Once or twice a year I read a book that dislodges my point of view and drops it someplace I hadn't known existed. Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War (2016) by Viet Thanh Nguyen is one of those books, bursting with ideas and brilliantly illuminating from stunning angles. Nguyen tells us that "All wars are fought twice, the first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory." He calls for an ethical, simultaneous awareness of our humanity and inhumanity, for equal access to the "industries of memory," both within countries and among them, and also for the ability to "imagine a world where no one will be exiled from what we think of as the near and the dear to those distant realms of the far and the feared."
What I liked most about it was Nguyen's take on and dissection of the complex, multilayered relationship between war and art, especially his thoughts on films, mainly by Cambodians, Vietnamese, and Americans. He borrows and builds on ideas from Emmanuel Levinas, Jacques Derrida, Toni Morrison, Le Ly Hayslip, various filmmakers and many more. It's an excellent read that's rich with imagery and occasionally poetic, from a profound mind and masterful writer.
This art also shows us, in the words of Toni Morrison, that “nothing ever dies,” an insight both terrifying and hopeful.
—Viet Thanh Nguyen
As an Aside
Viet Thanh Nguyen's appreciation for Le Ly Hayslip's work comes through in this book. As a scholar and intellectual, Nguyen surprised me for how high he regarded her memoir When Heaven and Earth Changed Places (1989; Oliver Stone's 1993 film, Heaven & Earth, is based on her life), the ideas and hopes of, and ultimate forgiveness from, a once simple peasant girl caught between—and raped and tortured by—Viet Cong and American soldiers.
I had the pleasure of meeting Le Ly Hayslip in the summer of 2003 while working for a Japanese NGO on an around-the-world cruise. She wanted a dance partner, preferably an American (I was told), and so she sent one of the staff over to fetch me (I was in my 20s, and Canadian but close enough). I can't remember our dance together. I'd seen the Oliver Stone movie and read her memoir. I'm sure my palms were sweaty. We had drinks a few nights later and, of all things, talked about prostitution and sex slaves in SE Asia (and surely other things that I no longer can recall). She helped the ship's captain preside over a Vietnamese-style wedding of two Japanese passengers on the upper deck, after a stop in Da Nang, where she had picked up all the requisites and accoutrements for the ceremony. A courageous, high-spirited and clever individual with sharp eyes and a beatific smile.