Duong, Thu Huong 1947-
Duong, Thu Huong 1947-
Born 1947, in Thai Binh, Vietnam; daughter of Duong Dinh Chau (a radio specialist and North Vietnamese military officer) and Ngo Thuy Cham (a primary schoolteacher); married, 1968 (divorced, 1981); children: Minh (son), Ha (daughter). Education: Cultural Theory College, graduated, 1968.
Home—Hanoi, Vietnam. Agent—Phan Huydong, 82 Rue Prosper Legoute, 92160 Antony, France.
Writer, screenwriter, novelist, and political activist. Cultural activities guide and member of theatrical troupe in Vietnam, until 1975; Hanoi Feature Film Studio, Hanoi, Vietnam, screenwriter, beginning 1975.
Association of Vietnamese Filmmakers.
Prix Femina Etranger shortlist, 1992, for Paradise of the Blind, and 1996; Hammett-Hellman Grant for Persecuted Writers, 1992; Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres, France, 1994; International Dublin IMPACE Award shortlist, 1997; Prince Claus Foundation Award, 1999; Grinzane Cavour Literary Award, 2005.
Paradise of the Blind, translated by Phan Huy Duong and Nina McPherson, Morrow (New York, NY), 1993.
Novel without a Name, translated by Phan Huy Duong and Nina McPherson, Morrow (New York, NY), 1994.
Memories of a Pure Spring, translated by Phan Huy Duong and Nina McPherson, Hyperion East (New York, NY), 2000.
Histoire D'amour Racontee Avant L'aube, Editions de l'Aube (La Tour d'Aigues, France), 2001.
Beyond Illusions, translated by Nina McPherson and Phan Huy Duong, Hyperion East (New York, NY), 2002.
Myosotis, translated by Phan Huy Duong, Picquier (Arles, France), 2003.
No Man's Land, translated by Nina McPherson and Phun Huy Duong, Hyperion East (New York, NY), 2005.
Author of other novels written in Vietnamese, some of which have been translated into French, including Au-dela des illusions, 1997.
Author's works have been translated into twelve languages.
Dissident and novelist Thu Huong Duong is among the most popular writers in contemporary Vietnam, even though her writings are officially banned in her homeland. Her widely praised novels, which include Paradise of the Blind and Novel without a Name, were first translated into French for France's thriving Vietnamese expatriate community and later into English. Her works explore not only the political realities of post-war Vietnam, but also the quest to find meaning in daily life through art and love. Recognized internationally for her contribution to literature, Duong was awarded France's Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres in 1994. After a bitter battle to obtain a passport to attend the awards ceremony, Duong chose to return to Vietnam rather than seek political asylum in France. "I want to stay here to insult those in power," she told Brian Eads of Reader's Digest.
Born in 1947, Duong grew up the daughter of a North Vietnamese military official, and she herself worked for several years as a member of a performing arts group that entertained Vietcong troops at the front. Now a resident of Hanoi, Duong is a favorite, albeit underground, writer among the poor, but highly literate, Vietnamese. The author's frequently unflattering fictional portrayals of Vietnamese Communist Party functionaries have made her the target of official harassment, arrest, and incarceration in her native country. She was expelled from the Vietnamese Communist Party in 1989 and arrested in 1991 for attempting to "smuggle ‘reactionary’ documents out of the country," according to Philip Shenon in the New York Times. "The documents turned out to be her own writings." Duong subsequently spent seven months in prison, and was released only after the collapse of the Soviet Union's Communist government and a campaign by Amnesty International.
In Paradise of the Blind, which in 1993 became the first of her works to appear in English, Duong creates a disastrously divided family. Hang, the novel's protagonist, is the daughter of a teacher who was financially ruined when communists seized his farmland. Hang's mother works as a street vendor, living a life of service to her brother, the Communist Party official who drove Hang's father to eventual suicide. Hang's aunt—the sister of her father—has cannily managed to win back the family land and lives comfortably, although through somewhat illicit means. The title of the work refers to the author's intimation "that humankind has invented a Marxist paradise which, though cleverly made attractive and appetizing, is reserved solely for ‘blind people,’" wrote World Literature Today reviewer Dinh-Hoa Nguyen. The novel recounts Hang's personal struggle for identity and purpose as she is torn between conflicting family and political loyalties. Much as Laura Esquivel did with Latin cuisine in her novel Like Water for Chocolate, Duong weaves a culinary portrait of Vietnam throughout the text of her book; there is even a glossary at the end of Paradise of the Blind to help readers further understand the making of such Vietnamese delicacies as blood pudding. Dan Duffy, writing in the Nation stated that Paradise of the Blind is "a book to read for the story and remember for the food."
Paradise of the Blind won high praise from reviewers. "Duong Thu Huong is a social panoramist who writes with a tight focus on individual consciousness and personal relations," maintained Duffy. In the New York Times, Herbert Mitgang declared that what makes Duong's novel unique for American audiences is the fact "that it humanizes a Vietnamese family and turns its members into individuals…. Paradise of the Blind describes the problems of ordinary people and the contradictions of political reform openly." Marilyn B. Young, critiquing Paradise of the Blind for the Women's Review of Books, lauded the "political allegory disguised as a family chronicle" and judged it "a difficult, compelling, not always very attractive novel about the nature and limits of sacrifice." A Publishers Weekly contributor called the book a "staunchly unsentimental, evocative novel," a "narrative rich in detail and free of cliche."
In 1994, Duong's second work in English translation appeared. In Novel without a Name, Duong portrays Vietnam's long and bloody war for independence and socialism. The book's disillusioned protagonist, Quan, has spent ten years as a soldier in the North Vietnamese Army during its conflict with Western-financed South Vietnamese troops and American forces. Unlike the U.S. soldiers, who were drafted for a year's service and then, if lucky, returned home alive, the Vietnamese combatant can imagine no such end; his tour of duty in the fight against imperialism will last until the bitter end. Quan recounts the madness and near-starvation he and his fellow soldiers encountered in the jungle, as well as the ways in which they outwitted the stubborn, often naïve American enemy with no experience in jungle-based guerrilla conflict. In a brief respite from the fighting, Quan journeys back to his village, en route encountering the many faces of hypocrisy that his country's battle for sovereignty wears.
Like Paradise of the Blind, Novel without a Name also won praise from reviewers, although Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times faulted some of its lesser characters as bordering "on stereotype or caricature, a problem that is not helped [by a translation that] often feels stilted and clichéd." Nevertheless, Kakutani commended Duong's characterization of Quan as "a sort of resolutely non-mythic Ulysses," and pointed out that the book "underscores the commonality of the war experience." Critiquing Novel without a Name for the New York Times Book Review, Nicholas Proffitt asserted that Duong "reminds us that war grants no immunity, that it is the most universal of experiences, a cross-cultural disaster that leaves none of its participants unscarred."
Memories of a Pure Spring continues to mine the territory of Duong's previous novels. Taking place primarily after the triumph of the Communists, the story follows Hung, a composer who rises to fame during the war with America but who is ruined, physically and spiritually, by the Marxist bureaucrats he once fought for. Hung's wife, Suong, also achieves renown as a singer during the couple's tours with a state-sponsored cultural troupe to military encampments. Afterward, Hung is captured on a boat that is leaving Vietnam and falsely accused of trying to flee the country. He is sent to a "re-education camp," and is released as a broken man, afflicted with venereal disease and addicted to opium. Suong continues to sing and tries to keep the family together as long as she can, but eventually she attempts suicide. Hung, having lost all faith and pleasure in the music he once loved, recognizes that he can do nothing but play "the role of the dead man."
As with Duong's previous novels, critics applauded her unflinching depiction of life in post-war Vietnam. Duong "deftly employs flashbacks, multiple points of view and a haunting interplay of narrative and interior voices to construct her sadly beautiful tale," wrote Philip Gambone in the New York Times Book Review. Richard Bernstein, also writing in the New York Times Book Review, remarked that the book is more than just a political statement. "One reads it certainly for its politics," Bernstein wrote, "but even more for the depth and complexity of its characters who strive to define themselves in a world that still puts everything and everybody in one or another category of ideology and national aspiration."
Many reviewers also praised Duong's language and her exploration of the themes of beauty and art. Donna Seaman of Booklist called the novel "a work of exceptional lyricism … [that] skillfully illuminates the human spirit's capacity for brutality and compassion, betrayal and beauty." Noting a scene in which a character carefully tends to his injured hand moments before hanging himself, Terry McCarthy of Time praised the book's "exquisite writing that constantly hovers on the border of pain, dark irony that threatens to weep."
The plot of Memories of a Pure Spring has many parallels to Duong's own life, which are outlined in an appendix to the novel. She herself was an organizer of cultural events for the troops during the early 1970s, and much has been written about her imprisonment in 1991. While her works are still banned in Vietnam, she continues to be outspoken about the government, who are, she told a People interviewer, "a bunch of liars."
Beyond Illusions, set in Hanoi following the revolution, is a novel "about the struggle between ideology and pragmatism, socially and personally," stated Bonnie Johnston in Booklist. Protagonist Linh is a young Vietnamese woman married to successful journalist Nguyen. She once loved Nguyen deeply and passionately, but when she discovers that he has compromised his ideals and principles to become a supporter of the government, her feelings toward him diminish sharply. This betrayal of self, he claims, was done in order to elevate his position in the world and provide a better material life for them, but Linh is appalled at his actions. In response, Linh leaves him and begins an affair with an older man, a famous Hanoi musician and composer named Tran Phuong. Nguyen's pleas for Linh to return, even for the benefit of their daughter, are ignored. Soon, however, Linh is equally aghast when she discovers that Tran Phuong's principles are also up for sale, and he is willing to barter them away for greater recognition as an artist. None of the men in her life have been willing to adhere to their ideals, and she must learn to accept or reject them for this reason. The book is both "political novel and disillusioning love story," one that portrays Vietnam as "occasionally beautiful but always terrifying," commented Sudip Bose in the New York Times Book Review. While the novel is a "story of personal disillusionment and lost love, it's also a powerful political statement, the lament of a former true believer in the communist ideals proclaimed by her country's leaders," remarked Andrew Nagorski in Newsweek International. Duong's writing displays the "kind of brutal, incisive honesty that leaves absolutely no doubt why Duong has emerged as Vietnam's most acclaimed literary export," commented Nagorski.
Mien, one of the three main characters of No Man's Land, enjoys a happy and prosperous life with her second husband, Hoan, a thoughtful and loving spouse. Mien is shocked, however, when she discovers that her first husband, Bon, a former soldier assumed dead in the war, has returned. Not only that, Bon is intent on reclaiming his wife and resuming his life with her. Custom and culture dictate that Mien must leave her happy home with Hoan and return to Bon, even though he is penniless, miserable, and impotent. Bon has endured incredible hardships, and he is physically, psychologically, and spiritual broken. However, his determination to reunite with Mien helped give him strength to survive his ordeals. Thus, his attempts to reconnect with his wife and start a family emerge as more pathetic than malicious. For Mien's sake, the wealthy Hoan secretly helps to financially support the couple, though his is devastated by her absence. Duong "captures the emotional essence of her characters" in a "darkly sad novel" of the power of love to survive in the face of loss, commented Shirley N. Quan in Library Journal. Booklist reviewer Donna Seaman named the book a novel that "exquisitely parses the nature of war and peace, material and spiritual poverty and wealth, self and community, coercion and love" in telling the tragic story of the three protagonists. "Huong endows her characters with life and a Buddhist appreciation for the impermanence of happiness," commented Bryan Walsh in Artforum International. "In her reckoning of love's toll, she reminds us that Vietnam was—and still is—more than just a war."
Duong once told CA: "My official job in the late sixties was to guide mass cultural activities; namely, to organize amateur art units (song and dance, pantomime) for mass entertainment. After graduating from the Cultural Theory College in 1968, I carried out this task in Quang Binh, the hardest-hit province in the north during the air war, where I served army and ‘shock youth’ units. At that time, the spirit of this work was epitomized by the slogan ‘Let's drown the explosion of bombs by our singing.’ After 1975, I came back to Hanoi and worked as a screenwriter at the Hanoi Feature Film Studio.
"I never intended to become a writer. As I always tell others, it just happened to me, because of the pain. Pain is the precise word. My novels are cries of pain. My work is inseparable from the society in which I have lived, the country, Vietnam, that has forged me. As an adolescent, I did not like literature. I was fond of free gymnastics, uneven parallel bars, ping pong. I enjoyed those games very much until I was fourteen years of age. At fifteen, because of my family's financial difficulties, I had to leave my playground. I went to school to become a government employee.
"I served my fatherland devotedly like a soldier, an exemplary citizen. During that time, I hoarded my feelings, impressions, ideas. I weighed my reflections, recorded the different fates of my compatriots. This became an obsession for me, and eventually, I had no other alternative but to take up my pen. I share the view of Henry Miller, which I read in a translated version as ‘To write is to emit toxin.’
"My personal struggle—and it is one shared by many others—is to gain respect for my rights as a free citizen, here in my own country. Writing is the way I free myself, the way I make myself a free woman. I could have gone to the United States in 1980 at the invitation of my relatives, but I wanted to stay in Vietnam. I have decided to devote my life to writing and making films about my country. If they decide to put me in prison again, I'm ready."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Artforum International, summer, 2005, Bryan Walsh, review of No Man's Land, p. S52.
Booklist, February 1, 2000, Donna Seaman, review of Memories of a Pure Spring, p. 1007; January 1, 2002, Bonnie Johnston, review of Beyond Illusions, p. 808; April 1, 2005, Donna Seaman, review of No Man's Land, p. 1344.
Library Journal, April 1, 2005, Shirley N. Quan, review of No Man's Land, p. 86.
Los Angeles Times, February 3, 2002, Judy Lightfoot, "To Tell the Truth," review of Beyond Illusions, p. 4.
M2 Best Books, April 2, 2002, "Vietnamese Author's Work Translated into English." Nation, April 12, 1993, Dan Duffy, review of Paradise of the Blind, pp. 491-494.
Newsweek International, April 8, 2002, Andrew Nagorski, "A Tale of Lost Love," review of Beyond Illusions, p. 91.
New York Review of Books, May 25, 2000, Jonathan Mirsky, review of Memories of a Pure Spring, p. 54.
New York Times, May 19, 1993, Herbert Mitgang, review of Paradise of the Blind, p. C19; April 12, 1994, Philip Shenon, "In This Author's Book, Villains are Vietnamese," p. A4; May 30, 1995, Michiko Kakutani, review of Novel Without a Name, p. C15.
New York Times Book Review, February 12, 1995, Nicholas Proffitt, review of Novel without a Name, p. 13; January 30, 2000, Philip Gambone, review of Memories of a Pure Spring, p. 17; February 9, 2000, Richard Bernstein, "After the War Is Won, Another Struggle Begins"; March 17, 2002, Sudip Bose, review of Beyond Illusions, p. 25. People, May 1, 2000, "Enemy of the State: Novelist Duong Thu Huong Rails against Her Country's Communist Rulers," p. 99.
Publishers Weekly, January 18, 1993, review of Paradise of the Blind, p. 451; December 19, 1994, review of Novel without a Name, p. 45.
Reader's Digest, October, 1998, Brian Eads, "She Dares to Live Free: Vietnam's Most Famous Novelist Writes What Others Only Think," profile of Thu Huong Duong, p. 158; December, 1998, Brian Eads, review of She Dares to Live Free: Vietnam's Most Famous Novelist Writes What Oth-ers Only Think.
Time, March 20, 2000, Terry McCarthy, "A Tale of Disillusionment: Duong Thu Huong's Latest Novel Drifts Gracefully through a Vietnam Plagued by Soulless Ideologues," p. 48.
Women's Review of Books, July, 1993, Marilyn B. Young, review of Paradise of the Blind, p. 24.
World Literature Today, spring, 1992, Dinh-Hoa Nguyen, review of Paradise of the Blind, p. 410; summer, 1992, Dinh-Hoa Nguyen, review of Histoire D'amour Racontee Avant L'aube; summer, 1997, Bettina L. Knapp, review of Au-dela des illusions, p. 656; September-October, 2006, Esther Allen, review of No Man's Land, p. 58.
January Magazine,http://januarymagazine.com/ (August 5, 2007), Brendan Wolfe, "Bleak and Accomplished," review of No Man's Land.
Mostly Fiction,http://www.mostlyfiction.com/ (August 26, 2002), Cindy Lynn Speer, review of Beyond Illusions.
PEN American Center Web site,http://www.pen.org/ (August 5, 2007), biography of Duong Thu Huong.