Book review: The Secret of Hoa Sen by Nguyen Phan Que Mai

UPDATE I’ve just received this link to Que Mai’s readings at the Lannan Foundation this March (2015) 

 

When we talk about poets writing from the heart, it’s because we feel their integrity. When I say that Que Mai’s writing hands you her heart and lets you hold it, still beating and bleeding, while she tells her stories, it’s because she keeps nothing back and she trusts us to attend.

And you do have to attend, especially if you are coming to this with a Western ear, because the language is more musical, the metaphors more earthy, and the characters and messages more deceptively simple than one might expect.

Read Que Mai’s history and you will see why this is. Born in North Vietnam just after the end of the war and at the beginning of the reunification that brought with it recrimination and huge social upheaval, Que Mai’s voice is an unfamiliar one because it is female, embedded in family and traditions, and uses the language of dislocated, traumatised, but gentle survivors clinging to their roots and sowing the seeds of new ones.

Adjust yourself to this style and you will find lines like this:

…the purple summer bang lang flowers, the aromatic lotus buds

all conspire to nomad me into the night markets of Quang Ba …

                                  from Ha Noi

Vowels, consonants

engraved by the shaken rhythm of a naked heart,

I touch the hair of sunrise,

my lips the morning’s nightingale.

                                                from Touching the Hair of Sunrise

The ‘right’ word in Vietnamese does not always translate into an equally right word in English but instead  gives rise to an utterly unusual word that is perfect in its place and in its old and new meanings[1].

Or this:

Immense, immense the sound of your laughter and speech,

tweeting your pouting voices.

You are the adults, and I am the child.

                                    from Speaking with My Children

The undertow of rhythm here is not reflective of Western pounding bass, thudding feet, trains, or machinery, but the bells and chimes of Vietnamese music which must surely be the unconscious river that carries the language.

My personal favourite is Quang Tri which begins:

The mother runs towards us,

the names of her children fill her eye sockets.

She’s screaming “Where are my children?

It describes in minimalistic stanzas the lifetime impact on one woman of the battle at Quang Tri, one of the bloodiest of the US-Vietnam war.

I was lucky to meet Que Mai during our course at Lancaster. I heard her read both in English and in Vietnamese and I learned new things about poetry and the value of difference. If you get a chance to hear her, do so. If not, read these works and think of bells.

UPDATE I’ve just received this link to Que Mai’s readings at the Lannan Foundation this March (2015) 

BOA Editions ltd.

Amazon (UK)

[1] In a prose piece, Que Mai refers to a woman ‘luggaging’ her children along, the evocation of which is perfect for its setting. I hope to find it still there in her forthcoming novel.

 

 

One thought on “Book review: The Secret of Hoa Sen by Nguyen Phan Que Mai

  1. Pingback: Meet the Anthology Authors: Nguyen Phan Que Mai | Dr Suzanne Conboy-Hill – finding fiction

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