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from the November 2020 issue

A New Short Story Anthology Sheds Light on the Aftermath of War in Vietnam

Reviewed by Sarah Moore

Translated and edited by Quan Manh Ha and Joseph Babcock, "Other Moons" brings together twenty stories from different authors dealing with the lingering effects of what the Vietnamese call "the American War." It is a rare opportunity to discover a variety of esteemed writers coming from all three main geographic regions of the country.

This new anthology of Vietnamese short stories, published by Columbia University Press, unites twenty diverse voices from contemporary Vietnamese literature on the topic of the American military action in the country. While the war officially ended in 1975, Other Moons' narratives demonstrate its enduring consequences in Vietnamese life and thinking. Published in English translation for the first time, these works offer a fresh perspective on the conflict that took place between 1945-75. Throughout, the war is referred to as ‘the American War,’ the terminology most commonly used in Vietnam. Only the perspective of the war’s victors, the Vietnamese communists, is represented. The volume’s editors and translators, Quan Manh Ha and Joseph Babcock, make their reasoning clear: that alternative narratives from those who supported the former South Vietnamese government and American intervention are already available in English translations of diasporic literature. Additionally, Vietnam’s tightly regulated censorship and publication practice greatly affects the literature that is available for translation. This is therefore a rare opportunity to discover such a variety of esteemed Vietnamese writers, chosen for their quality as well as their diversity, coming from all three main geographic regions of the country.

Ha and Babcock provide an enriching context for the stories in their introduction. They selected authors to represent a variety of personal and professional backgrounds—some are well-known, full-time writers, while others make time to write outside of their day jobs. But central to all the works in the collection is the contributors’ rejection of a “socialist realism” approach to literature, which dominated artistic expression between 1945–90 and produced heavily politicized writing that contained Stalinist and Maoist propaganda. In contrast, the new generation of writers in this anthology address the theme of war through a very different approach; they condemn it, rather than glorifying it. Moreover, the subjects of their stories are common people and the war is recounted through everyone’s lives—those who leave and those who are left behind.

The mention of the war’s aftermath in the book’s title points to a crucial feature of the collection: the rupture of communities, the difficulties of reintegrating, and the continual search for closure are stronger themes throughout the stories than the actual lived realities of fighting. In Truong Van Ngoe’s “Brother, When Will You Come Home?” Quan travels for the third time, along with his relatives and a colleague, to search for the remains of his brother Binh, a soldier in company C3 who had died in the conflict. The chances of success in finding his body become increasingly small and Quan turns to a psychic for help. These searches continue to take place in Vietnam until today, almost half a century after the war officially ended, with over 300,000 Vietnamese soldiers still missing. Quan’s relentless pursuit, as well as his eventual willingness to turn towards the spiritual, reveals how the impact of the war goes far beyond a physical recovery for the country.

The emotional suffering and the atrocities of war are often conveyed through its collision with the domestic. An important theme of these stories, for example, is the mourning for love that was made impossible, as even the most personal projects are suddenly disturbed and upended by violence. Nguyen Minh Chau’s “Crescent Moon in the Woods,” a canonical story that is taught in Vietnamese high schools, tells of the doomed love between Nguyet and Lam. They have never met but Lam’s sister, who knows them both and believes that they would be a wonderful match, has promised to introduce them. They suffer and patiently await their meeting, which finally comes fleetingly . . . before it is gone again.

The perspectives of the female authors (five out of the twenty), as well as the female characters that leave to fight, are an especially interesting part of the anthology. Such women return to their communities and must face the trauma of the aftermath of war, in addition to the conflict it creates with their domestic duty. In Nguyen Trong Luan’s “The Corporal,” Xuan returns to her village after many years spent fighting for the North Vietnamese Army in the highlands and must immediately turn her thoughts to marriage. As the daughter of a poor peasant, Xuan has little autonomy. She enters an unhappy arranged marriage and lives the rest of her life in poverty. Military victory has no bearing on her future, which is instead still determined by a patriarchal postwar society. Suong Nguyet Minh’s “The Chau River Pier” recounts the female soldier May’s return to her village, having lost her leg in battle. Her injury isolates her from her previously imagined life of marriage and motherhood, while her return coincides with her former fiancé’s wedding to another woman. But it is not only the women who leave that face such disruption; the women who remain must contend with suspicions of marital infidelity. In “War” by Thai Ba Tan and “Ms. Thoai” by Hanh Le, wives’ loyalty is thrown into question by their husbands. In each case, the women are presented as innocent, with their infidelity caused by events beyond their control—in “Ms. Thoai,” a rape, and in “War,” an unexplained pregnancy that is described as immaculate. Yet their husbands’ suspicion of infidelity causes immense, irreversible suffering for both of them and the absence of trust or forgiveness defines the rest of their lives.

Forgiveness and reconciliation—within families, among Vietnamese, and with foreign enemies—lie at the heart of many of these stories. “An American Service Hamlet” by Nguyen Thi Thu Tran was inspired by her own experiences growing up among American soldiers stationed in the South. The story portrays the women who were hired to do laundry or to work as maids in the American offices. When the young girl Bach oversees an American soldier, Smith, crying on the breast of his girlfriend, Miss Trung, she is fascinated by this display of sorrow and tenderness. She later saves him from cruel torture by a group of drunken Vietnamese men. Her kindness, empathy, and admiration for Smith and Miss Trung’s love show her belief that “in difficult situations people were still capable of showing some kind of natural kindness toward one another” and offers a tone of mutual understanding. In other instances in the anthology, forgiveness comes only with hindsight. In both “Louse Crab Season” by Mai Tien Nghi and “Ms. Thoai,” forgiveness is expressed too late to save the characters from misunderstanding and its painful consequences. The control of irony in revealing such regret only to the reader seems to drive home the advantage of hindsight and advocates reconciliation. As the narrator of “War” says,

There were new challenges in peace time that didn’t necessarily require extraordinary endurance or sacrifice, but required something bigger, something more complicated and subtle: compassion and forgiveness.

Of all the writers included in this anthology, the most well-known in the English-speaking world is certainly Bao Ninh, whose novel The Sorrow of War has been widely translated and won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 1994. His short story “White Clouds Flying” succinctly shows the disorientation of experiencing the persistent sorrow of war in the present day. The brevity of the story’s one scene, which takes place in an airplane as it crosses the seventeenth parallel air zone, makes it unique among the others in the collection, which tend towards longer narratives that recount stories of the past. Ninh’s story describes the short exchanges between an elderly female passenger and an airline stewardess, narrated through the voice of an observing male passenger. Inside the enclosed, compressed cabin, the elderly woman constructs a traditional shrine in order to cope with the pain resurfacing as she travels to see (for the first time) the place where her son died. Her pain and her traditions persist and highlight the disparity between her life in the country and modern society. In just a few pages, Ninh conveys the significant trauma that these generations are made to confront while the world seemingly moves on and modernizes, and with such sparse, exact prose, he reveals himself to be a master of the unsaid.  

Other Moons is a necessary work that succeeds in enlarging the perspective of English-speaking audiences through diverse, well-chosen Vietnamese voices. The stories read fluently, and Ha and Babcock clearly explain any difficulties encountered in translating from the Vietnamese. For example, this is evident in the more complex Vietnamese system of relationship-dependent pronouns, which indicate age and the nature of the relationship between speakers. The decision to not translate these too literally avoids an unnatural formality in the English. A particularly beautiful translation difficulty that they describe is the expression "ve que," meaning literally "to return to one's hometown." They explain the cultural weight of "que," not quite achieved with the English "hometown" as it is also synonymous with the countryside, conveying a return to a way of living, not merely a geographical place. The introductions they provide for each story elucidate such subtleties and offer a rich cultural and linguistic context for English readers. Not only are the translations in Other Moons skilled and considered, they demonstrate the tremendous importance of translation in portraying the complexities of a conflict, its traumas, and its people.

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