Duong Thu Huong
An entry in the forthcoming Encyclopedia on Southeast Asian Literature
In the space of the last decade, Dương Thu Hương has become the most prolific, and the most widely-read Vietnamese novelist in the world. Although banned in her native Vietnam since 1991, Dương remains, by the breadth and quantity of her work – eight full length novels, half a dozen short story collections, poetry, essays, and film scripts – one of the most important and most influential voices of her generation. For the last three decades, Dương’s journey from Communist war heroine and Party passionara, to become an outspoken dissident and internationally-acclaimed author has been dramatic and controversial. Having personally suffered or born witness to virtually every chapter of Vietnamese history since the country’s independence, Dương Thu Hương’s transformation from idealist to disillusioned critic informs all of her work.
Born in 1947 in the northern province of Thái Bình, Dương was strongly influenced by the example of her father, a Communist Party patriot with impeccable credentials who fought with Ho Chi Minh's guerrillas and was at the forefront of Vietnam’s struggle for independence from French colonial rule. By her own account, Dương Thu Hương, had a happy, boisterous childhood as the eldest in a family of four children. Growing up in the countryside of the Red River Delta as the daughter of a teacher mother and a soldier father, the author remembers her earliest ambitions were not to be a writer, but to become a champion athlete. But at age 9, her traumatic witness to the horrors of the Maoist-style land reform campaign (1953-56) led by Ho Chi Minh’s revolutionary government marked the first stage in her early vocation as a writer.
Dương would also later recall this period as her first premonition of her later disillusionment with the Communist experiment. The land reform, launched by the Viet Minh to gain support for their anti-French resistance, triggered waves of violence, and Dương has vivid memories of how terrified villagers were forced to denounce their “landlord” neighbours to political committees and makeshift “courts”. By 1956, tens of thousands of villagers – some with only a few acres of land – had been arrested and nearly 100,000 “landlord” farmers were sent off to forced labour camps, or killed, their corpses left to rot on the sides of the road. (Dương would later chronicle her difficult coming of age in northern Vietnam and how the land reform shattered her family and childhood “paradise” in her novel, Những Thiên Đường Mù ( Paradise of the Blind, 1988). In this bildungsroman and story of a young North Vietnamese woman’s coming of age, the protagonist Hang recounts how the land reform “ripped through the village like a squall, devastating fields and rice paddies, sowing only chaos and misery in its wake.”)
In 1967, although still a gifted 20-year-old student at the Vietnamese Ministry of Culture’s Arts College – she studied music, painting, and art - Dương Thu Hương volunteered to serve in a women’s youth brigade on the front lines of “The War Against the Americans.” Dương spent the next seven years of the war in the jungles and tunnels of the Central Highlands, the most heavily bombarded region of the war. Her mission was to “sing louder than the bombs” and to give theatrical performances for the North Vietnamese troops, but also to tend to the wounded, bury the dead, and accompany the soldiers along the perilous Ho Chi Minh trail. One of only four survivors of her brigade of over a hundred, Dương narrowly escaped death several times; she lost all hearing in her right ear when a bomb exploded, killing the girl sitting next to her. After Dương’s first love was killed, she was forced into a marriage with a man she did not love in 1968, and she had two children with him. She gave birth to both her son Minh (1970) and her daughter Hà (1972) in the tunnels and air raid shelters of Quang Binh. Her daughter Hà was born during an American air raid, an event she fictionalizes, along with her experience as one of three survivors of her troupe in her deeply autobiographical Tiểu Thuyết Vô Đề (Novel Without A Name) which is told from the point of view of a soldier ten years after he enlists as a naively patriotic eighteen-year old.
The central character of Dương’s novel is platoon leader Quan, who has fought on the front lines for ten years, but who returns to his village on home leave in despair and deep disillusion. When Quan and his friends went off to war, “drunk on our youth....marching toward a glorious future,” the mothers in the village wept, imaging how Vietnam had been “chosen by History”, how the Party would create “humanity’s paradise” when the war ended. But as Quan and his recruits plunge deeper into the war, they realize with horror that the war against the foreign invaders is in fact an interminable civil war: “the more the memory of the first day haunted us...we had renounced everything for glory. It was this guilt that bound us to one another.”
Dương remembers her own disillusionment, at the end of the war, when she entered Saigon with the Northern “liberating” troops: “From the very beginning, I was among the first to enter the city of Saigon after April 30th 1975. And yet, as everyone around me turned to congratulate each other, I somehow felt no joy, only vague, sinister premonitions. For me, this glory was an illusion; only happiness was real to me. Bertolt Brecht was right when he wrote: "Woe to a people who give birth to too many heroes." With time, my vague premonitions became a reality. I believed that after victory was won, that our people, a people full of courage and innocence, who had suffered a million deaths, who had supposedly performed a glorious feat for humanity, would have everything they needed. Today, this same people must scramble for grains of rice in the mud, eke out a living on an annual income of misery, with a huge percentage of its population left handicapped by two rival armies.”
Haunted by these “sinister premonitions” and her own growing disillusionment, even as one of the triumphant “liberators,” Dương Thu Hương returned to Hanoi in 1977. She was immediately hired as a screenwriter at the Hanoi Fiction Film Studio, but was too critical, as she recalls, to remain long as “one of 600 employees writing Party propaganda films to glorify the war.” In the late 1970s, while still an official screenwriter, Dương wrote a script called Đất của những dây trường xuân (Land of the Flowers of Eternal Spring) that was adapted as a satirical play. The play was banned by the censors and she first came into the public eye when she protested this censorship publicly. (Her criticism resulted in the first official ban on her work in 1982, and none of her short stories or plays were published for three years following.) During this same period, Dương wrote her first short story, Miền Cỏ Tơ ( Land of the Cotton Grass ) and the story was finally published in 1985 in a collection entitled Chân Dung Người Hàng Xóm (Portrait of My Neighbors).
By 1979, although a vocal critic of the Party, Dương’s patriotism was still fervent. When China launched a frontier attack against Vietnam in that same year, she stepped forward and wrote anti-Chinese tracts and stories and was the first women screenwriter to volunteer to make films about the northern frontier battle. At the same time, however, she began distributing critical pamphlets and making public speeches expressing her disillusionment with the corruption and elitism of the Communist leadership.
Pressured by her colleagues, Dương nevertheless agreed to join the Party and the officially sponsored Writer’s Union in the 1980s; she quickly became one of the most eloquent and outspoken advocates of the Party’s 1986 decision to allow greater literary and intellectual freedom. At this time, Dương began to write short stories and novels that openly described the suffering, deprivation, and creeping disillusionment of average Vietnamese people under the Communist regime. As a veteran of the war and a Party member herself, Dương was in a unique position to speak out. With her cinematic training as a screenwriter, Dương was also a gifted storyteller whose cinematic plotting and hypnotically lyrical style made her stories and novels immensely appealing to readers of all ages. The novels she wrote during this period were enormously popular in Vietnam – Chuyện Tình Kể Trước Lúc Rạng Đông ( Love Story Told Before Dawn, 1981) a tale of the Party’s intervention in the private lives of a mismatched couple who agree to divorce, sold 100,000 copies before it was withdrawn from circulation. (As in all of Dương’s work, there was a large element of the autobiographical in Love Story; in 1981, already a prominent writer, Dương became a divorced, single mother like the heroine of her novel. After her colleagues at the Hanoi Fiction Film Studio publicly petitioned the government to press charges against her violent and abusive husband, Duong was finally able to obtain a divorce, a defiant action which she undertook despite the decade-long opposition of her family.)
In 1986 Dương travelled to the Soviet Union as part of a delegation of screenwriters. This first trip abroad was another psychic shock to her image of Vietnam and her compatriots, as well as a new stage in her deepening disillusionment with the corruption and hypocrisy of the Communist Party. The author’s ever darkening vision is clear in the scathing portrait of Communist officialdom that she paints in her novel Paradise. Set in the Soviet Union and Vietnam in the Eighties, the central character, Hang, is a “guest worker” in the Soviet, where she works to support her mother, a Hanoi street peddler, who has sacrificed her health and most of her money to advance her brother’s career, now a corrupt Communist Party bureaucrat. When this uncle – once a leader in the murderous land reform - comes to Moscow on an official junket, he uses the trip to stockpile scarce material goods which he will shamelessly barter and resell when he returns to Hanoi.
From 1985 to 1987, her first novels Itinerary of Childhood (Hành trình ngày thơ ấu 1985) and Beyond Illusions (Bên Kìa Bơ Ảo vọng, 1987) were again bestsellers, with over 120,000 copies sold. In 1986, however, Dương secretly undertook a private documentary film project - Đai của những người niêm thật vọng Đên (The Sanctuary Of Despair) – an exposé of a gulag-style psychiatric camp for 600-700 dissident war veterans in Tân Kỳ, Hà Tĩnh province. The film, which she financed with her own savings and contributions from supporters, was later destroyed by order of then Party Secretary Nguyễn Vân Linh, who promptly began to refer to her in public speeches as “that dissident slut,” an epithet which she still wears as a badge of honor and authenticity.
First championed and then vilified by the Communist leadership, Dương’s career as a Party member was not surprisingly short-lived; Dương’s outspoken criticism and speeches, her satirical play, the underground documentary film project, and finally the publication of her third novel Paradise of the Blind (1988) – which so scandalized Party officials by depicting the brutality and horror of the land reform that it was withdrawn from circulation – resulted in her expulsion from the Party in 1990. As with many events in her life, Dương cleverly managed to turn the Party’s attempt to discredit and ostracize her to her advantage and the expulsion was ultimately widely-publicized and celebrated as a characteristically daring act of dissidence in itself. When Dương learned of the Party Secretary’s decision to expel her, she demanded there be a democratic vote. When the controversial meeting of her 13-member party cell ended in a tie vote, Dương, who was present and still a cell member, cast the deciding vote - against herself!
In the years leading up to her expulsion, Dương recalls how she was considered “the darling of the regime” as she naively led Party-sponsored public debates debating democratic political reform. Beautiful, charismatic, and utterly fearless, Dương was openly courted by the anxious Party leadership, who attempted to co-opt her by offering her a spacious villa and a leadership position. Dương bluntly and publicly refused this attempt to silence her. Even as the Party began to crackdown on the very writers and intellectuals it had encouraged to speak out, she gave the keynote speech at the official Writer’s Union Congress in 1989 that delivered a scathing outline of the stages of her disillusionment with Communism. Although Dương was fast becoming “a lone wolf” in Hanoi, in 1990 she embarked on a tour of the country, giving informal talks attended by thousands of students and intellectuals. At one such gathering, at the Intellectuals’ Club in Saigon in April that year, she drew over a thousand fans. Already well-known as a popular novelist, these speeches earned her a reputation as a fearless orator and she began to gain recognition and a following among disaffected overseas Vietnamese intellectuals and journalists in France and the United States.
By July 1990, expelled from the Party, and no longer able to publish in Vietnam, Dương’s excommunication was complete. In the fall of 1990, Dương sent the unpublished Vietnamese manuscript of her hastily titled Tiểu Thuyết Vô Để (Novel Without A Name) to be published by small overseas Vietnamese publishing houses in France and the United States. In April 1991, she was arrested on trumped up charges of “stealing state secrets and selling them abroad to foreigners”. Dương spent just over 7 months in solitary confinement in a high-security prison for political prisoners before she was released on November 14, 1991, largely due to pressure from the French government and international human rights organizations, most notably Amnesty International. During her time in prison, the publication of Novel Without A Name – first in Vietnamese by a private overseas Vietnamese press in California, created an uproar. While she was in prison she was forced to write, under the eyes of her guards, a letter denouncing the anti-Communist preface to her novel, but she turned the essay – entitled “Tự Bạch” (“My Clarification”) – to her advantage, writing about the reasons that compelled her to write her novel and break the law by sending it abroad. When her interrogators refused to make the letter public – it was nevertheless widely read and circulated at the highest levels – Dương managed to leak the letter to the overseas Vietnamese press. The essay, which is one of the most powerful and direct indictments of the war ever written by a North Vietnamese war veteran, was a sensation among Vietnamese readers when it was first published in Diễn Đàn Forum, an overseas Vietnamese magazine in France and later in the influential literary review, Hợp Lưu, in the United States.
Dương’s seven-month imprisonment was a turning point, forging her resolve and transforming her from loyal critic into dissident, a lone woman warrior in a new battle against the regime itself. One of her interrogators in prison asked her why she even bothered speaking out at all; very few Vietnamese had ever heard of her, he observed, and if she were to disappear or die, within a week of her death she would be forgotten. She replied: “I am not like you. I don’t do what I do in order to be remembered. I oppose you because I want to, and it pleases me to oppose you. Earlier I volunteered against the Americans, against the Chinese, and now I am volunteering against you with the same force.”
The international outcry that led to Dương Thu Hương’s release in 1991 helped launch her as a novelist in the West, leading to the translation and publication of Paradise of the Blind (France 1991; US 1993) and the banned Novel Without A Name (France 1993, US 1995). Both works were widely acclaimed by the foreign press, especially in France, where both works were short listed for the Prix Fémina foreign category. In 1992, after the success of both novels in France and the United States, Dương was a recipient of the Hammett-Hellman grant, an award made to persecuted writers from the legacies of American left wing engagé writers Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett.
In the fall of 1994, Dương Thu Hương travelled to Paris - her first trip abroad since her imprisonment – where she became the first Vietnamese writer to become a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres. That the award, given by then Minister of Culture Jacques Toubon, would be to honor a dissident whose works were banned in her home country, so angered the Vietnamese authorities that it provoked a diplomatic incident. The Vietnamese Ministry of Culture and Information announced that it was suspending all co-operation with the French government, and viciously denounced Dương as a traitor in the official press.
Dương Thu Hương declined exile in France, and returned to Vietnam in 1995, despite explicit threats from the government to block her return. When she did return, she was escorted off the plane by the police and her newly-minted passport was confiscated by the Ministry of the Interior, making it impossible for her to accept numerous invitations abroad. Despite heavy surveillance and constant harassment by the security police, Dương continued to write two more full-length novels – Lưu Ly ( Memories of a Pure Spring, published in France as Myosotis, 1998) and Chốn Vắng ( published in the United States as No Man’s Land, 2005, and in France as Terre des oublis, 2006). Unable to publish in Vietnam, she sent both these novels abroad, where they were first serialized in the California-based overseas Vietnamese literary magazine Hơp Lưu and then translated into more than a dozen European and Asian languages.
NOVELS PUBLISHED IN VIETNAM
Dương Thu Hương emerged as a writer in the late 1980s, a time when the regime had embarked on a policy of economic liberalization and was appealing to disenchanted intellectuals by permitting a relaxation in cultural policy. Dương was one of the most outspoken writers to step forward, and by the end of the decade she had published three best-selling novels, all depicting Vietnamese society in the starkest terms. The popular appeal and directness of Dương Thu Hương’s writing first delighted and then terrified the regime. But by 1989, faced with the spread of democratic movements in Eastern Europe, China, and Burma, conservative Vietnamese officials brought this brief period of political liberalization to a halt. In a pattern reminiscent of what happened to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn after the publication in 1962 of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich – Dương Thu Hương’s work eventually got her expelled from the Party and she saw herself fall from favour overnight to become a pariah.
Dương wrote her fírst novel, Hành trình ngày thơ ấu ( An Itinerary of Childhood) for young adults on what she describes as a friendly dare from a colleague who wanted to help promote Kim Đồng Publishers, a state publisher for children’s books who gave part of their proceeds to charitable causes. The novel was a huge, and unexpected commercial success – selling more than 100,000 copies in its first few weeks and drawing lines of people, mainly parents, who stood in long queues to get the best-seller for their children, but ended up reading it themselves.
But it was Dương’s first full-length novel, Beyond Illusions – written when she was 40 years old and recently divorced – that launched her as a serious novelist. The author’s direct, cinematic style was like an electric shock for Vietnamese readers; she hid nothing behind the coded language, or discrete literary allusions that other Vietnamese writers used to mask their political criticism. An instant bestseller with her generation, especially young women who identified both with the author and her rebellious heroine, the book was promptly withdrawn from circulation after it sold out at 50,000 copies. While Illusions tells the story of an ordinary woman’s personal disillusionment with her marriage, the novel was a devastating political statement, the cri de coeur of a former true believer in the communist ideals proclaimed by her country’s leaders. As in virtually all of Dương’s fiction, romantic disillusionment closely parallels political disenchantment. In this novel, Dương offers her readers a terrifyingly accurate portrait of 1980s Hanoi, by introducing three characters who all face moral crises as they grapple with the corruption and hypocrisy of their lives in the post-war society. Linh, the heroine, is a beautiful schoolteacher fed on revolutionary myth and Party propaganda about justice and equality. But when she discovers that her husband, Nguyen - a literature professor who becomes a Party journalist so he can support her and their little girl - has betrayed their shared ideals to “carve out a place in society, to reap all the benefits” she decides to leave him and her life of relative material ease. Unhappy and restless, Linh drifts into an affair with a famous composer, Tran Phuong, who is temporarily out of favour with the regime. But behind his facade of artistic purity, Tran Phuong, an older married man and womanizer, also secretly longs for the material perks of power and official acceptance – “the sight of his white Moscovic car gliding across the courtyard”. When he ultimately betrays and discards Linh to regain his favour with the Party, she is persecuted by the same authorities for leaving her husband and having an affair. Meanwhile, Nguyen, still deeply in love with Linh, faces a moral dilemma at work: to write the truth about a senior official accused of raping young women or keep quiet. As the three central characters wrestle with their consciences, Linh, whose youthful idealism has been tempered by reality, resolves to forge a new, solitary life for herself “in spite of the ruins. In spite of the lies.”
Undaunted by the fate of her first literary success, Illusions (1986), Dương followed with Paradise of the Blind, another enormously popular success that gripped Vietnamese readers with its stark depiction of life in Vietnam from the 1950s to the 1980s. As in her earlier short stories and novels, Dương wrote Paradise in a lush, lyrical style that showed her debt to French romanticism, but she broke with the conventions of socialist realism by portraying the horrors of the Communist Party’s land reforms in the 1950s. The villains in this novel are no longer the conventional class enemies or foreign invaders of her earlier propagandistic works, but the party factotums themselves. The dishonesty and the hypocrisy of the Party pervade the book; a society that claimed to be egalitarian is actually deeply stratified and kept in check with fear.
NOVELS PUBLISHED ABROAD
In the years following her imprisonment in 1991 and the international recognition that ensued, Dương Thu Hương ’s open resistance to the regime coincided with a growing awareness of her role as a writer. By her own definition, Dương had always seen writing as a means to an end, part and parcel of her struggle for freedom and democratic expression for her people. In the first interview following her imprisonment, she stated:
“I never intended to write. I write because of the pain. Pain is the precise word. My novels are cries of pain. In this way, my work is inseparable from the society in which I have lived, the country that has forged me. During the war, I thought, I observed the destinies of my compatriots. Little by little, this became an obsession, and I had to take up my pen. I share Henry Miller’s view – which I read in translation: ‘To write is to emit toxins.’ My struggle is one that is shared by many others: To gain respect for my rights as a free citizen, here in my own country. Writing is the way I free myself; the way I make myself a free woman. (...) I have decided to devote my life to writing and making films about my country. If they decide to put me in prison again, I am ready.”
The three novels Dương has written since her imprisonment – Novel Without A Name, Memories of A Pure Spring, and No Man’s Land – can be seen as a trilogy. Although there is no strict, structural or narrative continuity, the family ties between characters (Suong and Mien, the triumphant female protagonists of Memories and No Man’s Land, are sisters from the same impoverished mountain village) and the thematic and temporal sequence of the portraits of wartime, post-war, and present day Vietnamese society bind the novels into a coherent whole.
Novel Without A Name
The first novel in this epic trilogy – and the first work to be sent abroad for publication –
Novel Without A Name is a more powerful and more directly autobiographical political statement than either of Dương’s preceding novels. In this novel, Dương was the first Vietnamese writer and certainly the first veteran to dare to take on the master subject of her time, the “War Against The Americans”. Stylistically, Novel With A Name marks a maturation of Dương’s skill as a novelist in several ways. The first person narration by a male protagonist is a significant departure from the woman’s perspective in Dương’s earlier works. The circular, non-linear time structure of the novel mirrors the circularity of the war, and the reader experiences the disorientation of the Vietcong guerrilla fighters as they advance and retreat, withdrawing and reflecting, regrouping and rearming, all the while losing any sense of what the war they are fighting is all about. The young narrator, who like the author has seen a decade of war, reminisces: “Ten years ago, we wanted to sing songs of glory. Anything was good for killing as long as it brought us glory.” But now the war comes back to haunt the soldiers in dreams and hallucinations, in visions of walking vultures that remind him of “villages razed to ash, strewn with swollen corpses, of the gorges that swam with blood and rotting flesh; of the stench of death, the buzzing of flies.”
Dương Thu Hương’s narration is also increasingly skilful compared to her earlier works, as she immerses us in the strange and the grotesque, crossing easily between the real and the surreal, and drawing on traditional Vietnamese fantastic conventions of storytelling in which the line between the animate and the inanimate is often blurred, and in which rocks and trees have souls and can separate themselves from their hosts. And for the first time, the hungry ghosts – the wandering souls of dead soldiers – return to haunt the living.
Memories of A Pure Spring
Unlike Novel Without A Name, Memories of A Pure Spring takes place in post-war Vietnam and is set amidst the tremendous and disorienting material and psychological changes the Vietnamese faced in the 1980s after decades of war. While the central character, Hung, a talented composer who runs afoul of the Communist Party authorities, is fictional, the broad lines of his fate – disillusionment with the party, imprisonment, and ultimately, internal exile – closely parallel the author’s own life trajectory and current predicament in Vietnam. Although Memories is not a war novel, it is set in a Vietnam still devastated and recovering from the war that occurred twenty-five years earlier. All survivors and veterans like the author herself, the characters remember the war as a time of determination and integrity, but these memories must yield to a reality of desperation, poverty and disillusionment with a hopelessly corrupt regime. The victory in the “The War Against The Americans” seems pyrrhic as the Vietnamese people are poor, and the government is plagued by corruption and political prisoners are treated like animals.
More elegiac than her previous novels, Memories also tells another chapter in Dương’s own disillusionment: the disintegration of a marriage. The central character, Hung, is a talented composer and the director of a theatre troupe who marries a sixteen-year old beauty named Suong with a magnificent voice. Suong becomes a star while Hung’s confrontation with a political apparatchik costs him his job as troupe director and he is later imprisoned in a camp. Although Hung is saved from the prison camp by his wife, he becomes an outcast, artistically paralyzed and reduced to seeking menial jobs to make ends meet for his family. While Suong’s fame as a singer grows, Hung is increasingly marginalized and he begins to drink, take opium and steal money from his wife. Finally he is imprisoned for a failed attempt to flee Vietnam by boat. Although Hung’s fall from war hero to internal exile bears a strong resemblance to the author’s own predicament, Dương Thu Hương is characteristically unsparing in her portrayal of Hung’s complicity in his own moral and physical degradation.
No Man’s Land
Dương’s most critically acclaimed and most tragic novel to date is her most recent, No Man’s Land (Chốn Vắng). The novel – which is both a sequel to Memories of A Pure Spring and the final volume of a war trilogy that began with Novel Without A Name - is set in a single hamlet in the countryside of central Vietnam following the end of the war in 1975. The novel’s intrigue and plot are constructed around the destinies of three characters, Mien, Bon, and Hoan, whose destinies have been inextricably linked and irrevocably altered by the absurdity of war. In it, Dương continues her exploration of the wrenching personal tragedy and sacrifice imposed by the Party, and the stultifying feudal values that underpin it. Unlike previous novels, No Man’s Land opens dramatically, plunging immediately into a triangular intrigue and the twist of fate that will drive the narrative. In a surreal, nightmarish opening scene, Mien, a country woman in her mid-thirties, happily married to a successful planter, Hoan, returns to her village to find a throng of villagers at the gate to her house. She learns that her first husband, Bon, who everyone believed had died as a martyr and war hero, is in fact alive and has returned to reclaim her.
Faced with the immense pressure of the villagers and the Party authorities, Mien agrees to leave her second husband Hoan and their son, to live in poverty with Bon. But the decision of all three parties in this fateful triangle bow to the pressure of the villagers and the Party authorities proves ill-fated. Bon, who dreams of rebuilding his marriage with Mien and conceiving a child with her, discovers that he is impotent due to exposure to Agent Orange. Mien’s second husband Hoan, whose money, good looks, business acumen and sexual potency make him the real hero of the novel – makes a mockery of the Party’s pitiful glorification of the impotent and impoverished war “hero” Bon. But Hoan too is a prisoner both of fate and his own traditional values of self-sacrifice and duty. The reader learns that he was able to avoid being conscripted and sent off to war, and that he succumbed to a forced marriage before meeting Mien, the love of his life. When Bon returns to claim Mien, Hoan stoically accepts his wife’s choice to return to her “war hero” husband and leaves for the city, where he seeks oblivion and solace among prostitutes. Here, the author draws a devastating portrait of the new materialistic society and the sordid, cynical complicity between the police and the prostitutes, who entrap Hoan and his business partner.
Meanwhile, back in the village, Mien labours the miniscule, barren plot of land that the Party has allotted to her “war hero” husband Bon. Miserable, tortured by remorse, she submits with revulsion to her conjugal duty and to Bon’s desperate attempts to impregnate her. The novel progresses to its climax largely through this tragic love triangle and these three characters as they struggle between their duty to the “heroic” and self-sacrificing values of the war (Bon) and the new, more self-interested material lure of the city (Hoan). The narrative is swift and deftly woven, a constant and precise shuttle between the village and the city, between the tortured interior monologues of these three characters and a dramatic series of dialogues between an accusatory chorus of villagers, who stand in judgment of every individual action.
In this novel, Dương breaks radically from the traditional narrative technique used in her previous novels: the anonymous voices of the villagers stand alone in dramatic purity, often without names or characterization. As this faceless, nameless chorus punctuates the drama, Dương Thu Hương replaces the often heavy-handed portrayal of the party apparatchiks and cadres in her previous novels with an infinitely more chilling portrait of the feudal, village morality that brought them to power.
The dramatic and symbolic climax of the novel occurs when the reader learns, indirectly through this chorus of villagers, that Mien has given birth to Bon’s child, but that the longed-for heir is a headless foetus that is monstrously deformed by Agent Orange. Desperate, Bon flees after an attempt to kill Hoan that is only narrowly averted by Mien. At this point, Hoan returns to claim Mien and to reveal that he is the only legal husband, since Bon and Mien’s marriage certificate was destroyed during the war.
Dương’s travesty of the “war hero” who returns glorious to rebuild his life with wife and child in his natal village is now complete. Impotent, insane, destitute and ravaged by the effects of Agent Orange, Bon is completely and utterly dispossessed, and the novel closes with his final, delirious dialogue with a ghost of a dead lieutenant. No Man’s Land can be read both literally and allegorically as Dương’s most devastating indictment of a regime that she and her generation sacrificed their youth to bring to power. Bon, who like the author, gave his youth to defending the country, is left dying and without heir, father of a stillborn, headless monster. The foetus, deformed by Agent Orange, is the ultimate symbol of the Party’s broken promises and the fraudulent, self-serving cult of heroism that has kept it in power. While the novel is darkly tragic, Dương’s heroine, Mien, ultimately triumphs in her choice of personal happiness by her decision to return to Hoan. And the villagers, like Mien, choose the new “hero” of their time in the person of Hoan, a man who embodies a vision of the future that refuses individual sacrifice to a utopian dream.
Published in Vietnam:
Hành trình ngày thơ ấu (An Itinerary of Childhood) (Hànội : Nhà Xuất Bản Kim Đồng, 1985)
Truyện tình kể trước lúc rạng đông (Love Story Told Before Dawn) (Hànội : Nhà Xuất Bản Phụ nữ, 1986) ; translated by Kim Lefèvre (Paris : Editions de l’Aube, 1991).
Bên kìa bơ ảo vộng (Beyond Illusions) (Hànội: Nhà Xuất Bản Phụ nữ, 1987) ; translated by Phan Huy Đường as Au delà des illusions (Paris: Editions Philippe Picquier, 1996) ; translated by Nina McPherson as Beyond Illusions (New York : Hyperion, 2002). Nominated for the Prix Fémina Etranger, 1996.
Những thiên đường mù (Paradise of The Blind) (Hànội: Nhà Xuất Bản Phụ nữ, 1988); translated by Phan Huy Đường as Les Paradis Aveugles (Paris, Editions des Femmes, 1992); translated by Nina McPherson into English as Paradise of the Blind (New York: William Morrow, 1993). Nominated for the Prix Fémina Etranger.
Quãng đời đánh mất: (Hải Phòng : Nhà Xuất Bản Hải Phòng , 1989)
Banned in Vietnam, published internationally
Tiểu Tuyết Vô Đề (California: Văn Nghệ, 1991) translated by Phan Huy Đường as Roman Sans Titre (Paris: Editions des Femmes, 1994), translated by Nina McPherson as Novel Without A Name (New York: William Morrow, 1995). Nominated for the Dublin IMPAC Award, 1997.
Lưu Ly; translated by Phan Huy Đường as Myosotis (Paris: Editions Philippe Picquier, 1998); translated by Nina McPherson as Memories of A Pure Spring (New York: Hyperion, 2000).
Chốn Vắng. Translated in English by Nina McPherson as No Man’s Land (New York: Hyperion, 2005); translated by Phan Huy Đường as Terre des Oublis (Paris: Editions Sabine Wespieser, 2006).
Short Story Collections
Những bông bần ly (Saigon: Nhà xuất bản Tác phẩm mới, 1981)
Một bờ cây đỏ thắm (Nhà Xuất Bản Phụ Nữ, 1980)
Ban mai yên ả: (Hà nội: Thanh nhiên, 1984)
Chân dung người hàng xóm [Portrait of My Neighbors] (Hà nội : Văn học, 1985)
Đối thọai sau bức tường [Dialogue Behind A Wall] (Saigon: Nhà xuất bản Tác phẩm mới, 1985)
Các vĩ nhân tỉnh lẻ [The Great Men of the Provinces] (Hànội: Thanh niên, 1987, 1988)
Published in foreign languages:
“Reflections of Spring” (Hồi quang của mùa xuân) translated by Nguyen Nguyet Cam and Linh Dinh. Published in Night, Again: Contemporary Fiction From Vietnam, (New York: 7 Stories Press, 1996) ed. Linh Dinh. Originally published in Vietnam in the collection entitled Đối thọai sau bức tường (Saigon: Nhà xuất bản Tác phẩm mới, 1985)
“The Story of an Actress” (Diễn Viên) translated by Bac Hoai Tran and Courtney Norris. Published in Virtual Lotus: Modern Fiction of Southeast Asia. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 2002) Ed. By Teri Shaffer Yamada.
Mùa thu mùa trăng: (Ho Chi Minh City: Nhà xuất bản Tác phẩm mới, 1980)
“Tự Bạch” (“My Clarification”) Written in prison and later made public and published in the overseas Vietnamese-language newsletter, Diễn Đàn Forum no° 6 (March 1992).
“Tự do ảo khoảng sinh tôn quả người bút” (Hànội, June 25, 1999) Translated by Phan Huy Đường as “Liberté, un espace irréel pour la naissance et la survie de l’écriture” and published by the Prince Claus Foundation.
“Hãy ra khỏi cánh rừng chân trời phía trước” (Hànội: 1999) Translated by Phan Huy Đường as “Sortons de la foret, allons vers l’horizon” and published in PODIUM, Amsterdam 1999.
“Thời gian bản lề” (Paris, February 2006) Essay on the independent filmmaker Robert Kramer. Translated by Đoàn Cầm Thi as “Epoque charnière” for the Festival Théatres et Cinéma Retrospective Film Festival, Bobigny 2006.
Mộng du 1995 unpublished. Translated into French by Phan Huy Đường as “Le Somnambule”. Based on the story by Nguyễn Minh Châu.
Selected Critical Works on Her
Blodgett, Harriet. “The Feminist Artistry of Paradise of The Blind” World Literature Today: Summer /Autumn 2001, pp. 31-39.
Duffy, Dan. Review of Dương’s Paradise of the Blind. The Nation, 12 April 1993, pp.491-94.
Eads, Brian. “She Dares to Live Free.” Reader’s Digest, 918 (October 1998), pp.159-64.
Kamm, Henry. Dragon Ascending. (New York: Arcade, 1996)
McPherson, Nina. “About The Author.” In Dương’s Novel Without A Name, pp. 291-92.
Nguyễn, Đình Hòa. Review of Dương’s Paradis Aveugles. World Literature Today, 66:2 (Spring 1992), p. 410.
Phan Huy Đường. “Dương Thu Hương. Một bài học, một câu hỏi” (Dương Thu Hương, a lesson and a question,” in the Vietnamese-language collection by the same author: “Vẫy gọi nhau làm người” (California: Nhà Xuất Bản Hồng Lĩnh , 1996)
“Dương Thu Hương: Yêu cầu tối thiểu của ngày mai nhân bản,” (“Dương Thu Hương, A Minimum Basic Requirement for Tomorrow’s Humanism”).
Quek Ling Xiang. “Distilling Emotions from Nature: Dương Thu Hương and Remembrance.” Dissertation. Cornell University, 2003.
Tai Hue Tam Ho. “Dương Thu Hương and the Literature of Disenchantment.” Viet Nam Forum 14: A Review of Vietnamese Culture and Society. Ed. Oliver Wolters. Vol. 14. New Haven: Yale University Council on Southeast Asian Studies, 1994.
Young, Marilyn. “Human Sacrifices. A Review of Paradise of the Blind.” The Women’s Review of Books. July 1993.
Prix Fémina étranger (short listed foreign category 1991, 1996, 2006) Hammet-Hellman Foundation Award, United States (1992) Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres, France (1994) International Dublin IMPAC Award, Ireland (short listed, 1997) Prince Klaus Foundation, The Netherlands (1999) Grinzane Cavour Prize, Italy, (June 2005) PEN Novib Freedom of Expression Award, The Hague (2006)
Dương Thu Hương online
- A discourse shaped by the Vietnam War, an article about her in the International Herald Tribune, also translated into Vietnamese
- "Lives Reshaped by History" on Time Asia
- PEN World Voices, featuring a conversation with Duong Thu Huong and Robert Stone
- "No Man's Land: Love, Loss in Vietnam" a report by Michael Sullivan on NPR
- Interview with Duong Thu Huong on Radio Free Asia
- Chuyện Tình Kể Trước Lúc Rạng Đông, on Đại Việt
- Những Thiên Đường Mù, on Đại Việt
- Dương Thu Hương page on Đặc Trưng, with stories, novels, essays and a poem
- "Dương Thu Hương và Chốn vắng", an article on BBC Vietnamese
- "Sự cứu rỗi cuối cùng", on BBC Vietnamese
- An interview by M. Hoàng
- "Tình dục trong văn chương Dương Thu Hương," by Thế Uyên
- "Dương Thu Hương: Bộ mặt ngày càng trơ tráo," an attack on her, published inside Vietnam
- "Dương Thu Hương bị khai thác?," an attack on her, published inside Vietnam
- "Cuộc hội thoại với Dương Thu Hương," an attack on her, Part 1, and 2
- "Nghĩ về cuộc đấu tranh dân chủ ở Việt Nam"
- A letter from Dương Thu Hương to the group "Đấu tranh vì Dân chủ" ["Fighting for Democracy"]
- A letter from Antoine Audouard (in French)
- "Donne e scrittura. Un approccio al caso del Viet", an article by Sandra Scagliotti (in Italian)