Nguyen Binh Phuong’s office is situated in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, enveloped in the nostalgic atmosphere of the surrounding French colonial architecture and the hustle and bustle of its ancient streets. We met in his wood-lined room on the second floor of the building, overlooking the front garden with frangipani flowering. He greeted me, and with childlike joviality, told me that he had just finished a new novel. As his Vietnamese editor at Nha Xuat Ban Tre (Youth Publishing House) for four years, I’m on familiar terms through our correspondence. Outside of Vietnam, no-one’s ever heard of Phuong; only one of his books has been published, in French, with a modest print-run of 2,000. Unknown in the West though he may be, in his native country he’s considered one of the most outstanding writers of his generation, in the same rank as Bao Ninh, Nguyen Huy Thiep and Ho Anh Thai. Phuong was born in 1965 in Thai Nguyen, eighty kilometres north of Hanoi. He completed his secondary education in 1985 and then served in the military for four years. Phuong worked as a propaganda painter during his time in the service. He came across writing accidentally, while reading some literary journals to fight the boredom of a soldier’s life at night. Like many Vietnamese writers, Phuong began his literary life as a poet. In 1989, he entered the Nguyen Du School of Creative Writing. Upon graduation, he worked at the Army’s Theatre before he was employed as the literary editor of the Army Literature and Art Review, where he now serves as editor-in-chief. Phuong’s writing career spans nearly three decades. Some of his early essays and short stories, published in Youth Literature and Art magazine, turned him into something of a celebrity in literary circles. Since the1990s, he has written a series of novels to much critical acclaim, among which are Vào cõi [Into the land], Những đứa trẻ chết già [Those kids die old], Người đi vắng [The man that goes away] and Trí nhớ suy tàn [Decaying memory], Thoạt kỳ thuỷ (translated into French as A l’origine), and most recently Mình và họ [Us and them]. Phuong’s works explore questions of human existence, love and the relationship between human beings and nature, all with unquestionably clear links to Vietnamese folklore culture. His modes of expression are idiosyncratic, rich and bold. His novels and poems not only challenge the clichés that developed in Vietnamese literature during the time of “harsh socialism” after the Vietnam War, but also offer a brand new voice and help push the boundaries of literary aesthetics and change the way people write in Vietnam. So far he’s published eight novels and half a dozen collections of poetry. His most recent novel, Mình và họ, won the Hanoi Writers Cirlce Award for Prose. Critics described him as the innovator of the art of fiction in Vietnam. But for all the accolades, Phuong stays away from the limelight, which made me all the more grateful for the interview he’s granted me.
For you, what is a poem?
A poem, for me, is a dialogue in which all are equals. Social classes are banished in the realm of poetry. The only discrepancy is then how valuable a poem is to a reader, the receiver, whose the intrinsic need would determine the value of the former. As a result, I believe that sometimes a student can receive much more from poetry than an academic in the field, a loser can find in poetry the power that a winner never dreams of. Poems are the poet who makes them, his self multiplied in a moment of creative euphoria, which, when passed, left poetry falling into the endless void in the poet’s soul. Therefore, constancy is impossible, and there is nothing common in poems. I once wrote in one of my essays, it’s likely that my conclusion will prompt sharp criticism, but I still hold the opinion that a poet, in essence, diffuses the world of reality. In other words, poetry not only expands the space between worldviews, but also the shape of a man, and no one can be certain what that expansion can do to the constancy of human beings. A man could be sundered from himself by the distances of his feelings. The process of splitting is infinite. Even when the smallest reality is broken up, the longer poetry exists, for after all, poetry is the passing moments that will never occur again.
How do your fiction and poetry relate to each other?
Many previous interviewers have asked me the same question. They wondered how my mind works for fiction and poetry. Some writers draw clear-cut distinctions between the two. But it is not the case for me. After all, fiction and poetry are creativity. I think they are just genres, and what matters more is the writer’s need. Sometimes you would need to express your ideas in the form of poetry, sometimes in prose. It is not as difficult as it’s said. Many have asked if I was ever confused, writing two at the same time. I replied “No, not at all.” Poems are flashes of feelings. Prose requires more thought and consideration.
Who are your favourite authors? Who influences you as a writer?
I only love books, not authors, because my love for authors is always partial. I love some aspect from this author, and some from that. There are a lot of books that I love, by Faulkner for example. He is very classical. And Márquez. Some books have had such deep and long- lasting reverberations on me, such as Platero and I by Ramón Jiménez. Although I am not influenced by him, its echoes have some effects on me, even now. But being influenced by an author is not easy. One usually says this author is influenced by that author. That could be a good thing, to be influenced, but I think it is not as easy as that, because every author has his or her own soul. And what is high art? It is the singleness, the only-ness. If a novelist is writing something magical realist, then you reckon that Márquez must be the influence, but that is not true. Just like Kafka, he has his own art, which is not easy to imitate. But one can learn about techniques and experiences from great authors, and one should. Why? Because there was not anything like the art of the novel in Vietnam in the past. The country had almost only poetry. Prose, especially novels, is new to the Vietnamese. For me, there are three different kinds of readers. The first kind only reads the story. The second one, a bit more sophisticated, reads the style. The story is then not as important to them as it is to the first kind. They would read something that has good style, along with a good story. The third kind is writers, reader-writers, those who read to learn about each other’s techniques. The story does not matter any more to them. Stories are countless. After all, human beings have only several storylines. Love stories would much be like that of Romeo and Juliet, those who love but could not live together. Why do people keep writing about love? Because each has their own techniques of story-telling to express their own ways of thinking about one thing. And for me, great authors are those who can go beyond popularity. Hardcore authors do not care how many readers they have. The only thing that matters to them is writing. They are really impeccable, and I respect them very much.
Who are they, the hardcore authors?
Kafka is really hardcore. His intrinsic need to write is impeccable. He wrote, without others to read his works. He even asked his friend to destroy all his manuscripts after he died. Other people are also right when they say that literary works should be savoured. Everyone has their own opinions, but for me, those who do not need anything but writing are more venerable.
And Vietnamese authors?
Vu Trong Phung. His characters are lively and realistic, his reportage is stellar, Dumb luck is a masterpiece, but I don’t like his prose style. I love prose by Nam Cao. Yet my love for every author is partial. Nam Cao, however, got stuck in the theme of poverty. Of course it was part of our history, a time our people were famished, but literature, as I imagine it, should go beyond that. Nam Cao just stopped there, in portraying the poverty. What if he had pushed his own boundaries to reach something greater than that? There is another book almost unknown to most readers today, but it had a deep impression on me. When I was in high school, I accidentally read the novel Nắng [Sunshine] by Nguyen The Phuong in the toilet. Back then old books were used as toilet paper. The book had lost some first pages, but it caught me right away. I kept reading and was captivated, so I stole it [laughs]. Long ago I had a chat with my fellow writer Bao Ninh and mentioned the novel, and by chance that he was also very fond of it.
How do you write?
When I write novels, I don’t make a draft with a clear map of plotlines. In fact, the arts of fiction, for me, are, to some extent, unfathomable. More often than not, it takes me years to mull over some idea, yet I don’t know what to write, and then one day when the weather is good, and I am determined enough, I sit down and just start writing. That’s how it all begins. But beginnings do not always matter, because writing novels can have an unclear start. But I keep writing and my ideas gradually become clearer and clearer, bit by bit. When I compose poems, I don’t write down my ideas, neither do I anticipate the structure. It is all just my feelings. My poems reflect my view of the world, but they are not philosophical. I remember all of my poems by heart, from those I composed decades ago up until now. Why can I do that? Because I composed them in my mind, sometimes it took one or two days, sometimes just one or two hours, but I did not jot them down. Then when they are written down, that’s the poem you’ll get. After that I edit them very carefully, changing, adding or cutting. It is a bit different when it comes to writing novels. My ideas about a novel are, in many cases, ambiguous and cloudy, and they come into shape while being written.
Do you prefer writing on paper or on computer?
Years ago, I wrote my very first books on paper. Back then computers were not popular in Vietnam. The first book that I wrote on computer was Trí nhớ suy tàn, a novella. I was not so well-off then, but managed to buy an old computer, and I started writing on it. It was around 1998 or ‘99 as I recall. In fact, it was quite easy for me to change from writing on paper to computer. Writing on computer gives me some advantages, that is, on the one hand, I can edit or delete something easily, and on the other hand, it helps me concentrate, because when you write on paper, you can cross something out, yet you can take it back if you like. You cannot do that when writing on a computer, so you must be careful about what’s to be deleted. There is only one drawback, and that’s that I can only write on a fixed computer, I can’t go around writing with a laptop. You can feel strained, but not too much. When I write, I need a familiar space, I need to smell the room and to see my familiar chair and office equipment.
There are many magical and fantastic features in Những đứa trẻ chết già. Where did you draw your source of inspiration for these?
Critics categorised Những đứa trẻ chết già as magical realist fiction. Some say that it has been a success in introducing Márquez’s magical realism into Vietnam. But I don’t think magicalism is a Latin American invention. Every people has its own magical literature. Vietnam also has its own folklore, which is magical and fantastic. Lĩnh Nam chích quái (Selection of strange tales in Lĩnh Nam), Việt điện u linh (Stories on the Dark and Spiritual World of the Viet Realm), and many other legends and myths are magical in their own right. Literature in the earliest days was all the more magical, I believe. The atmosphere and the supernatural haze in Những đứa trẻ chết già do not come from Latin America. Those temples, and con Nghe [mytical Vietnamse animals with the mixed features of lions and wild dogs] are oriental, with their history of thousands of years, not a few decades ago, when Latin American literature was introduced into Vietnam. Magical realism is just a way to categorise literature, but the magical features in my novel are Vietnamese.
Thai Nguyen is the recurring setting in your fiction. How did the town and your time there affect you as a writer?
I think every writer has a country of his or her own. Some are born, stay, and die in the same place, some travel far and wide. I can travel extensively. But my childhood in the countryside around Thai Nguyen town has left an indelible impression on me, and it is where all my world of creativity is set. The country haunts me, and at the same time it is my Promised or Ideal Land. I cling to it because, for me, it is mysterious and sacrosanct. While I have been living in Hanoi for a long time, and I can write about this city, I prefer not to. Every man has his own land, and I find myself lucky to have the haunting country that I love. I think it would be a nightmare if a writer didn’t have a land of his own, not a country on the dotted lines, but one that’s in one’s soul.
What is your new book about?
It is not easy, even for me, to summarise my book. The novel revolves around the conjugal relationships in a family with a few members. The setting is limited to a small area. My protagonist is a simple man who talks with a dog and tells it stories. Sometimes he can be quite like a deity who would, in deep trance, embody a temple. But in daily hours, he is disengaged and treated as an outcast. The book also has some magical features, more carefully incorporated. Its writing style and point of view are different from my other books, as I try to write every book differently.
How do you feel as a writer in this politico-social situation?
What do you mean?
Do you self-censor?
No, absolutely not. I have a guiding principle, that is: when writing, there is nothing over your head. I never self-censor. For me, a writer should write his heart out. Being published is another story. That is the reason why my most recent novel was rejected by sixteen publishers, both major and minor. It took Thoạt kỳ thủy a decade of rejections before it was published. I write what I think, to the best I can. Of course, not every book of mine has been rejected because of that. There are books that get published right away: Những đứa trẻ chết già, Người đi vắng, Trí nhớ suy tàn. Other books have gone down a rockier path. It is all because I write my heart out, straightforward, and never self-censor. In my opinion, that is what writers should do, because writing is more important than being published, and much harder. Sooner or later, your books will be published. A delay in publication for one or ten years can be nothing if a book is really valuable. Ten years could be a long time, but it would be dwarfed in comparision with the value of the book. As with second-rate books, one year could be too long a life. I'm not talking about my books, because that would be self- important and pretentious, but theoretically speaking, it’s true. For instance, ten years would be nothing in the life of War and Peace, and for Goethe’s Faust, that would also be nothing. Even a century. What would a century make for The story of Kieu? [A nineteenth-century epic poem by Nguyen Du, considered the most significant work of Vietnamese literature.]
What do you think about Vietnamese contemporary literature and young authors?
Vietnamese contemporary literature is diverse, with many trends and various kinds of expression. And authors are quite free to write. Relentless as The Sorrow of War might be, it has been published. Relentless and unapologetic as Nguyen Huy Thiep’s short fiction is, it has come into the light and been praised. Thiep is a pain in the neck for the Vietnamese government, and his writing even challenges cultural tradition. But he gets published anyway. So I do not think that there are too many restraints on writers. The thing is, writers need to have talent. Talent goes beyond political regimes, which, in turn, can only affect the common literary trends, but not first-rate authors, who manage to find their own ways of expression, regardless of the political situation. Of course, many authors want to write straightforwardly, but they are too frightened to do so. Stellar authors, however, can overcome restraints. To be honest, there are many good writers, but few have genuine talent with the literary charisma to last. The literary scene is very dynamic, but there are no emerging masterpieces. There weren’t so many trends of thought in the past as nowadays, but we still have had excellent authors. Nam Cao and Vu Trong Phung couldn’t read as much as an inferior writer today can. Now they have easy access to global knowledge, and books. Literary canons from almost every corner of the world have been translated into Vietnamese and readers in the country have somewhat kept up with the flow of world contemporary literature. Why do authors read better but not write better? Because they do not have enough talent. It is sad but true, and we cannot be hasty to do anything about that. Literature is much like waves. It comes high and low when the time comes.