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from the November 2018 issue

(Un)contextualizing Underground Poetry: Reimagining a Critical Community

A Different Context

I first came to know another side of Vietnamese poetry, outside of the formal education system, through “virtual encounters” and friends in distant places, writers and works on internet forums like Talawas, Tiền Vệ, Evan, Gió-O, Hợp Lưu, Tạp Chí Thơ, and overseas Vietnamese publications passed from hand to hand between friends inside the country. The circulation of these publications over many years even now tends to be associated with what in Vietnam is (not just) humorously termed “transmitting poisonous cultural products.” At that time (2005), when I was timidly sending my own compositions to some online journals, the atmosphere of new poetry on those forums had reached a boiling point. Something extraordinary, unstable, even chaotic, as if a revolution were about to erupt. The storm was flowing out of Saigon. Young poets and new poetry groups. Mở Miệng (Open Mouth). Ngựa Trời (Praying Mantis). Photocopy publishing. Resistance literature. Postmodernism. The writing of the ’80s generation. After leaving university, and to a certain degree while writing for various newspapers, I encountered yet another side of poetry: works and writers promoted in the state-run media. The stark contrast between these two sides can be captured, concisely and conclusively, in the contrasting dualism: orthodox/unorthodox. Photocopy publishing and works printed overseas, Internet forums labeled “unorthodox” that were blocked in various ways by the cultural censorship authorities, and diverse issues and emerging literary trends ignored or criticized in the orthodox domestic media. An oppressed literature, lacking acceptance: small, strange and marginalized voices, underground presences that were at the same time truly radical and experimental, appealing to me as manifestations of the effort to renovate art and freedom of expression. Hidden currents flowing under the surface, secret and concealed things, untamed, rebellious and disorderly, unorthodox compared to those things that were clearly revealed and were on display, presences that were controlled, curtailed, orderly, orthodox.

And yet, I had the feeling that after the exhilarating crescendo of rebellion and debate in the early years of the new millennium, the creative atmosphere petered out within just a few years, it became silent and deserted, stagnant and exhausted, a time of “losing the rebellious creative context.” I began to get involved with literature at that awkward, inconclusive moment: the recklessness had dissipated, but a genuinely new context of Vietnamese literature had not yet become clear; there were only lone voices, short-lived stirrings, leaving me with a sad feeling that Vietnamese art and poetry had just let a real opportunity for change, a fierce determination to contribute its voice, slip through its fingers. I found myself dangling between two sides: not belonging anywhere, swinging back and forth between two yawning chasms, at risk of being sucked into an abyss.

That artistic context is pushing me once more, like a participant wanting to see themself in a multidimensional mirror, standing in front of a vast ocean, at the place where the waves are breaking, the waves of the past and the present crashing down. Would I now be able to sketch out more clearly the context of unorthodox literary and artistic voices in contemporary Vietnam, and more specifically, the context of underground voices in the poetry of the Post-Renovation period, those absent presences that are the topic of my interest here? Permit me to open a parenthesis: I tentatively use the designation Post-Renovation for the period from the 1990s until now, both to insinuate the alienation of so-called Renovation in Vietnam and to chip away at the dominance of this term in the popular cultural discourse of the country. Frankly speaking, as a young person with only flimsy experience of life and literature, I do not aspire to persuade my readers through an overview of the situation, supported by various statistics, descriptions, and sociological analyses of poetry. My overriding desire, within the limits of my own understanding, is to elicit attention and reflection on the context we share. The exploration of the context of [self-]vanishing presences in the poetry of this period, therefore, does not aim to stitch together the outer garments of social, cultural, and political events clothing various movements, various phenomena, various authors and their works, but rather to pay closer attention to the knots in the narratives, the weaving of poetry texts into larger sociocultural texts, all of them interacting and colliding with each other, like the motion of electrons and the nucleus inside a molecule.

Expecting that things exist in parallel, I don't want to put underground poetry into a concrete conflict with mainstream poetry, equivalent to the simplistic dualism of unorthodox/orthodox. Instead, I would like to hypothesize that the wall that seems to divide these two separate worlds is only temporary.  In its “static” sense, underground poetry is unorthodox, in opposition to the official orthodoxy connected to the control and backing of the state through the Literature Association, the state publishers, and the official media on literature and the arts. But in its “dynamic” sense, which I see as more significant, the diverse creative, publishing, and interpretational activities of underground poetry are a counterbalance to orthodox poetry, as an endeavor of cultural criticism by artists on the margins; this criticism may lead to opposition and even heated confrontations with those things promoted by the state, or it might reveal a seemingly aloof attitude in those pushing back against the commercialization of mainstream literature, or both of these perspectives at the same time. I had more or less relied on terms such as revolution and innovation, or revolutionary innovation, even while questioning the extent of their applicability to this school of underground poetry. Perhaps my concern is this: In Vietnam, what is the context in which movements of ideological and aesthetic consciousness occur? And within this context, how do writers and artists position themselves and their works?

I want to emphasize that the analysis I provide below on the context of this movement is not intended to advocate for an explanation of underground poetry according to “special” local circumstances, and it is even less an attempt to abet prejudices that more or less suppress the phenomenon of “underground” poetry—which seems in Vietnam to be synonymous with “abnormal”—as simply being the inevitable consequence of “abnormal” and “special” socio-political circumstances. It would be too narrow-minded to view the existence of contemporary Vietnamese underground poetry as simply a kind of evidence of a dark side, representing the voice of helpless victims. It might also be too narrow-minded to understand the Vietnamese literary context only through attaching such wretched terms to the body of Vietnamese literature as (post)war, (post)colonial or (post-)totalitarian. More than that, these analyses try to put underground art and poetry back into a relationship with orthodox art and poetry, like a common pairing in every time and place that Vietnam can also share. Therefore, in my attempt at a discussion, the issues arising from this underground poetry should not be seen as an exotic flavor more or less designed to appeal to those far away, as a modish way of being modeled on (discourses about) a “prefabricated” context in non-Western countries, Third World countries, or postcolonial countries/former colonies, but rather as a potential means of interrogating the participation of poetry (and of poets) in their (local and historical) context, a place where language can expose wounds to the air, and require a progressively less fearful examination. And perhaps, if I can take this further still, by locating underground poetry in its context, or by attempting to make visible these absent presences, I see this work of mine as both an effort to decontextualize poetry in order to reimagine a critical and renewed literary community and as a way to share the story of Vietnamese literature today. 

Post-Renovation: The Demand for a New Public Space

The attempt to identify the various factors that transformed the ideological and aesthetic template of the Post-Renovation period requires us to refer back to the Renovation period itself. Here, I pay attention to the alienation of the term “Renovation”; the decline of the role of orthodox forums and the creation of new spaces for new cohorts of writers; and imagining a possible community. I would like to acknowledge various analyses of basic conditions that lead to the affirmation of what Václav Havel refers to as “the power of the powerless” as something far removed from the State system, the formation of un- or semi-official public spaces—stemming from the demand to expand civil society—and the emergence of critical independent intellectual qualities in Havel's post-totalitarian society, interpretations that evoke valuable parallels with contemporary Vietnam.

Renovation and Post-Renovation

The excitement of the Renovation period with regard to literature can be said to have begun with the Sixth National Party Congress in 1986, leading to a climax lasting around a year during 1988 and 1989. This brief period of time, as short as the “Beijing Spring,” raised many issues that were discussed publicly in the state media, for example creative freedom, the democratization of literature and art, and independence from politics. Afterward, this climax rapidly turned into an anticlimax due to the reimposition of restrictive policies. The beginning of the decline can be said to be the Literature Congress of 1989, when the writer Nguyên Ngọc, one of the Renovation pioneers, left the position of chief editor of the Văn nghệ (Arts and Letters) newspaper. During the Seventh National Party Congress in 1991, General Secretary Đỗ Mười affirmed conservative thinking on literature and art, “repurposing” the definition of Renovation: “Our literature can only be Renovated in the correct direction, serving our cause of socialist-oriented Renovation, under the leadership of the Party.” While the term “Renovation” remains popular in propagandist discourse and in discourse influenced by propaganda about the achievements of the “open door” cultural policy, a series of paradoxical events demonstrated its degeneration, revealing the difficult contradictions between the imperative of speaking the truth and living in the true situation of the country on the one hand, and the continued stifling grip of a single ideology on the other. Books were banned or barred from publication. Their pages were carved up . . . It is impossible to give a full account of the multiple tragedies of the politicization of poetry, the lasting repercussions and fates once thought to have been relegated to history. The banishments: those imprisoned just for circulating the poems of Nhân Văn–Giai Phẩm, like Hoàng Hưng; those who could not accept the Communist regime, like Nguyễn Chí Thiện; and the countless Southern poets who had been soldiers of the republic and were incarcerated under the new regime, such as Tô Thùy Yên, Thanh Tâm Tuyền, and Trần Dạ Từ . . . The overseas writers who were barred from entry, and the ever-growing list of Vietnamese writers and journalists receiving the annual Hellman/Hammett award, given to writers throughout the world suffering political repression or human rights abuses. This was also a period of international upheaval, including the fall of the Berlin Wall in the autumn of 1989, the disintegration of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, the reduction of Soviet and Eastern European economic assistance to Vietnam in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the strong opposition following the Tiananmen Square trauma in China, and Vietnam's normalization of relations with the United States in 1995, accession to the WTO, and the arrival of the Internet . . . all impacting art in Vietnam in various ways. In the disappointment over Renovation (that critics such as Lại Nguyên Ân, Phạm Xuân Nguyên and Đoàn Cầm Thi have shared in various interviews and comments), in the alarm over the collapse of the Soviet and Eastern European model, and the diversification of foreign ideas, those working on art and literature seemed to be standing in front of a half-open door ambiguously labeled “Post-Renovation,” none brave enough to find out what was actually happening on the other side of the door. The writer Phạm Thị Hoài, a writer born during the war, experienced life in North Vietnam as a young person, then emigrated to Germany and founded and edited the Talawas forum. In one article she looked back on her own literary activities, reflecting on the relationship between writers and their eras, describing the collapse of hope in the Renovation and (borrowing the name of a short story by Nguyễn Huy Thiệp) naming this Post-Renovation period a time “without a king”:

 The Post-Renovation period was a time of strange voids, absent authorities, carriages with neither locomotives nor drivers. They kept on rolling, mostly sluggishly, until they ran out of momentum, through downhill stretches where they hurtled along at terrifying speeds, into steep ascents where they slowed and traveled backwards. The prestige of the old ideals, dogma, and essential spiritual values had been abandoned, but the void left behind had been sealed off, without giving way to a new prestige in its place. The guiding apparatus of the Party and of state control had lost its effectiveness, but a new operating system had not been permitted to accede to the throne. The top-down organizational structure was no longer effective, but a bottom-up union of individuals had not yet taken shape. Neither in previous decades nor in the Renovation period had Vietnamese writers taken individual initiatives and aspirations as a starting point to develop independent groups that could compete with the prestige of the organizations appointed and sponsored by the authorities.

I admire Phạm Thị Hoài's profound and candid summary of the broken and disappointing relationship between the writers and the political institutions, which had its source in the literary and artistic life during the war as well as the ideological crisis that resulted from the prolonged “subsidization” of the creative sector in Vietnam. This centuries-old arranged marriage, with the institutions taking the role of husband in a male-dominated society, had been shattered, but the yoke of both history and the present is so heavy that it is as if, in a collective unconsciousness, literature is still yoked to its status of either obsessedly serving or resisting ideology, more or less continuing to maintain this strained relationship. But at the same time, I think that the “strange void” of the Post-Renovation period so sensitively perceived by Phạm Thị Hoài is not just a void of creative thinking, where the unified literature and art “under the leadership of the Party line,” according to the unitary ideology of wartime that persisted into the Renovation period, faces crisis and collapse, but that void might also become a playground for destruction and regeneration, an arena for the flow of ideas and aesthetics, a place where the aspirations of groups or individuals can manifest and collide with each other. The final knell for the so-called Renovation has been sounded somewhere in Vietnam, even though prominent individuals of this period still continue on their course in one way or another.

The mechanism of “subsidized ideology” has broken down, and the power of the orthodox literary forums has been shaken. During the Renovation stage, writers and intellectuals, beginning with those deeply associated with the war such as Nguyễn Minh Châu and Nguyên Ngọc, (once again) while demanding freedom for the arts, remained steadfast in their belief in institutions, a belief that was intensified when Secretary-General Nguyễn Văn Linh met with art and literature delegates at the beginning of the Renovation period, in October 1987. This meeting is recognized in literary and artistic circles as symbolic of the excitement of the Renovation period. The declaration of the “loosening” of literature and art by the head of the Party leadership in this meeting is seen as the launching of the movement of literary and artistic renovation, and was widely reported in the media. But only a brief couple of years later, the direct relationship of the artists and progressive intellectuals with the authorities and the leaders of literature and the arts seemed to have weakened and their role had fewer opportunities to manifest itself.1 The Văn Nghệ periodical of 1987-1988, with the writer Nguyên Ngọc at its Secretary-General, clearly reflected the transition from an official organ of the wartime government to an important forum for writers and intellectuals, with new debates and literary experiments, something both writers and readers had been expecting for many years; leading up to the present, especially for the majority of young people, this periodical has gradually become an anachronism, the image of an outdated ideology, resistant to change and no longer worth worrying about. I think it would be fairer not to view these orthodox forums simply as propaganda agencies on literature and art. Perhaps, due to their commitment to ideological unity, they had to reconcile propagandistic aspects with the demand for truthful literature and art, a genuine demand that nearly always pushes any writer to a position that is distinct from or oppositional to the orthodox ideology of the state, particularly in those countries where the institutional model has not yet accepted pluralism.

Internet Forums and New Spaces to Play

When the State’s Renovation pipedream is met with scepticism and the rules of the forums governed by privileged orthodoxy are no longer suited to creativity, this will surely lead to a demand for new types of literary spaces, like a kind of self-awareness of Vietnamese literature about its own development. I think it is necessary to look at the contribution of online forums and magazines as well as websites, personal blogs and social networks in the formation of these alternative spaces for play. It is necessary to mention the establishment and blossoming of overseas online literary magazines, run by exiled scholars and writers, in which a different outlook on a cross-border and global Vietnamese-language literature can be envisioned and grounded, regardless of the different directions and operating philosophies of each magazine, as typified by Talawas, Tiền Vệ, Hợp Lưu, Tạp Chí Thơ, Gió–o, and Da Màu. (Such websites have largely ceased or scaled back activity; of these, only Tiền Vệ and Da Màu are updated daily.) I want to emphasize the effort to digitize works that had been lost or suppressed in orthodox versions of literary history within the country, the support and encouragement of new literary trends, and in particular the effort to resurrect literary debate in these forums. The Talawas Bookshelf and the Da Màu Bookcase acted as an open repository for the readers to freely consume books and materials that could not be officially disseminated within the country, particularly the records of “an inheritance of loss” (to borrow the title of a novel by Kiran Desai), such as Nhân Văn–Giai Phẩm or Southern literature under the Republic. A series of debates and questions revolved around topics prohibited in state communications, such as literature and politics, sexuality in literature, Southern literature, Nhân Văn–Giai Phẩm, writing about war, feminism, human rights, cultural censorship about banned events, expurgated works, and so on. Self-publishing and the “Saigon school of photocopied poetry” in the first years of the new millennium became a new brand of publishing, thanks to significant encouragement: the explosion of applause on Talawas for the self-publishing of Nguyễn Quốc Chánh, a series of Saigon “photocopied poetry” works and authors introduced on Sunday Talawas, interviews of poets and readers on the topic of photocopied poetry on Tiền Vệ by the poet Trần Tiến Dũng in 2005, and many other articles. Many literary theories were introduced to Vietnamese readers for the first time. Certain online experiments appeared, for example visual poetry, and multimedia poetry. Clearly, when the mainstream, in the form of state media and commercial communications, doesn’t support individual experimentation and is required to be a vehicle for propaganda, then these experimental forums, despite constant firewalling and scrutiny, along with blogs, personal websites, and pervasive social networks opening up cyberspace and political emancipations, have paved the way for diverse perceptions and practices. The attempt to create this unofficial public literary space, to recall the idea of Václav Havel, was also an attempt to create a literary civil society as a kind of theory and practice of “living in truth.” Of course, there were misgivings, for instance regarding the transformation of literary spaces into political spaces, when outbursts of political protest in poetry seemed to drown out experiments and aesthetic debates. When literature is absorbed into polarized opposing ideologies and general human rights issues, then attention to its essential nature and to more private voices may be ignored or even suppressed. This suppression, like all suppression, struggles to guarantee these emancipations.

But it seems as if at some point, hopes were kindled about reconnecting Vietnamese writers scattered in all directions and about a vision of contemporary Vietnamese literary life different from common conceptions of a literature long and heavily dependent on the state, closely tied to the “duty” of serving politics and propaganda: a democratic literature taking shape and endeavouring to keep pace with “world literature” outside.

A Nongeneration Generation

This transformation, that was/is going on slowly in overlapping waves, is often described/denigrated using the terms “self-criticism" and “resistance.” The effort to self-criticize and to “speak the truth” during the relaxing of regulations during the Renovation period, and the demand to “do normal art,” eventually led to confrontations over freedom of expression. The term “self-criticism” ultimately came to sound like a form of compromise. The term “resistance,” with the sense of dissident political views, become more prominent. (The critic Phạm Xuân Nguyên remarked that the term “resist” was originally used by overseas Vietnamese authors to refer to writers inside the country who expressed attitudes that didn’t conform to the official direction and line, breaking with the socialist realism aesthetic of that time; those inside the country referred to this as “Nhân Văn 2.” Later, “resistance” was often used to refer to the general literary phenomenon of diverging politics, not specific to those inside or outside the country.) But what followed after? Works banned for being “politically sensitive” perhaps only attracted a superficial tumult. Direct engagement with (the topic of) politics, to recall Sartre's (perhaps now outdated) thesis on engaged literature, may become a reagent for self-respect and courage on the part of the poet, but it also carries the risk of turning literature into a local product sample, perhaps mass produced and of questionable quality. And what happened after that? The unitary ideology that the state wanted to maintain through compulsory education had more or less become alienated, self-degraded and mostly just empty propaganda as far as many young people were concerned. Commercial media encroach on literary experimentation. Anxiety over political censorship and self-censorship parallel an equally great challenge: the power of censorship and seemingly invisible pressure by the market and the mass media. When Vietnamese writers are able to pursue a “normal” literary life, and it seems as if the limits of freedom extend infinitely, it may be that the bonds are harder to recognize, and therefore easier not to see. The deliberate choice by writers and artists to marginalize themselves formed a collective chorus of protest in the critical transition during the initial years of the Post-Renovation period, creating the need for a new effort on the part of the individual: to exist independently, often solitarily. But how to be an independent individual?

Older authors, identified with or influenced by the model of subsidized culture, were splintered by their choices in living and writing, either continuing in the role of “obedient children of the regime,” or maintaining the illusion of renovation, searching for a way to “do literature” while in the pincers of the (a)political discourse of the authorities regarding the arts, or falling into disillusionment, cynicism, and silence. A small proportion became protestors, demanding an end to equivocation in popular discourse, for instance by “making literature free as long as it doesn't touch on politics,” and were rapidly eliminated from official playgrounds. Younger writers growing up in a postwar, globalizing Vietnam, especially in cities like Saigon and Hanoi, demanded the renewal of literature and a “settling up” with the past. And perhaps there is now an even younger group still, those untroubled by the so-called past—of literature or history, with the option of choosing a “rootless,” adventurous, meandering, and ambiguous mindset.

Is it possible to place hope in a younger group of authors, typically described/denigrated a little too neatly in the term “new generation”? I want to insert a note of doubt here. The word “generation” always conveys the excitement of a shared change, companionship, and coming together, in a tangled time of the old—the new, a time bursting with debates, manifestos, rebellions. But when those who used to rise and fall together in waves of literature and literary groups begin to splinter off, terms of classification and identity gradually become lifeless and exhausted, and we only see a few people toiling away in cramped and isolated spaces, giving rise to the sensation of a poetic life that is undeniably cramped and stagnant, or a feeling of being adrift, outcast and alone. For instance, should we file Nguyễn Quốc Chánh with the “postwar generation,” or set him with the “generation of young Saigon poets,” or simply as a loner in the shadows? Is age important: do we have to speak of those born in the ’70s or the ’80s? We sense the disillusionment and self-criticism of a cohort of writers, the sense of loss and rootlessness of another cohort, and the deep disconnect and awareness of individual independence of the rising new class, but it is difficult to lump them together under the term “generation,” in the illusion that a collective change is taking place. What it comes down to is that poetry does not have generations, or that this is a non-generation generation, just a mass of individuals, and these rootless individuals, adrift, seeking a place of refuge in some community, are perhaps always on the outside.

A Possible Community

The anxious concern and distant dreams about the possibility of this community are strongly related to whether writers and readers can gradually erase separation and ambiguity, clearing away the detritus obscuring the portrait of contemporary Vietnamese poetry, by both listening to the voices of living poets and tending to dead souls.

This community will be even less possible if malignant tumors of the past keep on intruding, two large tumors that seem to have been erased from orthodox accounts of literature and the arts: the Nhân Văn–Giai Phẩm movement in the North and the legacy of the Southern literature under the former republic. The official reprinting of some poetic materials that were considered to be underground in the past, and the concurrent official recognition of poets who suffered due to the Nhân Văn–Giai Phẩm affair—such as Lê Đạt, Trần Dần, Phùng Quán, and Hoàng Cầm—through State prizes for literature and arts (in 2007, when Trần Dần had already passed away) have more or less made them more known to readers today (although for poets, whether or not to accept recognition by the state and the legitimacy of these awards is also controversial). But this relaxation is still not sufficient. Southern literature remains an unknown territory. Many writers of “the past South” and all the “dark” and “gloomy” compositions of wartime literature are still cast aside. Traditions have been broken, and literary wounds have never been opened up and healed, thoroughly and unambiguously, so that writers and readers could step forward in literature with a clearer past. The past, in a certain sense, engages deeply with the contemporary in its essential traumas. Therefore, from time to time, a need to look back and reformulate a more balanced history of literature, based on evidence rather than intuition, emerges.

This community will be even less possible if there are still geographical divides in the way that contemporary Vietnamese literature is viewed, more precisely the Hanoi-Saigon divide (not Ho Chi Minh City as indicated on the maps, a name that seeks to erase history and the past using the name of the victor of one phase of history) and the domestic-overseas divide. There is a mythical Saigon, and an attempt to revive that myth, among writers and readers here: not just as the former Pearl of the Orient, the most modern city in Southeast Asia, but also the myth of freedom in publishing and in literature and the arts, with the flowering of movements and groups before “reunification” with the North. Saigon has become a symbol of alternative culture in the first years of the twenty-first century, a space of marginalized and unorthodox poets, of opposition and refusal, and of efforts for innovation and creativity. Hanoi, the land of “a thousand years of civilization,” possesses another myth, a label that I consider not completely justified, equating it with the space of power, a conservative and stagnant place where orthodox poets keep a tight grip on literary circles, with little room for exploration. The divide between Hanoi as the center and Saigon as the margins, like the domestic-overseas divide, seems up till now only to signify a prolonging and deepening of the sequelae of a harsh separation, a massive historical trauma that is not yet fully understood. This divided past still pervades the present: the migration of Hanoians to Saigon in 1954, the evacuation of Vietnamese in Saigon to California, Australia and many other places, the long period with the two regions under two regimes (1954-1975), and the fratricidal wars, “the winner” and “the loser.” Can literature and poetry participate in the effort to heal and eradicate those walls?

This community would be even less possible if those divided pairs become fixed terms, frozen statues. Until now, many people still default to the idea that contemporary underground poetry in Vietnam only includes, or is equivalent to, the term Saigon Young Poetry, like the brand of a rebellious early twentieth-first century movement. This perspective exposes a geocentric view of culture, which only pays attention to the geographical location of alternative movements. In reality, these geographic boundaries have been broken, blurred by authors, texts, and readers coming together in cyberspace and in underground-independent publishing networks rather than in locations where they may temporarily reside. So-called contemporary Vietnamese poetry has expanded its scope, not just inside Vietnam, but also across borders, associated with Vietnamese communities that are keeping Vietnamese writing alive in many places throughout the world. One more unjust and misunderstood aspect on the part of the reading community is the identification of underground poetry with “dissident poetry”: poets bearing the brand of dissident, those raising their voice to demand freedom and democracy rather than the themes of literary exploration, and literature as a means of fighting rather than of sharing fresh insights.

By overcoming these divisions and preconceptions, acknowledging the oppression and the oppressed, contemporary Vietnamese poetry might open up richer and more abundant spaces, with a clearer sense of hope for a more critical and sharing community. There, regardless of idealized expectations, writers and readers would be able to do away with the artificial division between literature and politics, to eradicate the subordination of writers to the authorities, and to come together in a normal literary community, a place of creativity and interpretation that is passionate for the criticism of rigid norms and corrupted aesthetics.

Yet Another Context           

The collision between poetry, individual poets, and their context, and the attempt to envision a community, prompt me (plural) to interrogate the potential participation of poetry (in politics): can poetry and writers become dynamic actors, or is their role just determined by the pressure of their so-called context? I don't know whether it is possible, in societies where the demand for political action by the masses seems more urgent than the demand for literary creation, to contemplate a successful connection between literature (distinct from propaganda) and politics? Is resistance itself a form of innovation in a certain context and vice versa? Can individual and collective practices mirror each other? I still persist in considering that the political dimensions of language are different from calls to march in the streets, and that writers seem to have no way to justify their existence apart from their own individual experience and practice, their own words.

I had wanted to observe more closely the trap in which writers in Vietnam are stuck. The pressure they are facing seems to originate not only from their preoccupations as writers, but also from the eagerness of the readers, the citizenry, for writers to cease taking pleasure in “pure” aesthetics and wordplay, and to participate in “transforming life.” I don't know if this can be seen as a consequence, but over the past decade or so, many prominent poetic identities seem to have chosen to disappear, to fall silent, leaving behind only unsettling questions and a feeling of loss on the part of the readers, when they seem to see writing poetry and pursuing a life in poetry as futile pursuits, and when they themselves are spinning in circles, or being spun around, by questions of responsibility and participation. I think more about the right of poets to be silent and to disappear. The poets will say: I write for readers in the here and now, not for some illusory future. The poets will also say: even if I don't (write in order to) shut my eyes and cover my ears, to escape or to sketch illusory hopes, I still want to believe that poetry has no social responsibility other than to seek its own path to self-emancipation. Does literary writing, and do those who write it, have to be attached to something, or can they choose not to adhere to a narrow framework, to remain homeless and even to play with the nihilism of having no refuge at all, when being anchored hinders personal creativity? I imagine an individual poet looking into a strange mirror, seeing only a twisted face, multiple images canceling each other out, buffeted by the waves of endless events and voices, and striving, as a solitary individual, to retrace their steps in order to identify the point at which they become a part of the world reflected in that mirror, and how to preserve their true face.

I believe that the pulse of literature and of poetry is always vitally linked to the time and space in which it exists, but poets may beat to a deeper pulse still: in their soul, in their reading, in their encounters, in journeying and wandering through cultures, in their dreams of reviving long-forgotten pasts, in discovering hitherto unseen visions of the present in a ray of fragile hope, and in attending to the possibilities of language. I want to persist in clinging to this cherished aspiration when I endeavor to observe, and to a certain extent understand, the absent presences in contemporary Vietnamese-language poetry, with the humble expectation that the true face of this poetry will gradually be unmasked: Poetry cannot just be the continuing testimony of those suffering from ideological conflicts during unfortunate periods in the history of a people. I imagine that the process of peeling back that mask has been and is going on, in the shadows, with no little pain, its direction unclear, with the detritis of the past and the present, of ideologies and literary attitudes, and perhaps there isn't any other way.

Poetry can locate its relationship with its time in its own distinct experience of language, and the interrogation of the condition of language, in turn, can perhaps shape the poet. A concern with interrogations of language posed by these poetic practices, therefore, prompts my caution regarding the myth of the earth-shattering potential of dissenting poetry in Vietnam, frequently reduced to mere political protest poetry, (supposedly) attracting overseas opinion and being a more exploited genre, while aesthetic interrogations are perhaps diminished or set aside. When placed in the wider context of the “outside world,” Vietnamese literature might, in panic, sink like a stone, and it cannot hope for an equal conversation if it doesn’t bring new voices and unique poetic identities, if it only knows how to come like a faroff flavor of political variables.

I don't know if it is overly ambitious to raise the possibility of creating a different image of postwar Vietnam, a different image of a dissident Vietnam in the Renovation and Post-Renovation period, a more expansive image of Vietnam with the diverse literary trends of the present and an as yet unknown projection. In poetry, the process of dismantling a monopolistic ideology and taking part are occurring simultaneously, and the existence of underground poetry, and of absent presences, is not in fact in opposition to orthodox poetry, “state poetry,” and “state literature,” but aims to stimulate individual poets and poetry in general. The condition of being marginalized, whether as a deliberate choice or not, can nourish an emancipated grammar of poetry, and can actually empower those who submerge themselves in the life of language. These are individual voices, endlessly seeking to share and sincerely cherishing the hopes of a community of their own.


1. A series of articles about these events appeared openly in the media. Worth mentioning are Hai ngày đáng ghi nhớ mãi (Two Unforgettable Days) in Văn Nghệ (Arts and Letters) on the 17th of October 1987—Record of the two-day meeting of Secretary-General Nguyễn Văn Linh with around 100 writers and artists on 6 and 7 October 1987, Đồng chí Tổng bí thư Nguyễn Văn Linh nói chuyện với văn nghệ sĩ (Comrade Secretary-General Nguyễn Văn Linh speaks with writers and artists—Văn Nghệ (Arts and Letters), 17-10-1987), Hồ Ngọc: Cần giải quyết đúng đắn mối quan hệ giữa văn nghệ và chính trị (The need for correct solutions to the relationship between arts and letters and politics –Văn Nghệ (Arts and Letters), 21-11-1987), Nguyễn Quang Sáng—Những điều cần cho văn học (Pressing issues for literature), Nguyên Ngọc—Cần phát huy đầy đủ chức năng xã hội của văn học nghệ thuật (The need to bring into play the social function of literature and art—Văn Nghệ (Arts and Letters) 31-10-1987), Nguyễn Hồng Phong—Để văn nghệ ta có được nhiều đỉnh cao và phong phú (For our arts and letters to have abundant peaks and richness)—Văn Nghệ (Arts and Letters) 5-12-1887)—cited in the volume of Lại Nguyên Ân and Nguyễn Thị Bình (collated and edited): Đời sống văn nghệ thời đầu Đổi Mới (Literary and artistic life in the early Renovation period), unpublished. Documents supplied by the researcher Nguyễn Thị Bình.]

Introduction to un \ \martyred: [self-] vanishing presences in Vietnamese poetry, forthcoming 2019. © 2018 by Nhã Thuyên. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by David Payne. All rights reserved.

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