Writing the Truth About War

Vietnamese, American writers find common ground in discussing their work and past combat. VOICES ON OPPOSITE SIDES

LE LU says his first four novels, based on 15 years as a war correspondent on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, had earned him ``not quite enough to buy a German bicycle.'' The American veterans in the room smile. Robert Mason's war memoirs, ``Chickenhawk,'' had sold 800,000 copies. He had earned ``about half-a-million dollars.''

The Vietnamese and American writers had faced each other before - as combatants in the Vietnam war. Now, the eight writers were meeting in the close confines of an attic in a private home in Dorchester.

The gathering should have taken place in a large public meeting hall at the University of Massachusetts, but the Vietnamese writers had been jostled by local Vietnamese at a meeting the week before and feared further violence. Members of the local Vietnamese community accuse the visiting writers of being communist agents. (See article below.)

But here in the attic, the writers occupy common ground. They share their frustrations about editors who won't publish their books and about readers whose tastes run to ``detective stories with a shot on every page.'' They speak as men who weigh words for a living. Vividly. Concisely.

Nguyen Khai, deputy general secretary of Vietnam's Writers Union, began his career as a correspondent during the war against the French in 1946. He appeals to the Americans ``as writers'' and says, ``Tell us how the American people feel about the victory we won over them ... Will they continue to punish us?''

The Vietnamese, he adds, understand the dangers of fighting big powers, having lived with and fought the Chinese for 1,000 years. ``But right after victories, we went to kowtow like slaves, because we know we should never let a big country feel defeated.''

Most Americans don't feel defeated, says Tim O'Brien, author of ``Going after Cacciato.'' Had we committed ourselves in a full way, most Americans believe we would have won. ``Most Americans feel it less than Vietnamese 'emigr'es, who feel it in their bones and live it every day.'' The Vietnamese writers nod. Yes, they know.

Several days before the public meeting, they are asked what kind of a reception they expected in the United States. Mr. Khai had met veterans at the William Joiner Center for the Study of War and its Social Consequences, cosponsors of the writers workshop.

``I had a feeling we'd known each other for a long time,'' he says in an interview. ``The Americans write more realistically, more accurately than we do [about the Vietnam war],'' he adds. ``One reason we don't write as accurately about the war is that we are a weak people. Because we're weak, we have to concentrate all energy on the future. That's the only way we can move ahead.''

Each of the three Vietnamese writers have pushed beyond portrayals of socialist heros in battle. Their characters suffer, make mistakes, have regrets. Le Lu's most recent novel is set in Cambodia. It is the first explicit writing out of Vietnam about the nine-year occupation. In the book, a colonel's son dies accidently - which some interpret as representing the futility of that war. Le Lu insists that wasn't his intention. Cambodia was merely ``a setting for a novel.'' But the title, ``The Humorless Colonel,'' would not have been allowed several years ago, he says.

Relations between writers and the Communist Party have improved considerably, he adds. Khai agrees. Vietnamese writers now write about ``weaknesses in command'' and ``difficulties in daily life'' during the war. The only forbidden topics are ``pornographic writing, calling for the destruction of the [Communist] Party, and trying to divide ethnic groups in Vietnam.''

Nguyen Sang spent 30 years of his life in war. During the American period, he wrote one novel and four collections of short stories. He's also written and produced six films about the American war. Coming to the US is ``important for my life as a writer,'' he says.

As a writer, Mr. Sang seeks above all to ``write correctly.'' Yet, he says, ``In writing about the American side, I still haven't got that right.

``I just have Americans in general. I have to pick up a name, usually a sports figure, but I can't imagine that person. The Vietnamese look at Americans and think they are a people who drink a lot. But is that true? I don't know. In the end, I write about this American using this instrument of war. I didn't know him as a person.'' Sang hopes to interview American veterans and build ``a collection of impressions.''

``When we write about war accurately, deeply, and skillfully, this will be a way of speaking heart-to-heart,'' he says. The titles of some of his novels stretch the limits of socialist-realist stereotypes: ``Diary of One Who Stays Behind'' (1957), ``Fire Zone'' (1963), and ``Season of Ill Winds'' (1977).

Facing derisive laughter and hostile questions from local Vietnamese in the public meeting, Khai had appealed to them, ``But we are changing, too - we in Vietnam are questioning the war.''

For Vietnam's expatriates, the dialogue seemed far away. But to those in the attic room, the discussion had begun.

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