A student's view of the course

Justine Kenna

9:00 am January 28, 1999. Twenty young strangers sat around an oblong table in the English department building on George Street sipping coffee, flipping through the course announcement booklet and nervously casting side glances at the individuals who surrounded them, wondering what brought them all to this room.  For some, family legacy and memory  sparked their desire to explore the literature of Vietnam, while others sought to unravel the mystery that surrounds the Vietnam war in American culture.  Whatever the reason for taking Writing Vietnam, all of the assembled Brown students were beginning their journey into the varied genres responding to the experience of the war in Vietnam.

The creation of English 19:Writing Vietnam was the brainstorm of Beth Taylor, Lecturer in expository Writing in the English Department,  who has explored the various styles of writing that  emerged from individuals affected by the Vietnam war.  By reading various genres -- memoir, fiction, poetry, biography and oral history, Professor Taylor hoped students would explore different ways of writing while integrating their own family history and experience into what they were learning about the Vietnam War.  The culmination of this investigation would be a three day conference entitled "Writing Vietnam" which would bring together writers such as Tim O'Brien and Philip Caputo, poets like Marilyn McMahon and Yusef Komunyakaa, oral historians Frank Grzyb and Laura Palmer, Vietnam Veterans, historians, faculty and students.

Our exploration of Vietnam literature began with fear and apprehension.  For some students like Alana Quirk-Goldblatt '02 there was the uncomfortable feeling that everyone in the room has some sort of direct and profound connection to Vietnam the country, Vietnam the war, or both.  I worry that my reactions, both to the readings, and to the students' work, will be...not inauthentic, exactly, but unmeaningful; without feeling the legacy of Vietnam in my own life, through some human source, how can I possibly hope to experience the class in a way that does some sort of justice to the people who lived it, to the people who lived it through someone else, and to the people who relive it?

This fear was common among students who sat listening to a peer trace her family lineage back to father who served as helicopter pilot, two others whose mothers were forced to flee Vietnam before the fall of Saigon to the communists, and those who had lost family to the war.  Students who could not directly link themselves to the war felt intimidated. However, while at first glance those students who had known family members active in combat or others who were of direct Vietnamese descent seemed comfortable and assured in their reasons for taking the course, beneath this facade lay similar fears.  For many, dealing with the legacy of the Vietnam war in their own lives had not been addressed within their families and remained a guarded topic.  Paul '01 expressed the fears of many of us when he stated on the first day of class "I'm concerned about co-opting a topic -- a people and a war -- that I have no personal connection to; I am worried about the ethics of that."  As the initial fears and anxiety over how we were all connected to Vietnam disappeared, it occurred to us that throughout the course we would face barriers of misunderstanding and confusion, but would unite through our common desire to learn from each other and from the texts we were reading.

Fifteen students returned to Horace Mann every Tuesday and Thursday throughout the second semester to share ideas on the readings, drafts, photos and family stories.  During class hours we debated images and ideas and shared emotional reactions to works like Bao Ninh's The Sorrow of War and Laura Palmer's Shrapnel in the Heart, while at night we typed our own personal reflections on legacies and tried to write in the style of the genres we were studying.  The first genre we tried to tackle was literary memoir; one that proved to be fascinating to read, yet difficult in practice.

We began with two essential Vietnam war texts: Tim O' Brien's If I Die in a Combat Zone and Philip Caputo's A Rumor of War.  From O'Brien we learned what it actually meant to "show, not tell" and attempted to emulate his outstanding ability to draw the reader into his writing by progressing from second person to first person plural to first person singular. Caputo introduced us to the philosophical use of memory -- specifically his idea of a "moral bacteria" that invaded the lives of American soldiers. One of the most important things that Caputo taught us was the need to think about experience as evidence for analytical exploration.   Both O'Brien and Caputo showed us how easy it is to blur the line between truth and fiction, particularly where it is clear that facts can be distinct but tell a completely different story from the truth.

In writing our own personal memoirs, "showing, not telling" seemed easier said then done. Setting scenes with descriptive passages that created the illusion of sounds, smells and sights proved more difficult then the old standby of stating the obvious.   Moving memoirs like Eirene Donohue's '00 piece on her mother's experience during the war showed us how to personally remove ourselves from our writing and just become reporters of the facts.  "If I stopped to actually think about what I was writing or tried to describe the emotions I wouldn't have written anything.  It's too hard.  What else is there to say?" Eirene said of her memoir.  Quickly we learned through peer editing each other's pieces that we could learn an amazing amount from the person sitting right next to us in the classroom.

Peer editing of our first and second attempts at creating a style of our own, whether in memory, poetry, or fiction, became a weekly part of the course and probably one of the most important learning tools for everyone in the class. But it was tough at first. Olivier Humblett '00 said: "Having to give feedback on other people's pieces kept stressing me out for several months. Little by little I learned to just react to the piece, be more aware than I'd even been of what was going through me head as I read.  I also learned to believe that these opinions were valid, that what I felt was also being felt by enough other people that it was worthy of being brought to the author's attention."

Feedback from our peers and Professor Taylor, as well as our reading of Vietnam literature,  helped us to explore how different genres manipulate experience, and to see how we might forge stories that interpreted our life experiences. Self-doubt and fear of new styles often plagued our group. Many of us were accustomed to writing academic essays or favored one particular style of writing, causing us to be apprehensive about diving into new styles. This fear was particularly expressed during the first few weeks of the semester when the mere mention of the word fiction or poetry elicited nervous moans from the group.  Eirene Donohue '00 expressed the fear of writing fiction when she said: I've never really written fiction before; it feels a little strange.  The problem used to be how to tell a nonfiction story that made it true and affecting, but everything was in place before. I knew who those characters were and what they did, I just had to figure out how to show it. Now, every detail had to be thought through, but I'm just beginning to figure out who these people are and what their story is.

Alana Quirk-Goldblatt '02 wrote: "I have to say at first I was a little skeptical.  [The genres] seemed daunting -- especially those of biography and memoir.  Like we might hurt ourselves if we tried them, because memoirs should only be written by actresses and refugees, and biographies should only be written by scholars and kings and baseball players."  Throughout the semester that fear began to dissolve.  From our reading of Vietnam literature, we began to see how each genre served as a method for reconciling the impact of the war on each writer's life. In Tim O'Brien's book The Things They Carried, we learned that "story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth."  We practiced storytelling and dissolved the misconception that fact and fiction are dichotomous.  O'Brien writes, In many cases true war stories cannot be believed.  If you believe it, be skeptical.  It's a question of credibility.  Often the crazy stuff is true and the normal stuff isn't , because the normal is necessary to make you believe the truly incredible craziness.

Using O'Brien's words for inspiration, we took true life stories and made them fiction. Ben Naftalis '99 amazed all of us with his fiction piece on a Lieutenant stationed in Vietnam. Ben's vivid imagery and attention to detail created a chilling portrait of life during the war -- so accurate it was hard to believe that an individual a generation removed from the war could create such a compelling piece of fiction.

Michael Casey, Bruce Weigl, Yusef Komunyakaa and Marilyn McMahon brought new images and voices of Vietnam to us through their poetry.  While we struggled to create meaningful poems, we were awestruck by their capacity to capture fleeting emotions and scenes from life in few words. In her poem, "July 20, 1969" Marilyn McMahon showed us how three voices could intertwine and juxtapose to show simultaneous narratives.  McMahon created portraits of childhood innocence, national pride in stretching the boundaries of knowledge as evidenced by landing on the moon, and the terror of the unknown war -- all happening on one day.Yusef Komunyakaa inspired us with musical rhythms around spare and searing images encapsulating the three major influences in his life: race, jazz and the war in Vietnam.  Our study of Casey, McMahon, Weigl, and Komunyakaa showed us new ways to use language and image while also creating a chilling portrait of life in Vietnam.

From his experience serving as a soldier in Vietnam, Bruce Weigl learned the importance of poetry in Vietnamese culture.  "Everyone in Vietnam writes poems," said Weigl. So we tried too. In fact, for students like Daniel Simon '00, poetry became the best vehicle for capturing his Vietnamese mother's emotions and feelings.  From family stories and interviews with his mother, Dan recreated scenes from her childhood in Vietnam in poems that moved us.

As the cold winter months of January and February turned into warm and sunny Spring days we all became more aware of the immense impact the course was having on our lives.  Not only were we forging great personal bonds with each other and improving our writing, concurrently we were unveiling family histories and discovering that there is more to Vietnam and people touched by the war than what history has taught us. In oral histories by Frank Grzyb and Laura Palmer we found writers who went beyond the scope of history to uncover the voices of people directly affected by the war: soldiers and family members.

In Touched by the Dragon, Frank Grzyb writes about the many young men from Newport County, Rhode Island who served in the war; he gives voice to common soldiers whose lives were dramatically changed by Vietnam.  For some, Vietnam was something they had not talked about since American soldiers were withdrawn from South Vietnam in the early 1970s.  Grzyb hoped that these oral histories would dispel the American tendency to write matter-of-fact  accounts of the war in Vietnam.  From his collection of narratives, Grzyb showed us that tales of day-to-day life in Vietnam are sometimes the most revealing and educating about the war in Vietnam.

Like Grzyb, journalist Laura Palmer wrote Shrapnel in the Heart: Letters and Remembrances from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in order to give a voice to the people who lost the most and have said the least: the mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, children, friends, wives, sweethearts, and buddies of men who died in Vietnam.  They tell tenderly, painfully, and sometimes angrily about what it means to lose someone you love in a war that much of the country came to  hate. Through her moving collection of family and friends' stories and letters, Palmer showed us how journalistic biography could blend elegy with narrative interview.

For many students in our class, reading Palmer's work inspired them to probe deeper into their family history and sometimes even created stronger bonds with a parent or relative who was affected by Vietnam.  Kerry Silva '02 found that through studying Vietnam literature she was able to understand more about her father's experiences, therefore allowing him to open up to her more about his tour of duty in Vietnam and even share a piece of writing with her.   In her reflections on the course, Kerry wrote: After all is said and done,  I find myself with a connection through time.  As for my father, maybe he too found a connection through time -- both into the past and into the present, where I stand, over thirty years removed from his experiences overseas. For Kerry, as for Laura Palmer and Frank Grzyb, giving a voice to the soldiers and families affected by Vietnam is the best tool in revealing the reality of life during the war and its subsequent affect on their lives.

Vietnam writers, soldiers and family members affected by the war came for our three-day conference on "Writing Vietnam" that took place on Brown's campus from April 20-23.  Nationally recognized writers of fiction, memoir, poetry, journalism, and biography came together to read from their works based on their experiences in the Vietnam war.  Also featured during the conference was an exhibit of photographs by Rhode Island photographer Tom Morrissey from his book Between the Lines: Photographs from the National Vietnam Veterans War Memorial: Washington, DC. 1983-1999.

Michael Casey, poet and Vietnam veteran, and father of Sean '00.5, made a special appearance the night before the conference started. He gave a powerful reading from his collection of poems, Obscenities.  A distinguished looking man, he bellowed army talk -- a strange juxtaposition, yet somehow the emotion and mixture of pleasure, teasing, and anguish revealed a man deeply touched by the Vietnam war.  His words were sharp and loud, the intonation in his voice adopting the different personalities of men he met while on his tour of duty in Vietnam. Casey's reading showed all of us the importance of hearing a poet speak his/her written word. Whether it was Casey, McMahon, or Komunyakaa reading during the conference, the impact of their spoken word was tremendous in allowing images of people, places, and emotions come alive.

On April 21, 1999 students, faculty, Vietnam writers and veterans, and members of the Brown and Rhode Island communities gathered in the Crystal Room in Alumni Hall for a workshop entitled "Vet to Vet: Starting to Tell the Story" facilitated by Frank Grzyb. This workshop was created as an open dialogue among veterans, including nurses who served in the war, about writing their stories.  Perhaps, the most important part of the Vet to Vet workshop was the cohesive feeling that existed between all of the Veterans in the room.  Everyone involved in the workshop was visibly moved by the war stories shared.  For most members of our class, the Vet to Vet workshop was an important part of learning about Vietnam in that it gave a face and story to ordinary soldiers in the war. While it is sometimes easy to associate Vietnam literature with gifted writers like Tim O'Brien and Philip Caputo, in reality, there are thousands of men and women who "write Vietnam" everyday for their own self-healing process.

After the Vet to Vet workshop a packed hall of admirers heard Tim O'Brien tell again his story of almost crossing the Rainy River, and some let out a collective gasp when he said none of that was true, but then again it was true because it had been true in his gut and his head. The next afternoon we heard each writer read his or her work. We were challenged again by Phil Caputo's frankness,  moved again by Tim O'Brien's lyrical sadness and by Laura Palmer's remembering of a mother at the kitchen table talking of her dead son. Marilyn McMahon's poems made us see the boys she had to help die and the young faithful nurse she had once been. Yusef Komunyakaa jarred us to attention with his booming delivery of intense, troubling images. Jacqueline Loring stepped in for Bruce Weigl (whose plane had been stalled). Her poem is next to Weigl's "Song of Napalm" in Both Sides Now. In "Curse the Rainbow," she described her veteran husband as he tried to cope with the thunder of a rainstorm. Finally, Jade Ngoc Quang Huynh read of his journey into exile from his home and his family. As he read, he stood in front of Mai Moua's quilt -- her sewn-story of her difficult journey from Laos to Providence. It was an afternoon of complex feelings and extraordinary art.

That evening we heard the writers talk of writing Vietnam and its place in their lives now. For Phil Caputo it was never therapy, but a story that needed to be told. For Tim, writing could be therapy, but these days for him it was all about the sentence. Yusef said there are still stories that must be told about being black in Vietnam. Marilyn said she had been a good Catholic girl who did what she was supposed to when she became a nurse in Vietnam, and she became a poet when she realized she couldn't drink away the memories anymore. Laura Palmer said she fell into journalism but that she knew when a good story was there and that was what made any writing work. Jade Ngoc Quang Huynh said he was surprised when he made it all the way to Bennington College and a famous writer said this is what you must do -- write. Now he was working on his second book, and you know, Jade said, "It only gets harder!"

The next morning we gathered with members of the Southeast Asian community -- from Brown and Providence, and Jade Ngoc Quang Huynh explained how he started writing his story, and what a writer must do to keep going. The students talked of living in two worlds -- at home and at school, and how they were learning to live as Americans and might write about it publicly if the time and place felt right. It was painful to talk of some things, but with time it might feel better, they said.

As our class sat in Horace Mann on a bright and sunny day at the end of the semester, all of the students in "Writing Vietnam" seemed amazed by how the conference and course itself had, at least temporarily, changed our lives.  After three days of intense contact with people for whom Vietnam is a central identification in their lives, it was now time to reflect on our own.  Daniel Simon '00 remembered "It was humbling for me to have amazing writers like Tim O'Brien and Marilyn McMahon actually ask questions of me about my ties to Vietnam and how my life was affected by the war." The collective sharing, story-telling, and advice affected everyone involved -- from Pulitzer prize winning authors to Vietnam Vets, Southeast Asian emigrants and Brown students.  The idea that we all had something to learn from each other as writers and individuals made the tragic war we were discussing become a bond, and finally made us feel part of a collective whole.