When Heaven and Earth Changed Places
How to describe war? How to permit the reader of a book, safe from war’s realities, still to grasp enough of its essence to be (as it were) inoculated against it? These were the questions that faced Le Ly Hayslip as she set out to write an account of her upbringing in Vietnam and her return there from a new life in California, twenty years later. They are her questions, because from the beginning Le Ly has been preoccupied with the deeper issues of war and peace: why nations fight, who the combatants are, what forces are acting on them, and what can be done to bring an end to the slaughter. While still in her early teens, she adopted what she saw as the life-task of a “woman warrior”: “to find life in the midst of death and nourish it like a flower.”
When Heaven and Earth Changed Places: A Vietnamese Woman’s Journey from War to Peace is Le Ly’s answer to these questions, her attempt to make war a little less likely, and specifically to allow her fellow Americans—veterans and civilians alike—to know at firsthand this one human being who was their “enemy” all those years ago, so that the wounds between individual people and between peoples can be healed. That is why she needs to convey the exact horror of war to her readers. It is a tribute to the exquisite detail of her observation and of her and Jay Wurts’s writing that it allows the reader to come so close to war, and yet remain immune to it.
Le Ly grew up in the small village of Ky La near Danang in central Vietnam. Her father taught her to sing Viet Minh ballads that could be reworded as often as a new kind of soldier of occupation appeared in the village—Viet Minh songs against the French, Viet Cong songs against the Americans. Later, there were folk songs about Uncle Ho (Chih Minh) to sing by night, which, with a slight change of wording, became patriotic Republican (South Vietnamese) songs to sing by day: The village of Ky La divided its loyalties by the clock. Meanwhile, Le Ly’s mother taught her to sing another song, one with the refrain: “Peace means no more suffering,/ Hao binh means no more war.
Was there a conflict between the pro-invader and pro- Vietnamese songs, the pro-North and pro-South songs, the war songs and the songs of peace? No more so than in life itself, for the Vietnamese had grown so accustomed to occupations of one sort or another, so accustomed indeed to one army visiting the village by day and another by night, that divided loyalties were no more than common sense. As for the songs of peace, they spoke of the unattainable, barely imaginable dream—the dream of a time quite unlike the divided present. It had been a long time since Vietnam had been free of one invader or another, and at times it seemed as though war was the natural condition of life.
To the extent that the Ky La villagers were technically in that part of their divided country to the south of a line drawn on a map by generals or politicians, they were “officially” Southern and Republican; to the extent that their sympathies were with a unified Vietnam under Vietnamese rule, they were partisans of the North, of the Viet Minh against the French invaders, and the Viet Cong against the Americans who followed them. Yet even this description is too neat to encompass the truth:
that sympathies were engaged on both sides—and that war itself was and remains hateful.
Le Ly herself was sympathetic to the Viet Cong as the people who were fighting to free Vietnam from outside domination: As a young girl she was indoctrinated by them, stole grenades from the Republicans for them, stood guard to warn them when the Republican soldiers were approaching. One day her courage and presence of mind on guard duty saved Viet Cong lives. Le Ly, barely in her teens, was rewarded in an appropriate way: The Viet Cong taught all the children in the village to sing the “Song for Sister Ly”—a partriotic song about a Viet Cong heroine who was Le Ly’s namesake.
It was an important, even unprecedented honor, and Le Ly kept the songbook containing her namesake’s song with her. But a book of Viet Cong songs was not a wise thing to be carrying when a Republican soldier searched her, and Le Ly soon had some explaining to do. She was taken to the notorious My Thi interrogation center and tortured: subjected to electric shock, then tied to a post in the middle of the compound under the brutal sun all afternoon—with her feet and legs smeared with honey, and vicious ants roaming all over her body.
Then, suddenly, Le Ly was released. Her family, via a family member who was a Republican lieutenant, had bribed the right people and obtained her release. Naturally, the Viet Cong were not able to understand how their loyal and heroic young supporter Le Ly had managed to be released from the notorious Republican interrogation center after only two days, and came to...
(The entire section is 2010 words.)