A Stirring Family Saga Tells a Taboo History of Vietnam

tags: Communism, Vietnam, literature, censorship, historical memory

Gaiutra Bahadur, the author of “Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture,” is an assistant professor at Rutgers University in Newark.

Halfway through “The Mountains Sing,” the first novel in English by the Vietnamese poet Nguyen Phan Que Mai, a grandmother explains herself to the granddaughter she’s caring for in Hanoi in the early 1970s while American bombs rain around them. With the rest of their clan dead, missing or away fighting, and their home reduced to rubble, the grandmother has been entrusting to the child the story of her life, rendering in harrowing detail its half-century span of resistance and survival in the face of violent dispossession, colonization, foreign invasion and civil war.

Here, at the book’s core, the grandmother, Dieu Lan, gives the reason she hasn’t before revealed that her husband and brother were murdered and her eldest son torn from her during the ruling regime’s land reform two decades earlier: “We’re forbidden to talk about events that relate to past mistakes or the wrongdoing of those in power, for they give themselves the right to rewrite history,” she tells her granddaughter, nicknamed Guava. “But you’re old enough to know that history will write itself in people’s memories, and as long as those memories live on, we can have faith that we can do better.”

This absorbing, stirring novel takes Dieu Lan’s assertion as its guiding principle, suggesting what history might look like when written from people’s memories rather than enshrined in textbooks that silence or distort the truth. For the most part, Vietnamese scholars have not veered far from official Communist Party accounts of the country’s land reform campaign of the 1950s to explore its causes, consequences or excesses. But for decades, Vietnamese fiction writers have gingerly trod this still dangerous territory, drawing on personal experience and oral histories to tell the tale from the points of view of landless peasants, women and party cadres as well as landowners. Few of their works are available in English, and Americans may not know that literature has been doing history’s job with this brutal episode in Vietnam’s past, which saw villagers denouncing neighbors as exploitative capitalists, the denunciations culminating in executions that claimed thousands of lives.

Read entire article at New York Times Book Review

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