I've only been to New Haven four times, and last week, it was only to participate in the commemoration of the Fall of Saigon, as organized by the Vietnamese Studies Program at Yale. I was one of three poets invited. The other two were Phan Nhien Hao (b. 1967) and To Thuy Yen (b. 1938).
I'm the translator of the only book by Hao in English, Night, Fish and Charlie Parker (2005). I first met Hao in Saigon in 2000, and we've hung out in San Jose, Illinois and Philly. I've even bought a used car from the man. We're friends, in short. Hao's father died while fighting for South Vietnam in 1975.
To Thuy Yen, I only got to know last week at Professor Quang Phu Van's house, where we all stayed. It's very Vietnamese to prefer the friendlier, shared space of a home, instead of separate hotel rooms. We ate wonderful dishes cooked by Van's wife and downed vast quantity of his beer, wine and whiskey. Our conversations lasted for hours.
Since To Thuy Yen's real surname is also Dinh, I brought that up immediately, but we couldn't establish any shared regional roots. We did discover we had many mutual friends, however, despite our age difference. As a South Vietnamese colonel in charge of propaganda, Yen had many writers working under him.
I asked Yen how much influence did the Americans have on South Vietnamese propaganda, and he said very little, surprisingly. It was the Taiwanese who worked closely with Yen, "Since they had lost to the Communists, they had plenty of experience in dealing with them. The Taiwanese sent four advisors and maintained an office in South Vietnam for about a decade. Our people also went to Taiwan to learn."
South Vietnam was also crawling with North Vietnamese agents. "One man was caught on the beach in Phan Thiet. He was originally a Southerner, so spoke like a local, but he had forgotten to adjust his watch! Back then, Hanoi was an hour ahead of Saigon. One of our policemen noticed this discrepancy."
"Unfortunately, he was killed in jail by other Communists. They knew he had too much information."
In hindsight, of course the man should have been kept separately but, as with any war, there were so many prisoners to manage. After the Fall of Saigon, Yen found himself locked up for 13 years altogether, "When they first came in, they had a guy with a red armband and an AK-47, guarding my house, then a truck came by to take all of my books away, to burn or sell as scrap."
Before 1975, Yen sometimes interrogated Communists at a jail by the Saigon River. Now, he was kept in the same prison. "History is just people changing costumes," Yen chuckled.
Like all South Vietnamese soldiers, Yen was never convicted or sentenced, but simply kept until his captors decided he was properly reeducated. After a decade, Yen was finally released. At least, he didn't die in custody. His wife, whom I also met in New Haven, had brought food and medicines to Yen while he was imprisoned. The strength of the Vietnamese family is testified by the fact that so many women never abandoned their jailed and highly stigmatized husbands.
Life inside Vietnam was extremely difficult during those postwar years. In a 2000 interview, Phan Nhien Hao told me he had been hungry all the time, "One could hardly think of anything but food." Luckily, Yen received cash assistance from overseas friends and admirers. Some visited him in Saigon.