Dương Thu Hương
|Dương Thu Hương|
|Born||Dương Thu Hương
Thai Binh, Vietnam
|Language||Vietnamese, English, French|
|Notable work(s)||Paradise of the Blind|
Dương Thu Hương (born 1947) is a Vietnamese author and political dissident. Formerly a member of Vietnam's Communist party, she was expelled from the party in 1989, and has been denied the right to travel abroad, and was temporarily imprisoned for her writings and outspoken criticism of corruption in the Vietnamese government.
Born in 1947 in Thai Binh a province in northern Vietnam, Dương came of age just as the Vietnam War was turning violent. At the age of twenty, when she was a student at Vietnamese Ministry of Culture’s Arts College, Dương Thu Hương volunteered to serve in a women’s youth brigade on the front lines of “The War Against the Americans". Dương spent the next seven years of the war in the jungles and tunnels of Binh Tri Thien, the most heavily bombarded region of the war. Her mission was to “sing louder than the bombs” and to give theatrical performances for the North Vietnamese troops, but also to tend to the wounded, bury the dead, and accompany the soldiers along. She was one of three survivors out of the forty volunteers in that group. She was also at the front during China’s attacks on Vietnam in 1979 during the short-lived Sino-Vietnamese War. However, in the period after Vietnam’s reunification in 1975, Dương became increasingly outspoken and critical about the repressive atmosphere created by the Communist government. Upon seeing the conditions in the South – compared with the North – she began speaking out against the communist government.
Her first novels, Journey in Childhood (Hành trình ngày thơ ấu, 1985), Beyond Illusions (Bên kia bờ ảo vọng, 1987), Paradise of the Blind (Những thiên đường mù, 1988) and The Lost Life (Quãng đời đánh mất, 1989) were published in her native Vietnam and soon became bestsellers in Vietnam before they were banned. The third one was also the first Vietnamese novel ever published in the United States in English. But her next three books — Novel Without a Name (Tiểu thuyết vô đề, 1991), Memories of a Pure Spring (2000), and No Man's Land (Chốn vắng, 2002) — have been published only in foreign countries and was made a Chevalier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government (1994). She earlier wrote a number of short stories and screenplays. One story, "Reflections of Spring," was translated by Linh Dinh and included in the anthology, Night, Again: Contemporary Fiction from Vietnam (Seven Stories Press 2006). The latest novel No Man's Land (Terre des oublis in French), perhaps her most successful, was in the final list of the prize Femina 2006 and received the Grand prix des lectrices de Elle in 2007.
Dương has been labeled as a “dissident writer” and been expelled by Vietnam’s Communist party and was imprisoned for a short time in 1991 for remarks criticizing the goals and interests of the party and its members. This is not unusual in contemporary Vietnam; Linh Dinh, in his introduction to the collection Night, Again, details the government’s extreme response to certain subjects in writing – for example, in 1956, the poet Tran Dan was arrested for capitalizing “He” in a brief passage of a poem cataloging social despair, since such a designation was reserved for Ho Chi Minh. In 1991, Le Minh Khue was still criticized for having a North Vietnamese female soldier daydream about the smile of a handsome South Vietnamese prisoner of war.
Her outspoken criticism of the government has resulted in numerous reprisals. Although she was a prize-winning screenwriter for the Vietnam Film Company, she lost her job because of her criticism of the government’s censorship. Paradise of the Blind was popular in America, but its political undertones resulted in Dương’s writing being banned in Vietnam. When she sent Novel Without a Name overseas for publication, the author was imprisoned without trial for seven months, and in 1995 her passport was revoked despite the international attention focused on her work. She often does not receive mail that she knows has been sent to her and has found her telephone line cut a number of times. Recently, she has retired and earns a pension of approximately twenty U.S. dollars per month and must earn her living working as a translator and trying to publish her novels and short stories abroad. She believes in struggling to gain democracy; while unable to run for political office or organize a competing party, she now uses writing in order to articulate that message.
In her story “The Story of an Actress,” Dương combines her passionate beliefs about human freedom with her existentialist literary sensibilities. Bê and Thom live next door to one another and become best friends; while Bê is intelligent and fun-loving, Thom develops into the town beauty. Thom ends up marrying the most famous theater director in Vietnam, a man 40 years her senior, in an attempt to become an actress; Bê visits her and watches her life disintegrate as she works toward her degree and her own life dream.
On the surface, it seems to be a relatively simple story about two girls growing up and choosing different paths in life. But her language and details betray, as with Ho Xuan Huong, a deeper level to a simple story. She is critiquing a contemporary society where beauty is prized over intellect and money over kindness, and calling attention to how the optimism of youth, when it fades, can be so devastating that it drives people to despair.
According to Dương, most writers must learn how to voice their individual concerns within a group mentality. In other words, their writing must reflect the individual and the masses at large in a way that’s approved by the party; Dương finds that most writers in contemporary Vietnam get caught up in the group thinking mentality.
Dương has felt the effects of censorship perhaps more cruelly than many of her fellow writers. Her work is not contained in any Vietnamese anthologies or collections. Though she has achieved success and renown abroad for her novels through translation, the audience she is writing for in Vietnam, that would most understand the minutiae of her stories, does not often have the opportunity to read her work, except when it is smuggled into Vietnam.
Nevertheless, Dương is hopeful for the future of writing in her country. She is counting on the fact that at some point, the people will open their eyes to see what's going on in her homeland.
Dương moved to Paris in 2006. In January 2009, her latest novel, Đỉnh Cao Chói Lọi, was published; it was also translated into French as Au zénith.
Awards and honors
List of novels
- Duong Thu Huong at PEN
- Jan Baeke (December 2005). "Novib / PEN Awards for persecuted writers". The Power of Culture. Retrieved September 10, 2012.
- New York Times story
- Review of No Man's Land in January magazine
- Duong Thu Huong/Banned Books
- Dương Thu Hương in France (International Herald Tribune)
- Dương Thu Hương entry on Wikivietlit
- Beyond Illusions, translated from Bên kia bờ ảo vọng
- Novel without a Name, translated from Tiểu thuyết vô đề
- Review of Memories of a Pure Spring