Monday musings on Australian literature: Vietnam War fiction

Having just posted on Biff Ward’s The third chopstick, and with the 50th anniversary of Gough Whitlam’s election (which set in train our final withdrawal from the war) being imminent, I felt now seemed an appropriate time to devote a Monday MusingsAustralian fiction about the war.

Ward’s book is nonfiction, but here I want to focus on fiction because of the special role the creative or imaginative arts play in reflecting who we are. Academic Geoffrey Davis makes the point that

there is an important distinction to be drawn between writing by former active combatants, which often appeared in the immediate post-war period and was largely inspired by personal experience of the war, and fiction by non-combatants, published considerably later. Each new generation must form an image of the wars that have shaped its times and must assess the way in which those wars have impacted on their own society.


Viet Thanh Nguyen, The sympathizer

The most recent Vietnam (American) War novel I’ve read is Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The sympathiser (my review), which satirically confronts the mess of this war through the experience of Vietnamese refugees in the USA, but I have also read a handful of Australian novels about the war.

“All wars are fought twice, the first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory”
(Viet Thanh Nguyen, Nothing ever dies: Vietnam and the memory of war, cited by Davis)

A select list

Here is a select list of novels and short story collections, with a brief note on their focus or angle:

Charles Hall, Summer's gone, Margaret River Press
  • Alison Booth, A distant land: on war-reporting and corruption
  • Charles Hall’s Summer’s gone (2014) (my review): includes conscription and draft-dodging
  • Myfany Jones’ The rainy season (2009) (Lisa’s review): on war trauma and its effect on the family
  • Adib Khan’s Homecoming (2003): on a Vietnam vet’s postwar trauma
  • Nam Le’s The boat (2008): includes short stories about Vietnamese refugees
  • Gabrielle Lord’s The sharp end (1998): on traumatic psychological effects of the war on soldiers
  • Doug McEachern’s Stardust and Golden (2018) (Lisa’s review): on conscription
  • William Nagle’s The odd angry shot (1975): a war-time story based on the author’s experiences
  • Hoa Pham’s Lady of the realm (2017) (my review): set in Vietnam itself, pre, during and post war
  • Hoa Pham’s The other shore (2014) (Lisa’s review): on the impact in Vietnam itself
  • John Rowe’s Count your dead (1968): realities of war, and American policy, drawn from author’s time there
  • Jospephine Rowe’s A loving, faithful animal (2016) (my review): on PTSD and intergenerational trauma
  • Evie Wyld’s After the fire, a still small voice (2009) (Kim’s review): on war trauma in a Vietnam War conscript and his war-veteran father

I have called this a select list, which might imply that I’ve curated a special selection but in fact, I didn’t find many books beyond those I already knew, so this list includes most of those I found. Why are there so few?

This is a question author Alison Booth also raised in a post she wrote on “Australian Fiction and the Vietnam War”. She commences:

The Vietnam War is sometimes termed a forgotten war. Neglected by Australian literature until relatively recently, it seems it was the war that most of us wanted to forget. The last and most prolonged proxy battle of the Cold War, it saw Australians become increasingly divided. Should the country be at war at all, or had it been manipulated into involvement by its political leaders? Did people have the right to take to the streets and protest about the war? And just how far was the security intelligence organization prepared to go to silence the protesters? 

These issues offer endless possibilities for writers of fiction and yet they have been little used. 

When she looked for lists of fiction, what she found (as did I) was mostly written by American males. She finds this lack “puzzling” because so much of what happened then has relevance to now. For example, 50 years after that war, we are still confronting “those trade-offs between surveillance and security on the one hand, and personal liberty on the other”; we are still involved in unwinnable wars; and protests still generate conflict. She concludes by wondering whether it will take more time “before novelists find the Vietnam War period appealing” and “before publishers do as well”. Or, maybe it’s that “too many people remember that period with distaste” and we need to wait until the next generation is interested in historical fiction featuring the Vietnam War. I have no answers, but, like Booth, I do find it curious.

However, Davis observes that some of Australia’s non-Vietnam war literature might, in fact, be a response, to it. One critic, he writes, has suggested that the authors of some of our First World War novels, such as McDonald’s 1915 (1979) and Malouf’s Fly away Peter (1982), “may have chosen the divided, angry and anguished climate of that time as their setting as a means of dealing indirectly with Australia’s part in the Vietnam War, where similar social schisms greeted Australian involvement”. An interesting explanation, though these could also have been a reaction to the increasing interest in “celebrating” war? Further, Davis says that the same source has suggested that “the Vietnam War is the hidden subject” of some novels set in Southeast Asia, like Christopher Koch’s The year of living dangerously (1978) and Blanche d’Alpuget’s Turtle Beach (1981). Another interesting point.

Finally, Davis suggests early in his paper, and reiterates it at the end, that the anti-war novel has a long tradition in Australian literature, and that “this has been influential in shaping the attitudes of subsequent generations of Australians to their country’s history”.

What say you?


22 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Vietnam War fiction

  1. I go out of my way to avoid other people’s opinions about the Vietnam War, especially fiction and movies. I did however appreciate North Vietnamese soldier, Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War, translated by Australian journalist Frank Palmos – see the correspondence after Lisa’s (ANZLL) review.

    My opinion is that Fly Away Peter is intended as an anti Vietnam War story. But some of the others of that time, like 1915, were part of the effort to resurrect the reputation of the Australian soldier.

    • Thanks Bill. That’s interesting about Fly away peter, and makes some sense to me . I haven’t read or seen 1915 so can’t comment on that.

      I’ll check out that post of Lisa’s tomorrow – time nor to get back to my current delightful read.

  2. Shell by Kristina Olsson explored the Vietnam War alongside the building of the Sydney opera House. The central character’s two younger brothers both volunteered to take part in the war.

    • Oh thanks Victoria, I never did get to read that book. How weird that I didn’t see it in any list given it was so well reviewed when it came out. I wish even more now that I read it.

  3. I was working at Monash on the student newspaper during the anti-war movement – right at the heart of it, I think. It impassioned everyone, to a degree. There were many, many writings about it in “Lot’s Wife”, and some were almost lyrical in their theorising.
    Years later, when it could be written about with knowledge, it transpired that the students were right and it was truly horrible. I have no idea if anyone archived their writings ..

    • M-R I was at Melb.Uni. What was striking was how different the anti-war politics were at each uni. You had Albert Langer and the CPA M-Ls (Maoists); we had Harry van Moorst and SDS which was syndicalist rather than communist; and Latrobe had Trots. I can only remember going out to Monash once for a Moratorium planning meeting; but most of the planning was above student level, with Jim Cairns, the unions and Save Our Sons. That’s my memory anyway.

      In three years I wrote one story, about Melbourne being flooded by rising sea levels rather than anti-war, which was published in the RMIT engineering magazine. It would be nice if there was a copy somewhere. Later, as, briefly, a cadet journalist, I transcribed AAP stories from the Vietnam War for Queensland country newspapers, and was able to give them a less pro-US slant. When Trove gets up to the 1970s I must check them out.

      • I didn’t realize that, Bill ! – bloody fascinating !!!
        Yes, we did indeed have Albert Langer (never referred to in any way but that full name). What a lovely young man was he – not. Unwashed, grumpy, rude .. happily he only dropped in on “Lot’s Wife” when he had an article to submitbe published.
        Oh yeah, Jim. He spent a lot of his time traipsing around the uni.s, I think.
        If I’m honest, I admit that I would always far rather play ‘500’ than talk about the War ..

      • Oh thanks Bill. How interesting re the different slants. I didn’t know you’d written stories, but I’m not surprised.

        BTW, Trove is past 1970 s for papers, like The Canberra Times, and I think Tribune, among others, that have given permission. Not sure about which, if any, Queensland papers have done so.

  4. A handy list, and there are more Australian novels than I’d expected.

    I’ve also reviewed The Rainy Season
    and (not on your list)
    *Seeing the Elephant by Portland Jones
    *R&R by Mark Dapin

    Re publications from the days of student activism: as part of my Professional Writing and Editing studies, I wrote an account based on an interview with one of the leading participants in the DRU (Draft Resisters Union). By the subject’s own choice, it’s never been published (and I’m deliberately not using his name here), but he has given permission to some schools to use with Y12 students. It will end up in the State Library of Victoria when the time is right.

    • Thanks Lisa. I had heard of Portland Jones’ book but not Mark Dapin’s. I certainly remember your love of Shell.

      How interesting, your piece on that DRU member. It will be good for it to end up at SLV but it’s great that it is being used now in some schools.

  5. The most recent work I’ve read about the Vietnam War wasn’t even set in Vietnam, but in Cambodia, where a girl and her family had to flee for safety and were held in camps for ages. The description of their starvation and illnesses was almost too much for me, but it’s nonfiction, so I don’t feel good admitting that. It’s a book called First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung. They eventually get to America, and I believe there is a second book about that time period.

    • Ah yes, thanks Melanie. I’ve read about a Vietnamese family which Cannes here via Cambodia too. Interesting how some ended up here and some on the USA … and elsewhere. I wonder about much choice they had and why one place over the other if they did have choice. Family already being in a place is one reason but otherwise?

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