Reviews / December 2014 (Issue 26)

Defining Vietnamese Literature: Khế Iêm's Traces of My Homeland

by William Noseworthy


Khế Iêm, Traces of My Homeland Dấu Quê: Poems, Tân Hình Thúc Publishing Club, 2013. 173 pgs.


In Traces of My Homeland, Khế Iêm once again strikes up his ongoing struggle to earn a place for Vietnamese literature in translation among readers, teachers, students and scholars across the English-speaking world. In this struggle, it is safe to say that Khế Iêm has not always avoided critique. Linh Dinh, for example, has argued, fairly and accurately, that Khế Iêm has over-emphasised the impact of Vietnamese New Formalist poetry, and as a result, if a reader were only read to Khế Iêm's work, he/she would not be introduced to a fair representation of Vietnamese Poetry in diaspora. Let us not forget that the two are not rivals, but colleagues. Both seek to promote the understanding of a sophisticated literary tradition that dates back hundreds of years—while also demonstrating that this literature can take on new styles. In a recent collection of poetry, this discussion caused Linh Dinh to specifically highlight some of Khế Iêm's "pre-new formalist work." However, Linh Dinh's arguments have not deterred Khế Iêm—and Traces of My Homeland features a collection of more than one hundred pages of New Formalist poetry. The book was conceived as a follow up to a conference that was to be hosted by the famous Sông Hương literary journal of Huế. Although the conference was sadly cancelled as a result of the devastating hurricane that struck Vietnam's coast after first hitting the Philippines, a bilingual conference volume was published through a joint venture between Tân Hình Thúc Publishing Club (based in California) and Sông Hương Publishing. As with his previous works, Khế Iêm's thus continues to publish and to organise international translation projects as a means of building an intellectual bridge across the Pacific.

A read through the poems collected in Traces of My Homeland suggests that Khế Iêm is specifically attempting to create works that will gain popular readership in both the United States and in Vietnam. To do so is an incredible undertaking. Although Vietnamese and English both have their most ancient roots in monosyllabic languages, the decreased emphasis on rhyme and increased emphasis on simplistic rhythm found in Vietnamese verse is difficult to express in English translation. Similarly, popular American emphasis on rhyme (initially drawn from Arabic poetry), slant rhyme and truncated rhythm (originally from African American poetry and music) is challenging to capture in Vietnamese. In Vietnam, there has also been a preference for certain classical forms—especially 6/8—and themes—for example, work about the quê hương or "hometown"—and so more "revolutionary" poets, such as those of the m miêng or "open mouth" generation, have had greater difficulty getting published.

Khế Iêm's publishing strategy can be seen as one that argues for a middle ground between styles: nothing too revolutionary, nothing too traditional. Within this frame, however, it has become clear that it is impossible to read Khế Iêm's poetry without a basic understanding of Buddhist concepts. For example, in his own response to Tom Riordan's introduction, Khế Iêm invokes the concept of no-self—although oddly enough, he does not comment upon the manipulation of the concept of the avatar in the era of Facebook. Yet he also speaks to the lived experience of an increasing number of "modern individuals." We are children of multiple nations, of multiple heritages, founding new traditions as we:

…breathe into life
Clay figurines of herders
Reach out to pinch the
Vanishing smoke
   Tick tock
   Angled in a two-faced, one worded world
   (who, beyond words, is)
Redrawing the images that have become
The road fans out
[we] know not which path holds vestiges of [our] former  ["Homeland (Traces of My Homeland)"]

The above quote represents Khế Iêm's expressed experience. It has to be said that in the published English translation, "I" is used instead of "we." However, this reviewer has changed the personal pronoun to a collective one in order to make Khế Iêm's statements more universally applicable. It should be noted that the Vietnamese version of the poem uses no pronoun whatsoever, leaving the subject-object relation of the statements completely open. Given my personal communication with the author and years of reading his work, I hope that my change will not offend the translator's sensibilities. Even though the author clearly intended to express his own experiences as a Vietnamese refugee—or perhaps those of Americans, Vietnamese and Vietnamese Hải Ngoại (overseas)—by switching the pronoun, I hope to make the "title track" of this collection reflect humanity more generally.

There are questions in Traces of My Homeland, however, that cannot be divorced from Vietnamese literature and history. As the author writes:

               travelling troubadour
                           Turn up a face no longer
               Breathing         (and already ugly)
   Bulging with sound      and meaning
                                       Play with                     guerilla
                                       Tactics snipe away one at a time
                                       Until                sick and tired
   Then                pretend to be a black sheep
               That keeps around in circles
               To make  ["A living (Making a living)"]

Here we are offered a classic image that may be obscure for those unfamiliar with Vietnamese culture. In the early twentieth century, travelling troubadour troops were one of the most popular forms of entertainment in Vietnam. Although they have continued until the present, they have never regained the popularity they experienced at the beginning of decolonisation. They were so popular, in fact, that anti-French communist-leaning guerrillas initially relied upon the troops for many of their actions. By using these travelling performers as a metaphor for the later experiences of the Vietnamese overseas, Khế Iêm is invoking a revolutionary image that is neither characteristic of much of the poetry being published in Vietnam nor of much of his own work. Nevertheless, given the popularity of troubadour troops in the north—where Khế Iêm lived until he relocated to the south (and subsequently Malaysia and the United States)—the image is provocative. The poem is a dead lead in to the second part of the collection, which focuses much more specifically upon the Vietnamese experience. Although this part may be more difficult to divorce from the context of Vietnam and the Vietnam Wars, as well as diaspora experiences and literature, it would be an extremely valuable contribution to any classroom seeking to engage with these questions.

The third part of Traces of My Homeland also diverges a bit from Khế Iêm's recent works, by offering translations of an earlier short play The Blueish Green Prison, which was composed in 1984. In this work, Khế Iêm has attempted to create a play, or rather a short series of scenes that read a bit like recited poetry. The work is certainly an interesting intellectual exercise and one that is typical of Khế Iêm's work, like his recent suggestion of link poetry composed by multiple authors or his attempts to introduce concepts like chaos theory and the butterfly effect into Vietnamese translation. This short play ought to be read with such an exercise in mind. It should also be noted that the play is non-fiction. It is in such cases that Khế Iêm's work is the most valuable: routed in a definitive narrative experience in which the author states at the outset that he is representing an archetype and yet, in so doing, admits that he is not sure how this archetype will play out, but hopes that his work will lead to a better understanding of Vietnam, of America, of language, of poetry, of religion and even of the human experience.

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