Vietnamese writer's odyssey continues at home, abroad

May 21, 1995
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@

You may have heard the soft, distinctive voice of commentator Nguyen Qui Duc on National Public Radio. He speaks English precisely, with a slight British accent.

He is the author of ``Where the Ashes Are: The Odyssey of a Vietnamese Family'' (Addison-Wesley, 1994, $22.95), and before publication of the book he read portions of it on NPR.

He also gave a reading in Davis when he came to the university to take part in the now famous ``Vietnam Legacies'' conference at the end of April.

Nguyen Qui Duc or Duc (pronounced ``Duke''), 37, lives in San Francisco. He is a journalist, translator and writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times and the San Francisco Examiner.

In 1989, Nguyen received the Award of Excellence by the Overseas Press Club of America for his Vietnam series on NPR.

``Where the Ashes Are'' provides American readers with a rare point of view that is long overdue. We have largely dismissed the Vietnam War, which the Vietnamese call The American War, but refugees are still struggling with events that turned their homeland upside down and forced them to flee.

Duc, for example, has never really adapted to life in the United States after 20 years and five return trips to Vietnam. He idealizes his homeland and talks about living there six months a year.

His interest in Vietnam confuses everyone. The Vietnamese-American community here is suspicious of his motives. The Communist government there refuses to allow him to travel as a journalist he must return home as a tourist, armed with American dollars.

``I am trying to break down barriers here and there,'' he said in a phone call from his home in San Francisco. ``I want to help.''

As he said at the conference, ``Literature can have a role in reconciliation and healing.''

``Where the Ashes Are'' tells the story of Duc, his father, and his mother. In 1968, when Duc was 9, his father was a high-ranking civil servant in the South Vietnamese government. His mother was a school principal. Their comfortable life was destroyed when the Viet Cong launched the Tet offensive and attacked the city of Hue.

His father was captured, taken prisoner, and marched up the Ho Chi Minh trail where he witnessed secret Vietcong hideouts, B-52 bombing raids and the death of an American POW named Godwin by a debilitating illness. He was the highest ranking Vietnamese civilian captured by the Vietcong. Duc didn't see his father for 16 years.

Duc's mother fled first to Da Nang, then to Saigon with her children, including her mentally ill daughter, Dieu-Quynh, and ended up selling noodles on the streets.

Duc fled Saigon in 1975 with his uncle's family, making for his brother's home in the United States, in Ohio.

It's hard to read about his first days in America.

``I hated feeling guilty about leaving my parents and sister behind in Vietnam,'' he wrote. ``I hated not being able to find a job and not having any friends to talk to or things I could relate to. I hated being dependent on my brother for food, money, rides, everything. I did not like the tidiness and hyper-efficient ways that made life in America so artificial; I hated Ohio. The smell of fresh-cut grass even now brings back to me the memory of the heat of a Midwestern summer, and the sadness of life in exile.''

Eventually Duc moved to San Diego where he attended San Diego State University and studied broadcasting, moved to San Jose to take a job as a social worker in 1979, and later worked in an Indonesian refugee camp.

Finally, in 1984, Duc's parents were allowed to leave Vietnam. His father was imprisoned for 12 years. It took four more years for them to get permission to leave Vietnam.

``At 25, after living on my own for eight years, I was about to have my parents again,'' Duc wrote.

But politics intruded in the happy family reunion.

``I came to accept that for my parents, Vietnam had been destroyed by cruel men blinded by Communist propaganda. For me, however, Vietnam still was my homeland,'' he wrote.

In 1989 Duc alarmed his parents by returning to Vietnam. They feared he would be arrested. But Duc was eager to return to his homeland and fulfill a duty to the sister he had left behind. Dieu-Quynh had died in Vietnam and Duc needed to return her ashes to the rest of the re-assembled family in San Francisco. This he did.

He also rediscovered his country and has spent much of his life since then networking with Vietnamese artists and writers.

And his parents, now in their early 70s, are living quietly in San Francisco. His father is completing his third book a book of essays on life in America and his mother is a homemaker again.

Duc is working on a play, ``Tony D.,'' based on a short story by Vietnamese writer Le Minh Khue of Hanoi about Vietnamese society today.

``It's about people abandoning their traditions and running after dollars,'' Duc said, sadly.

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