By Nick Hilden
Bao Ninh found international renown in 1991 with the release of his novel “The Sorrow of War.” The book was banned in his native country for 15 years due to its critical, often brutal depictions of the Vietnam War — known in that country as the American War in Vietnam. Ninh served in the North Vietnamese Army during the peak of the war. “The Sorrow of War” was his only work published in English for more than 30 years; until the short story collection “Hanoi at Midnight,” issued earlier this year by Texas Tech University Press.
“Hanoi at Midnight” is a reflective examination of the war and its impact on those it ensnared. Containing 10 stories written over the past 40 years, the book explores a Vietnam environmentally, materially and psychologically decimated by conflict and its wake. The implied question throughout: How does one go on after enduring the horrendous? It’s a matter that extends beyond war, and that can be appreciated by anyone who has suffered trauma or profound loss.
Typically avoidant of the spotlight, Ninh agreed to this interview over email. His responses, which “Hanoi at Midnight” editorsQuan Manh Ha and Cab Tran translated from Vietnamese, have been edited for length and clarity.
In “Sorrow of War,” you wrote of the need to fulfill your duty as a writer. What is that duty?
In high school, then during my years in the military (1969 to 1976), I never considered becoming a writer. After the war ended, in1975, I spent a year collecting and burying dead bodies of fallen soldiers in the south. Besides the dead bodies of [NorthVietnamese Army] soldiers, my team also buried the bodies of [South Vietnamese] soldiers and civilians. My assignment lasted only a year, but it gave me a sense of the war’s magnitude, the devastation it left behind, which seemed to me far more inhumane than my six years in the battlefield as a soldier.
I was discharged in 1976, and from 1979 to 1986 I worked hard to feed myself and my family. My father was a professor of Vietnamese linguistics. In 1986, I took his advice and applied to the Nguyen Du School of Creative Writing and studied with two forward-thinking authors, Nguyen Ngoc and Hoang Ngoc Hien. I started writing in 1987, at the age of 35, at a time when Vietnam was no longer at war. The French left in 1954, then the Americans in 1975. We also shouldn’t forget the border war with China between 1979 and 1990.
I realized that if I hadn’t fought in the war and had never been a soldier, I would have chosen another path and not become a writer. That’s why, ever since I began writing, I’ve always written about the suffering of the Vietnamese and how they lived during the war. But I also write about war in order to take a stand against war; writing about war is writing about peace — about reconciliation, love, joy, absolution and other humanistic ideas.
You’ve written about your concern for the future of the next generation. How do you think things have turned out for the younger generations of Vietnam?
My generation and the people who fought in the war have become part of history. Today’s generation, most of them in their twenties, feel removed from their country’s bloody wars of the last century. Whether they lead fulfilled lives depends on whether they can abandon my generation’s way of thinking; my generation often tries to impose on them our worldview.
Like all younger generations around our world, the Vietnamese who were born after the war — especially after 2000 — are completely different from my generation. Their literature and the way they express themselves through their art differs from my generation’s way. Nobody can threaten them, tell them what to do or tell them how to act. They experience the world and live their lives on their own terms, and when they write about it — about these perceptions and experiences — they do so without being indoctrinated by a prescribed ideology.
Vietnamese writers and artists have expressed frustration with censorship in Vietnam. Do you think there is a lack of freedom of expression?
In the second half of the 20th century, Vietnam was the epicenter of the Cold War. Its politics is informed and governed by communist ideology, and it is classified as a socialist country. In the past, literature was weaponized to fight the French and, later, the Americans. Literature was also an ideological weapon used against capitalist doctrines, and a means to promote communist ideals. So any literary text that deviated from that agenda was subject to censorship.
When the Cold War ended, Vietnam initiated the Reform policy in 1986, which opened its doors to countries outside the communist bloc. Vietnamese literature and writers have been given more liberties since then.
In the first story in “Hanoi at Midnight,” you describe the impact of the chemical defoliant Agent Orange. What would you like readers to know about it?
The dioxin the Americans used in the war was — and still is — a weapon of genocide. Many Vietnamese from the generations following the war were adversely affected and killed by it.
Since Vietnam and the U.S. normalized diplomatic relations in 1995, the U.S. has tried to help Vietnam mitigate the devastating effects, but it will take several more years to achieve. Although we in the 21st century have tried to protect the ecological systems of our environment, our investment in this is minuscule compared to what we’ve invested in warfare. To me, this is the most self-contradicting and repulsive, the most inhuman and absurd characteristic of our species.
Why are the Vietnamese people so friendly and welcoming to Americans, including soldiers who fought in the war?
In November 2000, I saw President Bill Clinton and his wife walking in Hanoi, and they were warmly welcomed by thousands of Vietnamese people in the streets. Similarly, in 2018, President Obama and his wife were earnestly greeted by the Vietnamese in Saigon.
From its birth over 2,000 years ago, and up until the closing decades of the 20th century, Vietnam has continuously defended itself against foreign invasion. All these invading nations were militarily superior to the Vietnamese. But every time Vietnam was invaded, the country suffered catastrophic consequences: the land was reduced to ashes and death lurked everywhere. After the end of each invasion, the Vietnamese people, in order to survive, not only had to work hard to rebuild their homes and communities, but also had to come to terms with the nightmares and recurring psychological trauma brought on by war. That meant we had to learn to quickly “put the past behind.” To achieve this goal, we needed to make peace with our former adversaries and hold no ill feelings toward them, because such antipathy can be toxic.
How do you feel about Americans?
In 1998 and in 2005, I was invited to visit the U.S. by a group of American writers and poets who were Vietnam veterans. They took me to different states where I met several Americans and families of American veterans. Likewise, many American writers, journalists, tourists and veterans have visited me in Hanoi. Like other Vietnamese people, I’ve developed a genuine kinship with Americans. In my interactions with them, I get the sense that most Americans are similar to common Vietnamese: sincere, friendly, generous; not pretentious or arrogant. I’m pleased that diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Vietnam are improving every day, and that the two countries have respect for each other.
On the one hand, I’m thrilled about seeing this mutual respect. But on the other hand, when I evoke the past, my heart still aches in sad ways — and that joy I feel doesn’t erase the sorrow caused by the war more than half a century ago.
What are your hopes for the future of Vietnam?
Everlasting peace. The end to war and the suffering war causes.