A changed mind who wants to change minds: Duong Thu Huong
In today's NY Times (registration only, of course) there is a book review featuring a Vietnamese novelist who is new to me, Duong Thu Huong .
Huong, 58, is an excellent example of a changed mind, not to mention a courage and outspokenness that reminds me quite a bit of Oriana Fallaci:
In 1994, through the intervention of Danielle Mitterrand, France's first lady at that time, Ms. Huong was allowed to come to France to receive an award. She was offered political asylum. "I said, 'Thank you, but in my country fear crushes everything, brave soldiers have become cowardly civilians,' " she recalled. " 'That's why I have to return. I return to do one thing: to spit in the face of the regime.' "
Here's a summary of Ms. Huong's activities:
Her sins, it seems, are many. Her novels dissecting life under one of the last Communist regimes are published and well received in the West. She is a former Communist Party member who was expelled as a traitor. And above all, she is a dissident - a "dissident whore," one party leader said - who refused to be silenced even after spending eight months in prison in 1991...her priority is to denounce the Hanoi government as irremediably corrupt and abusive...
"It is my mission to do so on behalf of those who have died under this shameful regime," she said, speaking fluent but heavily accented French. "Because I have a small reputation abroad, I have to say these things. I have to empty what is inside me to feel my conscience is clear. The people have lost the power to react, to reflect, to think. Perhaps I will give people courage."
It's the changed-mind aspect of her story that especially interests me. Huong was born in North Vietnam and indoctrinated as a child in the party line. She became an actress during the late 60s, and went to entertain the troops:
"I joined a group of young artists performing for the troops and victims of the war. The slogan was: 'Our songs are louder than the bombing.' We would silence the screams with songs."
But even then, she recalled, she noticed that party members enjoyed special privileges. A bigger shock followed when South Vietnamese prisoners arrived in her zone. "I discovered the truth that we were also fighting Vietnamese," she said. "Yes, we were being bombed all the time by the Americans, but they were high in the sky and I never saw them. I only saw Vietnamese."
She kept her thoughts to herself, as she did after the war when she met up with relatives in Ho Chi Minh City (as Saigon was renamed) and realized that the defeated were better off than the victors.
Ms. Huong later was privy to some revisionist history on the part of the North Vietnamese, which fed her disillusionment:
One freelance job proved to be another eye-opener. Working for a group of army generals, she ghost wrote a history of the Vietnam War. "The generals would discuss among themselves how to correct my text to suit their interests," she said. "They wanted to increase the number of Vietnamese who died to show that no sacrifice was too great for the people."
After one of her novels was published in the 80s and became a source of some controversy for the Party:
"The party's general secretary, Nguyen Van Linh, offered me a house of the kind reserved for ministers if I would remain silent," she said. "I told him, 'I fight for democracy, I place myself on the side of the people and would never agree to be like a minister.' My principle is that you can lose everything, even your life, but never your honor."
That last sentence is the key to the attitude that propels people such as Huong (and Fallaci, by the way) to take the risks they do. When faced with experiences and personal observations that contradicted her early indoctrination, she chose to jettison the belief system in which she had been raised, and to fight it with all her considerable powers of expression. Her sense of personal honor required such a course of action.