Reading Colorfully: Traveling through the World’s Literature

–by Nichole Reber

Ask for names like Basharat Peer or Tashi Dawa at your local or chain bookstore and the clerks look at you like you’ve got seven heads. I was the one confused, though, by the lack of easy access to international authors upon repatriating back to the States. Sure, I no longer had daily access to ramshackle book vendors beside Mumbai train stations, Peruvian favorites in Lima’s bookstores, or expat bar bookshelves in China, but need that put an end to my colorful reading? So join me in this journey between crisp white pages of new literary titles and soft yellowed pages of older books.

“Heartbreaker on a Quest”

Writer Pham Thi Hoai knows how to tick off the Vietnamese powers that be. Her homeland’s government accuses her of disregarding social taboos, disrespecting traditions, having a pessimistic view of their country, and worse— abusing the “sacred mission of a writer.”

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Pham Thi Hoai

In the book that introduced me to her work, Night, Again: Contemporary Fiction from Vietnam, edited by Linh Dinh and published by Seven Stories in 1996, Dinh describes that “sacred mission.” Writers throughout East Asian history were considered public servants, he explains. Their task “was to steer the masses toward righteousness. Writing that is irreverent, playful or morally ambivalent,” he writes, “was seen by the ruling class as either frivolous or subversive.” By 1978, Dinh writes, more than 160 South Vietnamese writers were detained in re-education camps (which my experience living in China taught me to interpret as brainwashing camps, a newfangled Cultural Revolution practice). About a decade later Vietnam’s political climate appeared to have changed. Secretary General Nguyen Van Linh encouraged writers to “’Speak the truth… No matter what happens, Comrades, don’t curb your pen.’” That was, however, not entirely true.

Hoai is just one author whose work, such as her first novel The Crystal Messenger, was banned. She now lives in Berlin where she founded and writes in an apparently incendiary online journal in Vietnamese, which has also been banned in Vietnam. Her work, fortunately for us on this side of the planet, has been translated into English, French, Spanish, Italian, German, and Finnish. Continue reading