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Source for Nguyen Huy Thiep v. Hoi Nha Van Controversy

From dduffy@email.unc.edu Thu May 27 12:55:03 2004
Date: Tue, 11 May 2004 09:30:49 -0400
From: Dan Duffy <dduffy@email.unc.edu>
Reply-To: vsg@u.washington.edu
To: Vietnam Studies Group <vsg@u.washington.edu>
Subject: Nguyen Huy Thiep in the news

I travelled every week in March and April and apparently I have missed all the fun. This morning I open my May copy of Khoi Hanh, the arts and letters monthly from Little Saigon, to find that the Ha Noi author Nguyen Huy Thiep has been criticizing the Hoi Nha Van in print.

Khoi Hanh, by the way, started in Saigon in 1969 and revived in Midway City in 1996. Editor-in-chief Vien Linh's vision glances back to Vietnamese history while looking around at the present, and is unambiguously rooted in the literary culture of the Republic of Viet Nam, 1954-1975. The magazine differs from such contemporary, internationalist literary journals as Hop Luu and Viet and the websites tienve and talawas in this respect. It is less genial, more marked by individual taste than older overseas reviews such as Van Hoc. It stands out among journals of strong anti-communist opinion in the sophistication of its involvement in the tradition of Vietnamese literature. It is a tabloid in format, like Bao Van Nghe, my favorite way to read literature news. Contact: khoihanh@vinet.com.

The Khoi Hanh editorial on page 3 of issue 91, May 2005, cites articles in "so 4, 5 va 6 tren to Ngay Nay, ban tin cua UNESCO o Viet Nam". Khoi Hanh reprints the whole thing on page 39 (not 36 as given in the Muc Luc) as Cai Kho Cua Nghe Van Thoi Nay, dates it "Tet Giap Thanh 2004" and attributes it to "Tap chi Ngay Nay, Ha Noi, so 6, 15.3.2004".

I would appreciate any report on what this "Ngay Nay" magazine is. UNESCO is publishing Vietnamese literary authors in Vietnamese in Viet Nam? Who gives permission for this? Was it really published over three issues, implying that this wasn't just something that slipped by?

Thiep is of course known as one of the authors who responded to Nguyen Van Linh's call to intellectuals to participate in a rebirth of VN society. He came forward with a body of literature that hammers down on what one old man, in rags, waving on a hoe, bawled at me when I visited a Red River town in 1995, " Viet Nam ngheo!"

Thiep has a genius for telling the simple truth. He suffered for that in the backlash following doi moi, so it is news to see him back at it. His general point, on hasty review by a not fully literate reader, is that the Hoi Nha Van is an organization of mediocrities, who publish mediocre work.

Well, HNV is a mass organization. If talent there follows a normal curve, then fifty to eighty percent of the authors and their work are going to fall in the middle range. It certainly seems that way to me. One of the embarassments of working in Viet Nam for me was continually to hobknob with people whose US counterparts - writers in MFA programs, editors of literary journals, PEN, the American Academy of Arts and Letters - I have avoided all my life because their work bores me.

By the same logic, one of the defenses I habitually make of VN literature is Sturgeon's Law, science fiction author Theodore Sturgeon's observation that ninety percent of all literature, including science fiction, is no good. So, yes, most of VN literature is without interest and so what? As a reader, please focus on finding something that does move you. As an author, do your best.

Thiep does not take this detached, meliorist view. A man of tradition, who takes his role as an intellectual as seriously as he takes the first acts of the New Year, Thiep has spoken out on the mediocrity that characterizes literary work in his country. He makes some specific points, for instance on the publishing of poetry rather than fiction, which address particulars of his situation profoundly.

As I say, I am completely behind on this affair, haven't read Thiep's statement carefully, don't know the actual publishing context in VN, and haven't followed up on reactions overseas. But it's still breaking news, as these things go, so you might want to read up on it for yourself. Any citations will be welcome.

Dan Duffy

From dduffy@email.unc.edu Thu May 27 13:02:26 2004
Date: Fri, 14 May 2004 13:00:55 -0400
From: Dan Duffy <dduffy@email.unc.edu>
Reply-To: vsg@u.washington.edu
To: Vietnam Studies Group <vsg@u.washington.edu>
Subject: source for Nguyen Huy Thiep v. Hoi Nha Van controversy

One of the Talawas organizers called to let me know that the web site has indeed mounted all three parts of Ha Noi author Nguyen Huy Thiep's March letter criticizing Vietnamese literature at present and blaming the Writer's Union for its quality.

My computer is having some difficulty in reading the site so I cannot give a specific location, review and summarize the debate and documents. Go to www.talawas.org and look around.

Vietnamese debates about literature and society are exhausting and informative, a lot like the great Montagnard controversy on vsg several years ago. They are easy to make fun of.

Art for life or for art? Shouldn't Song of a Warrior's Wife really be the national poem instead of Kieu? Is Duong Thu Huong a communist? Isn't Nguyen Ngoc Ngan working secretly through Paris By Night to glorify Ha Noi? Isn't Hoang Ngoc Hien writing about Vietnamese literature in Boston just like Hitler writing about Kafka?

My answer key to the above would be: who cares; who cares; she is a former Communist with socialist ideals who has suffered for the cause of liberal democracy; don't be ridiculous; and absolutely god-damned not. Sometimes I just sit around and giggle about it all.

But when I do get involved I always learn something, if only what other people think is important. A common idea in Vietnamese intellectual discourse these days, stated plainly by Phan Huy Duong, is that we become more human through this interchange. These things are gold mines for teaching.

Is Vietnamese literature bad and can we blame the Writers' Union and moreover hold them to account for the stagnation of the entire society? Can't wait to fix my fonts and find out -

Dan Duffy


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