The Secret of Hoa Sen by Nguyen Phan Que Mai

Nguyen Phan Que Mai, the author of The Secret of Hoa Sen (BOA Editions, 208 pp., $16, paper), was born in 1973 in a small village in what was then North Vietnam. She has published many poetry books and has won many honors.

I could not read the Vietnamese versions of her poems, but had to depend on the translations she did with Bruce Weigl, who also translated this volume. Weigl, who wrote Song of Napalm (1988) and other books of poetry, served with the 1st Air Cavalry in Vietnam from 1967-1968. He is one of the most honored poets who took part in the Vietnam War.

In The Secret of Hoa Sen we first get a poem in Vietnamese and then, on the next page, the English translation.  Many of the poems deal, directly or indirectly, with the American war in Vietnam.

“With a Vietnam Veteran, for BW,” is my favorite in this small book. Two people are eating pho with chopsticks, and steam rises from those bowls of hot noodle soup.

“He can’t explain the reasons for the war

the reasons why my relatives had to fall,

and why so many children are imprisoned

in the pain of Agent Orange.

Nguyen Phan Que Mai

“Quang Tri” is another powerful one, a poem of loss and death. It should be read by those who are ignorant of the human cost of the war for the Vietnamese.  “Babylift” also brings home, in a hard-hitting but poetic way, how good intentions often sow tragic consequences.  “Vietnam Veterans Memorial” mentions Agent Orange, as well Nick Ut’s iconic photograph of Phan Thi Kim Phuc, aka, “the girl in the photograph.”

I agree with the poet that the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is “Black, silent,/the silent answer for thousands of questions.” But the questions must still be asked.

Poetry is an effective and beautiful way to deal with the horrific aspects of war that have marked all of us. Those who have been avoiding Vietnam War poetry should try this book. You might find it surprisingly affecting.

—David Willson

 

 

The Lotus and the Storm by Lan Cao

Lan Cao is a professor at the Dale Fowler School of Law at Chapman University and the author of the novel Monkey Bridge. Robert Olen Butler calls her “one of our finest American writers,” saying that her new book, The Lotus and the Storm (Viking, 400 pp., $27.95) is a “brilliant novel that illuminates the human condition shared by us all.”

That is what we should ask from a serious novel—and this is a serious novel. I realized that when I read the quote from T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land on the page after the dedication, which begins “Who is the third who walks always beside you?”

Much of the book is set in 2006 in the United States, and deals with how life is for Vietnamese who immigrated here to start new lives after the war. This present-day narrative is set off with large sections set in Saigon in the 1960s.

The author does a superb job summoning up Cholon of the 1966-1967 era. I recognize it and feel nostalgic for the beauty of those narrow, clogged streets that seemed to go nowhere.

The two primary narrators, Minh and Mai, father and daughter, give us much to think about. When Minh says, “And the Americans entered our story not fully knowing what awaited them,” he says a mouthful.

This is typical of the understatement in this fine novel. Most Americans, in fact, didn’t even know that the French had been there, let alone they’d been defeated at Dien Bien Phu. What’s more, they would not have cared if they had been told, as evidenced by the fact that I don’t know how many times I got asked why the Vietnamese spoke French but not much English.

Mai and her older sister have a dear friend, James Baker, a young American sergeant attached to the MP Compound just down the street from where they live in Cholon. He is an enigmatic character who I never figured out, although he is as far from an Ugly American as you can get.  He is golden and pure and teaches the girls American songs and English.  He acts as an English tutor to Mai.

Among the most powerful sections of the book deal are those that deal with Mai and her family home coming under attack by the VC during the 1968 Tet Offensive, James dying nearby, and Mai blaming herself for not saving him, and the section in which Mai goes to the Wall in Washington with her father and makes a rubbing of James Baker’s name. Sad stuff.

Saigon, 1966

The whole book is sad, even though it is filled with joyful descriptions of great meals of delicious Vietnamese food. As soon as possible I will make a pilgrimage to my favorite Vietnamese restaurant, Fortune Noodle House, and order a big bowl of pho with beef brisket. I once ate a dish of frogs legs in garlic sauce, and it brought me back to the time I had consumed such a dish in a small restaurant in Saigon.Dealing with all the tiny sharp bones reminded me of why it has been over forty years since I ordered that dish.

The ubiquitous Vietnamese restaurants in King County, Washington, demonstrate that this novel of the Vietnamese diaspora is totally valid. We as a country are much enriched by the Vietnamese presence. The question remains: Was the war worth it?

This fine novel is filled with tiny sharp bones, too—many small, painful memories that hurt and remind us of how we mishandled the war and how the Vietnamese on both sides suffered, and that there is no wall large enough to memorialize all the deaths.

Read The Lotus and the Storm if you wish to encounter—and perhaps better understand—the trauma and suffering of the Vietnamese during and after that long and bitter war. The main character, Minh, was an ARVN general, and his point of view is perfectly presented.

I’d like all American Vietnam veterans who castigate ARVN soldiers to read this book and try to eradicate their hatred of the ARVN soldiers and try to understand the position they were in, and how totally the United States had been the architects of that situation.

I highly recommend that all Vietnam veterans buy and read this fine book.  Try it; you might learn something.

—David Willson