by Brian Foye
Near the end of “A Small Tragedy,” one of fourteen stories in Le Minh Khue's The Stars, the Earth, the River, a young man named Quang runs away from the woman he loves and hurriedly boards the Reunification Express. He is a French citizen of Vietnamese birth, but he's been forced to leave Hanoi for private reasons: his fiancée's father, it turns out, is also his biological father. Quang, the father, and the story's narrator (a newspaper reporter and cousin to this troubled family) are the ones who have pieced together Quang's identity. In the end the narrator receives a telegram that Quang has committed suicide in a distant hotel room. “Perhaps,” says the narrator, “behind every happiness or every sorrow lies the imprint of a culture.”
Le Minh Khue's stories from contemporary Vietnam are imprinted with separation. The mark of her stories, the imaginative pattern that fixes nearly every one, can be found in the forces at work which put and keep people apart. One historical approach to Vietnam would consider thousands of years of struggle against China's dynastic rulers and a century of struggle against French colonial interests, but it's hard to deny that the American War in Vietnam is the great divisive force that demands recognition. The devastation of that conflict is undeniable, almost indescribable. And yet there are other forces, all divisive, at work in The Stars, the Earth, the River: the land reform movements of Vietnam; foolish or corrupt government officials; profound human evil; simple human frailty. Le Minh Khue's gift, in her richly textured stories, is to see that these many forces of separation are often layered and inseparable.
In stories such as “The Almighty Dollar” and “Scenes from an Alley,” desire for the wealth and status of the West are woven into the fabric of startlingly violent and desolate lives. The characters in these stories are savagely anomic, and their separation from one another is violently clear. In even her brightest stories, however, Khue's characters are often physically and emotionally adrift. There are stories of star-crossed love, as in “The Last Rain of the Monsoon,” “Fragile as a Sunray,” and “Rain,” where the momentary joy of deep connection is marked by years of absent-spirited separation. Even the physical landscapes of her stories—a construction site in the central region that once marked the divide between the two Vietnams, a village committee building in a roadside hamlet, or just some place away from home—emphasize the sense of dislocation. The Reunification Express, full of that dreary irony of old-style communism, chugs through more than one story in the collection.
There is, as ever, hope for connection. The act of living, of forging ahead, is often a place for hope, and if some of Khue's characters are doubly crossed by their hard lot in life and their aching desire for a better one, then their self-conceptions are often direct and concrete. “Almost every morning some inconvenience would upset me,”says the narrator of “A Day on the Road.””But why did I still cherish that life and hope every day that it would keep getting better? I hoped that my pen would improve, that my tires and inner tubes would become more durable, that the rice would have fewer stones and fewer husks, that the ceiling of our house wouldn't collapse from too many leaks, and that I wouldn't have to live with any mice.”
Published by Curbstone Press, this book is the first in a series called “Voices from Vietnam.”Promising work by at least nine Vietnamese writers and augmented by an ambitious educational and community outreach program, such a series can only add to our inter-cultural understanding. The imprint of Vietnamese culture surely rests in all forms of connection, and in the finest sense of what a writer can achieve, Le Minh Khue's deep vision of the cost of human separation points the way to a genuine reunification.
Rain Taxi Print Edition, Vol. 2 No. 4, Winter (#8) | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1997