February 25, 2021

How a writing course at Fulbright turns into a lovely artistic adventure

February 25, 2021

Students of Creative Writing course at Fulbright University Vietnam took their instructor – Dr. Dao Le Na – by surprise when they proposed not doing the Final Project in the traditional way: creating any written works such as a poem, a play, a script… and presenting them to be graded . Instead, they proposed the idea of organizing a show in which they would bring together various performances inspired by The Tale of Kieu, a 19th century literature masterpiece by the great poet Nguyen Du. Dr. Le Na was more than pleased to accept their proposal.

Experienced Vietnamese folk music artists performing at the showcase.

Young artist Chau Nhi played guitar for some ballad performances.

As the name suggests, Creative Writing course thrives in the “creative” factor; it encourages students to pursue any independent attempt to write, ranging from poems,  novellas, biographies to even songs. However, Fulbright students wished to do more than just finishing an individual task for the final project. They wanted to do something intriguing, inspiring yet still insightful enough to convey the time-honored values of the great masterpiece to the younger audience.

A cải lương performance

Rather than simply reiterating line by line of The Tale of Kieu, Fulbright students used the masterpiece as an inspiration to send their heartfelt emotions, dynamic perspective, and thoughtful remarks about the characters in the Kieu’s universe, as well as about the distinctive difference of such a special period in Vietnamese history. They put together various forms of performances: chant poems, spoken word poetry, cải lương (loosely translated as reformed theater, or modern South Vietnamese folk opera), ca trù (tally card songs), hát xẩm (a type of Vietnamese folk music), rap, and ballads. Everything, including the script of the show and the poems adapted into songs performed, was written by the students themselves.

The quintet rapped their hearts out.

Using diverse forms of art to “interpret” the masterpiece, “ Chắp một trống canh” was their way of “feeling” The Tale of Kieu, “reciting” the poem in such a unique and creative way. What adds to the excitement of the show is that Dr. Dao Le Na allowed her students to invite folks from other universities, who share the love for Nguyen Du’s literary masterpiece, to take part in the performances. Fulbright students believed that Kieu is still living in the hearts of poetry lovers and her story is being retold by the youths today, although the legendary poet Nguyen Du has passed more than 200 years ago.

Sitting in the front-row seat, Dr. Na could not hide her excitement and happiness when she enjoyed the performances put on by her students. It was beyond her expectations that the final project turned into something meaningful and inspiring for the young folks of Fulbright and other universities in the city to relive their passion for the internationally acclaimed literary masterpiece. Not long ago, Fulbright University Vietnam also held a conference on “Nguyen Du and Contemporaries” to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the great poet’s passing, attracting the attention of the educational community.

Through their performances, Fulbright students strived to convey their own interpretation of Nguyen Du’s characters as depicted in The Tale of Kieu, most notably Hoan Thu, when she found out the affair between her husband and Kieu. As student Dao Hai Nhat Tan read aloud the sentences of a poem expressing the feelings of Hoan Thu, , the audience felt the burning jealousy, the pains and the misery of the woman. The expressions conveyed under the form of spoken word poetry were, to some extent, successful in showing the sympathy for Hoan Thu, who was usually described as a villain for her jealousy attacks on Kieu later on. It was something different from the way this character was often illustrated before.

Students also staged a short play in which Kieu was brought to life and had a conversation with today’s young people. Not only did it show the students’ desire to have a dialogue with Nguyen Du to know more about the insights of his 19th century literary masterpiece, but it also helped closing the gaps in space and time, which were usually quoted as the obstacles for today’s young readers to understand the Tale of Kieu’s deep layers of meaning.

Scholar Nhat Chieu and Dr. Nguyen Nam

Leveraging Dr. Dao Le Na’s connections, Fulbright students invited Chau Nhi, a third-year student from Ho Chi Minh City University of Social Sciences and Humanities to the show. Sharing the same passion, Chau Nhi enthusiastically helped Fulbright students set the poems they wrote to music and played guitar in some ballad performances, which told the narratives full of feelings and desires for the main characters in The Tale of Kieu such as Thuy Kieu, Kim Trong, and Thuy Van.

Thanks to Chau Nhi’s songs, I find myself sympathizing with the lyric and writers’ thoughts about Kieu. Although I can’t understand everything about a great poet like Nguyen Du, I can understand the thoughts of someone my age, and I feel Chau Nhi’s music is a very good example for the saying: ‘Art is a melody that the artist sends his thoughts and feelings into it so that it can be conveyed to the audience’ ,” student Huong Giang, who performed a song composed by Chau Nhi, reflected.

The rap performance inspired by The Tale of Kieu was full of excitement. The five rappers represent the voices of five male characters whose presence made an impact in the life of Kieu: Thuc Sinh, Kim Trong, Tu Hai, Ma Giam Sinh, and So Khanh. For this performance, Fulbright’s Minh Tien invited Tri Thien, Le Duy, Xuan Minh and Gia Huy from Van Lang University, the Open University, and the University of Social Sciences and Humanities to form a rap quintet that brought the house down.

The students were inspired by “Cell Block Tango” – a song from the 1975 musical Chicago – when they wrote this rap song. As put by Minh Tien, it was an example of how the students understood the lesson taught by Dr. Dao Le Na about intertextuality – the interconnection between similar or related works of literature that reflect and influence an audience’s interpretation of the text. Gia Huy, who wrote the lyrics for the rap song, said he had read The Tale of Kieu thoroughly to understand how the epic poet Nguyen Du played with words in portraying these men and expressing their thoughts and feelings about her.

The highlight of the show was the performances by a group of experienced Vietnamese folk music artists: Thuc An, Manh Hung and Ngoc Quang. The moment when Thuc An, an 80-year-old singer who spent her whole life performing traditional music, sang aloud the high notes of ca trù songs, the audience turned silent. Many students in the audience said it was the first time they really enjoyed the recitations of The Tale of Kieu with the melodies of Vietnamese folk music.

On the one hand, the resonance of contemporary and traditional music made the show memorable. Students also invited literature scholar Nhat Chieu and Dr. Nguyen Nam from Fulbright University Vietnam to share their takes on The Tale of Kieu and their ongoing projects to bring the literary work closer to the younger generation of readers.

With “Chắp một trống canh”, Fulbright students pushed their boundaries by putting their written works into a space of creativity while honoring and rejuvenating this work of art. They wished nothing but making their final projects beautiful, poetic, and full of life. Above all else, they wished to share the pure love for Vietnamese poetry and music with the larger audience.

Thuy Hang


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