THE PERFUME RIVER: An Anthology of Writing from Vietnam

Edited by Catherine Cole
University of Western Australia Press ($32.95)

by Steve Street

This fat anthology of short stories, hybrid narratives, and poems offers an array of perspectives on contemporary Vietnamese experience—including experiences beyond Vietnam’s borders and within them by non-Vietnamese. The central focusing event, even when unmentioned, is unavoidably what’s called “The American War,” though editor Catherine Cole and most of the writers she’s collected are from Australia, which had a parallel but distinct involvement in that war. The total number of Australian troops who fought is comparable to the number of Americans who died, but participation in the war caused about as much dissention, especially as waves of immigrants arrived after the fall of Saigon in 1975, finishing off the official exclusion of non-Europeans known as the “White Australia Policy.” It’s a testimony to such changes that to non-readers of Vietnamese, most of the authors’ names in this volume will be gender-neutral.

Some of these authors and their characters have lived through the above events (or even earlier, the war against the French), and some were born since; some are steeped in cultural traditions, and for at least one, tradition is “When being Vietnamese [in Sydney] was not cool, and pho was not available everywhere.” Altogether, these readings celebrate the diversity, complexities, anguish, joy, and beauty of a culture with a 10th-century university that was called, according to Christopher Kremmer’s travel piece, “the Temple of Literature”; they also chronicle that culture’s invasion by and spread throughout the rest of the world, documenting effects on people that both those movements can make. In fact, the title of Chu Vu’s epistolary story by a tourist named Michelle might as well fit the entire collection: “Vietnam: A Psychic Guide.”

Like those three, many of the readings attempt to introduce or explain to outsiders aspects of Vietnam, from its history to its flora and fauna to its brands of cigarettes (e.g., Vina and 555). “On West Lake the paddle-boats are made from war debris. Old aircraft hulls have become painted swans and roses floating along on spent bomb casings,” Pam Brown writes in “The Hanoi Cycle”; Nguyen Thi Thu Hue’s lovelorn Thanh sings of “the fragrance of the ylang-ylang blossoms / And the sweet scent of the milk flowers.” In Le Minh Khue’s “The Concrete Village” we learn about lighting incense sticks at ancestor shrines, kapok trees, “land gangsters,” and urbanization that’s literally paved over the countryside. In Hoa Pham’s “The Daughters of Au Co,” a Kentucky Fried Chicken in Ho Chi Minh City is familiar enough to identify by its acronym alone. In poetry by Steve Kelen and others too, we learn how women in Hanoi ride motor scooters (side-saddle), as well as about “the people who sleep / in the street hammocks.” And from Vincent Lam, a physician and prize-winning, best-selling author in Canada, we learn about Chinese attitudes toward lineage, Australian clawless lobsters, and the perhaps-psychological power of healing extracts over divorce, remarriage, and renal cell carcinoma, as well as who “changed Saigon to Ho Chi Minh City.”

But even some of these readings, along with others that were perhaps originally published for a less self-consciously intercultural audience (or maybe simply written from stronger intercultural assumptions in the first place), lead with voice and story. What really compels a reader about the grandfather in Lam’s “A Long Migration” is not the exotic details of ever-changing place but the strength of the man’s endurance through the vicissitudes of love, war, and urination. Pham Thi Hoai’s “Sunday Menu” treads lightly on the resentment that must underlie any long-colonized culture’s consciousness and literature by treating it through cooking. In this high-energy story about a restaurant featuring dishes like Snow White Soup, White Cranes Saluting Flags, Chicken with Holothurian, and Steamed Quails in Holothurian Juices (if you don’t know what Holothurian is, don’t worry: it comes up), one of the older participants “blamed the French for the corruption of Vietnamese culinary taste.”

Such voices are distinctive and various in this book, from Hoai’s robust one cited above to Ho Anh Thai’s delicate, impressionistic one in “Installation” (which, in another testament to this culture’s high literary values, first appeared in Vietnam Airlines’ in-flight magazine). The narratives, too—such as Viet Lê’s raucous but wrenching story of refugee displacement to the point of substance and spouse abuse, “Hot Dogs for Dinner”; Andrew Lam’s “The Palmist,” which takes place largely on San Francisco’s 38 Geary bus; and Nguyen Thi Thu Hue’s sad story of a broken engagement, “Believe Me”—bring intercultural data to life.

It’s usually a hard life, though; most of this writing depicts harsh realities, past and present, along with the ways people cope. Often such characters are women, and often they have to cope in the way Nguyen Thi Thu Hue’s Hoai and Le Minh Khue’s Thanh Ha do: by finding a man. Perhaps the harshest character in the collection, a brother in “The Concrete Village,” gives voice to what may be the harshest reality when he tells his lame sister, “You’re a cripple, but your waist is small and your breasts are big—you still have value.” In the deep reflection this assault occasions in her, she feels “like life is the same as in wartime . . . I’m frightened all the time” and thinks, “there are so many like him now . . . people who are no longer human.” But in taking leave two lines later she tells her brother to take care, knowing that after the death of their grandmother all they have is each other. And even the tangled thoughts of the “homegrown backpacker” in Phan Huyen Thu’s “Doll Funeral,” the lone and lonely Vietnamese “in a Western backpackers’ café” are hard but tough, uplifting even when they’re grim.

In all, such evidence confirms what we might have suspected: that, as Adam Aitken’s poem title puts it, “The War Never Ends.” But that’s this volume’s point only in the way that “don’t cheat on your spouse” is the point of Anna KareninaMadame Bovary, or Effi Briest. The benefits of reading these selections are, as with all good writing, in the reading itself: every word opens up and contributes to the experience. Even the arrangement of these readings does; it’s unusual but deliberate, not only interspersing prose with poetry but also staggering the writers so that half a dozen reappear. The effect is something like that of walking down the ramps of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., a deepening into the phenomenon, then out into something else. In this case that something else is more familiarity with Vietnam. References identified in early stories—like Hanoi’s West Lake and those 555 brand cigarettes—need no explaining in later stories, and we recognize the young women on motorbikes, too. Reading The Perfume River, an actual waterway evoked in a couplet by Nguyen Trong Tao that serves as epigraph, is the next best thing to being on it.

There’s nothing fragrant or gradual, however, about the descent this book provides into the core of modern Vietnamese experience. The opening piece is “The Sorrow of War” by Bao Ninh, who lost 490 fellow combatants in a Youth Brigade and tells about it in fiction that features the sentence, “Not until after dark does the MIA Zil truck reach the Jungle of Screaming Souls.” Even with the buffer of years, the war is always with these writers. In the second story, Nam Le’s “Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice” from his powerhouse collection The Boat, the son of a war survivor writes about it in an Iowa workshop.

In the writing that follows are also sex and fashion and drunkenness and carp, not to mention haiku lines extolling “the street of hairclips” and “flashing kotex ads.” Adam Aitken’s memoir “Beyond Khe Sanh” samples Graham Greene’s The Quiet American like a DJ’s mix; other Western references include Kate Chopin’s “Story of an Hour” as taught in a Hanoi classroom in an eventually ironed-out mis-translation, David Bowie’s “China Girl,” Catherine Deneuve filming Indochine, and Brahms and Coltrane. Around the war and Vietnam itself so many cultural, psychic, and emotional notes are struck here that when you arrive at N. B. Najima’s “At the Mermaid Stairwell,” one of the last selections, you’re deep into this story’s events—about an oblique nighttime encounter between an unidentified narrator, an Arab ambassador, and then a member of his support staff—before you realize that a reference to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum is the first one to anything specifically Vietnamese. It comes as a bit of a shock, not that Vietnam and the war have fallen into the background, but at realizing how much they've become a part of the world—and of all of us.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011