Thursday, June 20, 2013

Sounds of Yesteryear

A rumble of thunder awakens me in the middle of the night. Because it is not so loud and not accompanied by lightning, it must be coming from the faraway Đầu Mâu Mountain or from the sea signaling a storm is brewing. Suddenly a saying (I do not remember when and where I first heard it, but it was very popular when I lived here) comes to mind: “Chớp bể mưa nguồn” ‘Lightning at the sea means torrential rain in the mountain.’ The little phrase, packed with endearing connotations of a past long gone, releases a spawn of familiar images and sounds, sending a sudden spasm of melancholy through my body. I came across this quote of folk weather forecast in my childhood reading about rains and floods in the north in the fiction of Tự Lực Văn Đoàn writers. In my unconscious mind words become sounds and evoke memories. The sounds I hear in the present are the same sounds I heard in my childhood reading and in the past, they render my nostalgia acute and immense. I had heard this thunder before both at night in my sleep and during the day when I lived in the country with my father. Its frequent reverberation would fill me with fear and anxiety as I looked at the gray sky and knew that heavy rains and sometimes floods would occur afterward. (My father said his older brother had drowned in a major flood a century earlier and he never got it over.) But there were times when coddling in my warm bed at night I found the distant rumbling pleasurable because I knew my father was beside me and he would protect me from danger. After a while the rumble became a magic sound. I have carried it within me as a metaphor for my father, my childhood, and my country since I went into exile.

Tonight I relive my short happy childhood in Quảng Bình when hearing that magic sound again after half a century of being uprooted from my father’s land. As I drift into sleep, the painful spasm vanishes and I become a happy child I was in the distant past. In my half-awake state when consciousness is not totally suspended but not strong enough to drag me back to the present, the magic sound releases its formidable power: it draws me to the dreamland of my childhood, frees me from the sorrow and burden of old age. Early in the morning I am awakened again by other magic sounds of years past—the gentle patting of raindrops on the windowpanes. In the absolute stillness and serenity of the wee hours in the country the regular, clear, rhythmical taps accompanied with the soft cry of insects outside reverberate in the depths of my soul like the notes of a folksong. I lie still, body and mind afloat the stream of sounds feeling like returning to a period so distant in time but so near, so cozy, so delightful.

In the States when I got lonely and homesick, I occasionally heard sounds connected with my past but I would not characterize them as magic. They stirred more sorrow and regret than joy and happiness because I, the subject, was not rooted in the native land and because the brief felicitous state I was in was not nurtured and sustained by the American soil. The echoes of the past triggered my memories of it, making me remember it more intensely, but at the same time they caused me sorrow. Here is what I put in my journal about my impressions of a shower in the Texas Hill Country:

It [the shower]comes crashing down from the sky. Its cascade catches me off guard, plunging me into a stream of familiar sensations of exhilaration and joy I have not experienced for a very long time, perhaps since my arrival in the States. The sounds of the downpour transform the place where I have lived for almost thirty years and yet still feel a stranger into instant home. Home! This is exactly how it rained in Saigon thirty years ago: It came all of a sudden, without warning, it drowned out the city in its cascading noise, then it stopped as quickly as it came, without warning. Unlike Huế where it would drizzle for days on end, in Saigon a downpour would last no more than ten minutes, just long enough to cool you down a bit on a hot summer day, but not too long to make you feel depressed. This is exactly how I feel today about the rain thirty years later also on a summer day in Texas. It arouses in me the pleasure of experiencing something dear and familiar connected with home. It brings out at the same time an unrelenting longing for something unattainable, a profound sadness upon realizing that this precious thing that I catch a glimpse of today will not stay. The rain will end and with its passing my sorrow of exile will return, perhaps it will get more intense. Memory plays an important role in recreating the past, but cannot sustain it long. The search for Paradise is not simply a mechanical-like remembering process. Because it is an extremely exhaustive endeavor, it should be conducted in the exile’s native land where his past resides and will be found, and where he can get replenished and strengthened when he runs out of energy.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Why I Write

Human beings are capable of survival in the face of calamity, and I am no exception. The temporary loss of my family and subsequently the fall of South Vietnam plunged me into the abyss of despair and depression and for a while caused me to toy with the idea of suicide. After two years of being quasi dead, I miraculously resurrected by living on memories and dreams of a pleasurable past and fantasies of a non-existent future, rather than going insane or seeking release in death. But the quest of lost time did not begin until I return to Vietnam for a Fulbright appointment. The idea of the search did not occur to me suddenly, but it was several years in gestation, beginning with my eerie fascination, even infatuation, with Proust. As early as the 1980s a few years after the fall of South Vietnam, I had developed an interest in acquiring volumes of Proust’s works and any study of him I could lay my hands on. It is only when I am back in Vietnam, catch a glimpse of the past, and cannot avoid facing it then do I feel I miss it so much and want to relive it as much as possible. It takes me twenty odd years to materialize an unconscious longing and to know why I was—still am—so taken with Proust. As explained before, literature has become my real salvation since my hope to return home was dashed. Reading Faulkner plunged me into the abyss of depression which debilitated my consciousness of the hardest years after 1975 but which curiously kept me alive. Meditating on Proust and trying to decipher the meaning of his discourses and ramifications about lost time alleviates my deep sorrow of exile, even bringing me joy, the joy of sorrow. Without Proust I would not have tried to search for the past the way I am doing now. I would not have experienced the joy to have, though momentarily, caught sight of Paradise. By engaging in the quest of the past I can understand better the meaning and value of suffering in the present as well as the bliss of my early years I took for granted out of ignorance.

Now that my quest is over, I want to write about it. To write about our experience is to relive it. Writing helps resurrect our past because it forces us to remember what we experienced. In my case writing is an on-going process of remembering—it continues unearthing the dark region of the unconscious that I failed to notice in my excavation. It is difficult to evoke a recent past fully, any more than excavate one long lost in the abyss of Time; while this recreated past is pleasurable, it is too short compared with an enduring present full of sorrow like mine. But the written word is far more powerful than any creative genre in depicting the lost time, because it not only resurrects it but retains its images in our mind for our pleasure. With the words laid out on the pages of our book we can talk to the past, hear its echoes, see its features, feel its presence, all at our pace and leisure. With the written word our lost world suddenly becomes alive and is within our reach.

The magic of the written word is best illustrated in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. For a long time the book was a great comfort to me because I could relate very much to Proust’s hero. Since the beginning of my quest I have entertained a desire to write a book in the same vein as Proust’s novel. But I find the Proustian model both fascinating and disheartening. For example, I still can hear in my remote memory—and in my imagination and night dreams—from my faraway land and time the light taps of raindrops at the window in a winter night in my Quảng Bình home; they seem to be speaking to me, ache me, make me so homesick, and yet I do not know how to describe them and my feelings about them. Nor do I know why these things, insignificant as they appeared to me at that time, have a mystery and a soul of their own with a perfect design in structure, musicality, and emotionality until I read Proust. Listening to the rain, as Proust has meticulously described, is like listening to a symphony. Like the rain I heard in the past, everything in the world that belonged to me has an important meaning, a life, a purpose, so plentiful, so rich, and yet so fleeting that to describe it is beyond my capability.

And yet I have to write my own book about this quest. I cannot help it. I need to bring out from my subconscious what I have kept inside for such a long time—my frustrated dreams, sorrows, and remorse. Writing myself out is my salvation because my repressed anguish has to be voiced, heard by the audience. Writing will also prevent me from forgetting those who are dear to me—the dead, the absentees, the living—those I knew well and those I happened to come across by reminding me that they still exist and are important to me. Writing protects my people from oblivion, from the tyranny of Time that threatens to plunge them into nothingness, into perdition. Condemned to permanent silence by the public, the dead would not have been remembered had we not told their stories. Because their lives and mine are interwoven, to tell their stories is to tell my story. Writing for me is a complex process of expressing appreciation, gratitude, guilt, and sorrow. It does not merely involve remembering my father’s sad face on that gloomy overcast day of September 1972 as I said good-bye to him (and saw him for the last time) to come to the United States, but it entails a lot more, just like weaving a multilayered tale of his life—his struggle to raise me and my two brothers as a single parent, his untold suffering and sorrow revealed in the sad poems he recited to lull us to sleep in his lap, his terse but heartrending writing about his mother (my grandmother), a young widow, who struggled to raise him and his brothers and whose untimely death left my father and his younger brother orphaned so early in life. My father’s tale also affects deeply my childhood, adulthood, and old age. I heard his chant of T’ang verses in his lap, and still hear them now though with inconsolable sorrow. Similarly, today at my birthplace here in Dalat after more than five decades since her death Như Cẩm becomes alive in me. Time stops, and I am a seven-year-old boy playing with his two-year-old sister. Then imperceptibly the childhood scene switches to Đồng Hới the moment I come to seek Trang to say good-bye. I see shock in her eyes. She follows me all the way to Huế. There are many other people from home that I have been carrying with me in the depths of my unconscious since I became an exile, who all of a sudden rise to the surface of my consciousness, get involved with me again, demand my attention. You cannot just remember them, or talk about them. You have to write about them. You and they won’t find peace until you evoke them on the pages of your book.

With the above thought it appears I have found peace for my soul. Like Proust’s narrator, I come to realize that paradise is within me. After more than three thousand pages in which he deals with his quest Marcel discovers that “all the infinitely unrolling past . . . I had been carrying within me” and “this distant moment still clung to me and I could recapture it, go back to it, merely by descending more deeply within myself” (emphasis mine). This is what I have experienced and have tried to achieve in my search. A truth is dawning in my mind. Since my past continuously resides in me (Faulkner says that “the past isn’t even dead”), it does not necessarily mean that it can be evoked only in Vietnam, but rather I can relive it even in the land of exile. As I remember, when living in the States I felt a spasm of pain and sadness when I accidentally hit upon something dear and painfully familiar. A distant thunder rumbling through the sky would quickly send me back to our ancestral home in a village in Quảng Bình. Instinctively I would relive the haunting terror of a flood that left our village almost in ruins. The peal of the bells in a parish church I heard on an evening in Fairfax, Virginia on my way home from teaching a class at George Mason University I also had heard in a distant past in Dalat, Đồng Hới, and elsewhere in Vietnam. In the United States what I enjoyed most was awaking to the sounds of a rain on a summer night. Though its sounds came down from the sky, they seemed to arise from the deep recesses of my soul. I had heard these sounds before and they were as much comforting to me as they had been in the past. So, I must have carried with me the sounds of the rain as well as other sounds (and images) of my native country when I went into exile. Thus, the pain of my so-called exile was caused by my failing, as Proust would criticize, to descend deeply into myself to hear these sounds and see these images again. Nor did I ever try to know why these sounds were so familiar and struck, though briefly, a chord of recognition in my heart. Only at the end of this quest do I realize that the past is incarnate in the present, for if it does not exist within me why does it appear so familiar and lively when it resurfaces in my consciousness?

It is no doubt that I have been carrying within me this past along with its sounds and images since the formation of my consciousness. Proust writes that when his narrator Marcel hears again the tinkle of the little bell of his Combray home he is “already in existence.” To be in existence means to be in the past, to be in life again. This sort of time stays within me, progresses through various stages of my life, even reaches far back into my long forgotten years in a previous forgotten life. The search for paradise is exciting and never ends. With my newly found faith I am willing—and ready—to return to America to live out the remainder of my existence continuing my unfinished quest of the past.


From “Pangs of Memory and Love,” unpublished novel.