The cover of this 1988 novel by Duong Thu Huong states that it is the first novel from Vietnam to be published in the U.S. And for an American reader like me, who mostly knows Vietnam from movies about the war, it reveals something of what life was like for the people who never saw an American soldier, who didn’t choose one side or the other, and who were left to deal with the aftereffects of a fight that wasn’t theirs but became theirs by association. It’s the story of the women.
The story actually begins in Russia, where a young woman employed as a factory worker receives a telegram that her uncle is sick. Just getting over an illness herself, the woman, Hang, doesn’t want to go, but she does, out of loyalty to her mother, who always said these words when they faced misfortune:
“To live with dignity, the important thing is never to despair. You give up once, and everything gives way. They say ginger root becomes stringy, but pungent with age. Unhappiness forges a woman, makes her selfless, compassionate.”
On her way to Moscow, where her uncle Chinh lives, Hang looks back at her life, wrestling with the hatred she feels toward her uncle. Hang was born after the war, after her uncle’s work for the Communist Party forced her parents apart. Hang’s father, Ton, was from the land-owning class who were deemed exploiters, and Hang’s mother, Que, is forbidden to see him. Ton cannot cope with the punishment forced upon landowning families, and he flees the village. Que, miserable in her life without Ton, soon goes to Hanoi to make a life for herself. It’s a small, poor life, peddling food, but she scrimps and saves and makes enough to live on. That’s what the women in this book do. They work. They find their strength through working. They give their love through working.
Another woman who works is Hang’s paternal aunt, Tam. She was one of many landowners who was punished for past wrongs during the reforms after the war. (Those wrongs mostly involved employing peasants to work the land. Tam’s family wasn’t even particularly rich, but she had to face humiliation for not being a peasant.) Tam carries the weight of her family during this time, always retaining her dignity. Later, after Special Section for the Rectification of Errors rescinds some of the reforms, Tam gets her family’s property back, and she builds on it and earns money from it and becomes wealthy. She uses her wealth to shower Hang, the one family member she has left, with gifts of food and jewelry.
Both Tam and Que place great value on family and on the giving of gifts, especially food. As Tam earns money to give Hang gifts, so Que earns money to give gifts to her brother and his family, most especially his two sons. Que can hardly afford to feed herself and Hang, but still she strives to keep Chinh’s children fed, even though the gifts themselves are dangerous. Food is a sort of currency in the novel, with the women giving and receiving it as a way of creating relationships and cementing bonds. You can watch characters’ loyalties and status shift according to their relationships that center on food. Meals and food gifts are described in great detail. When the characters, give and receive food, they show which relationships matter—or they make distant relationships matter. Late in the book, one character, a man in this case, uses food to give himself a role in his community. Being able to make spring rolls means he’s useful and not just an object of contempt.
The novel was translated into English by Phan Huy Duong and Nina McPherson. McPherson’s Translator’s Note at the beginning offers some helpful historical context. I wish I’d read it before I read the novel itself, because I wasn’t sure I followed all the political shifts correctly. Huong seems to write for an audience that knows the history, although the book was eventually banned in Vietnam. (I see now that McPherson also refers to food as currency, an idea I thought was my own, but might have seeped into my brain after reading her notes without my consciously realizing it.) It was an interesting look at a time and place I know little about. It didn’t blow me away, but I liked it.