Trai nước Nam làm gì?

 

img_3885

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.

Advertisements

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 matter-of-fact 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.

————

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.

—————

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!

Featured

“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 poverty, particularly by the stormy day that her fourth sibling Kimberly was born. “What an odyssey to grow 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 a far 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 I am constantly reminded of these beautiful images 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. Amid the massive urbanization, devaluation of college education, feeling of disorientation, we still long to return to an idyllic childhood. There are certain aspects of the Vietnamese countryside lost, but they have been recorded and imbued in such beautiful songs as “Quê hương”. Now wherever I go, whenever I miss my homeland, I would play this song out loud. Should I see star fruits in a supermarket in New York or Paris, … 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.

——————
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)

 

 

 

 

Featured

2015 – the year of magical Reading & Healing

Reading is a lonesome business, but for me it’s never lonely. Another stormy year has passed, but with books it left fertile ground for my friendships to grow most deeply. Thank you my friends, wherever you are, I am thinking of our walk-talks, our laughter, our time contemplating together.

2015 was a humble year for reading. I intended to read at least 30 books cover-to-cover, but eventually left several books unfinished. I tried hard to have difficult conversations with some authors who passed away decades ago. Following are some books that I have read, minus the “periodically re-read”, such as Emerson, Jonathan Edwards, and the Bible.

2015 goals
A few books that I read in 2015

———————————-

  1. Just Kids_ by Patti Smith

The single most important book in my 2015. Detailed review here.

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

Timeless, classic must-read for anyone who wants to advance writing, or communicate most effectively. Just don’t forget to practice after reading.

+ Print out the eBook 

+ 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

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]

I cried – reading this Holocaust memoir. One of the 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.

–> The eBook is available here.

  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]. See my book review 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 offering 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.

———————————–

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 will finsh 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?

essay


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.

I haven’t found the online version of “Home”, but 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.

And, a good Blog about W.S. Maugham


 

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.

 


 

41CEF7HWJZL._SX272_BO1,204,203,200_

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, for his are often autobiographical and abundant of nuances. “Home” is an example of Maugham’s mastery 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, which makes us wonder whether the narrator truly respect and admire 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”: Something concealed, Nature does reveal

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

‡Á¾


***

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.


 

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.

IMG_2846
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.

—————————

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. 🙂

“Shades of Gray” by Carolyn Reeder: Courage wears many faces

51VwO5GXzZL

This book is available at the American Center in Hanoi. The plot is following.

Will Page lived with his well-off family in Winchester, Virginia (a southern state) before the Civil War wiped out his loved ones. Now homeless, grieving and angry with the Union Army, Will has to live with his poor relatives in Piedmont, Virginia. Will’s father fought bravely in the Confederate Army, but Will’s guardian, uncle Jed, refused to take sides in the war. Thus, Will considers uncle Jed a coward and a traitor, a feeling shared by most of Jed’s neighbors.

At his uncle’s farmstead, Will is in the middle of his inner conflicts. Will’s family used to have slaves and didn’t have to do any real physical work. Now he has to share the labor work with his uncle’s family. Working alongside his uncle, Will gradually (and begrudgingly) comes to admire his skill and wisdom. He realizes that his uncle’s family actually have paid a high price for not joining the war. Embraced by his uncle’s family, Will begins to understand how others view the war. He decides to stay with his uncle’s family, despite an offer to live in a better place.

——The American Civil War (1861-1865) and the New South (southern U.S. states after 1865) are popular themes for historical fiction. However, the story tells adolescents’ thoughts and the American character in a vẻy natural and compelling way. Like any education novels, it focuses on many character-building themes.

First, it talks about courage. Will’s journey to find the true meaning of courage is both daunting and relentless. Initially, he thought that fighting valiantly for one side meant courage. However, living with his uncle’s family, Will realizes that courage also means standing up for one’s belief, even if it is radically different from others’. Courage also means treating the neighbors with respect and kindness, despite being misunderstood and criticized by them.

Second, bullying can be overcome with tolerance and grace. As a newcomer, Will has to defend himself and his cousin from the local children’s teasing and bullying. Sometimes it means playing cool and self-deprecating jokes. Sometimes it means sharing fishing skills, laughing off the grudge with a handshake. To any of us who has experienced bullying in childhood, this book is both a flashback and reflection on our own.

Third, it is about empathy and appreciation for hard work. Before, Will family had everything done for them, and especially they had plenty of books. Here in the countryside, everyone is struggling and working hard; Will does not let his ego voice any discomfort. In fact, with eagerness and joy, he grasps the skills of hunting, fishing, fixing the fences. He becomes best friend with his illiterate cousin and teaches her to read.

The novel’s pivotal moment is when Uncle Jed decided to nurse an injured former Union soldier (a Yankee), to Will’s indignation. After defying his uncle strongly, Will learns that not every Yankee was bad; that, during the war, many Yankees secretly defied their burning-barn orders, sparing some portion of the Confederacy crops and barns. Again, not everything is black and white, but has many shades of gray.

Anyone who loves the U.S. southern culture as much as I do will appreciate the cultural attributes in this book. For example, you will see familiar Southern food like beets, beans, and gravy; people will call “dinner” for “lunch”, and so on. The new South countryside is simply idyllic.

Having less than 160 pages and told in the 3rd person omniscient point of view, this coming-of-age novel is approachable to 6-7th graders and young adults alike. I recommend it to anyone with intermediate English proficiency and with an interest in American history and southern culture.

“Red”: a man’s love for Manchester United and professional football

RED

You have never seen a harder-working group of sixteen-year-olds in your life than the class of 1992 at United. […] There’s no doubt that we had an unbelievable work ethic. At the time we thought it was normal, but there’s no doubt looking back that we were an extraordinary group in our eagerness to practise.

We loved to play and work at the game. It’s no coincidence that we’ve all played into our mid-thirties, and beyond in Giggsy’s case. We’ve wanted to squeeze every last drop out of our careers from first kick to last.

–Red: My Autobiography, Gary Neville

Are you seeking a short break from literary fiction? Interested in sports memoirs/autobiographies? Are you a fan of Manchester United football club? If so, Gary Neville’s autobiography, “Red”, is perfect for you.

Gary Neville is a former footballer of Manchester United, the world-famous English football club. After spending his 20-year career playing for only MU, Neville retired in 2011 and released his autobiography shortly afterward. The book’s title Red” refers to the MU uniform color and the nickname that fans give Neville – a “Red” at heart.

The book has 25 chapters, chartering Neville’s life with MU and the people closest to him.

The first two chapters recount Neville’s childhood and family, whose impacts on him reverberate throughout the book. Narrated in a memoir style, these chapters feel both intimate and candid. Undeniably, Neville was born in a family of sport-enthusiasts; all three children were “sports-mad kids”. Discipline and healthy competition between brothers seem to foretell young Neville’s career.

The remaining chapters discuss Gary’s football career, professional relationships (i.e. with coaches, manager assistants, teammates, rival clubs), and perspective on the contemporary football industry.

Neville joined MU as an apprentice in 1991, won a major youth cup in his first season, then emerged as part of coach Alex Ferguson’s youth team (called “Fergie’s Fledglings”).

Six members of that Youth club went on to achieve global fame: Ryan Giggs, David Beckham, Gary Neville, Philip Neville, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt. “Class of 92”, as they were called, was part of the massive revolution in English football from 1992 to the Champions League in 1999.

dsafdsfa

Coach Eric Harrison (far left) with Ryan Giggs, Nicky Butt, David Beckham, Gary and Phil Neville, Paul Scholes and Terry Cooke, a group significant to Sir Alex Ferguson’s success and MU’s revival.

Neville openly admits that talent was not his edge, compared to his contemporaries. Instead, his magic potion has been an unfailing love for MU, and a serious work ethic. It also means an obsessive and ritual lifestyle: “If the coach said ‘run 5 miles’, we would run 6 miles”, eating the same meals, sleeping like clockwork (lights out at 9:15PM), and almost no time for romantic relationships, etc.

Professional football, in Neville’s confessions, seems to have many rituals found in the macho environment. Sometimes it includes hazing-like welcomes, excessive partying, boozing, gambling, explosive clashes among teammates and with coaches. These incidents shall be glared by the media at any moment. Another problem is each footballer’s responsibility to himself. A modern-day footballer is likely to be a robot, devoid of passion and spirit, argued Neville. Many footballers are “lazy and careless”, too dependent on their agents. Neville discusses these matters in the final three chapters, with a critical eye, but without pontificating.

About the book’s weaknesses, certain things dissatisfied me. First, some chapters are incoherent and not well-organized. For instance, when talking about transfer negotiations, the author wanders off points, ending with another Championship victory and a Christmas party. A chapter on Cristiano Ronaldo strays in the same pattern. Second, Neville refers to his team mates by using their nicknames, “Giggsy”, “Scholsey”, Butty”, “Wazza” (for Wayne Rooney), etc. causing confusion (for there are already so many names). Third, I anticipated seeing a vivid Alex Ferguson, the manager who guided MU to its golden era. Instead, his image is painted favorably and rather vague.

Nonetheless, I enjoyed reading this book and imagined a football fan would cherish it. Neville’s passion for football and for United drips off every page. Playing football with such passion and loyalty seems rare these days, especially when the football arena is full of million-dollar transfer stories and notorious negotiations. This book reminds me that success is an interesting journey, not a destination; that journey rewards those who keep passion and a serious work ethic.

“You cannot stay at the top in professional sport for very long without commitment and sacrifice. There is nothing worse than not making the most of your abilities. That is what the boss would remind us day after day after day. Be proud to say you work hard.”

Lastly, if you care about the Vietnamese men football which is struggling to progress, pick up this book. Not a book of instructions, but it has much that we benefit from reading.

 

khuhkdsfjasd

Winning team: Neville (front right) lift the Premier League trophy in 2007

**“Gary Neville is a Red”—a chant song by the FC fan.

Revelations after dusk

This is my first short story composed in English. Initially, it was for a practice at a Creative Writing club. I wanted, at heart, to tell a Vietnamese narrative that is reader-friendly to all of my friends who have known and been close to me; a story that is at once quintessentially Vietnamese and universal (universal in that you leave out its historical context and characters’ ethnicity). Yet its genesis and progression have magnified thousands of questions in my head.

The story went to several Writing clubs and received such polarized reviews that I reconsidered posting it publicly.

Sharing my thoughts and ideas in public has opened me up to criticism, but I understand that our living experiences can affect how we understand and feel about a text. It does not hinder, but contribute greatly to the varieties of our reading experience.

I have revised the wording, added a few lines, but the structure and atmosphere created remain the same. I hope you will get more ideas from this story. Please do not hesitate to put forward your questions in our conversation.


As the sun sank beneath the horizon, everything was suddenly cloaked in a uniform robe of darkness. Hanoi in 1995, except in the city’s center, life in the outskirts after dusk was reduced to the households. There was repeated experience of power shortages. That September evening, in a neighborhood not far off the main streets, fell in the same pattern.

A ten-year-old boy was holding a burning candle, busying himself in the old attic. The candle-light within radiated forth upon the windowsill; seen from the rice field, it set his small house apart from its neighboring dwellings. The boy carefully placed his candle on the table, away from the breeze, but close enough so that he could read what was in front of him.

Lying on the bookshelf were the works of Balzac, Pushkin, and Sholokhov; the book spines broken, their flaps torn and moth-eaten, but these heavy tomes projected an imposing character. The boy surveyed the book spines, carefully placed them to one side, then from the vacuum behind he pulled out and laid his treasures on the table.

On the wooden table lay some color tubes, brushes, a palette, and a tin pen box, which contained some neatly sharpened pencils and an old fountain pen. The pen was a classic Cleo Skribent, a quintessential product of the former East Germany. Its cap and barrel were old and tarnished, but the nib was still shiny. Its sophisticated and classy look fascinated the little boy. He opened the cartridge and dribbled some drops of ocean-blue ink into a water jar. He reveled in the thought of painting the rain, or the ocean, the moonlit sky; his eyes fixed on the diluting of the ink into the water.

At the sound of someone ascending, the boy caught his breath, trying to thrust everything on the table into the drawer. He accidentally knocked over his pen box and color jars; the metallic things splashed with a clang upon the concrete floor, and before he could realize it, his mother was standing in the room, speechless.

“What are you doing in the dark?” she inquired.

“I – I couldn’t find my fountain pen…”, he murmured, almost petrified, glancing at his mother then quickly elsewhere.

“It’s right there, on the floor. And why are you messing with the color tubes? Have you done your homework?”, asked the mother suspiciously.

On the candle-lit floor, the streams of colored water fused in an abstract expression, almost like that of the little boy. He answered almost inaudibly, “I will be doing it in a minute…”

As the boy was gazing at his feet, the mother walked slowly to him and lifted the pen. She paused for a second, then reposed on the chair next to him, with a nostalgic expression, almost like talking to herself.

“This is a special pen” she began, unconsciously surveying the writing instrument, “It was my father’s gift for my one-year-old birthday, shortly before he enlisted in the army in 1968.”

“But you told me that it was a gift from a Wise Man, when I came to this world!” his eyebrows raised in wonder.

“Your grandfather was indeed a wise man.” The mother’s voice became resolute. “He was the only person in our hometown to enroll in college. He studied to be a mathematics teacher, but was also an artist, won a literary award, for which he got this fountain pen.”

“An American bomber took his life in one of the fiercest battles in Quang Tri, close to the Laotian borders. His squad was evacuating a village from the blitz.” Her voice was low upon reflection.

The boy turned his head away, not speaking at all. He scratched his head in bewilderment. His eyes went from the colors on the floor to his mother.

“But grandpa was a Christian. God told us to love everyone. How could he fight the American? Christians are good people, aren’t they?”

There was a long solemn pause, and the only sound was the chirping of crickets. The mother arose; her eyes looking out of the window. The crescent moon was hiding itself beneath a veil of cloud.

She continued, her voice a little uncertain, “I am sure he didn’t want to. It’s not as simple as a matter of good versus evil. It is about the ideologies that people die to defend.”

“What ideologies, mother?” asked the boy impatiently.

“You … you are too young to talk about this. But this is just an example, will you protect your friend if he is bullied at school? Will you defend yourself if you are threatened or attacked?”

“But I shall not fight. I don’t want anybody to get hurt. I will grow up without following any ideologies, can’t I?” the boy was gasping, almost trembling.

The mother looked at him empathetically, patting him on his back.

“You see, the war is over. Now people – everyone is trying to make a living. It doesn’t help to argue which side was right, which side was wrong, neither does the blaming”…  “In everything under the heavens, there is a time for war and a time for peace, a time to weep and a time to laugh. It is now a time for peace and healing. ”

The little boy buried his head in his mother’s bosom, “But what if the Americans come back again?”

“Then you will use this pen,” she lifted the fountain pen before her son’s eyes, “Use this pen to tell the world that we are not an inferior people. It has magical power; it has your grandfather’s soul in it. You’re going to be fearless.”

“I love writing. I can do something with it!” the boy’s eyes were glowing with excitement.

“Since last month, our country and America have become friendly again. Soon there will be an embassy…” The mother looked at her child, her face beamed with a radiant smile. “Good news! If you work hard, one day you might become a diplomat.”

“Or an engineer…” she arose, talking in jest. “We need someone to bring more electricity to our village!”

The mother left the attic, calling back at him that it was time to prepare for dinner. But the boy was lost in his thoughts, looking out of the window, at a flickering blip moving across the sky; an airplane was somewhere at the horizon; one that doesn’t leave smoke trails. He wasn’t aware that his mother was pausing at the door, observing him dearly. As if nothing in the world mattered, not even his attic sanctuary, his eyes fixed upon the moving spark, unaware that he was squeezing the fountain pen.

After a moment, she turned and descended the stairs. She quietly entered her room, opening her closet.

In this secret corner, she pulled from the folded clothing a Bible, with a small picture of Virgin Mary holding her child Jesus. It almost became her ritual, whenever she needed strength, she would sit in this quiet corner and pray.

She only knew her father through the words of her mother, and through his letters, his poems and sketches on stained paper. On one letter were written “… Up on the high mountain tonight. Love you tenderly and wait for our good tidings.” She folded the letter, tucked them into the Bible, and pressed it to her chest. Her head tilted to one side, resting against the wall.

Did she feel a deep void, for the lack of a father’s love? Did she feel helpless because she couldn’t let go of that feeling? Was she optimistic or apprehensive about revealing the truth to her son? For, eventually, he would surely face infinite incongruities and dilemmas in his life, when things are rarely black and white. Should he find hope in a mystical Wise Man, or in his own grandfather, a mortal, imperfect man?

From downstairs, a rhythm was generating. It was from the TV set. The power was restored to the village. The woman carefully put away her things; she wiped a teardrop on her cheek and descended the stairs. It was time for supper.

The French Literature in Vietnam: A seminar

ljklk

“La Littérature française au Vietnam”, the first in a series of monthly seminars about the French literature in Vietnam, took place at the French cultural center L’espace, on September 23, 2015. The event attracted many seasoned teachers, researchers, and translators of the language, as well as interested students and graduates.

Existing for almost 150 years in Vietnam, the French language and literature have become part of the country’s artistic life. Looking into history and cultural development, three esteemed guest speakers chaired the discussion, offering fresh perspectives.

  1. Professor Lê Hồng Sâm, a former professor of French literature, acclaimed translator and poet. Growing up in the late 1930s when Vietnam was still a French colony and Vietnamese literature was secondary to a French education, she studied the French language intensely. Professor Sâm shared her vivid childhood anecdotes of immersing in the French literary world, its magical power that sustained her throughout the 1st and 2nd Indochina Wars, and later in her teaching and mentoring career.
  2. Dr. Phạm Xuân Thạch, head of the Literature faculty, the University of Social Sciences and Humanities. Dr. Thach entered university in 1991, a pivotal year marking the end of the Soviet Union. Therefore, he experienced first-hand this transition from a Soviet-influenced Vietnam to a modern country having its own identity. He also reflected on the current lacking of quality lecturers, especially in foreign-language literature, i.e. French, Russian, Japanese, and American literature.
  3. Literary critic and translator Phạm Xuân Nguyên. He talked about four major foreign literary streams in Vietnam: Chinese, French, Soviet, and English. Mr. Nguyên put forward an interesting question, “Is the fate of the French literature in Vietnam “CONDITIONED” to be declining, or does it have an internal fire that continues to kindle?” This points to the fact that we have seen an unprecedented growth of the English language, whereas that of the French or Russian seems to play an inferior role.

The answer exists in the large volumes of quality translation that readers of all ages enjoy. Some outstanding, widely-read authors were Rousseau, Hugo, Proust, Balzac, Flaubert, Maupassant, Stendhal, Sartre, Baudelaire, Verlaine , Antoine de Saint-Exupery, and the two recent Nobel Laureates Le Clezio (2008) and Patrick Modiano (2014). “The Little Prince” (Le petite prince) is perhaps the most widely read and loved.

I have detailed notes of the seminar; however, some points need discussing to put in this blog. The following questions should encapsulate the main points discussed:

– Is it, now in Vietnam, still relevant to study the French language? – to study French literature? – to study literature, at all?

– Why read foreign literature?  What universality exists between Vietnamese literature and the world literature?

– Is translating a piece of literature equivalent to “Comparative literature”, an academic field? What can be done to improve the quality of the translation?

For my part, I probed a question about the correlation between History and Literature; what to keep in mind when approaching a piece of historical fiction, specifically Stendhal’s seminal work Le Rouge et le Noir (The Red and the Black, 1830).

Professor Sâm responded with equanimity, explaining the historical background of this novel. The Red coats, the Black robes, the eagle in the sky, the fall of Napoléon Bonaparte, the new proletariats’ desire to break through the social ladders. She emphasized that while History and Politics do play a role in literature, we can always find out the universal themes in it: youth, friendship, love, hate, doubt, happiness, compassion, honor, pity, greed, and so on. Read literature to think and see differently, to have civil conversations across the differences in languages, and to understand your “self”.

What exactly is the point of living? Is happiness the sole purpose of living? What is crime and what is justice? What is friendship and why do we need it? …

This seminar asks more critical questions to the readers of literature, which I like a lot. Inspiring teachers and possibly life-changing books are not automatically available for me, which is why I need to keep searching. It is a long-term aspiration to find myself the answers.

Person-to-Person

By TENENESSEE WILLIAMS


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 determined 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, hope. One of those lines I memorize for life, “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 want you and me to feel that ideal materialize, in each other’s presence.

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

Featured

“Just Kids” by Patti Smith: a spectacular memoir championing Arts and 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, reread it in summer of 2015, and have mentioned this book all the time. It is so massive to me – not because the author is an iconic figure, the godmother of Punk – but for its candor, depth, and very human feelings – the things that I look for in memoirs.

Patti Smith, born in 1946, is the legendary Punk rock singer-songwriter, a poet, a visual artist and photographer. The book revolves around Patti Smith’s relationship with one of the most significant people in her life-her soul mate, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, and their evolution from young aspiring people to professional artists. Their friendship began in odd situations in New York, carried through the years; they both loved and hurt each other deeply. They supported each other 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 in the end endured even beyond Robert’s death in 1989.

Just kids is well-written from the beginning to its end. It is so liberating and uplifting; and yet 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 so human and relevant to me as a young person. What is the aim of a real artist? Should it be in “great zoos” (the museums) or be towards the PEOPLE? In a culture that still devalues and stifles individualism, it is not easy for me to find a means for self-expression that won’t be persecuted or bullied, except in doing small-scale paintings to convey my thoughts. But I am yet comfortable doing it for myself; I want to reach out and inspire those who are like me or less lucky than me. After reading Just kids, I believe that that mission is possible.

Many young aspiring artists who still question their paths, I think, will find inspiration in Mapplethorpe, for his absolute confidence and belief in arts. 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, took turns to see art exhibitions to report to each other; when they were so desperate that they had to pocket drawing supplies.

Just kids also dedicates a large proportion to the 1960s counter-culture, having an intrinsic historical value. In the 1960s-1970s, New York was a scary place to live; yet, it was the nurturing place for generations of artists, i.e. Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Janis Joplin, Dylan Thomas, Jimi Hendrix, Salvador Dalí, etc. Hotel Chelsea was a strikingly iconic place where these artists lived and frequented, the “salon d’Art” for ambitious and already esteemed artists alike. Patti and Robert were part of that artistic community, were mentored by many of those artists, and were simultaneously adding “fabrics” to that tapestry. All of these scenes are captured vividly in Patti’s classical 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 glad to have this book in my life. Please read the book, then listen to her recording “Paths that cross.”

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

* Some of Patti Smith’s greatest songs:

Horseshttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FPwOfwhpiW8

Paths that cross: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cln_1lthtC0

People have the power: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pPR-HyGj2d0

Fire of unknown origin: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y_2KIUuShbM