Vietnamese Music and Novel Idea

Thursday, September 3rd, 2009 | No Comments »
Tags: , , , | Categories: Music, Writing |

My memories of Vietnam are not of the war.  Instead, they are of hot, narrow, gravelly neighborhood streets flanked by open-doored, just-as-narrow houses; of dust-clouded intersections where cars knit chaotically past one another like crayfish in a tank on market day; of sleepy afternoons swinging pendulum-like on a hammock; of freshly-made pho and ice cream drizzled with sweetened condensed milk in crunchy, air-filled buns that melt in your mouth.

But the novel I’m writing won’t be about my memories, though hopefully I can still put the  part of myself that loves Vietnam and thinks it’s beautiful into the piece. It’ll be about the Vietnam War.

The Vietnam War was a major historical event that has been written about probably a hundred, a thousand times over.  Still, for years now, I’ve wanted to write a novel about the war and the people that it affected–people who lived and loved and created memories in Vietnam that must be even more vivid and wonderful than that of my four-year old self are.

I grew up in America listening to Vietnamese songs written before 1975, which were very good and often inspired by war, since Vietnam has a history of being colonized by other nations.    I’m not a particular fan of patriotism or nationalism, so when I take time to consider it, I’m often surprised that I love so much of the stuff.  So much so, that I’m actually writing a book inspired by the songs, based on the lives of the composers who wrote them and the lives of the people they were written for.

I really can’t say with any confidence what they novel is actually going to be like.  I can only tell you what I want it to be about.   And this is it–I want the novel to be about:

  • Why words are written, and how they bring people together
  • Loneliness and belonging, and the sense of home
  • Love
  • Guilt and sacrifice
  • Music writers and performers
  • Memory, and an era gone by

In fact, the actual novel is going to revolve around the lives of Vietnamese immigrants who experienced the war and, twenty years later, as still trying to let go of who they were before the war forced them to change that.  They are all getting ready for a get-together (for some as-yet-unspecified reason) at an aging composer’s house, where something interesting will (hopefully) happen.

This is my chance to learn more about what happened in a place I might have called home and still remember so vividly after having lived there for less than four years of early life.   It’s my chance to really understand the millions of Vietnamese who live and work all around the world, and who, deep in their hearts, still think of Vietnam as home.   I’m probably not going to pull it off, but if I do it will be pretty special.

Here are some Vietnamese songs below for your listening pleasure:


[audio:Dem Dong.mp3]

[audio:Trang tan tren he pho.mp3]

Title translations, in order: Saigon–A Memory Without A Name, Winter Night, and The Moon Fading On The Street.   The first two are sung by legendary Vietnamese singer Khanh Ly, whose voice is actually mentioned in the first song’s lyrics (where are the rainy-season days walking under our coats, holding hands, whispering quietly, as the flower stalls and music shops ring with Khanh Ly’s voice) and who sang many popular songs of the day. Her voice remains one of the most unique and beautiful Vietnamese singing voices on stage, even today.   Winter Night is about the loneliness of a traveler who watches the world around him as day gives way to night and longs for his homeland.   In the third song, the writer tells the story of a chance meeting with a boyhood friend who has now become a soldier, and how he will only be able to spend a night in his familiar, mostly-unchanged hometown before he has to go in the morning, no longer a boy.

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