Writers I read: Writing in English, essentially Vietnamese
Updated: Apr 10
Nguyen Trong Hien is the author of Village Teacher, a novel which offers a refreshing look at a Vietnam rarely featured in English language fiction.
Why I chose to interview Hien
Village Teacher struck me immediately as a different and exquisite piece of Old Vietnam.
Set in the early years of French colonisation, it is on its surface a love story about a virtuous village scholar, Tam, and Giang, a spirited half-French daughter of the Hue elite. But, the book has many layers. Under the skin of the love story , however, is a recounting of the Vietnamese people’s first grappling with the West. And at heart, the whole work is a quiet tribute to Vietnamese men of letters and the prevailing spirit of the Vietnamese language (whether in Chinese ideograms or French invented alphabets). Although probably unintended, there is also a larger moral lesson about how countries, not just Vietnam, can be won or lost if change is not embraced appropriately.
The work was thoroughly imbued with the ethos and mindset of the period. The story, which unfolded operatically with all the elements of a traditional cai-luong, had such an old-school Vietnamese sensibility I was prompted immediately to connect with the author, to find out who this English language writer who could so evoke Old Vietnam was.
Nguyen Trong Hien, is a Vietnamese man who now lives in Princeton NJ. Born in North Vietnam, Hien moved South with his family when the country was divided in 1954. He went to college in America, and subsequently returned to Vietnam in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s to work as a professor, a writer of textbooks, a soldier and a technocrat.
Hien is multi-talented. Although trained in Engineering and Industrial Administration, and working primarily now in IT, he maintains a wonderful blog filled with great photographs. And of course, there is this book, Village Teacher, a four year labour of love written at night and on weekends.
During my e-interview with Hien about the beginnings of his book and his writing practice, I discovered that the unconscious may influence our writing as much as the conscious. I also realized how much we older writers have been practicing, even when we thought we were simply getting along with the rest of our lives.
I asked Hien what prompted him to write a Vietnamese novel set in the late 19th century instead of one about the war or the diaspora.
He revealed that a reason was because one of his great-grandfathers had been a huong su or village teacher in a town in the highlands of North Vietnam. But, he confessed, he hadn’t known much about the old gentleman except that he led a frugal yet well respected life. More importantly, Hien said, he was influenced by the pro-independence writer Ngo Tat To’s novel, Leu Chong (Tents and Pallets. Published in 1952, the novel which is about the difficulties of scholars travelling to the imperial capital for their exams and the difficulties they encountered, made a great impression. Encouraged by his father to read in while a teenage, Hien recalls reading it again at least twice since then.
When I prompted Hien about other early experiences that might have been influential, he shared an incident which might actually have been central to his decision to write about an examination candidate who’d been unjustly disqualified.
This is the recollection in Hien’s own words – “Even though I had no formal schooling until the age of 7, my father decided to have me take the entrance exam at one of the elite schools in Ha Noi, a French lycée. He had me prepare for it by buying a French textbook and telling me to take a crack at it, with some help from him when he came home from work.
“When the time came, I went and took the exam, with hundreds of other young boys about my age. I was so nervous I came home sick, but I told my father that I did well. However, when the results were published, my name was nowhere on the list of those accepted to the lycée. I had failed!
“My father came home and queried me again about how I did in the exam. I didn’t know what to say and I was running a fever, but I told him what questions were asked and how I answered them. He went back to the school and asked to speak to the principal, a Frenchman. I don’t know what he said, but the principal had his staff look for my exam papers. It turned out I had actually passed, but was somehow failed for no reason. Not only did I pass, my actual grade was so high the principal ordered that I be allowed to skip one level.
“My father later told our family that they did it to admit someone else, probably some scion of a well-connected and wealthy family.”
I find it telling that Hien forgot to share this incident initially. There are clearly parallels between the injustice he suffered as an 8 year old newly arrived to the metropolis Hanoi and those experienced by the hero in Village Teacher. Was it this experience that allowed him to identify so closely with Ngo Tat To’s Tents and Pallets? I can’t know … Hien and I didn’t discuss this.
What I’ve learnt from this exchange is that sometimes the roots of our story are so deeply hidden we ourselves don’t know how we’re inspired. What I wonder is how much richer our writing lives might be if we set time aside to mine the ore of our own experiences.
Hien has been writing from his earliest years “polishing school benches”. His first attempts at producing published work were in college in the United States, when he was selected to be the political editor of the school paper. For a year, he wrote an editorial or column on political, social and economic issues almost every day. It was a practice, he is still grateful for because it taught him how to write fast and communicate clearly.
After graduation, Hien’s writings in English and Vietnamese, both in the US and Vietnam, were primarily on technical, economic, or social subjects. In the back of his mind though, he always wanted to write a novel, something less dreary and perhaps more challenging. Hien was not to know that by writing all that dreary material, he was honing his craft in preparation for when he would actually sit down and write Village Teacher.
Writers read, and so does Hien. He likes history, fictional or otherwise, and believes strongly that “a good book should always allow you to gain some knowledge about things that you didn’t know beforehand.”
He admires all the writers of the Tu Luc Van Doan group, a 1930’s pro-independent literary group founded in colonial Vietnam. In English, John Steinbeck has always been a favourite.
While Hien does not proactively avoid any type of writing, with time being a constraint, he doesn’t actively seek out non-history related works.
As for his current writing practice – Hien is researching highland people in South Vietnam for his second novel. He starts the day very early, arriving at work at 7 AM and trying to get as much done as possible before everyone else starts to trek in around 9 AM. At 4 PM he goes home and exercises for about an hour. Then after dinner, he starts on his book and keeps at it from about 7 PM till 9 or 10 PM.
Writing takes discipline. But Hien also knows to give himself slack.
When the office is too stressful or when he must spend a few extra hours there to deal with problems, he will skip the book and spend time with woodworking or painting. And when he feels lazy, he watches a classical music concert or a movie on disc.
“Life is not so bad, actually,” he writes me with a 🙂
Still a writer working alone
Hien confesses he hasn’t managed to make the acquaintance of younger Vietnamese American writers like Aimee Phan, Andrew Lam, Andrew X. Pham and Monique Truong.
That’s a pity.
Hien wrote Village Teacher in English because he wanted to make it accessible to younger Vietnamese in the diaspora, who may not read Vietnamese. He also wanted to reach out to American friends who encouraged him to write. It is his hope that both of those groups will find the novel interesting and learn things about Vietnam that they cannot find anywhere else.
I hope that indeed the new generation of Vietnamese-American writers will pick up Village Teacher. And of course, I hope that Hien will find some time to read these younger authors works. I can see a great deal of inter-generational cross-fertilization happening between someone like Hien, who is fluent in English and yet deeply rooted in Vietnamese literature and culture, and the younger generation of Vietnamese Americans writing in search of identity.
Perhaps …. After this interview goes live, there might be a reaching out.
Village Teacher can be found on Amazon at http://www.amazon.com/Village-Teacher-neihtn/dp/1475101635