Vietnam Today: An interview with novelist David Joiner

davidjoinerby Garry Craig Powell

David Joiner is a U.S. novelist currently living in Kanazawa, Japan, although he has spent more than a decade in Vietnam since he initially visited the country in 1994, when he was the first American to live in Bien Hoa city since the end of the war. His debut novel, Lotusland (Guernica Editions, $25), focuses on Nathan, a young American journalist living in Saigon. Nathan finds himself torn between love and duty, vocation and worldly success, when he simultaneously receives intriguing offers from Le, a poor but talented female lacquer painter, and Anthony, an old friend who wants him to help run a successful real estate business. With its complicated cast of characters and evocative settings, Lotusland is likely the most vivid novel set in post-colonial Southeast Asia that contemporary readers will encounter.

The following conversation with Joiner, whom I have known since we were in graduate school together at the University of Arizona in 1998, took place by electronic mail.

lotuslandGarry Craig Powell: Although I know Lotusland quite well, having read a number of drafts of it, I don’t remember its precise inception. Could you tell us a bit about how you got the idea for the novel, and what aspects of it seized your attention?

David Joiner: I don’t know that a specific idea led to the inception of Lotusland, but I do remember wanting to fill a niche in U.S. literature about Vietnam. I wanted to set my novel in contemporary Vietnam, during the time that I was writing it, and have it turn the page on the war we fought there. I find it regrettable that America’s focus on Vietnam remains squarely on the war. Even though the war ended in 1975, virtually every U.S. novel, movie, and play that deals with Vietnam does so by resurrecting the war. In many ways that makes sense because the event had such a huge impact on the U.S.—and in fact on the world—and much of the literature that came out of the war has been incredible. But forty years on I feel like we should look for a different perspective on Vietnam.

GCP: That’s certainly one of the most refreshing things about the novel. Rereading the published version, it struck me that although there are two ostensibly very different plots in the book—and I think they are of equal importance, unlike the typical novel’s plot and subplot—both are thematically similar. In both Nathan’s romantic relationship with Le and his blurred friendship/business relationship with Anthony, the conflicts come about because there are serious issues of trust. Was that deliberate and planned?

DJ: Yes, it was. I think issues of trust mark all relationships, no matter where one lives. But in Vietnam, where it can be difficult for people to meet on equal levels—economically, socially, historically, culturally, etc.—I think these issues are especially salient. One needs to be rather careful there both in business relationships (as with Anthony) and romantic ones (as with Le and Huong). After all, legal protections in Vietnam hardly exist. Also, Vietnamese people in general distrust their government, the police, and others in positions of power. That distrust often filters through to everyday relationships, which play out dramatically in the novel.

GCP: Another fascinating aspect of the novel is the complexity and ambivalence of the main characters. You aren’t afraid to show them as inconsistent. Le’s reticence and dishonesty causes Nathan a great deal of suffering, which makes us sympathise with him, yet he withholds his true intentions from Anthony too, and while he doesn’t downright lie to him, he certainly misleads him. And Anthony, in spite of his apparent generosity towards Nathan, has ulterior motives. So there’s an intricate pattern of deception or at least lack of frankness, which may be symptomatic of relationships in a developing country like Vietnam, where money corrupts everything. Am I on the right track here? You could take it a step further and say that material interests have made liars and cheats of people everywhere.

DJ: I wouldn’t go so far as to say that money corrupts everything, but it certainly is corrupting. One often hears stories of people getting in trouble for something, fairly or unfairly, but managing to evade punishment by paying off people in high places. And people there know the power of money just as they do anywhere, but it’s particularly insidious in Vietnam because no obvious model of upstanding behaviour really exists for people to follow. The government is corrupt at every level, and the police force essentially exists only to enrich itself. Why should society be any different from those who wield power and grow rich through no honest efforts of their own? And to get ahead in life, as Anthony and Huong have been able to do after marrying, one often has to do things that others might consider unethical. I wouldn’t say they are liars and cheats, nor would I characterize most Vietnamese as such. Most Vietnamese I know, in fact, are lovely. People do find themselves in unfamiliar and difficult circumstances sometimes, and poverty often suggests a reason why people do things they likely wouldn’t do if they were better off. Poverty in Vietnam is not uncommon, though it’s usually not of such a desperate kind like you find for example in India.

GCP: As a State-of-Vietnam novel, Lotusland is a rich and textured portrait of the country that reveals both the worst things about it—the corruption, the poverty, and the tawdriness—and the best: the beauty, not only of its landscape and art, but often glimpses of transcendent beauty in quite ordinary scenes, as well as the humanity of the people, their present sufferings and their brave attempts to overcome the trauma of “The American War.” I was particularly moved by the descriptions of the Agent Orange victims, and fascinated by the detailed depictions of traditional lacquer painting. Not many writers can plunge the reader so deeply and intensely into a foreign environment. How do you do that?

DJ: If it’s a State-of-Vietnam novel, then by necessity it’s one seen through the eyes of foreigners. That’s the perspective I know, and I can write from it authentically. As for plunging the reader into a foreign environment, I’m not sure how much I’ve actually done this with Lotusland. Setting is important to my aesthetic, though, and I’ve always been fascinated by, even moved by, both the natural and urban landscapes of Vietnam. It’s kind of a wabi-sabi ethic, where one finds beauty in the potential of things, in their imperfections. To me, no other country possesses the kind of beauty Vietnam is endowed with, and because that beauty, that aesthetic, really can’t be replicated in the West, I need to paint scenes with a certain type of brushstroke to ensconce readers in the place itself. Vietnam is also eminently observable. So much happens in the streets and sidewalks of the cities, especially, that the life lived there is a gift to anyone drawn to writing. One’s senses are overwhelmed at every moment, one feels enormously alive there, and I don’t know how that could be kept out of any writing about Vietnam. I have a tendency to write imagistically, and to using setting like drapery—not to obfuscate the reader’s vision, but to hang it as close as possible before their mind’s eye so they not only see it but feel surrounded by it. That’s the hope, anyway.

GCP: You succeed in your aim of “surrounding” the reader with the setting. I think you do that by using all your senses, not just visual images, but sounds, smells, tastes and sensations too. It’s a heightened reality, a more intense one than we normally experience. As in much of the best writing, in Conrad for instance, the setting becomes a character. It’s not merely backdrop: it plays a vital role in determining the fates of the human characters. I think you also immerse the reader in your lyrical prose. You must have an excellent ear for the music of English to be able to write so beautifully, so euphonically. Is that something you consciously developed?

DJ: I’m not sure . . . I think most writers of literary fiction possess a love of language, otherwise they wouldn’t write. If I’ve succeeded in developing an interesting voice, it probably has much to do with what I’ve read. I started Lotusland in the middle of an intensive re-reading of Yasunari Kawabata’s oeuvre. I remember using multicolored highlighters to mark up old copies of Snow Country and Thousand Cranes, to study and learn from them, and later typing out all of the former on my laptop. I was interested in how he did what he did in those novels—their indirectness, the power of silence, their pacing, the rhythms and deceptive simplicity of his prose (or the translation of his prose). In fact, the first scene of Lotusland is my homage to Snow Country. My novel, too, starts with a scene on a train, though his is more beautiful than mine, and more successful.

GCP: You’re very modest: allow me to disagree, although I’m with you on the brilliance of Kawabata. But let’s go back to setting. The novel is set mainly in Hanoi and Saigon, the two biggest cities in the country, in the early twenty-first century. Why did you choose to set it then and there? Since two of the main characters are Americans, why didn’t you set it during or right after the war?

DJ: First and foremost, I wanted to write about places in Vietnam that I knew well, and I know Saigon and Hanoi pretty well—I’ve spent nearly ten years in those two cities. Also, both cities have changed dramatically since I first encountered them twenty-one years ago, and I’m sure my subconscious found both places fertile ground. There are other reasons, too. I wanted to veer far from typical wartime portrayals of Saigon and Hanoi—both novelistic and journalistic—and I wanted to present Hanoi, especially, in a way that managed to express its beauty. Hanoi is richer than Saigon with respect to the arts, and Vietnam’s lacquer painting tradition was developed in the north. In terms of its temporal setting, Lotusland only works as a contemporary story, and so that choice was deliberate. I also wanted to share with readers how Agent Orange continues to affect people in Vietnam three generations since the war’s end. Agent Orange is frequently in the news in Vietnam, yet how many people in the West realize the extent to which it continues to ravage people’s lives? Finally, as I mentioned before, I didn’t want to write another Vietnam War story. I was more interested in finding a different narrative about Vietnam, in inviting readers to step outside of that well-trod literary landscape.

GCP: And yet, even though the war has long been over, one feels its shadowy presence throughout the book, sometimes in completely unexpected ways—for instance, in the apparent lack of bitterness the Vietnamese feel towards these men from a recently enemy country. What makes this interesting, for me, is wondering how genuine it is. To what extent have the Vietnamese really forgiven the Americans (and the French who preceded them) and to what extent are they forced to be agreeable, because they, the Americans, are richer, and may be able to offer them jobs and visas?

DJ: That’s a good question. I assume it’s genuine. Vietnamese, friends and strangers both, assure me that they have forgiven but not forgotten what the U.S. did in Vietnam, and aside from a few drunks I’ve run into in Hanoi, no one has made me feel uncomfortable for being an American or blamed me for what happened forty and fifty years ago. Further, young Vietnamese people often don’t show interest in the war. The war bores them, it’s something they’re forced to read about in school, to tune out when their parents and grandparents start talking about it, and it’s part of many state-run programs that offer no appeal to the young. I’ve met college-aged students in Vietnam who thought their country had fought against Australia rather than the U.S. And yes, I do think that people make a distinction between “America the War Machine” and “America the Land of Opportunity.” Getting to America is still viewed as a way to better one’s life. And, by association, to better family members’ lives. That’s the story of quite a few Vietnamese people who came to the U.S. after the war, and who continue to come. Everyone remembers the success stories, which are often endlessly circulated, and people tend to see themselves in those who’ve done well. The Vietnamese, if I may generalize, are some of the most hopeful and forward-looking people I’ve ever met.

GCP: Another thing that I find engaging is the complexity and unpredictability of the characters’ motivations. For instance, the young Vietnamese women who interact with Nathan and Anthony are all materialistic, but Anthony is just as crass in his own pursuit of wealth, and Le’s apparent manipulativeness turns out to be more complex than it appears, and is arguably balanced by her genuine devotion to her art. I also admired the way the various conflicts—over whether Nathan should dedicate himself to writing or simply accept the very comfortable lifestyle Anthony offers him, and whether he should keep his promises to his friend, to whom he owes money and a job, or be true to his heart and pursue Le—are tangled together. Although Nathan is in his late twenties, Lotusland is a sort of bildungsroman, isn’t it? Nathan is forced to work out for himself what is really important in life, perhaps a little belatedly—though maybe nowadays, since people mature later, the bildungsroman has to be about people in their late twenties or even older.

DJ: I think that’s right. In Lotusland, Nathan struggles to learn what’s most important in life, and unfortunately he makes mistakes, some of which hurt people along the way. But this is true of most foreigners I’ve met in Vietnam. The country offers many a chance to leave behind their own countries and the messes they’ve made of their lives there. Many people travel to Vietnam on a whim and decide to stay to reinvent themselves. Many foreigners I’ve met in Vietnam have only learned in their sixties and even their seventies what’s really important in life. Or some have known all along, but for various reasons they’ve been prevented from living how they want to, from being the kind of person they dream of being. As a writer, I find the idea of “reinventing oneself” interesting. It’s a theme that’s passed through the lives of many older Vietnamese people I know, too—leaving Vietnam for the U.S., for example, and reinventing themselves there; and maybe later returning to Vietnam and reinventing themselves yet again. One also sees it among U.S. vets who come back to Vietnam and settle there. They often have demons they must grapple with in both countries, but the ones in Vietnam are frequently gentler, more welcoming, and—to go back to something we spoke about before—more forgiving.

As for materialism in Vietnam, I don’t think it’s as deep-seated as it is in the U.S. or many other developed countries. At least not yet. Vietnam may become as materialistic over time. I have a number of Japanese friends in their sixties and seventies who tell me that they recognize post-WWII Japan in Vietnam’s fervor to rebuild the country.

GCP: So to some extent we can see the novel as an indictment of capitalism in developing countries, but it’s also about the rootlessness of many westerners: Neither Nathan nor Anthony really belongs in the States any more. Why is that? Have they simply been lured by the exotic to Asia—are they what Edward Said has pejoratively called “orientalists”—or is there more to them than that? Are they adventurers or just misfits?

DJ: There’s probably some or all of that in both characters. You find many expats unsure of their futures. For most, living in Vietnam is an adventure, and the quality of life there is often better than it is in the U.S.—unless you’re extremely wealthy and well-connected back home. The weather in the south of Vietnam is great, you don’t have to work all that hard, the food and coffee remain cheap and some of the world’s best, people are friendly, travel opportunities are plentiful, it’s easy to make friends, and the women are beautiful. A man, particularly, can live like a prince there—and be treated as an important personage. The lure to stay can be far stronger than the lure to return to one’s own country. And while Nathan and Anthony have both encountered this in Vietnam, Anthony is the one whose identity has formed around near-overnight success and wealth. And it changes him. Just like it changes so many of us. I don’t think that either of them are misfits, and I’m not interested in writing about misfits, anyway. I think both are quite earnest about their lives—about finding ways to become more happily rooted.

GCP: Much great fiction dwells on that theme. In Robert Musil’s opinion, the only question worth the attention of intelligent people is how to live happily, and naturally place and way of life play a part in that. Good fiction is always about a specific place and time, and yet Lotusland also manages to be universal. How is that achieved? What would you say to someone who told you that he or she wasn’t interested in Vietnam?

DJ: I don’t think that life in Vietnam is so foreign that people anywhere couldn’t relate to what happens in Lotusland. People could learn much about the country by reading my novel—or at least about the way one person sees Vietnam, as an American. If someone told me they weren’t interested in Vietnam, then they’re not likely to be interested in any place other than where they are. I do think Lotusland develops certain universal themes—love is one, finding one’s place in the world is another, learning to do what is morally right is one more. I’m not sure how that’s achieved in literature. But I think that writers as well as readers should have a wide range of experiences, and be curious about them afterwards, and care about them deeply, in order to deal with such themes successfully. Sometimes, though, I think it’s a crapshoot. What writer can say with certainty that his or her novel will be viewed as universal?

GCP: You’re right, you can never be sure. I’m not sure it’s a crapshoot, though. That implies luck and I think it has more to do with skill. Isn’t it a matter of writing so convincingly about characters from a specific time and place that no matter where you’re from, you feel you know them and can learn from them? And to take that point further, do you worry that readers won’t find your characters likeable or will be unable to identify with them? All of the main ones have serious flaws. Even Nathan is not only less than transparent with his friend Anthony, but also, in spite of some misgivings, accepts an “arrangement” with Le whereby in return for his help in getting her a visa, she becomes his girlfriend, which may strike some as sordid. Why didn’t you make him purer and nobler?

DJ: Characters need flaws to be interesting, to seem more human, and for readers to feel they can connect to them. I was interested in developing Nathan’s character in such a way that readers would root for him, while probably rooting against Anthony and even Le. And then I wanted to turn things on their head near the end to show that Nathan was flawed too, and that Anthony, for all his faults, was understandable. People are complicated—their intentions, good or bad, are often not well understood—and I wanted to show that. Hopefully on the final pages we see the characters on the threshold of becoming better people, of becoming less selfish, of figuring out their relationships and also their dreams. Nathan and Anthony are recognizably American, as American as any characters in fiction, and I never really worried that readers wouldn’t identify with them. I didn’t make Nathan purer and nobler because that doesn’t particularly interest me in fiction, and I don’t think he would come across as believable that way. But he’s also not terribly sordid. He tries to be pure and noble.

GCP: And what about the female characters? Some readers, familiar with the stereotypes about Asian women, may be surprised by how strong and aggressive they are. Would you agree?

DJ: Absolutely. Vietnamese society is changing at lightning speed, and stereotypes like these are subject to change, if they were ever even all that true. Of course Vietnam is still a Confucian—that is, male-dominated—society, but one sees Vietnamese women everywhere who are stronger in mind and body than their male counterparts.

GCP: Your next novel, Burning Green Sun, is also set in Vietnam. Would you tell us what it’s about and why the country fascinates you so much? Do you see yourself following in the footsteps of writers like Graham Greene and Marguerite Duras, or even ones from the colonial era like George Orwell, Joseph Conrad, and Somerset Maugham? Are you writing about “The White Man’s Burden,” and is that still relevant?

DJ: It’s a near-total rewrite of the first novel I ever wrote. It’s set in the early 1990s in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam and in Phnom Penh and the northern stretches of the Mekong River in northeast Cambodia. The characters are mostly river researchers—a French hydrographer; two American cetologists; a Cambodian ichthyologist; an American drifter who has left the U.S. for good, married a local Delta woman, and taught himself about life in the Mekong Delta; and an American traveller. Both countries fascinate me. In the case of the Mekong River in Vietnam and Cambodia, the natural settings are mesmerizing. I’m also fascinated by, and admire, how people live in such seemingly wild and untameable environments. There’s a kind of genius in how people have learned to make lives for themselves on the river, and there’s often a sense of seeing the world as it used to be hundreds of years ago. A great whirlwind of change is passing through the cities of Vietnam and Cambodia, but in the countryside there’s a feeling of ancientness, of an ancient slowness, of something we’ve long lost sight of and fail to appreciate now.

And no, I don’t see myself consciously following in the footsteps of the great writers you named. It may be useful to do so—to keep the bar raised as high as possible while writing—but I never thought like that. It would be crazy for me to. As for your question about “The White Man’s Burden,” I’ll let others decide if I’m writing about that, or if such a thing is still relevant, but personally I’ve never considered it. Perhaps I should have, but I simply wanted to set an authentic story in contemporary Vietnam that might lead readers on a different path than the one that inevitably arrives at another war story. Perhaps that is a white man’s burden after all.

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