Vietnamese Accent Marks, More Than Ink-Deep: In Conversation with Viet Nguyen

In the most recent issue of Arts Illustrated, DiaCRITICS’ editor Viet Thanh Nguyen was interviewed to discuss his personal journey as a writer, his work on identity and the arts, the Vietnam War, DiaCRITICS, and much more. This article was originally published in Arts Illustrated, volume 1, issue no. 2, pages 75 – 80 (August – September 2013). For best visual quality, please download the PDF. It is available in both high and low resolution.

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‘Borrowing is never an ultimate solution. If you love something so much, create your own. This holds true for the Vietnamese language. Long gone were the days when Vietnamese people had to use Chinese characters to write their spoken language. Modern Vietnamese has been in wide use since 1919. Evolved from a history that reflects a mixture of foreign influences that dominated the course of the nation since the earliest days, written Vietnamese uses the Latin alphabet of abc intersected with diaCRITICS (or the accent marks). Without a doubt, the uniqueness of the Vietnamese language lies, among other things, in its diaCRITICS. As a Viêt Nam-freak, (i.e., I jealously guard anything Vietnamese) I even think that without diaCRITICS, Vietnamese is not Vietnamese.’ – Excerpt from the post ‘Dilemma of a Vietnamese Name?!’ by Anvi Hoàng, published in diaCRITICS.

There is a beautiful line in an essay by Huy Đức translated by Phạm Vũ Lửa Hạ in diaCRITICS, ‘Nobody can secure a path to the future without a truthful understanding of the past, especially a past which we played a part in and were collectively responsible for’. The rendition of Vietnam, a country whose past and present have been overshadowed by the war, has historically been stuck in a loop. diaCRITICS, an online initiative, offers a voice to the new Vietnam, the changing Vietnam. It reveals an impassioned perspective of the diasporic culture and the politics of the country. The blog breaks conventional stereotypes of the country and provides cross-cultural encounters that are invaluable to understanding Vietnam. We spoke to Viet Thanh Nguyen, the editor of diaCRITICS.

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Dinh Q. Le. Doi Moi (NapalMeD Girl) 2006

Artists (including actors, writers, performers) have at times taken on the role of not merely chronicling the times but gone a step ahead to take a stand, voice their opinion and call for action. In your role as a writer, a professor, a cultural observer you must encounter similar sentiments and even understand the need to not just be a receptacle but a voice amidst the chaos. Your comments …

Viet Thanh Nguyen: The question of voice is tricky. Finding a voice, claiming a voice and using a voice are crucial to all artists, writers and critics, but especially so for those who come from under-represented or marginalised communities. For these populations, there can be a strong sense that finding one’s voice is important not just for an individual but a community; often this means that the individual artist, writer or critic may feel that finding her or his own voice allows her or him to advocate for that community or tell its story. But advocating or telling that story is tricky because sometimes the community doesn’t want its story told, or doesn’t want its story told by this particular person, or doesn’t like this person’s story or finds it a betrayal; or because other communities will seize on this person as a representative for her or his community, a position for which he or she is not elected or chosen. And sometimes it may be the case that having one’s voice be aligned with the community, while empowering, can also be stifling for the artist, writer or critic. He or she might eventually want to speak about something else besides that community, but may find herself or himself so identified with that community that opportunities to speak about anything else are limited.

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How has your personal journey been thus far? How did diaCRITICS and your writings emerge through the years?

VTN: I started writing fiction in college with the idea that it was important to tell stories about Vietnamese Americans, since there were not that many stories by or about Vietnamese Americans at that time. Now the situation is different. There are quite a few well-known Vietnamese American writers writing about the Vietnam War, Vietnamese American life and Vietnam. While writing about all those things is important, I think that there can be an exhaustion in writing about those topics too, the sense that a Vietnamese American writer is expected to write about them. Is it possible to write about other things? Is it possible to write about those things but complicate the telling? Those are the issues that concern me now, and other Vietnamese American writers, too. There’s a diversity of voices, ideas and approaches under this category of ‘Vietnamese American writing’ that no one writer can encapsulate, and that is one of the reasons why I started diaCRITICS. As a collective effort, it showcases many different voices, rather than just mine. The paradox is that diaCRITICS and ‘Vietnamese American writing’ are unified under the Vietnamese American label, but that label does not tell us anything definitive about Vietnamese American identity, or people, or concerns or themes.

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An-My Lê. Small Wars (Sniper 1), 1999-2002

In your writing you speak of how the Vietnam War is called the Vietnam War, not the American war. Could you please elaborate on that point?

VTN: Naming wars is almost always a problem. Names for wars always seem to me to be insufficient, because they take something very complicated and messy and put them in a neat box. The trouble with these neat boxes is that they are passed on to people who understand only one part of that war, or who were born later and depend on that neat box to tell them something efficient about that war. Those neat boxes prevent subsequent generations from understanding the complications and messiness of war. So in the case of the Vietnam War, the name is something conjured by Americans, and remembered by them as an event that mostly concerned Americans, with Vietnamese people in the background. That’s obviously problematic, but it is a problem mirrored by how the Vietnamese call the war the American war. Some people like to use the American war because it de-centres the American point of view, but I don’t think that’s accurate. All it does is emphasise the Vietnamese point of view, which is not an innocent one. Neither name is all that accurate because of what they foreclose, how the war was fought not just in Vietnam but also in Laos and Cambodia, and how many nations were involved besides just Vietnam and the United States. The war was really a condensation of many global and regional interests, and killed many people besides Americans and Vietnamese, both of whom were implicated in how the war spilled outside of Vietnam. In the end, we have to use some kind of name for the war, but I think it’s important to keep drawing attention to the fact that names for war are often created by vested interests who want to control that war’s meaning.

An-My Lê. 29 Palms, Night Operations III

The world has shifted, flattened, fused; people try to understand or even find their own identity, and one finds that art is always within arm’s reach of such dilemmas. Through your online space diaCRITICS, how have you tackled this evolving realm of identity and arts?

VTN: diaCRITICS has a couple of advantages in dealing with the relationship of art to identity. One is that it’s a collective project with many writers from different backgrounds. This is crucial because ‘identity’ is always fluid, flexible and multiply defined. Anyone who tries to say that any given identity is clearly X or clearly Y is wrong, and the way to prove it is to have forums where many voices can speak about this identity. They will show that there are always disagreements about defining identity, and about how to use art in relationship to identity. So what’s important is not agreement but argument, not consensus but conversation. The second advantage is that diaCRITICS, being online, can be global. The readership comes from many different countries, and so do the writers. This type of global reach was much harder in the analog, print past. We have been able to find writers in Canada, France, Germany, Australia, Norway and Vietnam, writing mostly in English but also in French, German and Vietnamese. That global reach is exciting.

As artists who are part of the Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network, how has the narrative or the imagery been this far, how has it adapted itself, or does it still echo the past shadows?

VTN: The memory of colonisation and war in Vietnam is strong in both France and the United States, where the largest diasporic Vietnamese communities are found. As a result, Vietnamese artists in these countries have opportunities and limitations. If they speak about colonisation and war, they speak about topics their nations know something about, and [they] can find audiences. This opportunity to speak is obviously important, and can produce great work. But it is also limiting, because it is circular – Vietnamese artists and writers are defined by being Vietnamese, which is defined by colonisation and war, and if Vietnamese artists and writers work on those topics, they further cement those topics with Vietnamese identity. Some Vietnamese artists and writers are working on other topics altogether, and some are succeeding in getting their work out. They may be hard to identify as Vietnamese because they do not work on so-called Vietnamese topics, but, at the same time, they are also redefining what a Vietnamese topic is, or the relevance of the label ‘Vietnamese’ to themselves or what they do.

Binh Danh, Ancestral Alters

Binh Danh, Ancestral Alters

How would you describe the contemporary Vietnamese arts scene?

VTN: Diverse, energetic, contradictory and fragmented. It’s hard to describe this scene because there are many scenes. Some artists deal with the memory of war, others with quotidian life, still others with abstraction. Some work with the legitimisation of state approval, others rebel. Some sell works for enormous sums, others live marginally. The scenes differ depending on whether we are looking at the United States or Vietnam or other countries. In these places, some artists aspire to make their mark in metropolitan art galleries, First World museums, and global art events. Other artists serve their vision of local communities. Still more think of their work as commodities for First World consumers. Much of the work is terrible or routine, but enough of it is extraordinary. This gives me hope, that there are enough risk-taking artists with great ideas who can lead Vietnamese art to exciting places, regardless of the mundane work of many. In this respect, Vietnamese art is not that much different than any other category of art. But Vietnamese art is recovering from decades of isolation, in Vietnam, or the burdens of belonging to a minority, overseas, and both of those historical factors shape the formal properties of the art and its pace of change.

 

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Arts Illustrated is a pan-Indian based arts and design magazine with a keen focus to reach out to the urbane demographic and create a more inclusive ecosystem for the arts. More info here.

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11 Responses to Vietnamese Accent Marks, More Than Ink-Deep: In Conversation with Viet Nguyen

  1. Audrey Chin says:

    2 big comments –
    (1) At the risk of being battered by everyone, I find the obsession with diacritics in names for English-language documents and text a little paranoid. Please, these are foreign language documents. I’m Chinese, but I don’t expect the DMV to render my name in either Chinese ideograms because the scripts are so different. In any case, the unique Viet diacritics were invented by a Frenchman and served to separate the Vietnamese from their ancient writings. So, no less than nom chu, they too are a sign of colonialization.
    (2) As a Singaporean woman writing a novel about the Vietnamese diaspora from a not-necessarily sympathetic to Southern or Northern view, I so resonate with your observation that “sometimes the community doesn’t want its story told, or doesn’t want its story told by this particular person” from Vietnamese. And from Singaporeans a bewilderment why I might want “to speak about something else besides that community”.
    ,

  2. Anvi Hoàng says:

    Ms. Chin,
    You missed the whole point of the article about Vietnamese names with diacritics. So please stop baffling. Also, please get your facts straight.
    Cheers.

    • Audrey Chin says:

      HI Anvi

      I apologize if I did not get my facts straight about the invention of Latinized Vietnamese with Diacritics by Rhodes and am happy to correct my ignorance. Please point me to a few sources (Vietnamese ianguage is alright too). I would just like to say that Hanyu Pinyin which is Latinized Chinese also has diacritics and accent marks. I believe Vietnamese poetry is some of the most aurally beautiful poetry I’ve heard, and I have read the older poetry by Ho Xuan Huong and the Ly and Tran in both Ideographs and diacritical script, and in both versions found it quite wonderful, so I’m not knocking the Vietnamese language or the need to find an identity.

      Regarding point (2) on being baffled about being a Singaporean writing a book about a Vietnamese man, I am not baffled why I’m writing the book. I am highlighting the fact that Vietnamese say I’m not the correct person to write such a book and that Singaporeans wonder why I want to write about Vietnam and not about Singapore. As Viet says in his interview, the point is that artists are often expected to keep within a community they’re “placed” in … but often they want to explore other things.

      Do correct me if I have the facts wrong, since I seem to be misinformed. Let’s agree to disagree about my view regarding diacritics (since this is obviously a subjective opinion). As for what an artist might want to work on or be labelled as, I guess the boundaries will always be porous.

      • Anvi Hoàng says:

        Ms. Chin, I used to have a book about new findings relating to Vietnamese language. Could not find it right now. However, there are extensive articles on line about this. Google “nguồn gốc chữ quốc ngữ” and you will see.
        Best.

  3. Audrey Chin says:

    I just wanted to add that I was not referring to your essay about the use of diacritics in your personal name, when you can control it. Please note what I wrote in my comments – “I find the obsession with diacritics in names for English-language documents and text a little paranoid.”

    • Audrey Chin says:

      Sorry- pressed Reply before I finished.
      … It’s debatable whether there is such an obsession and it’s sufficiently generalized for me to say “the”. But, I have noticed one in my interactions, and perhaps that is my personal observation.

  4. viet nguyen says:

    The issue of diacritics in English is a perplexing one. I can see both sides of the issue and wrestle with it myself. Should we write Vietnam, Viet Nam, or Việt Nam? If the latter, with diacritics, how does that disorient the non-Vietnamese reading reader, especially if all Vietnamese names, titles, etc. had such diacritics? And if we use Việt Nam, then do we also use “Vietnamese”? The point that Audrey raises about how the equivalent is not done in Chinese in English is a good one. It may be authentic to see Chinese ideograms, but they’re incomprehensible to the non-Chinese reader; and to see a romanization is not “authentic” at all, in comparison. So what does the non-Vietnamese reader get from seeing diacritics on Vietnamese words? But if we’re talking about Vietnamese-fluent readers, it’s a different issue. I find it very helpful to see diacritics, because often I don’t know how to pronounce a Vietnamese name just from seeing the non-diacritical version. I haven’t made up my mind, even now, about how to deal with this on this site or in my own writing, and am always going back and forth.

    • Anvi Hoàng says:

      Only two weeks ago, I found the solution for country names: when I write in English, I conform to the English language standards using English country names: Vietnam, just like I use ‘France’ (not the French version), Germany (not the German version), etc. Proper names is still a tough call. It is difficult and maybe unreasonable for someone who grew up without diacritics to add them to their name later on. In the end, it is up to each individual how they want their name to look like in English. Technology, etc. does not grant them their wish all the times, though. More below.
      To me, the issue of ‘diacritics on Vietnamese words’ is not just about what non-Vietnamese readers benefit from it, but all about a combination of many elements: power struggle, mutual understanding, technology, familiarity, power struggle, power struggle. Life is not fair. The English languages is ruling. The world is not at a point where they can and are willing to read characters or diacritics. That is why we are fighting, right? Yet, if people QUOTE Vietnamese or Vietnamese names, scientifically and scholarly speaking, they should keep the original with diacritics simple because it is unintelligible without, and for reference purposes. But then again, this is about the same, and further, issues of familiarity, technology, pride, power struggle… From a linguistic perspective, I don’t know and need to learn about it.

      • Audrey Chin says:

        An Vi,
        That is my position exactly. When quoting Vietnamese and Vietnamese names, it should always be in diacritics as far as it’s technically possible. Indeed, when my novel was being edited, I insisted on that.
        So, we are not in disagreement at all.

  5. Dan Duffy says:

    What a lovely short statement of a point of view I agree with.

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