The great Vietnam war novel was not written by an American
In 1967, Le Ly Hayslip, then known as Phung Thi Le Ly, was a teenager living and working in Da Nang. A peasant girl who had survived war and rape in her rural village, she had migrated to Da Nang to escape persecution from both Vietnamese Communists and anti-Communists. In 1972 she married an American and moved to the United States, and in 1989 she would publish her powerful autobiographical account of being caught between two sides, “When Heaven and Earth Changed Places.” In 2017, it remains perhaps the only first-person book in English about the experiences of Vietnamese villagers caught in the crossfire of the Vietnam War. In her life and work, Ms. Hayslip embodies my broad definition of what it means to be Vietnamese, an identity that includes those in Vietnam or in the diaspora, as well as those who write in Vietnamese or in other languages, in this case English.
I came across her book as a college student at Berkeley in the early 1990s. It moved me deeply, not only because it was a compelling memoir, but also because it was one of the few books in English by a Vietnamese writer. (Co-written, in her case, with Jay Wurts.) Searching for my own history as a Vietnamese refugee brought to the United States by an American war in my country of origin, I had not found much available to me in English, either in the original or in translation. The overwhelming amount of American writing about the war was by Americans, and it was, not surprisingly, about Americans.
There were a few exceptions. Tran Van Dinh was a former diplomat from the South, the Republic of Vietnam, who stayed in America and wrote two novels dealing with the Vietnam War, “No Passenger on the River” (1965) and “Blue Dragon, White Tiger” (1983). As a precocious child who read everything I could about the war, I came across the latter in the public library of San Jose, Calif., my hometown, and was puzzled by its anomalousness. Even then I knew that it was rare to find Vietnamese writers in the United States speaking about this war, or to hear any Vietnamese voices at all in mainstream America.