Hanoi Ink – Reviews Strange Roots: Views of Hanoi

Hanoi Ink – Reviews Strange Roots: Views of Hanoi

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strange roots

Hanoi Ink takes a look at the recently published anthology from the Hanoi Writer’s Collection.

In Part 1 of a 3-part series, Hanoi Ink takes a look at the recently published anthology from the Hanoi Writer’s Collection. Part 2 recalls and contrasts an earlier similar effort from several years ago. And Part 3 compares the two publications. All in Hanoi Ink’s inimitable style.

The first installment comes just in time to serve as a reminder of the exciting Spoken word performance Noi Ha Noi (Speak Hanoi), coming up this Sunday night.

speak Hanoi

The Hanoi Writers’ Collective is a group of (mostly) expatriate writers that first came together back in 2009. I’m already on record gushing about their Poetry Bordello event back in June and I also witnessed a couple of members of the collective in action reading works by Bruce Weigl at his book launch late last year. So I was interested to finally get my hands on a copy of their recent collection of writings—poetry, history, fiction and visual art—from Hanoi Bookworm.

The anthology includes 16 separate contributions from xx different members of the collective. They are all under 5 pages apart from the final piece, “Birdsongs of North America” by Andy Engleson, which runs to around 50 pages. Brendan Baylor and Suzi Garner provide some quite wonderful artwork throughout. The collection concludes with some very brief biographical information on the contributors.

Andy Engleson’s introduction gives some background on the evolution of the Hanoi Writers’ Collective and the anthology:

“This collection is about discovering Hanoi from an outsider’s perspective. Whether we’re expats or travelers, long-time residents or new arrivals, we all start to see what this historic, dirty, noisy, elegant, frantic, and enchanting city is all about.”

The anthology was conceived in the context of Hanoi’s 1,000-year anniversary in 2010, and this has clearly shaped some of the contributions. The collection opens with a poem by Mary E. Croy who imagines the founding of Hanoi, and moves on to a series of short prose and poetry pieces inspired by everyday life in contemporary Hanoi. Roosters crow and conjure up thoughts of magic roosters, the daily drive home through the maelstrom of Hanoi traffic and street life is captured in a series of stanzas, swans bear furtive lovers on neon-lit lakes, and tree-lined streets in the embassy district give way to the chaos of street markets, construction sites and roadside aerobics. Non-fiction pieces address the city’s past from the perspective of the 1,000 year-celebrations, an historic pagoda, the experience of women veterans from the Ho Chi Minh Trail. After a couple of stops for some street food, it is back out into the traffic. The shorter pieces are bookended with another poem from Mary E. Crow, “Hanoi Twilight”.

strange roots
Strange roots: views of hanoi

Andy Engleson’s long piece, “Birdsongs of North America”, is a poignant and quite believable piece of fiction inspired in part by a chance meeting in the old Nola Café on Ma May Street. It tells the story of a young American woman who travels to Vietnam seeking some context in which to understand the life and death—by suicide—of her father, an American birdsong expert and veteran blinded in the Cu Chi tunnels. It is a very modern story, jumping between regular narrative, Skype chats, Twitter and Facebook updates, emails and a college thesis proposal. As the daughter of an older American veteran, the story inevitably covers familiar ground on the Vietnam/American War and its aftermath in both Vietnam and the US. It manages the slightly difficult task of bringing these issues believably into the 21st century. I am reminded of a meeting 20 years ago in Australia, with a German-Australian born in late 1940s, the child of an American Nuremberg trial lawyer and the sister of SS officers, raised as a half-enemy bastard child by the broken remnants of the vanquished SS, with their bitter memories and secret uniformed parades. WWII suddenly reaching forward into early-1990s Sydney suburbia, dark old events not quite spent and still shaping lives. It is definitely worth a read.

Strange Roots will soon be available at the Grapevine Store.

Strange roots: Views of Hanoi – an Anthology from the Hanoi Writers’ Collective
Edited by Andrew Engelson, J. Fossenbell and Helen Kang
Thế Giới Publishers, Hanoi, 2011
88 pages

Hanoi Ink has never quite managed to give up his day job but is nonetheless a very active member of the music scene in Hanoi. His other obsessions are Vietnamese literature and old books, which he writes about at http://hanoiink.wordpress.com/.