An Expansive View Of Vietnam In 'She Weeps Each Time You're Born'

Feb 7, 2015
Originally published on February 7, 2015 10:44 am

A woman named Rabbit is a kind of miracle: She was pulled out of her dead mother's grave beside the Ma River in Vietnam, on the night of a full moon — when folklore says that a rabbit walks the moon. Rabbit is the center of poet and author Quan Barry's new novel, She Weeps Each Time You're Born.

The Vietnam War is raging; American troops have just begun to pull out, and Rabbit grows up in a landscape of leveled homes, shattered lives, and barren, poisoned fields, her life slipping between present tense and parable.

Barry — born in Vietnam but raised in America — tells NPR's Scott Simon she thinks of Rabbit as an embodiment of Vietnam itself. "The book is very much about a character who can hear the voices of the dead, and I was very interested in trying to transform Vietnam from the perceptions that we have about it in the West."


Interview Highlights

On perceptions of Vietnam

Typically, you know, when we think of Vietnam here in the United States, we think of it as a metaphor, you know, it's synonymous with the idea of a quagmire ... and so what I was trying to do with this character, and through the lens of her, was show the history of Vietnam as much richer than that.

In the book, there really isn't that much talk about the American war there. I spend more time with the French, I spend a little time with the Japanese — so again, I was trying to show that Vietnam is so much larger than what our preconceptions of it are.

On Vietnam after the war

I think most people, you know, the know the war perhaps ends in '75; we think of those iconic images of people on the American embassy roof, and then perhaps we might be familiar with the plight of the boat people in the late 1970s, but after that we kind of forget what happens. There's a character in the book who we come to realize has been in a refugee camp in Asia for 20 years.

I was actually back in Vietnam for about three weeks at the beginning of January, and while I was there I was in Ho Chi Minh City. And I saw an individual that, I'm pretty sure I've seen him before when I've been in Vietnam ... he's missing lips, his eyelids are missing, for the most part, his ears are — basically, he's a victim of napalm. And when you see him, and you're walking down the street and you're an American, and you see that, you know, you're like, "I did that. I can't run and hide and say that I don't have some kind of responsibility in that."

On the genesis of her novel

I went back to Vietnam in 2010, and when I was there, that's when I discovered for the first time this story about a woman named Phan Thi Bich Hang, who is the "official psychic" of Vietnam. She was bitten by a rabid dog when she was five years old, and when she came out of her coma, she can hear the voices of the dead. And the government actually uses her to help them find the remains of soldiers and other people ... and when I heard that, I'm like, that's what this novel is supposed to be about.

On what she hopes American readers take from her novel

I think the thing I'm most interested in is the idea of possibility, and how so much can change in 40 years. I was just there, like I said, three weeks ago, and there were tourists from all over the world, there were Russians, there were people from Germany — who would have thought, 40 years ago, that this would have been possible?

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

A woman named Rabbit is a kind of miracle. She was pulled out of the grave of her dead mother along the Ma River in Vietnam on the night of a full moon, when folklore says that a rabbit walks the moon. It was troops who'd begun to pull out, but Rabbit grows up in the landscape of leveled homes and shattered lives and barren poison fields in which her own life slips between present tense and parable. Quan Barry now reads from her new novel, "She Weeps Each Time You're Born."

QUAN BARRY: (Reading) On this we do not agree. Some of us say she was made manifest in a muddy ditch on the way to the pineapple plantation. Others say it happened hunkered down in a piggery, the little ones with their wet snouts full of wonder at the strange, bristleous being wriggling among them for milk. Either way, we bow to you. Believe us when we say life is a wheel. There was no beginning; there is no end. But we will tell you the story as she believes it occurred - under the full rabbit moon, 6-feet below ground in a wooden box. Her mother's hands cold as ice. Overhead, the bats of good fortune flitting through the dark.

SIMON: "She Weeps Time You're Born" is one of Library Journal's six essential debuts of 2015. And Quan Barry, who is a prize-winning poet and a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, joins us from the studios of Wisconsin Public Radio. Thanks so much for being with us.

BARRY: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: Does presenting Rabbit like this make your character into a kind of everywoman that spans all experience?

BARRY: I was thinking of her not necessarily as an everywoman, but as Vietnam itself in certain kinds of ways. The book is very much about a character who can hear the voices of the dead. And I was very interested in trying to transform Vietnam from the perceptions that we have about it in the West. Typically, you know, when we think of Vietnam here in the United States, we think of it as a metaphor. You know, it's synonymous with the idea of a quagmire.

SIMON: And we think of it as our problem.

BARRY: Yes.

SIMON: Yeah.

BARRY: And so what I was trying to do with this character and through the lens of her was I was trying to show the history of Vietnam as much richer than that. The country Vietnam, obviously, has existed for thousands of years, and so I guess I would say that.

SIMON: Yeah. As you note, the narrative goes back and forth between times. If an American reads the novel, you feel kind of humbled to realize that this word, which, as you say, becomes a kind of all-encompassing quagmire for us, is, in a sense, just a few jots on the landscape in the experience of Vietnam.

BARRY: It really is. You know, in the book, there really isn't that much talk about the American war there.

SIMON: Yeah.

BARRY: I spend more time with the French. I spend a little time with the Japanese. So again, I was trying to show that Vietnam, you know, is so much larger than just what our preconceptions of it are.

SIMON: Yeah. As we noted, Rabbit is born just as the Americans begin to leave. I made a note of one of the phrases - a couple of the phrases. A great unknown was bearing down on them, overhead the scavengers circling like the storm. Do you feel what followed in Vietnam has been overlooked here?

BARRY: I do. I think most people, you know, they know the war perhaps ends in '75. We think of those iconic images of people on the American embassy roof. And then perhaps, we might be familiar with the plight of the boat people in the late 1970s, but after that we kind of forget what happens. There's a character in the book who we come to realize has been in a refugee camp in Asia for 20 years.

SIMON: Yeah. You were born in Saigon.

BARRY: I was, yes.

SIMON: Do you remember anything of life there?

BARRY: No. I was born in 1973 and I left and I '74 when I was a 6-month-old baby.

SIMON: And then what happened to you and your family?

BARRY: So I'm actually adopted. And I was raised primarily on the North Shore of Boston so I don't speak Vietnamese. And I've gone back to the country, though, four times. I was actually there recently in January.

SIMON: It is very painful for an American to read what happened to a lot of Vietnamese after the Americans departed. As an American reader, you almost think well, you know, after our men and women got out, we ceased to care about what happened in Vietnam.

BARRY: It's interesting, I was actually talking about this with friends a few weeks ago. I was actually back in Vietnam for about three weeks. And while I was there, I was in Ho Chi Minh City. And I saw an individual, but I'm pretty sure I've seen him before when I've been in Vietnam. He's missing lips. His eyelids are missing for the most part. His ears are - basically, he's a victim of napalm.

SIMON: Yeah.

BARRY: And when you see him and you're an American and you see that, you're like I did that. I can't run and hide and say that I don't have some kind of responsibility in that.

SIMON: Yeah. How long did this take you to write?

BARRY: You know, originally I tried to write a book actually about an American nurse during the American war there and I worked on that for maybe a couple of years. And I realized that that book I was working on should really just be a memoir. And the truth is that there are memoirs written by American nurses and doctors. And so I went back to Vietnam in 2010. And when I was there, that's when I discovered for the first time this story about a woman named Phan Thi Bich Hang, who is the, quote-unquote, "official psychic of Vietnam." She was bitten by a rabid dog when she was 5 years old. And when she came out of her coma, she could hear the voices of the dead. And the government actually uses her to help them find the remains of soldiers and other people who are historically prominent in Vietnam.

SIMON: Oh, my God.

BARRY: And so I heard that, I'm like that's what this novel is supposed to be about. Basically, I worked on it for about three years.

SIMON: In this 40th year anniversary, isn't it, of the fall of Saigon...

BARRY: It is.

SIMON: ...What do you hope an American reader takes from this novel and their sense of Vietnam?

BARRY: You know, so even the fact that we call it the fall of Saigon...

SIMON: You know, I heard - I heard myself say that and thought maybe I should rethink that phrase. The reunification of the country would've been another way of saying it.

BARRY: Well, it's just interesting to me - and I have no opinion on it - there are members of the Vietnamese Diaspora who refer to it as the fall. They refer to the month of April as Black April so there's definitely that camp. There's another camp that says normalizing relations between Vietnam and France and the United States and these kinds of things is good for Vietnam. And I think the thing that I'm most interested in, it's the idea of possibility and how so much can change in 40 years.

SIMON: Yeah.

BARRY: You know, I was there, like I said, three weeks ago. And there's tourists from all over the world - there are Russians, you know, they are people in Germany. Who would have thought 40 years ago that this would have been impossible for me and for these Russians and for all these people to be here in Vietnam?

SIMON: Quan Barry. Her new novel, "She Weeps Each Time You're Born." Thanks so much for being with us.

BARRY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.