Return to Viet Nam
I’ll address these notes to you, my daughter, about this whole venture I’m on to return to Viet Nam. I’ve addressed nearly all my writing about the US war in Viet Nam to you. You were eight when you first asked about the war. Your father was in the military, and I remember the day you asked, “How come Dad didn’t go to Viet Nam, and you did?”
I don’t know. Dad had been spared since he was in graduate school. For me, one thing had just led to another. A Red Cross recruiter came to my Texas college. They wanted young people who could bring something of home to the soldiers in the war, and show them they hadn’t been forsaken. I was young.
But after you asked, I started writing, so I could try to tell you about that year I went.
Today you’re not surprised I want to go back. We trace the route I’ll travel from Boston to Detroit, to Seoul, to Saigon. You shake your head.
Remember the wall of books in our Portsmouth house, upstairs along the hall? Our bench there overlooked the back cove of the Piscataqua. The books were a part of all the Air Force bases and reassignments and new schools. I remember the places we went by the books we read – Rome, NY, Omaha, Upper Heyford, Pease. The last one brought us to New Hampshire. With all those books in our lives, it makes some sense to tell you why I’m preparing to return by talking about the storytellers of the war.
Now I want to tell you I was totally shaped by Graham Greene’s fiction when I was in college. Don’t read him, Lizzie. The Quiet American is set during the French occupation of Vietnam. They called the country, along with Cambodia and Laos, French Indo-China. His lead, Fowler, is a jaded British reporter. He’s covered the French occupation a long time and is clear-eyed about the hopelessness of the whole thing for the Vietnamese, the French, and the looming Americans. He also knows the complexities, the vice grip, of situations people are put in when they must serve in a war. He’s in love with a young Vietnamese woman, Phuong, who wants to survive. In Saigon’s still famous Continental Hotel, he meets Pyle, an American policy maker. The French will fall in the famous battle at Dien Bien Phu, but they haven’t yet. It’s a long time before President Kennedy will send the Green Berets. It’s still 1953. Fowler offers Pyle information about the way of things, but finds that Pyle “was absorbed already in the dilemmas of Democracy and the responsibilities of the West; he was determined — I learnt that very soon — to do good.” Pyle is oblivious to the culture he has entered.
Be sure not to read this book, Lizzie and all the sons and daughters. It’s true, though, that if I hold the book and open to the first scene, I can’t close it. I am gripped by Greene’s manner of holding a story as a whole. He begins with the climax and weaves it through. The whole is in every scene. It’s all there, and you read in awe at the way he unfolds the tale. It is prophetic and spellbinding. And the American grunts I knew haven’t even arrived.
Here’s why you can’t read The Quiet American. It was written with all the sensibility of the 1950s around what a woman is. Graham Greene writes Phuong, who is Fowler’s lover, as a symbol. He writes that embracing her is like holding a bird, and I think of the slender thread that is the shape of Viet Nam. She is a symbol of an occupied country, which could be interesting if we could have met her as a woman, too. But Greene doesn’t let us hear her voice. You need to hear the voices of the girls and the women.
This same year I’m going back to Vietnam, I’m selling our house with the bookshelves and the bench by the window overlooking the cove. I wonder if the new people will keep the floors and the stairs the same aqua blue you said was fine but was not authentic to the period. (You became a historian.) The books are gone. But the books I tell you about here will be on the bookshelf in our minds.
Everything I tell you won’t be about the storytellers of the war. But look how words can be breath and life. These are lines from a poem by a young Vietnamese American woman who grew up in California, Mai Nguyen Do (Đỗ Nguyên Mai). https://donguyenmai.com/
In her poem “Unanswered,” the speaker is one who hasn’t survived, but fiercely and tenderly gives strength to a refugee who crosses the sea in a “ship” and lives. The poem ends,
when I become the sea
swelling beneath your swaying ship –
I will carry you
Next Letter: “When I Meet Le Ly”