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#3 2011
8 min read

Forbidden poetry in Vietnam

“Vietnamese poetry is created through the left cerebral hemisphere; it knows what it is doing”, writes the author and literary critic Kristoffer Leandoer about the state of Vietnamese poetry today. Below we present poems written by three critical voices in Vietnam today: Bùi Chát, Lý Doi and Anh Anh.

Text: Kristoffer Leandoer Translation from Swedish: Caroline Åberg December 14 2011

Vietnamese is all about intonation. A couple of millimeters down the velum, and Sweden becomes a madhouse, good morning becomes buckwheat cereal and an owl turns into an old person or a penis. Small measures, big differences. It is obvious that this language is perfect for puns and jokes, a language that lets you slide far on Freudian slips. Just like Latin (although in Latin it is minimal grammatical shifts that change the meaning), Vietnamese is well adapted for verbally economical manifestations: epitaphs, epigrams – a language where everything has both secondary and double meanings, a language where the forbidden, equivoque, can be hidden within the innocent. It is a language suited for clever slogans, pungent epigrams: a language for politics. The classic Vietnamese poets were all Mandarins, engaged in contemporary politics, and their poetry almost always had a political dimension (hopelessly lost in translation). The Vietnamese national epic Kim Van Kieu from early 1800’s, which tells about a young girl who sacrifices her own happiness and sells her body in order to repay her parents’ debts, can be read as an allegory over the Tai Son rebellion, or as a concept poem on the conflict between Buddhist and Confucian ideals.

The contemplative, extremely concentrated, nature themed lyrical poetry, which is associated with Chinese or Japanese poetry, is not what we find in Vietnam. Here there is another ideal: the warrior poet. Poems about the moon in the fashion of Li Po might be what a Vietnamese scribbles down to pass the time in prison, like Ho Chi Minh did (who also chose to write his poems in classical Chinese).

Not that many generations have passed since pictograms were exchanged for the Western alphabet. Similarly to other Asian countries with a steep economical development, Vietnam is turning its back to analphabetism, heading for 24-hour Internet connection in less than a generation, and on its way there is no time for books. Instead, the sophisticated, the verbally hazardous, is manifested through other means: poster art, graffiti, t-shirts.

Vietnamese poetry is created through the left cerebral hemisphere; it knows what it is doing. Its effects are intentional. Just like a poster it has a purpose, a message. In a country that has just made its way out of extreme poverty all art must be utility art, nothing else can be afforded. Vietnamese poetry has not yet said its non serviam.

Vietnam is still a one-party state and the communist party is the highest authority, even when it comes to art. In each neighborhood there is a slate where the district police writes down questions of the week, big and small; for a Swede with memories of Swedish classrooms, it is as if the whole country is still in school. Individual level social control is rigorous and economically motivated: if a neighborhood does well it can be given cultural status, and as a result be freed of fees. Because of this, everybody guards their fronts; everyone has something to lose if Mr. Hang quarrels with his wife, drinks too much, or utters displeasing opinions.

I lived in Hanoi 2008–2011, while my wife was working with human rights and democratic support at the Swedish embassy, and in this context I met the young poets of Giay Vun Publishing House, Scrap Paper Publishing House, in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon.

The poets presented here – Bùi Chát, Lý Doi and Anh Anh – are all born after the Vietnam war, like seventy percent of the country’s population: it is a young nation. And yet the country in some regards acts as if it was still at war. Deviation from the party line is always treated as an actual threat, even if it is presented in media with limited circulation. At times, this attitude manifests itself in a quite petty manner. When Bùi Chát came back from Buenos Aires in April of last year, where he had received the International Publishers Association’s prize Freedom to Publish, he was greeted at the airport in Saigon by the domestic police, who not only confiscated the prize money and Chát’s computer (throughout the years he has had three computers confiscated), but even the actual diploma from IPA. Perhaps this last petty detail, this grudging attitude of not letting him keep even the diploma, was what made the Swedish PEN react immediately when brought this to their attention. The decision of making Chát an honorary member was made rapidly. And after a few unsuccessful attempts to get Bùi Chát to the Swedish embassy in Hanoi, in order to create some festivities surrounding his new membership, I flew down to Ho Chi Minh City in a John le Carré fashion. After the celebration of the national holiday, where civilian police officers openly had photographed everyone at the embassy, we were careful not to expose anyone to unnecessary risks: the security service had inquired about the embassy’s approach to deviating opinions.

In Olof Lagercrantz’s Ett år på sextiotalet (“A Year in the 60’s”) we are reminded that some written work, created in defense or in affect, seems ridiculous as soon as the situation out of which it sprung has passed. “What kind of strangely leaning, resolute walk is that man between fifty and sixty, who carries my name, undertaking? Oh, yes, now I remember! There was a storm. But you cannot see the wind.”

Bùi Chát, Lý Doi and Anh Anh are also writing in a headwind. They are South Vietnamese, their parents were the losers of the Vietnam war, their country is practically occupied by the North, they never chose communism, they are surrounded by a public lingo that at best makes them invisible, at worst singles them out as collaborators (moreover, Chát comes from a Catholic family, and Catholics of Vietnam are exposed to systematic religious persecution). While the country is chained to fossil means of expression politically and esthetically, it is moving with full speed ahead when it comes to economy. This creates an especially peculiar situation for the young people of the country, a feeling of living in two incompatible worlds.

In other contexts I have mentioned that the way Vietnamese write reminds me of punk, but this is partly misleading. The differences in living conditions could not be greater: in Sweden, punk was a reaction to what was interpreted as the society’s repressive tolerance, a more or less successful way to try to provoke the right-wing democracy’s fist out of its silk glove. In Vietnam there is no smiling Santa Claus mask that can be pulled off, no tolerance, only repression. These poems are pure action, performative literature, it is what it does: a provocation.

It is important to keep this in mind when you read these poets. On an everyday basis they are exposed to pettiness, but they themselves have not become petty at all.

Bùi Chát: Difficult to see

The development of the arts

Can end a dictatorship

So many have said

Things like that

The artists who drink on the pavement

Tell about equivocality

A needle hidden in a wrap of cloth

For days would turn into poetry


The unwelcomed citizens

Whichever way the wind blows

We banter

(Translation from Vietnamese: Lê Dình Nhát-Lang)

Lý Doi: Yes, I declare, and then take the oath

Yes, I am willing to declare

Yes, there I no poet, or verse writer in my quarter

Yes, there is no poet, or verse writer in my ward/village

Yes, there is no poet, or verse writer in my district

Yes, there is no poet, or verse writer in my province

Yes, there is no poet, or verse writer in this nation

Yes, because this is a land of poetry!

Yes, because this is a nation of poetry!

Yes, I am willing to take the oath …

Yes, there is no poet, or verse writer here anymore

Yes, there is no poet, or verse writer remaining in my heart and thinking

Yes, there is not even any heart and thinking

Yes, there is not even any heart

Yes, there is not even myself

Yes, I understand …

Anh Anh: Happiness

I ask you

what is happiness?

living with half the heart

loving with half the mind

then we go in two directions

without looking backwards once


is the dot of an exclamation point never marked

the half-spoken phrase

living in a country of carps

with costs galloping as the dragon as the phoenix

we are half-humans and half-ghosts

a fairy and a ghost

separated by a hair’s distance

at the end of working hours

people gather as pilgrims

flowing down the streets

not to the land of Buddha

Buddha’s nature is in our hearts

when I recollect in the afternoon

the goodbye becomes happiness

Happiness is

Shouting the slogans


(Translation from Vietnamese: Nguyễn Tiến Văn)

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