The Orange County writer who saved Vietnam’s wartime literature, poem by poem, dies

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When the Communist forces pushed into Saigon in the final days of the Vietnam War, Vo Phien sensed that his country’s past was about to be erased. Books would be burned, history lessons rewritten, entire cities stripped of their names.

Fearful of what was to come, he resolved to collect and preserve literary treasures, essays that had appeared in newspapers and magazines, books that might soon be banned, even diaries — anything that captured the raw emotions and nervous energy of wartime.

What emerged years later, after he landed in America as a refugee with little more than his wife and teenage daughter, is a volume of Vietnamese writings that otherwise might have vanished.

Vo, a prolific Vietnamese writer himself who made a living crunching numbers for the Los Angeles County Employees Retirement Assn., died Tuesday at a medical facility in Santa Ana. He was 89, though in Vietnamese culture he was considered to be 90 based on the lunar calendar.

Among Vietnamese Americans, Vo is considered one of the diaspora’s towering literary minds, someone with an eye for the melancholy of the era, a writer who captured the rich detail of the culture, Vietnamese village life and the war itself.

But it was the exhaustive collection “Van Hoc Mien Nam, Tong Quan,” an overview of South Vietnamese literature from 1954 to 1975, that endeared him to fellow expatriates. The book featured the work of more than 200 authors and documented the period’s artistic and literary movements. Its 1999 debut was followed by six other books exploring genres such as poetry and plays.

Born Doan The Nhon on Oct. 20, 1925, Vo grew up in Binh Dinh, a province in Central Vietnam. By the time he was 20, he had joined the anti-French revolutionary movement but became disenchanted with communism and went to work in the Ministry of Information for the Republic of Vietnam.

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