Between Two Fires: The Unheard Voices of Vietnam was published the year I was born. It’s a collection of stories written by “ordinary Vietnamese” for a contest. Of the the seventy-five that won and were published in the newspaper, Tieng Noi Dan Tock (Voice of the People), nine were chosen to be published in the book. The paper was closed shortly after.
I came across it by accident, hidden in the corner of the library. The book felt light in my hand consisting of little more than 120 pages. They were voices from the past that spoke more about the human tragedy of war rather than of war itself. I keep revisiting the past from one angle or another but find myself more interested in those “unheard voices” that speak of events beyond the politics and policy.
It was haunting to read about displaced lives, torn from their places of ancestry and of the withering of farms and spirits. Such are the realities of war and reading those personal accounts became painful. In one story, a grandfather refuses to leave the small patch of garden kept for his grandson and the graves of his ancestors who were all tied to the land through generations of birth and death, of cultivation and harvest. Many stories recounted tales of families forced to relocate after their farms were rendered useless by Agent Orange. Many were forced into the cities to work for “the Americans” who held no love for the people they claimed to protect.
Reading between the lines, one gets a sense of irony and it was through that irony and their subdued personal accounts of tragedy that I began to make a connection. I see a girl, cloaked in white after the death of her parents. White is the color of mourning. Fields that were once fertile and productive, now lay dead and abandoned. The savior destroyed more than he saved lacking appreciation for the land and its people. In the end, he abandoned his mission leaving Vietnam to rebuild itself.
“…Tomorrow, when the war ended, the survivors would set to work rebuilding everything, provided that our people knew how to love one another…The foreigners on the trucks looked down at the ruins of the burned houses with indifferent blue eyes. They were just strangers who could neither understand us nor love us…Among ourselves, we did not love one another and looked to one another as arch-foes. So who were we to blame outsiders for not loving us?”
What does it mean to be “saved” by a people who have no understanding or appreciation for your origins? How do you learn to love yourself if those who raised you have no love for the well from which you sprang? Have you really been saved at all or simply passed the burden of rebuilding all they’ve destroyed in the process?