Vietnam's new writers

by AFP/Aude Genet, Feb 1, 2009 | Destinations: Vietnam

HANOI, January 29, 2009 - As communist Vietnam has become more open to the outside world, and less focused on the bitter legacy of war, the country's authors too have moved on, offering readers stories about modern everyday life.

The new generation of Vietnamese authors are writing books about love, sex, work and the disillusionment of a rapidly changing urban society undergoing having severe growing pains.

Critics, including some of Vietnam's old literary guard, complain that today's authors are not politically engaged, but others say they are responding to readers who crave stories about ordinary concerns, not decades of conflict.

"In the real lives of young people today, politics only plays a very small role," says Nguyen Viet Ha, considered one of the leaders of the new generation, who writes about city life in Hanoi.

The "Doi Moi" policy of economic reform launched in 1986 helped bring to the fore a generation of Vietnamese writers, many of them former soldiers and revolutionary fighters who broke with the tradition of writing patriotic tales.

They quickly lost favour with the authorities in Hanoi.

But each in their own way, writers including Bao Ninh, Nguyen Huy Thiep and Duong Thu Huong stunned the country with vivid tales of war, postwar discontent among ordinary Vietnamese and the foibles of a fledgling communist government.

They remain the standard-bearers at home and abroad.

Duong Thu Huong has just released "The Zenith," a controversial novel about Ho Chi Minh's alleged secret lover that already has strong buzz online in literary circles.

But literary critic Doan Cam Thi says today's readers in Vietnam, a country where two-thirds of the population are under the age of 35 and don't remember the horrors of war, want books that speak to their experience.

"The reality of war is getting farther and farther away," she said, adding that the writings of the old guard "don't offer young people much to help them understand the world in which they live".

The current generation of writers "describe their experiences in a clear-headed way," Thi says.

In "Farewell My Turtledove," Nguyen Ngoc Tu -- popular in the south of the country -- recounts the tale of a loving couple who slowly grow apart.

Nguyen Viet Ha writes about the spiritual emptiness of living in Hanoi, notably in "Late Revelation," a book within a book that describes the writing of a novel about a model.

Thuan, who goes by one name and lives in France, will soon release in French "Chinatown," the semi-autobiographical story of the journey of a Viet Kieu, or overseas Vietnamese, from Hanoi to Paris via the former Soviet Union.

Critics and even some contemporary writers admit the new generation focuses less on political issues, as the regime continues to censor their work and jail journalists and dissidents deemed "reactionary".

Bao Ninh, who shot to fame in the 1990s with his novel "The Sorrow of War," says the country's new writers have sold out, avoiding contentious issues.

"Young writers have a tendency to give up" and avoid "the true difficulties Vietnam faces," he said.

But book critic Nguyen Chi Hoan, who writes for the weekly literary journal Tuan Bao Van Nghe, says the two generations of writers do have things in common, as all of their work focuses on individuals' struggles.

"During decades of war, individuals were forced to become invisible, to step aside in favour of the community," Hoan said.

But today the Vietnamese have some degree of self-expression, he said, leading to new challenges captured in modern literature -- how they can use their new-found wealth, for instance, to have an easier life while remaining spiritually balanced.

"On the one hand, everyone wants the comforts of modern life, to be a part of consumer society. But on the other hand, as Vietnamese they want a family and spiritual life too," said Hoan.

"This is clearly a contradiction, a daily struggle that we find in contemporary Vietnamese fiction."

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