Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 834
Born in central Vietnam in 1947, when that country was still a French colony, Duong Thu Huong (zhung tew huong) started her life with modest beginnings as the daughter of a schoolteacher mother and a father who was a tailor and guerilla fighter for Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh. As a teenager in the mid-1960’s, she joined the Communist Party, serving as the leader of a Communist youth brigade that, in part, provided entertainment for Communist troops during the Vietnam War. She was one of only three persons in the brigade of forty to survive the experience. Forever committed to and involved with politics, she also voluntarily joined the Vietnamese army in its brief war against China in 1979; she was the first woman to serve in combat on the front lines of the conflict. She also was a war correspondent and wrote news releases about the war. After the war, she wrote and spoke on behalf of the government and the Communist cause. During this time she supported herself primarily by writing fiction and screenplays.
In the early 1980’s, there was a major shift in her temperament and beliefs about the role of Communism in her country. She began to speak openly against corruption, bribery, chicanery, repression, and bureaucracy at public political events, as well as in her writings. During the decade she wrote three novels. The first two, Hành trình ngày tho âu (1985; journey in childhood) and Bên kia bo oa vong: Tiên thuyêt (1988; Beyond Illusions, 2002), were not problematic for the government. In fact, at this time the government in Hanoi had called for writers in the country to comment about the nation’s social, economic, and political problems.
However, when she published Nhung thiên duong mù: Tiêu thuyêt (1988; Paradise of the Blind, 1993), she ran into trouble with government censors and mainline Communists. While no one thought the work to be overtly anti-Communist or antigovernment propaganda, it was too revealing of problems in its nuances and undertones. The two major objections from the government seem to have been the subtle comments about the role of women, both in Vietnamese society and in a Communist-controlled country, and about the government’s policy of land reform—the collective rather than private ownerhship of businesses and property. The work was extremely popular in Vietnam, where some forty thousand copies were sold before the novel was withdrawn and the government forbid it to be circulated. Ownership of the novel was declared illegal and punishable by imprisonment.
In addition, during the controversy about the novel, Duong committed a sin unpardonable by the Communist hierarchy, when she spoke openly for “pluralism,” meaning the recognition and legitimate involvement of political parties other than the Communist Party in the affairs of the nation. She also advocated for human rights in a manner that was unacceptable to the government. She was expelled from the Communist Party in 1989, and in April, 1991, she was arrested on fabricated charges and imprisoned without trial. Government officials accused her of having unsanctioned contacts with agents of foreign governments and of smuggling illegal documents out of the country. There was no substance to the charges, as Duong’s activities had always been open and public. During her seven months in prison, Duong was recognized by Amnesty International and other organizations as a political prisoner. In addition, she was fired from her job as a screenwriter for the government-sanctioned Vietnam Film Company. Previously, she had been awarded prizes for her work with the organization.
Upon her release from prison in 1991, she found herself the subject of international attention and curiosity. Paradise of the Blind had been critically acclaimed, but the government then banned all of her works in Vietnam. However, her work was recognized and honored by other countries. In 1992 and 1996, two of her novels were short-listed for a French literary prize, the Prix Femina; in France, Paradise of the Blind was so well received that she was also given the title Chevalier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government. In 1992, she received a grant from the United States-based Hammet-Hellman Foundation. In 1995, she sent another novel, Tiêu thuyêt vô dê (1991), to publishers in France and England; an English translation, Novel Without a Name, was published in 1995.
Duong’s passport was revoked and other recriminations followed, primarily to prevent her from having contact with the outside world. Nevertheless, she was further honored with the International Dublin IMPAC Award in 1997, the Prince Claus Foundation Award in 1999, and the Grinzane Cavour Literary Award in 2005. In the spring of 2006, the Vietnamese government gave her permission to travel abroad, and she was interviewed by American novelist Robert Stone in New York City. That same year, she received the PEN-Novib Freedom of Expression Award.
In the early twenty-first century, Duong continued to write while in semiretirement in Hanoi, where she lived with her two children on a meager monthly pension from the government and the royalties from her work.