[REVIEW] “What We Never Carried Back: A Review of Vietnamese Stories in Other Moons” by Chase Michael Greenfield

{Written by Chase Michael Greenfield, this review is part of Issue 46 of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

Quan Manh Ha and Joseph Babcock (translators and editors), Other Moons: Vietnamese Short Stories of the American War and Its Aftermath, Columbia University Press, 2020.

When American readers think of literature about the Vietnam War, the most familiar authors are probably Tim O’Brien (The Things They Carried) or Pulitzer Prize-winner Viet Thanh Nguyen. Most are accustomed to the voices that came back (or fled) to America following the war. But largely, American audiences have had limited exposure to the perspectives of the Vietnamese people who continued to live in the war’s aftermath.

Other Moons, as translators and editors Quan Ha and Joseph Babcock suggest in their introduction, “represents a unique opportunity for American audiences to learn about how the Vietnamese people continue to think about, commemorate, and generally process the conflict that consumed their country for so many years” (xx-xxi). These 20 stories stitch together Northern Vietnamese perspectives on the 20 years of conflict and the decades of recovery that followed.

Ha and Babcock’s is the first collection of Vietnamese short fiction about the war from the authors on the other side of the battlefield. The few pieces of North Vietnamese literature that have crossed the ocean are largely in novel or memoir form, such as Novel Without a Name by Duong Thu Huong or most famously, The Sorrow of War by Bao Ninh. (It is worth noting that Ninh contributes the foreword to Other Moons and his “White Clouds Flying” is the third story in the book.)

While the full title, Other Moons: Vietnamese Short Stories of the American War and Its Aftermath, suggests a prevalence of live combat and bloodshed, those elements are surprisingly rare across the collection. Only five of the short stories incorporate images of the frontlines, and with the exception of the collection’s first story, “Unsung Hero”, by Nguyen Van Tho, death in action is only recollected or alluded to throughout the book.

Instead, the stories in Other Moons cover an enormous range of other topics, from the effects of dioxin poisoning (from Agent Orange and other chemical weapons) to a love affair with a cannibal. While each story has a distinct tone and style, the consistent themes of love and human connection—found in all but six of the stories—unify the collection. Often, characters caught in the complex post-war trauma are left without partners or their families; almost all are scarred by physical or emotional wounds, or both. Many of the protagonists view themselves as jagged fragments, searching for the missing pieces of themselves and their families that have been blown apart by violence.

“The Most Beautiful Girl in the Village”, by Ta Duy Anh, for instance, depicts the rural life of Tuc in the five years following the war. The idealised female protagonist waits patiently for the commander she loves to return to her small village. At the beginning of the story, Tuc is a symbol of great beauty, virtue and loyalty. When his absence becomes unbearable, Tuc’s search for the lost Mr Kieu leads only to an “out-of-wedlock pregnancy” and disgrace (109). She returns to her village heartbroken and forgotten: “Nobody remembered that Tuc had once been the most beautiful girl in the village” (110).

The collection creates an outline of the absence left by the hundreds of thousands of soldiers who went missing during the war. Nguyen Thi Am’s “The Person Coming from the Woods” features the spirit of a lost soldier, who wanders around the forest that serves as his graveyard, unable to return to his relatives. Other stories, such as “Brother, When Will You Come Home?” by Truong Van Ngoc, centre on the lingering memory of loss that followed families into their day-to-day lives.

In much the same way that American books anonymise their Vietnamese adversaries, American soldiers are only named and visible once, in “An American Service Hamlet”. Nguyen Thi Thu Tran’s story humanises Viet Cong spies and American GIs alike by showing that both sides’ armies were comprised of empathetic and self-sacrificing individuals. Other than this brief appearance, Americans are—rightfully—nothing more than white apparitions on the periphery of the narrative. Ha and Babcock make clear that these are, first and foremost, Vietnamese stories.

The translators seem to have prioritised personal experiences in selecting works for Other Moons. Nearly all of the stories have first-person narrators, which creates a sense of immediacy and personal investment for the reader. Though men tell most of these stories, the translators make note of the “gender disparity” in the Vietnamese canon about the war: “the vast majority of Vietnamese fiction about the war is written by men” (xxii-xxiii).

Other Moons is most compelling and moving in its portrayals of human suffering and loss. The reader grieves alongside the narrator of Nguyen Ngoc Tu’s “Birds in Formation”, who cries himself to sleep “because I felt like my father was slowly dying” (37). We empathise with the lonely figure of May in “The Chau River Pier” by Suong Nguyet Minh, who, believed dead, returns home the very day her ex-fiancé marries another woman. The idiosyncratic nature of these stories reminds the reader of the universality of death and the heavy personal toll that warfare exacts on individuals.

There are, however, minor catches in the translation that occasionally tear the reader out of their immersion in the stories. For instance: “Her feet reminded me of a pair of delicate hands” (192). This may be the literal translation, but sentences like these feel out of place, and call the reader to question the phraseology. Rendering an eastern language for a western audience is no easy task, but sometimes the word choice is perhaps too Americanised—“‘Hey, let me cop a feel!’”—which jars with the otherwise convincing Vietnamese style of the prose (68).

Readers also should not expect to garner insights from the structure of the collection, as each piece is ordered seemingly at random without regard to theme, time or narration. Unlike many translated works, the book lacks any editorial notes or explanatory material, which, at times, would have offered welcome context to enrich our understanding of Vietnamese culture, traditions and attitudes. Ha and Babcock instead rely on their initial introduction and a brief “About the Author” section placed before each story.

Bringing 20 new works into English on such an underexamined piece of American history is a significant achievement. Other Moons continues the assault on the reigning homogeneity in the American canon surrounding the Vietnamese/American war and reminds its readers that we are all in fact united by the things that once tore us apart.

How to cite: Greenfield, Chase Michael. “What We Never Carried Back: A Review of Vietnamese Stories in Other Moons.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 09 Apr. 2021, chajournal.blog/2021/04/09/moons/.

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Chase Michael Greenfield holds two Bachelors of Arts degrees from the University of Montana in Missoula—one in English Literature and one in Philosophy. He is currently a Masters of Letters candidate at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, where he is pursuing creative writing. He has previously published in journals such as Asian American Literature: Discourses and Pedagogies. His current writing projects include his first novel and several short stories inspired by music.

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