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Duong Thu Huong /Banned Books

From nina@easynet.fr Fri Nov  8 12:16:38 2002
Date: Thu, 26 Sep 2002 23:36:39 +0200
From: Nina McPherson <nina@easynet.fr>
Reply-To: vsg@u.washington.edu
To: Vietnam Studies Group <vsg@u.washington.edu>
Subject: Duong Thu Huong/Banned Books

Dear Steve,

Bravo for taking on such a difficult and much-needed chronology. As one of  Duong Thu Huong's translators, I'd like to join, albeit belatedly, in this very interesting discussion. Over the past ten years I have been so frequently asked about the status of Duong Thu Huong's work in Vietnam that during the course of a ten-month fellowship in Hanoi in 1997-1998, I finally sat down with the author and compiled a detailed chronology of her work (novels, short story collections, films, interviews, screenplays, poetry), from the early 1980s to the present. I was careful to chronicle any censorship, banning, withdrawal from circulation, and actual destruction of her work. I later fact-checked our chronology with many other sources including her former Vietnamese publishers, other Vietnamese writers and scholars, and her literary executor and translator Phan Huy Duong.

This chronology, though too detailed to include here, does lead me to take issue with the idea advanced by both Niels Ebbesen and Dan Duffy that Duong Thu Huong's main problem with the authorites prior to her arrest in 1991 was her political activism and not her fiction writing. In fact, Huong's fiction - both her novels and her screenplays ( most notably PARADISE OF THE BLIND, 1988) have been the object of very public censorship and several explicit banning orders since the early 1980s and up to the present. Her political activism - prior to her expulsion from the Party in 1990 - for the most part took the form of speeches at official Party and Writer's Union Congresses, or interviews with equally official Party literary publications. As a party member and a writer's union member, her discourse - criticism of bureaucracy, corruption, and intellectual cowardice - was at the time very mainstream doi moi rhetoric championed by Party Secretary Nguyen Van Linh himself.

The first censorship and banning of DTH's work took place a full decade before her arrest, in the early 1980s. In 1982, at the Third Congress of the Writer's Union, Huong publicly protested the censorship of a screenplay she had written. Between 1982 and 1985, a Party banning order ensured that none of her work was published. [In the early 1980s, Duong Thu Huong's short stories and novellas had been immensely popular, most notably LOVE STORY TOLD BEFORE DAWN (first printing 1981) which sold 120,000 copies.]

This ban was briefly lifted, however, and from 1985-87, her first novels, ITINERARY OF CHILDHOOD (written for young adults) and BEYOND ILLUSIONS were bestsellers, with multiple print-runs of 20,000 and 120,000 copies respectively. A little known fact is that during this same period, Huong - while still an employee at the Hanoi Fiction Film Studio – independently produced a documentary film, "A  Sanctuary for the Despairing" (Den Dai cua nhung nguoi niem that vong) on the inhuman conditions in a camp for 600-700 Vietnam "mentally ill" war veterans in Tan Ky, Ha Tinh province. (The film, which DTH financed with her own savings and contributions from supporters and filmed with the help of colleagues at the Documentary Film Studio of Hanoi, was destroyed in the winter of 1990 by order of Nguyen Van Linh. Security police broke into a private lab in Saigon and poured acid on the unprocessed film.)

In 1988, Duong Thu Huong's third novel, PARADISE OF THE BLIND, outraged Vietnamese leaders with its passages relating the horrors of the 1953-56 land reform campaign. The novel sold 60,000 copies before then Party Secretary Nguyen Van Linh publicly denounced Duong Thu Huong as "a whore" (con di cua dang) and issued a second, written banning order that her work be withdrawn from circulation. (According to the author, when the authorities delivered the banning order to editor Tran Thu Huong of the Women's Publishing House, she had no copies left to hand over for destruction: the novel was sold out!)

In 1990, unable to publish in Vietnam, Huong sent her NOVEL WITHOUT A NAME to France and the United States. This novel was the object of a third banning order (number 1190/GD-VH, 4/7/1991) by the Ministry of Culture and Ministry of Interior, which I found cited and excerpted in another banning order I was able to obtain in 1998. (If anyone doubts the attitude of the leadership toward her work, I would be glad to post some of the racier excerpts.)

Regarding Duong Thu Huong's current status in Vietnam, I have to contest the suggestion that we are seeing greater acceptance of her work. I am baffled by what Dan means by having easy access to "all of the author's work" during his 1994 stay through "open booksellers". If he is talking about used booksellers, he is referring to twenty-year old copies that have been nervously covered in brown paper before resale. You have to ask the bookseller to go in the back room to get them, and anyone who tries to carry them or mail them out of the country will be stopped by Customs. Many copies I found even had a public security police confiscation stamp on it! Since the author's well-documented arrest and imprisonment in 1991, none of her recent novels or screenplays - most notably MEMORIES OF A PURE SPRING (Luu Ly, written in 1996), NO MAN'S LAND (Chon Vang 1999, forthcoming in 2003) - have been published in Vietnam.  The author confirms that there has been a "keeping" or "holding" pattern for only one of her novels, Quan Tru cua Tham Chet (The Grim Reaper's Inn), an unpublished manuscript that has been "held" by NXB Kim Dong since 1990.

In light of all these facts, the Vietnamese authorities' claim that Duong Thu Huong is "not really banned" in Vietnam is ludicrous. It is obvious that the authorities - especially the Party publishing factotums and official "writers"  - have a vested interest in hiding the paper trail of banning orders and copyright violations and proving to the outside world that Duong Thu Huong is  "free" to publish. The fact that one or two short stories she wrote 20 years ago appeared in 1997 in sanitized, official "women writers" short story collections should be seen for what it is - just another move in the regime's pathetic campaign of disinformation rather than any acceptance of her as a writer. In fact, the reprint the Vietnamese government is most fond of citing -  LOVE STORY TOLD BEFORE DAWN, included in a short story collection by NXB Van Hoa in 1997 - was reprinted without the author's permission! Interestingly enough, it was also strategically timed to promote the government's lucrative, but short-lived Franco-Vietnamese joint-venture film project based on this same novella. In December 1997, while I was in Vietnam, articles appeared in the mainstream  Vietnamese press (Lao Dong, The Thao va Van Hoa), cheerfully praising the government for its open-mindedness, citing the author by name, and presenting the film project - between Giai Phong Films in Saigon and Lazennec of France – as proof of Vietnam's liberal political climate. But by May 1998, four months and 900,000$ into filming, the project was cancelled by order of the Politburo and the Saigon security police, who were anxious about featuring a dissident name like Duong Thu Huong given the then current student unrest sweeping through Indonesia. By the time I departed Hanoi in June, the political winds had changed, and Vietnamese friends ruefully brought me articles in the official press vilifying Duong Thu Huong, Phan Huy Duong and other overseas Vietnamese connected with the author in the basest terms.

Enough said. I apologize for this long-winded contribution, but hope that some of the information will prove useful to your valuable chronology and to continued discussion of the topic among VSG colleagues.

Nina McPherson


From: "Hue Tam H. Tai" <hhtai@fas.harvard.edu>
To: "Vietnam Studies Group" <vsg@u.washington.edu>
Sent: Thursday, September 26, 2002 1:04 AM
Subject: Re: Banned books?

There is also the issue of books that were published in the South before 1975 and were banned after 1975.  Many of these are now sold in Hanoi and are very popular, eg. works by Tu Luc Van Doan authors.  My father's books were banned in 1975; they are easily available in old bookstores in HCMC.
Last year, some Hanoi scholars expressed interest in re-issuing some of his works, esp. those that have a northern background (Phi Lac Sang Tau, Thu Huong, Chi Tap).  Incidentally, these works, all written in the late 1940s, come with lots of dotted passages. Censorship is not a recent phenomenon. 

Hue-Tam Ho Tai

>Niels raised an interesting nuance when we speak of censorship in Vietnam,
>and what is actually practice is often much more slippery than we would
>imagine, given the harsh black and white pronouncements by officials.  A
>few of the Nhan Van Giai Pham group, for example, did manage to eke out a
>living through writing under other pen names throughout the 1960s and 1970s
>until their rehabilitation in the late 1980s/early1990s.  All of this was
>done with the knowledge of many in the intellectual community and some
>sympathetic members in the intellectual leadership.
>>Dear Stephen,
>>Thank you for the initiative.
>>As far as I remember Paradise of the Blind was printed in more than 40.000
>>copies in 1987/88, but I do not think than it has been reprinted since
>>Huong was imprisoned in the beginning of the '90s. Other of her novels and
>>short stories were published betwewen 1987 and her imprisonment.
>>Novel without a Name and other novels written after her imprisonment have
>>not been published in Vietnam. However, some of her (earlier) short
>>stories was printed in anthologies published by the official publishing
>>house of Hoi Nha Van (Writers' Union) at the end of the '90s. Probably, we
>>can interprete this as a sign of an acknowledgement of Huong as a writer.
>>Actually, I think that the main problem of Huong is (was) her political
>>and public activities, and less her writings (before) the imprisonment.
>>I do not know the adequate English expression, but in my country we would
>>use expressions like "putting her on the shelve" or "keeping her in the
>>fridge". It is my impression that "keeping" is a keyword just as important
>>as "banning". This has happened so often before in Vietnam. A notable case
>>is that of Van Cao, the writer and composer of the national anthem, who at
>>the end of the '50s was excluded from the writer's union, but at once
>>accepted as a member of the composer's association. According to Carolijn
>>Visser (Voices and Vision), general Giap often visited and supported Van
>>Cao in the period until he was rehabilitated in the beginning of the '80s
>>(before doi moi). Probably, this is true - other reports witness a similar
>>veneration for Van Cao.
>>This is a very interesting and quite complicated issue, and I actually
>>think that it deserves a thorough - and completely unbiased - research.
>>Best regards,
>>Niels Fink Ebbesen (Mr.)
>>Christianshavns Voldgade 15
>>1424 Copenhagen K - Denmark
>>Tel +45 32 96 56 36
>>Fax +45 32 96 56 37
>>E-mail: nfe@danviet.dk


From niels.ebbesen@post3.tele.dk Fri Nov  8 12:16:58 2002
Date: Fri, 27 Sep 2002 01:06:31 +0200
From: Niels Fink Ebbesen <niels.ebbesen@post3.tele.dk>
Reply-To: vsg@u.washington.edu
To: Vietnam Studies Group <vsg@u.washington.edu>
Subject: Re: Banned books?

Thanks to Hue-Tam Ho Tai for raising another couple of very interesting issues.

First to point to a fact, which is often forgotten, not least in our black-and-white Western countries: That censorship is far from being a recent, or geographically, or politically restricted phenomenon.

Books previously banned are available in bookshops in Hanoi and HCMC, and probably have been available for a decade or longer. Similarly, recordings of banned songs have been available since the late 1970s. Prrobably southern songs were available in Hanoi shortly after 1975.

But, is availability a sign of "white" or "black" (or "grey") market conditions? If black or grey, then we are dealing with "subcultures". If "white", officially accepted and acknowledged, then we are looking at significant changes.

I take the liberty, first to mail an attachment, second that the attachment is an excerpt from a report I made in 1997 (Music In A Changing City -  Hanoi, Vietnam. A Preliminary Sketch of a History of Modern Vietnamese Music 1938-1996) to the Danish International Development Assistance (Danida). Some of the views expressed in the report are time-bound and others definitely need a revision, however I think that the main points are even more valid today: That Vietnam since 1986 has moved and still is moving very fast towards a society based on the rule of law, that reasons for censorship may have several - and not always political - reasons, and that the official Vietnam actually has taken and still is taking remarkable steps towards reconciliation, even if official rhetorics may be just as intransigent and irreconcilable as the rhetorics of some of the expatriated Vietnamese groups.

Best wishes,

Niels Fink Ebbesen (Mr.)
Christianshavns Voldgade 15
1424 Copenhagen K - Denmark
Tel +45 32 96 56 36
Fax +45 32 96 56 37
E-mail: nfe@danviet.dk

From dgm405@coombs.anu.edu.au Fri Nov  8 12:17:06 2002
Date: Mon, 30 Sep 2002 17:31:13 +1000
From: David Marr <dgm405@coombs.anu.edu.au>
Reply-To: vsg@u.washington.edu
To: Vietnam Studies Group <vsg@u.washington.edu>
Subject: Re: Reflections on censorship

Shawn has made some very good points.  It would be nice if someone could take this a step further and try to find out how many literate DRV adults continued to read the classics of the 1930s and early 1940s during the height of `socialism' 1960-1980?  Perhaps more importantly, did they allow/encourage their children to do likewise?
My general impression is that the DRV's alternative discourse was much more muted than in the USSR during the same period, but more active than China during the GCPR.
David Marr

From: "Stephen Denney" <sdenney@uclink4.berkeley.edu>
To: "Vietnam Studies Group" <vsg@u.washington.edu>
Sent: Tuesday, September 24, 2002 3:37 PM
Subject: Banned books?

As this is Banned Books Week, I am compiling a chronology of events in Vietnam so far this year as it relates to banned books and other forms of censorship. I am also interested to know what books that have been banned in Vietnam are now available either in Vietnamese or in English or French translation.

Our library here at UC Berkeley has several books by Duong Thu Huong, which I believe would qualify as having been banned in Vietnam. I have the impression that some of Nguyen Huy Thiep's writings, such as The General Retires, were banned at one time in Vietnam but I don't know if this is still true.

Any other suggestions or comments would be appreciated.

  - Steve Denney

From dduffy@email.unc.edu Fri Nov  8 12:17:14 2002
Date: Wed, 25 Sep 2002 09:48:25 -0400
From: Dan Duffy <dduffy@email.unc.edu>
Reply-To: vsg@u.washington.edu
To: Vietnam Studies Group <vsg@u.washington.edu>
Subject: Re: Banned books?

I look forward to Stephen Denney's chronology.

One must speak broadly of books being banned in Viet Nam to capture the full, mind-numbing, discouragement of the intellectual climate in that country.  "So*", the refrain goes, "chung toi so*."  Repression works more pervasively than through censorship, through a reasonable fear on the part of the individual intellectual that any creative, productive work will come to nothing.

However, to speak broadly is also to leave one's criticism of the leadership vulnerable to factual criticism.  The case of the publication of Duong Thu Huong's works there is a case in point.  Publishing executives and writers' union officials unfailingly mention to me the most recent anthology containing one of Huong's stories.  She is not really banned, they mean to say.

I don't know what the facts are.  It would be helpful for a couple of us to make clear which of her works have actually been suppressed by some governmental order, and which are unavailable on the market because they sold out quickly, with no profit mechanism ready to replace them, and because no individual publishing executive has been willing to take the political and financial risk of publishing her new work and promoting the old work.  There is also the question of what market you are talking about. Some of her work was at use in educational publishing nationwide long after her political difficulties began, and all of her works were available to me through open booksellers in Ha Noi when I was in the country in 1994-6.

Huong is an extremely attractive figure for those interested in the rights of intellectuals, since she is so talented and has suffered so much.   She is also a heroic figure, living without fear among peers who are as cautious as most of us.  But I think that it's best to follow the trajectory of her career to a wider issue, the intellectual isolation of Viet Nam from people who know the country and disagree with its leadership.  Huong's persecution has taken her work away from her fellow-citizens to the rest of the world, where her work is widely and freely published.  The bridge that has taken her overseas has been of course been the overseas Vietnamese, at first in the person of Phan Huy Duong.

The print publications that I can unequivocally say are banned in Viet Nam, as a matter of fact and a matter of law, are the publications of the overseas Vietnamese.  As a suggestion to Denney's chronology, just to make a point, I would note the issues of Dien Dan (Paris), Hop Luu (US), Viet (Australia) and The Ky 21 (Canada), to say nothing of Catholic and Buddhist publications.

Dan Duffy

From sdenney@uclink4.berkeley.edu Fri Nov  8 12:17:24 2002
Date: Wed, 25 Sep 2002 11:16:04 -0700
From: Stephen Denney <sdenney@uclink4.berkeley.edu>
Reply-To: vsg@u.washington.edu
To: Vietnam Studies Group <vsg@u.washington.edu>
Subject: Re: Banned books?

I appreciate the responses I received to my query on banned books in Vietnam. Regarding Duong Thu Huong, perhaps Dan or someone else could answer if her more recent novels translated into English are available in the original Vietnamese in Vietnam? For example, Paradise of the Blind, Beyond Illusion, and Novel Without a Name.

 - Steve Denney

From sdenney@uclink4.berkeley.edu Fri Nov  8 12:18:18 2002
Date: Thu, 26 Sep 2002 16:35:15 -0700
From: Stephen Denney <sdenney@uclink4.berkeley.edu>
Reply-To: vsg@u.washington.edu
To: Vietnam Studies Group <vsg@u.washington.edu>
Subject: Re: Duong Thu Huong/Banned Books

Thank you to all who responded to my query about banned books in Vietnam. I found all the replies very informative but especially appreciate Nina McPherson's very detailed reply regarding Duong Thu Huong's banned books. I wish I had read it before posting this morning to varous email groups my chronology on banned books and other forms of censorship in Vietnam during 2002.

I am not an academic specialist on Vietnam and realize that there are others here far more knowledgeable than me on the subject of censorship in Vietnam. I did not intend to post my chronology here, but if anyone is interested I can email it to them. I also posted it to vnnews-l which some here receive. What I wrote was basically a summary of news reports I have read so far this year, and not meant to be an authoritative guide on the subject. I might update it at the end of the year.

 - Steve Denney

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