In a collectivist culture, what does it mean to want privacy? In an authoritarian state, what does it mean for an artist to refuse the binary of self-censorship and dissidence?
When I lived in Hanoi, Vietnam, my partner and I made the acquaintance of a painter whose abstract work expressed the tension between traditional values and modern life inherent in contemporary Vietnamese society. My partner, an artist himself, exchanged studio visits and one day accompanied the man out on a common Vietnamese artist’s errand. Before each gallery show he had to apply for an official exhibition permit from the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism. This involved showing a bureaucrat photographs of each piece he proposed to hang while providing explanations of what they “meant.” He eventually received a permit (helped by a bribe). As he left the building he said to my partner, “I just tell them it’s about my feelings and love of colors. Then they won’t bother me. They don’t know what they’re looking at.”
At different art events and readings we started noticing the plainclothes “culture police” who always lingered somewhere in the background. The more one got better at recognizing these men, the more one noticed them out of the corner of one’s eye. The internal censor made flesh. Still, artists have relative freedom if they work in abstract metaphor. Many exhibit their work abroad instead of at home. Writers, on the other hand, do not get past the censors so easily.
These are the questions, memories, and concerns that rose to my mind when reading Nhã Thuyên’s book of essays, un\\martyred: [self-]vanishing presences in Vietnamese poetry, published in spring 2019 by Roof Books. What interests me about Nhã Thuyên is her conviction that artists have a right to stylistic self-determination. Due to the state’s explicit guidelines that art forward a positive, unified vision of the country, writers gets lumped into two main groups: the Vietnam Writers' Association, a select group who receive subsidies in exchange for pledging allegiance to the Communist Party and swearing not to make “political art,” and dissident artists whose work is censored. The expectation is that every emerging writer will eventually align along these binary lines at some point in their career. Many poets belong to neither group, but choose to live closer to one end or another of the spectrum of State approval | disapproval.
When reading Nhã Thuyên, one gets the sense that she is a private person whose beliefs about poetry have, step by step, brought her reluctantly into a public position that has been simultaneously condemned and championed by both “sides” of the Vietnamese literary community (the very idea of “sides” being something she pushes against). She is prickly like James Baldwin was prickly, in that she refuses group membership and instead maintains his idea of being “a witness to whence I came, where I am. Witness to what I’ve seen and the possibilities that I think I see.” Her loyalty is to the Vietnamese language, not to cultural and ideological imperatives.
Nhã Thuyên herself calls it “naive recklessness,” but I hesitantly assign her actions and work as stemming from idealism, which could be misconstrued as being “soft.” Let me be clear: Nhã Thuyên’s ideals are rigorous and exacting. She wants Vietnamese literary communities to look beyond the current binary trap of censorship and to instead come together to try to make art with a capital A. Thuyên’s aspirations bring to mind those of Rainer Maria Rilke or Li-Young Lee, in the sense of trying to live the kind of life that will bring a “deeper” art to the surface. She acknowledges “the choice of following a writing | living practice that is not concerned with offering comforts, that even makes it difficult to feel comforted, can be a risky one.”
There is historical precedent for her ideals. Just as Western literary circles like the Bloomsbury Group sought new ways of making art in response to global events, so too Vietnamese intellectuals came together in various decades with the goal to advance Vietnamese literature in certain directions. The yearning to make art primarily concerned with pure aesthetics is difficult enough (and potentially problematic) in a democracy, but within an authoritarian regime and a century of colonial rule and civil war, famine, and post-renovation, it is difficult indeed. Repeatedly, these groups of writers grew disillusioned, were silenced, or died on a battlefield. Yet with each upheaval in Vietnamese society, a new group emerges and strives to make something unique inside a collectivist society. Nhã Thuyên is particularly interested in the poetry and groups that emerged during what is called the Post-Renovation, from the early 1990s to the present day.
Nhã Thuyên (her nom de plume) was born in 1986 in an industrial town north of Hà Nội. Her birth coincided with Đổi Mới, or The Renovation, the term used for large-scale economic reforms that allowed state-controlled capitalism after Maoist land reform failed and almost half the population was either malnourished or starving. Nhã Thuyên grew up during this fraught yet fertile time, when rules were relaxed and it briefly seemed that writers might be able to “write what they want” instead of continuing with the restricted subjects that felt all too close to propaganda left over from the Vietnam-American War. She was a teen when the World Wide Web became mainstream, allowing her and other Vietnamese at internet cafes to communicate with authors from the diaspora and other parts of the country. After so much governmental control, suddenly there was a means to read, respond to, and share a wide range of work outside of the traditional channels. As many of us can no doubt remember, the internet had a Wild West feel to it in the beginning: the rules seemed scarce and the possibilities overflowing. Nhã Thuyên officially entered the literary scene in 2008 with her first book of poetry and short stories at twenty-two years of age. Four collections and six years later, after witnessing the rise and fall of the possibility of a less restrictive writing culture, Nhã Thuyên herself became the target of the Vietnam Writers' Association and State censors.
Even the cover and title of Nhã Thuyên’s new book of essays, un\\martyred, is a repudiation of ideologies that seek to channel self-expression into promoting unity of one kind or another. The cover features an expressionistic painting by Trần Trung Tín, a poet who turned to painting to express daily life during and after the Vietnam-American War. A self-taught artist, Trần Trung Tín’s work did not conform to the social realist art demanded of Northern Vietnamese artists. Instead, he painted what he called “my Hanoi / the Hanoi of my mind”—an assertion of private individualism that was heavily criticized and censored during his lifetime. Only after his death has his work of “optimistic tragedy” come to be somewhat valued by the larger populace and the State.
In choosing Trần Trung Tín as the face of her most recent book, Nhã Thuyên reminds Vietnamese readers that experimentation is to be valued because it can portray facets of life that otherwise would be lost; that to conform to orthodoxy is to be left with only a stylized citizenry looking ever to the future, instead of looking inward and embracing the messy privacies of the human condition.
Trần Trung Tín is also a poignant choice because Nhã Thuyên is painfully aware of the absences in contemporary poetry circles, a phenomenon she calls “[self-]vanishing.” In Vietnamese culture there is the option of abstention that comes down through Chinese Buddhism, where an artist actively withdraws from “worldly affairs” out of protest against what is happening in the current political moment. As Neil Jamieson notes in Understanding Vietnam, historically “when that which was right and proper was unattainable under prevailing conditions, an honorable man or woman withdrew from the world as a means of reaffirming higher values, rather than perverting them by participating in a context that distorted them. Such people, in withdrawal, waited to ‘meet their time.’” These small acts of refusal, in collectivist societies, are important markers of individualism. It is an active absence that passes judgement—a deafening silence, as we say in English.
This [self-]vanishing mechanism has existed for centuries, but in the last half century a new kind of absence has emerged: that of the writer ground into silence by unrelenting pressure from the communist State and society. The recent introduction of capitalism into the equation has further exacerbated issues in a publishing scene already hamstrung by groupthink. As Nhã Thuyên writes, “Anxiety over political censorship and self-censorship parallel an equally great challenge: the power of censorship and seemingly invisible pressure by the market and mass media.” Nhã Thuyên mourns these absent poets, and through her essays seeks to honor them by presenting the marginalized communities from which they sprung and ultimately seem to have left.
When reading Thuyên’s prose, I am struck again and again by her precision in word choice, and the stakes behind it. Her essayistic voice is very different from that found in her poetry. Her poetry often takes the shape of expansive run-on prose that muscles through a sentence’s sheath until the form is stretched to bursting in some places. It is an experiment that seeks to see how flexible Vietnamese can be. Her poetry explores interiority, using stream of consciousness techniques and extended metaphors. For example:
“to install a landscape of memory, we allow a bit of light to leak through the cracked door of this dark room, release a bewildered ant in the words of an open book, we sit facing each other, study ways to avoid categories and names, like this, like this, the peace of a bicycle’s rotations and meaningless poetic conversations, and never being named, and fading into the forgotten, and falling out of the stream of time and ghosts have stopped their reminders, and i love you, and i erase you and erase the contours of my body.”
In contrast, her essayistic voice is like a scientist making notations, seeking to understand a phenomenon by looking at its disparate parts before forming conclusions about the whole. The risk with this method is that sometimes observation reveals facts the current regime does not appreciate. Nhã Thuyên for a while was able to bridge the sharp binary of State approval | disapproval, and even now she quietly but insistently maintains that there must be a third way to be an artist. That in fact there are many ways to be a writer, some which are just waiting to be discovered, if only writers were given more freedom of expression.
When I met her at a Southeast Asian literature conference in Thailand in 2012, I was curious—how did she keep a foot in these warring groups? Maybe it was because she was hard to pin down, genre-wise. Each book was different—her first book published in 2008, Viết (Writing), was a hybrid of poems and short stories. Between projects, she was a team member of a collaboratively written children’s book series. Her next book, Ngón Tay Út (The Pinky), was a collection of flash fiction. Up to this point she had published with State-approved publishing houses, but for her next book, a collection of poetry, Rìa Vực (The Edge of the Abyss) she chose to work with the underground Giấy Vụn, (Scrap Paper Press) that created samizdat, or illegal “sidewalk poetry” collections. Then she was back to publishing with approved presses and even moving beyond them: Vagabond Press, based out of Sydney, Australia, published the English translation of Words Breathe, Creatures of Elsewhere in 2015. She had figured out a way to get beyond the censors, even as she hoped to have her works read in her native tongue, where the linguistic leaps she was taking could truly be appreciated and savored.
I myself was translating one of these sidewalk poets, Lý Đợi, in whose work I found some of the only realistic portrayals of contemporary life in Vietnamese cities. While she appreciated the work of Giấy Vụn, making a short video about them and writing about them for her master’s thesis, Nhã Thuyên is not a mindless champion of dissident poets. As she wryly notes, “Winning attention through censorship and taking advantage of censorship to get more attention is a situation not unfamiliar to writers and artists in certain countries, such as Việt Nam. But I would love to push further.”
As we talked in 2012 I learned that Nhã Thuyên was dissatisfied that what had started as playful, exuberant experimentation was being subsumed by what she aptly labels the trap of “the contrasting dualism: orthodox | unorthodox.” As poets were labeled dissidents and their lives made increasingly difficult, their work in this era had become centered around opposition to the State and its many arms of control instead of literary exploration. Meanwhile, writers “on the right side” of the Party disdained and rejected out of hand any work coming from the margins. Straddling these two entrenched positions was becoming increasingly difficult. In “[Un-]contextualizing Underground Poetry: Reimagining a Critical Community” Nhã Thuyên writes, “I found myself dangling between two sides: not belonging anywhere, swinging back and forth between two yawning chasms, at risk of being sucked into an abyss.”
Nhã Thuyên started learning, as Baldwin once observed, that “the line which separates a witness from an actor is a very thin line indeed.” Where before she was a young person living in a time of poetic possibility in the postwar era, as she advanced into the writing scene the clamp of censorship came back down. The ideal of a plurality of artistic voices dissipated as the 1990s progressed and the regime remained fixed in its idea that art should serve (or at least not question) ideology. Those who refused to give up hope for such a community had to make it outside of official circles. As Nhã Thuyên acknowledges in her essay “The Possibilities and Limits of Play: Poetry and [Self-]Publishing in Viet Nam Today”:
“My poetry–often considered apolitical–did not have difficulty getting official permission, and, therefore, as some friends advised me, it was not necessary to publish with a sidewalk publisher . . . Experimenting with the underground publishing model, with xerox printing (the book was even mistakenly cut into two different sizes, 12x21cm and 13x21cm), with books not sold but rather donated as gifts to friends, I experienced poetry being cared for in and as friendship; the means of publishing, whether officially or unofficially, whether with a big or small publisher, became less important than the way poetry was born, how it emerged and reached its readers.”
Her poetry, which explores interior life, her public privacy, did not arouse suspicion, but publishing with Giấy Vụn was a mark against her. However, it was her master’s thesis exploring the work of the dissident Open Mouth poetry group, and subsequent funding from Arts Network Asia to write more essays about marginalized contemporary artists, that finally brought the wrathful mechanism of the State down upon her. Her thesis and master’s certificate were revoked, she and her thesis advisor were suspended from their teaching posts at the Hà Nội University of Education, and a series of articles in State media (all newspapers are to different degrees controlled by the State) questioned her morality and claimed she “attacked the Party.” As Nhã Thuyên writes, “from the first slandering article in May 2013, to official condemnation of the thesis in March 2014, until now in 2017, my works and communication in the field of literature continue to be impeded or restricted in some way.” In the face of so much loss, dissidents and diasporic writers expected her to finally align fully with them. When instead she seemingly withdrew from the public discourse, some claimed she was being “passive.”
Yet, like Trần Trung Tín and his luminous paintings, Nhã Thuyên continues to propose a different means of living with and in struggle, a means that she defines for herself. She has not chosen abstention. With her translator and friend Kaitlin Rees she founded AJAR, a small bilingual journal and press that created a space for sharing the kind of experimental writing that she would like to see encouraged in Vietnam and across borders. They also organized a poetry festival whose mission “concentrates on translational and transnational issues in various contexts of expression, ranging from the personal, the experimental, the feminine, to the (in)visible.” Nhã Thuyên has continued writing essays, which have been translated and published in Asymptote, Jacket2, Da Mau, Cordite Review, and elsewhere. This work is now collected in un\\martyred, by Roof Books, whose parent foundation Segue published the esteemed experimental poetry journal L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E. She also is currently working on a new collaborative manuscript.
In short, over the past decade Nhã Thuyên has moved from hoping for the best from other communities to instead trying to create her own. She is still a prickly idealist. As she writes in “Womxn’s Poetry: A Resonance of Voices”:
“And this effort is certainly continuing here, as well as wherever you are reading this from. I hope to revive, erase, and extend questions that have been dug up in Vietnamese literature, push farther, open wider the calls, emancipate literary experiments, and expand every sense of self-location in equality . . . for me, being able to see the possibilities of free individual voices still brings trust and sharing to a place where poets truly possess a private space. Although tiny, that place brims with a powerful permeability and resonance, strong and tender.”