at least every serious reader, literature lover should read (and then German, Spanish, Italian, Latin American...), and Vietnamese literature isn't comparable (the strengths are in verse rather than prose, short stories and novellas rather than novels*), which is to say that a Vietnamese person not reading Vietnamese literature isn't as shocking as, say, an American not reading American literature or a Russian not reading Russian literature. Or maybe it's more like a matter of preference, as I grew up reading and it's the Western books and authors that have stayed with me over time. If I have read those Vietnamese writers and cannot call any of them a favourite, cannot put them in the same list with the British, American, Russian and French writers I think highly of, then it's not my fault, I tell myself. I'm entitled to reading what I'm interested in, I tell myself. Life is short and we have to make our choices, I tell myself. Lots of native speakers of English restrict themselves to English-language novels and don't care about "world literature" anyway, I tell myself. 
But that doesn't make me feel much better. 
So now I'm confessing, and exposing this humiliating truth. 
Comment! Discuss! Share your thoughts! Humiliate me! Throw stones at me! 

*: according to several people whose judgement I trust. Also, in Vietnamese literature after Nguyễn Du (1766- 1820), there's no writer that has the place of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky in Russia or Proust in France or Marquez in Colombia. 


  1. Don't I know it! I went through a phase trying very hard to like and appreciate books from my own country, but the critically-acclaimed stuff recommended to me were BORING. (Besides, they exoticised Asian culture, which is a major no-no. Why can we not be people, instead of stick figures?). I did pretend to enjoy them more than I did, because I didn't want people to accuse me of being too westernised. But after a while I realised, hey, if a novel isn't that good, there is no point pretending it is. It is possible that novels from a certain region haven't attained their peak yet, and different countries produce their best art in different fields. You might say, for example, opera is quintessentially Italian, the classical composers that everybody knows of are German or Austrian (I know there are many famous ones, but I mean Bach, Mozart and Beethoven), the French are good at satire, etc.
    My point is, why can't Asian writers be treated as writers rather than as representatives of a region that we are obliged to read in order to confirm our national identity? Isn't that insulting our intelligence? It implies we must adopt lower standards for our national literature in order to belong to that culture.
    Maybe if you want to keep up your literary Vietnamese, you could try translating Tolstoy into Vietnamese?

    1. Why does your comment sound like you're talking about Asian writers overseas or even, say, Asian American writers, rather than Asians in Asia? Or maybe it's me.
      I remember what you wrote about Amy Tan on your blog.
      Yeah, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Strauss, Brahms, Handel, Haydn, Wagner, Schumann, Schubert... a whole bunch of them.
      I agree with your point about different countries producing their best art in different fields- what bothers me is that reading is not only about enjoyment, and if I don't read Vietnamese literature, I know almost nothing about it and have no right to say anything about it. It's the ignorance that bothers me.
      But no, I don't like translating. My brain doesn't work that way, I think in the language in which I write. Here I have to translate letters and papers and forms and stuff for my family and that's enough to drive me nuts, let alone fiction.

    2. Well the stuff im exposed to through the media tends to be books by westernised asians. Its not just amy tan though, ive looked through acclaimed translations and it seems that we are expected to write Serious Issues about our own cultures to be accepted as literary equals by the west. Westerners are given more freedom in subject content. Their standard is supposedly the neutral standard rather than defined by their culture and politics. Why may we not be people instead of being defined as a distinct culture? I want to read great novels about people who happen to be Asian, not novels by people who thrust into your faces that they are of a less known culture and therefore you must attend to what they say. Now vikram seths novel is dinstinctly indian and yet the experience is so universal that you dont need to try to empathise with indians specifically. He builds a world but does not judge. There is no ostensible ideology. He tells a story but does not thrust ideals into your face. They are types but not stereotypes.

      You seem to remember my views better than i do! I dont remember most of what i thought yrs ago.

    3. Then that's different. I see your point, and agree, but I was focusing on Vietnamese writers in Vietnam writing in Vietnamese for Vietnamese people.

  2. It seems to me that an expatriate does well to combine the best of both worlds -- the past and the present. Hang in there! Erase the guilt. Embrace the future!

    1. The funny (or sad) part is that I'm a Vietnamese in Norway that mostly love stuff from the US, the UK, Russia and France. Oh well...