Ecological Criticism and Contemporary Vietnamese Short Fiction

“I am a wild mustard seed, grown unbidden in the sand, intent on flying with the sand.” –from “Wild Mustard” by Dường Bình Nguyễn

Through his translations of contemporary Vietnamese fiction written by authors under 40, scholar and translator Charles Waugh seeks to refresh our understanding of today’s Vietnam, beyond Hollywood stereotypes represented in countless war movies. His NEA-sponsored project, New Voices from Vietnam, examines the relationship of the Vietnamese people with their environment, partially devastated by Agent Orange and in present danger from industrialization as the country takes its place in a global economy.

On February 12th, a panel of UC Davis scholars joined Professor Waugh in a round-table discussion sponsored by the Mellon Research Initiative on Environments and Societies. Participants shared a variety of questions and observations that arose from their reading of the short story “Wild Mustard,” one of several translated works included in his project, and considered it through the lens of environmental criticism. For Waugh, “eco-criticism” examines how ecological relationships are depicted in fiction, and what “associations, assumptions and expectations are placed upon those depictions by the stories’ human characters.”

“Wild Mustard” seems to be haunted by a war it doesn´t mention. The narrator seeks respite from his frantic urban life by visiting his ancient grandmother in the countryside. But as they share their memories of lost loves, romanticized illusions about rural traditions and pastoral nostalgia disappear. The narrator finds that the countryside is also in a state of decay, permeated by sadness and loss.

The story evoked a range of reactions at the discussion. Some considered the multiple meanings that the process of translation opens in a literary work; others reacted to the gender politics in the story and how they relate to current issues of human and industrial reproduction in a rapidly modernizing Vietnam. The country’s growing role as a global producer raises concerns regarding its environmental legacy and the effects of economic debt on an increasingly urban population.

As the present commercial relationship between the U.S. and Vietnam redefines their mutual 21st century politics, Waugh´s literary project helps to deepen our understanding of an industrialized Vietnam, and allows the voices and concerns of its most recent authors to be heard by a much wider audience.