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.
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:
- 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?
- Alison Booth. 2015. Australian Fiction and the Vietnam War
- Geoffrey V. Davis. 2017. ‘”Wars Don’t End When the Fighting is Over”: Adib Khan’s Homecoming and the Australian Literature of the Vietnam War’, in The Journal of the European Association for Studies of Australia, 8 (2): 32-45