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Manoa 14.1 (2002) 34-44
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The Long Road Home:
Exile, Self-Recognition, and Reconstruction
Nguyen Ba Chung
A thousand years enslaved by China
A hundred years trampled by France
Twenty years of civil war day by day
Our mother's inheritance: a forest of dried bones
Our mother's inheritance: a mountain of endless graves
"Mother's Inheritance,"Trinh Cong Son
A Call to Conscience
During the entire Vietnamese-AmericanWar, Trinh Cong Son was the bard who perhaps most powerfully, most eloquently, most persistently, and most successfully put into song the sense of unspeakable tragedy that befell ordinary Vietnamese people, without any regard for geography or politics. All sides were intent on victory. Few took note, or were allowed to take note, of what the war did to the mass of people at the bottom rung of society. Trinh Cong Son's songs had an incomparable appeal to all, Northern as well as Southern, urban as well as rural, rich as well as poor. For that reason, he was condemned by politicians of all stripes. To favor the continuation of the war—as the politicians all did—one had to avert one's eyes from what was happening to the people, the land, and the culture. Trinh Cong Son could not do that.
The war demanded that people take sides. In the South, Trinh Cong Son and a few others always skirted the edges; most writers in the South, however—whether willingly or pushed by the exigencies of circumstances —felt compelled to choose sides. In the North, support among the writers for the leadership and against the Americans was mostly unquestioned and unquestionable.WhenVietNam was unified in1975, SouthVietnamese writers who had sided against the North and who were still in the country were sent to "study camps" for reeducation and socialist reorientation. Only a few could make the adjustment to life under communism. The great majority had to give up the pen, instead making a meager living doing all manner of odd jobs. Hundreds chose to risk their lives and go into exile, leaving their fate in the hands of the ocean winds and waves. [End Page 34]
The year 1979 marked the beginning of a dramatic phase in the development of Vietnamese diasporic literature. The sudden arrival of a massive number of"boat people" in the United States caused a change in the thinking of the exiled writers who had arrived earlier. They had been inward looking and had felt cut off from their home country. From the writers who had just escaped, however, they learned of the terrible conditions there. First-wave writers were challenged by stories of the brutality, hunger, and lack of freedom that drove second-wave refugees to brave the sea, survive pirate attacks, and languish in refugee camps, and they transformed their loneliness to make it serve a new mission. They felt they were the only ones left who could keep alive the Viet Nam they had known and loved, albeit in memory, and who could transmit it to the next generation. This awakened the desire to establish a diasporic literature—one that would defend and preserve the true Vietnamese cultural heritage. A number of literary magazines and reviews began to appear in this period, laying the foundation for the exile literature to come. Mai Thao, the indisputable dean of South Viet Nam literary society, arrived in the States in 1978, and he started the first prestigious émigré literary journal in July 1982. His words on that occasion captured the missionary fervor of the time:
To me, the love of our great native land and the compassion towards her greatest tragedy should always be the lasting and glorious beacon for all literary activities. And there should exist no other guiding principle.
Between 1986 and 1989, diasporic literature came into full bloom. Nguyen Mong Giac calls this the golden period. The sense of the exile community as the center of resistance to the communist government, and as the only carrier of hope for the masses inside Viet Nam, was at its most...