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Thursday, June 30, 2016

I'm profiled at the beginning of Paul Millar's "Vietnamese-American poets struggle to make their voices heard,"

as published in the Phnom Penh-based Southeast Asia Globe, 6/27/16:

"He was lying face down, his shirt burnt off, back steaming. I myself was bleeding. There was a harvest of vesicles on his back. His body wept.”


With these words, Linh Dinh thrusts his readers into a scene of utter desolation. Only a paragraph long, his poem, “The Most Beautiful Word”, forces us to confront the reality of a man left broken by gunfire. Cradling the injured man in his arms, the unnamed narrator is left scrabbling for the unreachable words that will make sense of the violence before him. “Don’t say, ‘The bullet yawed inside the body’,” he writes. “Say, ‘The bullet danced inside the body’.”

Born in what was then Saigon in 1963, Vietnamese-American poet Linh Dinh is no stranger to the language of cruelty. Fleeing to the US after Saigon fell to North Vietnamese forces in 1975, Dinh experienced firsthand the displacement and isolation that became the reality of tens of thousands of Vietnamese refugees desperate to escape the war and its aftermath. Settling in Philadelphia at age 11, Dinh’s first experiences of US life were ones of alienation and violence.

Today, Dinh describes the frustration of attempting to get often-overlooked Vietnamese voices heard in the West. “The challenge of making sense of Vietnamese history has preoccupied me since I was a teenager,” he said. “There is a fascination with the North Vietnamese soldier, and a complete disregard, if not disdain, of those from the South – but such is the fate of most historical losers.”

In the US, Dinh was caught between his own memories of a childhood in Saigon and the hostile warscape popularised in American culture. Films such as Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket and Platoon have created a popular understanding of Vietnam where its people are relegated to faceless cyphers stalking chiselled GIs through the jungle.

Worse still for Dinh are the people who twist the conflict into a story simple enough to reinforce their own political prejudices. “Most people who comment on [the war] are facile and reductive. I can’t count how many times I’ve been lectured to by indignant and righteous Western morons on the Vietnam War.”

Travelling back to Vietnam in 1995 with the assistance of a Pew Centre Fellowship, Dinh sought out writers whose oeuvre didn’t fit in to the Vietnam portrayed in Western media. His first book, Night, Again, was a collection of works by previously unknown Vietnamese authors – many of them translated into English for the first time by Dinh himself.

“I wanted to show the range of Vietnamese writers as well as the fullness of the Vietnamese experience,” he said. “Vietnam in American fiction is almost exclusively about the Vietnam War, and much of the Vietnamese fiction that’s translated into English is also about that conflict.”

His return to Vietnam – the first of a number of trips back – gave Dinh the tools he needed to use his writing as a disruptive agent, cutting through the comfortable clichés of mass media with visceral images of a society in decay. “Being in Vietnam also allowed me to better understand the writer’s responsibility. [While] there, I met writers who had integrity and courage, and those who pandered. I also saw pressing social and political issues that had to be diagnosed and articulated by writers, since they’re the ones with the means to do so.”

In the US, an essay condemning the government for facilitating war crimes – a charge Dinh has consistently levelled against extra-legal drone strikes carried out by the Obama administration – can get a struggling fringe poet mainstream attention. In Vietnam, it simply wouldn’t be published.

It’s this freedom that allows Dinh to launch scathing critiques of a political climate that appalls him. “With no ideological basis, Vietnam is just a one-party dictatorship where card-carrying ‘Communists’ accumulate wealth, send their kids to American colleges and take vacations in Singapore, Dubai and Paris,” he said.


Speaking of writers that he believes pander to the regime in return for easy publication, Dinh was frank in his contempt. “If you want to be a whore, there are much more lucrative fields to go into than writing.”



[Photo was taken in Mỹ Tho, Vietnam in 2000. Also, I got to Philadelphia in 1982 at age 18. Many thanks, though, to Paul Millar for writing this very fair and fine article.]



LJansen said...

It is great to know even more about your work, Linh.

Two words struck me out of this profile: "loser" and "pander."

I have a Palestinian friend who, when asked why it is so difficult to awaken Americans to the plight of Palestine, says: "We're losers. No one wants to know the loser's story." I'd add "especially in this 'exceptional' country."

Pandering is such a sharply descriptive word. I sometimes find my self in pander mode. I rationalize it by the fact that I am a woman of a certain age of whom it is expected. But there are many women who figured out a way out of that trap. I'm still working on it.

The women's movement helped and got me out of a stupid marriage (after reading "The Women's Room").

It helps to have that word pander to stub my toe on.

Linh Dinh said...

Hi Linda,

Interviewed in 2014, I said this about losing:

"My first book, Fake House, was dedicated to “The Unchosen.” I’ve always been interested in so-called losers, because that’s the general human condition, if not now, then soon enough. We will all lose, but there’s also dignity and strength in losing. I came from a losing society, South Vietnam, and I’m experiencing a collapsing culture right now."

Kafka, therefore, has long been an inspiration.


LJansen said...

Hello, Linh. You are so right about the dignity and strength of losers. You felt and understood very clearly what my Palestinian friend was saying.

The collapsing culture is becoming more and more apparent to us all at this point. May more people come understand the strength and dignity required to get ourselves through it.

Thank you. Linda

my name is link said...

Weakness, as the incapability of doing harm, is the only beauty.

And winning turns beings into worse beings; grand winning is ruin to winners — though they, naturally, do not realize it.


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.