Vietnam’s writing released to the world

An anthology of translated stories by 19 contemporary Vietnamese writers under 40, set to be released this month, will present a new image of Vietnam to native English speakers.
An anthology of translated stories by 19 contemporary Vietnamese writers under 40, set to be released this month, will present a new image of Vietnam to native English speakers.

The literary translation project was carried out by Charles Waugh, writer, translator and associate professor of English at Utah State University in the US, under a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship.

The prize-winning stories highlight the impact of globalization on Vietnamese culture, seen from the perspective of writers who came of age just as Vietnam turned to a market economy in 1986.

They include Gio Le (The Gentle Breeze) by Nguyen Ngoc Tu, which describes the hard lives of poor people coming to big cities to find work, Gieng (The Well) by Di Li, about golf culture, and Vet Thuong Thanh Thi (Wounds of the City) by Do Tien Thuy, about the challenges of urbanisation.

Other stories portray the lives of people in remote regions of Vietnam . They include Loc Troi (Fortune from God) by Nguyen The Hung, Cua So Khong Co Chan Song (Windows without Glass) by Nie Thanh Mai and Con Mua Hoa Man Trang (Rain of White Plum Flowers) by Pham Duy Nghia.

"Our focus on writers coming of age after “doi moi” (the Vietnamese policy of renewal) is meant to show American readers what Vietnam is like today, when 65 percent of the population is under 30 years old and global capitalism has a far greater presence in everyday life than a war that was just one in a series of wars fought in Vietnam during the 20th century," he said in an interview published on the official blog of the National Endowment of the Arts.

While Vietnam is teeming with young writers and literary publications, Waugh realised that most of their stories weren't being read outside the country due to the lack of translation. Of the two most recent collections of translated Vietnamese fiction published in the US , only one features a writer born after 1970.

The idea for the project emerged as he witnessed changes to the country during his visits to Hanoi . Each time he arrived, he needed to buy an updated map, as apartment buildings replaced rice paddies and the city boundaries stretched further apart.

"And as urban centres like Hanoi continue to expand, new themes have emerged in Vietnamese literature. Vietnamese authors now write about migration and the challenges of city life, and of lost traditions and spiritual connections with the land," Waugh said. "These new writers did not grow up during wartime. Their perspective is not one of disillusionment and rebuilding; it is golf courses and mobile phones, studio apartments and Pottery Barn.

"That would mean that they may have been born during the war, but most likely were not as impacted by it as by the new way of life that followed that 1986 change. Our oldest writer was born in 1969, our youngest in 1980."

For Western audiences, whose knowledge of Vietnam is often limited to American-produced books and movies about the American War there, Waugh's work may be enlightening.

To realise the project, Waugh cooperated with associate professor Ngo Van Gia, head of the Literature and Press Department of Hanoi's Culture University. Gia helped him select the authors and facilitated contact between him and Vietnamese writers.

Since 1996, Waugh has spent several years living in Vietnam teaching as a Fulbright Fellow and conducting research. He had completed a master's degree in history where he focused on Americans in Vietnam in the 1950s. It was also then that he started to learn Vietnamese and read Vietnamese poetry and folk tales for the first time.

He previously translated and published the 2010 anthology Family of Fallen Leaves, whose stories and essays illuminate the horrors of Agent Orange from a Vietnamese perspective, in collaboration with Nguyen Lien, former professor in the British-American literature department of Hanoi National University's College of Social Science and Humanities.-VNA

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