Reviews / October 2017 (Issue 37)

Wild Mustard: New Voices from Vietnam

by William Noseworthy


Charles Waugh, Nguyễn Liên and Văn Giá (editors), Wild Mustard: New Voices from Vietnam, Northwestern University Press, 2017. 272 pgs.


In Wild Mustard: New Voices from Vietnam, the editors have proposed to gather, for the first time, a collection of contemporary short stories from Vietnam presented in English, written by authors who are not yet considered "canonical." As with any other language, translation from Vietnamese into English comes with its challenges. What do you do with the words that have multiple meanings? How do you translate xanh? Is it "blue," or is it "green"? What about bưởi? Is it "grapefruit" or "pomelo"? What about chanh? "Lime" or "lemon"? How about the multiplicity of family relations, encoded with specific cultural meanings, that can only be explained by most scholars with lengthy ethnographic commentary? How do you preserve the natural rhythm of the lines, even those contained within prose? Despite these many significant challenges, and others, the accomplished literary scholars and translators of Wild Mustard have produced a fantastically edited collection of short stories, with language that flows naturally across its pages, cresting a wave of recent "firsts" for Southeast Asian literature.

Indeed in recent years, there have been a number of significant "firsts" for Southeast Asian and Southeast Asian-American literature in English. In 2011, for example, M Vit: Vietnamese American Literature in English, 1962–Present became the first comprehensive overview of poetry, fiction, drama and memoir by Vietnamese-American authors, both those born in Vietnam and those born in the United States. Bones Will Crow, published in 2013, was the first collection of contemporary Burmese poets to be published in translation in the United States. 2014 saw the release of Troubling Borders, the first anthology to focus on the art and literature of Southeast Asian women in diaspora, and featuring many authors with family ties to the lands associated with former French Indochina: Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. In 2015, The Burden of Being Burmese became the first full-length Burmese poetry collection produced in English. And in 2016, Viet Thanh Nguyen won the Pulitzer Prize for the The Sympathizer, the first Vietnamese-American author to win the award.

As Michele Janette and Linda Trinh Vô argue in "Vietnamese-American Literature in English 1963–1994" in the Amerasian Journal (2003), there were more than one hundred volumes of Vietnamese-American literature published in English between 1963 and 2003, yet there were no comprehensive studies of these volumes. According to Janette and Vô, one unfortunate obstacle to the development of extensive investigations of these literary offerings was simple: it was rooted in American politics. Vietnamese-Americans' narratives didn't fit into either of the neat literary markets of the Conservative or Liberal socio-political spheres.[i]

Indeed, the uncomfortable link between American politics and literary markets helps explain at least in part why there has been a wave of Southeast Asian and Southeast Asian-American literature of late. Consider the appearance of Burmese literature in translation. Only after elections in 2010, and the announcement that US-Myanmar relations were on the path to normalisation, and as the climate for research and scholarly investment in Burmese culture was improving, did we then find collections being published in English. Could a similar link be put forward concerning Vietnamese literature? If so, why then was there not a comprehensive study of Vietnamese authors produced in the 1990s? In fact, there were several. The Other Side of Heaven (1995), Vietnam: A Traveller's Literary Companion (1996) and Love After War (2003) were all published in this context. But all of these books focused on authors that had been born before 1975, and thus represented a significant portion of the "old guard" of the Vietnamese literary scene.

Vietnamese literature still suffers from the difficulty of the almost utter refusal of Americans at large to think about Vietnam without obsessing over the so-called Vietnam War. For example, if we take the year that American troops left Vietnam (1973), as a marker, it is possible to claim, as Brian Evenson has done, that the focus of Wild Mustard is on authors that were born after the war. If we take the years 1955 to 1975 to mark the Second Indochina War (i.e. the Vietnam War), however, as most now do, then more than half of the authors of Wild Mustard were born before the end of the war. And if "born after the war," is the criteria for marking a new generation of Vietnamese authorship, which war are we to consider? Are we to only consider the First Indochina War (1946–1954) and the Second? How about the Sino-Vietnamese War (1979), or the border conflict with Cambodia, which resulted in the occupation of Cambodia (1978–1989)? Considering the ongoing violence which Vietnam has experienced, "born after conflict" cannot be the selection criteria for this volume, as none of its authors were born in a conflict-free country.

However, their age is significant. As early as 1990, nearly 40% of the Vietnamese population had been born after 1975, and the writers here fall largely into this demographic group. As a result, they all came of age during the era of the economic renovation (Đổi Mới, the 1980s) and the shift toward the open-door policy (Mở Cửa, 1990s). To provide some critical context for their generational experiences—while running water and electricity were relatively widespread in cities by the middle of the twentieth century, electricity was not common in the countryside until the 1980s and in-home running water wasn't until the 1990s. Considering these economic and demographic changes, Wild Mustard's focus on younger writers provides a very welcome update on a field that is regaining the energy and attention that it deserves: contemporary Vietnamese literature.

To help contextualise how the editors selected works for Wild Mustard, it is useful to consider how they became familiar with the individual pieces. A distinct majority of the authors[ii] have published with or won awards from the Vietnam Writers Association (VWA; Vn.: Hi Nhà Văn Vit Nam; also known as: the Vietnam Writers' Union), an organisation that was founded in 1957 and which is the largest and most prestigious, state-affiliated public literary association in the country.

Others writers in the collection published in the VWA affiliated Văn Nghệ magazine,[iii] while another significant number[iv] have appeared in or won literary prizes from the Army Literature and Arts association (ALA; Vn.: Văn Ngh Quân Đôi), which has also published its own literary journal since 1957. Since that time, the journal of the Army Literature and Arts association has released more than 700 issues, making it one of the longest-running literary publications in the country, even as Tp Chí Sông Hương (founded in 1983) has become the preferred publication in certain circles. Regardless, a publication with either the ALA or VWA is a career goal and has been a rite of passage for young authors in Vietnam, a marker that they have moved onto the national scene. In fact, the only writer who does not advertise at least one of these affiliations is Phan Thiều Hải, who was a student in the International Writing Program at Iowa University in 1998 and had a piece in Love After War.

Contrary to the prevailing view of Vietnamese literature in English that has been presented to date, the works in Wild Mustard come across as significantly less obsessed with "love" and "war" than other collections. It is refreshing. "War" is still present as a concept, yet, there is just one narrative, "Sounds of the Evening Bell," a reflection offered from the grounds of a Buddhist temple, which is explicitly a retrospective piece on the Second Indochina War. This is not to say that "love" and "war" are not present as themes throughout the stories. But it does reflect that more significant tensions that have appeared in Vietnamese life since 1975: the contest between "traditionalism," identified with small town or village life, and the processes of "urbanisation" is a theme present in virtually every single narrative. Furthermore, present as morsels throughout the narratives, we have reflections upon the Ede (an Austronesian ethnic minority in south-central Vietnam) and the Dao (pronounced "Yao," a Mienic ethnic minority in northern Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and southern China), as well as on Confucian, Buddhist and Vietnamese folk religions. Hence, the reflections and narratives presented within the collection provide valuable material for scholars of Religious Studies, Anthropologists, Historians and others, as well having a broad appeal for the general reader. All told, Wild Mustard is an unreserved success.


[i] Michele Janette & Linda Trinh Vô. 2003. "Vietnamese-American Literature in English," 1963-1994. Amerasian Journal. 29 (1): 267-286.

[ii] Đinh Ngọc Hùng, Đỗ Bích Thúy, Dường Bình Nguyễn, Kiều Bích Hậu, Lê Hoài Lương, Nguyễn Danh Lam, Nguyễn Ngọc Tú, Nguyễn Vĩnh Nguyễn and Phong Diệp.

[iii] Nguyễn Anh Vũ and Phạm Duy Nghĩa.

[iv] Đỗ Bích Thúy, Đỗ Tiến Thụy, Nguyễn Anh Vũ, Nguyễn Đình Tú, Nguyễn Thế Hùng, Niê Thanh Mai, Phạm Duy Nghĩa, and Phong Diệp.


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