"Memoir is a written expression of learning through living." - F. Scott Service
FUMFA Poets & Writers Live is a live online reading series and community of writers affiliated with the Fairfield University Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing led by Katherine "Katie" Schneider and Chris Belden.
The pair started FUMFA Poets & Writers Live as a way to help the Fairfield University MFA community stay connected during the Covid-19 pandemic. The weekly livestreamed book readings have since expanded to include many special guests from outside the FUMFA family, as well as theme nights & open mics, all in an effort to keep the written/spoken word alive during this challenging time.
This episode features gifted poet, Alison Woods, and F. Scott Service.
Normally speaking, I hear about books from a variety of sources. And it's mostly informal. Sometimes, it's from a friend, that standard dinner table suggestion over a glass of wine or what not that is usually along the lines of, “Oh, you should check that book out. I really liked it.” Other times, it's from a review I happen to randomly come across, or a newspaper's snappy one-liner, tight and concise to draw in as much attention as possible with as few words as possible. I've even overheard a conversation taking place next to me in a restaurant, two friends discussing how they felt about the story, gushing over the characters and how they were on the edge of their seat the whole time.
Normally, when I bump up against a review, the catchy, cliché buzzwords are flowing freely – “gripping,” (yikes) “riveting,” (one of my favorites however much it continues to nauseate me) “taut,” (ooh) “tense,” (ahhh) “brilliantly defies categorization,” (can't wait) “absorbing,” (a very nice one, just the word brings you in) “definitive,” (okay) “epic,” (a little hard to swallow). The list goes ever on and on. And I have found that it is not always the case that the books hold fast and strong within the garrison of these mighty words. Sometimes, the catch words are accurate. Sometimes, not so much. Other times, not at all. But I feel strongly that anyone would be hard pressed not to describe Michael Herr's war memoir with those same words and further, that the words would all cry out as true with such strength and vigor that any attack against them would be thwarted without effort.
When I opened the book, I knew it was about Vietnam, that much was true. It was also true that I have read enough books about war and the suffering that goes along with it, that I felt (at least in some ways) I knew what I was getting into. I was expecting another memoir from a soldier, a grunt (although I've never liked this term very much. I find it demeaning in some way), a “ground pounder,” a military type (one who enjoyed the military lifestyle or not), an enlisted or an officer. And he completely caught me off guard when I discovered that he wasn't affiliated at all with the military, but was a war correspondent. A civilian. And I had no idea what I was getting into. This was gonna be unique. From the opening pages, his writing knocks your britches off and never relents. He keeps driving at you, into you, paragraph after paragraph, sentence after sentence, right up until the last word when I was left feeling quite thoroughly exhausted (in a good way). So excrutiatingly authentic was his writing, that when I closed the book after finishing it, I discovered I had been transported back to and into my own war (more on that in just a bit).
I enjoyed thoroughly his personification of feelings, objects, and others. It was very effective. He gives them, especially the feelings, a life of their own, a breathing life that takes on an eerie, dark, and scary ambience. What he expressed is those dark places of the mind that a soldier goes, whether he or she wants to or not, both while in fear and during the numbing process that war inevitably inflicts. It's the shadowy recesses where morality and the good, innocent self breaks down, where all the civilized behaviors we've been taught are discarded and in turn, what emerges is a calloused, cynical shell of what was once a human being. Everyone I knew in Iraq felt this, was both oppressed by it and liberated by it. Some initially tried to run away from it, but couldn't. Some embraced it, even fell in love with it. But all of us, in the end, became specters of our former selves. Michael saw it, knew it, experienced it, and brought it to life on the page.
He uses longer sentences, run-ons I guess you would call them. I know a fair amount of people who don't favor this style of writing. For me, there is a stream of consciousness about his writing that never strays into incoherency. He seems to know when to stop, to leash it in, so as to not bog down the reader. His descriptions are very vivid, bringing to life everything around him–the smells, the sights, the sounds, the tastes. You are there with him. He's also very grounded in history, the history of not only Vietnam, but of humanity and the political climate at the time. I make mention of it because this is something you and I have discussed at some length and I dutifully took note how aware of the world he was. So important to memoir writing.
Structurally, I must admit, I was a bit puzzled. It didn't seem to be so much chronological, but more what I would call linear. It seems place oriented, I don't know what you would call that. He seemed to organize his chapters surrounding the major places he spent time, whether or not that was chronological, I couldn't be sure all the time. A good example of this is right at the beginning, when he sets you down right in Vietnam, without any background, any contextual information to give a foothold of sense, and background. And there was the entire passage about his friends in the press. That seemed more like a dissertation on them, almost a separate entity in terms of time and space. Whatever structure one wants to pin on it, it worked. And worked very well. It was never confusing or incoherent. But most of all, there is an immediacy to his writing, as if he were speaking to you at the time, when the threat of war could bear down you on at any moment while you are listening. In the end for me, it didn't matter much if it was chronological, linear, thematic, whatever else. No matter what, I was there with him, walking with him through it all.
There were several places where I felt a cold shudder go through me and I was immediately transported back to Iraq. Due to space limitations, I'll go through a couple, places I'd like to briefly share. On page 14, he writes: “... and I saw that everyone around me was carrying a gun, I also saw that any one of them could go off at any time, putting you where it wouldn't matter whether it was an accident or not.” And further, “... the VC got work inside all the camps as shoeshine boys and laundresses and honey-dippers, they'd starch your fatigues and burn your shit and then go home and mortar your area. Saigon and Cholon and Danang held such hostile vibes that you felt you were being dry-sniped every time someone looked at you, and choppers fell out of the sky like fat poisoned birds a hundred times a day.”
Wow. Okay. I can vividly recall a time in Iraq when I looked around me and was astounded at how many guns I saw. They were everywhere and my mind was stretched thin in even the most whimsical attempt to mentally count them all. Pistols, machine guns, assault rifles, bolt-action rifles, grenade launchers, you name it. And I remember at the time I had to grimly chuckle because I was instantly transported back to my basic training days at Ft. Leonard Wood. The first time we were issued rifles by the drill sergeants (and the first time we were going out to a rifle range), I was completely (and fearfully) astonished at how careless most of the boys (I use that word deliberately) were with those instruments of death. A group of them ran around like school children, laughing, aiming them at each other, jogging toward each other, their rifles butting up against one another in a mock hand-to-hand fight. It reminded me of the opening scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey, when the apes were playing with the bones of the dead. They had no conception of the power they were wielding.
And in Iraq, I was in the mess hall one evening when an officer who had neglected to clear his weapon upon entering, accidentally discharged it in line. The bullet ricocheted off the floor and into the wall. It scared me to death because it was then that I realized, just like Michael, that the danger of being killed or wounded was just as real, as random and as lethal from our folks as it was from the Iraqis.
As I wrote in Lines in the Sand, it was with dumbfounded confusion that we watched the Iraqi workers come on and off base day after day, some with those infamous green tags, some with the red tags. I don't think it mattered what tag they were wearing. The odds were good, better than good, that most if not all of them were at least partially responsible for mortaring us when they were released from the menial work assigned to them. More than some things never change in war.
Further on in the book, he made this statement which jarred me: “Years of thinking this or that about what happens to you when you pursue a fantasy until it becomes experience, and then afterward you can't handle the experience.” It's become all too abundantly obvious to me as the years have progressed how my little childhood fantasy of being like my father, serving in the military, and fighting in a war, has come back to haunt me day after day.
And finally, I loved how he described the members of the press corps. Of being parasites and I got a sense he felt strongly that in some ways he was intruding on sacred ground of the soldiers by doing what he was doing. I think some of us felt that way toward the civilian contractors who worked over in Iraq. They didn't have to be there. We did. And they made more money and had better conditions and lived a more free life. They could even go home if they wanted to. Like Michael experienced, there was always a certain mixed amount of contempt, awe, even blind hatred between us that was always just behind the eyes, no matter how polite we tried to be with each other.
I could go on. Many passages, sentences, and words are underlined in my copy, places where I would like to revisit, just as I revisit Iraq every night.
A memoir of the Vietnam War
To be honest, I was very excited to read False Starts from the get-go. This hasn't always the case with me for books throughout my many years of reading. Some, for various reasons that range from an admittedly superficial, naive lack of interest in the subject matter or the cover has turned me off, I have been hesitant about. Sophie's Choice was one such book. Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov being another. The Grapes of Wrath and Wuthering Heights serve as still more examples.
However, as I am now deeply embedded within middle age, my sight has become broader, more flexible (dare I say, receptive, even thirsty) to any sort of experience within a page, no matter the topic or author. Reflective hindsight dictates I listen to the years that have accumulated behind me and obey the forces within which are beckoning me to be open to anything in order to enhance my life. Granted, it has taken some honest introspective thought and a slow blossoming maturity level to recognize this. But I can say that, although I may be a slow learner of life, it is with this attitude that I approached Malcolm Braly's book with an eager willingness. He did not disappoint.
To say that Braly is (was) talented is, in my mind, an understatement. Linguistically, he has a bare, no bones, plain, frank style about him that is point blank authentic beyond anything I've ever read. It's simple (I can imagine some might even say dry), but that would be a misconception and hardly accurate due to his honesty and straightforwardness. And he is superbly candid and straightforward, like when he relates the occasional times he indulged in spates of homosexuality. All of these mannerisms in which he tells his tale reminded me of what a reviewer once wrote after reading Lines in the Sand:“It was like sitting down and having a meaningful conversation with the author over a beer.” I think that sums it up quite nicely.
And although I can certainly make comparisons of language from other authors who write in an extremely sophisticated manner, (William Styron comes to mind) I hardly think it is worth the time or effort. It's not worth it, not only because I feel it is both demeaning and beneath his skill to do so, but because an important lesson has been demanding my attention as of late. That is I have come to realize that while language is, of course important, it is secondary to the content. And this is especially true when it comes to the genre of memoir.
As I have previously noted in an earlier essay, it is my belief that a memoir is a written expression of learning through living, an honest, evolutionary account of a human being groping in the dark for meaning and understanding of all the twists and turns our world can throw at us. I'm not even convinced anymore that there has to be an “ending” per se, or some sort of definitive conclusion, a final revelation of all that was learned, some grandiose explanation of the meaning of life and how that has ultimately transformed the author. Malcolm certainly didn't provide this. He merely ended the account and the lessons he learned are subtly threaded throughout the narrative. But I have digressed. The point I am making (and one I have painfully learned) is that an author can write floridly about anything, but without this essential honest, heart felt content of memoir, without “the eyes staring in the mirror,” it doesn't mean that much and the life that is desperately seeking a voice essentially falls flat on its wordy face.
Further, in keeping with the essential elements of memoir writing, he's also in touch with his surroundings. It reminded me of the notes you made for me in the last monthly letter of commentary surrounding my own work. He is aware of, and makes note of, the world around him: the depression, in his early paintings of starving people and the WWI soldiers, of the bureaucracy of education, the penal system, and what it tries to instill on an innocent, imaginative mind.
Throughout the book there is a combination of introspection, action, and outside current events of the world, and although I have to admit, it would be very easy for him to go overboard with interior thoughts, he doesn't. By the same token, it's amazing that he was even that attuned to the outside world of events given he spent the majority of his life behind bars. But enough with the analysis. What struck me on a deeper level, a particularly personal one (albeit different in the sense of setting, time, and era) was that overall, in fundamental ways, he and I have a fair amount in common.
To begin with, I felt badly for him when he reported his parole violation, then was taken into custody nevertheless. I felt badly because I know with all too grim understanding that once the system gets a hold of you, it doesn't want to let go. It has a saw blade grip, a centipedes legs that rip and tear at you if you make the slightest move outside or against their grain of thinking. I felt those same cutting edges when I applied for conscientious objection status upon coming home from the war. It wasn't taken with enthusiasm, that much was readily apparent. And like the parole officers and the institution of imprisonment, they wanna keep you.
And when threatened with something outside the normal realm of their understanding, they even want to tighten their grip, if for no other reason than to prove to themselves that you can be rehabilitated, reconstituted to match their notions of what it means to be a stand up person, (a patriotic soldier) confined within the regulations they believe in so strongly, maybe more than the Bible sitting next to their beds. And they always look at you slightly differently. It's subtle, but it's there. That quizzical, yet condescendingly sympathetic look, as if to say, “You poor soul, you fucked up. We'll show you the right way to walk,” that loudly proclaims their disdain for someone who would dare to violate their ideology, to think outside the box, outside an institutional or societal doctrine which has permeated them so much it now oozes from their pores like some sort of rancid jelly.
That's just one example of many, but on a fundamental level, he and I share something deeper. We are both misfits and have fumbled through many false starts in life. Like him, I have had my brushes with the law, but unlike him I never went as far, nor have I spent any time in prison. I merely spent a night in jail when I was a teenager for the crime of larceny. Stupid of course, and something of which Malcolm also came to realize. No, our commonality is more within the context of how many times he and I have tried to “fit in,” to be an average normal, everyday citizen, and how bored and restless we both became while striving to live within those confines. Ironically, we both also felt an overwhelming desire to achieve that, a contradiction in my mind that has yet to be reconciled.
We both lurched from place to place, woman to woman, job to job, in an effort to find ourselves, to discover something vaguely definable that was always nagging in the back corner of our minds. And like him, I too once dreamed of “making it big,” of being in the spotlight of attention because for all of my life, I too have felt ignored, dismissed, and alone. We both scoured anything and everything outside of ourselves trying to find what could only be inside, afraid to face what lay within, terrified of what we might find, yet craved and needed to do so. We have both spent years desperately wanting to stare in the mirror, to listen to the whispers in our heads, yet when the opportunity to do so presented itself, we both turned away. We both struggled with the issues confronting us, running from them at any opportunity, finding refuge in superficiality. And in the end, we both found shelter from the storm within our writing. It was writing (and an accumulation of too many years) that allowed both of us to finally begin to come to grips with our situations, our lives, our mistakes, and who we truly are.
Yes, I understand Malcolm, better than I've understood other authors whose lives I lived in their pages. Tragically, his journey was cut short and I am saddened by that. But I will carry on, his spirit with me and not forgotten.
An excellent memoir
I have to admit something. Bruce Weigl's The Circle of Hanh was not what I expected of a memoir about the Vietnam war. And this is a good thing. I'll try to explain. Upon opening this book and beginning to absorb the straight forward yet artfully masterful wording, both tender and painful, I quickly discovered that up until then, I had unwittingly clung to a preconceived notion. It was the inclination toward a particular idea or hypothesis of what I would inevitably and inescapably find within the pages of a war experience.
You see, when I have imagined war memoirs, in both the distant and now not so distant past, I had always believed (foolishly innocent as it were) that they would naturally entail all the vivid descriptions of pain, loss, violence, chaos, and the shredding of the human soul that so many had focused, even relied upon. To be sure, there are many which follow this pattern. It is natural, and logical and essential in many ways. Those notions are so ingrained within the journey of war that without them one might even be inclined to question if the narrative was indeed a “war book.” And it is for this reason alone that I feel kind enough to absolve myself from the honest, perhaps even naive, misconception or oversight I had banked on as I began turning the pages.
The narrative has both a chronological and circular structure, something of which I have to say, I'm quite fond of. Beginning with his 1996 excursion to Vietnam so that he can bring to the United States his newly adopted daughter Nguyen Thi Hanh, he then flashes back to his past. It is a past filled with what it was like to grow up as the son of a steelworker in Ohio, the sexual abuse he suffered from as a boy at the hands of his babysitter, the soldier losing his innocence in Vietnam, becoming a writer and translator of Vietnamese poetry, and finally coming full circle back to his trip, where he endures the tedious bureaucracy of immigration and customs officials of Hanoi while fighting to pass a kidney stone before he can finally meet his new daughter.
It was quite a journey.
While I found all of the anecdotes endearing, moving, immersive, upsetting, sad, loving, and painful to read, there were a few that stood out to me. One was the story of his grandfather, who held a gun to the drunken doctor's head who was delivering his first child. Both shocking and morbidly delightful for me to read, I found it very human and real. I mean, let's face it, in that type of situation, would not all of us, at the very least, feel inclined to behave in such a way? Another was how Weigl began to realize his reverence for writing and storytelling. It was the day the Red Cross worker tossed Crime and Punishment at him while he was sick at a base camp in Vietnam. It stood out for me because I have such fond memories of when I was a child and a young adult discovering words and storytelling, although I have to admit, Crime and Punishment (of which I read as a teenager) left such a profound impact on me that I literally felt as if I was on the verge of insanity for a week. It was a very powerful book.
But to come full circle (please pardon the pun), what shook my preconceived conceptions of what a war memoir embodies was a suggestion that overwhelmed me with a warm, fresh outlook, a broader and more penetrating sensitivity of what it means to be human and to find oneself again.
Here's what I mean.
What I got most out of the book is a sense of forgiveness, of love and healing in the aftermath of war, devastation, and violence. It's personal for Bruce, but on a broader scale, this is also shown in the country, the people, how time has done its best to heal the ravages of the past. I began to feel a tremendous sense of “time healing all wounds” in this book, that there is a way back from darkness through love and forgiveness. It is of course a journey story, like most memoirs should be and are, and naturally it's a journey for Bruce to find healing after the violence, his loss of innocence in Vietnam.
But it is a journey of Vietnam and how the country has evolved over the years during and after the war, and I found it both interesting and amusing how he spoke of the younger children in Hanoi, how they are bored about hearing of the big war. It's wonderful how time can erase all wounds. People move beyond the pain, the ravages and they rebuild. They carve new lives for themselves, and each other. And that is what Bruce wants to do. He wants to carve out a new birth for himself, not only for him to heal, but for Hanh, so that she can have a fuller life. In some very real ways, the story is about new beginnings and new paths to be walked.
And the circle is not only structural within the writing, but it is within him. He is rounding a personal circle here, a circle of his life, a path of youthful innocence, to guilt and loss, to coming fully around again toward love in the very country where all was lost to him during the war. By returning to Vietnam and embracing it, loving it, instead of allowing the wounds of the past consume him in anger and resentment, he has found a path toward peace.
It's so easy to hate the people you were pitted against, to blindly pin the blame on them, innocents just like everyone else caught in that disastrous violence. That's the easy way out–to perpetuate the blame, the anger, to not let go of it. But that is misplaced and counterproductive to healing wounds and finding love. And I'd like to quote Yeats here because I think he said best what I am driving at:
“Those that I fight I do not hate.
Those that I guard I do not love.”
And I think there is something very important in this lesson here, for all of us who have done the dirty work of politicians sitting in a far away removed office, detached from the consequences of their actions. By not allowing ourselves to give into hate, hate the for the people we fought against without really knowing why, all of us caught up in the cogs of politics and warfare, we rise to a better level. We rise to a place of finding peace among ourselves, a forgiveness of the heart that opens doors of culture and community, whether it's international or not.
I wish we could do that in Iraq. I wish Iraq would find time for peace and love amid the hate and violence. I wish people could understand that just because the forces that be force, or try to force us into believing that this person, this real person in front of me is my enemy, we are not enemies. We only allow ourselves to be fooled into believing we are enemies. We only allow ourselves as human beings to feel that a person is so greatly different from us that we must feel a hatred of them, when in fact our differences can unite us, enrich our own lives.
It's a fallacy.
Difference should not make us hate. Difference should make us love and understand how precious we are all are, how unique and beautiful. And if that is realized, and love and forgiveness are allowed into our hearts, we can ingest what Bruce is trying to teach in this book.
For me, he is trying to teach that we can come full circle, out of the darkness and into the light of love. And that those who were once our enemies, can be welcomed into our homes, as part of our families.
We can grow together, learn from one another, share our cultures, and share in the mutual benefit of being people together on a small crowded planet.
A story about war and Vietnam