[Prelude to] Appeasing the Spirits

This post is a prelude to Van Nguyen-Marshall’s essay “Appeasing the Spirits Along the Highway of Horror”


My original caption for this photo, as I wrote about in my memoir We Were Meant To Be a Gentle People read: †In the spring of 1972, a deluge of people flooded Highway 1 between Quang Tri and Hue, flowing in that southerly direction that at the time symbolized escape, and about a thousand of them were felled by shells and gunfire from Communist fighters hidden in the hills above the road. Many, so many, people had died already, so why is this death-site any more significant than another? When my mother and her colleagues arrived at this stretch of road—the first members of the press on the scene after the bodies had lain untended for two months—they dubbed it “The Street of Horror.” My parents were lovers at the time and theirs was what you would call an unsanctioned relationship.(*) I was born on April 1, 1973. If you count back exactly nine months from that date, you arrive at July 1, 1972, the same day the Sóng Thần press members arrived and my mother and father stood together for a moment on that patch of Highway 1. (*) Already, however, some years earlier my mother had been warned by a fortune teller not to expect marriage of any man she was involved with before the age of 30. The man she would marry, said the fortune teller, would be from some other place, faraway…


 

I have written—or have tried to write—about you before, Road. 

I don’t know much about you, really, but that your basic shape makes a spine through the body of the country.

If we are to think about countries as bodies. 

Or a country—human-defined parcel of earth’s geography—as one unified organism.

(I realize this thinking has its biases and limits.)

Roads as spines. Veins. Conduits.

Metaphor as easy habit of the writer; attached to a desire for meaning-making.

Still, it is debatable which end you might prefer us to call your head or tail (feet?).

You are not a ring road: one cannot get back to where one began simultaneous to reaching your end.

But, a spine-like road is a design that befits the shape of (y)our country: which is long and narrow.

With a coastal curve suggesting the serpentine-body quality of a seahorse or dragon. 

I am anthropomorphizing you, I realize, both Road and Country. (& why must it be the imagining of something scaled?)

Arguably, the genesis of you, Road, began in the north. (Arguably.)

Certainly, though, the movement of humans—soldiers and civilians—followed this compass direction: notably in 1972.

I was born a child of the south. In 1973.

I am trying to tell you, Road, that although you don’t know me: we are connected. Because you are where I began. 

When I wrote about you before, somewhat obliquely, I captioned you: Place of conception

It’s a little melodramatic, I realize. The distorted solipsism, perhaps, of the memory-less displaced grasping for her place in a schemata of history that overwhelms.

Here is something that is fact: my parents stood on that stretch of you, Road, where the bodies had fallen and gathered in the spring of 1972.

& what is it like for the land to hold but have no arms, no legs, no means of escape but to be the ever-afterneath. 

Of so many human footfalls.

The photojournalist who arrived first—on July 1, 1972—and took the first photographs of the aftermath gave the event its name.

Đi L Kinh Hoàng.

His is the photograph I’ve written about before. A head-on shot from in the middle of the road, looking toward what appears to be a line of bombed-out vehicles and other bits of debris strewn over your surface.

Near the foreground: a twisted bicycle frame with wheel and handlebars upturned toward the sky.

Several more twisted bicycle (or motorcycle?) frames scattered behind the foreground one.

& behind the bombed-out vehicles the obscured shapes of more vehicles stretching down the road, their line fading into what would be the photograph’s (shallow) horizon.

This particular photograph’s depiction of the horror—though titled as such—does not show any bodies.

Other photographs (you can find online if you google the Vietnamese name of the incident) show more.

[But I did not write about any of those other photographs in my memoir because I did not feel they were my pictures or stories to write about: I was not going for sensationalism or (re)historicization of what had happened, so much as I was just trying to write about how the photograph taken by my mother’s colleague connected (history?) to me (or me to it?), to my mother, my father, my time of birth.]

Ngy Thanh, the photographer, had written to me out of the blue in 2008, introducing himself, when I was living in Juneau, Alaska. Holed up in a little house amid the sitka spruce, homeschooling my son, trying to avoid my own ambitions. That is when I first found his photograph.

& what is memoir? It derives from the word for memory (and certainly I was wrestling with what is memory especially when your own sense of it is permeated by memories that are not, in fact, your own or of your own making.)

But now I am looking again and writing again. I have not, it would seem, yet written sufficiently enough about what it means: to write about photographs.

No, wait–not “about” them so much as around, toward, away from, in question, of them: photographs and their power to show–or seem to show–so much and nothing and everything.

My ambivalence, I know well, is frustrating to some readers.

Who would prefer to take a more direct road–machine-cut–through the (his)tory.

One of the Đi L Kinh Hoàng photographs you’ll find on the Google search shows: bodies crumpled alongside a puddle and some corrugated sheets of metal, with men in fatigues standing around; one man (presumably another news team) with the shape of a camera on his shoulder.  

In another photograph: the crumpled body of a man, a conical hat turned upside-down in the dirt just beyond his feet, the hat’s upended-ness echoed in the background by an overturned military truck, chunky tires aimed skyward. 

A child’s body crumpled in the photo’s left mid-ground, the back of another child’s head poking into the right-side of the frame. Several more bodies looking like soft mounds pockmarking mid- and background. 

A soldier is bending over just behind the man’s body in the foreground, his hand reaching to lift up one of the corrugated metal sheets, presumably to see what may be underneath (another body). All the dead bodies in the photograph are barefoot, their crumpled positions as if they could be sleeping.

There is a tone about this photograph that is dispassionate and calm. 

The punctum of the photograph (if I am to apply this type of seeing) might be the discarded hat, I think, or the dead man’s bare feet. Tenderness against the voids of carnage.

Several more urgent-toned photographs can also be found: a baby trying to nurse on a dead mother’s breast (which yields this further story); a man carrying a bloody-bodied child past another bloodied body on the ground, two young boys standing and looking on.

When I look at these photographs I begin to forget what it is I had started out trying to write—why did I want to address you, Road? 

I realize that no photograph can tell the whole truth of any event. 

Or place.

& no event can adequately define a history—although our tendency toward metaphor may wish it to be so summable. 

(A flag raised over a landscape; the visage of a man caught just as the bullet enters his skull; a seated monk on fire; an insect-like line of people ascending to a helicopter on a rooftop.)

Photographs have a way of getting us to think of incidental moments as: indicative of Event.

And Event as cataclysmic.

Cataclysmic thinking has a way of getting us to layer Time (in our minds) in terms of Befores and Afters.

What, truly, is an event? 

With histories composed of so many events. (Arguably.)

For you will not find the Đi L Kinh Hoàng (“Highway of Horror”) event included, by this name or in these terms, in any state-sanctioned histories. Vietnamese or American. 

A ripple versus a rip— ?

Maybe I wanted to write to you, Road, because I imagined you would have been an impartial witness. 

A road, if it has desire, would be only to serve the purpose it was made for. 

To transport.

Bodies and goods. Vessels and vehicles. Containers.

You would have seen all of it while conceiving nothing about the altering of destinies or the composition of angles.

+++

Over the years I have carried around my scant knowledge of this history, my dim and flawed awareness. I have tried—insufficiently—to write about it. I have surrendered myself to writing about not writing about it; resigned myself to writing, rather, only about the inaccessibility of histories—personal and collective—that yet have marked (invisibly, indelibly) my own cultural and personal being. I write circles toward it. Like a magnet’s force it repels me. I am cast aside, sent down other paths, transgressions and digressions, to eventually circle back yet again. (And I am writing about/toward it again now as a prelude, more so, to somebody else’s work: far more effective research than my ambivalent/poetic mind could ever perform.)

I first saw Van Nguyen-Marshall speak about her research into the Đại Lộ Kinh Hoàng event and time period of South Vietnamese experience at a symposium at UC Berkeley, in 2016, called “Nation-Building in War: The Experience of Republican Vietnam, 1949-1975.” Several Vietnamese intellectuals of my mother’s generation, including my mother and first-generation diasporic heavyweights such as Nhã Ca, the writer, and Kiều Chinh, the actress, were names on some panels. The non-Vietnamese scholars were white men, like Peter Zinoman. (As a writer who is not an academic, I am yet aware of the friction that abides – in some cases – between Asian Studies and Asian American Studies departments, and have to admit my own diasporic-in-America upbringing aligns me more sensibly with the latter perspective.) I attended the conference for just a couple of hours one afternoon, to catch Van Nguyen-Marshall’s presentation about the Highway of Horror, which I had (as I’ve indicated already) my own personal connection to. Her paper is titled “Appeasing the Spirits Along the ‘Highway of Horror’: Civic Life in Wartime Republic of Vietnam.”

Her research focuses not just on the events of the massacre, but on the civilian efforts—spearheaded by the independent newspaper Sóng Thần (which my mother and father were publishers and editors of)—to identify and bury the bodies of the dead in the aftermath of the event. A gesture significant also for the way it spoke to the spiritual-psychological crisis of the moment: to Vietnamese, it is of profound importance where and how one’s dead—one’s ancestors—are laid to rest.

I remember many thoughts and feelings stirring in me during my brief observation of the symposium. At one point my mother introduced me to Nhã Ca, and I remember the way the old writer pressed my hand between her two hands. I remember marveling at the energy of the elderly Viet women—such matriarchal nobility, such harbingers of feminine power—and feeling strongly that this was a history—these storytellers!—that really needed to be documented. Kiều Chinh spoke about the need for young Vietnamese to write good stories that increased representation of Vietnamese in films; although I think she did not use the word “representation” or other rote terminology for it. I was in the Bay Area that weekend because I’d been attending other events connected to DVAN; I was staying with my colleague from She Who Has No Master(s), our collective project of Vietnamese diasporic women writers. It struck me how much of a gulf there seemed to be—a sheer absence of communication, in fact—between the intellectuals of my mother’s ilk and my own peers, who are no less than some of the leading academics in Asian American Studies and Vietnamese American literature in the U.S. Why, I wondered, are we not all talking to one another? (The answers are many and complex, fettered in different ways, I realize.) I had driven over to Berkeley from San Francisco and had to go back out of the building, across campus, to feed my parking meter a couple of times; one of those times walking back toward the symposium in the middle of campus I was called out to by a Vietnamese man, older than me but younger than my mother, who identified me by name, to my surprise, asking if I was the writer he thought I was. Somehow he knew about me, knew whose daughter I was. This type of recognition occurs for me not too often, but enough for me to be made aware of the legacy of my mother, her newspaper, that pre-1975 era of South Vietnamese literature and intellectual activity that is, however humbly, however insularly, still churning.

Once, to give another example, I drove to a town I never visit—Longview, Washington—responding to an ad on Craigslist to buy a bed frame, and the man who was selling the bed frame turned out to be Vietnamese. It took only a few questions into our conversation—just beyond when did you come over and what did your parents do in Saigon—for him to reveal, when I mentioned the name of my mother’s newspaper and then her name, that he was familiar with her reputation. Here we were, four decades and several continents distant, the echoes still resounding against the walls of a modest diasporic abode in a small town in the Pacific Northwest. He was courteous and self-effacing as he gave me his email address, saying he would love for me to send word to my mother that he had been a fan and reader of hers, but of course did not expect her to actually respond to him. (My mother, when I relayed this to her, was not surprised; acknowledged there were many of her own age group who would feel that way, who would know of her, would recall the work of Sóng Thần with such regard, etc.) I bought the bed frame and took it home to the condo apartment I was living in at the time in Portland, the one owned by my mother that (now, as I write this) she is selling. Time moves; we move. Frames and containers are constantly shifting, in my experience at least. We are roads, or passing ships or boats, or tendrils of memory, lost and fraying threads, ill-fitting metaphors, interweaving our traces through and down the years.

 

*

 

Connected to this post, we also feature an excerpt from Van Nguyen-Marshall’s academic article on Đi LKinh Hoàng in which she emphasizes the civilian efforts of the independent newspaper Sóng Thần to remedy the predicament of the improperly tended-to dead left behind on the highway after the incident in 1972. Her article presents these efforts as a crucial example of South Vietnamese society’s civilian engagement and agency during the war, an oft-overlooked aspect of our diasporic experience.

 


Contributor Bio

photo by Isabelle Thuy Pelaud

Dao Strom is the author of the books You Will Always Be Someone From Somewhere Else, We Were Meant To Be a Gentle People, The Gentle Order of Girls and Boys, and Grass Roof, Tin Roof; and a song-cycle, East/West. She is the editor of diaCRITICS. www.daostrom.com

 

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here