TIEN VE and Freedom of Thought & Expression for Contemporary Vietnamese Arts
Paper delivered by Hoang Ngoc-Tuan at the NAM BANG!’s international conference “Echoes of a War”, Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre, 17/04/2009.
[A Vietnamese translation is available at this link]
TIEN VE and FREEDOM OF THOUGHT & EXPRESSION
FOR CONTEMPORARY VIETNAMESE ARTS
Every tyrannical regime is afraid of resistance. Because of this fear, they make all efforts to suppress freedom of thought and expression. They do not accept any ideas, any voices, any ways of speaking that are different from or opposite to what they permit. They want all citizens to trust them absolutely, praise them, or at the very least, keep quiet and follow the path they have outlined. No one is allowed to have doubts. No one is allowed to have questions. With ambitions to maintain their existence permanently, tyrannical regimes not only want to remove all contemporary thoughts of resistance, but, more importantly, they also want themselves to be the exclusive author of history. For them, history is an eternal text confirming that their regime is the most excellent one, and that what they have done, are doing and will do is the rightest and the most beautiful thing. With such ambitions, they make all efforts to eliminate all the materials that may be used to write any alternative history. That is why tyrannical governments do not only censor daily news in the media, but they also attempt to censor, modify or destroy even fictional texts and artistic works, things that can last longer than any political regime.
The policies of “doi moi” (renovation) and “mo cua” (openness) in Vietnam began over 20 years ago, but until today, in the arts (including literature, music, visual and performing arts), such “renovation” and “openness” still do not really allow artists to enjoy freedom of thought and expression. Until today, not any individual in Vietnam is allowed to publish or display their works without permission from the government. In Vietnam, no private publishing house is permitted to be established. All artistic works, even a little poem or a miniature painting, must go through the censorship systems before being published or displayed. Even works that have permission to be published or displayed can still be revoked and prohibited at any time.
Some people say that artists in Vietnam today can “do whatever you like, but do not touch politics.” Speaking like that is too optimistic and not really accurate. There have been many artistic works that are not given permission to be published or displayed, although their authors never wanted to touch politics. The danger is that everything may be interpreted as having political intentions. If your novel has too many paragraphs about negative social phenomena such as corruption, bribery, prostitution, etc., then you may not be allowed to publish it, because, under the eyes of censorship officials, your novel alludes to the mistakes and failure of the government. The Party and State only want to see artists doing their best to illustrate a fake picture of a wonderful society of Vietnam, where people live in freedom, happiness and equity, where there is no oppression, no exploitation, no unfairness and no corruption!
This desire of the Party and State, of course, goes against the instinct for creativity and expression of artists. The Party and State want to completely control and direct the creative activities of artists, but artists always want more freedom. This conflict makes the Party and State constantly feel anxious, and it makes artists constantly feel frustrated. Before, when Vietnam has not yet opened their doors to the world, the Party and State could clench their pliers very easily. Now the situation is different: when Vietnam has to open up to economic exchanges and trade with the world so that the country can survive (and so that the leaders can make lots of money for themselves), the Party and State cannot clench their pliers too easily like before, so they have to ease their grips a little. However, artists still cannot take this opportunity to reclaim their freedom, because they know the Party and State still have the ability to ignore all international opinions and quickly crush to dirt any individual who dares to publicly go the opposite direction. This situation leads to a silent pact: we ease our grips a little for you, but you have to know where the limit ends, and within that limit, you may create your works and earn a living. All artists in Vietnam are aware of that limit, and most of them have to accept it, to avoid danger.
If we observe literary works that have been officially granted permission to be published in Vietnam today, we will find:
- Politically dissident ideas, if any, are allegorised to the maximum and the message becomes very blurred and may be interpreted in many different ways. If a work is questioned by the censorship office, its writer can explain it in a way that is beneficial for the Party and State.
- Negative manifestations of culture, misconducts, acts of corruption, unfair treatment, and cruelty, if any, are reflected in a scattered fashion and their criticism aimed at individual level, without any generalisation about the social community and the political machine.
- Writers are allowed to tell about life in suffering and poverty at a certain degree, but the cause of suffering and poverty is not the current government. All are caused by the “consequences of the war” before 1975, or by the “bao cap” regime in the period of 1975-1985. But, what is “bao cap”? The Party and State want people to understand it as a wrong method of economy, but Vietnamese people understand it as the tyrannical regime under the General Secretary Le Duan. In fact, it is a mysterious term, because the “bao cap” regime, although created by the Party and State, is denied by the Party and State as their own product. It belonged to nobody, and nobody was responsible for it, as if it fell down from the sky! The “bao cap” regime was totally wrong and even condemned by the Party and State, and it is like a rubbish bin into which all mistakes can be dumped, but the Party and State are not responsible for that rubbish bin, because the Party and State are completely right, forever!
- Stylistic innovations and experiments, if any, are very few and at a limited extent. Most works are easy to read, easy to understand, and although socialist realism has been quietly discarded, most writers still employ realistic style, because most of them want to avoid complication while applying for permission to publish, want to avoid causing shocks that may make the government uncomfortable, want to avoid any interpretation that may bring danger to their own political life, and want their works to be sold well on the market.
- Even books in translation have to go through the censorship systems. Comparing to the original versions, we will find in many books the removal and alteration of many words, many sentences, even many paragraphs, so that they may become compatible with the political guidelines of the government. Many internationally famous works have never had a chance to be translated and published in Vietnam after 1975, for instance, George Orwell’s Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, or the major works by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Even biographies of international famous writers are modified, for example, in August 2008, when Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn passed away, details of his biography were rewritten by the media in Vietnam. Solzhenitsyn, a victim of the Soviet Russia and a political writer struggling against the Soviet Russia, now suddenly became “a loyal secretary the Soviet Russia”!
The sentence “do whatever you like, but do not touch politics” needs to be understood in this light, and all the works that get permission to be published and displayed lie within this limit.
During the last 20 years, most of the foreign scholars researching Vietnamese literature only approached officially published works in Vietnam, and it seems they want to believe that contemporary Vietnamese literature is only that much. Maybe they do not have an opportunity to approach underground literature in Vietnam. Maybe they are naive, believing that there is no more underground literature in Vietnam. But, it may well be that they intentionally choose a diplomatic approach to create smooth relationship with Vietnam — an approach that is beneficial for their life-long career as academic researchers.
The same things happen to translators. Most of them choose only officially published works. Only a very few “Viet kieu” translators spent their energy translating a number of “underground” works and putting them on some foreign magazines or anthologies.
Now if I ask you — the non-Vietnamese audience in this conference — to tell me the names of contemporary Vietnamese writers and poets that you know, I guarantee that the majority of you will give a list including most, if not all, of the officially licensed writers and poets in the mainstream of Vietnamese literature. Even, about 10 years ago, if I put the same question to the majority of Vietnamese overseas, they also could not know more than you could now.
The truth is contemporary Vietnamese literature is not only that much, but a thousandfold richer. Many truly talented and courageous writers did not accept the limits that are allowed. They have given to themselves freedom of thought and expression so that they could continue to write, although they knew they would never be allowed to publish their works. They cannot make a living on their works, but they do any other jobs for a living. They have written and stored heaps of their writing in the drawers, and handed their works to their friends to read; and before there was the internet in Vietnam, they could only send their works to some Vietnamese magazines overseas. They hoped their works could cause some sympathetic resonances somewhere far away in the world. They hoped that their works, thanks to a certain miracle, would exist for a long time so that they would be able to contribute to the genuine treasure of arts of a free Vietnam in the future.
Before internet access was possible in Vietnam, many writers and poets had sent dozens of their works to foreign countries as if putting messages into a bottle and throwing it into the ocean. Most of these worked went away, and seemed to disappear in the immense world. If those works could appear on some magazines overseas, such magazines might not have a chance to return to the hands of the authors in Vietnam, because all Vietnamese magazines from abroad sent to Vietnam could be censored and confiscated by the Vietnamese government.
We know this fact very well during the time we made the Việt journal from 1998 to 2001. We have published eight issues, and each issue included many poems, short stories and essays that had been sent to us by writers from Vietnam. After printing each issue, we sent hundreds of copies to Vietnam, but most have disappeared, never reached the hands of the authors who have contributed their works.
Recognising the limits of a magazine in disseminating, we — a group of Vietnamese-Australian writers, artists and scholars — decided to establish the website TIEN VE in 2002. On the front page of our website, we define our missions as follows:
TIEN VE is an online centre for the arts (including literature, music, visual and performing arts) whose principal activities are presenting new creative works and organizing debates on aesthetic and artistic issues. The main aim of TIEN VE is to contribute to the formation of a Commonwealth of Vietnamese Arts, where, regardless of geographical and political differences, everyone can join and share their endeavour in exploration and experimentation so that artistic creativity is reunited with its original meaning, namely, the making of the new.
Four years later, in 2006, Linh Dinh, a famous Vietnamese-American poet, wrote about TIEN VE as follows:
With the government controlling all media outlets, Vietnamese poets have gone online to publish and to read each other. A single website, Tien Ve, is responsible for this phenomenon. [...] Tien Ve is unique because its contents are updated daily. Each morning, I wake up to find new poems, stories and translations to read, some of them even my own, submitted a day or an hour earlier. This webzine is alive and growing in front of everyone’s eyes, and the cross pollinations between these new works are amply evident. [...] Compared to the official verse culture in Vietnam, in which old men are browbeaten into penning puppy-love doggerel, where the more adventurous ones would insert a ghost or two into their stanzas to flaunt their “surrealist” credentials, Tien Ve kicks ass! Since it is practically the only literary forum in town, or, rather, the only game in the (Vietnamese) universe, many poets have chosen to use it as a repository for their entire oeuvre...
Indeed, from its birth until now, TIEN VE has increasingly become a counterforce against the political censorship systems of Vietnam. Through TIEN VE, hundreds of new and dozens of suppressed artists in Vietnam have appeared under real names or pen names, with thousands of new or long-hidden works. Through TIEN VE, artists in Vietnam have a space of total freedom for contemplating, imagining, exploring and trying every possibility of artistic innovation. Through TIEN VE, their works quickly come to readers of the Vietnamese language worldwide. Through TIEN VE, they have formed another sphere for Vietnamese arts, counterfacing the officially licensed sphere in Vietnam.
Through its activities, TIEN VE performs three important tasks:
1. Promoting freedom of thought and expression, and exhorting all efforts in stylistic and aesthetic experimentation and innovation.
2. Disseminating new and valuable works by Vietnamese artists (both inland and in exile) to the worldwide audience, especially the works that are suppressed and marginalised in Vietnam.
3. Preserving all these works, with a belief that they contain authentic materials to contribute to the writing of another history, more trustworthy, for Vietnam in the future.
On 29/01/2004, the Thanh Nien newspaper, one of the most powerful newspapers in Vietnam, expressed their fear that TIEN VE “wants to possess the Vietnamese literature on the internet in order to claim the right to ‘form a Commonwealth of Vietnamese Arts’.” They recognised that young writers were “running after” TIEN VE, and they worried because “it seemed that this ‘online centre for the arts’ was attracting the curiosity of a large number of people interested in literature and arts.” They said that TIEN VE is a source that disseminates “absurd language”, “enigmatic philosophy”, “innumerous types of filthy rubbish”, “obscenity”... They saw TIEN VE as one of the “enemy forces that promote human rights, freedom and democracy in order to divide and destroy the country of Vietnam.” They condemned TIEN VE as “smearing the Fatherland, the nation, the people and the communists...” And they concluded: “There needs to be an effective measure to immediately stop and purge this contaminated and virulent situation.”
Right after that, a number of writers and poets in Sai Gon were warned and threatened by the police.
Since then, many other newspapers in Vietnam have been following each other to attack TIEN VE, using the same language. Most recently, on 06/02/2009, the Cong An Thanh Pho Ho Chi Minh, one of the most powerful police newspapers, condemned TIEN VE as “a website specialized in using poetry and writing to attack the country.”
They label TIEN VE as “attacking the country”, but they do not have any evidence to prove that TIEN VE actually “attacks the country”. This label is used as a tool to threaten Vietnamese artists: anybody who contributes to TIEN VE might be condemned as collaborating with plots to “attack the country”. In Vietnam, “attacking the country” is the most serious crime.
Using this label, they confirm their ambition to synonymise the term “Country” with the terms “Party” and “Regime”. In Vietnam, this is done very easily: if a person goes against the guideline of the Party and the regime, he is apparently a person who “attacks the country”, and he must be seriously punished.
You may wonder: Why should the Vietnamese government feel anxious about a literary and artistic website like TIEN VE? Why can’t they just ignore it?
No, they cannot ignore it, for many understandable reasons:
1. TIEN VE causes disquiet to conforming artists in Vietnam. Every day, conforming artists in Vietnam read TIEN VE, and they recognise the vast differences between the free atmosphere of real creativity and the confined atmosphere they have to suffer. They feel they are backwards, out-of-date and coward, comparing themselves to artists who choose freedom. This inferior complex makes them feel discomfort to live and work under the guidance of the Party and State. Little by little, they try to inch and extend their space for creativity.
2. TIEN VE influences conforming artists in Vietnam not only in aesthetic aspects but also in political thinking. Reading TIEN VE, they learn to re-define freedom, justice, human rights, and responsibilities of artists towards their fellow men and women under despotism. And once they understand these new definitions, they feel ashamed to continue to live and write like slaves and liars.
3. TIEN VE is a place to nurture resistant voices. The majority of works on TIEN VE are works that contain resistant voices. They are not easy slogans that quickly fade into oblivion, but they are voices embedded in artistic works. This makes the tyrannical government anxious, because, these works, written by artists who have conscience and responsibility, are sources of materials for another history totally different from the fake history that the rulers are trying their best to embellish. As we all know, newspaper articles, pages of current news, pages of political comments and arguments may fade into oblivion, but truly valuable artistic works will survive, and in these works, the posterity will find materials to write another history.
Vietnamese people are living in an ahistorical space and time. The history understood as a description of the past events from the day of national reunification until now is a fake history. In it, there is not any image and voice of millions of people who have been imprisoned in re-education and forced labour camps. In it, there is not any image and voice of millions of people who have escaped the country and hundreds of thousands of people who have died in the seas or along their escaping journeys. In it, there is not any word describing the oppression, cruelty, injustice, corruption, and wrongdoings of the Party and State.
Vietnamese artists of conscience and responsibility have been writing and are writing unceasingly. They write to fill in the emptiness of that ahistorical space and time. And TIEN VE has been supporting them, disseminating and preserving their works. TIEN VE is one of the necessary conditions of the existence of them — artists who are marginalised by the political machine and, especially, artists as dissidents, in Vietnam and in exile today. They have to continue to exist so that they can write for another future — a future in which Vietnamese people may reclaim their own history, a painful history, but a history they have experienced with their own bones and blood.
Photo: Phan Quỳnh Trâm