I am doing final editing of Seeking Quan Am and there were days – heck there were weeks and months – when I never thought I would be able to say that. It is making me humble and grateful. I’ve written acknowledgements to those who supported the life of this book, but now I want to acknowledge those authors who profoundly influenced this project, a list that constitutes the second part of The Journey in a Book List. Over the course of this project I have read or dipped into a small library of books, but there are a few that I just keep coming back to, for different reasons.
I’ve read Graham Greene’s The Quiet American at least three times in my life. The first time was probably in high school when I did not understand it at all. The second time was early in this project when just about everything was alarming me and this story filled me with dread. Then I watched both film adaptations and knew enough to be angry at the way the 1958 version subverted the message by changing the ending. The 2002 version is lush and seductive and chillingly prescient and enabled me to read the book a third time with an overwhelming sense of tragedy.
I chanced upon Once Upon a Distant War by William Prochnau and read it almost as a page-turner. It is well researched, well written, and exciting. I used one startling incident in it as the basis for my post, The Book, Still and its dissection of the lies on which the war was built have repeatedly strengthened my resolve.
Fred Wilcox’s Waiting for an Army To Die constituted another step in the taking apart of my naivete. Until I read it, and had many discussions with Fred over numerous lunches, I really didn’t know how literally the military took the term “GI.” I will ask people what they think letters stand for and I usually get an answer like “general infantry.” They don’t. They stand for “government issue.” Soldiers are equipment and when they break down, even and perhaps especially when it is the direct result of actions of the government they are fighting for, they are abandoned. My anger over that drives my loyalty to veterans, even when I don’t agree with what they say.
Then there is Michael Herr’s Dispatches. I have found I can read that book again and again and in some places it is as if I never read it before. It isn’t a documentary. It is a sensory experience using language to call up a sensory experience that is beyond language. I continue to think the opening image, about the map of Vietnam on the wall of his room in Saigon, is one of the most haunting in all the literature.
Wayne Karlin’s Wandering Souls introduced me to the ghosts of Vietnam and how even Westerners can step into the worlds of the dead and the living as Vietnamese understand them. That belief encompassed us on one of our journeys, as told in Seeking Quan Am.
Joyce Hoffman, On Their Own: Women Journalists and the American Experience in Vietnam was a revelation. I had had no idea about the women who simply took off alone to Vietnam to cover the war. I had seen a few women’s names in the reporting at the time but I don’t remember it registering that they were unusual. Reading about them was humbling and exciting.
Viet Thanh Nguyen Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War was an enormous influence on my work. “All wars are fought twice,” he says, “the first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory.” That was what I was doing, not just trying to remember a long-ago event but letting it happen again so as to allow the memories to change.
Running in the anti-war circles I was in – more literary than activist – I had often heard about the little volume of poetry Winning Hearts and Minds: War Poems by Vietnam Veterans, edited by Larry Rottmann, Jan Barry, and Basil T. Paquet and published in 1972 when the war was still going on. It wasn’t until much later that I actually acquired a copy which moved me, not just for the poetry it contained but for the statement its publication made. So when I had the opportunity to meet Jan Barry in 2017 at the Ithaca book launch of Sound Off: Warrior Writers NJ, another volume of poetry he had edited, this time with Regina Mullen, I felt like I was meeting peace-maker royalty. (I wrote about this event in Writing War.)
There are others, of course. I remain profoundly grateful to all who have written before me.