AS TIME PASSES and the personal literature on the Indochina War grows, the holes in the story become harder and harder to ignore. Large-scale participation by the United States in the Indochina War ended almost 15 years ago, but to date very little has been published and made generally available in this country which records the feelings of Southeast Asian individuals and families who were drawn into the conflict. Eventually a literature of the war written by Cambodian-, Laotian- and Vietnamese-Americans will appear, but so far this entire aspect of the war has been inaccessible. The stylized Asian perspective presented in Wendy Wilder Larsen and Tran Thi Nga's new book is therefore especially welcome. Written by Larsen in free verse, Shallow Graves is a comparatively understated and reflective book, but one that generates a special force in the context of what has been told in more conventional memoirs. Although all of the writing was done by Larsen, her own story takes up only about a third of the text. The remaining portion chronicles in first-person poetic narrative the life of her Vietnamese friend, Tran Thi Nga, from childhood through the first five years of her postwar life in the United States.
Each of these women has experienced a wounding period of exile-like alienation in the other's country, and Larsen uses this fact as a pivot point for the many symmetries and correspondences that she incorporates into her intricately constructed book. In its opening pages, Larsen accompanies her husband to Vietnam during 1970-1, where, she writes, "We peppered our speech/ with militarese/ with roger this/ and roger that/ with dust off/ blown away and neutralize/ to give us courage -- / warriors painting our faces/ before battle./ We learned to rate hamlets/ praise Ruff-Puffs/ recognize Kit Carson scouts/ laugh at White Mice./ We learned it all/ and we couldn't speak to anyone/ when we got home." While in Vietnam, Larsen meets Nga, a bookkeeper in her husband's office, who rescues her from the inevitable intercultural dilemmas. When, for example, Larsen scours Saigon for a wheel of brie, only to find it untouched by her Vietnamese guests, Nga explains, "Some Vietnamese hate dairy products./ We like fruit and vegetables./ We think you Americans/ smell of rich butter and milk."
Larsen's experiences are often tinged with the guilty sense of irony that permeates so many memoirs of the Vietnam War. While teaching Shakespeare to Vietnamese students, for example, she is uneasy: "I taught the Elizabethan concept of order in Macbeth,/ The Great Chain of Being,/ every speck of creation a link in nature's chain. When disorder erupts, the links break/ moving along the chain in a ripple movement./ When Macbeth murders Duncan/ night strangles day/ mousing owls kill falcons/ Duncan's horses break from their stalls/ and eat each other./ I taught this theory to Vietnamese teachers/ while we defoliated their land/ napalmed their children/ burned their villages to save them."
The inadequacy, even self-contempt that Larsen feels are evoked in the reader through a carefully orchestrated collision of literary viewpoints: Larsen's ongoing memoir is interrupted at crucial points by excerpts from reference works, attempts at translations of Vietnamese folk verse forms, quotations from Blake and Shakespeare, graffiti written by American GIs, papers written by Larsen's Vietnamese students and letters from her relatives back home. But her perceptions project their full significance only when reread in light of the book's second part, the story of Tran Thi Nga.
While reading the first part of Shallow Graves, we must take Larsen's word for it that Nga is a warm and compassionate friend; she is unfailingly resourceful and helpful, but also seems aloof and faintly disdainful. As Nga's own part of the book develops, however, she materializes fully as a person of a type very different from those who populate most of the American literature of the war. Although her life has been full of dislocation and loss, Nga views things realistically and unsentimentally. Yet there is no stiff nobility in her; Larsen somehow conveys a passionate and imaginative nature kept totally under the control demanded of cultured Southeast Asians. This restraint and directness also permit the reader to avoid sentimentalizing and coarsening Nga's feelings and to experience them in a way that is at least partially unWestern.
HER STORY is a painful one. In a culture where marriages are arranged, Nga is forced to leave Vietnam and the man she secretly loves to marry a general in the invading Chinese army who has requested her hand. She tells of her trip to China, her eventual acceptance of the general's love, the birth of her first child, and the terrible news she hears from home: "I received a letter from my mother saying/my second brother had burned down our beloved house./ The Viet Minh, in their fight against the French,/ ordered my family to destroy our dwelling./ My brother poured gasoline over the walls of the house/ then set a torch to it./ As the flames leaped up/ he realized he could not save the piano,/ he began to beat it with a hammer -- /all the time laughing and crying."
Nga returns to Hanoi when the military situation in China becomes dangerous, and finds her sister married to Bao, the man she herself had wished to marry. Soon she receives notification that the general has been killed, and finally agrees to become Bao's second wife. She travels to Scotland to study, returns to Vietnam and eventually begins working with the Americans. It is only here, in the final sections of her account, thatLarsen, "my boss's wife," appears, and from the new perspective, the aloofness and disdain of the book's first part appear not only comprehensible, but inevitable.
One feeling that is strongly sustained throughout Nga's poems is the integrity of Vietnamese family life, and it is her account of the eventual destruction of her family by the war that makes Shallow Graves so wrenching to read. While describing her father's funeral, she recounts a cultural belief that gives the book its name: "We believe the dead must be buried deep and tight so the soul will be secure and go to heaven and bless the family. If not, the soul will become a monster and haunt the family." All families are now haunted by their unburied war dead, and many, forced like Nga to flee Vietnam, experience this despair in a landscape of profound cultural dislocation. In the book's final poem Larsen and Nga, reunited in the United States, visit the American Museum of Natural History in New York to inspect the Hall of Asian Peoples. The exhibit for Vietnam is small, "buried between India and China." It includes a farmer with his water buffalo and a statue of the Money God, with a caption that says, "small change is dropped in his back for good luck." As they leave the hall, Nga smiles at Larson and says, "I think your country wants to forget about mine."