The eldest of four children, Duong was born on 3 January 1947 in the countryside of the Red River Delta in the northern province of Thai Binh. Her father was a Communist Party member and a soldier who fought with Ho Chi Minh's Viet Minh guerrillas in the struggle for independence from French colonial rule; her mother was a teacher. In 1953 the Viet Minh launched a Maoist-style land-reform campaign to gain support for their anti-French resistance; terrified villagers were forced to denounce their "landlord" neighbors--some of whom owned only a few acres--to makeshift "courts." When the campaign ended in 1956, nearly 100,000 farmers had been arrested; some were sent to forced-labor camps, while others were killed and their corpses left to rot on the sides of the road. The narrator of Duong's 1988 novel, Nhung thien duong mu (translated as Paradise of the Blind, 1993), recounts that the land reform "ripped through the village like a squall, devastating fields and rice paddies, sowing only chaos and misery in its wake."
While studying music and painting at the Vietnamese Ministry of Culture's Arts College in 1967, Duong volunteered to serve in a women's youth brigade in the "War against the Americans." Her assignment was to "sing louder than the bombs" in theatrical performances for the North Vietnamese troops along the Ho Chi Minh Trail but also to tend to the wounded and bury the dead. She spent the next seven years in the jungles and tunnels of the Central Highlands, the region most heavily bombed by the Americans in the war. Duong narrowly escaped death several times; she lost the hearing in her right ear when a bomb killed the girl sitting next to her. She was one of only four survivors of her brigade of more than a hundred. After her first love was killed, she was forced to marry another man in 1968. She gave birth to a son, Minh, in 1970 and a daughter, Ha, in 1972 in the tunnels and air-raid shelters of Quang Binh. Duong remembers her own disillusionment, at the end of the war, when she entered Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) with the Northern "liberating" troops:
I was among the first to enter the city of Saigon after April 30th 1975. And yet, as everyone around me turned to congratulate each other, I somehow felt no joy, only vague, sinister premonitions. For me, this glory was an illusion; only happiness was real to me. Bertolt Brecht was right when he wrote: "Woe to a people who give birth to too many heroes." With time, my vague premonitions became a reality. I believed that after victory was won, that our people, a people full of courage and innocence, who had suffered a million deaths, who had supposedly performed a glorious feat for humanity, would have everything they needed. Today, this same people must scramble for grains of rice in the mud, eke out a living on an annual income of misery, with a huge percentage of its population left handicapped by two rival armies.
In 1977 Duong was hired as a screenwriter at the Hanoi Fiction Film Studio but was too critical of government policy, she recalls, to remain long as "one of 600 employees writing Party propaganda films to glorify the war." One of her scripts, Dat cua nhung day truong xuan (Land of the Flowers of Eternal Spring), was adapted as a satirical play. Performance of the play was banned, and Duong first came to public notice when she protested the censorship.
Although she was a vocal critic of the Communist Party, Duong was still a fervent patriot. After China attacked Vietnam along the Sino-Vietnamese border on 17 February 1979, she wrote anti-Chinese tracts and stories and was the first woman screenwriter to volunteer to make films about the incursion. At the same time, however, she began distributing critical pamphlets and making speeches expressing her disillusionment with the corruption and elitism of the Communist leadership. In 1981 her colleagues at the Hanoi Fiction Film Studio petitioned the government to press charges against her abusive husband, and Duong divorced him over the objections of her family. In 1982 her criticisms of the regime resulted in the first official ban on her work, which continued for three years. During this period she wrote her first short story, "Mien Co To" (Land of the Cotton Grass); it was published in 1985 in her collection Chan dung nguoi hang xom (Portrait of My Neighbors).
Duong's first novel, Hanh trinh ngay tho au (1985, An Itinerary of Childhood), a work for young adults, was written on a friendly dare from a colleague who wanted to help promote Kim Dong, a state publisher of children's books that gave part of its proceeds to charitable causes. The work was a huge commercial success, selling more than 100,000 copies in the first few weeks; parents stood in long lines to buy the book for their children but ended up reading it themselves. The following year Chuyen tinh ke truoc luc rang dong (Love Story Told before Dawn), about the party's intervention in the private lives of a mismatched couple who agree to a divorce, also sold 100,000 copies before it was withdrawn from circulation by the government.
Duong succumbed to pressure from her colleagues to join the Communist Party and its officially sponsored Writers Union in 1986, when the party embarked on a policy of economic liberalization and greater literary and intellectual freedom. That same year she secretly undertook a documentary film project: Dai cua nhung nguoi niem that vong Den (The Sanctuary of Despair) is an exposé of a gulag-style psychiatric camp for six hundred to seven hundred dissident war veterans in Tan Ky, Ha Tinh province. The film, which she financed with her own savings and contributions from supporters, was ordered destroyed by Communist Party secretary Nguyen Van Linh, who began to refer to Duong in speeches as "that dissident slut"--an epithet she considers a badge of honor. Also in 1986 Duong traveled to the Soviet Union as part of a delegation of screenwriters. This first trip abroad deepened her disillusionment with Communism.
In 1987 Duong published Ben kia bo ao vong (1987, translated as Beyond Illusions, 2002); the work launched her career as a serious novelist. The direct, cinematic style shocked readers: Duong hid nothing behind the coded language or discreet literary allusions that other Vietnamese writers adopted to mask their political criticisms. Ben kia bo ao vong is the story of an ordinary woman's disillusionment with her marriage but is also a devastating political statement--the cri de coeur of a former true believer in the Communist ideals proclaimed by her country's leaders.
As in virtually all of Duong's fiction, romantic disillusionment closely parallels political disenchantment. Three characters face moral crises as they grapple with the corruption and hypocrisy of their lives in 1980s Hanoi. The beautiful Linh is a schoolteacher who was raised on revolutionary myths and party propaganda about justice and equality. When she discovers that her husband, Nguyen, a literature professor who became a party journalist to support her and their daughter, has betrayed their shared ideals to "carve out a place in society, to reap all the benefits," she leaves him and her life of relative material ease. Unhappy and restless, she drifts into an affair with an older married man and womanizer, the famous composer Tran Phuong, who is out of favor with the regime. But behind his facade of artistic purity, Tran, like Nguyen, longs for the material perquisites of official acceptance. To return to the party's good graces, he betrays and discards Linh; she is then persecuted by the party for leaving her husband and having an affair. Meanwhile, Nguyen, who is still deeply in love with Linh, faces a moral dilemma at work: whether or not to write about a senior official accused of raping young women. Linh resolves to forge a new solitary life for herself "in spite of the ruins. In spite of the lies." The book was an instant best-seller with Duong's generation, especially young women who identified both with the author and with her rebellious heroine; it was withdrawn from circulation after the initial printing of fifty thousand copies sold out.
Duong's ever darkening vision is clear in the scathing portrait of Communist officialdom in her 1988 novel, Nhung thien duong mu. In the 1980s Hang is working in the Soviet Union to support her mother, a Hanoi street peddler. The mother has sacrificed her health and most of her money to advance the career of her brother, a corrupt Communist Party bureaucrat who had been a leader in the murderous land-reform program in the 1950s. Hang's uncle comes to Moscow on an official junket and uses the trip to stockpile scarce material goods that he will barter and resell when he returns to Hanoi. Written in a lush, lyrical style that shows Duong's debt to French romanticism, the novel portrays the horrors of the land reforms; the villains are not class enemies or foreign invaders but the party factotums themselves. The dishonesty and hypocrisy of the party pervade the book; a society that claims to be egalitarian is shown to be deeply stratified and kept in check by fear. Another enormous success, the book, like its predecessors, was withdrawn from circulation by the authorities.
Faced with the spread of democratic movements in Eastern Europe, China, and Burma, Vietnamese officials brought the period of political liberalization to a halt in 1989. Even as the party began to crack down on the writers and intellectuals it had formerly encouraged to speak out, Duong described the stages of her disillusionment with Communism in her keynote speech at the 1989 Writers Union Congress. In 1990 she toured the country, giving informal talks that were attended by thousands of students and intellectuals; a gathering at the Intellectuals' Club in Saigon in April drew more than a thousand fans. Already well known as a novelist, she earned a reputation as a fearless orator and began to gain a following among disaffected Vietnamese intellectuals and journalists in France and the United States. Her outspoken criticisms, her satirical play, the underground documentary-film project, and the publication of Nhung thien duong mu finally resulted in her expulsion from the party in July 1990. But Duong shrewdly turned the party's attempt to discredit her into a daring act of dissidence: she demanded that a democratic vote be taken on her ouster; when the voting at the meeting of her thirteen-member party cell ended in a tie, Duong cast the deciding ballot against herself.
After her expulsion from the party, Duong was no longer able to publish in Vietnam. In the fall of 1990 she sent copies of the manuscript for her hastily titled Tieu thuyet vo de (translated as Novel without a Name, 1995) to small Vietnamese publishing houses in France and the United States. In April 1991 she was arrested on charges of stealing state secrets and selling them abroad to foreigners; she spent seven months in solitary confinement in a high-security facility for political prisoners. While she was in prison, the publication of Tieu thuyet vo de by a Vietnamese press in California created an uproar.
Tieu thuyet vo de is the first novel by a Vietnamese writer, and certainly the first by a veteran, to take a critical view of the "War against the Americans." The narrator, platoon leader Quan, enlisted as a naive eighteen-year-old and has fought for ten years; he returns to his village on leave in despair and deep disillusionment. When Quan and his friends went off to war, "drunk on our youth . . . marching toward a glorious future," their mothers wept with joy, imagining that Vietnam had been "chosen by History" and that the Communist Party would create "humanity's paradise" when the war ended. But Quan and his fellow recruits came to realize with horror that the struggle against "the foreign invaders" is, in fact, an interminable civil war. The circular time structure of the novel mirrors the circular nature of the war; the reader experiences the disorientation of the Vietcong guerrillas as they advance and retreat, regroup and rearm, all the while losing any sense of what the war is all about. Quan reminisces: "Ten years ago, we wanted to sing songs of glory. Anything was good for killing as long as it brought us glory." But now the war haunts the soldiers in dreams and hallucinations of "villages razed to ash, strewn with swollen corpses, of the gorges that swam with blood and rotting flesh; of the stench of death, the buzzing of flies." Stylistically, the first-person narration by a male protagonist is a significant departure from the woman's perspective in Duong's earlier works. She immerses the reader in the strange and the grotesque, drawing on traditional Vietnamese fantastic conventions of storytelling in which the line between the animate and the inanimate is often blurred, and rocks and trees have souls that can separate themselves from their hosts. Hungry ghosts--the wandering souls of dead soldiers--return to haunt the living.
Under the eyes of her guards, Duong was forced to write a letter denouncing the anti-Communist preface to the novel; but she turned the essay, titled "Tu bach" (My Clarification), to her advantage by giving the reasons that had compelled her to write her novel and to break the law by sending it abroad. The essay was one of the most powerful and direct indictments of the Vietnam War ever written by a North Vietnamese veteran of that war. Her interrogators refused to make it public; but it was widely read and circulated at the highest levels, and Duong managed to leak it to the overseas Vietnamese press. One of her interrogators asked her why she bothered to speak out; few Vietnamese had ever heard of her, he observed, and if she disappeared or died, she would be forgotten within a week. She replied: "I am not like you. I don't do what I do in order to be remembered. I oppose you because I want to, and it pleases me to oppose you. Earlier I volunteered against the Americans, against the Chinese, and now I am volunteering against you with the same force."
Duong was released on 14 November 1991, largely owing to pressure from the French government and international human-rights organizations such as Amnesty International. In her first interview following her release, she stated:
I never intended to write. I write because of the pain. Pain is the precise word. My novels are cries of pain. In this way, my work is inseparable from the society in which I have lived, the country that has forged me. During the war, I thought, I observed the destinies of my compatriots. Little by little, this became an obsession, and I had to take up my pen. I share Henry Miller's view--which I read in translation: "To write is to emit toxins." My struggle is one that is shared by many others: To gain respect for my rights as a free citizen, here in my own country. Writing is the way I free myself; the way I make myself a free woman. . . . I have decided to devote my life to writing and making films about my country. If they decide to put me in prison again, I am ready.
The international outcry that led to Duong's release helped to launch her as a novelist in the West. Nhung thien duong mu was published in France as Les paradis aveugles in 1992. The essay "Tu bach" created a sensation when it was published that same year in Dien Dan Forum, a Vietnamese magazine in France, and later in the influential literary review Hop Luu in the United States. In 1992 Duong received a Hammett-Hellman Grant, an award made to persecuted writers from the legacies of the left-wing American authors Dashiell Hammett and Lillian Hellman. Nhung thien duong mu was published in the United States in 1993 as Paradise of the Blind, and Tieu thuyet vo de was published in France as Roman sans titre in 1994. Les paradis aveugles and Roman sans titre were short-listed in 1994 for the foreign category of the Prix Fémina.
In her first trip abroad since her imprisonment, Duong traveled to Paris in the fall of 1994 to become a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres; she was the first Vietnamese writer to be so honored. The award, presented by Minister of Culture Jacques Toubon, provoked a diplomatic incident. The Vietnamese Ministry of Culture and Information announced that it was suspending all cooperation with the French government and denounced Duong in the official press as a traitor.
When Duong returned to Vietnam in 1995, she was escorted off the plane by the police. Her passport was confiscated by the Ministry of the Interior, making it impossible for her to accept the many invitations from abroad that she was receiving. Despite heavy surveillance and constant harassment by the security police, Duong wrote two more novels. Unable to publish in Vietnam, she sent the manuscripts abroad; they were serialized in the California-based Vietnamese literary magazine Hop Luu and then translated into twelve European and Asian languages. "Luu ly" was first published in book form in French translation as Myosotis in 1998; it appeared in English as Memories of a Pure Spring in 2000. "Chon vang" was first published in English as No Man's Land in 2005.
Tieu thuyet vo de, "Luu ly," and "Chon Vang" can be seen as a trilogy. Although there is no strict structural or narrative continuity, the family ties between characters--for example, Suong and Mien, the female protagonists of "Luu ly" and "Chon vang," respectively, are sisters from an impoverished mountain village--and the portraits of wartime, postwar, and present-day Vietnamese society bind the novels into a coherent whole.
"Luu ly" takes place amid the tremendous material and psychological changes the Vietnamese faced in the 1980s, after decades of war. The victory in the "War against the Americans" seems Pyrrhic: the people are poor; the government is corrupt; and political prisoners are treated like animals. The central character, Hung, is a talented composer and the director of a theater troupe. He marries Suong, a sixteen-year-old beauty with a magnificent voice. Suong becomes a star, but Hung's confrontation with a political apparatchik costs him his job as troupe director; later, he is sent to a prison camp. He is saved from the camp by his wife but becomes an outcast, reduced to taking menial jobs. As Suong's fame continues to grow, Hung begins to drink, take opium, and steal money from his wife. Finally, he is caught attempting to flee Vietnam by boat and is imprisoned again. Although Hung's fall bears a strong resemblance to the author's, Duong is characteristically unsparing in her portrayal of Hung's complicity in his own moral and physical degradation.
"Chon vang" is Duong's most critically acclaimed and most tragic novel to date. It is set in the period immediately following the end of the war in 1975. Mien, in her mid thirties, is happily married to Hoan, a successful planter. As the novel opens, she returns to her hamlet in central Vietnam to find a throng of villagers at her gate. She learns that her first husband, Bon, believed to have died as a war hero, is alive and has returned to reclaim her. Under intense pressure from the villagers and the party, Mien agrees to leave her second husband and their son and live in poverty with Bon. Bon, who dreams of rebuilding his marriage and conceiving a child with Mien, discovers that he is impotent because of exposure to Agent Orange. Hoan's money, good looks, business acumen, and sexual potency make a mockery of the party's pitiful glorification of the impotent and impoverished "war hero" Bon. But Hoan, too, is a prisoner of fate and of his traditional values of self-sacrifice and duty: he stoically accepts his wife's decision to return to her first husband and leaves for the city, where he seeks solace among prostitutes. Duong draws a devastating portrait of the new materialistic society and the sordid and cynical complicity between the police and the prostitutes, who entrap Hoan and his business partner.
Meanwhile, in the village Mien labors on the miniscule, barren plot of land that the party has allotted to Bon and submits with revulsion to his desperate attempts to impregnate her. The narrative shuttles between the village and the city and between the tortured interior monologues of the three main characters and an accusatory chorus of faceless, nameless villagers who stand in judgment of their actions. Duong thus replaces the often heavy-handed portrayal of the Communist Party apparatchiks and cadres in her previous novels with an infinitely more chilling portrait of the feudal village morality that brought them to power. The dramatic and symbolic climax of the novel occurs when the reader learns indirectly through the chorus of villagers that Mien has given birth to Bon's child: his longed-for heir is a headless fetus that is monstrously deformed by Agent Orange. Bon flees after an attempt to kill Hoan that is narrowly averted by Mien. Hoan reveals that he is Mien's only legal husband, since Bon and Mien's marriage certificate was destroyed during the war. Like Mien, the villagers choose Hoan, a man who embodies a vision of the future that refuses individual sacrifice to a utopian dream, as the new "hero" for their time. The novel closes with the insane Bon deliriously carrying on a dialogue with the ghost of a lieutenant.
"Chon vang" is Duong's most devastating indictment of the regime that she and her generation sacrificed their youth to bring to power. Bon is left dying and without heir, the father of a stillborn headless monster; the fetus, deformed by Agent Orange, is the ultimate symbol of the party's broken promises and the fraudulent, self-serving cult of heroism that has kept it in power. Like Duong's three previous novels, "Chon vang" has never been published in Vietnam.
In July 2005 Duong was allowed to leave Vietnam for the first time in more than twelve years, but only after the Italian government protested the confiscation of her passport and the refusal of the Vietnamese authorities to let her travel to receive the prestigious Grinzane Cavour Literary Prize. In January 2006 Duong's attempt to travel to France at the invitation of the French Ministry of Culture and her French publisher was also initially thwarted; she was physically prevented from entering the French embassy to obtain her visa. The French authorities in Hanoi prevailed, however, and Duong was granted a three-month visa to travel to France for the launch of Terre des oublis, the translation of "Chon vang." The novel was hailed as a masterpiece and quickly sold twenty-two thousand copies, surpassing even J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter et le Prince de sang-mêlé (Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, 2005) and Haruki Marukami's Kafka sur le rivage (Umibe no Kafka, 2002; translated as Kafka on the Shore, 2005) on the 2006 foreign best-seller list. While in France, Duong was awarded the PEN Freedom of Expression Award in recognition of her courage in the face of more than twenty years of persecution and internal exile.
In April 2006, at the invitation of Salman Rushdie and the PEN American Center, Duong made her first trip to the United States to participate in the PEN World Voices Literary Festival in New York City. She spoke to large audiences at the New York Public Library and at Town Hall, where she read in Vietnamese a passage from her essay "The Final Salvation." On returning to Paris in May, Duong Thu Huong announced her decision to retire from her public role as a dissident and activist and to remain in France to devote the rest of her life to her writing.
McPherson, Nina. "Huong Thu Duong." Southeast Asian Writers, edited by David Smyth, Gale, 2009.