HANDING DOWN THE PAIN

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US Poet Laren McClung spent a decade collecting the testimonies of fellow writers, who inherited the sufferings of the war in Vietnam from their parents.  A formidable achievement which deserves global attention

The casualties, the suffering, the misery and the destruction. The story has been told so many times about those who fought in Vietnam and those who got caught up in the war. The voices of the immediate victims, combatants and civilians, are all too familiar. We know their numbers must be counted in millions.

Now, there is more, a lot more to be included in our understanding of war and the trauma that follows.

With the 2018 publication of ”Inheriting the War” a new dimension is added to the human price still being paid in Vietnam, the US and elsewhere by thousands of descendants of veterans, civilian victims and refugees all over the world.

The American poet Laren McClung has spent a decade tracing the descendants through their poetry and prose. Her formidable endeavor is now available in 400 pages of compelling reading. 60 poets and authors from around the world has contributed to the book with their personal stories on the impact that the war in Vietnam still has on their lives – more than 40 years after the last combat casualties occurred.

”Even though I wasn’t alive during the war, I have been living through it since I was born,T.K. Le sums up her perspective in a single sentence. Even though she grew up in California in a Vietnamese refugee family, a caucasian coworker jokingly  labels her “Viet Cong” at a cocktail party.

“I could talk to my coworker about how my parents were both refugees and about the life and death decisions they had to make at ages younger than ours. I could talk about the My Lai massacre, about the systematic rape of entire villages that meant even less than “just making a point.” Agent Orange, burning skin, land mine amputees, and all the dead children. But I won’t satisfy her with the gratuitous imagery of a war I never knew.”

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The acclaimed writer Andrew Lam recounts his conversations with a woman, who spent years in one of Hong Kong’s infamous refugee camps:

I ran out of tears so now I just laugh when I can,” she said. Her sons, who share the same history as their mother,now live in Santa Ana, California. Their mother, on the other hand, has become a living ghost.”

The refugee camps in Hong Kong are long gone, but Andrew Lam’s essay The Stories They Carried contains one haunting testimony after another, like the fate of a former officer in the South Vietnamese army, Diep Tran and his son:

When he and his son finally reached Hong Kong, he lacked the USD 3,000 cash demanded by a screening official. In protest, his son, Anh Huy, committed self-immolation in front of the UNHCR official. Tran showed me his son’s photos. One is a smiling teenager. The other is a picture of a burnt, bloodied corpse flanked by grim looking Vietnamese men.

Hanoi based poet Ngu Tu Lap, was too young to fight in the war, but his childhood memories continue to torture him:

 While I played with a snail

In a bomb shelter filled with rain

The women disappeared without a sound

 Thirty years later I still see them

Millions of breasts cut from sufffering bodies

Fallen to earth like young coconuts

Full with milk even in the grave

 Thirty years later they still come back

To prepare the alluvial fields for corn

Their tears falling like crystals.

A FATHER’S WAR NO MORE

Adam Karlin sets out to find his father’s war in Vietnam. Only to find a country, very different from what his father, author Wayne Karlin experienced during the war and described himself in his instant classic Wandering Souls.

Adam Karlin encounters Nha Trang, a former fishing village which is now full of beach resorts ”with pink-faced Russian tourists who throw endless reserves of money and insults at locals.”

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 At the top of Da Nang’s Marble Mountain, Adam Karlin finds the proper place to pay homage to the man, who inadvertently saved his father during the war:

I said a prayer to Jim Childers, a helicopter gunner who switched missions with my dad and was subsequently killed. My father touches his name every time he visits the black wall in Washington D.C.

 Nguyen Phong, etnic Vietnamese, relates a childhood experience in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge regime. He still carries the memory of an old man in the market, who had asked a band of teenage soldiers to leave him alone.

”These Khmer Rouge kids in their war-customes stung like wasps. They seized him by the arms and dragged him into the market, where among the bitter melon and durian, he was clubbed with riffle butts and kicked by twelwe little feet, shod in sandals cut from old tire…

…I had seen a man beating a child before. But never had I seen af child beating man a man. With every strike, the earth seemed to wobble on its axis.”

Once the Khmer Rouge kids were fed up with the beating, one of them killed the old man with his bayonet.

THE AMERICAN DREAM AND THE NIGHTMARE 

Pulitzer prize winner Viet Thanh Nguyen (The Symphatizer) offers this observation, as a response to being labelled an ’immigrant writer’:

”Immigrants are the story of the American dream, of American exceptionalism. Refugees are the reminder of the American nightmare, which is how so many who were caught under American bombardment experience the United States….….I had breakfast with a former Vietnamese ambassador in Hanoi and she said that Vietnamese ”boat people” were economic refugees, not political refugees. Probably every single Vietnamese refugee would disagree with her.”

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Cope – An advocacy center for UXO victims in Vientiane, Laos.

 Deborah Paradez, daughter of a US Vietnam veteran, devotes a poem to the omnipresent dangers of UXO’s – unexploded mines and bombs in the entire region. The UXO’s still find their victims all too often in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.

In Laos, a farmer digs

for bamboo shoots

and his spade strikes

a cluster bomb

startled from its mud-cradle

At night the hollow poles rise

And answer to the wind.

Who knows how many more will surface by morning.

 

Bao Phi brings us to a scene, he has been carrying with him for years:

 I am teenager, shopping with my mom for groceries at Cub foods. In the parking lot a Vietnam veteran starts shouting at a Hmong family, two parents and two kids. ”I fought for you people, you owe me!” he screams at them. They don’t look at him, they keep walking, their shoulders turn in towards each other as if they are trying to make themselves as small a target as possible. I see this and I want to say something, but I don’t. I feel like an unlit match.

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Ben Quick, son of US veteran, is a second generation Agent Orange victim.

His father patrolled day in and day out in the areas, defoliated by the dioxin-contaminated chemicals, more than 72 million liters were sprayed over Southern Vietnam in a futile attempt to deny the Viet Cong cover and food. After the war, Ben was born with some of the all too typical disfigurements – in his case a deformed hand, which he has been trying to keep out of sight, ever since he became conscious of his handicap:

Lying in bed at night before sleep takes hold, I’ll notice my left hand resting underneath the ruffles of the blanket while my right hand sits bare and comfortable on top. Or I’ll think about a class I’ve taught on a particular morning, coming to a sudden realization that all gesturing and hand-waiving was done with one arm. I will pause for a moment and make a mental note. Sometimes, I will curse.

Ocean Vuong is trying to come to terms with the sudden suicide of his uncle.

There should be tears. There should be a reason. It’s 7:34 PM on New Year’s Eve. I am lying in my kitchen in Astoria, New York, my cheek pressed to the cold tiles. My mother has just called. My child, she says in Vietnamese, her voice barely a gasp, your uncle has killed himself. It was not until she heard herself say those words did she start wailing into the phone. I open my eyes and see only the blue and yellow tiles on the kitchen floor. Little blue flowers on tiny sun-lit fields. When did I fall? Is that my voice? I did not know I could sound like that: Like an animal that just learned the word for God…..

….When someone dies their silence becomes sort of a held note, a key on the piano pressed down for so long it becomes an ache in the ear, a new sonic register from which we start to measure our new, ruptured lives.

 

Karen Spears Zacharias has the final chapter with her essay The Man In The Jeep – a symbol of the dreaded visitors, who came to more than 58.000 American families during the war: The US Army officers who brought the ultimate grievous news from Vietnam to the relatives at home.

Karen recalls her last conversation with her father before he went to war.

”Why are you crying, honey?

”I am scared,” I answered.

”Scared of what?” Daddy walked over and sat down on the edge of my bed.

”That you won’t come home!” I wailed. Like monsoon rains, powerful tears rushed forth.

”Karen,” Daddy said, smoothing matted hair back from my wet cheeks. ”I’ll come back. I promise.”

 …Daddy kept his promise, in a way. He did come back. Via airmail, in a cargo plane full of caskets.

 I am typing these final words during my descent to Hanoi’s Not Bai Airport 1 January, 2018. These days,  B52 bombers have been replaced by Boeing Dreamliners and the competing A 350’s. The SAM anti aircraft missils on the ground have given way to McDonalds, Starbucks and friendly immigration officers.   Better still, The Socialist Republic of Vietnam and the USA both benefit from the immense value of their new strategic partnership.

Yet, there are so many people around us, who continues to inherit the suffering of a war that ended more than four decades ago.

I am thinking that this eminent book  does deserve to come out in Vietnamese – for obvious reasons. And in any other language spoken.

 Laren McClung (ed.): Inheriting the war. 415 pages. WW Norton & Co. 2018.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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