Translation Tuesday: “The Woman by the River” by Nguyễn Đức Tùng

I have already promised the baby to someone else, she told my mother, but don’t you worry I’ll save the next one for you.

This week’s Translation Tuesday features the harrowing work of Nguyễn Đức Tùng. Illustrative language supports a narrative of unbelievable realism, as the speaker relates the acts of necessity during the Vietnam War that reverberated through the coming generations. Specific lives are pulled out of the polarizing and stereotyped recounting typical of that terrible war, and the author seizes on every chance to give intimate details of lives affected and bowled over. The narrator’s travels to a forgotten home, occupied by a woman who cannot keep but only gives, mirrors and subverts colonial narratives of inaccessibility and backwardness. In the end, the “The Woman by the River” thematizes hope and testifies to the possibility of stories surviving war and the smothering narratives that surround it.

My mother needed to find someone who would sell her a child. It would not be for her; she had given birth to several children, been provided with both boys and girls. The child would be for her cousin who lived in town and had been married for ten years but was still barren. One time my mother took me to the river for this mission, thinking a five-year-old boy like me wouldn’t understand grown-up affairs, or if I learned anything I would forget it as soon as I grew up.

But my mother was wrong.

The woman my mother visited was the seventeenth one. She lived by the river in a hamlet that consisted of seventeen women. The number of men who lived there was much lower, since most of them either had left home to join the Việt Cộng or had been drafted by the South Vietnamese Army. No one paid attention to the woman who lived on a bald, desolate hill, in the last thatched hut at the end of an alluvial strip that people called xóm hà, the river ghetto. The soil was fertile; corn and beanstalks that grew there were colored a lustrous, deep jade. Good harvests came every year, but alluvial soil was new soil—prone to subside—where no one could build sturdy brick homes, so the river-hamlet people were looked down upon by their inland neighbors, the same way fishermen and inlet dwellers were considered inferior to farmers. Prejudices fed upon the hierarchy of loyalties among us: natives against settlers, settlers against transients, transients against informants, informants against women consorting with Westerners, and so it went.

The woman lived there all alone, in a small house with no relatives, no friends, no callers, no one knowing anything about her, no one knocking on her door at midnight. In her garden her lonely chickens rutted and foraged, her rooster didn’t know how to crow, her clock didn’t chime. History of the river hamlet seemed to stop at her threshold.

Her house had no address. The rural health workers of the 1960s in their yellow hard hats and heavy silver DDT pumps, who sprayed a white substance on all the walls of our village, our mosquito nets, our blankets, our woven straw mattresses—and whose efforts represented a great leap forward in decimating the population of mosquitoes that spread malaria in many parts of the humid, swampy countryside—would diligently go through each and every house in the area and yet would always forget to stop at her house.

The woman didn’t go to the market, didn’t take the ferry to the other side of the river, didn’t eat, didn’t light her lamp at dusk. No one came to her house, except those with a particular need, like my mother.

At the time of our visit, the woman had given birth, the tenth time or more I couldn’t tell, anyhow it had been several months and she was out of her confinement period. The plump infant lay in the cradle, its face bright and alert, some small object—a toy, perhaps—clasped in its fist. It did not cry upon seeing strangers, but seemed content, neither needing nor resisting attention. I remember it was a boy, but now am not quite sure. The two women talked in whispers while I slouched near the threshold, eyeing the cradle until boredom set in and I turned my gaze elsewhere. The seventeenth woman walked with my mother to the door, my mother reluctant, sad, wanting to prolong the moment. The woman sighed, her sigh as long as the road ahead.

They lingered awhile past the entrance, where a tin basin was placed to collect rain water from a leaking roof. Before we took our leave, I could hear the woman speaking fast but clearly. I have already promised the baby to someone else, she told my mother, but don’t you worry I’ll save the next one for you. I remember her voice: soothing, serene, not quite apologetic, not quite welcoming, not quite heartless, the way someone neither fulfilled nor unhappy would sound.

The woman continued to live in her home by the river for several years after this encounter, but my mother no longer made any mention of buying another child for adoption. The war ruptured many lives. I went to school far away. Once, during a short holiday visit home, passing in front of the woman’s house, I caught a glimpse of a boy, nine or ten years old, playing in the courtyard. Whose child it was, or whether he was the baby I had seen years before, I had no idea. Curious, I ventured forth, but as soon as I crossed the house’s bamboo gate, where a thick clump of red peonies had grown almost as tall as my head, I lost sight of him.

Translated from the Vietnamese by Thuy Dinh

Nguyễn Đức Tùng was born in Quảng Trị, Central Vietnam, and is a Vietnamese-Canadian poet, literary critic, translator, and physician based in Vancouver, British Columbia. After fleeing Vietnam as a boat person, he settled in Canada in the 1980s and graduated from McMaster University. He specialized in general and emergency medicine, and completed residencies at the University of Toronto and the University of British Columbia. He has published Những Câu Chuyện về Sức Khỏe (Stories on Health, 2003); Đối Thoại Văn Chương với Trần Nhuận Minh (Literary Conversations with Trần Nhuận Minh, 2012); and Thơ Cần Thiết Cho Ai (Who Needs Poetry: Essays and Criticism, 2015). In addition, he has edited the following poetry anthologies: Thơ Đến Từ Đâu (Where Does Poetry Come From, 2010), and Bốn Mươi Năm Thơ Việt Hải Ngoại (Forty Years of Vietnamese Poetry in Exile, 2017). His fiction, memoirs, and essays have appeared on several Vietnamese literary websites, such as Da Màu (Multitude), Tiền Vệ (Vanguard), Văn Việt (Vietnamese Arts and Letters), and Diễn Đàn Thế Kỷ (Century Forum).

Thuy Dinh is coeditor of the Vietnamese literary e-zine Da Màu. Her poetry translations have appeared in Asymptote, Prairie Schooner, Manoa, Rattle, Michigan Quarterly Review, and Santa Fe Broadside, among others. Green Rice, her co-translation of the selected poetry of Lâm Thị Mỹ Dạ, was published by Curbstone Press in 2005, and nominated for the Kiriyama Prize in 2006.


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