Võ Phiê'n and the Sadness of Exile is the first book-length study in English of a modern Vietnamese writer. Võ Phiê'n was one of the most respected and popular writers in the Vietnamese language during the last half of the 20th century and author John C. Schafer provides a detailed chronology of Võ Phiê'n’s life and career, analyzing the relationship between Võ Phiê'n’s writing and the historical, cultural and intellectual contexts of which they were born.
A brief outline of Võ Phiê'n’s life and writing may help Peace Corps Writers readers understand better the man about whom John Schafer writes so eloquently. Võ Phiê'n was born in 1925 in a small village in Binh Dinh Province, central Vietnam. When he was thirteen, he moved first to the provincial capital and then to Hue to study. He began writing for publication in 1950 and in 1959 requested a transfer to Saigon to cultivate this calling. During the Vietnam War (known as the “American War” in Vietnam), Võ Phiê'n began to write in opposition to the Communist party. In 1975 he emigrated as an exile to the United States with his wife and daughter.
As John Schafer says, Võ Phiê'n “witnessed European colonialism in Vietnam and the revolution to end it, the spread of Communism and the United States’ efforts to suppress it, the disruption of Vietnamese village life, and the emigration of Vietnamese to escape political turmoil and war.” These grand movements at national and personal levels are major themes in Võ Phiê'n’s writing. Schafer also examines the influence of literary trends in the ’50s and ’60s on Võ Phiê'n’s writing, including his departure from socialist realism.
Schafer has constructed the main body of Võ Phiê'n in eight chapters preceded by an introduction. He moves from details of Võ Phiê'n’s early life in rural Vietnam, through a close examination of his writing technique and his success as a popular novelist, critic and short story writer, to the twilight of Võ Phiê'n’s career as an exile in the United States. Also included in the Võ Phiê'n and the Sadness of Exile are a list of works by Võ Phiê'n, a list of collections containing reprints of his works, and a list of English translations of his works. Ten illustrations add interest for the reader.
I found Võ Phiê'n and the Sadness of Exile to be informative and engaging. Though the book’s subject necessitated a scholarly not light type of writing, I enjoyed it for two reasons. First, Schafer’s organization and process are transparent. His chapters are broken into boldfaced subtopics which guide the reader through his analysis. Furthermore, he illustrates his points with lively excerpts from Võ Phiê'n’s writing. A tightly-written scene in “Again, a Letter from Home” gives a glimpse of earthy Vietnamese village life along with illicit love. A short selection from Võ Phiê'n’s delightful essay “Bubbles in Tea” provides a clear illustration of a style of Vietnamese essay writing called tuy but and gives insight into Võ Phiê'n’s subtle wit and values. Also featured in these excerpts are Võ Phiê'n’s trademark: colorful characters, people with unattractive idiosyncrasies and odd names such as “Sister Four Lime Stick” and “Brother Four No More.”
The second reason I appreciated Võ Phiê'n and the Sadness of Exile is that I have recently finished a 10-month stint as a Fulbright scholar in Vietnam and want very much to keep my ties to the country. This book is a great supplement to what I have learned about Vietnam’s modern history and culture. I highly recommend the book to students and scholars of modern Vietnamese literature, Asian-American studies, and the history of the Vietnam War. I also recommend it to readers like me who have a basic knowledge of Vietnam’s modern history but want for more, and those who have a keen interest in how writers are affected by their cultures. With an even broader audience in mind, author Schafer writes that Võ Phiê'n is a chronicler of loss and broken dreams. He suggests that, especially since the events of 9/11, Americans can draw strength from Võ Phiê'n’s characters, who know how to live with panic, destruction and vulnerability.
John C. Schafer is a fine writer. He is Professor Emeritus of English at Humboldt State University, and his articles about Vietnamese literature have appeared in several journals, including Crossroads, the Journal of Asian Studies and the Vietnam Forum. He has taught English in Vietnam with International Voluntary Services and the Fulbright program.