IN THE SUMMER OF 2008, I spent more than an hour trying to coax something resembling anger or indignation from Dr. Nguyen Viet Nhan, Chief of the Department of Medical Genetics at the Hue College of Medicine and Pharmacy and one of the world’s leading experts on the effects of Agent Orange. My cajoling was an utter failure.
“It is not the mistake of the Americans,” said Dr. Nhan. “It is the mistake of history. . . . It is time to see the future.” No doubt, Dr. Nhan’s forward thinking is admirable and important, but let us not forget the sage words of George Orwell: “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” And in the present, the one voice conspicuously absent from a recently reinvigorated international discussion of Agent Orange has been that of the Vietnamese author. Family of Fallen Leaves: Stories of Agent Orange by Vietnamese Writers finally changes that. Edited and translated by Charles Waugh and Huy Lien, the collection of twelve stories and one essay is the first literary effort to embody, for a Western audience, the Vietnamese experience with the legacy of Agent Orange and its dioxin byproduct.
Such a collaboration is welcome, if not long overdue, considering that veterans — both Vietnamese and American — have aged to the years where dioxin ripens into many of its delayed-onset cancers. Combine that with the slow but growing trickle of money from the American government and private foundations that continues to make its way to environmental restoration projects and new facilities for the testing and treatment of Agent Orange victims in Vietnam, and the fact that the U.S. is currently enmeshed in two wars where weapons with unknown consequences are being unleashed on another largely invisible people, and the attempt is more than timely. As John Balaban writes in the forward, there has never been a more critical moment to turn to “the voices of people directly affected by the continuing destruction of what Vietnamese call the American War. . . . It’s time, past time, to hear their stories.”
Fortunately, the heavily researched introduction to Family of Fallen Leaves provides the needed historical, biological, and cultural context to sink right into these stories as writers look to create what Huy and Waugh call the “highly charged moment of empathy” that “allows readers to think, live, and suffer vicariously as a person exposed . . . bridging the gap between those who suffer and those who can help.”
The task is daunting. Over centuries, the influence of Mahayana Buddhism — fully 85 percent of all Vietnamese self-identify as Buddhist — combined with habitual cycles of war and famine, has formed a national mythology that tends to accept tragedy as a karmic inevitability and views rummaging through the past as futile. Adding to the challenge, translating literature — particularly when working with languages as dissimilar as Vietnamese and English — without compromising the integrity of meaning is near impossible. Something of the original art is always lost. And yet, when important stories meet translators with imagination and commitment, some new art is always formed. Such is the case with this collection.
The editors are clear in their intention for the volume to serve as a call to action and structure the book as a progression from narratives “that chronicle the deepest lows to those that imagine powerful interventions by caring Vietnamese and Americans that substantially improve the lives of the exposed.” Because quality translations of Vietnamese literature are still relatively rare, this will be, for many Westerners, an introduction to some of Vietnam’s most celebrated contemporary authors.
Occasionally, as in Vo Thi Hao’s story “The Blood of Leaves” about the depth of love that can form between soldiers, and in Thu Tran’s images of transformative power held by one inner-city willow in “The Quiet Poplar,” the translated prose becomes so rich and organic that boundaries dissolve in that “highly charged moment of empathy” where writer and reader are one. That alone makes Family of Fallen Leaves a worthy read.