Open Questions

In Vietnam, literary disputes are public disputes in a way that seems impossible in American literary culture. They show up in the newspaper. Literary questions remain open in a way that they do not in American public discourse, which largely ignores literary questions.  In Vietnam, the stakes are higher. In the US, literary questions are, by definition, of only peripheral interest, attracting the notice only of a narrow & marginalized class of alienated readers for whom literature still signifies. In Vietnam, that is, it still seems possible to have an avant garde that can still piss people off. One of the things I find appealing about Vietnam is that it is just a much more literary culture than my own. Or am I being hopelessly romantic? Later: When I was younger I used to imagine that literary questions could matter in American culture, but I don't think they have, perhaps since the sixties. Conservative social critics like to present the sixties as a kind of cultural nadir from which the country needs to recover; but I think the sixties were actually a high water mark for expression & freedom -- those values of openness & democracy have been steadily rolled back since then. What I like about going to Vietnam is that it has a little of that feel I remember from so long ago -- possibilites remain open, questions unanswered, literary culture unsettled.

Author: jd

Joseph Duemer is Professor of Literature Emeritus at Clarkson University in northern New York state. His most recent book of poems is Magical Thinking from Ohio State University Press. Since the mid-1990s he has spent a good deal of time in Vietnam, mostly Hanoi. He lives with his wife Carole & five terriers (four Jack Russells & one Patterdale) on the stony bank of the Raquette River in South Colton.