In 2015, the first printing of Larry’s photography book, “The Soul of Vietnam”, was nearing readiness. We were having the book translated by Dao Mai Trang. There was a foreword by Joseph Galloway (author of “We Were Soldiers Once, and Young”), an essay by Nguyen Qui Duc, and Larry’s own stories that were in English. We had decided the book should be dual language, English and Vietnamese. Ms. Trang felt there might be a problem with the essay by Mr. Duc, as she didn’t think the Cultural Ministry would allow it to pass its censorship watchdogs, or at the very least, it could hold up the process.
(Yes, Vietnam has a Cultural Ministry that decides what passes muster and gets out into the hands of the general public and what doesn’t. It has little to do with their Communist status, it’s just how they function in this country to maintain control. For example, in a 2014 exhibit, one of Larry’s photographs was censored because the young subject, even though wearing a bikini, looked like she might have been nude. However, for perspective, a large painting at the main entryway to the Ho Chi Minh Art Museum is of a full frontal nude woman.)
This presented an immediate issue, as the essay by Duc was an integral part of the book, and he was not willing to change anything just to appease the watchdogs, nor did we think he should. But because of this, we had some amazing insights into how the Vietnamese think and function, something we have been struggling to understand since the first time we arrived in Hà Nội in 2006.
First of all, Duc’s father was well-known and influential in Huế, the country’s ancient capital city. He was one of the higher-up officials in the Southern government when things began to change during the country’s reunification. The newly unified government threw him in prison, where he remained for a good portion of the rest of his life. Duc himself had been a boat person in 1975 when he was a teenager, ending up in the U.S. with his mother, where he eventually became a radio broadcaster, writer, editor and translator. When his mother’s Alzheimer’s became untenable, he brought her back to her birth country in 2006, the same year we arrived, to be cared for and eventually die.
So Duc then resettled in Hà Nội, after having been away for several decades up to that point, and the government has kept a close eye on him. He has run several restaurant establishments, and speaks fluent Vietnamese, English and French. In his essay, he talks about the vast changes Vietnam, and Hà Nội in particular, has seen since the end of the American War here. Of course, it’s not always complimentary, and for that reason, and because of Duc’s status as the son of a political prisoner and an outsider, our translator thought his essay might be an issue. Also, Larry’s publisher for the first printing was Thế giới, the government’s own publisher of art and foreign books, so even more reason to be worried about the essay being axed.
We funded the printing of the book through a successful Kickstarter campaign, which claimed that the essay was part of the book, thus we were a little concerned that our supporters would be disappointed if there was a sudden change of plans. So, after a great deal of thought and brainstorming, we decided to bypass the committee altogether and print the essay as a separate piece in the U.S., and explain to our Kickstarter supporters what had happened so that it wasn’t a printed part of the book. So far, all the initial books have been delivered with an explanation about the essay’s fate, and no one has raised any eyebrows about it, at least out loud.
We faced a second printing, as the book sold out almost immediately, and needed to decide how to handle Duc’s central essay. Since we had more time, we decided to submit it to the Cultural Ministry, just to see what they did. We realize it’s an all or nothing proposition: if they wanted any changes, we couldn’t have it be part of the book, and if it’s okay, we could have it be part of the book, and our troubles would be over. We were ready for either decision.
(As it turned out, we decided to ship the entire printing to the U.S., so were not required to submit it to the Cultural Ministry.)
But…….this has been an amazing road to imagining what the average Vietnamese goes through on a day to day basis to deal with this issue, the one that limits freedom of expression. And if the government is restrictive in that area, surely it’s put its hand in other areas of its citizens’ lives, and what does that mean to the average person living here? And what could it mean at the village level, where the leaders can be even more involved in their inhabitants day-to-day existence?
So I imagine myself as a writer living in a country like this, and immediately have a gnawing in my stomach, realizing that every word would need measuring, that what I may have thought flowed beautifully one way won’t appeal to the uncreative and insensitive soul who will take a cleaver to my work. I would have to look behind myself every step of the way. Wouldn’t that wring the creativity right out of me?
Suddenly, I have a surprising epiphany: when our Vietnamese friends arrive at decisions that make absolutely no sense to us, this must be at least part of the reason. They’re trying to anticipate the effect their actions will have in a culture that is mildly watched and restricted. They must be mindful of these restrictions, but they also must be very light on their feet and clever if they want to get around them without fallout that could reflect badly on them or their family. I’m suddenly exhausted by the thought of living this way from day to day, and grateful that I don’t need to worry about this sort of nonsensical oversight. (And with my new insight, I’m pretty sure that word nonsensical would have been censored, if not the whole paragraph or essay.)
I am not naive enough to believe that my own government is above disturbing involvement in Americans’ lives, but at least we have some recourse at this point in time to deal with those kind of issues. Those who fight for our freedom and civil liberty can do so in the open and with support from the citizenry. Creative expression without outside intervention is still held in relatively high esteem.
If you are interested in ordering a copy of “The Soul of Vietnam”, please go to https://songhongstudio.com/bk22017, Larry’s publishing site. You will receive a book that contains Duc’s essay.