Nhã Thuyên on Nguyễn Quốc Chánh

Even though the pioneering poet Nguyễn Quốc Chánh has ensured his own marginalization by rejecting censorship of his work by the authorities, referring to him as "experimental" or "edgy" seems inadequate to me, or even unfair, when such labels have become almost meaningless in Vietnam with regard to the artistic merits of creative works, implying nothing more than an attitude that isn’t in line with the official views on literature more or less imposed by state-run literary bodies, or at best a very embryonic stage of a new direction in Vietnamese poetry. It is true that there are many points in Nguyễn Quốc Chánh’s life and work that enable us to reflect on how an artist can use his or her own self as a witness, or as a piece of evidence, in order to reveal the strongly oppressive conditions of a society within which the artist is both being oppressed and striving to fight against oppression. And perhaps some readers will see such a poet as a symbol of conscience or self-sacrifice, like a legend in the darkness.

Here, however, I do not want to exploit the case of Nguyễn Quốc Chánh as a means to examine the difficult and antagonistic relationship between an artist and the authorities in contemporary Vietnam; although, of course, Nguyễn Quốc Chánh’s courageous existence in such a position of confrontation has touched me deeply, and I think it more or less provides inspiration for efforts to liberate art and encourages artists to make independent choices. Based on my personal observations as a young person with little real experience of the period of explicit protest poetry by poets such as Nguyễn Quốc Chánh within the literary scene in Saigon at the beginning of the millennium, the relationship between the artist and the authorities, though not completely changed, should perhaps no longer be seen as the biggest constraint on creative people and the development of the arts in Vietnam. It is true that Nguyễn Quốc Chánh has never received any recognition from mainstream arts organizations in Vietnam, and his name may never be included on the list of writers honored by the Literary Association or the nation. He himself refuses to appear in mainstream cultural spaces, which he identifies with slavery to official views on literature.

But I want to ask: Is such recognition really important for the author and his readers? I hope that the answer is no. There seems to have been a change in the degree to which the assessment of a writer’s standing and the merit of his or her works is dependent on the authorities or those who represent the orthodox view. Poets, regardless of whether their own political views are aligned with or distinct from the official line, have realized that the authorities and the cultural censorship agencies have no say in judging their art. No, I don’t want to view Nguyễn Quốc Chánh’s poetry only as a symbol of resistance and protest, difficult as it may be to distinguish the literary merits from the social and political implications of Chanh’s poems, which serve as warning signals inextricably linked to the time and space in which they first appeared. [. . .]


Each of Nguyễn Quốc Chánh’s poetry collections is like a fragment of history, not just figuratively, but as an actual unique piece of physical evidence of the social and literary landscape that he has experienced. His first collection, Đêm mặt trời mọc (Sun Rising at Night), had only just been published in 1990, with the required number of copies submitted to the authorities in June of that year, when it was recalled before it had time to reach a wide audience; afterwards, as Nguyễn Quốc Chánh recounted in his essay Xuống đường (Down the Road): “When Sun Rising at Night was seized in 1990, I had been feeling that language, taking the false form of resolutions and slogans, was at risk of exhaustion and self-deception, but I stirred things up as much as possible to avoid those two outcomes.” The reason that it was withdrawn, and also attacked, was certainly due in part to some "political" verses, in which the poet expressed his life and his reaction to the context in which he was living, tainted with despair and full of hidden meanings, with a mocking, derisive tone. Published concurrently with other post-war poems in the North (that is to say, in the early 1990s), for example the works of Nguyễn Duy and Thanh Thảo, the works of Nguyễn Quốc Chánh are markedly different in that he looks back at the war, not through the torment of a soldier’s experience, but through measured observations, filled with the melancholy of a shared past, a past that forms part of the much longer flow of history. He defines his generation: “Our generation/Piggybacking on the past/A disabled figure from the war.” And he reflects on the time following the war: “Paper money/smelling of gunpowder/and wages/the corpses of war.”

The collection Khí hậu đồ vật (Inanimate Weather), which came out in 1997 after a difficult process to secure a publishing license, is an attempt to penetrate—or perhaps to come to terms with being trapped in—the messy, complicated realm of language in order to form a personal artistic view. The representation of a living space, with a cramped, suffocating, and murky atmosphere covering poems that combine words and images in unfamiliar ways to create a strange reality perhaps caused barriers for readers at that time, and this work remains difficult to penetrate even now. The turning point for Nguyễn Quốc Chánh in dealing with both his own creative efforts and the surrounding literary context was marked by the publication of the e-book Của căn cước ẩn dụ (Of Metaphorical Identity) at the end of 2001 on the online forum Talawas. Beginning with the strong lines in the "Preamble", it is immediately clear that this collection is like a landmine detector, or a bird that warns of the approaching storm: the devastating impact of the collection comes primarily not from its poetic quality, but rather from the stance of an aggrieved poet towards the state censorship mechanism of the publishing system in Vietnam:

The fear of being labeled "reactionary" quickly turned into a degrading experience. It stifled creative ability through the various artifices encoded in the phenomena known as viết-lách. Lách in the process of writing is considered clever, but in reality it is just a kind of self-deception. It is a mindset that becomes the habit of the colonized. It is as if the Vietnamese people have completely lost the will to be human, which is the consciousness of individual freedom.[. . .] Writing, printing, and publishing with permission is a method of providing a helping hand to the reactionary, as a way of "giving them enough rope to hang themselves." It does not give the reactionary much of a push, it only adds more accomplices to the conspiracy to smother individual freedom.
Following this e-book, Nguyễn Quốc Chánh participated in the samizdat poetry milieu in Saigon, contributing to the 2005 collection, Khoan cắt bê tông Cutting and Drilling Concrete), which brought together twenty-three authors through the Giấy Vụn Publishing House, and printing his personal poetry collection Ê, tao đây (Hey, I'm Here) in the same year. Since that collection, occasional poems, notebook entries, and personal opinions have appeared in the Tiền Vệ online magazine, but as of now Nguyễn Quốc Chánh has not released any further poetry collections, including the previously announced collection Mày tiêu rồi I (Die, Bastard).

More recently, Nguyễn Quốc Chánh held an exhibition of pottery and earthenware objects, which to my regret I have only seen through photographs, and I want to mention this because for me, this endeavor and the finished products express a powerful conception of poetry that is more important than outward beauty. At this point in time, the poet/his poetry following the path of language seems to have a found a place to reside, whether a safe haven or a precarious perch, whether a release from feeling or a falling into despair: that which was intended to be a sun rising in the night, a light shining in the darkness, has retreated into the darkness to rediscover itself, it has let go, pouring out like a broken pipe, and it has rejected language in favor of ideas in the living shape of the earth and the fire. What shapes the destiny of a poetry collection, of poetry, if not the awareness of its desires and the tragedy of its existence? This consciousness reveals strength of spirit that will not compromise with what Nguyễn Quốc Chánh refers to without compunction as "reactionary dogma." His refusal to compromise is above all a way to assert his personal freedom, as can be seen in his inner battles, which are an expression of an ongoing negative process within his creative activities. The negative always signifies a parallel process: destruction and cultivation, tearing down and building up, death and birth. [. . .]

In the morning I face the sun, shadows falling behind my back and sunlight piercing my chest, At midday I face the sun, shadows pouring around my feet and sunlight revolving on my hair, In the afternoon I face the sun, shadows falling behind my back and sunlight still piercing my chest. ("Untitled"—Inanimate Weather) [. . .]

At times I was confused, wanting to distinguish between the public poet and the private poet, the one who speaks to community issues and the one who only values personal matters, the one willing to leave the search for the poetic values of language in order to speak out with a strongly individual voice, but an individual voice that could speak for many . . . Previously, I viewed Nguyễn Quốc Chánh as a clear example of someone changing from a private poet to a public poet, as through his successive collections his quest into the interior world of the poet was inexorably replaced by indignation and strong condemnation in response to the general problems of the society, of the Vietnamese people, and of the nation. Now, I find I was mistaken: the personal in Nguyễn Quốc Chánh has transcended the dimensions of the poet himself and has taken on the nature of a public gathering. Has not the dream of freedom of which he spoke transcended the abstract meaning of poetry? It is as if he is even ready to destroy his own ego, created by his imagination and poetic creation, and turn it into a piece of physical evidence, a reflection of himself and of the important issues facing the community, the people and the nation finding a strange unity in his poetry. Awareness of the destiny of the dream can become an implicit signal, an implicit structural form, submerged in each of Nguyễn Quốc Chánh’s poems, an underlying element binding together concerns and observations, binding together phrases and images that seemed to be disconnected and chaotic in his poems. [. . .]


I often imagine that Nguyễn Quốc Chánh injects a stimulant into his words. And that these words, impassive, radical, angry or sneering they go about the streets in their naked and distressed bodies, at all times cause severe provocation. Nguyễn Quốc Chánh's dense urban language doesn't seem to be just a tactic or creative technique, but instead reveals the flesh-and-blood relationship of the poet with the city [Saigon] where he has mostly lived and within which he seems to have immersed himself. A fair relationship, expressed in the way he treats the city, at the same time tender and detached: tender when he buries himself in the language of the streets, and detached when he observes it. Nguyễn Quốc Chánh owes no birthplace debt to Saigon, a city rapidly modernizing but at the same time bearing a heavy heritage of the past, or of a mythical past, and he seems to have never expressed a sense of nostalgia for his own past like that expressed by outstanding poets of his age such as Trần Tiến Dũng and Nguyễn Quang Thiều. He is like a wild wolf in the city, but not lost or uncertain about where he resides. He brought the wild dark ego of the rivers of Bạc Liêu into the city of Saigon to test his tensile strength as a piece of evidence/a witness. No nostalgia, no attachment, and no recollection of his roots. His identity, if he has one, lies in his collision with those spaces in which he lives. Of course, this collision is also stressful: not infrequently the urban space oppresses his body, coerces his thoughts and torments his poetry, and he constantly has to release this pressure by intense strain of reason. Perhaps I feel Chanh's poems relay life from the rebellious graffiti-covered walls, the unflinching defiance or reckless audacity of city-dwellers to defend themselves in life. The poem Đụ vỡ sọ ("Fuck Until the Head Explodes"), printed in the collection Drilling and Cutting Concrete, can be read like a Party traitor’s slogan sprayed on the walls of the city in the workers’ residential areas. The poem leads the reader through intense interrogations about the words that he claims are the most beautiful (though rarely written) in Vietnamese: Cunt, Dick and Fuck, asserting that “after 10 centuries of stewing by the Chinese, Cunt, Dick and Fuck have taken on other colors: Vagina, Penis and Intercourse.” With language that is both severe and humorous, the language of a guy ready to be submerged in mud and to scour life's pavements, and at the same time full of imagination and personal experiences, Nguyễn Quốc Chánh has recreated a history of these suppressed words; he prizes them from the gutter, exposes them to the light, and returns to them their former crowns that had been taken away by fear and human slavery. I see here a rare brilliance in the way he uses these forbidden words, provocative in both their sound and meaning, egalitarian ways of naming things, verses that don't call for overthrow, which are themselves full of the power to overthrow.

If Jesus didn’t ask: If there is anyone among you who has not yet fucked, let him first cast a stone at her?! (Their shame saved Mary Magdalene from the hail of stones.) Why doesn’t your shame make you give equality back to Cunt, Dick and Fuck? When I close my eyes (unifying my soul and body), I see them as stars, or avatars, with the energy of great emotion and mystical activity. Cunt is the distant echo of the drum, the bell and primitive memory. [. . .] And when I pronounce "Cunt," I hear its resounding echo from ancient tombstones, from the immense compassion of the Buddha and from the infinite depths of memory. Over the past 10 years, I have been thrown over three times, and my former wife married another man. I became a guy who only Fucks the sand. I don’t know how many times I lay down, prostrating myself on the sand, watching the sunrise through half-closed eyes. As I watched I saw a shift from red to black. It was no longer a sparkling red aureole; it turned into a shimmering and obsessive black hole. The blood in my body began to race and the red blood cells rushed down to my navel. My dick was warm and hard. My dick swelled up. My dick exulted. My hands dug into the sand, my stomach pressed down into the sand, my mouth gaped open as the sand and my ass rotated.
From these stories about suppressed words, concepts like "time" and "history"—typically represented as huge, lurking, obscure phantoms—become specific and clear. The word game of the poet is about seeking out and investigating suppressed ideas, a game in which the participants have to wallow in the black mud of the past and present, both submerged and struggling to free themselves. Through confrontation and creating a confrontational will, casting aside power and resisting any timidity in his use of language, Nguyễn Quốc Chánh overcomes and challenges social taboos in contemporary Vietnamese life. In the way that they convey a sense of freedom and its plight, these poems convey a much stronger protest than those poems where he directly attacks institutions or the Party, not only because of the particular attractiveness of the language, but because his poetic intentions seem broader.

[. . .]


The poetic nature and potential impact of Nguyễn Quốc Chánh’s creative activities and the resulting products should probably be regarded as an unanswered question. What is the source of Nguyễn Quốc Chánh’s appeal? His attitude to poetry? His stance of political opposition? The way he poses questions? His ever-changing language, twisting like a gecko’s body, which can be imagined as a caricature of the struggle between light and darkness within the poet himself? His intense poetic voice, like a gushing broken drain, as deafening as a hammer and as piercing as the rhythms of the city?

Above all, I want to see in his work a poet fusing his private and public selves, a poet strongly committed to the power and critical value of poetry and social engagement. [. . .] More appealing still in Nguyễn Quốc Chánh’s poetry is his strength of will, even though coming into contact with his works also creates a sense of impasse on all sides, which I think reflects his own impasse when he collides with society. Putting this into the context of life and poetry in Vietnam, immersing it in the so-called thirst for freedom, like a map on an explorer’s vessel lost at the bottom of the ocean, can be read as a long tale of the road of an artist, of a poet, and of poetry itself. As a superficial sketch of the portrait of a poet who carries within his own self a dream of freedom which overflows the narrow limits of a single individual, who is violently thrashing about in the awareness of being surrounded on all sides, Prometheus exposing his chest for the preening crows (those crows are not outside of the creative needs of the artist himself), who failed in his attempt to free himself, who speaks with the voice of the community, who brings himself as a witness, as evidence, who inhales the dark flow of the era and exhales full of outrage . . . of course this will not be enough to recognize the portrait of Nguyễn Quốc Chánh, but I think it might be one way to visualize the role a creative artist who has attached his fate to the concerns about the fate of Vietnamese history in many decades past. Poetry, in certain respects, is like a heart that the poet has plucked from his chest as an offering, out of his deep faith in the survival of freedom, an exposed and self-destructive offering, and when we look at the poet, we only see a hollow chest and a pale face full of darkness.

For me what endures, overcoming the rise and fall of a poet’s value as set by society, is how his or her mode of writing remains with the reader. Until now, Nguyễn Quốc Chánh’s renown has not, fortunately, been accompanied by widespread acclamation, and he perhaps remains an isolated and challenging figure. At one time I just saw Nguyễn Quốc Chánh as a symbol of the conscience of Vietnamese poetry in a period of crisis in writers’ attitudes. But now I think that I was mistaken: viewing him as a symbol turns thoughts into clichés. Truly, who is Nguyễn Quốc Chánh to me personally? He is still a dark shadow that is not easy to discover, his poetic works trapped in thick, tangled roots. Even now, I still feel moved whenever I open the pages of old books, or visit websites to read his work. I see him not as a symbol of suffering and resistance, but as a poet always seeking for some way to overcome his personal limitations in order to explore the potential of new poetry and new spaces for poetry. I think, even, that the way that a poet’s works stay with the reader can overcome those things that the poet believes over time, and can overcome all of the failures he or she may feel in relation to poetry, in the face of the exhaustion of language and his or her own fundamental need to write poetry. Through his actions, poetry, and everything else, Nguyễn Quốc Chánh is present in his violations, in his resistance, in his refusal and, that means, in his creativity. In one poem, Nguyễn Quốc Chánh describes the plight of birds throwing themselves into a stone crevice and dying, a mass suicide with all their beaks pecking each other, a syndrome of traumas in their flesh. I see in it the image of poets bearing within themselves the violent explosions of memory, and the multiple deaths that reside within profoundly painful lines of poetry.

Birds pass through the slit one by one. They: One by one wings disappear. One by one songs are stilled. One by one only beaks remain. One by one pecking each other’s eyes and necks,
They do not see death lurking in the curved branches.They do not see the forest of guns growing in each hollow of the land.
They only hear the sound of weapons concealed under slabs of fat.They only hear the sound of a gun being loaded, deep inside the brain.
("Syndrome"—Of Metaphorical Identity)

translated from the Vietnamese by David Payne

Read poetry by Nhã Thuyên elsewhere in this issue.