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The Door into Vietnamese Culture and History

The Door into Vietnamese Culture and History

By Nguyen Phan Que Mai

Poetry is not just a part of Vietnamese culture; it is a part of our lives. For thousands of years, ca dao, Vietnamese folk poetry, has been transformed into lullabies and sung by mothers, aunts, and sisters across Vietnam. As these mothers, aunts, and sisters nurture our souls with poetry, they themselves should become the subjects of poetic interests. However, in curating poems on the theme "aunts" for Prairie Schooner's Fusion, I found out that aunts had hardly appeared in Vietnamese poetry, whereas many poems had been written about "mothers" and "sisters."

I am incredibly thankful that many award-winning poets as well as emerging writers from all regions of Vietnam have created new poems about "aunts" following our call for submissions. The sixteen poems you will see here have been selected from those submitted and carefully translated from Vietnamese into English over the past many months. While each poem tells a unique tale about aunts, all of the sixteen poems work together to highlight the significant role that aunts play in the Vietnamese life as well as in the survival of our nation.

Vietnam is a country rich in cultural heritage. Aunts are storytellers who keep ancient culture and traditions alive in the hearts and minds of the younger generations, as shown in the poem "My Aunt" of Thach Quy:

Time passes
and settles like white flowers in my aunt's hair.
In her words, the countless stories of the past
turn the deep color of aging things.
Once her lacquered box was a bright vermillion.
She went to festivals, her areca nuts red, her betel leaves fragrant.

In fact, aunts help keep Vietnam as a nation intact, by passing our heritage from one generation to the next. In his poem "The Shadow of Homeland", Tran Quang Quy has this dialogue with his aunt:

I see you on the dyke balancing the bamboo pole
bearing the late afternoons on your shoulders,
bearing the twilights that stream down your face
bearing the chancing seasons and their turbulence.
I learn from you the lessons of sweat and of the time when the trees bear fruit.
I learn the fairytales that farmers pass on to their children and grandchildren
so that we may know how to harvest in the fields of benevolence and righteousness.

Vietnamese people are known to be hardworking, yet we are also passionate about beauty and know how to celebrate it. In "Mourning Scarves", Hoang Anh Tuan reveals this feature of our culture when describing his aunt:

Marrying at fifteen,
her breasts were like a pair of areca nuts
beneath her brown under-bodice;
yet her smile, like a deep river, could drown someone,
and her grace was liquor, making those around her drunk.

Tales about aunts often lead us back to the past and weave us through the Vietnamese life. In Nguyen Quang Hung's poem "From Nghĩa Lộ Hamlet", the aunt is a mysterious figure that accentuates the beauty of our country:

Phoenix mountain echoes with temple bells, drums, and songs
Lion mountain with its rising mane sways with tall trees
A giant tortoise's shadow bends its head
My aunt's faint shadow follows the village children's kites
Haloed light descends with the cool breeze

Vietnam is bountiful with the beauty of nature and traditions. Unfortunately, in this series of poems, sorrow and personal loss caused by our many internal conflicts and devastating wars have overshadowed such beauty. In "Born in the Year of the Buffalo", Ha Van Tinh shows us how aunts bear witness to turbulent historical events:

Famine in the Year of the Monkey
Dried up Grandma's breasts; Big Auntie hungry, relentless.
Mother and Little Auntie were raised on bananas
French bullets whizzed by, deafening.

Yet these aunts didn't just bear witness; they had to take part in history. Throughout our countless struggles, aunts have become the pillars that sustain families and our nation. During wartime, aunts often took over the role of men as breadwinners. I see clearly the image of my own aunt in Nguyen Huu Ha's poem, "My Mother's Sister":

She wobbles carrying her gift of rice on her side.
Her gait is like my mother's use to be so long ago.
The carpet is soft, and she moves unsteadily
as if she is wading through a pond to climb onto its bank.

My grandma wore the headscarf of a hardworking laborer.
She passed it down to my mother, and now my aunt wears it.

Vietnam has been ravaged by the many wars that involved the Mongolians, the Chinese, the French, the Japanese, and the Americans. One of our most recent wars—the Vietnam-America War—brought death to nearly three million Vietnamese, most of them innocent civilians. Lu Thi Mai paints a streak of this painful past in her poem "My Aunt Hà":

When I was born, my aunt no longer lived;
yet she returned often in the dreams of my parents.
She smiled at me sadly and looked at me lovingly.
When she was twelve,
bombs were dumped onto our village school.
Her new lilac-colored shirt was torn to shreds.
My family said goodbye to her and to a hundred others.

It has been forty years since the Vietnam-America War ended, yet the wounds it left behind are still deep and bleeding. All over Vietnam, tens of thousands of women are still longing for the return of their soldiering husbands. We meet one of such loyal women in Bui Hoang Tam's "Winter Oath":

A woman who waited for her husband,
Our legends say, has turned to stone.  But my aunt
Turned to nothing.  The stone will stand,
Holding a child, waiting for the footsteps of her faraway man.
But my aunt knew she was alone. Mountains are paired like man and wife,
They say, but my aunt embraced her longing, her hair turning white.

In the South of Vietnam, post-war trauma has another face and its truth cuts into us deeply in Nguyen Huu Hong Minh's "Time's Storm":

Half my family, half the war
You shouldered half the imprisoned sky
While we ate rice, you and our cousins consumed Job's Tears
My uncle practiced self-criticism in a labor reeducation camp

As Vietnam struggles to move forward, Vietnamese women have to bend their backs low and shoulder economic burdens. In Nguyet Pham's poem, "The Dry Dung Collector", the aunt represents the fate of many poor Vietnamese women:

My wrinkled aunt who seemed to shrink smaller with each day fought to buy her share of cow dung
Everyone eagerly collected dung, heaping sadness, joy, love, and hatred onto the moving truck

Wars, conflicts, and poverty have driven many Vietnamese away from our home villages. The life of the Vietnamese immigrants is reflected in Nguyen Duc Mau's poem "My Aunt":

I look at her back, bent over from her hardships.
Most of her life has withered, longing for home.
Her hair has whitened, yet she is still adrift.
Oh my homeland, and the leaf again falls to the tree's roots.

And loneliness appears hauntingly in the poem "Sunset" by Ho Dang Thanh Ngoc:

My aunt plucks strings of vegetables,
releasing them into her sadness.
Starting a fire, she kindles the wandering strands of smoke.
Pagoda bell rings, rippling to fill her lonely mean.

Despite sorrow, personal loss, and countless difficulties, most Vietnamese women remain loving and compassionate. In fact, they often forget about themselves while taking care of others. In his poem "My Mother and You Are One", Vo Que wrote:

I imagine
how you
passed the stream of sacred milk
from my mother to me,
every fragrant drop
a crystal of your mothering.

It is particularly touching for me to read Nguyen Thanh Nga's "My Mother's Sister". In this poem, the aunt "is the record of war: bombs burned scars into her face/Agent Orange seeped deeply into her blood." Yet she devotes herself to homeless children:

She picked those children from the trash heaps
as if picking up the cries of her womanhood.
She nurtured them tirelessly.

As demonstrated above, aunts are storytellers, victims, survivors, and saviors. In Le Vinh Tai's poem, the author's youngest aunt assumes another unique role: she is the companion in life, as well as in arts:

small paths forged amidst wind and storm
amidst talented men
poetry walks its lively walk
Auntie doesn't want poetry
to sing silly slogans
even if that's how poetry lives

As you can see, the poems in this series vary widely in their topic, timeline, and historical scope. In the original Vietnamese language, they also vary tremendously in form: the selected poems appear in both the free-style and the uniquely Vietnamese lục bát (six-eight) format. A lục bát poem is especially difficult to translate: the author alternates lines of six and eight syllables while adhering to the rhyming structure between six and eight perfectly, packing metaphors and meaning into each word.

I am grateful for the wonderful support of the poet and professor Kwame Dawes who worked closely with me and the translator Thieu Khanh in translating these lục bát poems into English. While the six-eight structure is no longer present in the English translations, we believe the essence of the poems remains, together with their lyrical quality. I am also deeply thankful to the translator Thuy Dinh who did an outstanding job in giving a new life in English to five free-style Vietnamese poems.

In working with these poems, I saw how they joined force to open a door into the Vietnamese culture and history. I hope you will discover this door and enter it. By journeying into Vietnam via these poetic verses, you may experience the darkness of pain and loss, yet you may also find the light of hope and peace. In Lu Thi Mai's poem, Aunt Hà, who was killed by American bombs returns to give us light:

She doesn't cry as the living do;
she says that where she is the sunlight warms her
and peace settles on the tips of cỏ tranh grass.
She looks at me and praises the young woman I have become.

My father sees in the clusters of the wild grass,
the reawakening of my dear aunt's happiness.

Vietnam commemorated the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam-America War on 30th of April, 2015. Throughout the past forty years, Vietnamese and American writers and artists have forged the way for dialogues, mutual understanding and reconciliation between our two countries. This Fusion project—an artistic collaboration between Vietnamese and American poets and artists—is a meaningful milestone to pay tribute to the end of the war's anniversary, and to remind us that much work still needs to be done to heal the many wounds still suffered by the people of our two nations.


Que Mai, by Don Usner Photo by

Don Usner

Born in a small North Vietnamese village, Nguyen Phan Que Mai grew up in in the Mekong Delta, South of Vietnam. She has an MA in Creative Writing from Lancaster University (UK). Que Mai is the author of five poetry collections and the translator of six poetry books. She has been honored with some of the top literary awards of Vietnam including the poetry of the Year 2010 Award from the Hanoi Writers Association, the Capital's Literature & Arts Award as well as the Award from the Vietnam Writers Association for Outstanding Contribution to the Advancement of Vietnamese Literature Overseas. Que Mai's latest poetry collection, The Secret of Hoa Sen, translated by the author along with Bruce Weigl and published by BOA Editions (New York), is said to build new bridges between Vietnam and America—two cultures bound together by war and destruction.


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