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Friday, March 20, 2015

Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl writes from Hoi An, Central Vietnam

Though this doesn't strictly belong on this blog, it's too good not to be squeezed in, for you don't get an Icelander's report on Vietnam every day. Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl is a poet, novelist and translator, and I met Eiríkur when I was invited to Reykjavik for a poetry festival in 2007. Below, when Eiríkur talks about Vietnamese trains being "much longer than the Icelandic train," he's cracking a joke, since Iceland has never had a train system. In Reykjavik, however, there's a ridiculous, toy-like train locomotive left out by the docks so locals and tourists alike can just stare at it.--Linh

Tuesday, March 17, 2015, 9:28 PM

Dear Linh.

We’ve been in Hoi An for a little over three months. It’s not a long time but in some sense it feels lengthy; perhaps just like anything out of the ordinary feels lengthy, rememberable. Much of it will undoubtedly fall victim to overload – I keep thinking thoughts like this is amazing too bad I have no place to store it. Everything is smaller than I am used to – the seats and beds in Iceland are small for me, the seats and beds in Vietnam are tiny. Particularly on the train (which are, as you know, much longer than the Icelandic train). By now most of the people I run into in Hoi An are used to my height, used to see me bicycling around with my hat on my head, my son on the package holder and my daughter strapped to my back – and they’ve stopped pointing and laughing, stopped trying to sell me things for quadruple the price and stopped jumping out at me when I walk past their market stalls. Yesterday I even almost paid 40,000 dong for some fresh noodles and was corrected; it’s only 4,000 dong. It helps that my wife, who is very proficient with languages, already speaks some vietnamese. It provides us, the family, with a certain authority. We’ve also got to know the neighbours a bit – mostly Nadja, since they don’t speak English, and the kids, since they don’t need to speak at all. I’ve spent our friendship mostly looking at them in our home, and looking at their home. They have dozens of diplomas on the wall, pictures of military personnel and a small statue of Ho Chi Minh. I’m not sure how many they are to the house, but I would guess about 15.

I read in the english speaking newspaper recently that three people had been sentenced for sedition. Apparently they’d abused their democratic rights by saying false things about the state and the party, as well as posting videos of protests in Hanoi on Facebook. As I recall the sentences were from 12 to 36 months. At first I was astounded that I was reading that. Not that it was happening, I realized that, but that it was being told in the newspaper. Then I thought: well, of course they would want people to know – after all it is a deterrent to more sedition. But then I also thought: why in the english speaking newspaper? Read only by expats and viet kieu. Why does the vietnamese communist party want me to know that this is what they’re up to? Are they showing me a part truth, in order that I believe it to be the whole truth – so that if I’m confronted with "western lies” they’ll say: but we’ve already owned up and this is the extent of our dictatorship, you know this, you know us, we do not lie. As a husband who’ll own up to having gotten blown on the toilet by a coworker to hide years of infidelity.

And the newspapers are interesting – not just the fact that they’ll usually try to sell them to me for 40,000 dong, when they clearly state that they cost 30,000 dong, and they’ll smile ceaselessly when I try and pay the right price – but also the fact that they do include criticism of the government, they do detail failures. One particular news story was about how the government had failed to tackle poverty in an efficient manner – had this been Iceland, even a non-state owned media, they would’ve pointed at Cambodia and Laos and proclaimed the Vietnamese efforts to be nothing short of miraculous. And then printed something about the increasing smartphone ownership in the country (it seems to be a very booming business; the go-to status symbol, your ticket to the “burgeoning middle classes”). In general the newspapers seem to deal alot with the future, more so than I’m used to – in Iceland (or Sweden) the media would report on the past. In the english speaking newspaper here so many of the stories are about “the challenges ahead”. Maybe this is what is meant by “developing countries” – they still have their futures ahead of them, whereas we have reached “the end of history” (that is to say, in terms of media narratives).

My neighbours – on my right side, one house down, people I don’t know – slaughtered a pig on the sidewalk a few weeks back. They let it slip from their grip for a moment and the pig came thrashing down the street, squealing like only a pig can squeal, and then only when confronted with death. Then they pulled it up on the sidewalk, laid it on its back and cut its throat and it was immediately silenced. That squeal, man.

Hope you're doing well.
All the best,

A poem from my collection, Some Kind of Cheese Orgy:

The Locomotive of Reykjavik

Iceland has never had a train system. That's why
There's a decorative locomotive by the wind-
Swept dock of Reykjavik, its cool capital.

How does it feel to have never experienced
That ballyhooed hum beneath one's groins
As one gazes out the fogged up window at
An endless chain of snow-capped mountains?

In a shared compartment, strangers facing each other
Are rumored to exchange conditional gazes and throaty,
Half-swallowed vowels. Bunk beds even. Train stations

With cast-iron roofs, such as Paris' Gare du Nord
Or Antwerp's central station, are as magnificent
As the Eiffel Tower lying on its side, a titillation
Denied to mango-deprived Icelanders.

And here I'm reading a poem on Icelandic television. To film the segment, they drove me to a meat packing plant:




Dennis Leary said...

Ugh. Meat eating is high on my list of cultural sins. Even in poems, especially erotic ones, it's ugly as sin. And yet, we are that, and so beautiful beyond description. Cheers.

Linh Dinh said...

Hi Dennis,

Poem was in Issue 1 of Meatpaper, not to be confused with Meat Zine, a rag of gay pinups.



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 two books of stories, Fake House (2000) and Blood and Soap (2004), five of poems, All Around What Empties Out (2003), American Tatts (2005), Borderless Bodies (2006), Jam Alerts (2007) and Some Kind of Cheese Orgy (2009), 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). Blood and Soap was chosen by Village Voice as one of the best books of 2004. 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.