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Blazing a Fashion Trail in Classic Menswear

(Phiên bản tiếng Việt, đăng trên tạp chí Heritage, Vietnam Airlines, số tháng 04/2020, xin xem thêm phía dưới.)

Following is the full, non-edited English-language version of my article to Vietnam Airlines inflight magazine, HERITAGE Fashion, issue March/April 2020. For the original Vietnamese version that was published, please scroll down to the end of this section.

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If you are an ardent fan of classic menswear, a black or navy blazer is an essential in your wardrobe. However, a classic blazer blended with eccentric sporty features, whimsical neon-bright patterns and colorful ornaments might make you squint.

The saturated hues often seen in Nike or Adidas sportswear have now entered the world of the classic blazers. Almost overnight, you see dozens of celebrities parade these outfits through the neighborhood. This bold, mischievous alteration is a hip-hop beat amid the chamber music that symbolizes the formality and conventions of classic menswear. It’s far from the suit-and-tie, status-symbol image of the upperclass. Altering the classic blazer in such ways is a strategy employed by Rowing Blazers, an American brand that is revolutionizing the tastes in the fashion industry.

Rowing Blazers is inspired by the blazer’s origin: from the team sport of rowing. Originally from Oxford and Cambridge Universities in England, the rowing blazer later migrated to the other side of the Atlantic, into the northeastern United States. Conceived as a light coat inseparable from the rower, the blazer embraced the sportman in his early morning drills, shielding him from the bracing chill. The varied colors and stripes on the blazer served to distinguish the rowing team from its rivals. The original blazer, therefore, was more utility than an iconic fashion item.

Rowing Blazers brings the classic menswear essential to its historical, sporty heritage. (Photo credit: Rowing Blazers)

The emergence of sport trends in fashion is not simply about pairing suits and tennis sneakers, but is demonstrated in the fabric quality and jacket construction. The modern sports jacket traces its origin from hunting traditions in England. The lapel can be unfolded to cover the neck from the inclement weather. Some blazers are made from waxed cotton, the famed fabric of Babour of England, another brand steeped in hunting heritage. In order to make each Rowing Blazer a work of art, the company employs local tailors and craftsmen who handsew every detail of the item. These unconventional Rowing Blazers have heavy price tags, ranging from 300 to 1,000 USD, and even higher.

Rowing Blazers’ founder and CEO, Jack Carlson, does not aim to sell fashion fads. An Oxford-trained archeologist and three-time Olympics rowing champion, Carlson wisely merged the worlds of history, fashion, and sports. The brand is well-positioned to succeed through sponsoring extracurricular rowing lessons for New York state students and uniforms for the National Rowing Team. These community bonding opportunities have empowered Rowing Blazers to “blaze” a new trail in a niche market.

Despite what is said, today’s fashion might fade into oblivion tomorrow. Isn’t it safer and wiser to choose bespoke tailoring in Savile Row, London? Perhaps “safe” is not in the vocabulary of adventurous entrepreneurs. Although fashion is ever-changing, Rowing Blazers pursues values and qualities that are timeless. The boisterous sporty atmosphere during rowing seasons and the Olympics, solid camaraderie, collegial pride, and patriotism. Those have become a lifestyle, a way of life that has hardly changed throughout the century.

Boisterous celebrations. Rowing Blazers sponsored the Henley Royal Regatta 2019.
Henley Royal Regatta is a prestigious rowing competition other than the Olympic Games and the World Championships. (Photo credit: Rowing Blazers)

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Đây là phiên bản tiếng Việt, đăng trên tạp chí Heritage Fashion, Vietnam Airlines, số tháng 04/2020. Bài viết không chỉnh sửa và giữ nguyên lối hành văn. Hy vọng mọi người sẽ tìm thấy cảm hứng hoặc xu hướng thời trang mới qua bài viết của Thắng nhé.

Nếu bạn là tín đồ thời trang nam lịch lãm và cổ điển thì chiếc áo blazer đen hoặc xanh navy không còn lạ lẫm. Thế nhưng một chiếc áo blazer phá cách với họa tiết sặc sỡ màu neon hay các chi tiết lượn sóng lại gây chú ý bởi chất cổ điển theo phong cách thể thao.

Những gam màu sặc sỡ neon thường thấy trong đồ thể thao của Nike hay Adidas giờ đây lại bất ngờ bước vào thế giới blazer cổ điển. Ngay tức thì, bạn thấy hàng tá người nổi tiếng diện những chiếc blazer này xuống phố. Nó trẻ trung, tinh nghịch, phá cách, như một điệp khúc hip-hop giữa dòng nhạc thính phòng là thời trang kinh điển và đơn sắc, vốn gắn với quý ông thượng lưu, quyền quý. Đó cũng chính là cách mà hãng Rowing Blazers ở Mỹ đang thay đổi thị hiếu và tung hoành trong ngành thời trang. 

Cái tên Rowing Blazers đã nói lên nguồn gốc của chiếc blazer đến từ môn thể thao đua thuyền đồng đội (rowing) của sinh viên các trường Oxford và Cambridge ở Anh, dần du nhập sang bờ kia Đại Tây Dương và miền Đông Bắc nước Mỹ. Chiếc blazer xa xưa là chiếc áo khoác không thể thiếu của dân đua thuyền. Họ bước ra hồ tập trong sương sớm lạnh giá mà không thể thiếu chúng. Màu sắc đa dạng, sặc sỡ trên thân áo vừa giúp phân biệt các đội đua với nhau, vừa là màu biểu trưng của đội tuyển. Vì thế chiếc blazer thuở sơ khai có tính khả dụng trong thể thao hơn là một biểu tượng thời trang. 

Chuyện thể thao mang cảm hứng đến thời trang hiện đại không đơn giản là mặc âu phục diện giày tennis, mà còn dung hợp ngay từ chất vải và cách dựng áo. Chiếc áo véc solo (không đi kèm quần Âu, gọi là “sports jacket”) ngày nay cũng có nguồn gốc từ môn thể thao săn bắn ở Anh, ve áo có thể gập lên che chắn cho vùng cổ vào những lúc mưa nắng. Thậm chí lại có những chiếc lại may bằng vải cotton được thấm hổ phách, loại vải trứ danh của hãng Babour (Anh Quốc), cũng có nguồn gốc xa xưa từ môn cưỡi ngựa và săn bắn. Để làm ra những chiếc Rowing Blazers như những tác phẩm nghệ thuật, hãng đã tạo việc làm cho công nhân những xưởng may nhỏ thất thế. Người thợ may và thợ thủ công khâu tay từng đường kim mũi chỉ cho nhiều chi tiết. Có chiếc được may kiểu chắp vá, rất lạ mắt. Những chiếc áo Rowing Blazers phá cách này có giá không rẻ chút nào, dao động từ 300 đến 1.000 đô-la Mỹ, thậm chí cao hơn nhiều. 

Người sáng lập ra Rowing Blazers là Jack Carlson, một tiến sĩ ngành khảo cổ học người Mỹ tại đại học Oxford, và ba lần chiến thắng môn đua thuyền đồng đội tại thế vận hội Olympics. Carlson không hề bán mốt thời trang, mà có chiến lược rất bài bản. Thành công của hãng Rowing Blazers phải kể đến việc tổ chức những giờ ngoại khoá chèo thuyền cho học sinh vùng New York, và chính thức tài trợ trang phục cho đội tuyển quốc gia Mỹ môn đua thuyền đồng đội. Rõ ràng, những cơ hội gắn kết cộng đồng đó giúp Rowing Blazers táo bạo dẫn đầu một xu hướng mới trong thị trường ngách. 

Tuy nhiên, mốt ngày nay có thể thành dĩ vãng ngay tuần sau thôi. Nếu đi theo hướng an toàn thì sao không chọn may âu phục tại phố Savile Row trứ danh ở London? Mặc cho tính thay đổi không ngừng của thời trang, tôi nghĩ Rowing Blazers lại rất tinh tế khi theo đuổi những thứ dường như rất ít thay đổi theo thời gian. Đó là không khí thể thao sôi nổi của mùa đua thuyền đồng đội, tinh thần chiến hữu khăng khít, lòng kiêu hãnh và tự hào về ngôi trường đại học, lòng yêu nước của đội tuyển quốc gia thi đấu Olympic. Những điều ấy đã trở thành một lối sống, một phong cách ít thay đổi trong cả thế kỉ. 

Những thương hiệu thời trang mới đã thông minh hơn, tiếp cận yếu tố cổ điển trong thời trang theo con mắt mới. Có lẽ đó là cách tồn tại khôn ngoan trong môi trường cạnh tranh khốc liệt, tái tạo yếu tố cũ thay vì phát minh ra thứ hoàn toàn mới, hoặc thổi luồng gió nguyên thuỷ vào yếu tố hiện đại. Đó là cách mà Rowing Blazers đang mở đường. Có lẽ bạn cũng đang nhen nhóm ý tưởng nào đó chăng?

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Allow me to write for your brand/company, please email me at: thangtranvnu@gmail.com

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Trekking Memories with the Glassless-truck Battalion: My First Creative Writing Success

Had he lived, he would have been eighty-four years old today.

My grandfather, whom I never knew and neither did my mother, enlisted in the army and volunteered southward to Quang Tri province, ground zero in the civil war’s bloodiest year yet, 1968. He, among many rural countryside men, left behind their wives, children, even new-born babies they would never have a chance to reunite with, to fight the “just” war in the hope for a reunified nation.

Since a little child, listening to tales about grandpa told by my grandma and my mom, I often visualized the fierce battles in which heroic men and women fought the enemies on the front lines. I was a poor kid with rich imagination, way before the Hollywood blockbusters and war movies invaded our culture. Somehow, my grandfather was and is always an enigmatic figure in my life. Somehow, I feel he lives through me. And why not? I am descendent of him and my grandmother, a fierce single mom raising four young daughters into strong, independent women.

When I was in grade nine, the literature course had plenty of war-time poems about patriotism and soldiers’ life. To some sensitive critics, that sounds like programed indoctrination. What country doesn’t do that anyway? To me back then, the poems were just beautiful: the wording, the rhythm in alliteration, the graphic world they unfold. One such poem, named “The Poem about the Glassless-truck Battalion” by Pham Tien Duat, immortalized the perseverance and optimism of our Vietnamese soldiers who operated wheel vehicles to transport personnel and cargo to battlefields. The vehicles were “glassless” as a result of heavy bomb blast waves, another brutal truth of the war against the Americans.

For homework assignment, my literature teacher, a stout lady with sweet gentle voice, decided to veer off the beaten road of analysis essays. “Let’s pretend you chanced to meet the veterans of the “glassless” battalion,” she told the class, “what would that be like? Let’s tell that story.”

Little would I know a week later, finding myself in disbelief, I received the highest grade for my writing. “You understand the prompt. The writing is very creative and rich in depth;” she commented, “the flow of narration is harmonized with description and expressiveness.” As she stood in front of the class, my teacher read aloud my writing piece to the whole class; her eyes a little wet, a mixture of happiness and pride in her student, something we teenage students rarely saw from a teacher who always demanded the best.

My writing assignment was a personal success, not because it enraptured the audience, but because it sparked in me, a curious 15-year-old, a nascent belief that I could accomplish something meaningful, that I can touch someone’s heart as long as I pour my heart into it. It was such a thrill to an insecure teenager, who secretly craved affirmation but never the limelight, to know that his words had power to move people.

As I continued to high school, the literature curriculum was heavily prose-analysis and rote memorization. Creative writing, deprived of enough oxygen, turned into embers hibernating underground, but it never perished. The entirety of my writing assignment (in 2006), I dare translate here, hopefully will reach you whose faith in literature and writing never ceases existing. Now let’s buckle your seat belt and start our journey.

Vietnamese soldiers
Vietnamese soldiers during the Vietnam War. Photo credit by PBS

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The first ray of light shone through the window shades as I woke in my grandpa’s calling. A new day has come. Today my grandpa and I would be returning to his battlefield where he had so many memories with his comrades and the war itself.

Not allowing the sweltering summer heat take its grip on us, we hopped on the train travelling from Hanoi to the historic central coastland. By noon when the sun was high above our heads, I felt a pang of unfamiliarity while we trekked on the lonesome, imposing Truong Son mountains. In front of me stood mountain peaks that shot through the sky and evergreen giant trees measuring a few hundred feet in height. How much Truong Son mountains have changed over the years: a slightly aloof peaceful scenery; the red-soiled trails, once haunted with smoke and dirt, now were groomed into the interprovincial route, the lifeblood of central Vietnam.

My grandpa walked with me along the route as we saw a small town and little huts of ethnic minority peoples. We came across a troop of people getting off a minibus; they aged around fifty and sixty years old, wearing military uniforms with medals on their chests. Without saying anything, grandpa gravitated toward the crowd; his eyes had two trails of tears, quite emotional. I realized that these men were my grandpa’s former comrades, whom I once met. They hugged tightly, patted one another’s shoulders, shook hands and exploded in joy of laughter.

We stopped by an ethnic village inhabited by hospitable locals. During the war these local people became our trusted allies. When grandpa approached and greeted him, the village chief knew in an instant and was blissful.

Sat next to grandpa inside the village communal house, the welcoming place for honored guests, I didn’t miss the men’s conversation. My grandfather was a driver tasked with transportation during the war. He often mentioned old heroic times, but today he was particularly passionate. I quickly immersed in the majestic scenes emerging from his tales, a narration so emotional, proud and expressive. From the poor country village, like many of his poor countrymen, rich in love and pride for motherland, grandpa enlisted in the army, believing that his country’s survival depended on him; his heart believed in a victorious end.

Endowed with leadership and excellent driving skills, grandpa was stationed with the truck battalion. Due to the brutality of the bombing, the trucks were no longer intact; they rusted into hoodless vehicles, lacking glass and signal lighting. Day in and day out, they were familiar to grandpa. He knew that war won’t keep anything in perfect condition, but he still took comfort in driving the trucks, his head held high. Truong Son mountains could be sunny on one side and rainy on the other; Truong Son dirt would coat evergreen leaves a scarlet tint. All seemed to trouble the drivers of glassless trucks; their eyes sore with dirt; their faces smeared with mud, they laughed; showers soaked their shirts but wind will dry them all, they laughed. The higher they rose above the harshness of nature, the closer their companionship forged. The men encouraged one another and themselves, sacrificing one’s for the country’s sake.

Grandpa said that the Americans went any length to curb the north-south sustenance line. They bomb-raided every inch of the land, destroying every bridge, setting landmines and time bombs. It would take just a millisecond of carelessness and death would claim his toll. Despite all the danger and difficulties, grandpa kept his optimism; still he extended a handshake through the glassless side door. The handshakes seemed to pass vitality so that he forged on, though the soldier knew better than anyone that his fate depended on good luck treading roads plagued with unexploded bombs.

I asked grandpa if he had any minutes of rest. He chuckled and said there were few but short minutes. Battlefields had their sense of urgency; everyone wanted to try their best to liberate the south and unify the divided country. Nonetheless, grandpa could still make fire and cook – the simplistic dinners lacking in nutrients but abundant in friendship. I asked him whether lighting a fire would equal signaling to the enemies. The men around me were amused, telling me that “Hoang Cam stove”, a Vietnamese military invention, helped [diffuse the smoke and thus] reduce our trace from the enemy’s radar. They pointed toward a little stove at one of the room’s corners. I marveled at the genius of our people.

Grandpa mentioned the time for vehicle maintenance in which men would burst out laughing at bygone windshield glass. The men reminisced those nights circling the camp fire, playing the guitars, sharing meals and even chopsticks, just like a family. By dawn the next day, they would be cutting through the dense forests and treacherous waters. Vast forests with lurking dangers could scare grandpa no more as he had friends by his side. Everyone, all hands on deck: young female volunteers shouldered ammunition cargos as if having extraordinary strength; foot soldiers trekked formidable distance; the landmine-detecting women troop always gave bright fearless smiles; canon-hauling troops would work tirelessly without rest; the guerrillas knew their skills and risk-taking propensity. All of those people worked selflessly, which meant that nothing could prevent my grandpa the truck driver from sacrificing himself for the country’s independence.

Life with tribulations wasn’t at all tedious. No matter what, he had his fellow soldiers walked, always walked and would walk in unison with the battalion, like a close-knit family. Grandpa often said, “When you stand shoulder to shoulder with your fellows, there is no backing down; when you feel lonely you have friends; when you’re down you have friends to comfort; when you’re in pain your friends share the pain; when you’re victorious everyone shares the joy.”

The village chief drew a long breathing in at his tobacco bamboo tube, gently telling me that, back in the day, my grandpa fought fiercely. It was his glassless truck that saved the chief from his near-death experience. My grandpa was not a tank-driver, the kind of indestructible steel machine. Instead, he was only a truck driver, glassless-truck driver. His only fear was none but being unable to free the south.  He admired his fellows from the messenger boys to commanders-in-chief. All of them pass on the will to strive and compete for victories. It was his tireless efforts that grandpa scored successes one after another, eventually being awarded the highest medal of labor, a deserved credit given by the country.

So he marched on with the heart full of love for life, for his country and fellow peoples, and for justice. Grandpa was the flame that honor justice, warm light in the darkness of war. He never backed down because that heart is tied toward justice, the southern land, and the glassless trucks.

Memories of my visit to Truong Son mountains shall never fade in my heart. My gratitude to you, my grandpa, and to numerous nameless soldiers who laid their bodies down for this country to have freedom. Thank you for teaching me to love life, to have pride in our people, to learn to live and love people, and to never forget that I am a grandson of a fearless Truong Son glassless-truck driver!

2006

The End

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             Often I wonder how the lives of those valiant soldiers – Vietnamese, American, Russian, Korean or any nationalities involved, no matter what political beliefs they held – would look like had they survived the war and returned home. Survival might not be all happy – in fact, it might be worse than passing, given the traumatic wounds after so many atrocities they witnessed or participated in. I think that Lincoln said it all, “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” It’s no point crying at the past or demanding from the future. I just know that my grandpa lives in my imagination as a hero, and that in heaven he’s always smiling at me, encouraging me to bring my gifts of imagination and writing to bridge the gap of memory, OUR gap of memory, every generation touched by wars. It’s a wonderful way to serve one another. That makes all the difference.

 

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“Bầy Thú Thủy Tinh”: Bi Kịch Của Nước Mỹ hay Tiếng Nói Của Thời Đại Chúng Ta?

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Tuổi trẻ có không ít những khủng hoảng khiến ta muốn tìm cho mình một lối thoát, một câu trả lời. Với tôi thì đọc sách chính là thế giới để đi tìm lời giải đáp.

Thời học đại học, vở kịch mà tôi ấn tượng nhất không phải là của văn hào Shakespeare, mà lại là một vở kịch hiện thực của Tennessee Williams người Mỹ. Khi ấy tôi chưa có nhiều bạn bè người Mỹ, cũng chỉ nghe thoảng về Giấc Mơ Mỹ, và rằng người Mỹ là những người giỏi kinh doanh nhưng rất khô khan và nông cạn. Ba tác phẩm vĩ đại nhất của Williams là “Bầy thú thủy tinh”(1944), “Chuyến tàu mang tên Dục Vọng”(1947), “Mèo trên mái tôn nóng” (1955), đã làm thay đổi cách nhìn nhận của tôi về nước Mỹ, người Mỹ.

Nếu văn học Lãng Mạn có thiên hướng xoay mình khỏi đời sống, tìm về với văn hóa dân gian, với thiên nhiên hoặc thậm chí siêu nhiên, với người anh hùng và những lý tưởng cao cả, thì văn học Hiện Thực là liều thuốc giải mộng, đi tìm những ngõ ngách đời trần, sự sinh tồn khắc nghiệt, đa phần là ở đô thị. Chủ nghĩa hiện thực miêu tả những quan hệ gia đình, xã hội, đời sống nội tâm phức tạp, những tủn mủn của cuộc sống mà khiến người đọc người xem nhanh chóng cảm nhận được.

Cả ba vở kịch của Williams đều mang đậm chất hiện thực và màu sắc tự truyện. Chính tác giả đã từng nói, “Tôi viết từ những đấu tranh nội tâm của mình. Đó như là hình thức trị liệu vậy.”

Thomas Lanier Williams sinh ra ở bang Mississippi, miền nam nước Mỹ, trưởng thành trong thời kì Đại Suy Thoái những năm 1930 của thế kỉ 20. Tuổi thơ của ông gắn liền với những kí ức về mẹ, chị gái, và một người bố làm ở một nhà máy đóng giầy. Đó là một tuổi thơ không bình yên, phải liên tục cùng gia đình tha phương cầu thực; một ông bố nát rượu; một người mẹ tê liệt trong cuộc hôn nhân bất hạnh; một người chị thu mình khỏi thế giới bên ngoài sau những nỗ lực không thành cho sự nghiệp viết lách. Từ khi còn niên thiếu, Tennessee Williams đã có hoài bão trở thành nhà văn, và thực sự một số truyện ngắn của ông đã giành giải cao và được in báo. Nhưng chỉ sau ba năm học ở đại học bang Missouri, Williams đã phải bỏ học, dành ba năm làm việc cho một nhà máy giầy ở St. Louis. Những trải nghiệm đầu đời này đã truyền cảm hứng cho tác phẩm “Bầy thú thủy tinh” của ông sau này, khi mà nhân vật chính, Tom Wingfield, cũng khát khao hành trình theo đuổi giấc mơ, nhưng đôi cánh tự do của anh lại bị trói chặt ở nhà máy đóng giày.

Tom Wingfield có hoài bão lớn, yêu thơ ca, nhưng bản thân anh hàng ngày phải chống chọi với hiện thực nhàm chán và thực dụng ở nhà máy giày. Cha của anh cũng giống như nhiều người đàn ông Mỹ của thế hệ những năm 30 – 40, họ làm tiếp thị hoặc viễn thông, đi hàng ngàn cây số và bỏ lại gia đình phía sau. Mẹ của anh, bà Amanda Wingfield từng là hoa khôi của miền nam nước Mỹ, nay đã thất thời, tuyệt vọng, thu mình vào thế giới ảo tưởng và thường đay nghiến các con của mình. Chị gái của Tom là Laura, một cô gái tập tễnh vì bệnh bại liệt, mặc cảm vì đã bỏ học cấp ba và cũng bỏ trường dạy nghề thư kí. Ba mẹ con sống trong căn hộ dột nát và ảm đạm ở một góc của thành phố St. Louis.

Bi kịch của gia đình Wingfield, có lẽ cũng là bi kịch của nước Mỹ hay của thời đại chúng ta. Mỗi người đều muốn những gì tốt đẹp nhất cho người thân yêu, nhưng không nhận ra rằng những tham vọng và kì vọng đó đang bóp nghẹt chính những người thân yêu của mình, để rồi mỗi người lại lặng thinh, thu mình vào thế giới của riêng mình. Với Tom, thế giới đó là hàng đêm rượu chè với bè bạn và đi xem phim, dù biết rằng đó chỉ là trốn chạy tạm thời. Với bà Amanda, đó là dĩ vãng về những cuộc tình lãng mạn, ảo ảnh về quá khứ xuân thì. Với Laura chị gái của Tom, đó là thế giới của những bản nhạc cũ và bầy thú thủy tinh, nơi Laura gắng gượng từ chối người mẹ luôn nài nỉ tìm cho cô một ý chung nhân.

Là kịch hiện đại nhưng mang màu sắc biểu cảm cao, với những nhân vật và tiểu cảnh như đặt trong cõi mơ. Ngôn ngữ kịch của Williams đậm chất thơ, uyển chuyển, mãnh liệt, nhưng cũng rất đời thường bởi sử dụng phương ngữ miền nam. Khi đọc tác phẩm và những chỉ dẫn về sân khấu của Tennessee Williams, tôi như được bước vào thế giới của chính những nhân vật. Đa phần họ là những kẻ ngoại đạo bị xô đẩy ra ngoài rìa xã hội, đã trắng tay vì thời thế suy chuyển, phải vật lộn với cuộc sống rối ren đầy những tiểu xảo giả dối. Họ không hoàn toàn xấu, nhưng cũng không hoàn toàn chân thiện, trong họ là cả thế giới nội tâm phức tạp và sâu sắc. Laura có tâm hồn trong sáng và nhạy cảm, nhưng cô quá yếu đuối trước người mẹ quyết đoán; cô đánh cược hết hy vọng và trái tim mình vào một chàng trai, bạn của Tom, để rồi lại tan nát trái tim khi chàng trai đó từ chối tình cảm của mình; khi ấy Laura lại thu mình vào thế giới của bộ đồ chơi thủy tinh và không thể thoát ra được. Tom Wingfield cuối cùng đã dứt áo ra đi, không bao giờ gặp lại mẹ và chị gái của anh nữa. Có thể anh là một kẻ ích kỉ, đi theo dấu chân của cha mình, theo đuổi những lý tưởng của mình, nhưng nếu ở lại thì anh cũng sẽ tự hủy hoại mình. Có lẽ anh đã cứu rỗi được bản thân, nhưng mặc cảm tội lỗi và dáng hình yêu dấu của chị gái đã theo anh suốt cuộc đời, để rồi vở kịch “Bầy thú thủy tinh” mở đầu và kết thúc cũng chính bằng những lời rãi bày ám ảnh của Tom.

Trong “Bầy thú thủy tinh”, những cuộc đối thoại giữa các nhân vật làm nên sức sống vĩnh cửu của tác phẩm. Chúng không rao giảng triết lí đơn thuần, mà đặt ra những câu hỏi rất con người về ý nghĩa của cuộc sống, về vực sâu ngăn cách giữa khát vọng và thực tại, về sự đối nghịch giữa tình yêu, trách nhiệm và hoài bão cá nhân.

[…]

TOM:  Chuyện gì thế mẹ?

AMANDA:  Laura!

TOM:   Ôi! … lại là Laura…

AMANDA:   Con biết Laura mà. Nó ít nói – nhưng mà sông càng sâu càng tĩnh! Nó biết quan sát đấy – mẹ nghĩ là nó u sầu suy nghĩ về mọi thứ. Mấy hôm trước mẹ bước vào, thấy nó đang khóc.

TOM:  Khóc về cái gì chứ?

AMANDA:  Về con.

TOM:  Con ư?

AMANDA:   Nó nghĩ là con không hạnh phúc ở cái nhà này.

TOM:   Sao chị ấy lại nghĩ như thế cơ chứ!?

AMANDA:   Tại sao ư? Con cư xử kì cục quá. Mẹ … Không phải mẹ mắng nhiếc, hiểu không! Mẹ biết hoài bão của con không nằm trong cái xưởng máy ấy. Mẹ biết là con cũng giống mọi người trên cái thế giới này, phải hy sinh một số thứ … Nhưng Tom – Tom – cuộc sống đâu có dễ dàng như thế! Mình phải biết chịu đựng như dũng sĩ Spartan ấy! Trong tim mẹ còn nhiều điều muốn nói . . . Mẹ chưa từng nói với con nhưng – mẹ rất thương bố con . . .

TOM:   Con biết điều ấy.

AMANDA:   Còn con –  mẹ thấy con đi theo vết xe đổ của ông ấy! Đi khuya về hôm – mà lại còn uống rượu say bí tỉ – cái bộ dạng thảm hại đó! Laura nói là con ghét căn nhà này, rằng con đi đêm chỉ để lánh xa khỏi cái nhà này! Có phải vậy không Tom?

TOM:   Không! Mẹ nói  rằng có quá nhiều nỗi niềm mẹ không thể chia sẻ với con. Con cũng vậy thôi. Có quá nhiều điều trong con mà con không thể rãi bày được. Vậy hãy trọng lẫn nh…

AMANDA:   Nhưng mà, tại sao – tại sao hả Tom? – sao con lúc nào cũng thao thức? con đi đâu – hết đêm này qua đêm khác?

TOM:   Con  … đi xem phim.

AMANDA:   Sao lại đi nhiều thế hả Tom?

TOM:  Con đi xem phim vì … con thích phiêu lưu. Phiêu lưu là thứ con chẳng tìm được trong công việc, nên con phải đi.

AMANDA:  Nhưng mà Tom, con đi nhiều quá lắm!

TOM:  Vì con thích phiêu lưu nhiều, vậy thôi.

AMANDA:   Hầu hết trai trẻ đều có cả sự nghiệp lẫn phiêu lưu mà.

TOM:  Hầu hết họ không phải làm việc trong các xưởng máy.

AMANDA:  Thế giới này có vô vàn trai trẻ làm trong nhà xưởng, nhà máy, văn phòng!

TOM: Liệu tất cả trai trẻ – họ có thực sự thấy phiêu lưu trong sự nghiệp không?

AMANDA: Có hoặc không! Không phải ai cũng điên lên vì sự phiêu lưu.

TOM: Đàn ông sinh ra có bản năng của một người tình, một kẻ thợ săn, một chiến binh – mà chẳng có bản năng nào có đất ở cái công xưởng cả!

AMANDA: “Đàn ông có bản năng!” Đừng có kêu “bản năng” ở đây với tôi! Bản năng là thứ người ta phải chối bỏ đi … nó thuộc về thú vật! Người theo Chúa, người trưởng thành … không cần mấy thứ đó!

TOM: Vậy người trưởng thành tin Chúa thì họ cần gì đây, thưa mẹ?

AMANDA: Những thứ cao siêu hơn kia! Những thứ trí tuệ và tâm linh! Chỉ có thú vật mới phải thỏa mãn những cái bản năng kia. Tham vọng của con cao hơn của bọn thú vật! Hơn là khỉ – là lợn – là. . .

TOM: … Con nghĩ không đâu mẹ ạ!

[. . .]

(Người dịch: Trần Thắng)

Vở kịch “Bầy thú thủy tinh” (1944) được ra mắt ở New York năm 1945, là bước ngoặt trong sự nghiệp của Tennessee Williams, đưa ông thành một ngôi sao sáng trong làng kịch nghệ Mỹ trong suốt hai thập kỉ sau đó.

Đã hơn 70 năm từ khi vở kịch ra đời, nhưng cái tên gia đình Wingfield vẫn đứng hiên ngang với gia đình Tyrone (kịch của Eugene O’Neill) và gia đình Loman (kịch của Arthur Miller) làm nên vị thế của ba kịch gia vĩ đại nhất văn học Mỹ.

Với tôi vở kịch vẫn còn nguyên vẹn những giá trị nhân văn, những câu hỏi mà nó đặt ra từ thuở đó còn vang xa đến thời kì hiện đại. Giá trị và niềm tin vào cuộc sống con người có còn đặt trong công việc, trong các mối quan hệ gia đình, bạn bè hay không? Có chăng nó đang trở nên mong manh như những con thú thủy tinh mà Laura mơn trớn? Liệu con người chúng ta có thể vượt qua rào cản và những khác biệt để mở cánh cửa tâm hồn, để bắt đầu đối thoại và hiểu nhau hơn? Cá nhân tôi tin rằng chúng ta có thể. Chính những tác phẩm đậm chất nhân văn như của Tennessee Williams là minh chứng rõ ràng nhất.

Featured

Just Kids: Patti Smith’s Memoir Championing Arts and Eulogy to an Eternal Friendship

Patti Smith just kids

“I’m certain, as we filed down the great staircase, that I appeared the same as ever, a moping twelve-year-old, all arms and legs. But secretly I knew I had been transformed, moved by the revelation that human beings create art, that to be an artist was to see what others could not.”
                                                  _ Just kids, by Patti Smith

I read Patti Smith’s memoir, Just Kids, in February 2015, and since then the book has kept coming back to my mind. It is meaningful to me – not only because the author is an artist at heart – but also for its candor, depth, and coverage of a vast array of human feelings – the things that I look for in memoirs.

Patti Smith, born in 1946, is a legendary Punk rock singer-songwriter, a poet, a visual artist and photographer in New York City. The book revolves around Patti Smith’s relationship with one of the most significant people in her life: her soul mate, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. The memoir chronicles their evolution from aspiring young people to career artists. Their friendship began in an odd situation, a chance meeting in New York, established firmly by their mutual respect for spiritual art and legendary icons of the day, such as Jimmy Hendrix and Janis Joplin. As with most profound friendships, through the years they loved and hurt each other deeply. Spiritually and financially, one stepped up when the other was down. Their relationship fluctuated after Mapplethorpe admitted that he was gay; and for a while, they went in and out of friendship. Nonetheless, their love for each other endured beyond Robert’s death in 1989.

Just kids is well-written from the beginning, with beautiful stories of the author’s family and childhood. It is uplifting because the whole story is a positive affirmation that dark days will not defeat you as long as you have a willing heart; it doesn’t hide the very difficult times when Patti, before establishing her path, was still starving, roaming the streets, sleeping at doorbells, in subways or in graveyards, when “a handful of coins on the telephone could mean one less meal.” Living on the edge, she admittedly mused,

“I wondered what was the point of creating art. For whom? Are we animating God? Are we talking to ourselves? And what was the ultimate goal? To have one’s work caged in art’s great zoos – the Modern, the Met, the Louvre?

I craved honesty, yet found dishonesty in myself. Why commit to art? For self-realization, or for itself? It seemed indulgent to add to the glut unless one offered illumination.

Often I’d sit and try to write or draw, but all of the maniac activity in the streets, coupled with the Vietnam War, made my efforts seem meaningless. I could not identify with political movements. In trying to join them I felt overwhelmed by yet another form of bureaucracy. I wondered if anything I did mattered.”

Patti’s struggle to find a purpose in art and life is human and relevant to me as a young person. What is the aim of the real artist? Should it be in “great zoos” (the museums) or be towards the PEOPLE? In a collective culture that  tends to devalue and stifle individualism, it is not easy to find a means for self-expression that is less prone to persecution or bullying, except in doing small-scale paintings to convey my thoughts. I am not comfortable campaigning like a charismatic leader, but as an introvert relying on inner strengths, I want to reach out and inspire the like-minded and less-fortunate people. After reading Just kids, I believe that that mission is possible.

Many young aspiring artists who still question their paths might find inspiration in Mapplethorpe. Whereas Patti Smith was bugged by self-doubt, Mapplethorpe was absolutely confident in his ability as an artist. In low times, when even Patti “nearly regretted the pursuit of art”, it was Robert’s drive and focus that assured them to stay staunch and hold on to their missions.

“He wasn’t certain whether he was a good or bad person. Whether he was altruistic. Whether he was demonic. But he was certain of one thing. He was an artist. And for that he would never apologize.”

That never meant living by the will alone. There were times when Robert had to take to hustling, offering himself to strangers to make extra money; when they lived on day-old bread, taking turns to see art exhibitions and then reported to each other. So desperate from time to time that they had to pocket some drawing supplies.

Just Kids also dedicates a large proportion to the 1960s counter-culture, making the memoir a history reference. In the 1960s-1970s, New York was an intimidating place to live. Yet, it was the cradle for generations of artists such as Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Janis Joplin, Dylan Thomas, Jimi Hendrix, Salvador Dalí, etc. Hotel Chelsea was an iconic place where these artists lived and frequented, the “salon d’Art” for the ambitious and the esteemed alike. Patti and Robert were part of that artistic community, were mentored by many of those artists, and were simultaneously adding “fabrics” to that cultural tapestry. All of these scenes are captured vividly in Patti’s keen eyes and candid narration.

If you love arts, music, and poetry, please read this book. You will find how beautiful and powerful effect that those three elements can create together, that every effort you put in arts is worthwhile.

If you love New York City, 1960s-1970s, this book is perfect for you. If you are still wavering in your career choices, read this book. You don’t need to be in the humanities to be inspired by Patti and Robert’s stories.

If you are still lonely and searching for true friendship, for ones who will understand you and love you for the weird person that you are, please read this book. It makes me laugh, smile, and weep and remain hopeful as ever.

Just kids is written with heart and soul, and I am so happy to have this book in my life. Please read the book, then listen to her song records. My favorite are Paths That Cross, People Have The Power, Horses, Gloria, Kimberly, and Because the Night.

In 2005, Patti Smith was named a Commander of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture. In 2007, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Just kids won the 2010 National Book Award for Nonfiction and has been continually circulated among a wide range of readers. Patti Smith’s debut album Horses was a key factor and major influence on the New York Punk rock scene.

  • Some useful links:

Amazon linkhttp://www.amazon.com/Just-Kids-Patti-Smith/dp/0060936223

2010 National Book Award Winner

NPR interviewhttp://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=122722618

Louisiana channel interview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b6nIhaagnbA

Patti Smith’s advice to the young: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L2EO3aXTWwg

Person-to-Person

By TENENESSEE WILLIAMS


A reality of growing up is awareness that passion often means luxury. In exchange for an artist’s creative life, often I work side jobs to patch up an income for a living. This makes me think of the character Tom Wingfield in the classic play “The Glass Menagerie” by American playwright Tennessee Williams. Tom had a passion for poetry, but found himself laboring in a shoe factory, creating and inscribing his poems on the back of the shoe boxes, earning money to support his aging, ailing mother and  his crippled sister. He desired to communicate to the outside world, but felt trapped in his inner world. Now that sounds . . . dramatic. But you know how hard it is to pursue a dream when you DON’T have a safety net and DO have responsibilities.

Following is Tennessee Williams’s essay and preface to his play “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (Pulitzer prize winner, 1955). A lot of who I am today is formed by the books that I have read and the authors that I aspire to emulate. Williams speaks for my desire of communicating to other people what I am yet eloquent to express: love, fraternity, and hope. One of those lines I memorize for life is, “We come to each other, gradually, but with love. It is the short reach of my arms that hinders, not the length and multiplicity of theirs. With love and with honesty, the embrace is inevitable.”  I might not be able to meet you and give you a brotherly hug just because of physical, geographical distance. But it doesn’t mean that you and I can’t reach each other in the brotherhood and sisterhood of art, reading, and writing. Let the honesty and sincerity of Tennessee Williams reach your hearts in his following essay.

One of the literary giant of the 20th century.
One of the literary giants of the 20th century, Williams speaks not only for me, for youngsters, but also for all cries of humanity.


Of course it is a pity that so much of all creative work is so closely related to the personality of the one who does it.

It is sad and embarrassing and unattractive that those emotions that stir him deeply enough to demand expression, and to charge their expression with some measure of light and power, are nearly all rooted, however changed in their surface, in the particular and sometimes peculiar concerns of the artist himself, that special world, the passions and images of it that each of us weaves about him from birth to death, a web of monstrous complexity, spun forth at a speed that is incalculable to a length beyond measure, from the spider-mouth of his own singular perceptions.

It is a lonely idea, a lonely condition, so terrifying to think of that we usually don’t. And so we talk to each other, write and wire each other, call each other short and long distance across land and sea, clasp hands with each other at meeting and at parting, fight each other and even destroy each other because of this always somewhat thwarted effort to break through walls to each other. As a character in a play once said, “We’re all of us sentenced to solitary confinement inside our own skins.”

Personal lyricism is the outcry of prisoner to prisoner from the cell in solitary where each is confined for the duration of his life.

I once saw a group of little girls on a Mississippi sidewalk, all dolled up in their mothers’ and sisters’ cast-off finery, old raggedy ball gowns and plumed hats and high-heeled slippers, enacting a meeting of ladies in a parlor with a perfect mimicry of polite southern gush and simper. But one child was not satisfied with the attention paid her enraptured performance by the others, they were too involved in their own performances to suit her, so she stretched out her skinny arms and threw back her skinny neck and shrieked to the deaf heavens and her equally oblivious playmates, “Look at me, look at me, look at me!”

And then her mother’s high-heeled slippers threw her off balance and she fell to the sidewalk in a great howling tangle of soiled white satin and torn pink net, and still nobody looked at her.

I wonder if she is not, now, a southern writer.

Of course it is not only southern writers, of lyrical bent, who engage in such histrionics and shout, “Look at me!” Perhaps it is a parable of all artists. And not always do we topple over and land in a tangle of trappings that don’t fit us. However it is well to be aware of that peril, and not to content yourself with a demand for attention, to know that out of your personal lyricism, your sidewalk histrionics, something has to be created that will not only attract observers but participants in the performance.

I try very hard to do that.

The fact that I want you to observe what I do for your possible pleasure and to give you knowledge of things that I feel I may know better than you, because my world is different from yours, as different as every man’s world is from the world of others, is not enough excuse for a personal lyricism that has not yet mastered its necessary trick of rising above the singular to the plural concern, from personal to general import. But for years and years now, which may have passed like a dream because of this obsession, I have been trying to learn how to perform this trick and make it truthful, and sometimes I feel that I am able to do it. Sometimes when the enraptured streetcorner performer in me cries out “Look at me!” I feel that my hazardous footwear and fantastic regalia may not quite throw me off balance. Then, suddenly, you fellow-performers in the sidewalk show may turn to give me your attention and allow me to hold it, at least for the interval between 8:40 and 11-something P.M.

Eleven years ago this month of March, when I was far closer than I knew, only nine months away from that long-delayed, but always expected, something that I lived for, the time when I would first catch and hold an audience’s attention, I wrote my first preface to a long play; the final paragraph went like this:

“There is too much to say and not enough time to say it. Nor is there power enough. I am not a good writer. Sometimes I am a very bad writer indeed. There is hardly a successful writer in the field who cannot write circles around me … but I think of writing as something more organic than words, something closer to being and action. I want to work more and more with a more plastic theatre than the one I have (worked with) before. I have never for one moment doubted that there are people – millions! – to say things to. We come to each other, gradually, but with love. It is the short reach of my arms that hinders, not the length and multiplicity of theirs. With love and with honesty, the embrace is inevitable.”

This characteristically emotional, if not rhetorical, statement of mine at that time seems to suggest that I thought of myself as having a highly personal, even intimate relationship with people who go to see plays. I did and I still do. A morbid shyness once prevented me from having much direct communication with people, and possibly that is why I began to write to them plays and stories. But even now when that tongue-locking, face-flushing, silent and crouching timidity has worn off with the passage of the troublesome youth that it sprang from, I still find it somehow easier to “level with” crowds of strangers in the hushed twilight of orchestra and balcony sections of theatres than with individuals across a table from me. Their being strangers somehow makes them more familiar and more approachable, easier to talk to.

Of course I know that I have sometimes presumed too much upon corresponding sympathies and interests in those to whom I talk boldly, and this has led to rejections that were painful and costly enough to inspire more prudence. But when I weigh one thing against another, an easy liking against a hard respect, the balance always tips the same way, and whatever the risk of being turned a cold shoulder, I still don’t want to talk to people only about the surface aspects of their lives, the sort of things that acquaintances laugh and chatter about on ordinary social occasions.

I feel that they get plenty of that, and heaven knows so do I, before and after the little interval of time in which I have their attention and say what I have to say to them. The discretion of social conversation, even among friends, is exceeded only by the discretion of “the deep six,” that grave wherein nothing is mentioned at all. Emily Dickinson, that lyrical spinster of Amherst, Mass., who wore a strict and savage heart on a taffeta sleeve, commented wryly on that kind of posthumous discourse among friends in these lines:

I died for beauty but was scarce
Adjusted in the tomb,
When one who died for truth was lain
In an adjoining room.
He questioned softly why I failed,
“For beauty,” I replied.
“And I for truth, the two are one:
We brethren are,” he said.
And so as kinsmen met at night,
We talked between the rooms,
Until the moss had reached our lips
And covered up our names.

Meanwhile! – I want to go on talking to you as freely and intimately about what we live and die for as if I knew you better than anyone else whom you know.

_March 20, 1955

“Hạt Vàng” Của Thành Phố

Dù chưa từng đến Hong Kong, một cây viết vẫn có thể học hỏi rất nhiều về lịch sử, địa lý, văn hoá của người dân nơi đây nhờ hành trình qua internet. Cảm ơn Heritage Fashion đã cho Thắng cơ hội nghiên cứu và viết về thành phố đảo này. Sau đây là bài viết hoàn chỉnh, chưa gọt xén, dành tặng các bạn ghé thăm Hong Kong trong thời gian tới nhé.

 

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Bài viết trên báo Heritage Fashion, số tháng 1 năm 2019.

 

Tốc độ phát triển và đô thị hoá chóng mặt của Hong Kong gần đây đã gây tranh cãi trong việc phát triển bền vững và gìn giữ nét đẹp cổ truyền văn hoá. Song thế hệ trẻ Hong Kong đang khéo léo ứng dụng công nghệ và truyền thông để bảo vệ những nếp sinh hoạt, di sản văn hoá và tinh thần được trân quý qua bao thế hệ, những “hạt vàng” ẩn khuất trong lòng siêu đô thị.

Những “Hạt vàng” này chính là những người thợ tần tảo trong những ngõ hẻm ít xô bồ của Hong Kong, những người đã và đang giữ gìn bản sắc truyền thống giữa vòng xoáy công nghiệp hoá chóng mặt. Vậy phải tìm những nét đẹp cổ truyền và những “viên ngọc quý” này ở đâu? Nhất là khi du khách ngày nay có quá nhiều lựa chọn, bị bủa vây bởi nhà cao tầng chọc trời, những trung tâm mua sắm và nhà hàng cao cấp, những lời chào mời tiêu dùng và sử dụng dịch vụ. Nếu chỉ thoạt nhìn và ghé thăm chóng vánh, người ta dễ đánh đồng Hong Kong với một phương Tây trong lòng châu Á, một nơi không có bản sắc cổ truyền mà mối quan hệ giữa người với người trở nên quá bận rộn, quá xa cách, hững hờ. Nhưng với một chút trợ giúp của công nghệ thì công cuộc săn tìm kho báu giờ đây đã ít vất vả hơn nhiều.

iDiscover, một ứng dụng trên điện thoại di động được sáng lập bởi một nhóm bạn trẻ Hong Kong, có thể hỗ trợ người dùng khám phá và trải nghiệm thành phố một cách sâu sắc, thông thái, và tiết kiệm hơn. Bằng cách hợp tác với người dân địa phương, các tổ chức phi chính phủ và trường đại học ở Hong Kong, đội ngũ sáng lập đã tạo ra các cung đường du lịch trải nghiệm cho người dùng, trong đó người bản địa đóng vai trò chính là “hướng dẫn viên”. Đội ngũ công nghệ hình ảnh và âm thanh sẽ ghi lại những câu chuyện đời sống, và đội ngũ thiết kế sẽ tạo ra những tấm bản đồ đáng yêu. Các sản phẩm khác còn có bản đồ vẽ tay, các seri sách hướng dẫn du lịch Hong Kong, các sự kiện văn hoá và nghệ thuật cộng đồng. Chính bởi lẽ người địa phương được tham gia vào quá trình tạo sản phẩm, chọn và giới thiệu về những địa điểm lý thú ít khi xuất hiện trên bản đồ du lịch Hong Kong đại trà. 

 

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Heritage Fashion. Vietnam Airlines. December – January 2019

Du khách sẽ được khám phá ngõ ngách của quận Kennedy Town (tên thân mật là K-Town), nơi từng bị coi là “sân sau”, là bãi phế thải của Hong Kong vì nó ở xa khu trung tâm, cuối đường tầu điện về phía tây. Ngày nay, K-Town nổi bật với hàng quán ăn uống vừa và nhỏ, năng động, lại có một phần chung cư Sai Wan Estate được trang trí làm khu vui chơi cho trẻ em rất sặc sỡ. Sai Wan Estate còn là địa danh lịch sử nằm trên một quả đồi, là chuỗi nhà chung cư lâu đời nhất còn tồn tại ở Hong Kong, hẳn là địa danh không thể bỏ qua cho các tín đồ du lịch khám phá lịch sử. Ai muốn vãn cảnh biển, thăm làng chài lưới mà thuyền nối đuôi thuyền thì có thể ghé thăm quận Aberdeen ở phía tây nam Hong Kong. Quận Sai Kung lại nổi tiếng với vùng vịnh và các đảo lớn nhỏ, nơi bạn có thể quên đi khói bụi của đô thị, thả trôi mình vào không khí nghỉ dưỡng ven biển, thưởng thức hải sản tươi ngon, đi leo núi vãn cảnh. Dọc con phố Hoi Pong của quận Sai Kung còn có vô vàn những quán cafe và cửa hàng nhỏ, phong cách vintage và nghệ thuật đương đại độc đáo. 

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Sai Kung tuyệt vời với bãi biển đẹp, làng chài, các cung đường leo núi. Ảnh: discoverhongkong.com

Sử dụng một app di động hoàn toàn miễn phí mà khách du lịch có thể kết nối với người bản địa trực tiếp, ghé thăm nơi họ kinh doanh và sinh sống, thậm chí tham gia vào các hoạt động sinh hoạt dân sinh. Các hộ kinh doanh gia đình, các nghệ nhân truyền thống ở các khu vực rìa thành phố, vốn ít xuất hiện trước truyền thông, nay đã được kết nối và mở rộng cho khách tham quan. Khách du lịch có thể ghé thăm những nghệ nhân lão thành làm nghề thợ may, thợ làm lồng tre hấp màn thầu, thợ thu gom tái chế gỗ, các chủ nhà hàng kinh doanh buôn bán nhỏ có hàng thế hệ, các hàng thủ công gia truyền ở quận Kennedy Town. Nhất là quận Sai Ying Pun, được mệnh danh là thiên đường nghề thủ công, nơi có tương ớt chính hiệu gia truyền Yu Kwen Yick được truyền đời từ thập niên 20 của thế kỷ trước. Hầu hết những hộ kinh doanh nhỏ này đều có truyền thống cha truyền con nối và đi qua bao thăng trầm của lịch sử Hong Kong. 

Hong Kong là đô thị năng động, văn minh và tiện lợi, nhưng những “hạt vàng” hoài cổ lẩn khuất sau những toà cao ốc sáng loáng lại chứa đựng những giá trị lâu bền với thời gian, làm nên sự tinh tuý của mảnh đất nhỏ phương đông này. Những con ong chăm chỉ ấy tạo nên mật ngọt văn hóa vô cùng đặc sắc mà bạn không thể bỏ qua khi đến với Hong Kong. Như nói thay lời của thành phố đảo giàu truyền thống: “Sắt thép, kim loại không thể thay thế hay tạo nên các lồng tre hấp bánh bao thượng hạng ở Sai Ying Pun”; “Máy xay cũng không thể thay thế được cối xay bằng đá đã tạo nên chất lượng hảo hạng của tương ớt Yu Kwen Yick. Phụ gia và chất bảo quản phù phiếm lại càng không.”

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Tham khảo thêm phiên bản tiếng Anh của bài viết.

 

 

 

 

Apocalypse is Safe behind the Glass

October 2017 marks the 100th anniversary of a revolution that shook the modern world. Hanoi in October and November seems brimming with “red” delight, a striking contrast between young people’s apathy toward the event and older generation’s dallying with the bygone past.

The entrance of National Library of Vietnam, Hanoi. Defying Hanoi’s bleak winter chill, bright scarlet posters were seen popular and stirring heat in people’s mind.

Joseph Stalin portraits caught my eye as I was walking through the hall of the National Library in Hanoi. His name and portraits were placed among those of Vladimir Lenin and other soviet revolutionaries in a month-long commemorating the Russian Revolution of 1917 (or better known here as the October Revolution). So I picked up an anthology of his writings and speeches, published in 1953, the year he died. Stalin and his legacy will always be controversial: the ruthless dictator under whom 40 millions people perished, or a great leader who spearheaded a country’s transformation? Regardless, his writing and speeches are self-evident of a megalomaniac.

Stalin and Lenin’s revolutionary speeches and various writings were on display. I was lucky to have picked up some to read before the library’s staff sealed off the shelves with glass panes.

I browsed through some of his national assembly addresses. A sense of self-assuredness cloaked in a camaraderie tone, whereas the early pages give away his fear and suspicion. Ironically, the very war-worn rural population that Lenin had promised “Peace, Land, and Bread” was wailing and falling deeper in crises; poverty was rampant while much done by the Party was relentlessly recruiting new “loyal” members and tightening the soviet control, militarily and ideologically. Indoctrination could not save a poverty- and hunger-stricken population crying for survival.

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I could never fathom why intellectuals, artists, religious people had to die so that the “blue-collars” and “peasantry” can rule the country. It’s terrifying to imagine a paradise based on the “either/or”. Glorifying communism was a significant part trickled down to my early life’ education, until I learned English and was able to read for myself.

In Stalin’s words, grim consequences were to follow “unless we made the soviets act more forcefully and vigilantly, …”. Such were the expressions as frequent as the soviet paranoia about winning and controlling their rural population – the very birthplace of the soviet revolution. Nowadays perhaps few even care to ask ‘Why’.

One reason seems to stand out: Stalinists were busy persecuting the non-soviets. In one of his 1927 speeches, Stalin made it clear that Democratic Socialism is no friend to the soviets. In fact it was as evil as capitalism and therefore should be defeated. He called the anti-Bolshevik peasantry uprising in Georgia in 1924 as “thổ phỉ” (bandits uprising), supported by the opposition Mensheviks and capitalists – the evil must be terminated. My favorite essayist, George Orwell, did enjoy much more freedom of speech in his post-war England. Fast forward to 2016, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders obviously enjoyed much fanfare and popularity advocating for Democratic Socialism. It would not have been fantastic for them had they been in the Soviet Union under Stalin’s reign of terror. No one was entirely safe from his gaze.

The entrance TV screen displayed the two Russian revolutionaries whose names are inscribed in history. Time made heroes or losers; were they great leaders who launched the country into international stage, or ruthless masterminds who terrorized and murdered their own people?

In the same bookshelf, I found another book titled “The International Significance of the October Revolution”, published in 1952. In it Stalin made comparisons between the Bolsheviks and the French Jacobins – as both shook and shocked the world. According to Stalin, the Jacobins in reality did not do much to the social revolution but instead only perpetuated the class system – by replacing one exploiting class with another. In this sense, the bloody French Revolution couldn’t be called “triệt để”(exhaustive/absolute). In the dream to realize a classless society, Stalin took Lenin’s vision into a whole new level.

Few figures in the human history could have exerted such a terrifying combination of fear and idolatry as Stalin and, to a less apparent sense, Lenin. The Russian revolution of 1917 was indeed a landmark in humankind, but it was also bloody and senseless. It seems far-fetched for the VCP to return this historical event to its right place in history. I’m glad that the works of Stalin and Lenin are still there for discerning eyes, but also sad to see they be placed behind the “glass panes”. Books are meant for reading, not for just displaying. Through their enticing yet intimidating lessons, we realize how close we were to apocalypse.

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Trai nước Nam làm gì?

 

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Cuốn sách 10 chương viết năm 1943, trong tình cảnh nước Việt Nam một cổ hai tròng Pháp – Nhật. Đặt vào bối cảnh lịch sử ấy, cuốn sách có thể được coi là ấn phẩm tuyên truyền cách mạng, dấy lên phong trào yêu nước của thanh niên, đặc biệt hưởng tới nam thanh niên. Các cụm từ phổ biến như “Lập chí ngay mà làm việc cho tổ quốc”, “chung vai mà gánh vác trách nhiệm”, “xông tên đạn trên chiến trường”, “dựng cờ vàng”, “mười lăm tuổi lấy việc không được đầu quân làm xấu hổ”, “sợ gì một cái chết” và tương tự xuyên suốt tác phẩm.

 

Tác giả là đại diện cho tầng lớp trí thức Nho giáo và cải cách giáo dục thời bấy giờ, và có quan điểm cứng rắn về Nho giáo. Trước tình trạng Nho giáo dần thất thế và không còn “thiêng”, cùng sự thâm nhập ngày càng sâu của chủ nghĩa đế quốc, chủ nghĩa tư bản và tiêu dùng, Hoàng Đạo Thúy muốn dấy lên tinh thần ái Nho thông qua bàn luận về các vấn đề gia đình, làng xóm, quốc gia, dân tộc. Tác giả cho rằng Nho giáo có thẻ mang lại hòa bình thật cho xã hội, phải “trọn đạo làm người, giúp được cho đời”. Cuốn sách chứa nhiều tư tưởng lỗi thời và bảo thủ, nhưng cũng không thiếu những tư tưởng rất tiến bộ và đi trước thời đại. Một cái hay khác đó chính là nói thẳng, nói rành mạch.

Về góc độ kinh tế, tác giả chỉ ra bất cập, điểm yếu của chủ nghĩa tư bản: “Dùng không hết, nó ùn lại, nó ứ tắc. […] Nhiều gạo quá phải đổ bớt xuống bể, hàng nhiều quá phải thiêu bớt đi. Bên này thiêu, đổ đi, bên kia vẫn có kẻ đói, chết, kẻ túng thiếu.” Đây là những căn bệnh kinh niên của tư bản, nhưng tác giả khi viết cuốn sách cũng còn hạn chế góc nhìn, đánh bóng những gì thuộc thể tập thể, làng xã, và coi nhà giàu là “có tội với xã hội”, đầy tớ “là nô lệ của nhà giàu”. Điều này là dễ hiểu trong bối cảnh khác biệt gia cấp lên đỉnh điểm, nhưng chưa tiên đoán và chứng kiến những hậu quả khủng khiếp của kinh tế tập trung, chuyên quyền, cộng sản đem lại sau cách mạng. Mặt khác, tác giả không bàn đến một ý quan trọng: những tư tưởng Nho giáo hà khắc cũng là một nguyên nhân khiến con người ta cảm thấy được giải phóng khi làn sóng tư bản, văn hóa thể hiện cá nhân tràn đến.

Về tư tưởng và xã hội, tác giả coi đạo nho là “một tôn giáo hợp với lòng trời, hợp với bụng người. Không trái với khoa học, vừa hợp được trí khôn vừa hợp tâm lý, đủ cả ý nghĩa bền vững.” Hồ Xuân Hương chắc hẳn sẽ rất muốn bàn về luận điểm này vì Hoàng Đạo Thúy đã khéo không nhắc đến việc Nho giáo cổ xúy “Gái trong khung cửi, trai ngoài bút nghiên”, vợ là “người giúp thờ phụng tổ tiên, hầu hạ mẹ cha, sinh con đẻ cái”, chồng là “phu chúa của vợ”, và những định kiến về nghề như “xướng ca vô loài”, “con hát chỉ là một cái chơi”. Trên tất cả, Nho gia là vợ phải im lặng ngay cả khi chồng sai trái, không được ghen hay oán giận ngay cả khi chồng chung chăn với người khác, và chồng có quyền “dạy đức hạnh cho vợ”. Ở xã hội Việt Nam ngày nay ta còn thấy những tư tưởng này khá nặng nề tùy vào vùng miền, nhưng ta cũng thấy sự thay đổi đáng kể khi trong nhiều gia đình, người vợ đã chủ trì từ làm ăn, nội trợ, cho đến quản lí tài chính – chi tiêu.

Mặc dù cũng kêu gọi tôn trọng người phụ nữ “như là mẹ ta”, nhưng tác giả chưa nhìn ra (hoặc biết nhưng không muốn chỉ ra) những bất cập và gánh nặng của thể chế đó lên người phụ nữ và các tầng lớp thấp cổ bé họng trong xã hội. Đối với ông, việc học một ngành nhưng làm trái nghề là chuyện hổ thẹn và đáng buồn, nhưng ở thời đại ngày nay, ta nên nghĩ rằng đó là một giai đoạn quan trọng để thanh niên tôi luyện và rèn tính cách. Không phải ngẫu nhiên khi đọc tác phẩm ta thấy rất nhiều cụm từ “mục đích cao xa”, “cái đích xa xôi” lặp đi lặp lại.

Tuy nhiên, Hoàng Đạo Thúy tham gia các phong trào cứu tế xã hội và cũng có những tư tưởng tiến bộ, thậm chí ông có thể là một người tiên phong cho trong trào tự lực cánh sinh.

Ông mạnh mẽ, thẳng thắn chỉ trích đánh bạc, nghiện rượu, nghiện thuộc phiện, và chuyện chơi gái, việc du học mà chỉ xa hoa, ăn chơi, làm tôi tớ của tiền bạc, hàng hóa, trang sức. Tiền không mua được học vấn đích thực, tiền cũng “không làm người ta tin ở mục đích cao thượng”. Rồi thì “giờ An Nam” kiểu giờ cao su khiến công việc mất hiệu quả; việc làm cẩu thả, thiếu chính xác cũng ảnh hưởng đến năng suất.

Theo ông, đọc sách thì “óc được mở”, tập võ thì “người được khỏe mạnh”, ý nhấn mạnh việc trau dồi kiến thức phải song song với rèn luyện thể lực. Tự chủ, tự lập rèn luyện sức khỏe vì có chí phải nhất định đi đôi với có sức khỏe. Ngay cả ngày nay, khi đọc lại những dòng này ta cũng phải ngẫm nghĩ một lúc, rằng người xưa đúng là ăn-ngủ-sinh hoạt cũng rất khoa học và có điều độ:

“Ngủ nhiều mộng mị tốn tinh lực. Đệm êm làm hư người; ăn nhiều thịt cá lắm chất độc, phí tiền, hại dạ dày. Ăn ra quả nhiều thải độc, khỏe người. Ăn ít nhưng nhai kĩ, ngay cả với cháo; ăn đúng giờ”.

Về nền giáo dục nói chung, Hoàng Đạo Thúy chỉ ra căn bệnh chạy theo mốt; căn bệnh “sản xuất ồ ạt, vội vàng”, “lấy một tờ bằng cấp, một cái địa vị làm mục đích”; căn bệnh sản xuất thừa thầy, thiếu thợ.

Những tư tưởng về giáo dục con trẻ cũng rất tiến bộ: cẩn thận săn sóc con từ trong thai;  cha mẹ phải làm gương tốt cho con, nhưng đôi khi con cái chính là “người thày dạy mình”; cha mẹ yêu thương con, dạy con tự lập và biết nhận trách nhiệm.

Tinh thần của cuốn sách dường như nằm trong câu nói “Một đời dài mà chưa từng sống thì cũng như đã chết từ khi chưa sống. Sống một đời dài mà không có mục đích, chỉ tiêu tốn thời gian vào các cuộc chơi thì quả thật đáng thương.” Đây như một câu nói cảnh tỉnh cho người trẻ nói riêng và tất cả mọi người nói chung. Liệu chúng ta đã và đang thật sự sống một cuộc sống có mục đích, có ý nghĩa.

Cuốn sách đôi lúc khiến ta nghĩ đến một cuốn cẩm nang những điều răn dạy của một đạo sĩ. Tạm gác lại những dụng ý về chính trị của cuốn sách ra đời năm 1943, Trai nước Nam làm gì? như tiêu đề đã nói có rất nhiều lý tưởng và suy ngẫm sâu sắc của một học giả lớn của Việt Nam mà cả nam và nữ đều có thể và nên đọc, suy ngẫm, không phải để áp đặt những khuôn hình ý tưởng đó vào đời sống hiện đại, mà có suy xét và lựa chọn xem có phù hợp với bản thân, gia đình, và cộng đồng mình chung sống hay không.

Reading “Hiroshima”: Inferno lingers in our days.

Book cover Hiroshima

The following note appeared in the NEW YORKER of 31 August, 1946, as an introduction to John Hersey’s article “Hiroshima”.

The NEW YORKER this week devotes its entire editorial space to an article on the almost complete obliteration of a city by one atomic bomb, and what happened to the people of that city. It does so in the conviction that few of us have yet comprehended the all but incredible destructive power of this weapon, and that everyone might well take time to consider the terrible implication of its use.


 

John Hersey’s reputation precedes him. Born in China in 1914 to missionary parents, attended Yale College and later became a fellow at Cambridge, he inherited the privilege of high education and broad culture. His two masterpieces, a Pulitzer-prize winning novel “A Bell for Adano”, and “Hiroshima” – the article laying the foundation for New Journalism, eternally rank him among the finest American writers. Both works concern with World War II.

John Hersey covered the Second World War in Europe for the TIME (1937 – 1944), following the Allies’ soldiers who were liberating Italy. After the War ended, he wrote for the New Yorker, and once again was sent to an equally brutal battleground: post-nuclear-bomb Hiroshima. In May 1946, he was among the first western journalists to investigate the city of Hiroshima after the American nuclear bombing on August 6, 1945.

The author interviewed many witnesses and survivors, focusing mainly on six people: a German priest and five Japanese citizens (a Red-cross doctor, a private doctor, a female clerk, a Protestant pastor, and a tailor’s widow.) The six people were doing their daily rituals when a noiseless blinding flash in the sky wiped out their families, their peaceful neighborhood.

Each of these witnesses, with his or her geographical surroundings and distance from the ground zero, is described in details, from action to mental state. Surprisingly, everybody was calm on that morning. There had been warnings that Hiroshima, an important seaport and industrial powerhouse, would come next in the American bombing list, and that it would receive a “special treatment” from the Americans. The city had preparations such as trenches, shelters, and public radio speakers; however, the alerts repeated daily just reacting to American weather jets.

At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, knocking out the city dwellers among them six witnesses. The survivors didn’t remember what exactly happened next, except that they were thrown far hundreds of yards, crushed by the collapsed buildings, or cut by the sharp debris. Chapter 2 (The Fire) dedicated to describing how the people of Hiroshima struggled for life in ceaseless hell fire, their insufferable pains and torment as the walking zombies crowding the streets, the riversides, the hospitals. Some descriptions are striking:

“The asphalt of the streets was still so soft and hot from the fires that walking was uncomfortable”, “In the garden, on the way to the shelter, he noticed a pumpkin roasted on the vine. He and Father Cieslik tasted it and it was good. They were surprised at their hunger, and they are quite a bit. They got out several bags of rice and gathered up several other cooked pumpkins and dug up some potatoes that were nicely baked under the ground, and started back.” “When Mr. Tanimoto, with his basin still in his hand, reached the park, it was very crowded, and to distinguish the living from the dead was not easy, for most of the people lay still, with their eyes open.”

The next two chapters concentrate on the health consequences caused by extreme nuclear exposure, accompanied by speculations, investigations, and statistics coming from the scientists. Japanese scientists stated that the denotation released a 6000-Celsius-degree heat and nuclear residue that only a 50-inch concrete shelter could save a human being from harm. Elsewhere in the city, some people caught a radio wave broadcasting the American president’s announcement: “That bomb had more power than twenty thousand tons of T.N.T. It had more than two thousand times the blast power of the British Grand Slam, which is the largest bomb ever used in the history of warfare.”

With only 30,000 words, a calm voice and lucid descriptions, John Hersey reported the wrestling survival of the six witnesses hours and days after the disaster, the city in a literal inferno, and the responses of the Japanese government.

The second nuclear bomb dropped on Nagasaki (August 9, 1945) forced the Japanese to surrender the Allies without condition, on August 15, 1945, officially ending the war on the Pacific front. For the first time, the Emperor “broadcasted his own voice through radio directly to us, common people of Japan.”

[…] Many civilians, all of them were in bandage, some being helped by shoulder of their daughters, some sustaining their injured feet by sticks, they listened to the broadcast and when they came to realize the fact that it was the Emperor, they cried with full tears in their eyes. […] When they came to know the war was ended – that is, Japan was defeated, they, of course, were deeply disappointed, but followed after their Emperor’s commandment in calm spirit, making wholehearted sacrifice for the everlasting peace of the world – and Japan started her new way.”

Then go on beautiful passages about the Japanese character that I think can only be felt by reading the text on one’s own.

When the world was still astonished and baffled at this tremendous event, Hersey’s article helped clear the mist surrounding the bomb’s destructive power and Hiroshima’s suffering. Together with the American lukewarm response to the Holocaust, Hiroshima added a new question without a satisfying answer: Was the decision to drop the bomb justifiable and necessary.

Under the journalist’s perspective, impartial and respectful, the author presented the religious, political, and military views of the people involved in this unprecedented issue. Nonetheless, the readers can feel the author’s deep sympathy towards the suffering of Hiroshima.

Hiroshima was published in its entirety in the NEW YORKER on August 31, 1946. Quickly many major magazines and broadcast television firms in America and around the world purchased the copyright. The New York University’s Department of Journalism ranked it #1 on Top 100 works of American journalism. Up to this day, the article has not lost its intensity and relevance, and remains a landmark of adapting fiction story-telling to journalistic reportage.

As a young Vietnamese reader, I feel an immense respect for the Japanese people who against all odds recovered their country to this day. But I couldn’t help thinking about the American war in Vietnam (called the Vietnam war by Americans). How might history have changed if the Americans used atomic bombs in the Vietnam battlefield? Hiroshima was just the opening of an atomic age. In 1961, the Soviet Union successfully experimented the nuclear bomb Tsar Bomba, which was 3,800 as destructive as the first atomic bomb. Is the world safer now? The common answer to that question is, “The world has never been the same ever since Hiroshima.”


John Hersey’s entire article on the NEW YORKER is Here.

Bridging Cultures through Film Noir and Short Narrative

From January to May 2016, teachers and graduate students at the University of Languages and International Studies converged in an American Studies class held by the Faculty of Linguistics and Cultures of English Speaking Countries.

Through this course, we have improved our understanding of two forms of American Arts, coming closer to the American culture. I relished being able to return to my school, seeing my former teachers, and seriously engaging in the United States Studies, which I had been doing individually since 2012. It was wonderful to study alongside my teachers and other professionals with much experience in the field.

Our course instructor, Professor Jack Yeager from Louisiana State University, is a Fulbright scholar and expert in Francophone literature. His Fulbright fellowship offered him the second chance to be in Vietnam; this time at my university for six months.

with prof Yeager and English Falcuty
With Professor Jack Yeager of Louisiana State University and English Faculty teachers of the University of Languages and International Studies. (photo by Ms. Hai Ha)

Professor Yeager delivered the course in two parts. Part One focused on American short narrative; the other on Film noir.

The first part commenced with two chapters of Mark Twain’s “Life on the Mississippi” (1883). Reading “Castles and Culture” and “The Metropolis of the South”, we journeyed back to the late 19th century Louisiana, particularly to two major cities – Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Twain’s vigorous language pioneered the “narrative journalism” and “travel writing”, transforming the Mississippi river from a transportation corridor into a “personality” and a quintessentially American soul.

The discussion locomotive marched on with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark” (1843) and Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-tale Heart” (1845) – two works of early American Romanticism. By the 1830s, European countries had been transitioning into literary Realism. Although flowering 30 years later than its European counterpart, American Romanticism shared the movement’s essential themes of human isolation, discontent with urbanism, and the fascination with the supernatural. Though regarded as masterworks, these narratives received critical questions about their limited white-male perspectives, their historical and socioeconomic context in which they were composed.

Afterwards, we studied the Naturalistic school exemplified with Stephen Crane’s “The Blue Hotel” (1899), Willa Cather’s “Two Friends” (1931), Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” (1908). These short stories explored the harsh nature of the Midwest (Nebraska, Kansas) and Yukon. Crane examined the immigration mindset and fatal miscommunication among people. Cather, infusing the Panic of 1893, the Gold Standard crisis and the 1896 Presidential election in her story, proved that the political atmosphere in America at the time was far-reaching and potentially divisive. Jack London vividly portrayed man’s futile conquest against nature and the unknown.

The three above stories are coated with regional dialects, historical allusions, and unusual punctuation. Thus, often we must read their dialogues aloud to understand the mood and to process comprehension. The class encountered this similar issue with O’Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi” (1905), a parable rich in comic irony, slang, and rhythm.

In addition, we studied a young voice from the Vietnamese American community, with Monique Truong’s comic tale named “Skin and Bones” (2014).  Written about a Vietnamese American woman’ journey to Vietnam to learn about her origin, its fantastical nature resembles that in Maxine Hong Kingston’s novel “The Woman Warrior” (1976) which concerns majorly about the Asian American experience.

Also interested in gender studies, professor Yeager brought to class early American stories that reflect gender attitude across the centuries. For instance, Kate Chopin’s “Desireé Baby” (1893) and William Faulkner’s “Dry September” (1931) – two stories that raised debates about feminism, class, and race (especially in the American South). “Brokeback Mountain” (1997) by Annie Proulx explores the taboo subject of homosexuality in the unforgiving landscape of Wyoming, western America.

The question of racism and justice was put into perspective at our screening of “To Kill a Mocking Bird” (Universal Pictures, 1962), an Oscar-winning film based on Harper Lee’s Pulitzer-Prize winning novel of the same name. Often invigorated with professor Yeager’s American experience and perspective, the Q&A sessions gave us a more wholesome picture of the United States history, landscape, and people.

There are legitimate questions to ponder, moreover. The purpose of this introductory course was to provide an overview and the techniques to integrate some of the course materials into the faculty’s literature syllabus and teaching methodology. “Should and how do we insert a particular narrative into the class discussion?” “Is it too long or too short for the task at hand?”, “How can we make it attractive to the students?”, “What background information do the students need?”, “Should films be a medium for teaching in a literature classroom?” So on.

Taking the opportunity to prepare and present the assigned stories, we marched into the rigorous classroom discussion. But for the limited time budget, I wish there were Mid-term/Final essays or Reaction papers as in the intended syllabus. Plus, it is fun to do a reading collage, a writing portfolio, or short “report” videos for the future workshops.

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The second half of the course focused on American Film Noir – a famous Hollywood film genre/style.

IMG_4899.JPG
Film Noir is different from Black-and-white films, which I had not known before the course

Influenced by German Expressionist cinema and film directors who fled Germany during World War II, Film noir borrowed many German aesthetic devices, plot conventions, and stereotypical characters, to evolve into a wholly American film style.

Detective fiction of the early 20th century inspired Film noir, whose plots frequently concern crime, deadly violence, daring “mind game” between ambitious criminals and clever detectives. The setting is usually the city at night with criminal activities and gunfights.

It is difficult to define Film noir, however. Not every film noir has a private detective and a killer dame (“femme fatale”) set in an urban landscape. One film can be more brutal, explicit, or romantic than the other. There is so much to learn that a few class sessions (despite extensive discussion) seemed to scratch merely on the surface.

The chosen classic films were The Maltese Falcon (Warner Brothers, 1941), M (Nero-film A.G., 1931), The Big Sleep (Warner Brothers, 1946), The Big Heat (Columbia, 1953). During the screenings, we paused at key scenes to discuss the technical innovations, i.e. the high-speed lenses, the angled shots and close-up shots, dark/light contrast, the classic three-point lighting, etc.

There were difficulties since the characters spoke in the old vernacular (although the films did have subtitles). Certain scenes carry symbolic meaning or reference to contemporary people’s attitudes. For example, the dark streets, the shadows, the stairs, the bridges. That is not to mention the symbolic costume, makeup, and hairstyles.

For me, the course has been highly educational, although film noir is not my favorite film genre. The wonderful part is to be able to recognize the “noir” techniques and motifs that are still widely employed in modern films. It’s amazing how those little things can create such nuanced psychological effects in film viewers.

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Thank you the Faculty of Linguistics and Cultures of English Speaking Countries for successfully holding this course, for sharing your concerns about the school, the curriculum, the students, and most of all, your life as a teacher. We express our special thanks to professor Yeager, for his commitment, his knowledge and witty sense of humor. Thanks for making this learning experience much more fruitful than it would have been had we done it alone. We hope to meet again in the future!

“Quê hương” – Memories of My Homeland

The other day I was listening to Patti Smith’s “Kimberly”, a single in her debut album Horses (1975). This tender song was inspired by Smith’s upbringing in the lower middle class, particularly by the stormy day that her fourth sibling Kimberly was born. “What an odyssey growing up in south Jersey, in a Mid-Atlantic state in America, engulfed in post-war housing developments, closed-down factories, swamps, burning barns, and God knew what else!” I was thinking.

Smith’s lyrics brought me back to my childhood in the suburb to the west of Hanoi, where surrounding my home were lotus swamps and rice fields. The road to school was rocky, and if in the rainy season, muddy and flooded to the knees. The only difference from my parents’ hometown in Hung Yen and Hai Duong was that my home was nowhere near a river; there were fewer ponds and no massive irrigation systems. My cousins and I used to hang out in the rice fields, catching grasshoppers, flying the kites, playing hide-and-seek in the tall grasses. We would climb the trees, pick the choicest star fruits in my grandpa’s garden, and eat them under the shade.

All of this now seems a distant dream, though constantly childhood images still return, sometimes evoked by my mom’s singing “Quê hương”.

————–

“Quê Hương”, meaning either Homeland or Hometown in English, is the song that my mother sang to me when I was little. Sometimes mom still sings this song, especially when family welcome guests. Each time she sings it, the star fruit tree in my grandpa’s garden appears vividly in my mind.

At that time, the star fruits were closer to my stomach than to my heart. Little did I know that this ordinary fruit is among abundant symbols of the Vietnamese land and countryside. My discovery of its meaning began only after grandpa’s entire garden was bulldozed for the state’s new housing developments.

There are now, replacing rice fields, more condominiums than the number of cats and dogs in the neighborhood. Instead of frogs’ chirping and croaking, now it is the cacophony of power saws, electric drills and air compressors. Instead of chatting on power-cut nights, now people stay in their own homes, watching TV, or going to bars singing karaoke.

As an adult, I began to think about my childhood and other values that I had learned as I grew up in an environment much like that experienced by thousands of other Vietnamese people. In the massive urbanization, devaluation of college education, a feeling of disorientation, we still long to return to an idyllic childhood. Certain aspects of the Vietnamese countryside are lost, but they have been recorded and imbued in such beautiful songs as “Quê hương”. Wherever I go, whenever I miss my homeland, I would sing or play this song out loud. Should I see star fruits in a supermarket in New York or Paris, I might freeze for a moment. Well, you know what I will think of.

Whoever you are, wherever you go, your homeland is inscribed in your heart. Whether it is swamp or desert, urban or rural, Texas dirt or Israel sand or Kenya mud, your homeland is still with you, in your songs, your creative works, your heart, your embrace.


My mom used to be a professional folk opera singer. In this video she sang “Que huong” as my friends visit my family in 2012.

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IMG_3092

Homeland is the star fruit clusters,

For me to pick each day.

Homeland is the road to school,

Shaded with fluttering yellow butterflies.

Homeland is the azure kite

That I flew when I was a child.

Homeland is the little boat,

Rippling the waves on the riverside.

Homeland is the bamboo little bridge,

Conical hats shading you my mommy.

Homeland is a bright full-moon night,

Areca flower drooping on our veranda floor.

Everyone has only one homeland,

Like having only one Mother.

Homeland – If you don’t keep in your heart,

You’ll never be able to grow up.

(illustrated & translated by thangtranjuly20)

2015 – The Year of Magical Reading and Healing

Reading is a lonesome business, but I never find myself lonely in reading. Another stormy year has passed, but books leave a fertile ground for the tree that is me to grow most strongly. Beside many of our walk-talks and time contemplating together, my friends and I have found peace in reading.

2015 was a humble year for reading. My goal was to read at least 30 books cover-to-cover, but eventually I left several books unfinished. Nonetheless, I tried to converse with some authors who passed away decades ago. Following are some books that I have read.

2015 goals
A few books that I read in 2015

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  1. Just Kids_ by Patti Smith

The single most important book in my 2015. It is one of the most beautiful memoirs and eulogies about friendship. Detailed review here.

  1. The Elements of Style_ William Strunk, Jr. and E.B White:

A timeless, classic must-read for those who want to advance their writing, or communicate more effectively. It has practical and applicable advice for most general layman but expert writers cite it as a foundational book as well. Just don’t forget to practice every day.

+ Check out a Podcast about English Grammar

  1. Giovanni’s room_ by James Baldwin

[American fiction/ Europe/ Gay/ Gender equality/ Law & Conscience]

Banned, explicit about Homosexuality, by a black writer, so what? I had never thought that Gay relationship could be so complex until I read Giovanni’s Room. Reading something so honest, so introspective, so contrast to my pre-conceived notions, was like a punch in the gut. James Baldwin is eloquent and passionate, perhaps in the league of Tennessee Williams. More importantly, the book is not political; it’s about human beings contemplating, treating one another, receiving consequences for their own actions. A classic.

  1. The Fire Next Time_ James Baldwin

A passionate letter from an uncle to his nephew. If you are a Christian, this book will provoke you. But it will make you think very deeply about the Church’s conduct, about yours as well. Be prepared.

  1. Sons and Lovers_by D.H. Lawerence

[Parental love/ Coming-of-age/ Family dysfunction/ Freudian psychology/ English Modernism/ Pre-WWI England]

My introduction to D.H. Lawrence couldn’t be more complex. Not so much a love story than a story about love. I see myself in Paul, in William, in Walter Morel, in Mrs. Morel, in Miriam, in Clara. Like Gustave Flaubert, Lawrence constructs his literary world like a mirror of ours; but unlike Flaubert, Lawrence doesn’t use satire, but delves deeply into his psychological characterization. “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”, his later work set Lawrence on the world stage, but to me, “Sons and Lovers” is his masterpiece.

I wanted to write a review for this book, but it is so massive to me that I never feel competent enough to write. There even is a literary branch studying D.H. Lawrence at Oxford. This book ranks 9th on Modern Library’s Top 100 best novels in English of the 20th century.

Check out Free Oxford podcast studying D.H.Lawrence

  1. Lady Chatterley’s Lover_ by D.H. Lawrence

[CLASS (ARISTOCRACY)/ PSYCHOLOGICAL FICTION/ ENGLISH MODERNISM]

Most notorious of the banned books. Pornographic or sexually explicit – up to you to decide. But truly, it is a superb work of art, a serious reflection on humanity in a turbulent time of English history, but also very applicable to today’s world.

  1. L’Étranger (The Stranger)/ 8. La Chute (The Fall)_ by Albert Camus

These two philosophical novels are among the most difficult (and absurd) novels that I have ever read. Camus talks about Paris, Amsterdam, French Algeria, about emotional isolation, depression, friendship, and so much more. These two novels are haunting and leaving me little to say about.  I must reread them before claiming anything.

  1. Trois contes (Three Tales)_ by Gustave Flaubert [FRENCH LITERATURE]

Short, readable classic text. This book made my prerequisite read before a seminar on the subject.

  1. Fahrenheit 451_ Ray Bradbury [AMERICAN LITERATURE]

This Book brought back my painful childhood memory, where I was a proud Guy Montag. Nothing particular in style, but its discussion on books is powerful. Books are so central to human meaning and existence; you are so lucky to be able to read and given a chance to read. Don’t blow it.

  1. Night_ by Elie Wiesel

[Holocaust Memoir/Life and Death/Theological Questions]

This Holocaust memoir moved me to tears. The description is vivid and visceral. The theological question about the existence of God during our most trying times is still relevant even until today. This is one of my most moving and emotional reading experiences in 2015.  I think that EVERYONE should read this book, especially if you haven’t known what the Holocaust is.

  1. Tortured for Christ_ by Pastor Richard Wurmbrand

[MEMOIR/ HISTORY/ UNDERGROUND CHURCH/ COMMUNIST PRISON]

Pastor Richard Wurmbrand takes a clear, head-to-head stance against the communists who imprisoned him 14 years for his faith. Disgusting torture and brainwashing are some hideous examples of life in the communist prison.

Interestingly, Wurmbrand openly denounces hypocrisy in today’s western churches. He added that underground churches in restricted countries are relentlessly performing the wish of Christ, in the face of adversity and repression. I used to think Church and State are antagonistic rivals – not completely so in the Soviet Russia and contemporary socialist nations.

  1. Between Shades of Gray_ by Ruta Sepetys

[SOVIET LABOR CAMP/ HISTORICAL FICTION/FRIENDSHIP/ LOVE/ARTS]

This book is comparable to the classics of Holocaust literature, except it is about a larger-scale genocide under the Soviet Union. In the worst conditions of the Soviet Labor camps, love and hope still shined. I doubt if this book will be translated into Vietnamese or be circulated here in Vietnam.

  1. Shades of Gray_ by Carolyn Reeder

[American Civil War/ the American South/ Coming-of-age/ Courage].

I write about this book in details here.

  1. O’Henry Short Stories Collection.

This book is required in my American Literature class. O’Henry, a talented story-teller, brings to his short stories the aspects of his own life (travel, disgrace, obscurity, fame, honor, and then neglect). My favorite stories are “The Last Leaf”, “The Gift of the Magi”, “One Thousand Dollars”, “Conscience in Art.”

O’Henry’s stories are historically significant since they talk about common people in New York City in late 19th-early 20th-century years, though they are criticized for being sentimental. I find his very honest and humane, in contrary. Three example stories are here.

  1. Red: My autobiography_ by Gary Neville

[AUTOBIOGRAPHY/ PROFESSIONAL SOCCER]

A soccer superstar offers his refreshing “career look-back”. Read my book review here.

  1. The Mekong: Turbulent past, uncertain future_ by Milton Osborne

[SOUTHEAST ASIAN HISTORY/ INDOCHINA]

A very good introduction to Indochina (Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam) studies. Milton Osborn is a historian, a Southeast Asia expert with significant experience in his field. Not only do you read about the river’s history, you will also know about the civilizations along its shore, the religions, ethnicities, the fish harvest crises, the current dams controversy, the China-ASEAN relation regarding the exploitation of the Mekong river.

  1. Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers rise to global dominance and why they fall_ by Amy Chua (Yale Law School)

This book couldn’t be more relevant for the current immigration issue in America. The United States is globally dominant; but how long can it maintain its position when other superpowers, i.e. China, India, the EU, are rising? Professor Chua argues that, for all the stains in American history, the United States has been relatively tolerant of ethnic divisions and assimilation. However, its growing multicultural society is inherently volatile. Could it repeat the mistakes by the Ottoman Empire, the Roman Empire, the Mongol Empire? What are the implications for the U.S. immigration laws? This is a good book to read before the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election.

  1. The Defining Decade _ by Meg Jay, Ph.D

If you are seeking life purposes, this study-motivational book will provide you the know-hows. The author has expertise in her psychology field, coining the term “Identity Capital” – the intangible, personal assets that you accumulate over time. I highly support her point that young people in their twenties should work and learn as much as they can to secure this “identity capital”. The rest of the book is not ground-breaking to me.

–> Check out her TED talk, Why 30 is not the new 20.

  1. Hà Nội trong mắt tôi (Hanoi in my eyes: A collection of short stories)_ by Nguyễn Khải

[AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL SHORT STORIES/ FAMILY & TRADITIONAL VALUES]

Don’t be confused by the title. The book is mainly about the humans of Hanoi in the 1970s, late 1980s and early 1990s. Some stories moved me deeply, i.e. those about the mothers, the wives, the disintegrated families in the face of a changing society and market economy.

(This book is currently only in Vietnamese. I am going to translate some of the stories into English.)

21+. “The History of Russian literature” and “European Romanticism and Literary Realism”, two college textbooks written by Vietnamese scholars in the 1980s. Once in a while, it is helpful to read books that overview the entire nation or region’s literary history.

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I did not finish “Life of Pi” by Yann Martel, “Demian” by Hermann Hesse, and “Arrowsmith” by Sinclair Lewis. These are all great books which I plan to finish and review in 2016.

What did you read in 2015? Please share with me. I will be back with a “2016 to-be-read” list. Cheers!

Education for women: a promising direction to reducing poverty in Vietnam

In college freshman and sophomore years, I wrote plenty of essays for (inter)national essay contests (which sadly never won, by the way. Competition is fierce!)

This following essay sprang from my many trips to my hometown, plus the review of literature and U.N.D.P documents. Its genesis was actually from my watching CNN Hero of the Year, December 2011, which featured Robin Lim, an extraordinary activist in Indonesia. Then I was completely dumbfounded to know of a girl who was “fighting” the Taliban for her education, later she was known to the world as the youngest person to win the Nobel Peace Prize (2014). A year later, I decided to send this essay to an international contest held in Indonesia, September 2012. I had just turned twenty years old at that time.

The contest’s theme was “Dreaming of a World without Poverty.”  So, what are your dreams for the world without poverty?

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Women in developing countries have limited access to basic social services such as primary health care, education, nutrition, shelter, etc. In Indonesia, when giving birth, many women cannot afford sanitary deliveries, leading to a higher possibility of death in the following twelve months. In parts of Pakistan, it is culturally accepted or forced that women stay home; schools for girls are closed down because of the Taliban’s use of violence. These causes deprived women of essential life skills and social services, which brings them to the verge of human rights violation, such as women trafficking, forced labor, or sexual exploitation. According to the United Nations, “poverty” is defined as “not having a school or clinic to go”, “insecurity, powerlessness and exclusion of individuals, households and communities,” and “susceptibility to violence.” From this point of view, these women are not living in poverty; they are living in destitution. These are two cases in the fourth and sixth most populous countries in the world. Let’s have a closer look at the situation in Vietnam.

Unlike Pakistan with an extremely low rate of women employment, Vietnam has done a good job in recent years in improving women’s employment. The Vietnamese government has provided more opportunities for women to access social activities, from governmental jobs, foreign trade activities, to home-based businesses, etc. Many women now become the bread-winners of their families, even leaders in community services. After “Doi Moi” (Vietnamese economic reform in 1986,) Vietnam successfully reduced poverty rate from 60% in 1990 to 18.1% in 2004.1 Nevertheless, serious problems persist, which might prevent Vietnam from eradicating poverty.

Throughout Vietnam, especially in rural areas where 70% of the population lives, boys are favored over girls largely because of their future responsibilities: performing ancestor worship, continuing the family line, taking care of the whole family, etc. Many families that follow strict patrilineal tradition cross the two-child limit, continuing to produce babies until they have a son. This consequently leads to overpopulation, serious sex-ratio imbalance, and gender disparity. Moreover, while educational opportunities for boys are well-provided, girls are often overlooked. Nowadays, girls in vastly agricultural-based areas do not receive adequate education; consequently, they enter the labor force even before reaching the age of sixteen. Their parents are lured to the factories in industrial zones by the prospect of better-paying jobs, working from dawn till dusk, thereby hardly caring for their children’s education. Without standard education, girls and women are vulnerable to a variety of threats. They are at a higher risk of unwanted pregnancies, of having unsafe pregnancy terminations or sexually-transmitted diseases including HIV. In addition, many women are tricked into underground businesses such as forced labor, trafficking and prostitution. Even more dangerously, after being exploited and involved in those businesses, they can be ostracized or discouraged from integrating into the society.

In my dream, a Vietnam without poverty is where everyone receives a quality education. Vietnam is an ethnically diverse country with 54 different ethnic groups, among which the Kinh (Việt) make up nearly 90% of the population. Kinh people have more access to basic services such as public health, education, clean water and electricity; those available to other ethnic groups are extremely limited. It is challenging to bring public resources and facilities to rural areas, not to say remote, mountainous regions. In the meantime, the better way to protect women from the above-mentioned threats is through Education. Being more aware of the threats, they are more likely to be able to protect themselves and one another. Educating women should focus on two directions: one is vocational training; the other is through social empowerment. Both should be at the grass-root level, so that even underprivileged women can participate in.

Firstly, vocational education serves the need of educating women at the grass root level. Currently, Vietnam’s workforce is still largely unskilled with poor education. 22.2% of Vietnamese women are unpaid family workers, compared to 11.8% of men.2 This indicates that a large proportion of women are falling out of micro-businesses and falling back into family-based businesses where the paid income is precarious. Women from less-developed, ethnic communities cannot afford a well-rounded education; as a result, they need vocational skills to earn a living. Jobs like sewing tapestries, making pottery, jewelry, basket weaving, painting, cooking, etc. go a long way in increasing employment, creativity and cohesion in the society. Enhancing agricultural, farming, nursing techniques can actually enable them to support one another in their local communities. Vocational training is practical, easy to understand, and easy to spread out. It creates jobs so that people (including women) will not take part in dangerous, illegal activities such as growing narcotic plants, mineral over-exploitation, deforestation, illegal hunting, gambling, trafficking, etc.

Secondly, women need social empowerment. That women afraid to stand up for their rights is a worldwide phenomenon, particularly in Asian cultures. Girls and women need encouragement and motivation to come out of their comfort zone to stand up against violence, sexual abuse, and discrimination. They need both physical and emotional support from the society to raise their demand for essential health services. For example, Vietnam has the highest rate of abortion in the region and all over the world. The abortion rate among teenagers was 25% in 2010 and is increasing rapidly.3 Lots of young teenagers do not (fully) understand the importance of sexual and reproductive health. Once they have had unwanted pregnancy and been known by the public, many seek secret abortion despite its detrimental complications; some even commit suicide. Communities have been trying to create a welcoming environment for them; but the progress has been slow. Family planning, safe pregnancy and HIV prevention methods are among the programs being multiplied; girls and women should regain their confidence, social status, thus constraining the AIDS epidemic.

Women are one-half of the world, playing a crucial part in maintaining peace and stability. As a result, a women-sensitive society will ensure productive results. Poverty reduction requires international cooperation as well as interdisciplinary measures, among which education’s vital role is undeniable. Education for women will open up a door for prospective changes, helping Vietnam eradicate extreme poverty and hunger in 2015 as part of Millennium Development Goals.

 

References

1  United Nations, Vietnam, Vietnam at a glance.

2  United Nations Development Program, Social Services for Human Development: Vietnam Human Development Report 2011, box 2.2, p.31.

3  United Nations, Vietnam, Achieving the MDGs with Equity, MDG 5: Improve maternal health, 2010.

“Home” – Short Story by William Somerset Maugham (1874-1965)

This is a mid-term essay that I wrote in English Literature class, analyzing the short story “Home” by William Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) – a British writer famous for his novels, “The Moon and Sixpence“, “Of Human Bondage“, “The Razor’s Edge“, and “The Magician“. Maugham’s short stories are famous for the hidden satire, which sometimes requires us to know the British culture and history to comprehend.

To improve your literary writing skills, please follow my blog by Follow Button. I will post more writing guides to guide you in writing.

Here are some outstanding books that mention Maugham’s stories.

Penguin Outstanding Short Stories

Mind the Gap – Short story study guide, grade 12

Let’s Read and Discuss, by European Humanities University

Sixty-five Stories, by W.S. Maugham (“Mr. Know All” & “The Escape” are two stories taught at my school, the University of Languages and International Studies, VNU.


Question:  In the story “Home” by William Somerset Maugham, captain Meadows was introduced by the narrator with respect and admiration. Do you share this opinion? Use details from the story to support your ideas.


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It is never easy to analyze a well-written short story, often because there is very little unfolded. This is true for William Somerset Maugham’s short stories because his are often autobiographical and abundant in nuances. “Home” is an example of Maugham’s masterful storytelling. The main character, Captain George Meadows, appears in the second half of the story and is introduced quite favorably by the narrator. Nonetheless, the story ends with a solemn, yet satiric note, making us wonder whether the narrator truly respects and admires this man. Let’s go deeper into the character to find out the truth.

The story begins with a homestead lying “among the Somersetshire hills”. The family is traditional in that ever since the house was built, “from father to son they had been born and died in it.” Captain Meadows is introduced in a rather awkward situation: he had deserted home to live “an exile’s life”, and for more than fifty years, nobody ever heard of him. Now crippled with rheumatism and longing for home, he left the sea and went home to see once more the house where he was born and grew up in. Arriving home, the Captain faced the reason (or more correctly, the person) that he left for a sailor’s life: Emily Green (now Mrs. Meadows), once courted by Captain Meadows, chose to marry his elder brother.

The narrator, who was a friend visiting the family, felt that the story of Captain George Meadows was like an “old ballad”. Had we been in the narrator’s shoes, we would have felt the same. We would expect to see a rough man of profound naval experience. Both the narrator and Captain Meadows had been to China and the Oriental coasts; a heart-to-heart talk could be expected. Therefore, ours and the narrator’s first impression of Captain Meadows were that he was brave, strong-minded and had a lot of sea experience.

However, the rest of the story tells us very little about the narrator’s viewpoint. Rather, the real Captain Meadows was left to the reader’s interpretation. This is not a surprise because in Maugham’s novels as well as short stories, there is hardly anything purely good or purely bad, purely saint-like or purely evil. In order to conclude, we have to put the characters and the events in the complexity of the environment surrounding them.

We see that Uncle George Meadows (Captain Meadows) did not have an easy life. Even though he was brave and adventuresome, in the mind his family, he was not a man of high stature or stability; he was wild and indecisive; and for many years overseas he had done everything but “to make a fortune.” This made him a less desirable man to Emily Green, who sought stability and firmness, a shoulder she could rely on.

Captain Meadows came home in a rather weak condition: toothless, crippled, old and penniless. This image might have inspired sympathy from the narrator. It might have inspired admiration and respect for the glory of Captain Meadows’ life. But does this kind of admiration and respect resonate with the admiration we come across in the story’s beginning? the kind of respect for a man of adventure and thrill-seeking? It might not. By now Captain Meadows seemed like a burden to his family; his many experiences became meaningless. The strong man could now barely walk with his own two feet.

In my conclusion, the “admiration and respect” that the narrator felt for Captain Meadows changes as the story proceeds, but subtly. We cannot look at the outer layer, the glowing skin of the matter and judge somebody’s opinion. In the end, Emily Green had made the right decision to marry Tom Meadows (Captain Meadows’ brother). “Fate had been kind: death had written the full stop in the right place”. Captain Meadows died at home where his past generations had been born and died. The narrator at this point might have had another kind of “respect and admiration”: for a man who valued his family’s tradition and who made his final, and perhaps most sound decision in his adventurous life. Who can tell?

“The Selfish Giant”: Even Something Ugly Could Become Beautiful in Nature

I wrote this essay in a 60-minute test for the English Literature class (Spring 2015), studying the short story The Selfish Giant by Oscar Wilde. An example of story-telling mastery, its style is a detour from that in The Picture of Dorian Gray; more tender and magically sweet, more similar to that of Flaubert’s Three Short Tales. In this essay, I only analyze the setting of the story. Before you proceed reading, I recommend reading Oscar Wilde’s original story here.

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For people studying or interested in English literature, Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) is not a strange name. His exuberant personality, his eccentric and flamboyant fashion style, and perhaps his infamous arrest and imprisonment for being homosexual – all left his indelible marks on earth as a passionate artist who adored beauty. His novel, plays, and short stories usually embrace philosophical and/or theological questions. “The Selfish Giant”, a short story from “The Happy Prince and other Tales” (1888), is an excellent example. After emerging in in the dazzling nature in the story, readers are left surprised at the story’s revelation. But, is the setting of the story also significant for us to understand the protagonist, the Giant, at all?

Firstly, the “setting of a story” is the physical place, the scenes, time and space of the story. No characters can function alone without their interaction with the physical place. In return, the physical surrounding environment affects the characters physically and emotionally. “The Selfish giant” revolves around a big garden owned by a giant, the natural changes, and the human interactions within it. On the outset, the garden was quite desolate because the giant had hung on the gate a big sign saying “Trespassers will be prosecuted”, shoving away everyone. It was covered with snow, frost, hail, and wind. The trees never gave fruits. There was no delightful music.

These physical features obviously indicate that for such a selfish giant, the world he resides was not at all comfortable; or he deserved to live in that lonely, depressing castle. As we read on, we clearly see that the giant’s mood and his “selfishness” started to change when the poor little children snuck in the garden to play. Suddenly, there was warmth and joy in the garden; there was jovial music and laughter, which “melted” the giant’s heart. He realized that the Spring didn’t come to his garden because he was so selfish and cruel. The stone wall, the symbol of isolation between the two world, his and the happy outside world, was knocked down. This makes me think of the joy and ultimate freedom that people from West Germany and East Germany finally achieved when the Berlin Wall was torn down, 1989. Oscar Wilde’s story is timeless in hinting that no “walls” would bring unity and freedom. Knocking down his wall surrounding the garden, the giant made a huge leap forward, changing his attitude towards the world (and truly, who he was). He became more loving, more generous, more SELF-LESS. As a result, we the readers become more sympathetic with him.

Another striking feature was the story’s time lapses and the seasonal changes. They seem to represent human lifespan: spring represents youth, winter old age. Perhaps dying in the “winter” would be most painful. At the end of the story, Wilde let the giant die, which was a very solemn note for a children’s story. However, the giant did not die in solemn winter, but “under the tree, all covered with white blossoms.” The giant came to a more beautiful, eternal garden called “paradise”. The story’s message is that the good and loving, the self-sacrificing are rewarded generously. The giant started out no less similar to us: insecure, selfish, at times self-seeking. But he could change for the better; he stepped bravely forward and admitted his mistakes; he could sense and smell the wonders of this beautiful world. He could be better, and so do we.

“The Selfish Giant” has a rich source of Biblical fables; the setting of the garden (twelve trees, spring, flowers, etc.) somehow suggests a longing for Paradise. Put in a decaying moral world of the late Victorian era, the story still resonates Queen Victoria’s ideal of a peaceful loving world embraced by Christian values; a world where the righteous are rewarded eternal life. Keeping this note in mind, we come to another lesson that “The selfish giant” espoused: We do make mistakes in our life, but as long as you repent, there is a way to forgiveness and salvation, as was the case for the selfish giant.


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Visit Penguin readers guide for the summary and exercises to better understand the story: http://www.penguinreaders.com/pdf/downloads/pyr/factsheets/9780582456099.pdf

See the animated film on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=btNVUWikg7M

Gustave Flaubert’s “Trois Contes” (Three Tales): A seminar in Hanoi

“The French Literature in Vietnam” seminar series continued with its 3rd meeting, at the French Culture center L’Espace, November 25, 2015. This time, the guest speakers and audience engaged in Gustave Flaubert’s “Trois Contes” (Three Tales).

Four distinguished guest speakers took the lead.

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From left to right: Mr. Phạm Xuân Nguyên, Madame Lê Hồng Sâm, Dr. Trần Hinh, Dr. Phùng Ngọc Kiên.

Madame Lê Hồng Sâm, translator and former professor of French Literature, the University of Social Sciences and Humanities. Madame Sâm spent her childhood immersing in the French literary world in Colonial Vietnam, during the 1930s. She was the teacher and mentor of the other three speakers in this event.

Mr. Phạm Xuân Nguyên, current president of the Hanoi Literary Circle. A well-known literary critic and translator, he translated many important works from French, Russian, and English into Vietnamese.

Dr. Trần Hinh, head of the Aesthetics Studies Program, Literature Faculty, the University of Social Sciences and Humanities. Mr. Hinh has been teaching at the university since 1976, (co-) writing literature textbooks for secondary and college students in the country.

Dr. Phùng Ngọc Kiên acquired a Master in Comparative Literature at Université Marseille (France, 2006) and a Ph.D in French Literature at Université Paris – Diderot (2013). He is specialized in the 19-20th French Literature, with his Ph.D particularly on Gustave Flaubert.

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To begin the seminar, the speakers defined “conte” (a tale) means, as compared to “nouvelle” (novella/ news) and “récit”(a narrative). “Récit” can be translated as “narrative”, i.e. telling stories, memoirs, novel, historical fiction, fable, etc.  “Nouvelle” is either a piece of news or novella. “Conte” is a tale, similar to a fable, recounting the past or legends. Tales are short texts, containing supernatural elements (e.g, the enchanted items, talking animals, transformation, etc.)

The seminar went on discussing individual tales from each speaker’s perspective.

“Three Tales” is a fascinating work, rich with Christian allegories. Each tale was written in approximately six months, published in 1877 during Flaubert’s later career. If you have read Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, “Trois Contes” will surprise you because it is very different from Flaubert’s satiric, hyper-realistic style.

The first tale is “A simple heart”, about a poor uneducated housemaid named Felicité, who lived a simple, unexamined life. She had suffered great losses, but continued to her last breath to love unconditionally, despite receiving little or mistreatment in return. Felicité had no husband, no children. Her only love married a wealthy woman to avoid conscription. As a servant, she devoted her life to her mistress’s daughter; when that daughter died, she redirected her love to the Caribbean parrot named Loulou. She died peacefully besides her beloved parrot, which appeared at the end like an incarnation of the Holy Spirit.

The second tale is “The Legend of Saint Julian the Hospitalier”. It evokes the Oedipus story in Greek literature, in which a king killed his own father and mother. The tale is vivid with details about nature, sometimes with horrific description of Julian’s great cruelty towards animals, culminating in a massacre of a valley of deer and his Oedipus curse. The tale ends with Julian ascending to heaven after having lived a life of servitude and helped a leper (who turned out to be an angel, a messenger of God).

For Christians and those familiar with the Christian Bible, the third tale “Herodias” is indeed very familiar. It retells the death of John the Baptist in the Book of Matthew, New Testament. John the Baptist criticized King Herod of Galilee for marrying his brother’s wife – Herodias. Herodias, considering this utmost insolence, concocted John the Baptist’s beheading. The tale ends with John’s disciples awaiting their Messiah.

Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880) is truly a meticulous author – something visible in his prose and syntax; his style seems to be ahead of his time, closer to the 20th century modernism. Indeed, Madame Lê Hồng Sâm compared Flaubert to an alchemist pursuing stylistic perfection, inventing “gueuloir” – a tradition to re-read the sentences in a loud voice to seek and eliminate repetitions. Hugo, Kundera, Kafka all respected and said great things about Flaubert, though he was not as prolific as Honoré de Balzac or Émile Zola.

Part of the seminar focused on Flaubert’s literary circle, particularly his friendship with George Sand (1804-1876). Flaubert’s longtime correspondent and influential friend, George Sand (famously quoted, “There is only one happiness in life, to love and to be loved”). Sand had been in romantic relationships with the pianist Frédéric Chopin and the writer Alfred de Musset. George Sand’s passionate life might have influenced Flaubert in “A Simple Heart”. However, the impact of her unconventional, rebellious, dynamic life and sexuality on Flaubert were not discussed in the seminar.

One question was whether Flaubert implied satire in his three tales, particularly in “A Simple Heart”. The speakers agreed that Flaubert hinted no satire or criticism of the church, despite the elements of contrast (i.e. the protagonist’s name Felicité vs. her unhappy losses, her misplaced worship of the parrot). However, they do suggest his melancholy and disillusionment with the Roman Catholic Church at the time.

You can go to this website, choose a format and download the free eBook: http://manybooks.net/authors/flaubert.html

“Trois contes” is accessible in Vietnamese translation- “Ba truyện kể” (2015), published by Nhã Nam. This classic work is short but well-worth reading. I highly recommend.

Overall, “Trois Contes” and the seminar gave me a good introduction to Flaubert – a French author not yet popular in Vietnam. I was happy, though travelling there in a rainy winter evening cost me a soaked pair of shoes. 🙂