The main business of the conference concluded today and most of the delegates went off to Ha Long Bay, but since my flight out is early Monday morning, I didn’t accompany them. I hate group travel and probably would not have gone along in any case. There was a huge buffet dinner last night hosted by the Mayor of Hanoi and this dinner too included entertainment that, as with the previous night, was mostly over-the-top socialist kitsch. It’s too bad that the older generation of culture workers in Vietnam have so little respect for their indigenous traditions that they turn them into faux Broadway numbers with guys and gals in “traditional” costume and hootchie coo dance extravaganzas. I sensed that the younger writers in attendance were embarrassed by the show biz stuff, but the old guys ate it up. This conference has brought home to me some things I’d noticed before about the production of official culture in Vietnam: there is a great deal of ritualized behavior, both in formal ceremonies and in less formal situations such as dinners; there is a lot of talk about communication and cooperation, but not much in the way of actual communication and cooperation. That stuff, if it gets done at all, gets done around the edges.
What the conference did bring about, though, is the creation of a nascent world-wide network of people interested in Vietnamese literature. I got together with a group of poets last night from around the world and we read poems to each other and exchanged email addresses and began hatching plans for cooperation. Significantly, we had to meet in a closet because no rooms had been set aside — in a facility filled with meeting rooms — for discussions after the close of the official parts of the program. And today, after the closing ceremony, which amounted to another empty two hours, I finally cut out and went to visit my friends at the publishing house where I worked when I had a Fulbright ten years ago. There, the Director, who I had always thought of as a kind of conservative guy, noted that the Writers Association did not seem very enthusiastic about bringing in outside translators and creating networks, despite the fact that that would seem to be a natural institutional role for them to play. Instead, they brought in 150 writers from abroad and used them as props of some kind of internal cultural kabuki.
At the publishing house, we agreed to pursue a couple of projects, including a re-edit of a famous anthology of Vietnamese literature and a collection of stories by the early Vietnamese modernist Nam Cao. And at the conference I had been able to reconnect with a Vietnamese friend — a fine poet and meticulous editor — with whom I have worked before and we agreed on a collaborative project to pursue together. As I was leaving the publishing house, the Director noted again that the Writers’ Association was “pretty conservative” and “not dynamic.” We agreed to forge ahead on our own. So the conference has been a success for me and for a lot of other writers who got to know each other; but in official terms that success was incidental.
Note: I’ve intentionally been a little cagey about names in this post because I don’t want to embarrass anyone.