Apocalypse is safe in the glass

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

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

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

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

I browsed through some of his national assembly addresses. A sense of self-assuredness cloaked in a camaraderie tone, whereas the early pages give away his fear and suspicion. Ironically, the very war-worn rural population that Lenin had promised “Peace, Land, and Bread” was wailing and falling deeper in crises; poverty was rampant while much done by the Party was relentlessly recruiting new “loyal” members and tightening the soviet control, militarily and ideologically.

I could never overcome asking why intellectuals, artists, religious people had to die so that the “blue-collars” and “peasantry” will rule the country. Glorifying communism was a significant part of my early life’ education, until I learned English and was able to read for myself.

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

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

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

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

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



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


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.

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.