The Beauty of Humanity Movement
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Maggie Ly is a young and attractive Vietnamese American woman arriving in Hanoi with questions about the past. Although she and her mother were able to escape the country in 1975 aboard one of the last U.S. military planes out of Vietnam, her father was not as fortunate. Who he was and what happened to him are questions her mother was never able to answer for Maggie. The evidence of her father’s existence is slim, just one or two of his paintings and a few citations of his work for a dissident literary journal. Her search for clues is made even more difficult by the fact that, as one character says in the novel, Vietnam “is a country that erases its own history.” Apparently no one in Hanoi wishes to be reminded of the past. Furthermore, Maggie is a Viet Kieu (a foreigner of Vietnamese descent) and treated with open suspicion.
She finds an unlikely ally in a young tour group operator named Tu. As part of the new generation growing up in a more Western and capitalist Vietnam (the Doi Moi generation), Tu is full of an energy and confidence that is alien to his father’s generation. Maggie, as the curator of a new gallery in Hanoi’s exclusive Metropole hotel, hires Tu to help her research her father’s existence. Tu provides readers with a glimpse of contemporary Vietnam, a country of bustling activity and striking contradictions. We learn, for instance, that while someone may be arrested by the Bureau of Social Vice Prevention for making jokes about the communist party, another may idly watch naked women dancing on satellite television in a public restaurant. Later in the novel, after Tu is introduced to the world of contemporary Vietnamese art, he asks rhetorically, “Nationalistic art or pornographyare these really the only two artistic choices?”
The trail to Maggie’s father’s past goes cold until she meets the old soup seller Hung, who is a dear friend of Tu’s family. Hung is the Vietnamese everyman, and as such his story is the story of twentiethcentury Vietnam. Though he is unwilling to relive his personal or national history, Maggie and Tu exert an almost magical force on his conscience and he embarks on a journey into the past that leaves him quite literally battered but, finally, at peace. His random, disconnected memories provide the rich historical backdrop to the novel. As a young boy in the 1930s he is sent from his peasant village to work at his uncle’s restaurant in French colonial Hanoi, where the air is redolent of revolution. From Hung’s vantage point we see partial but vivid glimpses of key events in Vietnam’s long road to independence and unification, from the Japanese occupation to the defeat of the French in 1954, from the disastrous land reform policies of Ho Chi Minh to the war with America.
At the center of Hung’s recollections is a shortlived art movement in the 1950s to which he belonged, if only peripherally. Two figures from this movementknown as the Beauty of Humanity Movementhave remained in Hung’s mind ever since: one, living, whose memory Hung has tried unsuccessfully to bury and the other, dead, whose memory Hung has, with religious devotion, struggled to preserve. The group’s leader Daoa character based on the real revolutionary poet Phan Khoidied in a communist reeducation camp leaving Hung with a tragic but inspiring image of artistic and political heroism. Through Tu, Dao’s grandson and true inheritor of his courage, Hung’s recollections of Dao vividly return. Lan is Hung’s old beloved, and though she still lives as his neighbor, Hung has scorned her for forty years due to an unspeakable betrayal. Maggie’s lithe and beautiful form reminds him of the Lan he first fell in love with. The agonizing rehearsal of this distant part of his life eventually liberates Hung and he is able to finally reconcile with Lan and to piece together a few significant facts about Maggie’s father, who was also part of the Beauty of Humanity Movement. Maggie and Hung, two characters separated by age, culture, and wealth, nevertheless share an intricate and powerful bond at the novel’s conclusion.
Camilla Gibb is the author of four novelsMouthing the Words, The Petty Details of Soandso’s Life, Sweetness in the Belly, and The Beauty of Humanity Movementas well as numerous short stories, articles, and book reviews. Her books have been published in eighteen countries and translated into fourteen languages and she was named by the jury of the prestigious Orange Prize as one of twentyone writers to watch in the new century. Among her literary achievements are a Trillium Book Award in 2006, a Scotiabank Giller Prize short list nominee in 2005, a CBC Canadian Literary Award for short fiction in 2001, and a City of Toronto Book Award in 2000. Before becoming a fulltime writer, she completed a Ph.D. in social anthropology at Oxford University and spent two years at the University of Toronto as a postdoctoral research fellow. She is currently an adjunct faculty member of the graduate creative writing programs at the University of GuelphHumber and the University of Toronto.
Q. You have a degree in social anthropology. Did that help you at all in writing a book set in a foreign culture? Did you approach your characters as an ethnographer?
I don’t take an ethnographic approach to my characters, but I take an ethnographic approach to research. The questions I ask as a writer are the same ones that compelled me as an anthropologistwho we are, where we belong, how culture shapes and defines us. In order to investigate those questions, I need to see how people live. I need to imagine my characters in terms of the constraints and cultural norms that exist for them in order for them to feel realistic.
Q. What is the secret to a good bowl of pho? Can a true bowl of pho bac be found in North America?
Northern pho is very bland to the North American palate. The majority of restaurants in the West make a southern pho and allow us to garnish it liberally with mint and basil, hoisin and hot sauce.
It takes hours to make a perfect broth. Sorry to say it, but it’s really not the same without MSG.
Q. Has there been any reaction to the book in Vietnam or in the Vietnamese American community?
The general reaction I’ve had is that it’s a relief to read a happy story about Vietnam. I hear this most often from people who left Vietnam as children and have not had happy stories about the country passed down to them.
Q. In the Author’s Note you mention the novels of Duong Thu Huong. How does she confront this troubled past? Could you make any generalizations about Vietnamese literary responsesofficial and unofficialto the country’s history?
She is something of an anomaly. There isn’t really a novelwriting or reading tradition in Vietnam. One would have been cultivated under the French, but then this would have been rejected as bourgeois. Duong writes about the extreme poverty of the 1980s, about the tensions between artists and the state, about deprivation, control, and confinement. And she generally gets away with it, though she isn’t published in Vietnam. Earlier writers engaged in acts of resistance by referencing Chinese domination or French occupation. Duong is writing about Vietnamese oppression, though her work is not generally being read in Vietnam.
Q. The flavor enhancer MSG occupies a magical, though small, place in this novel. While MSG is something that is avoided by Westerners, does it mean something quite different to Vietnamese cooks and consumers?
It provides the fifth tasteumamiand in so doing, completes or rounds out all the other flavors. It became so rare and expensive during the communist era that it really is regarded as a luxury, particularly by the older generation.
Q. Most writers who have approached Vietnam usually do so through the prism of war and from a decidedly Western perspective. The Quiet American and The Things They Carried are just two notable examples. Were you consciously trying to set this tradition on its head by writing a novel from a Vietnamese perspective?
The war lasted ten years. Of course it was devastating for the Vietnamese, but there have been many other wars, a thousand years of Chinese domination and eighty years of French occupation. The Vietnam War is our persistent narrative about Vietnam. Not theirs. Today, the lifting of the trade embargo with the United States and the flow of goods and information between East and West has a much bigger role to play in terms of shaping attitudes toward the United States and changing lives than the war. Sixty percent of the population was born after the war. It’s not a direct memory for the majority of the population. I simply wanted to put the war in perspective. I wanted to tell stories that we, in the West, had not heard.
Q. In your novel Sweetness in the Belly, the main character Lilly is marked as a foreigner wherever she goes, Ethiopia, England, etc. Her attempt to discover who she is lies at the heart of that novel, much like Maggie’s quest in this novel. As a writer, do you find yourself drawn to these themes of connectedness and identity?
Writers and anthropologists share something in commona sense of alienation or remove, a stance that allows them to make observations about being human. These are my preoccupations. I can’t escape them.
Q. To many readers, your portrait of the contemporary Vietnamese art world will come as a shock. It seems to resemble a maligned area of contemporary American art, but could say something about the importance of this phenomenon for Vietnam? What position does it have in Vietnamese society? Is there any art there that is not either propaganda or pornography?
The government still employs artists as propagandists. Some artists challenge the censors with explicitly political or sexual imagery, but this work isn’t going to find a home in Vietnam. Over 98 percent of the contemporary art being produced in Vietnam leaves the country. There is no appetite for contemporary art yetthat only begins to emerge with the rise of a middle class. Art in people’s homes is generally religious iconography. The contemporary art that is produced, then, largely appeals to Western tastes, often reaffirming romantic imagery we associate with the country. Of course there are exceptions, but if this stock imagery is what sells, this is what will be produced.
Q. Despite its violent history, Vietnam and Southeast Asia generally have enchanted Westerners for centuries. Were you ever worried you would end up romanticizing the East as many have done before you?
I sincerely hope I have avoided doing so. The real romance in this book is the love story at its heart.
Q. Are you working on a new novel now?
I’m working on a memoir about the first twentyfour months of motherhood.
- Although most of the novel’s threads are neatly tied at the end, Tu’s future is left somewhat in doubt. He doesn’t get Maggie nor does he get a job working at Hung’s new restaurant. What future do you predict for him?
- Pho, referred to as Hung’s wife and mistress, is almost a character. Describe the role this humble bowl of soup occupies in the novel. How does it contain the whole history of twentiethcentury Vietnam?
- There are two small but poignant references to American Vietnam War vets: the father of Maggie’s former boyfriend Daniel and Brentwood, one of Tu’s American sightseers. How do these shed light on Maggie and Tu respectively? What do they say, if anything, about Vietnamese reactions to America’s involvement in the war?
- The Beauty of Humanity Movement joins a recent group of fiction set in contemporary Southeast Asia, of which David Bergen’s The Time in Between and Kim Eichlin’s The Disappeared are other examples. Compare Gibb’s depiction of Vietnam with any other fictional portrayals of the region you may have read.
- The poetic and visual metaphors created by Dao and his circle, like the fruit missing its rind, are wonderfully rich and subtle. Discuss how they operate as satire and social commentary.
- Compare the two sets of artists in the novel, i.e., those in Dao’s circle and those “dandy peacocks” in contemporary Vietnam. What is the value of art to their respective societies? What role if any does art have in politics or social justice?
- In one of the more peculiar examples of the cooption of Western culture, Tu’s friend and business partner Phuong finishes second in the TV show Vietnam Idol. What kind of relationship do the characters have with Western, particularly American, culture?
- In the end, Maggie learns only a few details about her father’s life. Did she find what she was looking for? Has she, like Hung, made peace with her past?
- Vietnam, though small, is a country which haunts the imaginations of many people around the worldAmerican vets, Vietnamese who emigrated, and Vietnamese who stayed behind. Every homeland with emigrants does this to some degree but are there other modern countries which have (or will have) equally longlasting and wideranging effects? Could this novel have been set in say Afghanistan or Iraq?
- The betrayal by Lan merges with the betrayal Hung feels from his whole country. How is Hung and Lan’s tragic relationship emblematic of Vietnamese history?