Hanh Hoang, whose essay “Bedtime Stories from Vietnam” appears in NER 42.4, talks with NER staff reader Megan Howell about obsession, resisting certainty, and the ghosts we leave behind.
Megan Howell: In “Bedtime Stories from Vietnam,” you write about how your childhood in wartime Saigon influenced your continued “excitement of billowy smoke and flame.” At the same time, you were less exposed to the war than those who lived in the countryside, stating, “When the earth rumbled, when the house swayed, I was lulled to sleep, safe, with no knowledge of what was going on outside Saigon.” When you heard the soldier’s last words, you were in bed, technically “safe” but also aware of the suffering of others.
Your relationship to death seems to lie between two extremes: not far enough to ignore it or be voyeuristic, not close enough to become debilitatingly traumatized. Do you think that such a distance from death was what allowed you to overcome your fear of dying/living? Do you think it would’ve been harder to heal from your divorce had you grown up in America or the Vietnamese countryside?
Hanh Hoang: It’s true that I didn’t become debilitatingly traumatized thanks to the distance from death, a distance which allowed me to indulge in my obsession. Death started out as something fascinating because of my mother’s stories and her medical encyclopedia, which had pictures of diseased parts and dying people. We had few books at home, especially books with illustrations, so I was drawn to this encyclopedia. Later, thinking about death was an intellectual, philosophical exercise. Like Montaigne, I thought you needed to think about death constantly to learn how to live. Unfortunately, I didn’t, and haven’t, overcome my fear of dying.
As for divorce, I think it would have been hard to heal whether I had grown up in America or the Vietnamese countryside. There is no social support in either place for single parents. I know of a few women from the Vietnamese countryside who separated from their husbands. They led extremely hard lives and had to make difficult choices. One woman had to leave her son with her emotionally abusive husband and his second wife so she could find work in another city.
MH: On your son, you write, “I couldn’t relate to the violence in his world, and he couldn’t relate to the violence of mine.” While he experienced violence through the media as a child, you lived through war. I relate to your relationship as someone who’s also around your son’s age (I’m a millennial who came of age during the Minecraft, Ultimate Showdown crazes). Like your son, my understanding of violence is different from that of my parents, who dealt with segregation. However, I feel as though the pandemic has shortened this gap in comprehension between my parents and me as it has for my friends. That, and also growing older.
Do you think that you and your son still don’t see violence the same way? Or has your relationship also changed?
HH: My son has given up on trying to involve me in his video games, and he has stopped making fun of my belief in the spirit world. Maybe he still doesn’t believe in ghosts, though ghost stories have always scared him. Recently, when I told my son I wanted to conjure up my mother’s spirit, he suggested that I not do that. He probably thought that on a slim chance, a very slim chance, ghosts do exist, it’s best not to invite them to our world, or we might open the door to evil spirits.
MH: I’m curious about your decision to use italics in lieu of quotation marks for dialogue. Typically, when I see italicized dialogue, I think of Pecola Breedlove’s imaginary friend or inner-dialogue—something less than human, basically. Both the present and the past timeline make use of this technique, giving off an immaterial, almost ghostly feeling, which feels appropriate given the references to Vietnamese ghost-stories.
Why not use quotation marks? Why does every character, both the living and the dead, speak like a ghost?
HH: Quotation marks would have given more reality and certainty and energy to the dialogue, when what I have are reconstructed conversations from a past that is no longer a reality to me, especially my past in Vietnam. I don’t have any connection to it anymore.
MH: Did the Montaigne epigraph have any influence over how you wrote “Bedtime Stories in Vietnam”? Or did you find it after you’d finished drafting the piece?
HH: We spent a whole year studying Montaigne in our French class in high school. Probably our teacher had only limited authority over the choice of reading materials, but it was odd to have sixteen-year-old students analyzing Montaigne’s essay “That to Study Philosophy Is to Learn to Die” in the midst of a civil war. Our teacher, a Frenchman, also had a violent past. One day he rambled about his life and told us that, from his experience in Algeria during the country’s war of independence against the French, no one could withstand torture.
MH: What inspired you to write a story about death?
HH: Montaigne’s essay provided me with a rationale to think obsessively of death. It was probably Montaigne that inspired me to write the essay.
Megan Howell is a fiction reader for NER and a DC-based freelance writer. After graduating from Vassar College, she earned her MFA in fiction from the University of Maryland in College Park, winning both the Jack Salamanca Thesis Award and the Kwiatek Fellowship. Her work has appeared in McSweeney’s, The Nashville Review, and The Establishment, among other publications.