I needed more room on the shelves that hold my books about Vietnam, about the war there, then and now. One by one I asked them – do you need to be here now? I am on a journey with this work and that journey keeps changing, sometimes before I have fully noticed. Holding onto anything that has become dead weight is senseless. If I were trekking to the Arctic it would be life-threatening. Perhaps that is true now as well.
I have culled this collection before. After I came back from Vietnam the last time, in a fit of pique I took all the books by American white men off the top shelves and made them exchange positions with women and Vietnamese and books about memory and recovery. Many of those books by white men are now gone. Also books in which memory seems to have grown grandiose over time. I let go a book that used some form of metrics to defend the “performance” of American soldiers, meaning how reliably they shot at “the enemy.” Also, Nick Turse’s book, Kill Anything That Moves. I know what is in that one. I banished Noam Chomsky, who wears me out, along with the next round of anything academic, books I read once and know I don’t need to go back to, and even Neil Sheehan’s Bright and Shining Lie. I might keep Sheehan, who still might be useful. I am letting go books about “what happened,” in the sense of this and then this and then this, and holding onto “what the hell happened,” the books that make me look at myself and my country without prejudice or fear.
As I watched the pile grow on the floor I was overcome by melancholy. These books represent a part of my own history, a piece of the life I grew up with, and an integral part of my last seven years. Taking any of them off my shelf, deciding that they no longer needed to be there, was like watching leaves fall from the trees, their life cycle ended. This is November, the time of darkening light and deepening cold and the Vietnam generation is my own. Memory and mortality press upon my consciousness. The yellow leaves scattered across the ground seem like all the lives lost, along with hope and idealism. Do all generations feel this way, the tragedies of their youth yielding to those of the next? I’ve read about that and so it might be so but feeling it myself is something new and strange. There is a temptation to brood.
Many years ago I was part of an archaeological project in the Negev Desert. We took time off from our dig to go visit another tel, an unopened site of successive settlements, now covered with blowing sand and appearing only as a large mound. The expedition leader asked us to fan out over the surface and pick up any bits of pottery we might find, especially those with a rim or a base he could use to date them. He had theory that at least some pottery from all ages of the tel would work their way to the surface and in that way he could date the entire site.
Stories that need to be told find a way. Even the smallest and most obscure will work their way to the surface if it is their time. Storytellers who won’t give up will tell them. My shelves are now filled with novels, memoirs filled with memory and lamentation, poetry, tradition, women, elders, ghosts. Our culture still claims the war as our own exclusive tragedy, so I listen to Vietnamese, their voice at last present because their work is now being translated or because the younger ones have learned to speak and write in English. There are books by younger veterans, because my generation owes it to them to listen, and books about the risks and possibilities of peacemaking. In the Celtic tradition, Samhain to Beltaine (November to May) is the storytelling season. In that spirit, in these lengthening days, I let go of anxiety and allow the stories to be the firelight around which the community gathers.
If you should want a reading list, contact me. It will be the Stories of Vietnam Book Club.