Feminine Existence: A Resonance of Voices
Arriving here, I want to shift back to a more distant past, to dig into a deeper layer of soil in order to understand the genealogy of Vietnamese female poets and poetry written about women, not excluding the representations shaped / sanctioned by a male gaze. But perhaps to be more practical, and potent, I will just highlight one story that is gradually slipping into the recent past: to see the stages of birthing labor as no less painful for the Vietnamese female authors who self-reproduce new poetic beings. This is also a place where the story of equality can be re-interrogated and broadened. Feminism / women’s rights / femininity is not (only) continuing the battle for gender equality – a struggle that might end in a stalemate as it, with its central idea of violence, repeats and replicates the popular masculine model that tends to assert a powerful ambition to establish order and control – it resides in the endeavor to resist control and the mastery of those male characteristics (but not to resist men). Simultaneously, feminism resides in the rewrite and affirmation of feminine existence to make femininity visible in a dialogue that initiates the journey to a (self) emancipation from violent repressions. Equality lies not in the identifying words that denote worn-out threads – a certain weariness accompanies the matters of male or female, man or woman, male writers or female writers, women’s rights or men’s rights – rather, equality lies in the ability to escape the grip of violent power relationships.
In poetry after the Vietnam War, readers heard a crescendo – leading to a boom – in need for a female voice to speak in the poetry of female authors. This can be considered the first wave of an awakening feminine presence here, yet it is easy to conclude that this was a feminine self-positioning within / attached to / snugly fit inside the framework of masculinity. As a result of being pushed into the blind spot of gender, of being masuclinised or asexualised during a period of prolonged war, the post-war poetry of female authors like Lâm Thị Mỹ Dạ and Lê Thị Mây – writers who had linked themselves to revolutionary movements – were later full of private anxieties about the post-war fate of women, the need to be a mother, pressure to be a normal wife and the need to be loved and to reaffirm love with acceptance or even praise of the ‘female duties’ (typically referring to the simple collection of indicators pointing to one’s personal life in the cramped spaces of family and cooking). They patiently console themselves while waiting for soldiers in battle: ‘The woman I am came back to sewing / skillfully embroidering and stitching clothes for kids’. They endured the swallowing back of tears: ‘Night after night of embroidered silence / Not only me who bears this, he who does not return’ (‘Titleless’ – Lê Thị Mây, from the collection Seasons of a waiting moon, 1980). At times we can hear alternative voices, screams that want to erupt, as with the female in the poem of Phạm Thị Ngọc Liên ‘I want to open my hands into the sky and scream’ (from the collection with the same title of the poem, 1992). But in their essence, these voices are still expressing a need for the personal and emotional safety of living in the arms of a man, which can be seen as an image of the limitations on gender that are demarcated and approved by popular societal structures. This is precisely why the poetry of Dư Thị Hoàn, with its painful narrative of a young woman’s choice to be broken when a lover is careless with her body, ‘After some gentle / Moments on a stone bench / You did not rebutton my dress’ (‘Broken’ – from the collection Footpath, 1988), stepped into a new, shocking story!1 I don’t want to see this broken-heartedness merely as a passive circumstance, an acceptance and endurance of pain, nor as a female pain nakedly exaggerated. I want to see here a choice to be ruptured, perhaps as a necessity that could not be otherwise, despite its extreme harshness. An ending that does not lead to a traditional marriage, as in the smooth scripts from early times of ‘We will be husband and wife,’ can be read as the choice to detach from the male body in order to become an independent female. Feminine pride, itself a myth, can be asserted and, at the same time, it can / must self-destruct in order extend the capabilities of its embrace. Take the women in Dư Thị Hoàn’s poetry, and the poetic being Dư Thị Hoàn herself – luminous highlights of female poetry during the Renovation period, as being in labor, naked and aching: they, all at once, challenge the heavy pressure of history and fate with audacity while being aware of the inevitable ruptures of becoming individuals … and for this, the pent-up voices erupt, cramped, from a buried burning, full of torment.
I do not think I can claim that a second or a third awakening wave of femininity, feminism – set in motion with the female poets appearing in the early part of the century who I analysed above – has occurred in Vietnamese literature. But it is possible to see, step by step, that female Vietnamese poets, regardless of geography and generation, have expressed, shared and sent echoes of their voices this way and that – voices which are gradually rising in strength, increasingly candid, more direct and less restrained and more widely exposed. Exploitation of the body materials – at times overwhelming and thematically limited by the methods of approach that must vigilantly check abilities of the female body to be rendered into a tool, fit into motifs of sexuality or deliver simply presented messages – can be seen as a natural consequence of the process of self-emancipation from the pressures of taboo, and, simultaneously, act as an effective strategy in the endeavors to reaffirm independence and oppose the patriarchal ideology and discourses that suppresses female physicality under sophisticated mechanisms.
This is not a struggle that comes from nowhere and returns to nowhere, initiated by loose and wild female poets in order to violate taboos or demolish ‘fine customs, good habits’. More, it is a struggle that carries a tiny hope inside the accumulated efforts of a collective resonant energy coming from single individuals who stand side by side, and which in some way connect to the ideas that Carol Hanish made famous in her essay ‘The Personal is Political’ originally published in Notes from the Second Year: Women’s Liberation in 1970.
By choosing to write – not always an easy choice to endure – and by continuing with one’s work and poetic existence, the voices of Vietnamese female poets embody victims, witnesses, fighters, and self-emancipators; together as one and synchronous with women’s freedom movements around the world. This effort is certainly still continuing, here, as well as where you’re reading this from. I hope this essay will revive, erase and extend the questions that have been dug up in Vietnamese literature, push farther, open wider the calls, emancipate literary experiments and expand every sense of self-location in equality. The story of feminism, femininity is not necessarily the story of replicated patterns or limited frameworks, rather it’s a story of perspectives, of concrete human touch and exchange. For me, being able to see the possibilities of free individual voices still brings trust and sharing to a place where poets truly possess a private space. Albeit it tiny, that place brims with powerful permeability and resonance, strong and tender. Miên Đáng’s ‘Tiny, Tiny’ stands in for my dear love of this hard-won privacy.
Tiny, Tiny This tiny Private Space. I am tiny too. This tiny book. I am tiny too. This tiny mouse. I am tiny too. This tiny hot breath. I am tiny too. Tiny humans. I am tiny too. Tiny you, tiny me. Loneliness tiny, the whole earth gradually dissolves into the sweet sounds ending the 24th hour. Peaceful sleep.
- Dư Thị Hoàn’s poems once stirred much moral debate regarding behaviors in love and the taboos of poetry at that time. After her two works Lối nhỏ / Footpath (1988) and Bài mẫu giáo sáng thế / Early Songs of Creation (1993) had such resonance, she elected nearly private silence. In 2005, after twelve years, Dư Thị Hoàn announced she was preparing to publish a third collection of poetry Du nữ ngâm / Lyrical Notes of a Female Wanderer, simultaneously revealing a novel Truyền nhân của Rồng / The Dragon Successor and collection of her travel writing, but until now (2016) these works have yet to be published. ↩