Language in Exile

Nguyen Duy, an establishment poet in Vietnam, made this observation: “Vietnamese overseas cannot contribute to Vietnamese literature because the language they’re using is becoming less pure, less like the language being spoken and written inside Vietnam.” What struck this reader was the definitive “cannot,” spoken like a true totalitarian. Further, Nguyen Duy is apparently unaware of the huge roster of exile writers who have made major contributions to the literatures of their homelands. How could he be oblivious of Vallejo, Joyce, Beckett, Celan, Stein, Pound, Gombrowicz, Bei Dao, Gao Xingjian and Cortazar, etc.? Yet that's normal for a member of the clueless Vietnamese Writers Union. An exile poet and critic, Trinh Thanh Thuy, made a spirited rebuttal to Nguyen Duy. Among her points: “Influenced by the peculiarities of foreign languages and cultures, Vietnamese texts written overseas do not lose their strengths but gain new dimensions through awakened, previously latent capabilities.” Her contention is easily confirmed by the existence of Berlin-based Pham Thi Hoai and Paris-based Tran Vu, two of the best prose stylists in Vietnamese. Hoai’s intricate sentences show clear influences of German syntax, and Tran Vu’s best stories are excessive and very, very sick, as only French writing of a certain ilk can be. This doesn’t mean that we should all head into exile to awaken our latent capabilities. Most people don’t choose to go anywhere. Exile, as a consequence of war, persecution and other injustices, usually pick you.

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