Social media provides its users with experiences of all kinds, positive and negative. Meeting journalist and author Eric Schafer, a prolific writer who has lived in Viet Nam for years (he spells it this way predominantly), resulted from our first becoming friends on Facebook, then later discovering we shared such multiple interests as writing, film, TV, books and sports. Schafer has written three books, and currently is working on two more. But his latest The Wind Took It Away: Stories of Viet Nam, is particularly intriguing because this is a nation that during the ’60s was front and center in terms of American interests. Now the Vietnam War seems like ancient history to the Internet generation. They also have little idea of what life is like in 21st-century Vietnam, something that makes The Wind Took It Away such a valuable work.
It is keenly written, with an insider’s attention to detail. The 15 short stories cover an impressive amount of territory, emotional, political and cultural. Some might consider Schafer a pessimist, others a realist, but he’s providing portraits of a population many Americans don’t even know exist. He’s also quite open and outspoken. I interviewed him recently after getting a copy of and reading The Wind Took It Away. Here are the results of our interview via e-mail.
RW: How does your background of not being a native of Vietnam affect your perspective?
ES: “There’s a reason Vietnam is on the other side of the world – because its culture is so different from ours. The contrasts are so great that they are easy for me to see. In fact, the Vietnamese are so used to many things that they don’t even notice them, and have some difficulty explaining them to me when I inquire. But that’s not good enough; it was never my intention to write The World of Suzie Wong – in fact I despise those books where the Westerner goes to Asia, is bewildered but charmed by the bizarre culture, meets the hooker with the heart of gold, and everyone lives happily after. I’d spent a good five years studying the country before I went there the first time, and have very close Vietnamese friends who prepared me well for what I’d encounter. Thus my perspective is that of being a keen observer, sensitive to nuance as well as the sensational or bizarre, yet simultaneously wanting to understand Vietnamese culture, not just encounter it. I wanted to present my stories as closely as possible as being through Vietnamese eyes, not Western eyes. My friends tell me I got it a good 80 percent correct; some Vietnamese refuse to believe that a Westerner wrote those stories.”
RW: Why did you choose Vietnam as opposed to some other Asian nations?
ES: “Although my interest in Vietnam did not begin with being a writer – for years I had written only journalism, not fiction – I knew that with Japan, China, Korea, etc. being already so developed there would be less of interest to find in those countries. In the ’90s Vietnam was just opening its doors and was far behind the rest of Asia, so it was a far more interesting place to visit. And, I was always conscious of the country because of the history between America and Vietnam. But the real interest began when I became close friends with two Vietnamese sisters in my hometown. In fact, we now consider ourselves brother and sisters; I lived in their mother’s house the first time I traveled to Vietnam, our families regularly visit each other, and their two young daughters are like my baby sisters. They are extraordinary people; the things they endured to become Americans would fill several books. They came to America with nothing and both now have Master’s degrees and professional careers. They taught me about the culture, gave me the food, and eventually urged me to go see it for myself. But visiting the country wasn’t simply fascinating; immediately upon arriving in Vietnam I was flooded with material for short stories and novels, and I began to write fiction again. As for my Vietnamese sisters, their lives and experiences are depicted in three of the stories in this book, and I’m sure will have places in my future books as well.”
RW: There’s an interesting mixture of poignancy, humor and tragedy in your stories. What do you hope readers gain from the portraits in The Wind Took It Away?
ES: “I guess that means I got it right because I see life as a mixture of poignancy, humor and tragedy. My books are serious, character-driven literary fiction. I want readers to gain a dual insight – first, a glimpse of people literally on the other side of the world and very different in many ways from us, but simultaneously, to see the common humanity in all of us. Readers will recognize human desires, motivations, faults and virtues that they know, but will see the different ways in which the Vietnamese view them and act upon them. It’s not always a rational act; the whole point of the book is that Vietnam is at a crossroads between the past and the future, and the people are stubbornly holding on to values and behaviors of a millennium ago while trying to embrace the 21st century. This is largely impossible, and the conflicts that arise from it, and the irrational or illogical responses to it based on deep-seated cultural views are alternately poignant, humorous and tragic. The wind of change is sweeping Vietnam, and some people don’t want change at all, while others want the benefits of change without actually changing themselves. Hence the tension that animates the book.”
RW: I’m sure the average American and/or Westerner has no idea of the differences and challenges involved in living in Vietnam. What do you consider the biggest challenge for writers?
ES: “The challenges for any foreigner living in Vietnam are dealing with the maddening, daily mix of corruption, bureaucracy and resistance to growth and change. Things that are simple and logical are instead enormously complex; what takes a single document and fifteen minutes in an American government office, here takes six months, dozens of forms, dealing with ferociously difficult bureaucrats, paying bribes, etc. It wears people down. For a writer it’s wonderful – it’s literally another world, and very stimulating. As stated, I was floored with material for stories the second I landed at Tan Son Nhat Airport. Besides The Wind Took It Away I have two more books of short stories planned as well as two novels and several non-fiction books. The government frowns on the creation of true literature here – quite naturally, it would challenge the communist state, and the few good writers Vietnam has had since the war have fled the country. There are no bookstores here; at least, none that sell literature, philosophy, or political science books. So far I’ve not encountered a great deal of trouble, though the police have occasionally harassed me.
“The real challenge for writers lies back in the U.S. with the attitudes I get from publishers. The ignorance and bias I’ve encountered is staggering. They assume I’m writing about the war without even reading the book. I haven’t. The stories are about contemporary Viet Nam. But then, in conversation it becomes clear that their knowledge of the war is severely lacking. Finally, one of the non-fiction books I’ve begun is an oral history of Vietnamese veterans. Browse any bookstore in the U.S. and you’ll find hundreds of volumes on the Vietnam War – all of them from the U.S. perspective. There exists not a single book from the Vietnamese perspective. In my time here I’ve come to know, quite by accident, many people who fought in the Viet Minh against the French, and the People’s Army or Viet Cong against the Americans. Realizing their need for their history and perspectives to be placed before American readers, I began interviewing them for a book I’m calling For The Motherland. As you can imagine, their stories are immensely powerful and captivating. They’re also refreshingly free of dogma or hatred, and rather are concerned with emotion and sensation. So far, however, every American publisher I’ve approached, even those that specialize in books about Vietnam and/or the war, have refused to publish this book. Their responses have been replete with ignorance, arrogance and racism, which stunned me. It’s sad; such a book is needed by both the Vietnamese and the American people, not least because the average American has a deeply distorted view of Vietnam and what happened here during the wars from 1946-1975.”
RW: What do you think will be the major issues for Vietnam/American relationships moving forward?
ES: “You’re talking political relations or romantic relationships (smiles). Romantically, things are always hot. Politically, it’s an odd relationship. The USA is Vietnam’s largest trade partner, yet the government still trots out the anti-American dogma at a moment’s notice. They maintain that the U.S. fought to colonize Vietnam, not free it from communism. Simultaneously, the people have little or no rancor toward the U.S. The Vietnamese, however, are deeply concerned – and rightly so – about China’s aggressive behavior in the South China Sea, and are realizing that their best friend on this issue may well be the USA. I think with time things will improve, and the issues will be trade, investment, and mutual military security. However, it cannot be forgotten that we have an enormously painful history between us, as well as huge cultural differences; we are so very different in how we see things and approach life. That said, it must be noted that there are three million Vietnamese or descendants of Vietnamese living in America, and America is very popular with the man on the street here, so there is some hope for a better future.”
RW: From your perspective, how prominent among the current Vietnamese population are memories of the Vietnam War?
ES: “The memories are not strong. More than half the Vietnamese population of 81 million was born after the war, and they are pragmatic people who don’t spend much time looking back. There is a vague, general fear of war because they’ve been taught in school to fear war… thus precluding them from revolting and overthrowing the current government. In terms of the 21st century, America and Americans are very popular in Vietnam. We are seen as a successful and humane nation, and with three million Vietnamese living in America, the people here get very good reports – not to mention an influx of $2 billion per year – from their American cousins. This will be read with disbelief in the USA, but those Vietnamese that have strong opinions on the war see the USA as a nation that did its best to help them resist communism. I’ve been stopped countless times on the street and asked if I’m French, Russian, English and so on. When I respond that I’m American I get smiles and am told, “Thank you for trying to help us.” So we’re not hated – as many would have us believe. The “ugly American” is a myth; on a social and business level, Americans are far more popular here than French, Russian, English, Commonwealth or other Asians.”
RW: You divided your time between New York and Saigon. When you go back to one from the other, how difficult do you find the transition, or is it now no problem?
ES: “Actually, among New York, Saigon and Virginia, as my Vietnamese sisters moved there some years ago, so when I’m in the US, I spend time with them as well as my own family. The transitions have been odd, though never difficult. In Vietnam there is not much to do, and one must get used to things taking forever. For some reason, whether it’s dealing with bureaucracy or buying clothes, taking a holiday or ordering a meal, it takes forever and this is usually due to some ridiculous occurrence. Like, one day at a sandwich shop I had to wait half an hour for a sandwich because the girl that sliced the bread was having her nap; no one else in the shop was allowed to slice bread. There is less to do here, fewer choices. Just a few channels on television, no bookstores that sell anything beyond ESL or technical books, limited choices in movies or libraries, hardly any clubs with original music; sports consist only of soccer, tennis or badminton. When I return to the U.S. I’m overwhelmed by the richness of it. Sports, music, literature, film – so many choices. And the convenience. We get things done so quickly in the U.S. The 200-mile drive from my town to New York City takes less than three hours; the 200-mile drive from Saigon to Da Lat, a resort city in the mountains, takes seven hours. Bad road, highways consisting of single lanes, having to wait for cattle and ducks to cross the road, or an old lady riding her bicycle in front of you makes the journey interminable. Vietnam is not the mystical, magical places that travel books and some journalists who have never seen it will tell you. It’s really your typical Third-World mess – dirty, noisy, crowded, rife with crime and corruption. But the transitions are now no problem for me; I’ve made the journey so many times that I feel perfectly at home in both places.”
RW: Do you plan to do any non-fiction books about your experiences living in Vietnam?
ES: “I do, though originally I didn’t consider such. I didn’t want to write about the war or travel, only serious fiction. The first things I wrote were short stories, and when I finished The Wind Took It Away, I would walk into publishers’ offices in New York or Boston and they’d wave their arms and shout, “We don’t want books on the Vietnam War!” They were judging it without even having read it. When they have read it, they’ve responded that it’s very good…but they want books about Iraq and Afghanistan. You see? They’re still referencing anything about Vietnam to the war. In addition I’ve been met with racism – told that it’s impossible for a non-Asian to write about Vietnam. When I began writing my interest was contemporary Vietnam, not the war, but as noted, as I came to know so many war veterans, I decided to write an oral history of the wars against the French and the Americans, as no such book exists, not even in Vietnam. They have never even interviewed their own soldiers – because, as I suspect, their responses might not match with the party line that is regularly fed to the people. I’m still trying to get For The Motherland published. I’m also working on a translation and biography of Vietnam’s greatest poetess, Ho Xuan Huong, who lived an extraordinary life from roughly 1775 – 1840 and wrote remarkable poetry that was never published in her lifetime and lay undiscovered until about 1900. As for my own personal experiences, anything interesting has pretty much been filtered into my stores.”
RW: What was/is the biggest misperception that you had about Vietnam prior to living there?
ES: “I imagined it would be relatively slow moving, quiet, charming, a little magical. I assumed that most of the people would have the grace, intelligence, and integrity of my two Vietnamese sisters. Instead, as I’ve stated, it’s like any Third World country – crowded, noisy, dirty, filled with endless problems and frustrations. So, you have your bad days. It’s a good 50-100 years behind even the rest of Asia, and there is little willingness or motivation among the populace to improve it. And there’s no one here even remotely on the same level as my sisters.”
RW: What do you think Americans’ biggest misperceptions are about the nation?
ES: “There is quite a vivid view among many Americans of Vietnam as a quiet, peaceful nation of gentle rice farmers living in harmony, yearning to be free, that was, for no good reason, horribly abused by the French and Americans. This is myth; unless you’ve done deep studies of Vietnam or lived here, most of what you know is inaccurate or untrue. The Vietnamese are clannish, cliquish, snobbish, largely unmotivated and extremely difficult to deal with. They are forever at odds with each other and, along with money and beauty, what they prize most is the ability to be irrationally impossible with anyone they encounter – just for fun. Americans still largely perceive Vietnam in the context of the war, and that was and remains a very confused and confusing era. While all war is bad, and thus protesting against it is a good and righteous thing, history has proven that we were right to fight communism. However, that fight was well and truly bungled – lay the blame at the feet of Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara and stooges in the Pentagon for that mess. We killed and injured a lot of people on both sides and that just did not have to happen. At the same time, America cannot take all the blame for what occurred here. The war was far more a Vietnamese animal than anyone suspects, and the worst characteristics of Vietnamese culture – dishonesty, corruption, disloyalty, indolence – played a huge role in what happened.”
RW: Are you optimistic, pessimistic, or undecided about the future?
ES: “I think that the corruption and resistance to change here will mean very, very slow improvement. Nearly 30 years after “opening the door” Vietnamese schools are abysmal, and wealthy Vietnamese still must send their children overseas in order to get good educations. Many return only to find themselves utterly stifled by a social system that refuses to improve itself; many others never return, knowing that there are far better opportunities for them in the West. So that gives cause for pessimism.”
RW: Do you consider what’s happened in Vietnam a model for the rest of Asia in regards to the 21st century and technology?
ES: “Absolutely not. The wars against the French and the Americans were not for freedom; rather, they were just a big grab by a bunch of thugs who have kept this country repressed and systematically robbed the people of their wealth and birthright. They have kept this country so backward – in order to control it – that they still don’t refine their own products. They are number one or two in the world in the export of coffee, pepper and rice, have enormous resources in seafood, crude oil, etc; yet they don’t refine it, so they don’t make the big money off it. They think they’re getting rich selling it to foreigners but they’re not, and they refuse to take the steps necessary to truly develop, as China has. Education is the key to the growth of any developing country, yet the Vietnamese Ministry of Education is renowned for being the most incompetent and corrupt ministry in the country, with the result that schools are shockingly obsolete. As a whole, with every year that passes, Vietnam falls two or three more years behind the rest of Asia, not to mention the world. They want the benefits of 21st century technology, but lack the capacity to dedicate themselves to employing it properly and successfully. It’s discouraging. Malaysia is a model for the rest of Asia, especially Southeast Asia. Vietnam is not.”
RW: What other things, if any, do you feel are important for those living outside Vietnam to know?
ES: “Again, that Americans truly don’t know the history or culture here – and need, for their own sake, to discover it. Some writers, like Mark Moyar, are beginning to write new histories of the war that are more accurate than the writing that came out of Vietnam in the 1960s-80s. But anyone interested in reading the truth about what happened in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia in the 1950s-60s must read Bernard Fall’s outstanding books. Street Without Joy, Hell in a Very Small Place, Last Reflections on a War, and Anatomy of a Crisis will turn your head around on both the French and American wars. Readers will be shocked to learn what truly occurred here and wonder why it is not common knowledge. As for today, many Vietnamese fit in very well in the USA; they’re classic immigrant Americans, not just refugees, and have contributed to America. Vietnam is a beautiful country to visit, though they’re decades behind in the concepts of tourism and leisure. I’m a hardy, adaptable type that seeks new situations, so it’s been in many ways beneficial for me and my writing to have spent time here; others get frustrated here quite quickly.”
Copies of “The Wind Took It Away” are available from the author for $10 plus shipping. For information, contact Shafer at email@example.com.