5. Vietnamese Feminist Poetry as a Reflection of Some Western Feminist Ideologies
Virginia Woolf and A Room of One’s Own463
A Room of One’s Own was the first book about feminism which was translated and published in Vietnam, in 2009. Before that, there had been only one collection of Vietnamese women’s poetry: Vietnamese Feminist Poems from Antiquity to the Present, translated and introduced in 2008. This helps to show Vietnamese poets’ lack of understanding about feminism and how to write and read feminist poetry. In this research, I wanted to read A Room of One’s Own from the perspective of a Vietnamese reader, and to see how this book might contribute to Vietnamese women poets’ thinking about feminism through the simple requirement that Woolf wrote about in 1928: having one’s own room for writing. This was also reminiscent of the later writing of Elaine Showalter about ‘female space’, which ‘must be the address of a genuinely women-centered criticism, theory, and art, whose shared project is to bring into being the symbolic weight of female consciousness, to make the invisible visible, to make the silent speak’.464
‘It is necessary to have five hundred a year and a room with a lock on the door if you are to write fiction or poetry’.465 Money had a magic power for making women confident and taking control of her own life. Along with the matter of power, Woolf also refuted previous notions of value; she rejected what had been revered and required equal careers for women as people. Women had the right to swap their position and experience the roles of men.
From that new viewpoint, Virginia Woolf researched history in general and literary history in particular about women and found that women were completely missed out. History did not record or acknowledge them as normal human beings. This suggested the writer's concerns about the life of women in the eighteenth century. She also revised the literary journey of women, connecting the works of female writers in different periods to look for a circuitous line of feminist literature. She started with Lady Winchilsea, whose poetry was suppressed in fear of her gender. Women who had talent for writing in the era of Lady Winchilsea were sent into a state of self-isolation and self-destruction like weeds. They had to choose their own, lone status as a reaction to reality. This was followed by the cases of Dorothy Osborne, Aphra Behn, the Bronte sisters, Jane Austen and George Eliot. The differences that Woolf recognised among these excellent female writers were behaviours in relation to the institutions of life. These governed in the success of the work. The work of Jane Austen was regarded with no bitterness; no hatred was more successful than the capacity of the writer. In contrast, the grip of feminist consciousness and desire for equality meant that Charlotte Bronte, despite her outstanding talent, did not express all the hidden beauty in her literature.
From thinking about the relationship between women and men and female writings in the context of the literary past, Virginia Woolf raised the question of what would happen if women were no longer seen through the eyes of men and if women were viewed by women; then, whether the woman would be herself if ‘she wrote as a woman, but as a woman who has forgotten that she is a woman, so that her pages were full of that curious sexual quality which comes only when sex is unconscious of itself’.466
However, when Woolf admitted that women do not like women, it helped to explain the confusion of women poets in general, and Vietnamese women poets in particular, when they could not escape from the point of view of men. Accordingly, female writers did not look at men as opponents. Gender equality in literature, according to Virginia Woolf, needed cognitive changes rather than aesthetic ones. Sexual guilt should be left in the unconscious. To achieve this, Woolf pointed out that there should be two genders in one body. The male part in women’s minds must be reconciled with the female one. It was a matter which Coleridge called ‘bisexual minds’467. Only when writers balanced the two genders their minds, could they have harmony in creation. Their mistake was that they thought about their gender while they were writing. Therefore, feminism not only required equal rights for women but also called for writing as a woman. In my view, Woolf did not call for a fight for equal rights, not feature her gender; she regarded material values and sought a sense of harmony in humanity. The female writer needed to be herself before demanding equal rights.
The ideas of woman’s writing were evoked by flashing lights through Woolf’s mind normally when she was walking. One such point was language innovation, or word renewal: ‘Lamb wrote how it shocked him to think it possible that any word in LYCIDAS could have been different from what it is. To think of Milton changing the words in that poem seemed to him a sort of sacrilege’.468 Thinking more about language, with the sensitive perception of a woman, she also discovered that:
But what was lacking, what was different, I asked myself, listening to the talk? And to answer that question I had to think myself out of the room, back into the past, before the war indeed, and to set before my eyes the model of another luncheon party held in rooms not very far distant from these; but different.469
To my understanding, that was probably a suggestion of the language behind words, the non-verbal language. It expressed challenges and reactions to the environment in which it was produced.
From reflecting on stories about life and human behaviours related to writing, Woolf discussed a larger problem in literature, which was fiction and women’s fiction. I consider this to have been a brand new way for Vietnamese writers to look at feminist art as a profession. Woolf suggested: ‘If one shuts one's eyes and thinks of the novel as a whole, it would seem to be a creation owning a certain looking-glass likeness to life, though of course with simplifications and distortions innumerable’.470 However, for women, doing these things was even more difficult than for men. The value of their books depended on what was considered honourable and noble by society. To Woolf, however, in literature, women and men were equal. In my view, this point was very important to Vietnamese writers in establishing equal writing conditions, and appropriate evaluation by critics, before a woman dared to write something. Moreover, from the story of Mary Carmichael, there had been a change in women’s thinking. They no longer wrote fiction to get rid of pain and the shackles of patriarchy. They wrote to create works of art. That was the inheritance and development of the female literary tradition.
5.2 Vietnamese women’s poetry in response to Western feminism
In Vietnam, there was no feminist poetry revolution. Even the following verse could be seen as unacceptable from a woman poet: ‘since the 1930s there are brave 'feminist' poems. A woman in Sai Gon writes, "How much I miss your kisses in Ha Noi”’.471 Vietnamese poets had gone through a thousand years of writing by monks and kings,472 and a century of war during which they could not express anything except the power of the nation: ‘The traditional culture that Vietnamese have sought to protect since ancient time is one rich in literature and the arts and one in which poets represented the nation's most esteemed profession’.473 In the Vietnamese association of literature, female and male writers were not distinguished; in other words, they were combined into one male-dominated group:
The Vietnamese speak their poems. More often this performance is by male poets; the women tend to be more modest and discreet. Not to say they are not generally present in the room. They are. One hears this in their laughter’.474
Thus, the voice of feminist poets dissolved into the voice of Vietnamese poets in general. They had common titles for poetry, and each of them had their own choice of what to write about such titles; however, the choices were limited because even their language was controlled by society and by the limited allowance of education: ‘Confucian ethics banned women from preparing for and talking part in the exams, thereby preventing their educational advancement’.475 If Loy wrote about the woman wearing the halo of duty476 while she did not recognise it, the halo of feminist poets in Vietnam was the duty that was supposed to be written about. In my view, understanding of Surrealist objects and subjects was one of the ways for Vietnamese feminist poets to escape from tradition themselves, and this created a longing for feminist writings. As a Vietnamese poetic researcher, I understand that the shortest route for Vietnamese feminist poets to follow was not through feminist manifestos but from actual poetry experiments. They needed to know what to change to write a feminist poem, and the innovations of Surrealist artists in terms of objects and subjects suited this demand.
Surrealist artists turned the ideology of the ‘object’ from art into life, from fancy to normality.477 As discussed earlier in this chapter, Loy wrote about simple domestic things, whereas Magritte drew objects that he could capture around him, regardless of their beauty or usage. Both artists seemed to have an ideology and needed something to make it real. Thus, they chose objects. Objects, in their art works, were considered as the multiplied man in a common image.478 They were artistic materials, not meaningful protagonists. Sometimes, with the increasing object-ignorance in Surrealist paintings and poems, poems and paintings themselves could be seen as objects. Thus, the Surrealist artists’ treatment of objects was the equal creation of everything that appeared in front of their eyes.
In my view, Vietnamese feminist poets needed to remove their ideology of considering objects by trying to define them. Despite being widely influenced by French culture and American poetry experiments,479 Vietnamese women in 2017 still hesitate to discuss individual concerns: ‘You can’t talk about a female sexuality, uniform, homogeneous, classifiable into codes’.480 Thus, they used objects as titles to write about, not material to write with. The position of the objects was the position of something I suppose they ‘knew well’, not something that they ‘desired to know’. As such, the evolution of feminist poets in Vietnam was a process of telling readers about their personal understanding, but not an interaction of listening to readers’ thoughts or even other thoughts in the poets’ minds. Vietnamese readers or poetry learners, therefore, were initially placed on a journey of exploring what the poets wanted to express; in other words, they looked for the ‘meaning’ of the poems. If they could not find the meaning, the best way was to ask the poet herself. Thus, Vietnamese poets were considered as poetry critics who were supposed to clearly understand what they had written.
Understanding Surrealist objects helped me to recognise what was wrong in the way feminist writers in Vietnam were now writing. It was the effort to write about objects in their own experiments. They could be feelings in domestic life, their broken love or anything that related to their normal daily activities. Those experiments, if I could call them like that, were supposed to be a release of Vietnamese feminist poets from tradition. They could dare to write about their own objects. It was like what Cixous wrote: ‘Her speech, even when ‘theoretical’ or political, is never simple or linear or “objectified”, generalized: she draws her story into history’.481
However, there was no poetic innovation at all. Vietnamese feminist poets were writing about their halo, without changing anything, without changing language, without understanding new poetic theories. What they had thought about changing were different emotions and narratives, but the object was unchanged. In the 1500s, Hồ Xuân Hương,482 the first Vietnamese woman poet, wrote about the jackfruit as an expression of sorrow about the dependent situation of woman in feudal society. In 2017, women in Vietnam still write about similar objects with their personal stories; however, the sorrow of dependence remains the same.
Vietnamese critics of 2017 have praised modern women poets for their courage in expressing themselves, not for their intention of changing poetry. In my view, if Vietnamese women poets continue writing a narrative stream in their poems about transferring a personal lesson or recognising a truth, the poetry itself cannot change. The praise of modern critics, in other words, has lulled the women poets into another tradition that they are not aware of.
Thus, my suggestion to Vietnamese women poets is to write without the existence of objects, to forget their shapes, forget their stories and forget their original meanings. Objects should not be written about as a new kind of metaphor or as the image of woman herself. Objects should not know about love or depression. Vi Thùy Linh, a modern Vietnamese woman poet wrote about a pupil finding out about the realm of the galaxy as a way to avoid normal objects that could evoke particular things. She also talked about love, but not as a love story, not as her story; it was about the love – if we can call it that – between something that she was supposed to be and those objects that were kept far from her thinking associations. This helped Linh to get closer to Loy, who tended to defamiliarise objects. This also started a dispute among Vietnamese poets.
Vietnamese women poets, on their journey, found their identity in a kind of subject that I have called: be-ing-a-subject.
Be-ing-a-subject was not a form of play. It was a serious exploration of Vietnamese women poets in two aspects:
Becoming a subject
Becoming a subject in the present time
In my view, this meant they were no longer the sub-character in a painting or a mentioned image in a poem. They were subjects that were equal to man and others. They were also no longer mentioned as living in a medieval period with the traditional duty of ‘woman’. They now lived in their own time and had their own instincts. Subject as a ‘self’ was a main ideology in Western feminist theory. It was a means of getting rid of woman’s ‘’’invincible slavery”, which has left her ‘conscious development… completely arrested’.483
Elaine Showalter wrote about the image of ourselves: ‘A radical critique of literature, feminist in its impulse, would take the work first of all as a clue to how we live, how we have been living, how we have been led to imagine ourselves, how our language has trapped as well as liberated us’.484 Furthermore, Julia Kristeva raised ‘a question of subjectivity’ in an interview with Susan Sellers: ‘sometimes I take myself to be me, sometimes I confuse myself with my mother. This narcissistic instability, this doubt persists and makes me ask “who am I?”, is it me or is it the other?’485 Not only wanting to write as a woman, but reading as a woman was also mentioned: 'To read as a woman is to avoid reading as a man to identify the specific defenses and distortions of male readings and provide correctives’.486 These discussions raised something which had never been written about before in Vietnamese poems by men: the ego of a woman.
Từ Huy wrote in her poem: ‘From A to Z there is no place for ME’487. Dương Tường, a male poet, wrote in his poem: ‘That was not my fault/ a----z/ I did not chose/ my birth time’.488 They both wrote about ‘me’ and ‘my’ in the process from A—Z. However, to Dương Tường, it was the answer (my fault), whereas to Từ Huy, it was a question. The process of finding ‘myself’, therefore, to a Vietnamese poet, was still at the beginning. At least by the 2000s, they could recognise that, instead of saying a poem was by a ‘Vietnamese woman’ in general, a woman could write by making her own imprint, which avoided the relation to any existing link with social or ideological tradition.
Sometimes, in Từ Huy’s writing, she met Loy’s ideas. Từ Huy profoundly said about her poetic work: ‘I put some words on the pan, words were ripe and tasted good smell’.489 This reminded me about two poems. One was a poem by Loy490 and one was the poem of the crazy woman inside Loy’s poem. All three of them, Loy, Từ Huy and the woman in Loy’s poem, treated words in a very feminist way: they cooked them. Clearly, I understood that they did not actually ‘cook’ something. They just borrowed the word ‘cook’, a feminist, romantic, normal action, to talk about something different: making poetry in their own way. Therefore, as Loy showed when she wrote about domestic objects, she was not concerned about what was inside the house. I think this attitude was similar to Từ Huy’s when she wrote about ‘cook’ as the contrary of a domestic action. She, in other words, was against the traditional idea of woman.
This spirit of paradox also appeared in other poems by Từ Huy. For example, she wrote a ‘B’-shaped poem with the words: ‘The sea was full of water and the sea travellers still died of being thirsty’.491
The continuing verse said: ‘thirsty and thirsty of hope’. In my view, the question of ‘ME’ continued to chase Từ Huy throughout her poetry collection. She could not find herself in the normal discipline of this life. Moreover, the ‘cooking’ process of words helped her to examine words according to her individual understanding, in which the meanings were not anything directly mentioned by the words. For example, sea-water-thirsty had a very loose relationship.
I consider Từ Huy as a very promising idea of a Vietnamese feminist poet. In her poems, she did not write about women. She wrote about human instinct, and her own journey with poetic words. She did what most Vietnamese women poets were struggling with: writing as a woman. Từ Huy, in my view, was writing as a human.
Trần Dần wrote in ‘The Urban Gate’: ‘Tôi kiểm thảo bản thân cùng một thời đại buồn rầu’ (I criticise myself with a sad era).492 Dương Tường wrote: ‘Để viết trên mộ chí sau này: Tôi đứng về phe nước mắt’ (To write on the headstone later: I stand on the tear-side).493 It might be strange that both Dương Tường and Trần Dần were male poets; they could not do anything in the women’s writing realm. However, in Vietnam, they were witnesses for the changing ideology among Vietnamese poets. After initial criticism, modern Vietnamese poets after ‘Đổi mớii’ in 1986 seemed to blur the border between genders in writing. What they recognised after experiencing the ‘sad era’, was that was ‘tear-side’, whilst on the other side, both women and men writers were considered to be the victims of the previous era.
Vi Thùy Linh, in ‘Movie in Couple – Love in Andate’494 showed a new way of approaching poetry for Vietnamese readers. She demonstrated her poems in negative films. Before this collection, Linh performed two previous poetry shows on stage with music, painting and body performance art. She preferred to create a ‘show of poetry’, rather than poetry in the form of a printed collection. ‘Movie in Couple – Love in Andate’ was the actualisation of Linh in her ‘poetry in action’.
Linh and Từ Huy were two different cases of modern woman poetry in Vietnam. Từ Huy tried to renew the word and the form of poems, whereas Linh wanted to change the content and spirit in Vietnamese modern women’s poetry. She insisted that: ‘Each poem was a lengthen kiss, one hundred Linh, on the Art boulevard, in which we cosset, commit, purely dedicate, craziest and the most passionately’.495 With such statement, Linh wrote only about ‘I’ and her love. She did not care about the structure of the poem or any regulation of it. Her poems were made by love and emotion. Sometimes, the poem broke into small pieces of words, sometimes it poured like a stream. Despite the fact that readers could hardly read them, Linh only respected extreme love in her words.
Some critics could raise questions about how modern Linh was compared with Vietnamese traditional poets, because from the past until now, feelings and emotion have existed in every poem regardless of their authors’ gender. In Vietnam in the 1700s, Hồ Xuân Hương wrote about the sorrow of ‘Sharing a Husband’ in a feudal society and family:
This wife draws the blanket, that one a chill,
A plague on the plight of sharing a husband. 496
In the same era Đoàn Thị Điểm, in ‘Lament of a Warrior’s Waiting Wife’ wrote:
The battle calls him away, leaving her in anguish,
No longer his mate, once he leaps astride his horse or steps into his boat.497
Even Phan Huyền Thư, in the 2000s, in the much more modern poetry form of prose poetry, still expressed emotional verses:
The hospitable garden gives rise to stubbornness. It makes me
Nurture acts of vengeance. But my
Sadness has run out. I have not
One drop of blood left. Not a drop on my head. My hair
Floats away, following the red glow
(‘Remains of Late Afternoon’)498
There were three centuries between Xuân Hương, Đoàn Thị Điểm and Phan Huyền Thư. However, they were common in demonstrating the sorrow of woman, in different situations: a sharing husband-woman, a wife of a soldier and a domestic woman with sadness spreading in her garden. Each poem was full of emotion. They used traditional symbols and thinking.
However, Linh was different from them. The above three woman poets borrowed the sorrow to demonstrate their demand for love and no more loneliness. Thus, their subjects could be anything except their own feelings. In my view, they wrote poems like a woman telling her own story in a chronological order, in which readers can guess what will happen and what the consequence will was. In contrast, Linh made it impossible for readers to guess what would appear in the next verses. They were like fragments flashing in her mind, encouraging her to write:
An on the expanse of flooded paddies
My breast fill with melancholy
Words explode on my skin,
Poetry surges, each wave riding over the last.
(‘O Rose, O Snow’)499
In these verses, the subject was not paddy, breast or skin. Neither was it the woman, nor the woman poet. The subject, in my opinion, was the love. The love created emotion. The love was the protagonist. The love belonged to the woman poet, but it had a separate life. It, on the other hand, led the woman and her words. I suppose that love was the only subject in Linh’s poetry.
Thus, transforming from the method to a subject, and from the form aspect to the content, was the approach Linh took to renewing modern Vietnamese poetry. She smoothly combined the position of a Vietnamese woman poet with the new position of an extremely un-national lover.
This indicated that two new subjects had been derived from the search of Loy and Magritte’s art works and their influence on Vietnamese modern women’s poetry: the ego, and love as a protagonist.
However, it was interesting that, in modern poetry, there were some other cases of these two subjects in which they were symbols of tradition. ‘I Return to Myself’, by Lâm Thị Mỹ Dạ, was an apt example:
Free the gentle girls
To be unaffected;
Free people from suffering,
From completing for fame,
Free them all, free them all.
I return to myself 500
In this poem, the subject was not ‘I’ or ‘myself’. What I could realise from these verses was the desire of coming ‘back to myself’ – as a traditional woman, with traditional characteristics and standards, suffering and scarified. Thus, I think she did not need to look for herself, because it had been default since before the poem was written, not in Lam’s era of the 2000s but from Xuân Hương’s and Đoàn Thị Điểm’s era, three centuries ago.
Therefore, recognising how to bring new ideology into women’s writings did not mean that Vietnamese woman poets could pave a specific way to follow. Sometimes, by the use of misleading words and the heavy pressure of feudal thoughts, women poets lost themselves in pleasing familiar readers, including men, who were waiting for some feminine verses.
From Vietnamese Women’s Poetry in 2017 to Modernism in the West
Studying Western feminism and Western women poets together with Vietnamese ideologies of women’s writing and the actual poems of Vietnamese women poets makes me think that the ideas and practice of Western modernism may be fundamental to both. On the other hand, what feminist critics have learned about distinguishing between women and men poets is that writing as a woman or writing like a man also derives from their understanding of modernism.
When I wrote about rule-breaking in Loy’s The Lost Lunar Baedeker or Stein’s Tender Buttons, I had an understanding that it should be placed in the process of modernism in poetry, as derived from poets such as T. S. Eliot. For example he was considered to write in transgression of genre, imagery, vocabulary and rhythm.501 In the aspect of content, he also changed ideologies, e.g. by introducing sexuality or an urban experiment. In my view, it could be seen as an immense step for poetry to get to modernity from tradition, to rule-breaking from being rule-bound and to Romanticism and modernism from Classicism, as was mentioned in the writing of T. E. Hulme.502 Thus, from the Romantic conventions of Tennyson, Swinburne and the Georgian poets, Wordsworth and Coleridge supplied the new form of ‘lyrical ballads’,503 and after that, in the early twentieth century, Pound, Eliot and Yeats innovated modern poetry. Among them, I focused on Pound and his Imagist poetry504 as the establishment of new poetry in modernism. The way that Pound and Yeats looked importantly towards the East505 for literary innovations also suggested Eastern poets looking to the West, in reverse. Moreover, the achievements of Imagist poetry had not only influenced male poets but also female poets. In my view, the works of Pound and other Imagist poets supplied conscious models for ‘women’s own brand’ of innovation. In Vietnam, women poets (e.g. Linh or Thư) moved from the tradition of anonymous narrative poems to exploring a kind of concrete poetry in which they could freely choose their subjects and objects. Thus, at this point, the aim of writing as a woman was not required; what these women poets were able to raise through their poems was the ability to write freely and as naturally as they wanted to be. This attitude from Vietnamese female writers, in my view, still followed what Virginia Woolf required for new writers in 1919 ‘If a writer were a free man and not a slave, if he could write what he chose, not what he must, if he could base his work upon his own feelings and not upon convention’.506
Following the evolution of modernist poetry in the West, Vietnamese poetry in general and Vietnamese women’s poetry in particular, were also strongly influenced by Russian poetry and theories. The first innovations were imposed by Russian Formalism, from which later emerged the radical poetic experiments of Russian Futurism. Dương Tường and the Vietnamese poets who stood on the ‘side of tears’ and weak people also followed defamiliarisation from Shklovsky.507 Moreover, Roland Barthes with his ‘death of the author’508 and theories of writing novels were also translated and read in Vietnam with shock from the audience. ‘The death of the author’ also gradually marked the death of traditional narrators in Vietnam, and because Vietnamese writers considered novels as the main machine of writing, poetry was also set free of narration after Barthes’ theories spread in Vietnam. Accordingly, modern Vietnamese poetry changed from general subjects to ‘I’ and from ‘I’ to ‘him’, ‘her’, and finally to no-one. Women, from being encouraged to tell their own stories in their own houses as evidence of writing towards modernism, moved to writing about no-one. In my view, by 2017, what and whom Vietnamese women poets wrote about was no longer valid for their initial point of view as a woman or a man. It was how they wrote, in terms of breaking poetic rules, which could be considered as their main achievements. With such understanding, I would not be able to distinguish female poets and male poets in Vietnam. In my opinion, as long as they stood on the side of tears,509 and did not speak within the official duties of life and art, they had an awareness of changing Vietnamese traditional poetry and could be considered as the initial delegates of modernism in Vietnamese poetry. In this way, I would argue that the Western paradigm of social poetic modernism has provided an illuminating template for formal, sematic and sociological changes. Therefore, while what Vietnamese poets could do may not be considered as having strictly followed the constant dialectical process of symbolic and semiotic reformulation described in Julia Kristeva’s book,510 modern poets in Vietnam from the 1930s could create for themselves ‘a revolution in poetic language’ inherited from French Symbolism by Baudelaire in the mid-nineteenth century and then Mallarmé at the end of it. In the Vietnamese poetic revolution from 1930 to 1945, there were some women poets, who were later mentioned in critics’ writings without any emphasis that they were women (e.g. Anh Thơ, Mộng Tuyết and Hằng Phương).511 In my view, in the 1930s and 1940s, considering women poets without any differences from male poets was one of the most innovative ideological changes in Vietnamese poetry, which used to feature much more highly the position of man over a thousand years of Vietnamese historical tradition. However, during the struggle of the wars in Vietnam, and after the French soldiers had gone from Vietnam in the 1960s, the position of women and women poets turned back to their traditional point of view, as a background or a supporter of man. This happened until 1975, and even after the American-Vietnamese war, Vietnamese woman writers were still on the way to finding themselves.
Thus, finding out about The Waste Land and the innovation of T. S. Eliot’s disrupted form quite late (after 1975) did not allow Vietnamese poets to refuse meaningfulness and taboos in poetry. However, as I suppose, what they have achieved from Western modernism is the exploration of what was imposed by those conventions in poetry. Once they had an idea about how poetry was prevented from evolving by traditions, I believe that Vietnamese poets could find a way to get rid of them. To Vietnamese women poets, this could be seen as a formulation and systematisation of the codes of a new and complex poetic game, in which women poets were not the objects being mentioned; they were the subjects that could independently write.