In this personal essay, Hoa Pham describes encounters from Berlin in Germany to Beaufort in Australia, and how these meetings and other interconnected ideas have shaped her sense of identity. As she writes, “I did not feel at home in my own skin, a banana: yellow on the outside white on the inside. That is, until I met other Vietnamese Australian artists…”
I went to find Pham Thi Hoai, the Vietnamese diasporic writer in exile in Berlin. Her first book The Crystal Messenger had beautiful prose that could melt in your mouth. It was the politics of this book, a portrayal of a dwarf as Communist stalwart, that led to her exile. Sunday Menu, her short story collection, contained marvellous minutiae and no obvious politics. She has since devoted the last decades to journalism.
I tracked her down by using the address of Talawas, her Vietnamese current affairs website. Expecting an office, I was surprised to find myself, with my father in tow, at an apartment intercom in inner city Berlin. Hoai knew German and Vietnamese, I knew English, and my father knew Vietnamese and English. Somehow we would all communicate, I hoped.
A young male voice said “Was?” through the intercom. Dad said, “Pham Thi Hoai?” and the door opened to a dark stairwell. We ventured in not knowing what to expect.
A rectangular pool of light opened at the top of the stairs and we went up. A lanky Eurasian teenage boy came out and behind him was a petite Vietnamese woman. I recognised her from her author picture.
“Chao chi,” my father said apologetically. My daughter is a writer and she has been looking for you, he continued in Vietnamese.
“We’d like to talk to you,” I said in English.
“She doesn’t speak Vietnamese or German,” my father said. “I’m just the interpreter.”
I have a cold, she said. Perhaps you can come back later. Like tomorrow.
Yes that would be good, my father said. Sorry for disturbing you this way.
That’s ok, she said. We are Vietnamese.
We are Vietnamese. With that simple sentence she included me in a sense of community that I did not feel very often in Australia. I was second-generation Vietnamese Australian, born in Hobart, the child of refugees. I did not feel part of the Vietnamese communities because I did not speak Vietnamese.
While we were in Berlin, Hoai took us to where the best, most authentic pho was served, where the Vietnamese community market stalls were sheltered in giant aircraft hangars, nissen huts, out of the cold.
Pham Thi Hoai told me I should make a name for myself and publish through the web. The book industry is run for publishers not writers, she said. She herself could not write fiction while concentrating on journalism. I remember a story I had heard, that she wrote The Crystal Messenger for cigarettes. She would exchange pages for tobacco and papers. I gave her a book of mine for her husband to read in English. He was a German professor.
In Australia I had founded an online magazine, Peril, for Asian Australian arts and culture; it has received Australia Council of the Arts funding for eight years. I identify as being Asian Australian because I do not identify as being simply Australian.
My book, Lady of the Realm, was first an e-book release through the Australian Literary Review, along with a work by Eleanor Jackson. It had 183 downloads in the first six months. It will be a while before my name will be known like Pham Thi Hoai.
We are Vietnamese. Nam Le is still the most well-known Vietnamese Australian author although he has not published anything in the last ten years. He has been purposefully misread by Christopher Lee, a Canadian academic, as an “American” author. He argues that Nam being taught at the Iowa Writers Workshop makes his writings American. This misses important cultural differences between American and Australian perceptions of the war and the positioning of Vietnam in the national imaginaries of both countries.
The Vietnam that Australians know about is mostly in the context of war. The latest war musical is Rolling Thunder Vietnam. “Rolling Thunder” was the code name for the Americans carpet bombing Vietnam for a few years in the sixties. It would be like having Operation Desert Storm: The musical. Pretty inappropriate.
The battle of Long Tan is the most famous Australian battle of the Vietnam/American War, where the Australians won the battle but lost the war. It made national news headlines when the Vietnamese government put restrictions on the planned Australian celebrations in Long Tan in 2017. The Vietnamese government did not want a band playing and did not want thousands gathering in commemoration. The equivalent would be the Japanese having a celebration on Pearl Harbour. Unthinkable.
Cloud Wish, an Australian young adult book about a Vietnamese refugee girl, by Fiona Wood, was awarded an Australian Children’s Book Council Award for Book of the Year – Older Readers. If the book was about a Muslim girl or an Aboriginal girl, it would have been seen for what it was: cultural appropriation by a white writer. It would not have won an award.
We are Vietnamese. I did not feel at home in my own skin, a banana: yellow on the outside, white on the inside. That is, until I met other Vietnamese Australian artists like Chi Vu who had Vietnamese ancestry and artistic sensibilities. Chi had a piece included in the PEN Anthology of Australian Literature, a sign of mainstream acceptance of Vietnamese diasporic work. Among her many plays is one called Coloured Aliens, about the issues facing Asian playwrights.
In my first adult book, Vixen, I avoided writing about the war. I did not feel comfortable doing so since it was outside my immediate experience, I did not feel I could do it justice. In my book, The Other Shore, the war is experienced through psychic visions, through naïve protagonist Kim in her early twenties. Through my recent work as a psychologist I have since encountered survivors of war, so in my latest book, Lady of the Realm, I felt more able to write about Lien’s experiences of war.
We are Vietnamese. I say I’m Vietnamese Australian. Though I do not speak Vietnamese, I have come to realise that my spirit is Vietnamese Buddhist through the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh. I was privileged to go on a month tour with him in South Vietnam in 2007, receiving dharma talks and going on retreat with thousands of people at Prajna Monastery before it was destroyed.
He walks in silence
Ten thousand hushes
And the world takes a breath
A lake of calm
Ripples outward from the heart
An abbott kneels at his feet
With a gentle touch he rises
And all are made equal
“I have arrived, I am home”
This seated Buddha
Overlooks the waterfall
Grey robed novices show the way
Giggling like birds
“I have arrived, I am home”
Messages of meditation
Amongst straight young pine trees
The green tea plantation mountains
Surround the Prajna inside
Ten thousand hear his words
Ten thousand feel his mantra
Each moment, each breath
Being peace personified
*Prajna means ‘insight’ in Sanskrit
Prajna Monastery followed Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings in Vietnam and was destroyed by the Vietnamese government in 2009. Thich Nhat Hanh is a well-known Vietnamese Zen Master, exiled in Plum Village, France, with monasteries around the world, including in Australia. He has returned to Vietnam to live in his root temple in Hue after a stroke that has left him unable to speak.
Hoai asked me to take pictures of the protest held by the Vietnamese German monastics in Berlin in 2009. They held a peaceful walking meditation in the centre of the city handing out yellow roses to passersby. She told me that her son did not care about what happened in Vietnam. I could not understand how a son could not care about his mother’s exile. Perhaps they would say he was too German, the way I am told I am too Australian.
We are Australian. I’m lucky to be Australian, lucky to be born in Hobart and not a war zone. Though I’m not proud to be Australian in this time and place, with the government’s treatment of Indigenous people and refugees, it offers opportunities I wouldn’t get elsewhere. For instance, in Vietnam I would not be able to write against the government, or include too much sex or violence.
After the destruction of Prajna Monastery, Thich Nhat Hanh has said that Prajna is now legend. The monastics who have mostly fled to Thailand carry the seeds of Prajna within them with their practice. I had wanted to end The Lady of the Realm with messages of peace and reconciliation but instead ended with the destruction of the monastery, with peace a hope rather than an actuality. A mainstream Australian reviewer found the book beautiful but horrifying, with the ending surprising. She also thought that the protagonist Lien alone called the war the American War, rather than realising that many north Vietnamese also view it as the American War.
“I have arrived, I am home”
With this sangha I am never alone
Touching the earth I see
The seeds of my ancestors in each cell of my body
War, rape and illness exhaled
Soothing my soul with ritual
I grieve, I heal, I inter-be.
I am lucky enough to have found my peace with the help of Plum Village Australia, which is based at Nhap Luu Monastery in Beaufort in the state of Victoria in Australia.
We are Vietnamese.
We are Australian. We are Vietnamese Australian.
We are all connected. We all inter-be.
This is an edited version of the original article previously published in PORTAL Journal of Multi Disciplinary International Studies Rencontres: Transdiasporic Encounters in Việt Kiều Literature (double issue) Vol 15 No 1-2 (2018)
Hoa Pham is an award-winning writer and psychologist. She has had published seven fiction books and a play. Her novel Wave was translated into Vietnamese by Phuong Nam, a publishing house in Vietnam. Her website is www.hoapham.net. She is also the founder of Peril, an online Asian Australian arts and culture magazine.
This essay was curated and edited by our Contributing Editor for Australia, Sheila Ngoc Pham.