VOLUME 25 #2

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Notes from the field

UD author's journey into the past aided by grad student's expertise

by Mark Bowden

OUR STUDENTS | In February of 2015, during the first of two trips I took to Vietnam reporting my book Hue 1968, I emailed Jim Richards, one of UD’s vice provosts, for a list of Vietnamese graduate students.

I had been doing two or three long interviews a day with Vietnamese veterans and survivors of the terrible battle fought in Hue at a critical point in the Vietnam War. Each interview was close to two hours long. And since I spoke no Vietnamese, I had been hearing only a brief summary of what my interviewees said. Ho Dang Hoa, my skilled guide and translator, would listen intently as they offered long answers. Sometime he jotted notes. He would then briefly summarize their response before we moved to the next question. He was expertly giving me the gist of what they said, but for my purpose, which was to write a dramatic narrative, the real gold was in the details. I needed to know every word of their response, every sight, every color, every odor, every sound, every sensation.

Which meant I needed a verbatim translation for all these mounting hours of conversation. Transcription is time-consuming, often tedious labor, and when you add translation to it, it more than doubles the challenge. So I wondered in my note to Jim if there might be a Vietnamese student at UD looking for a job.

The note was a stab in the dark, but within hours Jim sent me a list with five names, and their email addresses.

First on the list was “Dinh, Xuyen Pham Ha,” who was identified as a Ph.D. candidate in linguistics, so I tried it first. I got back a response the next day. “I am interested in the project you are working on,” Dinh said. We made arrangements to meet when I returned.

Xuyen showed up at my office in the basement of Memorial Hall, a petite, earnest young woman with a backpack. She could not have been more perfect. Her specialty in linguistics concerned the differences between the three dialects spoken in her country, the northern one around Hanoi, the southern one around Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), where she was from, and the third from her country’s central region around Hue. She told me that transcribing the interviews from the Hue speakers would actually be of use to her in her linguistic studies.

Over the next three years we became a team. Hoa sent more interviews he had done on his own, and I made another trip to Vietnam in 2016. In all, Xuyen transcribed and translated more than 50 hours of material. She conducted one interview for me with a former South Vietnamese Army veteran who spoke no English, and found and translated at least a dozen articles. When she returned occasionally to Ho Chi Minh City, we talked using FaceTime, and I got a glimpse of her life at home.

“Transcribing, translating and even conducting some of the interviews allowed me to understand ‘the people’ part of the history,” said Xuyen. “It became much more than a meaningless list of dates and events like how most history textbooks presented the war. I got to know how the American soldiers felt in the middle of a rice field full of the sounds of an unfamiliar language. I also got to be amazed at how many Vietnamese soldiers were determined to leave their hometowns at such a young age to fight for their belief. Maps and information about the battle in 1968 could be found in a lot of books, but Mark was able to depict the war by letting the people tell their personal stories.”

Xuyen did more than just translate and transcribe. She became my consultant, writing me notes about Vietnamese culture and explaining passages I would otherwise have only partly understood. She was alert to telling nuances of expression, pointing out instances of humor or sarcasm that I would not have noticed. When a subject said he had been in the “second level” at a school, she explained exactly what that meant. In one passage—where the wife and mother of two men accused of being traitors confronted the youthful Viet Cong commissar charged with deciding their fate, and stood in front of the much younger man with her arms crossed—Xuyen explained that this was a sign of respect, and that it would be unusual for a Vietnamese woman to make such a gesture to someone no older than her son. Her insight added a great deal to my understanding (and my subsequent account) of that moment.

Because Xuyen is a young woman, in her twenties, the Vietnam War, or what the Vietnamese refer to as “The American War,” ended long before she was born. She was curious about it. There were members of her family who had fought on both sides. In addition to being a struggle for independence, it was also a civil war, pitting Vietnamese against Vietnamese, even as the present one-party socialist government prefers to stress themes of unity. Her schooling had largely left out the bloody divisions of the past, so listening to so many memories of the battle was filling a gap in her education. It was a history lesson she had never imagined getting in Newark, Delaware.

“When Mark asked me to join his project, I immediately thought about my grandfathers,” she said. “They fought on two different sides in the war, but the common thing between them is that they never talked much about those years. People often say it is easier said than done. But for my grandfathers and possibly a lot of people who were involved in the war, it was not easy for them to talk about it either. Working with Mark helped me learn that in order for people to open up about such difficult subjects, the right questions, which could only be formed through careful research, needed to be asked with the right attitude, which was a combination of respect and honest interest.”

One day early in the effort, Xuyen said, “I’m so glad I was the first name on the list.”

I am, too. It was a perfect partnership of interests. When Xuyen returned from home one day last year, she brought me an intricate origami model of a central market in her home city, which is one of my treasured keepsakes from the project.

Whenever my students set out to report a story, I remind them that their own campus is a treasury of valuable resources. I know it’s true, because I found a treasure here myself.

Mark Bowden is a journalist and best-selling author of 13 books, including Black Hawk Down, Killing Pablo, Guests of the Ayatollah, and his most recent Hue 1968. He has served as UD’s Distinguished Writer in Residence since 2013.

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