Learning about the past from Vietnam’s best-known author


Fulbright students eagerly joined an intriguing talk with Bao Ninh, the author of the internationally acclaimed war novel “The Sorrow of War”. Having been silent for decades, Hanoi-based famous writer agreed to fly to Ho Chi Minh City and host an open discussion with Fulbright students.

Although from different nations and generations, those who have read The Sorrow of War may share the same wish: having a chance to meet its author Bao Ninh, who depicted an excruciating war from an insider’s perspective with a mixture of emotions. 

Ninh’s main character, a thinly disguised portrait of the author as a young man, enlisted in the army at age 17. A decade after the fighting was over, he passed his days in drunkenness and depression – permanently damaged by the war.

The book has won several prominent international awards, including the 2018 Asia Literature Award. It has been translated and published in more than 20 countries.

For the postwar Vietnamese young readers growing up in peacetime, the exquisite war told in the novel definitely goes beyond their imagination.  Thus, listening to the author who is also the soldier surviving from battles really helps them better understand what happened in those dramatic years in general as well as the novel in particular. 

A wise advice tells us to dwell peacefully in the here and now because the past is gone, and we cannot do anything to change it; as the future has not come yet, we have nothing to do with it. 

Even though we cannot change what happened in the past, we still can study it, learn and teach from its lessons.  And by doing that, we are preparing for a better future right in the present. 

In the same line of thought, Fulbright students were eager to meet with the somehow-mythical author of the Sorrow of War.  They proactively requested an invitation for Bao Ninh to campus, faculty and staff helped to facilitate the procedure, but initially this was the students’ demand. 

Finally, their dream had come true: Bao Ninh, who almost vanished from the public eyes for years, came to the school, opening up a friendly conversation with them, bridging the generation gap, and sharing with them what he and his generation already went through as well as what he thinks we all should do for our future.

An intriguing talk surely will trigger a lot of interesting questions.  Bao Ninh’s talk is no exception.  Open to both Fulbright’s faculty and students, the talk received questions from various people in the audience, but fascinating inquiries (un)surprisingly came from co-designers (undergraduate students). 

Even though students brought up various questions regarding writing techniques, such as stream of consciousness, the astonishing ending, or the presence of a variety of narrators in the novel, their focus remains in the present: how to read the novel in contemporary contexts, how this literary work can help us understand the multidimensional aspect of history, or how fiction can reconcile different wartime parties for a brighter postwar future. 

Listening to those questions, one can easily recognizes the inquirers as thoughtful readers with social and cultural concerns.  It’s may be too early to predict what these pre-freshman students can do during their college years and afterwards, but what they asked in the conversation with the author of the Sorrow of War brings us joy and hope for a world of peace and empathy.

Nam Nguyen

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