Discovering Contested Territory Through Vietnamese Folk Poetry | National Humanities Center

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Discovering Contested Territory Through Vietnamese Folk Poetry

July 17, 2020

Shuford, Kevin

Vietnamese Literature; Folk Poetry; Oral History; History of Vietnam;

Until this summer institute, I had never heard of the Vietnamese folk poetry known as ca dao. To be honest, I had never even thought of Vietnamese people having a poetic tradition at all. I, like so many other Americans, had relegated Vietnam to an inert location on a map or a tidy historical category. I could barely conceive of a Vietnam beyond the context of American military intervention. Even as we learned about the legacies of European colonialism in the initial seminars, I still saw Vietnam as an almost passive landscape trodden over by successive waves of foreign invaders. In effect, I had made Vietnam a victim in its own story. That changed for me when I heard professor and poet John Balaban talk about his experience collecting and publishing for the first time the oral poetry of Vietnamese farmers. Balaban spoke of an ancient people, full of history, full of passion, and full of pride, inundated by the monsoons that swept away the architectural vestiges of power that we in the “West” have come to rely on so heavily for our historical identity. What was left was a long, beautiful tradition of oral history preserved in the daily life of simple farmers. As Balaban eloquently writes in Ca Dao Vietnam: Vietnamese Folk Poetry, poetry flourished “in villages where the lone singer can hear his or her voice against the drone of crickets, the slap of water, or the rustling of banana leaves in the wind (p. 2). This line jolted me out of my facile characterization of Vietnam and its people. Long before the French cast their colonizing net over the people of Vietnam, long before the Americans stumbled into their disastrous war, long before there even was a place called Vietnam, a lone singer could hear her voice “against the drone of crickets, the slap of water, or the rustling of banana leaves in the wind.” The theme of our institute was “Contested Territory: America’s Role in Southeast Asia.” At first glance, I assumed that we would be discussing America’s involvement in the so-called Vietnam War of the twentieth century; after two weeks of intense study, I have realized that I fundamentally misread the title of this institute. To study contested territory is not to examine how America and the Viet Cong fought bitterly over this hill or that, but rather to place America in the context of an ancient regional story that is crowded with diversity and life. “America’s Role in Southeast Asia” says nothing of dominance or destiny – it was my enculturation as an American that read into it such a teleological narrative. Contested territory, like so much else, starts, and perhaps ends, in the mind.


Literature / Fiction and Poetry / Vietnamese Literature / Folk Poetry / Oral History / History of Vietnam /

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