Introduction: Trần Hoài Thư is listed in The Anthology of Portraits of Literature, Art and Culture II. It shows this literary figure has been extensively written about and to write another article on him would indeed be a challenging undertaking.Moreover, the latter half of his life is so eventful it would take a voluminous effort to cover it all.In recent days, his life has taken so many unexpected turns that it is high time for me to write a long 50th Gold anniversary card to my friends Trần Hoài Thư and his better half Nguyễn Ngọc Yến. They tied the knot in a unique “military wedding,” knew unbounded happiness, are facing numerous ordeals as they were about to enter their eighties. On this occasion, I would like to venture that doctoral candidates would be well served to choose Trần Hoài Thư and his efforts to restore theHeritage of Literature of South Vietnam 1954 – 1975 / Di Sản Văn Học Miền Nam 1954 – 1975as a topic for their thesis. They will find in it an extremely rich and exciting topic worthy of commitment and discovery. There is not much time left. To borrow thewords of the young author Trần Vũ, the watch on Trần Hoài Thư’s wrist shows it is 5 to midnight – once those five ephemeral minutes are gone, Trần Hoài Thư would join the rank of the departed “người của trăm năm cũ”andeverything would be irretrievably covered by the dust of time.
Picture 1: left, teacherTrần Hoài Thư (1967) at the age of 25, warrant lieutenant and leader of the Scout Ranger platoon of the 22nd Infantry Division. [source: Lương Trọng Minh];right, half a century later, authorTrần Hoài Thư (2017) age 75 binding the Di sản Văn học Miền Nambook in the basement of his house at719 Coolidge Street, Plainfield, New Jersey 07062 which also serves as the address of Thư Ấn Quán andthe editorial office for Thư Quán Bản Thảo.[ source: a still frame of THT from a selfie video done with an iPhone 5; Chân Dung VHNT & VH, Việt Ecology Press 2017 ]
TRẦN HOÀI THƯ – A BIOGRAPHY
Trần Hoài Thư, given name Trần Quí Sách, was born on 12/16/1942 in Dalat. In early childhood, his father lost contact with the family and he lived with his mother in the coastal city of Nha Trang. He also spent some time at the Bethlehem Orphanage in Hòn Chồng. After he was reunited with his father - a scholar still wearing the traditional black áo dài - THT attended the Quốc Học Huế then the University of Science in Saigon. From 1964 to 1966 he taught mathematics at Trần Cao Vân High School, Tam Kỳ, Quảng Tín Province (now incorporated into the Quảng Nam Province).
In 1967, he received training at the Thủ Đức Military Academy – Class of 24. Later assigned to the 405 Scout Ranger Company of the 22nd Infantry Division, THT was wounded three times. The first one, when a bullet from a VC AK tore through his left chest as his unit was sent to reinforce the battle of Quy Nhơn during the Tết Offensive of 1968. Consequently, THT was treated at the Military Hospital at Quy Nhơn. The other two wounds were caused by grenade fragments during ferocious engagements in Bình Định Province: the first time on the Kỳ Sơn Hill where 4 officers lost their lives and two were wounded including THT. The second one during the battle in the coconut region of Bồng Sơn. After 4 years and 3 Purple Hearts, THT was reassigned from the Scout Ranger company to serve as a war correspondent in IV Corps. There, he met Ngọc Yến, his wife to be. She is a native of Cần Thơ and a fervent fan of his.
A LOVE BORN IN LITERATURE
Trần Hoài Thư picked up his pen in 1964. It could be sooner. He made his debut with his first short story Nước Mắt Tuổi Thơ that appeared on the magazine Bách Khoa Sài Gòn. In later years, he became a contributor to Văn, Văn Học, Đời, Bộ Binh, Thời Tập, Vấn Đề, Khởi Hành, and Ý Thức ...
We cannot ascertain when the Cần Thơ beauty Nguyễn Ngọc Yến was first introduced to and became a fan of Trần Hoài Thư. In the Sóng Văn Journal (1997), Ngọc Yến confided: “it is the love of literature that led our two ways to cross and writer Nguyễn Lệ Uyên acted as the matchmaker.” For a long time, I was convinced it was Lê Ngộ Châu the editor of Bách Khoa who brought them together. With the help of Đỗ Nghê, I was able to contact Nguyễn Lệ Uyên who responded on the same night with an email dated 05.05.2021:
“The story goes like this: while at the School of Pedagogy, Can Tho University, (1968), I was late enrolling for a couple of days and found myself in a bind. Fortunately, I met Yến who worked at the Administration Office. She put in a kind word for me with the Dean. We became good friends because she knew I authored several short stories published by Văn, Khởi Hành ... she loves literature, is a bookworm and rarely misses reading a literary publication. I looked up to her as my big sister since she was 7 or 8 years my senior. Each time I received a payment for my writing I would take her out to eat. Then, in an issue of Văn featuring young writers both the short stories written by me and Trần Hoài Thư were published. As customary, when I received the author’s royalties, I took her to eat bún bò Huế at the Mister Ba Mập joint in Bình Thủy, on the direction of Long Xuyên. Enjoying the spicy food, with her mouth on fire and tears running down her eyes she commented that the dish is good. While we were eating, she asked if I knew THT and what I thought of his story. Of course, I knew him very well. He often travelled from Quy Nhơn to Tuy Hòa and spent a couple of days each time with his literary friends. After meals, he usually stayed at my place.
In my mind, I only suspected that the purpose of her inquiry was to gain more information about the author but never imagined that she was infatuated with his works, sympathized with the wretched antagonists in his stories to the point of identifying them with the author. She ended up falling in love with him and the stories! At the close of 1969 or start of 1970 our group of students organized a weekly show of music and poem reading at the big auditorium. It was during one of those events that she opened up about her true feelings for Thư. She asked me about his family status, personal activities, character … Now, everything became as clear as day. Outdoing myself as a writer, I tried to create an exceptional persona out of Thư. I painted THT in a more flattering light turning him into a tough, macho, romantic individual like Hemingway’s old man sailing alone in the open sea.That night, I wrote Thư a 4- or 5-page letter telling him about Yến. I related faithfully what I knew or heard about her, her look, behaviors, and respectable family background (her father was a teacher and the superintendent at Phan Thanh Giản High School).I told THT, he’d find in her an ideal spouse and he should not let this golden opportunity slip through his fingers. Yến and I lived not far from each other. Each time we met, we talked about literature, sang the praise of Mr. Quí Sách. I encouraged her to write him and learned more about the antagonists in his stories. Several meetings later, I told her point blank that Thư though not a perfect man would make a good husband …” [end of quote]
From that day on, the address of Toà soạn Bách Khoa served as a P.O. Box for the girl from the Mekong Delta to correspond with the vagabond soldier Trần Hoài Thư. On a fateful day, the place was also used as the location for their first meeting. It took place on the occasion Thư was on a short leave and obtained a date to see Yến at Bách Khoa’s office. THT showed up late because he was kept too long by his friends. By the time Đỗ Nghê took Thư to the address at 160 Phan Đình Phùng Street, Yến already left piqued. It was Lê Ngộ Châu who left in haste on Yến’s trail to bring her back to meet THT. Not long after, they became husband and wife in a wedding ceremony on 6/18/1971.Those dear memories shared with Lê Ngộ Châu remained forever engraved in THT’s mind.
Nguyễn Lệ Uyên continued: “To make the story short, as if by predestiny, after we finished a flaming hot bowl of bún bò Huế I bought her, the two of them had a date at the Bách Khoa’s office, exchanged the vow in June,1971. At that time, I was a cadet at the Thủ Đức Military Academy when this short note arrived: Thư and I will get married on the day ... month ... year ... Try to get a leave to come and attend our wedding to make our joy complete".
It was a typical “military wedding” in Saigon. The simplest one possible, attended by about ten friends at a house in the Bàn Cờ area. No ceremony to take the bride to the groom’s house. Not even a wedding ring.
THE SMALL AND BIG BLESSINGS
In the issue No. 181 of Văn Journal dated 07/1971, author Trần Phong Giao wrote: “In the past, the small blessing happened when you got married and the big one when you passed the court’s examinations. With the young writers of today who have to “give up their pens to pick up the rifles” the big blessing would no longer be passing the court’s examinations but probably when they see their works being published. Trần Hoài Thư, the prolific young author of our day, knows both joys at the same time. On the 18th of Junehetied the knot with Miss Nguyễn Ngọc Yến in Saigon with an intimate circle of friends. On June 23, at 7:30 PM, Ý Thức Printing House organized a book launch for Trần Hoài Thư’s first work “Những Vì Sao Vĩnh Biệt”. After the celebration of the small and big blessings, Trần Hoài Thư had to rush back to hisunit in II Corps. Our soldier was only allowed a week leave. All hustle bustle. No honeymoon, no time to give his new book to friends and relatives. That’s how things went! On this happy occasion, we would like to wish our friends Thư -Yến a joy pure, lasting, and steadfast.We also are looking forward for many new works by the author of “Những Vì Sao Vĩnh Biệt.” Works that would be cerebral as well as cardinal."
In the following year, the couple was blessed with their first and only son Trần Quí Thoại. To this day, half a century later (1971-2021), the lovers Thư-Yến still enjoy a long, pure happiness that outlasts countless tribulations.
Picture 3:right, authorTrần Phong Giao,editorial secretary, of Văn [ photo by Lê Phương Chi]; center, the press release in the issue No.181 of Văn July 1971 announcing THT’s marriage: small blessing, andthe publication of his first book: big blessing; left, book cover of Những Vì Sao Vĩnh Biệt showing the name of Nhóm Ý Thức Printing House 1971. [private collection Thư Quán Bản Thảo]
Actually, Trần Hoài Thư’s first book Nỗi Bơ Vơ của Bầy Ngựa Hoang was also published by Ý Thức Printing House in 1969, in Phan Rang a small town of South Vietnam in “limited edition”- meaning it did not pass censorship. The two-color book cover was designed by Lê Ký Thương while the zinc plate used in printing it was done with the Cliché Dầu Sài Gòn process. The typo printing was done using a rudimentary pedal machine. Since this is a two-color cover, the printing was done twice. One color each time. The text was printed on stencil papers using a ronéo machine. The first edition of 100 copies was launched and distributed by Huy Hoàng Bookstore in Nha Trang which was also the town where Trần Hoài Thư spent his difficult youth. Nỗi Bơ Vơ của Bầy Ngựa Hoang was received by the readers in the South in complete surprise and amazement.
Picture 4: The Three Musketeers – who in one way or the other played a partin Trần Hoài Thư’s life, from left: Lê Ký Thương, the designer of the book cover for Nỗi Bơ Vơ của Bầy Ngựa Hoang, THT’s first work, published by Ý Thức (1969); Nguyễn Lệ Uyên, “the matchmaker” in the marriage of the lovers Ngọc Yến - THT (1969); Đỗ Nghê the driver who took THT to his first date with Ngọc Yến at Bách Khoa’s editorial office (1970). [private collection Đỗ Nghê, photo by Cao Kim Quy, Lê Ký Thương’s wife at their house on 09/05/2021]
WAR CORRESPONDENT IN IV CORPS
It was a miracle that Trần Hoài Thư survived the four years he served in a scout ranger platoon and was wounded three times. After he started a family, Trần Hoài Thư gave serious thoughts to the need to settle down. He was convinced he must live to continue to write as a witness of the war. In an unusual move, in complete disregard to the military hierarchy of command, a most grave breach of military discipline, Trần Hoài Thư wrote a personal letter to the top commanding general of the General Department of Political War, expressing his desire to remain with the military but be transferred to serve under the general as a war correspondent. Attached to the letter were, newspaper clips of the articles he wrote, his published books and naturally the details pertaining to the three times he was wounded and the medals he received
Not long afterward, a most extraordinary thing happened. It did not take long that Trần Hoài Thư wrote to inform Yến: “I could not imagine that being an officer in the Intelligence Departmentthe mission order I was issued stated:this officer must serve in a combat unit, away fromany traffic axis.Nevertheless, the written order from theGeneral Department of PoliticalWaradvised me that itapproved my requestand let me choose the Corps I wished to be assigned to: I, II, III, IV or the Capital Corps. Naturally I chose IV Corps where you live, my faithful reader, my new bride. I think I am the luckiest of the lucky because it is extremely rare for a soldier to be allowed to select his preferred assignment like me in the entire land of the South.”
As an inner thought, THT wrote: “A million thanks to literature. Thanks to literature the bell chimes so vibrantly, conveying such magical joy and exultation. Thanks to literature I forgot my humblelot, thanks to literature I feel myself in such an elated state.”
Hành Phương Nam / Journey to the South reflects the new writing style of a different Trần Hoài Thư, of a soldier moving from the Highland to the Delta:
“Phương Nam. I became familiar with thebuggies or dinghies. Or the boundless fields. Or the melaleuca and mangrove forests. I learned to get acquainted with the swamps where you could sink as deep as your neck. The rows of cassiafistula, clumps of sesbania sesban, religious preachingresounding in the moonlit night, people as gentle as doves guided by love and obligations in their dealing with each other. I am thankful to Heaven for allowing me to finally find a haven after long days of tribulation… The door was flung open, the door of the South, to welcome me. The fragrance of rice stalks, the scent of areca nuts, the smell of the earth mixed with alluvia ... they permeated the air, haunting your memory. That door’s panelswere made of braids of red plums, resplendent under the blue sky. Everywhere, in back gardens, on the banks of canals, in front ofhouses, the sides of ponds, the shoulders of national routes, you see treesweighed down with fruits. Some red, others green, some bright pink. They look inviting like the sweet and rosy lips you want to bite into – so full and round like the breast of an adolescent girl;plump,bright and cheerfullike the flush pink cheeks of a country girl wearing a checkered scarf and ferrying the travelers who are reluctant to bid her goodbye across the river on a summer day.
Crossing the river,
When the plums are ripening
The sunny month,
The weary traveler
You go to the garden in the back
Pick for me a bunch of fruits
The plum flowers fall like dusts
The skin of the plums
Look as rosy as your lips
Oh! the corners of the eyes
The bright pink cheeks
I fall in love with the little girl
I linger on reluctant to leave
The plum that enters maturation
I want to keep not wanting to bite ...
APE MAN TRẦN HOÀI THƯ
Unfortunately, good things did not last long. On April 30, 1975 another upheaval occurred. Trần Hoài Thư was sent to the reeducation camp when his son was only two-years old. The plump tree in the back yard was covered with white flowers, as white as the hair on his maternal grandmother’s head.
More than four years of hard labor. During the first few months, he was detained at the old Trung tâm Huấn luyện Chi Lăng, in the Tịnh Biên District, An Giang Province. He was subsequently transferred to the Kiên Lương Prison, in a deserted marshland area northwest of Kiên Giang City on the Cambodian border.
Like with any other communist re-education camps, at Kiên Lương, the prisoners did not starve to death but were kept in a constant state of hunger. Even when it was located in the heart of the Mekong Delta’s rice bowl that could feed the entire country.
In a humane gesture, the camp’s management allowed the prisoners to set up a group to improve their food intake: they are tasked to grow and harvest vegetables to add fresh food to their diet. Kiên Lương lies in a low land region of the Long Xuyên Quadrangle. The vast melaleuca forests teemed with fish, shrimps, and snails. Under those circumstances, THT volunteered to join the so-called group the other prisoners wanted to stay away from because of their fear of leeches, boas, and serpents that thrived in the forests. They also dreaded the alum in the water that could damage their skin or be stuck in the sinking sand of the swamps. The environment was so inhospitable the camp commander saw no need to assign guards to watch over the group since there was no place for them to escape to. However, for a scout well trained in survival skills like THT, this was the opportune time for him to live in freedom. Our modern reluctant Robinson Crusoe wrote: “I, on my part, wished to avoid the probing eyes. In the forest, at least I found the freedom to scream, sing, defecate, laugh to my heart’s content. I wanted to hold my life and the white clouds in a tight embrace. I desired to sit on the Melaleucatree like an ape man.”
The source of fish was plentiful: snake heads, catfish, perches … They were caught using homemade hooks and fat worms that were readily available. The prisoner condemned to hard labor THT could easily meet his “daily quota” of catch and bring it back to his group in a sand bag. Naturally, the best catch would be reserved for the camp commanders while the rest were sent to the communal kitchen to improve the protein intake of the prisoners.
As long as he lives, THT will always cherish the image of Yến’s face covered with dust and smoke from the charcoal driven bus she took each time she came to see him at the camp.
Eventually he was released and THT returned to Cần Thơ, his wife’s homeland. In an emaciated body weighing only 35 kilograms, he started a new life under “probation” or more precisely under surveillance.
During the day, from sunrise to sunset, he pedaled his rickety bicycle with a styrofoam box in the back to go from village to village ringing a bell and selling ice cream to the children to earn a living. It was exactly his bell ringing to amuse the children that gained the sympathy of a boat owner who was searching for a scout for his coming sea trip. He offered THT a free ticket on his boat knowing full well his extreme poverty. The catch: What about his wife and child? It was only much later that THT found out that it was his wife Ngọc Yến who took the initiative behind his back to go and plead with that man to let him go on the trip. The boat owner advised her: “You should give it some morethought. I don’t want you two to separate.” But Yến insisted: “I’m determined to see him leave. Please give him a chance”.
Trần Hoài Thư wrote: “To leave or not to leave? I was torn by that dilemma. If I stayed, the two of us would eventually die. If I left, I was afraid it’d be without return. I had a look at that boat. About 20 meters in length built with wooden planks destined for river travel. Who would ever think of using that flimsy boat to brave the mighty waves of the ocean?”It was Yến who urged him to grab that chance and go. He went on: “I took the plunge. I chose that dastardly decision. I was being selfish to the extreme.
But before I could leave, I had to figure out a way to convince the neighbors that I left without my family’s consent. Otherwise, Yến would lose her job because the lady who lived next door was a communist party member. It was nobody else but Yến’s mother, a kind hearted and totally honest lady, who came up with a dramatic plot. She told the two of us: “Children, we have to act this out. You two must pretend that you are having a fight and make the neighbors believe you are going your separate way. You know too well that the lady next door is a party member.
I had to show that I neglected, betrayedmy wife and child. The act required two players: a husband and wife. The space was the kitchen. The time: in the afternoon. Smashing of bottles, pans flying, screaming, shouting, crying the louder the better. Thư: “I am fed up with this family. This place repulses me. I will smash everything up, I’ll destroyeverything.”Followed by Yến: “From now on I don’t want to see your face again …” The two of us turned out to be first class actors. So good that my son who was only 6 at the time got really frightened and bursted into tears. And my mother-in-law started to sob. And only three people knew what was really happening.
I left when my child was deep in his angelic sleep. With only the clothes I was wearing. My wife stood at the head of the alley watching me walk away.After that, she went back to our room, hugged the pillow then cried as if she never cried like that before.”
It was near the close of 1979, he left on the day he regained his civil rights.
FREEDOM OR DEATH
Leaving behind a wife and child, Trần Hoài Thư got on a tiny riverboat packed like sardines with 93 persons aboard. It was an eventful trip but they eventually reached the shore of freedom on Pulau Bidong Island in Malaysia.
“At the end he knelt down on his knees and kissed the sand on the beach in thanksgiving. He found the freedom he long sought. Oh! How could the sea now look so placid and blue? The waves were so gentle? He knelt while his two hands were trying to ward off the blows, punches, and kicks of a Malaysian soldier. He closed his eyes, not uttering a moan, a supplication. He did so while fully realizing it was the price he had to pay for leaving on such a trip and accepting the lot of a person who no longer hada nationality. ‘This land belongs to our Yang di-Pertuan Agong, the king, this beach belongs to our Yang di-Pertuan Agong, the king … And you, a stateless wanderer, you only bring misery and problems to this land.’”
“… Keep heaping scornand curse, you the soldier wearing a black beret, holding a baton, with a revolver hanging by your side. Freedom is not earned easily like going on a tour. Many people were not so fortunate. Many people found their resting place at the bottom of the sea. Many girls were raped and kidnapped. And there was a girl with her long hairflying in the air as she plunged into the sea. That’s not all! There were countless souls navigating in the infinity of days and nights, with no food, no water, over reefs, corals, waters infested with sharks…Freedom or death. Death or freedom. You can keep on beating me, I will willingly sufferthe pain you inflict upon me, the blood I spit out of my mouth, it’s nothing compared to the darkness I left behind. I have waited for too long in atomb. I have wanted to jump into the sea to find death when thinking I would be forced to turn back. Now I see the light. It is as bright as thousands of blessed radiances. It possesses no shape, no form but feels as comforting as the smell of life-giving medicine in an emergency room. I do not blame you. I do not feel angry at you. Because I will stand up even on my shaky feet, in the most excruciating pain.” 
Khi Tôi Đi Rồi, the poignant poem written by Trần Hoài Thư when he had to leave behind his wife, and son to embark on a perilous adventure at sea in search of freedom:
"... I walk away leaving the city behind
Farewell to you my homeland for the last time
I have a son, he’s not even four years old *
I have an old mother, her hair as white as the dew
I have a wife who has suffered the vagaries of life
Tonight, tonight, Oh God, I left everything behind
Once on the sea, I may lose my life
Leave behind my country, live in exile
Once that I left, I would lose everything, my two hands empty
In the vast, boundless immensity of the sea
Once that I left, my soul would never be free
From the unending calls of love from my country.
( *In 1979, his son was six years old )
On the island, the long wait however was full of expectation. When the interviewer of the American team asked for proof of his being an officer or soldier of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), THT opened his shirt and pointed to the big scar that took a good part of his left nipple; he was then asked what he planned to do if he was allowed to go to the U.S., THT answered he was a writer and would continue to write about the misfortune of the war and its aftermath. That’s the end of the exchange. The American interviewer smiled, shook his hand and wished him well. Soon afterward, THT was able to resettle in the U.S.. In the beginning, he was flown to Maryland to live in a small pagoda, then in a church and several other places.
NGỌC YẾN – THE AGONY OF THE PERSON WHO STAYED BEHIND
Prior to 1975, Ngọc Yến served as administrative secretary to the president of Cần Thơ University, Professor Nguyễn Duy Xuân. After 1975, the communists detained him in a reeducation camp for 11 years. He breathed his last at the Hà Nam Ninh camp in North Vietnam.
As Yến later explained, at the beginning, the communists thought that her title of secretary to the president of the University implied that she held an important position. That would make her a potential target for being purged. Fortunately, Yến was spared from being sent to a reeducation camp or losing her job thanks to the report from the “people”, the other university’s employees, who described her as a gentle person whose job consisted of taking care of the paperworks, typing documents with no other authority.
That was not the end of the story, however. Yến remained under the watchful eye of the university’s party secretary. She was constantly being reminded that her husband was an officer of the ancient regime who fled the homeland and she should forget him in order to build a new life. At that time, she was the mother of a child, still young and attractive in the eyes of many communist cadres. The party wanted her to consent to an arranged marriage with a captain who also worked at the university. In spite of her pitiful, low-level salary she had no choice but to hold on to her job in order to keep the Household book and the food voucher she and her child depended on. Utterly indignant, but in no position to turn down the party’s decision, she asked to be given some time for her sorrow to heal.
Beginning in 1980, after learning that her husband was safe in the U.S., Ngọc Yến made up her mind to cross the ocean with her son who was not yet seven. Another “free ride” from a boat owner with a “Buddha” heart. The trip proved perilous. Suffering from hunger, thirst and attacks by pirates followed by long days of begging for food in an out-of-the-way small village in Thailand.
THE DAY A FAMILY WAS REUNITED
Trần Hoài Thư recalled, for some unknown reason, Colonel Nguyễn Bé the former commander of the Training Center for Rural Construction Officer at Chí Linh Vũng Tàu, got hold of THT’s telephone number. He told Thư he just received a letter from Thailand. Without waiting for the letter to be forwarded to him, Thư asked Colonel Bé to open it and read the content to him over the telephone. The message was short: “Our son and I are now in Thailand.”
Thanks to the blessings from his pious ancestors, Thư was reunited with his family. Almost forty, THT clearly knew that his only ticket for a brighter future was to go back to college. On the counsel of a young friend, he met at the church, THT moved his family from Maryland to Philadelphia. The only place they could afford was an apartment in a slum in the northern part of the city. It was in a poor neighborhood teeming with newly arrived refugees from Indochina like Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. A lone brave Korean was fearless enough to open a Grocery store there. Criminals visited mostly from the outside and behaved as if they came to a no man’s land. One night, the door on the first floor of the Korean’s store was smashed open and people were seen carrying out big or small boxes. THT called 911. He was told by the police the store was insured and the owner would be paid by the insurance company. The police also, warned him to be cautious because if those guys knew he reported on them they might exact revenge against him. Danger was lurking everywhere. His family had no choice but stay put in that tiny rat hole of an apartment with the windows studded with 10 cm long nails and always shut for protection.
Trần Hoài Thư went back to school while his wife worked as an electronic assembler earning minimum wage. They took turns taking their son to class and at the end of the school day he would have to walk home alone. He was still too young and short to reach the door lock, prompting Thư to stack two bricks on top each other so that his son could reach the knob to open the door on his own. At that time, THT enrolled as a full-time student with Spring Garden College majoring in computer science. During the day, he attended classes and held a janitor job cleaning offices at night to make ends meet.
The couple was fully aware of the law in the U.S. requiring that a minor should not be left alone in the house regardless of how busy the parents were. They took turn calling to check on the child. Should he fail to pick up the phone, Thư would immediately leave his class and rush home to find out. Most of the time, he simply was sleeping and did not hear the phone ringing.
In the end, THT completed his four-year program in computer science and graduated in the top five of his class. When the AT&T recruiting team showed up at his school looking for outstanding graduates THT passed a strenuous interview and was offered a job with the company’s branch in New Jersey. That explained why the family moved to the state where only a few Vietnamese lived. New Jersey now became the promised land for them. They rented a house since Thư no longer worked at a blue-collar job. With the higher income, they were able to save and eventually bought a four-bedroom house they are still living in to this day. Their son Thoại finished high school with flying colors and was admitted to a seven-year program at a medical school. He graduated and now works as a medical doctor.
At his job, Thư proved to be capable, full of initiative and gifted in mathematics. As a result, AT&T made a long-term investment in him and paid for his higher education on a part-time basis. Two years later, Thư obtained a Master of Applied Mathematics. He continued to advance in his career. After his branch was bought by IBM, Thư was promoted to Project Leader and worked in that position until his retirement day.
THE RESTORATION OF THE LITERARY HERITAGE OF THE SOUTH
Since 2001, though still holding a job Trần Hoài Thư and Phạm Văn Nhàn, his soldier friend joined hands to establish the magazine Thư Quán Bản Thảo and Thư Ấn Quán publishing house.
When the IBM office was outsourced to India, THT decided to retire. Freed from the need to earn a living, Thư deemed it the propitious time for him to realize his dream. He could devote all his efforts to the completion of his collection DI SẢN VĂN CHƯƠNG MIỀN NAM/ THE LITERARY HERITAGE OF THE SOUTH.
Trần Hoài Thư has the magnanimity of heart to labor singlehandedly over the years striving to restore the literary works of a time the Vietnamese communists did their utmost to track down and destroy.
Picture 6:left, Phạm Ngọc Lư, Trần Hoài Thư, Nguyễn Lệ Uyên, Phạm Văn Nhàn. [ source: private collection Nguyễn Lệ Uyên, Picture taken in 1969 ]; right, Trần Hoài Thư and Phạm Văn Nhàn, two comrades in armsand currently (2021)companions at the magazine Thư Quán Bản Thảo and Thư Ấn Quán publishing house. The pair works in tandem to restore the Di Sản Văn Chương Miền Nam/The Literary Heritage of the South; right, Trần Hoài Thư and Phạm Văn Nhàn on the summit of mount Watchung Green Brook, N.J.. In 1777, General George Washington used this peak to observe the movements of the British troops. Now known as Washington Rock State Park it boasts an extremely beautiful 30-mile-long scenic routevery popular with tourists. [photo by Tô Thẩm Huy]
AT THE LIBRARY OF CORNELL UNIVERSITY
Using the library system at the large American universities, Thư succeeded in getting hold of a number of publications in South Vietnam. The library at Yale was relatively close to his home – just about two hours driving. The renowned Vietnamese scholar Huỳnh Sanh Thông worked there. He translated the Tale of Kiều by Nguyễn Du into English and provided materials to the writer Võ Phiến to complete his work Văn Học Miền Nam/ the Literature of South [Vietnam]. Then, there was also the library at Cornell, somewhat farther away, approximately 5 hours by car. However, its Southeast Asia Section contained the most exhaustive collection of published materials of South Vietnam.
Usually, Trần Hoài Thư only drove during the daytime when it’s still bright. At nightfall, Yến took over because her husband tended to doze off when it’s dark. The drive was very dangerous going through mountain passes and sleets in the winter. Twice they had a brush with death driving on their way to Cornell on a treacherous road covered with slippery sleets. It was quite astonishing that Cornell could amass such a huge number of publications from South Vietnam – even a leaflet used during the “chiêu hồi” campaign to induce the communists to surrender to the government.
Probably because he has the DNA of a scout ranger, THT was very audacious in his work habits. Leaving the house at 4 AM when it’s still dark Yến would be at the wheel until dawn. It’s then THT’s turn to drive. They would usually arrive at Cornell at 10AM and immediately plunged into work at the Asia section of the library, searching, perusing, taking notes, making photocopies until sundown. After a short lunch break then it’s back to work again until the time to head home. It’s like that not only for one day but many days; not only for one week but many weeks, for years on end. The tens of thousands of pages on poetry, literature of South Vietnam found at Thư Ấn Quán Publishing House testified to the laborious and tenacious collecting of this couple over the months and years up to 2012.
Picture 7: top, Cornell Universitywas founded in 1865.It is the most extensive repositoryof publications from South Vietnam for the period of 20 years from 1954 to 1975; bottom, Trần Hoài Thư at the Cornell University Library from the time his hair was still black until the time it turned as grey as dew. [source: private collection Trần Hoài Thư].
As for the printing machine and equipment, THT went on Craigslist to look for the things he needed at a bargain or at times free. Once the price was agreed upon, he would show up at the given address with a screwdriver in the pocket. People would ask: “How could you move the machine weighing a ton or so?” I smiled and said “I have my way.” I started dismantling the machine to its barest minimum: fuser, paper box, ink, assembly parts, frame… The American owners watched me work in amazement, astonished. My only problem was ink. I could buy it on eBay but could not vouch for the quality.
So, 46 years have gone by 1975-2021, life also unfolds like a passing breeze, history evolves in the blink of an eye, entailing so much suffering and tragedy. Another blink and the generation of writers (1954-1975) would have returned to dusk where they came from. A number of them would still be remembered through their works but, at the same time, we must not forget the wretchedness they suffered in their lives or the painful death they met at the communist camps. The Literature of South Vietnam would not be complete without a “white paper” for that period in history, an open Wikipedia, like a memory bank for the use of the Vietnamese generations of the future.
Picture 8: left, the street address 719 Coolidge Street, Plainfield, New Jersey 07062 is where Trần Hoài Thư and his wife have lived for almost 30 years. It is also the address of Thư Ấn Quán Publishing Houseand the editorial office of Thư Quán Bản Thảo; right, author Trần Hoài Thư assiduously at work cutting to size the issues of Thư Quán Bản Thảo. Hopefully, one day, this place will be kept as a literary landmark of the first Vietnamese generationto be bequeathed to future ones. [photo by Phạm Cao Hoàng]
Prior to 1975
1. Nỗi bơ vơ của bầy ngựa hoang; 2. Những vì sao vĩnh biệt; 3. Ngọn cỏ ngậm ngùi; 4. Một nơi nào để nhớ.
1. Ra biển gọi thầm (Tập truyện); 2. Ban Mê Thuột ngày đầu ngày cuối (Tập truyện ); 3. Về hướng mặt trời lặn (Tập truyện); 4. Mặc niệm chiến tranh (Tập truyện); 5. Đại đội cũ, trang sách cũ (Tập truyện); 6. Thế hệ chiến tranh (Tập truyện); 7. Thủ Đức gọi ta về (Tạp bút); 8. Đánh giặc ở Bình Định (tự truyện); 9. Hành trình của một cổ trắng (truyện vừa); 10. Ở một nơi trên Trường Sơn (tập truyện); 11. Truyện từ Bách Khoa (Tập truyện); 12. Truyện từ Văn (Tập truyện); 13. Truyện từ Trình Bày, Văn Học, Khởi Hành ... (Tập truyện); 14. Truyện từ Vấn Đề (Tập truyện); 15. Tản mạn văn chương (tập I); 16. Giấc mơ Giáng Sinh (Tập truyện); 17. Cảm tạ Văn chương (Hồi ức).
1. Thơ Trần Hoài Thư; 2. Ngày vàng; 3. Nhủ đời bao dung; 4. Ô cửa; 5. Xa xứ; 6. Quán; 7.Vịnvào lục bát
TWO WORKS THAT WERE MISPLACED AFTER THE WAR
1. Của Chiến Tranh;
2. Một Ngày Gạo Ba Ngày Hành Quân.
Both in and out of uniform, Trần Hoài Thư was quite prolific. In just two months living at Tháp Chàm with Phạm Văn Nhàn, he completed a medium size novel titled Của Chiến Tranh.He trusted the book to Rev Từ MẫnVõ Thắng Tiết * director of Publisher Lá Bối but it never passed censure. After the event of April 1975, the book was misplaced.
[ *After 1975, Từ Mẫn Võ Thắng Tiết joined the rank of boat people. He left on the same boat with the author Nhật Tiến. At first, he resettled in Alaska, then moved to Southern California where he established the prestigious Văn Nghệ Publishing House. He retired after running it for many successful years.]
The second book Một Ngày Gạo Ba Ngày Hành Quânis a long story. Author Thế Uyên, at the time, was managing Thái Độ Publishing and Tủ sách Văn Nghệ Xám.
[ Thái Độ also published the novel Vòng Đai Xanh by Ngô Thế Vinh ]. In spite of the aggressive attempts by Thế Uyên, it failed to pass the censure of the bureau for “phối hợp văn học nghệ thuật” in the Ministry of Information. After April 1975, this manuscript suffered the same sad fate of its predecessor.
Those two works were advertised in the news media but never saw the light of day. They were works that were lost, war casualties, forever falling into oblivion.
The human death toll of the war has been compiled and made public. What about the literary loss? Will historians be willing to address it?
Picture 10: left, Scout Ranger First Lieutenant Trần Hoài Thư’shappiness in holding his child (1974); right,Trần Quí Thoại, Trần Hoài Thư’s son, at the Science Fair sponsored and organized by Bell Lab. Thoại gave a lecture on the topic of “scientific researchon the magnetic field of superconductors” for which he received an award. Trần Hoài Thư and Ngọc Yến were in the audience and proud of their child. Watching Thoại’s achievement, it’s hard not to raise this question: what would have become of Thoại, the son of an officer of the ancient “renegade” regime, if he still lives in Vietnam? Probably a buffalo boy!Now, he’s living in a new continent, another country and finds all doors are open to him to advance. Trần Quí Thoại is now a medical doctor. [source: private collection Trần Hoài Thư]
Picture 11: left, the designs on a ceramic plate crafted by Trần Quí Thoại for his father; center, drawing by Trần Quí Thoại showing cảnh “Con Vịn Cha/Son leaning on father”; right, the latest photo showing “Cha Vịn Con/Father leaning on son”.
Son Leaning on Father
Father Leaning on Son
The handrail! Dad
Straighten your back Dad
Now lean on me Dad
You taught me to step
On the mud to move ahead
Hand in hand I led
You across the street
I tiptoed, I gave you my hand
You hesitated Dad
You paused after each step
All of a sudden I felt warmth
Running all over your body.
Picture 12: left, Trần Hoài Thư, the former icecream seller graduating with a Master in Applied Mathematics fromthe Institute of Technology Steven New Jersey on 05.24.2005; right, Trần Hoài Thư in a happy family reunion on the occasion of his graduation: Nguyễn Ngọc Yến, Trần Hoài Thư and their son Trần Quí Thoại. Thoại is now a medical doctor.
NGỌC YẾN SUFFERED A STROKE IN THE AFTERMATH OF HURRICANE SANDY
A month after Hurricane Sandy devastated New Jersey, Ngọc Yến suffered a stroke in December of 2012. There was advance warning before Hurricane Sandy struck. Not so with the stroke that Ngọc Yến suffered. She was taken by surprise when it came and rendered the left side of her body paralyzed. It also hit Trần Hoài Thư with the force of an earthquake. Yến could not move her left arm and left leg, sit, stand, retain command of the left side of her body at all. In Thư’s mind, Yến’s journey on her via dolorosa began on that day.
Learning from the care his wife received at the hospital, Trần Hoài Thư made changes to their house i.e., adding steps to the door, handrails ... to better accommodate the new physical conditions of his wife. Thư quickly learned how to transfer her from the wheelchair to the bed, help her take care of personal hygiene like bathing, dressing, changing diapers and basic physical therapy. He did everything in such a fast and tidy way that astonished even professional therapists and home caregivers. Thư tried his best to create a normal family atmosphere for Yến to live in. His happiness consisted of seeing to it that Yến had a good appetite, a good sleep, saying she’s happy. He accepted what Providence had in store for them and learned that: happiness grew deeper when it was born out of tribulations. Thư used his pen to bare his thoughts: “Each day I find a way to bring joy to Yến. Likewise, each day I conceal from Yến my sorrow.”
Things do not stop there. The initial stroke was followed by a second then a third. By May 2015, it became no longer practical for Yến to be cared for round the clock at home. She was moved to a nursing home by order of the doctor who saw it as the only way to save both Yến and Trần Hoài Thư.
For 11 long years [from 2001 to 2012], Ngọc Yến, THT’s life long companion, has walked by his side and helped him immeasurably in the restoration of the Di Sản Văn Học Miền Nam/Literary Heritage of the South.
“Yến helped drive me on long trips to the library of CornellUniversity, bind books a thousand of pages thick or carry boxes of paper I bought at a bargain. She helped me write addresses, stuff books into envelopes, stick on the postage, or point out the mistakes I made. When we received a book order, she never failed telling me I should send it out free as a gift. She has the heart of the Buddha. Losing Yến, I lost my right arm. I no longer have my “rock” to lean on.”
For many years, like clockwork, Trần Hoài Thư turned “housewife” cooked two hot Vietnamese meals for Yến to eat at the hospital. She refused to eat American food. Thư would find excuses to stay at Yến’s bedside as long as possible. Their son practiced medicine out of town but came home on weekends to go with his father and visit Yến. He knew how to make his mother happy, even making her jealous of his father.
THE ANECDOTE: MR. TRẦN HOÀI THƯ MARRIES THE GAL NAMED PHƯƠNG”
When the father and son came to see Yến she usually called Thư “Thoại’s dad” using the name of her son in the appellation. One day, out of the blue, she turned her back to Thư and refused to talk to him. For no apparent reason, she completely changed her way of addressing him. Instead of calling him “Thoại’s dad” she referred to him as “Mr. Trần Hoài Thư”. Yến accused him: “You’re waiting for me to die to marry that gal Phương, aren’t you?” Upon hearing those words, Thư was scared out of his wit and asked Yến: “Phương who?” The name Thư could not place at all. Yến became angry, she turned towards the wall and completely ignored Thoại’s dad.
Having stayed in the hospital for several years on account of the three strokes, Yến easily forgot recent events but for those that took place in the past, she could remember as if they just happened yesterday. Though Thư raked his brain he could not figure out who the “gal Phương” was. Could it be that Yến was jealous of one of the antagonists in his books? Once home, he spent the whole night searching the computer. Eureka! Finally, Thư stumbled on the key to the puzzle. The “gal Phương” turned out to be a prostitute, a protagonist in the story “Cơn Giông”, whom the scout ranger second lieutenant met at a house of ill repute then fell in love with. The story was published on the issue No. 288 of Bách Khoa in 1969.  Though Yến’s unreasonable jealousy has made him go through some heart-rending time, Thư was very happy finding out that Yến’s mind was still very sharp.
In medicine, this is a typical episode of "delusional jealousy" secondary to organic brain syndrome.
LONGING FOR THE HOMELAND – LONGING FOR THE SLATY-BREASTED RAIL
Before the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic, usually Thư was authorized, two times a day, to bring home-cooked Vietnamese food to the hospital for Yến. But then, one day Thư was advised by the nurses that Yến had not been eating for the last few days.
Thư was fully aware that Yến did not like to eat American food and for that reason he went on the Internet to learn how to cook the dishes Yến liked. The doctor gave her a general checkup and told Thư that her condition was stable and free of new complications. He asked Yến what dishes she liked him to cook for her and learned she wanted a dish prepared with the meat of “chim chằng nghịch” – slaty-breasted rail. For two full years, THT had served as war correspondent in IV Corps but never heard of a bird named slaty-breasted rail. As usual, with the help of Dr. Google, Thư learned that the bird is also known by another Vietnamese name “gà nước vằn”. It has a long beak, black legs and is indigenous to the Mekong Delta. Lately, it is very rare to lay one’s hands on one. Probably, it has almost disappeared from the fields of the Delta. Nowadays, even in Cần Thơ, Yến’s homeland, it is almost impossible to find a slaty-breasted rail. Let alone in America. Thư tried to explain the situation to Yến but from the bottom of his heart he knew because she has been sick for too long – also too homesick – that the thought of the slaty-breasted rail came back to her mind and she asked for it.
Picture 13: The slaty-breasted rail or the nostalgia of the homeland, is also known as “gà nước vằn”, scientific name Gallirallus striatus. It used to live in the fields of the Mekong Delta but has practically become extinct. However, it has not been included in the Red Bookof Vietnam. [ source: birdwatchingvietnam ]
On that particular day, I called from California to talk with Trần Hoài Thư. He was then at the nursing home with Yến so I asked him to pass the phone for me to say hello to her. Thư told her it was Ngô Thế Vinh calling. She remembered me right away and said: “hello doctor”. I reminded her I am Thư’s friend and please do not call me “doctor.” All the while, I was really glad realizing that the way she greeted me showed that her memory was still working very well even after a stay of more than six years at the Nursing Home. In addition, I told her I just visited the Mekong Delta and did not see a single slaty-breasted rail. Eventually, Yến never mentioned the slaty-breasted rail again and went back to eating the dishes Thư prepared for her to the great joy of Thư and their son.
CÙ HUY HÀ VŨ’S VISIT WITH THE COUPLE TRẦN HOÀI THƯ 2016
Cù Huy Hà Vũ, the son of poet Huy Cận, is 15 years younger than Trần Hoài Thư. In 1968, when Thư was serving as a Scout Ranger officer in the battlefields, Vũ, the 11-year-old boy, was watching, from the mouth of the cave where his family evacuated to, waves of American fighter jets bombing North Vietnam.
The two have never met but Vũ has heard of THT. He and his wife flew from their home in Chicago to Boston then drove with a friend to New Jersey to visit the Trần Hoài Thư couple. Vũ asked THT to take them to see Ngọc Yến at the nursing home. When Thư told her that Cù Huy Hà Vũ, the son of poet Huy Cận, the author of Lửa Thiêng came to see her, Yến immediately made the connection. Right there at her bedside, Cù Huy Hà Vũ took a piece of paper and drew Yến’s caricature with this dedication “To Nguyễn Ngọc Yến on Mother’s Day May 8, 2016”.
Vũ is a gifted artist. He faithfully captured the “person” of Yến in his work: the pair of beautiful bright eyes, the highbrow reflecting her determined character. The joy and emotion Yến showed touched Thư equally and filled him with the thought that there was “Un peu de soleil dans l’eau froide /a little sunlight in the cold water,” the title of a film he saw way back.
Picture 14:Cù Huy Hà Vũ and his wife Nguyễn Thị Dương Hà visited Yến at the Nursing Home Ashbrook, N.J. on Mother’s Day, Sunday 05.08.2016; left, caricature of Nguyễn Ngọc Yến, Trần Hoài Thư’s wife, drawn by Cù Huy Hà Vũ; right, caricature of author Trần Hoài Thư, also drawn by Cù Huy Hà Vũ. [ private collection Trần Hoài Thư ]
Back at Thư’s home, Vũ went to the basement and spent the rest of the day perusing the extensive book collection he found there. Trần Hoài Thư also autographed a number of his works on the literature of the South and presented them to his new friend.
THE LOVE BIRDS IN THE MIDST OF THE PANDEMIC
The first months of 2020 was plagued by the corona pandemic. Nursing homes all over the country became the hunting ground of the Angel of Death. N.H. Ashbrook did not fare any better. THT was informed that Yến had to be hospitalized because she was infected by Covid-19 along with other residents. Considering that Yến had several underlying diseases and three strokes, the chances that she’ll make it through were not good. But Yến beat the odds and belonged to the rare ones who survived at the nursing home. She was not admitted to the ICU or connected to a ventilator. After a few days, she was discharged back to the nursing home where fewer beds than usual were occupied. We can call this a miracle. She survived in order to keep Thư and her son company. During the many months of maximum social distancing, Thư and Thoại were not allowed to come and visit her.
But then, misfortune often strikes twice. In June 2020, it’s Trần Hoài Thư’s turn to come down with a stroke. However, this time Thư was ambushed. One day, like any other, Thư started to autograph the first page of a book intended for a friend. Suddenly, he felt some difficulty holding the pen and the lines he wrote seemed to be quivering, wobbling before his eyes. He knew something was awfully wrong. That very night, Thư called his son who was the doctor on duty at a hospital in Philadelphia. Thoại advised his father to dial 911 immediately to be taken to a hospital because Thư was displaying symptoms of an impending stroke. He also promised his father he’d drive home early in the morning of the next day. In the hospital, Thoại explained to his father that he had a blood clot in the brain. So, after Yến’s stroke in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, Thư was not spared but in turn came down with the same. In a fleeting moment of despair, Thư felt heartbroken: “Both of us have come to the end of our rope. Gone the dream of the magazine Thư Quán Bản Thảo, Gone the dream of Thư Ấn Quán Publishing House. No more the typing of poems and articles with their rhythmic soft sounds on the keyboard. It looked like I’ve been robbed of my remaining joy in the autumn of my life”
Thư swiftly brushed aside those pessimistic thoughts. He immediately came up with a daily plan of action. After a month in the hospital, mostly lying on his back, Thư received his discharge order; not because he had fully recovered but because it’s the longest hospital stay the insurance allowed. Thoại took his father back to their old home that was left unoccupied for a month. In the backyard, the weeds had grown quite tall. The thought that the time has come for “the father to lean on the son” dawned in Thư’s mind. Thoại tidied up the mess in the room, helped his father get on the adjustable hospital bed his mother Yến left behind when she moved to the nursing home. Thoại bought and installed cameras all over the house so that he could keep watch over his father with his iPhone. When everything was taken care of, Thoại drove back to his hospital in Philadelphia.
Alone in the empty house, THT came face to face with the stark reality. His fingers could no longer hold the spoon, the chopsticks could no longer handle rice grains or food causing them to splatter on his shirts or pants. Worst yet, they could no longer command enough strength to type on the keyboard. His brain lost control of his fingers and he found it impossible to type correctly...
For Trần Hoài Thư his fighting spirit is always second nature to him. Like a programmer, THT set up for himself a “program” for “Occupational Therapy” he could use at home following a unique algorithm. At the hospital, the therapists showed him simple exercises to follow like picking up things, building houses or cars using Lego blocks. On his own, Thư started the difficult steps to teach himself the skill to write on paper or type on his iPhone one line at a time his favorite “lục bát” poems. Week after week, he gradually regained full use of his ten fingers. Before long, Trần Hoài Thư was back to his passion. He worked feverishly afraid he would waste the precious time he has left.
Thư got his hand on a misplaced unfinished memoir that he never intended to publish. But it’s different this time around. THT decided he had to finish it within the time he still walks on this earth. He was not sure when that time would come to an end. He gave this book the title: Cảm Tạ Văn Chương  / In Gratitude to Literature – intending to leave it behind as his personal Will. The book was completed in record time. There were passages in it that brought tears to the readers’ eyes. The work was not put up for sale to the public but, somehow, Cảm Tạ Văn Chương turned out to be the best-seller of Thư Quán Bản Thảo.
In the closing pages of his memoir, Trần Hoài Thư wrote: “Again I have to say thanks to literature. It came when I fell down. It gave me the support to get back on my own feet. It is a magic wand. It helps me continue on my way. I have not fully recovered, but I can still type a poem, post an article, and go down to the basement to bind a book with my own hands. In spite of my blurred vision, wobbling legs. So that my joy can soar and blossom”.
Picture 15: right, Cảm Tạ Văn Chương, memoir by Trần Hoài Thư – a Will, 224 pages, THT finished it in record time after a four-month convalescence from a stroke. This is a special edition published by Thư Quán Bản Thảo in October 2020; left, Mai Thảo – Bài viết ở trang cuối includes 32 essays by Mai Thảo, almost 200 pages thick. THTcompleted the typing, layout, printing and publishing in May 2021. The devotion to workof “patient THT” is phenomenal, unmatchable. [source: 2 special editions, a gift from THT to Ngô Thế Vinh]
People would think that the suffering and pain this couple had endured had hit bottom. Not so! In February 2021, a fourth stroke – Hurricane Sandy style – again hit her frail and sickly body. Not many people could survive a fourth stroke. This time, Yến was hospitalized for a longer period and afflicted with new illnesses: she lost her speech function because the parietal lobe of her brain was damaged. In addition, since the occipital lobe was also impaired her sight was reduced by half. Nevertheless, Yến survived the ordeal and was transferred back to Ashbrook N.H. She could still retain her hearing and understand the teasing or jokes coming from Thư and Thoại. Nevertheless, her participation was limited to what is known as body language. Yến was no longer able to swallow food depriving THT of the joy to cook for her. She received her nutrients through a G-Tube that connected directly to the stomach. “All the pains in this world, the heaven for her has reserved” those two lines of a poem by Nguyễn Bính seemed to foretell a gloomy omen to Yến’s destiny.
Both Thư and Yến put on a brave front in the face of adversity. From that time on, happiness for them is counted by each day that goes by.
A DAY IN THE LIFE OF THE ADDICT TRẦN HOÀI THƯ
In an eMail he sent me, Trần Hoài Thư wrote: “You told me I am a ‘workaholic’. Yes, you’re exactly right. I would die an early death out of sadness if I do not have something to do. My extremely hectic schedule keeps me happy. Joyful like flares that illuminate the darkness of life’s sunset. In two-week time, I was able to do the following: print “Mai Thảo – Bài viết ở trang cuối;” prepare materials to write the upcoming issue No. 93 of Thư Quán Bản Thảo; scan, layout, put the finishing touch to the magazine Chính Văn… compose poems; do some writing … without stop. The spiritual food that nourishes the soul keeps me going all day. As for the food that nourishes the body, it’s not worth the attention.
Of course, being a “workaholic” does not mean you work when you feel you don’t know what to do with your idle limbs, cooking is also an art that brings pleasure to your palate you should enjoy. But, when one goes on typing with two fingers the 32 essays by Mai Thảo it is tantamount to self-inflicted pains or self-torture. Especially when one has been severely affected by a stroke.
It may take 4 or 5 tries before one can type a word correctly. Or to do a flipbook, one needs to scan an entire book, redo a layout, change to the correct size, attempt to reduce a page’s memory from kB to MB size so that the system can handle it.
How can you appreciate the fact that the letters I type possess a strange power that attracts me like a magnet? When you type a work that you like, the work itself no longer represents a choir but a pleasure, a blossoming! It radiates beauty. It’s art. For example, when I type this line in Mai Thảo’s essay Quán Bệnh:
“Đêm tháng tám bên ngoài bát ngát sao.
Trong những lùm cây xôn xao, gió múa những thuyền đầy.”
“A night in August outdoor – myriads of stars in the sky
In the clumps of grumbling trees, the wind dances in the full sails.”
I cannot help feeling ecstatic with each of the letters in the phrase “gió múa những thuyền đầy”. Does the wind know how to dance? My friend, it’s just that we do not understand. Now, Mr. Mai Thảo has made everything clear, transparent. He explained it to me. It is that very thirst for understanding, knowledge that keeps this old man, going into his eighties, at his desk typing vigorously, tirelessly, without rest and likewise doing the printing vigorously, without stopping of a 200-page book as an offering to life!
Some people hold the viewpoint that old age is the time for you to enjoy, to be conscious of the ephemerality of life, find simple pleasure in your early morning sip of coffee, not to burden your mind with printing, searching old magazines for materials to finish your flipbook so that people can read free of charge … They cannot understand that I need to work. I need challenges. I need beauty … I can throw away hundreds of book covers without any second thoughts, no matter how much they cost. I only need a book cover – a beautiful one – And I’ll be happy. The power of art is quite surprising.
I, all of a sudden, think of my wife, my life companion. Yến is almost the personification of Pietà. Fully removed from the real world. Free of any worries or concerns. No longer conscious of the warm hand clasp burning with love of her husband, no longer able to acknowledge the presence of her son with her eyes twinkling with life … She no longer sits in her lotus position practicing yoga. She has her own space in her wheelchair, looking lost with her eyes searching a distant, dark world throughout those last 8 years…
I need to do something to save her from her current state of suffering, misery, stupor. All the shouting comes to nothing. The clasping of the hand means nothing. My only recourse is to grab the Iphone, turn on the song Tóc Mây sung by Sĩ Phú and press it close to her ears. I hope that the music will activate her tympanic membrane, awaken her brain, turn on the dead neurons, Tóc Mây. That’s the song you like me to play for you … Tóc Mây. In yesteryears your hair was still pitch black when you washed it with the water of the locust fruits. Now, instead of the locust fruits, her hair still looks black because it is being washed with the fruits of torments. I look into her eyes. They tell me she’s sleepy, about to doze off. So, the lyrics of that familiar song have performed a miracle. I say a miracle. Yến falls into a deep angelic sleep. It brings with it the peace we all crave for.
Picture 16: More than ever,it is I who need that peace. Yến bought it with her tribulations.As for me, my work is not that taxing, that difficult… I type with an unsteady finger, full of errors! Please understand.
Picture 17:During the pandemic, The Ngâu rains do not fall in July in the U.S., she sitting in a wheelchair, heclutching a walker, the lovers Ngưu Lang Chức Nữ of modern days. They have only 15 minutes to look at each other in front the door of the nursing home Ashbrook, New Jersey. [ photo by Trần Quí Thoại 2021 ]
BÀI THƠ NGƯU LANG
Now, the modern-day lovers Ngưu and Chức* have aged
He moves with a walker after a recent stroke
She escapes the Coronavirus’ yoke
The two lovers long for the Ngâu rain to fall so they can meet
In July, in the U.S., the heavy, sudden Ngâu rain does not fall
Their voluminous teardrops pour on a diamond stone
Out of it, an impermanent flower blooms.
* According to Chinese folk tale, Ngưu Lang/ the Cowherd and Chức Nữ/ the weaver girl were a pair of lovers. Because their love was not approved by Heaven, they were banished to opposite sides of a river in the Milky Way. Once a year, during the season of the Ngâu rain, on the seventh day of the seventh month in the lunar calendar, a flock of magpies would gather and form a bridge for them to cross and meet
NGÔ THẾ VINH
Saigon 06.18.1971 – New Jersey 06.18.2021
[The gold wedding anniversary of Nguyễn Ngọc Yến – Trần Hoài Thư ]
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