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Wednesday, February 12, 2014

An exchange with a reader

at Information Clearing House, 2/12/14:

manfred noa · 5 hours ago

As some one that has enjoyed his articles it's a little disconcerting that Linh Dinh should use Viet Nam in the argument.This nation more than any other on earth has suffered under the brutal boot of US Imperialism and has to be rightly suspicious of a returning 'white' poet whose parents I assume left the country classified as counter revolutionaries. Visiting the homeland, attempting to bribe poorly paid officials ( not hard to do lets face it) and then sitting around in cafes paying the bill for 'poets'and disaffected writers with his bagful of books and expensive camera equipment what the hell does he expect? It has to be said that this sort of behaviour is unacceptable in any country much less Viet Nam.

Linh Dinh · 20 minutes ago

Hi Manfred,

I didn't attempt to bribe, I actually did, because that's how things get done there. Everyone bribes every official as needed, and it's not just this government, but the former South Vietnam too, and the Colonial government. You get the picture. The dissident poets and fiction writers I've translated are working within the Vietnamese context and dealing with Vietnamese issues. They do not care about American concerns or what Americans think about them, but merely pointing out the many gross abuses of power from the RULING CLASS of Vietnam. They are speaking from the point of view of regular people, that is, from the Vietnamese working class, and I didn't live there like some American fat cat. I had no expensive camera, and like most people, I flushed my toilet with a bucket.

If you're interested in the results of my time there, then check out The Deluge: New Vietnamese Poetry, which has just been published by Chax Press of Tucson, or my novel of Vietnam, Love Like Hate. The Deluge took years to compile, and I made not a dime from it. Why? Because I admire and love the poets I translate. I have also translated plenty of American poetry into Vietnamese, including T.S. Eliot's Waste Land, for also no money. I'm telling you this to clarify that I love writing, including other people's writing, and that's why I've translated so many authors' works.

As for the elites of Vietnam, news just came out that McDonald's will open its first eatery there, and the man behind it is the Vietnamese-American son-in-law of the Prime Minister. The cops who harassed me and my friends are serving this elite, and not the people. The richest, most corrupt people in Vietnam are in the upper echelon of the Communist Party, and they are grossly materialistic, just like the elites anywhere. Though they flaunt their wealth constantly and indulge in the worst decadence, they will brand me and my friends as "decadent and reactionary."

Lastly, I do not write from ideology, but from common sense, and abuses from any source are still clearly abuses, unless you let ideology or partisanship cloud your judgement.


Additional thoughts on this: It's also odd that this reader faults me for bringing books to my writer friends. In Vietnam, you're expected to bring back gifts after a trip, and during my 2 1/2 years there, from 1999 to 2001, this was my only visit to the US. Before I left, some of my friends asked me specifically to bring back books for them. A poet requested the Norton Anthology of American Poetry, so that's what I got. I also brought him a volume of Allen Ginsberg. For another poet, I brought the Selected Poems of Michael Palmer. The Balthus, I gave to an artist. I brought several copies of a Vietnamese poetry journal published in California. So why are these contrabands, you may be wondering, but in a totalitarian system, the government can declare just about anything illegal, and it doesn't even have to be consistent with its own rules.

Also, how is it "unacceptable" to give books away while sitting in a "cafe"? Speaking of which, Vietnamese of all types sit in cafes for hours, drinking very slowly their cheap beer or coffee, but "sitting around in cafes" as used here implies the lifestyle of idle bon vivants... And what's up with 'poets' in quotation marks, which further reveals this reader's assumption that these so-called poets were merely decadent trouble makers "sitting aroung in cafes," but even if that's all they were, how is it "unacceptable"? As for my "expensive camera equipment," which I didn't even have then, how would that add to the unacceptableness of my presence in Saigon?

A note too about my use of "Saigon": Everyone in Saigon uses the old name, with Ho Chi Minh City relegated to official documents, official pronouncements and the evening newscast. In conversations and on shop signs, it's Saigon, because that's what the people who live there prefer. "Saigon" is also seen on long distance buses. The word Saigon itself evokes an entire culture, so that even in Hanoi, you might see a shop sign advertising "Saigon fashion." A people's culture and heritage cannot be changed with a government decree.



Michael Dawson said...

Nice example here of the rocks on which the left continues to insist on crashing itself. Vietnam was raped by the US, so its new rulers get a free pass?

I'd be interested to read more about Mr. Dinh's take on Ho Chi Minh. I remember reading that Ho wanted his ashes scattered under a tree in his home town, but that the CP instead built that great Stalinist freakshow for his corpse.

Linh Dinh said...

Hi Michael,

You know as well as I do that any one party system is a bad deal, so Vietnam is no different, although words like "democracy" and "freedom" are routinely abused by the US whenever it feels like messing with another country, as it's doing now with the Ukraine.

Speaking of Stalin, there was a poet laureate of Vietnam, Tố Hữu, who spent decades writing bloodthirsty or obsequious poetry, among which is a bizarre ode to Stalin that includes these lines, in my translation:

O Stalin! O Stalin!
Without you, are there still sky and earth?
The love for my father, mother, wife
The love for myself are but one tenth
Of my love for you
The love for my child, country, race
Can’t be greater than my love for you

Tố Hữu was also a very high-ranking Party member. Near death in 2002, he circulated a farewell poem. I translate:

To my most beloved friend in life
A few lines of verse and a bit of ash
Poetry for life, ash for the soil
In life I give, in death I also give.

The Vietnamese word for “give” is “cho.” Add a rising diacritic, however, and “cho” becomes “chó,” meaning “dog.” In oral circulation, the last line of Tố Hữu’s poem has been converted to:

In life I was a dog, in death a dog.

Linh Dinh said...

The entirety of To Huu's poem, in my translation:

Stalin! Stalin!

A mother showed to her child
A picture of Stalin with a young child
His shirt is white against red clouds
His eyes are kind, his mouth smiling
On an immense green field
He stands with a little child
Wearing a red scarf round his neck
Towards the future they both look
Stalin! Stalin!
How I loved my child’s first word
When he said the word Stalin!
The milky fragance of a baby’s mouth
Is like the dove of peace and a limpid moon
Yesterday the field speaker blared
Tore my stomach to shreds
O how the village convulsed
O how can it be… He’s dead!
O Stalin! O Stalin!
Without you, are there still sky and earth?
The love for my father, mother, wife
The love for myself are but one tenth
Of my love for you
The love for my child, country, race
Can’t be greater than my love for you
Before there was only barren desolation
Thanks to you there’s brightness and joy
Before only torn clothes and hunger
Thanks to you our rice pots are full
Before only torment and shackles
Thanks to you we have days of freedom
When people have land to till
When independence comes tomorrow
Who will we remember with gratitude?
This gratitude I’ll bear on my shoulders
One side for Uncle Ho, one for you
My child, you’re still so clueless
But you’ll learn to thank Stalin for life
Loving you a mother vowed in silence
To love village, country, husband, child
Although you have disappeared, gone
Your crimson footsteps are forever
Today on the village road at dawn
Incense smoke curled up everywhere
A thousand in mourning white, joined
In wrenching eternal remembrance of you.



About Me

Born in Vietnam in 1963, I came to the US in 1975, and have also lived in Italy, England and Germany. I'm the author of a non-fiction book, Postcards from the End of America (2017), two books of stories, Fake House (2000) and Blood and Soap (2004), six of poems, All Around What Empties Out (2003), American Tatts (2005), Borderless Bodies (2006), Jam Alerts (2007), Some Kind of Cheese Orgy (2009) and A Mere Rica (2017), and a novel, Love Like Hate (2010). I've been anthologized in Best American Poetry 2000, 2004, 2007, Great American Prose Poems from Poe to the Present, Postmodern American Poetry: a Norton Anthology (vol. 2) and Flash Fiction International: Very Short Stories From Around the World, etc. I'm also editor of Night, Again: Contemporary Fiction from Vietnam (1996) and The Deluge: New Vietnamese Poetry (2013). My writing has been translated into Italian, Spanish, French, Dutch, German, Portuguese, Japanese, Korean, Arabic, Icelandic and Finnish, and I've been invited to read in London, Cambridge, Brighton, Paris, Berlin, Leipzig, Halle, Reykjavik, Toronto, Singapore and all over the US. I've also published widely in Vietnamese.