Michael Arnold on Vietnam, corruption, poetry, marriage, and indigenous culture
SH: Michael, what are you doing in Vietnam, and how hard was the long-distance editing job?
MA: More difficult than I imagined! I came to Saigon to get married, and thought that it would be easy to organise everything from here - little did I know that Vietnamese weddings are such detailed affairs that working on a poetry magazine was made next to impossible. I did manage to prod the writers for their feedback one by one - I like to make sure everyone's satisfied with their contributions and the way they look before the magazine goes out, because brief is really about writers putting their more experimental work out for peer review, and everyone wants to look their best...
SH: Are you investigating the Vietnamese literary scene? Do you find any parallels between culture in your current home and the situation of the arts in New Zealand?
MA: I have been told on more than one occasion that Vietnamese people don't write, because they don't read. While it may seem condescending, there is a social context to the observation. Literary and artistic culture have taken a back seat during times of war and desperate economic development. Saigon is very much a commercial town, and as far as I know there are virtually no libraries. Bookstores carry few literary titles in Vietnamese, and perhaps it's interesting that there are relatively few children's titles for emergent readers in Vietnamese either. Hanoi, the political and cultural capital, may be a little better off. I have read of some work being done with Vietnam's heroic poetess Ho Xuan Huong, who is considered to have been years ahead of her time in that she wrote explicitly and frankly about sexual themes - perhaps not unlike our Jack Ross. She represents modern Vietnamese writing, although she lived over 200 years ago now - as since her, Vietnamese literature seems to have been rather quiet.
Recent Vietnamese visual art likewise seems fairly derivative to me, and it's been near impossible to find any local classical music here - instrumental CDs are invariably pop hits played on a monochord zither with synth backing. I tried to organise a classical ensemble to play at our wedding, but when my fiancée visited the Conservatory of Music, the lecturer was taken by surprise at this abnormal request and asked if her husband was a foreigner. We ended up with a sleazy covers band singing Chinese pop hits and the Carpenters.
American professor John Balaban, who translates Ho Xuan Huong's poetry, passed on the number of a local who works with modern Vietnamese verse - but my earnest emails went unanswered. No luck in breaking in yet.
People have insinuated that the government is to blame for squashing the creative arts here. Having experienced Communist China, I can safely say that the administration here is far worse than the somewhat feeble 'iron fist' of the more bumbling Communist Party of China, which tries to cover up its awkwardness with a veneer of strength. The government here doesn't even make the effort to mask its corruption - there are signs in government facilities telling people where bribes can be paid! It's often said that while the Chinese government has made awful mistakes, the Vietnamese have flatly betrayed the ideals of the revolution and are quite happily enjoying their power. That's what locals tell me. Whatever the case actually is, there's little obvious support for the Arts.
SH: You lived in China for many years, learned Mandarin, and became something of a Sinologist. Now you find yourself in country with a history of troubled with relations with China - a country which fought a war with its gigantic northern neighbour only three decades ago. What sort of reactions do Vietnamese people have, when they learn about your long association with China? Is Sinophobia confined to Vietnam's ruling elite, or is it more widespread?
MA: The slang term for foreigner here, day, is surprisingly neutral, whereas its equivalents in almost every other country in the region (amor, falang, barang, guailo) are derogatory. The slang term for Chinese, dao, is considered quite insulting, and ethnic Chinese here insist on being referred to as hoa, the more mellifluous term derived from the Chinese language. That being said, the Vietnamese have a history of forgiving and embracing the various countries that have invaded them (including New Zealand, if you count our support of the American war) after they've beaten them.
Vietnamese culture is profoundly influenced by China, and most Vietnamese consider Chinese scholarship as something laudable, and are genuinely encouraging about my experience in studying Mandarin, telling me that I should be finding Vietnamese easier to master with its many naturalised Chinese terms - which is sadly not my experience.
SH: Vietnam is a country with scores of ethnic minorities. Have you had experiences with these groups? I hear that some of them, like the Cham group, are Austronesians, and thus have a connection, albeit distant, with the Polynesian peoples of the South Pacific.
MA: I visited a Cham region just yesterday, and a couple of weeks ago I was in the Central Highlands and saw some performers from the Degar Hill Tribes - it seems to be the case that if the minority groups haven't made a show out of themselves, then they're already well assimilated by the dominant Kinh people. The Cham certainly fall into that category, with little to show for their former nation aside from a few pretty festivals and some very nice old Cambodian-style pagodas. Visitors here familiar with South Pacific peoples often remark on little similarities - things like weaving designs and costumes - and occasionally you pass someone who happens to look very Polynesian. Not very scientific observations of course. I'm very interested in the Hmong people. They claim a sovereign territory in the region that sadly isn't recognised by any other nation, and their capital is in Vietnam. The history of the Secret War in Laos is particularly fascinating, as is the story of the revolution and assassination of Hmong leader Pa Chay Vue in the 'War of the Insane' against French colonial rule. So while it's noted that the Vietnamese have always managed eventual victories over foreign oppression in the end, things haven't been so good for the Hmong Vietnamese people.
SH: The new issue of brief is the first to receive funding from Creative New Zealand. The journal's founder, Alan Loney, used to scorn official funding, claiming that the people who administered it were biased against the sort of avant-garde literature he wanted to promote. Why have you taken a different approach to Loney's? What difference has funding made to brief?
MA: We're all less scornful about CNZ funding now we've actually managed to get it. We tried to make a solid case that the writing that usually finds it way into brief has by now proved its salt as a viable strand of New Zealand literature that's not going away, and we seem to have been successful in convincing the funding body that this is indeed the case. brief has a certain history now, so it's hard to argue that we're not taking this writing seriously.
I think that the writers served by brief are very fond of the magazine, but that at the same time turning that affection into practical, financial support has been difficult. brief has had its moments where the magazine might have fallen flat for lack of time and money. My concern as editor has been to find some kind of solution to make sure brief survives indefinitely, simply because I'm a fan of many of its contributors and I'd like to see them continue to publish this kind of work in this kind of platform. Fortunately CNZ has given us the chance to breathe easier and try to give the writers a better readership and a little more notoriety.
SH: The cover of the new issue of brief is splendid. Can you tell us a little about it?
MA: It is by Ellen Portch, who contributed a similarly striking cover for number 34 with her portrait of George Bush jnr. I wanted to include some longer, more difficult pieces in this issue, and Ellen's cover sets that mood just nicely; bold, organic, and almost as creepy as the texts it introduces. SH: Do you have a favourite piece of writing in the new issue?
MA: Several. I opened the issue with Ken Ross's 'Thrash', again to set the kind of mood I was looking for. Richard Taylor gets good leg in, as I've always liked his bluster and chaos, and he sent me some interesting contributions. Brett Cross put in a substantial piece of writing that I hope will surprise everyone who might see him as more of a publisher than a fine and disciplined poet in his own right. At the end of the day, brief is a chance for writers to put out their feelers with their new work and see what people think. Even John Parkyn's story 'Night of the Elephants', a far more straightforward piece of prose than brief usually publishes, represents the exploratory work of a writer attempting to find a voice as an exile living in Mexico, and I hope that his inclusion in brief will provide him with a clearer sense of the context of his work, just as the more difficult contributors may gain some perspective on their own writing.
SH: Can you give us some hints about what might be in issue #40?
MA: I'm afraid it's out of my hands - issue 40 is being handled by guest editor Ted Jenner, so it may be filled with Classical diatribes, African landscapes, and rude ditties...
Subscriptions to brief cost $45 for individuals and $70 for institutions. Subscriptions from Australia are charged $60 and other international subscriptions cost $75. Visit this official site for more information, including details on how to access the latest issue of brief online, and this fan site for a record of every back issue of the journal. Michael Arnold can be reached directly at email@example.com