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ERA OF JUNK (Epic) - Mai Văn Phấn. Translated from Vietnamese by Nhat-Lang Le. Edited by Susan Blanshard

Mai Văn Phấn

Translated from Vietnamese by Nhat-Lang Le

Edited by Susan Blanshard



Translator - Poet Nhat-Lang Le



Poet Susan Blanshard




 (Vietnamese version of Publishing House of The Vietnam Writer’s Association, 2018)



I have touched upon your world, just as I move on. Please don’t be too quick to criticize me as being disrespectful and ignorant. Some souls among you are known to be unable to transcend, or are still groping your way to nowhere. Or are you all still there? I rise higher with each breath. Blood flowing from the corners of my mouth streams down to mother earth.




I grew up in a mélange of right and wrong, wakefulness and confusion, seeking out a path and getting lost in modernity and subsistence farming, stupidity and aspiration, generosity and pettiness, wholeness and loneliness, nobleness and meanness, civilization and backwardness…Early one morning I saw a fish swimming against the current, and a star refusing to close its eyes while awaiting the dawn. I nervously went to class, sat next to my classmates, most of who were dead at the time. We listened to our teacher’s impassioned lecture. With a gesture of a finger, he told us to turn our notebook pages. He stared for a while at each of us, then stood next to me and said something that sounded like an order, that if I understood the lesson, I ought to know how to control my emotions.




The teacher showed the class many models — wars, phases of migration, purges, reforms… Bones were arranged into mountains, built into roads and made into temporary shelters; some into castle walls to block poisonous arrows from foreign invaders. Rivers of blood and tears were simulated using candle wax. The teacher lighted a match, and the models quickly caught on fire. For the first time, we were witness to souls and ideas having the same burnt smell, both emitting  copious dark smoke. At that moment, I wished even more for my boundaries to be limitless, a vast land with stability and peace. Holding a mouthful of thick black smoke, I slipped away out of class.




I patiently peeled back the layer of black soot that was blanketing  pathways, and covering strips of sidewalk grass, bridges, and kilometer markers. I  scraped back the layer of black residue clotting over water, brought back the black armbands, black signs, and black kites glued to the sky. I came upon a child and whispered to him in a voice like in a prayer: Let me peel off this blackening outer layer covering your clothes. Let me peel off the black smudge on your forehead! The child threw me an angry look as if he was looking at a wild animal then silently walked away. I followed him discretely, pretending that we had never met, then lovingly peeled off a layer of black soot on his body, with tired eyes. I kept cleansing his body in my imagination until he was so pure, I could see him no more.




Every morning I woke up in a net of information, feeling like I was getting stuck in a mess, the nest of a giant spider. Some days, I read news upon news and forgot my breakfast. I imagined the land leaping up like a scared horse. When dust rises and engulfs the land, you can no longer distinguish a pasture from a road. Was I awake or dreaming and where was I? I did not believe my homeland consisted of only stones, hills, gardens, fields, coasts and canals. Or of inanimate things — salt and sauces, charcoal and ashes, or blades of straw. I even asked myself how many paws this land might have. If the land was devoid of feet, then idiots could drag it anywhere. Still, idiots were incompetent, they only screamed and dirtied the soil.




Three people in a café were silent, staring for a while at a musty hole in the wall. A wasp emerged and flew away. The first person had been a prisoner who tried to escape numerous times without success. The second person had changed his fate after scamming an exam. The third person had healed his wounds after realizing the entire truth. They continued to sip their tea, each pursuing their own jumbled thoughts. Each imagining the other trying to sneak through the wasp hole.




A piece of raw meat was scraped from its skin and washed clean. The chef tried to cut it into neat squares, but most of it turned out shapeless. Each piece was soaked in spices, marinated with dried onions, garlic, pepper, sugar, hot chili, fish sauce, and caramel. The slimy pieces sizzled together in the fire. Thrashing and shrinking, they shared the same dream of reincarnating in different bodies, but before then, they had to twitch in the heat and let their fat melt away, while waiting to go into stinky, ravenous maws.




Souls were named after objects. These were souls of soap, trash bins, tampons, office supplies, electric fans, pans and pots, bath towels, dishes and bowls, food to go with alcoholic beverages. Souls occupied landmarks… that was the soul of a maternity hospital. This was the Soul of the Communal Administrative Office. Soul of a school. Soul of a museum. Soul of a courthouse. Soul of a zoo. Soul of public offices. Soul of semi-public offices. Soul of an inn. Soul of the Association of Bee Breeders. Soul of a stud farm. Soul of a soldier camp… Everywhere I went, I was stopped by armed personnel asking for papers. I searched my pockets, rifling through my bundle of expired licenses. I was barred outside a locked door, a dead end. Banned from speaking up. Pushed to the brink. I was freefalling with nobody there to catch me… Too much of an impasse, so I woke up. It was raining outside, blowing cool mist through the open window. I lay down to wait for another passing dream.





Chapter II: DEEP RED


A fading night lamp wakes up a river of blood. Blood mixed with blood and the foul trickles down. A red obsession.




It’s like — someone has just tied a rope around my neck and dragged me through a narrow corridor into the murky and dank. I turn my head up and feel my throat block. From time to time my body impales upon a nail or a shard of glass on the ground. I am scraped, bloody with such burning pain. Blood makes my body slippery, and I slither like an eel on mucky mud. I am heaved into a heap of fleeced and bled-out animals. The rope around my neck is quickly removed to reuse in the dragging of other bodies behind me. I see the change of the guards beginning, so I hold my breath, lie face down, stay motionless, fake my own dead body.




At the changing of the guard, I do not see the guard from the previous shift hand over anything to the one from this shift. The new soldier simply stood in his position. Perhaps this is a loophole, an opportunity, a slip, a lack of responsibility. Perhaps they executed the process incorrectly. Or maybe it has become the guards’ routine or habit, because for a long time there have been no big mistakes at this watchtower, no slip-ups to cause a serious issue. I crawl up behind the unsuspecting guard and unleash a mighty blow to the back of his head. I tie him to a watchtower window, don his uniform, release the still-warm animals, hoping they will survive. I quickly escape.




I suffer through a nightmare where vegetation is turning yellow and withering, raining down bouts of anemia. Dried leaves bring me to an era of blood loss, an era of blood undervaluation, an era of praise for blood in its exploitation. A soul of unknown gender climbs a leaf stem and admits it was once a drop of blood. A nearby tree and flowerpecker shake their heads and withdraw from arguing with a sad soul. That drop of blood then has the same shape as a dewdrop bearing lights from night stars, a raindrop fresh from the morning, a streak of orange juice as it dribbles down a baby’s chin. It is a teardrop settling in the corner of an eye full of hope and expectation.




Blood has been spilled in vast puddles on the yard of the communal village house after sessions of public denouncement in the land reform period. A woman who once falsely accused her father-in-law of forcing her to be his sex slave,  is now laid to rest in the same cemetery where he has been buried. Her restless soul comes over to knock on his casket, apologizing to him each evening at dusk. He came back to the living in a dream, telling them to choose one of the brightest days in late spring to retell his sad story, just once. Then never to talk about it again.




The dream of blood reeks of a strong odor specific to solitary confinement cells, those used for patriotic soldiers, loyal until death. They believe absolutely in the ideals that they have chosen, and they dream of the best for the people and Motherland. They bear witness to those who betray their own ideals and comrades by deliberately tarnishing their true path of blood. In my dream, I see the locks on the doors of the solitary confinement cells spring open. The strong odor is still there, but the patriot soldiers have long gone.




Blood erupts. Blood builds up, blood upon blood, in battles. Bled out forests are filled with decaying bodies. Bled out rivers and streams know bodies, ponds and lakes see bloated bodies, sink or float. Blood is spilled when many can witness it, and even when nobody can see it. Fates end themselves and are forever finished. Blood erupted, and bodies used to bleed internally. Blood clots fast and cannot clot. Blood is washed, erased of all traces, blood seeps into the dark soil spaces, escapes through veins of sewage. Blood waves and calls to each other, bloody without seeing.




Tonight everyone sleeps on into night, while a dark red river flows by. People sleep with their mouth open, sleep with their arms and feet extended, sleep like a flower closing its petals, sleep like rotten fruit, sleep in an ibis-like pose, sleep like dead, sleep with their heads bent, sleep standing, sleep sitting, sleep while working, sleep while holding food in their mouths, sleep embracing their chests, sleep leaning their heads on their arms, sleep with their limbs on somebody next to them, sleep face-down, sleep on their right sides, sleep drooling, sleep moaning, sleep with their eyes open, sleep while they walk to the door and open it, sleep while peeing, sleep while having a nocturnal emission, sleep — gnashing, suddenly passing wind, snoring like thunder.




Memories arrive, taking back the space of the past. Sharp ends pointing up from spike-boards, a dry explosion from each bullet, people using their own bodies as gun mounts or to plug crenelles, ink stains dried on an interrogation table, piles of numbered meeting minutes, a sealed ballot box, a celebration for a salary increase, a trip to the hospital to visit the sick, giving flowers to a retiring person, looking at the face of a relative for the last time, congratulating someone just promoted… All are showing up coldly, as exact as the casting chart for a play. The play’s director suddenly appears like a magician, smiles mysteriously then goes out for a cigarette break. In an instant he becomes an organizer, a clairvoyant, a prophet.






Scene 1


I dream of an empty stage. There are voices arising backstage. Each spectator relies on his or her personal experience to determine the meaning of the play. This play is a meeting, a course of intra-party reform, a seminar to disseminate a resolution, and to assign tasks, a meeting to decide who gets how much of a cut, a public denouncement, a day to proclaim a committee decision, a talk about current events, a purge, a reckoning, a greeting ceremony for representatives from higher-up, an emergency response team’s shift, a secret ballot session…


Still in that dream. The stage remains empty. Voices continue to come out of the wings of the stage, unintelligible for the loudspeakers are devastating. From below, the spectators keep their silence to themselves.


Again echoes from backstage. A few emphatic utterances. A pleading voice. Arguments. The table pounding sound of disquiet.  Sincere apologies. Someone speaks in one long drawn out sentence, a monologue that sounds like they will never stop talking. The sound of a hard object thrown down onto the floor. A raised voice belonging to the end of a sentence. The sound of a gun loading but no gunshot. The sobbing of a woman, unheard before. A stern shout. A stuttering voice. A sound of metal, one strike striking the other. The shaking voice of a man. The last voice trembling.


The news is spread outside the stage. Everyone has reached consensus. A brilliant success. A happy ending.



Scene 2


Rows of benches are neatly arranged. Each bench can seat three persons. The ceremonious stage has a backdrop pane, a flower vase, and tablecloths. The chairman wears a serious expression on his face, friendly and neatly attired. After a signal, everyone silently goes on the stage, sits down in position, no one touching another, all assuming solemn postures, sincere, staring straight ahead. Just minutes after the start, someone falls asleep. One checks herself in a mirror and shapes her eyebrows. One digs his earwax, tilting his head, mouth agape. Someone cracks his knuckles, making snapping sounds. One elbows the ribs of another sitting next to him, perhaps wanting to say something. The chairman asks everyone to pay attention, not to talk to each other, not to text, and to silence their phones. Boos arise from spectators. Some throw unidentified objects on the stage. Someone murmurs that such a scene can be performed by anybody. Several go, blurting out something terse as they leave.



Scene 3


The actors hold their feet to one side in a traditional operetta melody then sway their whole bodies in a rowing rhythm. The stylized boat floats on the stage. The actors feign paddling with an oar then point towards the water and sing, ding-a-ding the fish swims… Then they move their hands up across their eyes ding-a-dang the swallow flies… As simple as that, makes many spectators burst into tears. They pity the fish that will never grow up but already have bitten the hook, and the birds just fledged, that will never grow old, already fallen into traps. Over loudspeakers, the organizing committee reminds people to refrain from being over emotional, that the play has a long way to go until its intense climax. The organizer warns that if spectators get too excited, the performance will not go on!


Scene 4


The stage is divided into two, one side representing the living world, the other the world of the dead. Actors playing souls paint their faces white, and those playing the living paint theirs pink. An actor plays a person who has just died. When his funeral begins, people carry him from this side of the stage to the other. After his face is painted white, he looks towards the world of the living and suddenly breaks a cold sweat: There are some simple, natural truths, that after so many years residing in that world, he has been impervious to.


Here was a perfectly straight path. A meandering one. A zigzagging one… Footprints of the lost overlapped and erased each other, they continued to get lost then erased again. Revolutions overturned oppressive tyrannies. Successful revolutionaries stepped up to govern the kingdom. After a time, they too turned into dictators. People had to sacrifice many lives to earn freedom, but they forgot the lesson from the tree — which was freedom to photosynthesize, freedom to flower, freedom to bear fruit.


All of a sudden, several white-faced souls gather together and begin to point their fingers at the world. Both the nether stage and the living stage have their own prompters.



Scene 5


The scene is of a mobile court to hear the case of a cold-blooded death row inmate. The court lets him speak his last words. He recounts that he was born locally and went to school. Life has taught him that reason belongs to the strong. He confesses that when committing the crime, he has been the strongest. Suddenly an excited spectator jumps onto the stage holding a sandal. The security staff stops him and tells him to keep calm, because this is just a play after all. By that time, the actor playing the role of the death row inmate has gone backstage. He wipes off all his make-up then discretely leaves for home by starting off in the different direction. The emotional spectator also goes home, but takes the same road he has traveled before.



Saluting the Audience


Throughout the play, there is no music, and no one sings. All manner of stage lights are turned on. Artists walk out one by one, all wearing a similar smile, and bow down before the audience. Only now do people recognize every actor.


Applause roars up like thunder then slows down in waves. Waves of handclaps as well paced as footsteps in a military parade, marching on a concrete square.

The burgundy curtain slowly closes.






That girl had been waiting for a boy who departed and would never come back.  Now, a shaky old woman. Tonight a bright red river flows into her sleep.  Water softly pulls her back and blows into her mouth breath of dawn, and a breath of early dew, waves from a boat sailing in her dream, tap her on the shoulder. The river carries her back to her youthful days, and there she unexpectedly sees her lover. There is a color, bright red, that highlights so many crossroads set before the couple’s eyes. And they sail towards their appointed destination on the horizon.


Their voices resound desires in the simmering river of blood:

- We are getting further from the clutches of evil. Don’t you worry!

- Is anyone pursuing us?

- We are going on the path chosen by blood.

- People have committed so many wrongs.

- The crowd is usually led by greedy, nefarious persons.

- They exploit ideals, the nation, and even truth.

- They say truth must fit in a frame.

- Everything must be reshaped, distorted inside a mold.

- We must find a way to destroy it.

- Do you believe that there is a truth?

- I do, but truth exists inside our hearts, not out of the mouth of bad people.

- Can truth change?

- Always.

- When?

- When people are deprived of their freedom.

- They change people into slaves and herds.

- Who are they?

- They are dictators, opportunists, and arms dealers.

- It sounds like an explosion behind us. Can we go a little faster?

- Don’t worry, we are beyond rifle shot.

- Is someone following us?

- No, blood has clotted, and we have lost them.

- Let’s stop, kneel down to thank blood!

- We can’t repay what blood has done for us.

- Blood is priceless and eternal.

- We will repay by giving birth to children.

- When our children grow up, will they know of this crossroad that we have taken?

- They may not. And by then we will be no more or will have become forgetful.

- Then we should write the word FREEDOM on our epitaphs.

- There are sounds of waves and a cool mist.

- Let’s shed our clothes and go down together to bathe.


High waves and strong winds have transformed the couple into an upside down boat. The pitching mast reaches far and plants itself into the sea to prop the boat up in the air. The hull is stretched, expanded like it is almost broken. Wave after ferocious wave rise above the bottom of the upside-down boat, a slick of moss, the boat bobbing in the sun. White foam gently laps in waves onto the body of the boat. The lovers want to separate to make the boat more stable than a ship and the sea broader than an ocean. They want to become fish and shrimps, plankton, coral, to diversify into millions of marine life, so that no one can catch them, or separate, or contaminate them. The bow of the boat sinks and then the rudder disappears in high waves. The inverted mast holding fast to the inside of the boat still stands, reverberating.






Butcher 1


He still lives, but the fire from Hell already rushes to his face. He bends his head asking for forgiveness, but it’s too late. Lifeblood that has flowed through his hands now turns into a giant beast that wraps him up tightly and sucks out his marrow. The beast suddenly releases him. He stumbles and smashes his face on the ground, recreating the last moment when an animal was killed by him: the animal’s eyes roll up and redden, as its head is coldly beaten by the butcher’s sledgehammer. The animal’s four limbs spread out, trembling before a bucket of boiling water is poured down, scalding each part of its body. The butcher flings hard his sharp blade, until bleached white pores are exposed. The animal’s head is cut apart, spilt up. Tissues from shoulders, ribs, and trotters are arranged neatly. The butcher collapses. His expressionless eyes bulge out, immobile, as he accepts his torment by the souls of animals coming back from the dead. This is a butcher chopping block, a fair game. This is a free forum, where fair judgments are given.



Butcher 2


Butchers with straight faces are present everywhere—in kitchens, gardens, markets, with peddler’s carts, in restaurants, on pastures… They have disseminated, incubated a wrath of germs, since the beginning of time when humans selected the first stocks to breed, and seeds to sow. Using growth-promoting chemicals, they brew and inject toxins into fruits, drinks, food… Death bears the shapes of dark red juicy pieces of beef, the shape of plump, soft shrimps, and squid. Vegetables and fruits that retain freshness for ages without rotting… These butchers have swung their blades where and when nobody knows. Then suddenly one hears the sad sounds of funeral trumpets and drums soaring in the middle of a town or village, sending off one who dies young, due to some strange dangerous disease. Indifferent, ruthless scythes are swung, somewhere in the dark, and under the sun. Here and there, people are writhing in pain, vomiting, agonizing, and dying. Chemicals and experimental drugs stiffen the corpses in their caskets so that they can never decay beyond  mourning. Many months later, relatives take up knives to scratch away and flay segments of bones before laying them to rest in a ceramic urn. While the butchers sit down without a care, at dinner table. Their turn will come, eating poison from the guilty hands of others.



Butcher 3


A butcher repents before his death. He pledges to donate both his hands to a museum, as witnesses to his wrongdoings. His pledge is carried out right before his encoffining. The pair of butcher’s hands soaked in a special solution inside a glass jar. The jar explodes within minutes. It’s replaced, but again all jars break. In the end, museum staff immerse the hands in a zinc barrel with the thickest casing, and a padlock. Each night, museum security keep seeing the butcher’s hands sneak out of the narrow gap under the barrel’s cover, with a shape-shifting talent of a mollusk.  The hands try to find their way to the bust, in the central display room of the museum.



Butcher 4


The butcher sometimes appears in the form of a flower. He bewitches you with fascinating colors and scents. He leads you into an alley, a dark place, or somewhere remote. He tells you that you must choose a way to die. Of course, you will react violently, but the end cannot be different. He draws out several books for you to choose from. Here is a book that teaches you how to have no empathy, how to be callous to all pain, how to eliminate your feelings until your dying breath. In other words, if you inhale the flower’s scents, you will be half-sighted throughout your entire life, unable to recognize different values. And this last book teaches you techniques to deceive your own feelings. Tomorrow, you will languish, harden in both body and soul, but you will always trick yourself into believing that you are devoting yourself to things sacred and good.



Butcher 5


He arrives late at night, turning up the lamp, storming to my place. He snatches the open book from my hands and grabs my hair, pulling it down towards my back, until my face is turned upwards, so that he can bend down and scrutinize me closely. Then he examines the book cover and gradually releases me. Is there confusion? The butcher is clearly on a manhunt for someone. He looks at me suspiciously for a while then quietly goes away. When he rushes back with fierce eyes and  gleaming blade, I am no longer there. The night shields me, helping me see clearly and observe the behavior and facial expressions of that sinister butcher. But he cannot know where I am, although right at this moment I am very close to him.



Butcher 6


Butchers of thought force us to travel in a straight path and never make a turn. But the natural world contains countless lakes, mountains, and waterfalls. There cannot be a perfectly straight path that runs infinitely on earth. Human evolution occurs many times at every turn, and civilizations are born between the forks of humanity. The butchers know that and wait in ambush for us there. They quickly terminate those they deem secretive, aberrant. I have spotted topless butchers with their numbered bodies on the straight path. Self-assured and motionless, they stand there as kilometer markers.



Butcher 7


He already belongs to the netherworld. The only trace of his emergence in the living world is a torso portrait engraved on his epitaph. In the portrait, he looks straight ahead, his gentle eyes behind glasses, his hair combed to one side. His vest shows only the second row of buttons. His bloody hands have long crawled deep into the earth. His youngest child still keeps a secret page in his will, with instructions not to open it before the third generation. That’s when the biography of the one lying in the tomb will be freely fabled by future generations. That’s when civilized society no longer has butchers. Generations from the third one on will pass on tales about his good deeds. They say that during his lifetime, he has been a compassionate and virtuous person who loves all living things.






Dialog 1


- I was eradicated at the end of 1941.

- Where?

- Right under this grapefruit tree.

- Who killed you?

- French secret agents and a canton chief.

- At that moment, what did you bring with you?

- A flag.

- Whom did you want to give it to at the moment?

- The local poor and oppressed.

- Would it be sacred while flying in the wind?

- It guided farmers, laborers, and literate people.

- To what ends?

- Independence, freedom, happiness.

- Please say it in more accessible terms!

- The people would no longer suffer, no longer feel hunger or poverty, no longer be heavily taxed, no longer be looked down upon or beaten, and see no more injustice. They would be happy and free.

- Do you still believe in that?

- Always believing.

- Can I see that belief?

- Here is earth still dark brown and grass still green.

- Let me pull a blade of grass toward us.

- Its fire of chlorophyll is always burning. Is there a way to pass on this fire to those who are approaching?

- They already know it, as they have been educated since childhood.



Dialog 2


- I, master corporal, from 25th Infantry Division “Tropical Lightning”, Army of the Republic of Vietnam, died from wounds on April 28th, 1975 at Đồng Dù Base[1].

- I, petty officer, from C5, 320A Division, Vietnamese People’s Army, was shot when driving a T54 tank into the base.

- Come closer, as we leave our weapons in the living world.

- Let’s look at the living as they are having meals and working the farm together.

- They have survived when crossing the path of blood with us.

- Nearly 5 million people from both sides have died, so many are injured, so many people separated from the beginning of the war.

-  Half of the total rainforest area is destroyed. Tens of thousands are contaminated with the Agent Orange.

- We have also lost priceless intangibles.

- So was it necessary to traverse this path of blood?

- So was it necessary to traverse?

- So was it necessary?

- So was.

- …



Dialog 3


- In February 1979, I was herded across here. I collapsed right on this Bắc Luân[2] Bridge.

- We saw your commander throwing your body into the Ka Long[3] River to clear the road for Chinese troops to advance into Vietnamese territory.

- My soul at the time saw my eyes looking up at the commander.

- Vietnamese militia picked your body up at Chắn Coóng Pha[4] field and buried it.

- Do you still hate Vietnam?

- Before coming here, I had been subjected to such propaganda.

- Via books, documents, movies?

- No, political commissars from the Chinese People Liberation Army had told us directly. We soldiers seldom read books.

- In any era, it always took our blood and bones to build trenches to stop your people.

- My mind only got clearer after death.

- You had been wicked and vicious enemies throughout our four thousand years of history.

- Our dynasties ate human flesh that way.

- Once you became strong, you usually went to sow disasters upon others.

- Were you a member of the communist party?

- No need to ask. You only glorified narrow national interests.

- …



Dialog 4


- There cannot be a model for all societies.

- Each era has its ideal.

- We are at a trough of a sine curve.

- No, another cycle has started.

- Do we need a new definition for independence, freedom, happiness?

- The flow of life is explaining it all.

- Can you elaborate on freedom?

- Freedom is the human survival instinct always rising up.

- Humans are always conscious about fighting against enslavement by others.

- Is freedom the root of the idea of human rights and democracy then?

- Yes. Does it seem to depend on the openness of a regime?

- No. It’s the yearning for freedom in everyone that gives birth to the need to build a government based on the rule of law.

- What are independence and happiness then?

- It’s what freedom opens up. This is a causal relationship.

- Does independence cost the most?

- We had to sacrifice several generations to achieve this.

- Perhaps it is compromised during globalization.

- That concept needs a renovation once more.

- Do you see yourself as free?

- I don’t even have the freedom to claim my pains.



Dialog 5


- I am a drop of water.

- We mix with each other to make up a significant drop of water.

- No. We are harmonious next to each other and always separated.

- Do our minds and souls have boundaries then?

- Civilized society is a general mix of human beings with separate selves and different minds.

- Is that the foundation for human rights?

- Each drop of water has the right to voice its opinions.

- They are equal and free.

- I exist by God’s grace.

- I am enlightened by the Buddha’s miracles.

- Others serve in channeling the sacred Mother Goddess.

- I respect all choices!






Model 1


During the sixties of the last century, many Vietnamese families in the North received free Chinese cartoon magazines regularly. Today, I can still recall the images inside the covers of propaganda magazines — ruddy-faced workers, farmers holding sickles high, soldiers brandishing weapons, a copy of Chairman Mao’s oeuvre in the other hand. My siblings, with nothing left to do, cut out the farmers and the soldiers and glued them on bamboo partitions inside our house. My brother made a collage of images on our entrance door during the last days of the year.


Back then I used to follow my parents to the field after the cooperative’s alarm bell sounded. We went to work and recorded our daily work in the merit book. Sometimes there were contests such as plowing contests, rice planting contests manure hauling contests, and harvesting contests… Each contest came with flags, drums, and banners. A crowd stood on the sidelines to watch and cheer loudly. The cooperative chairman back then looked exactly the same as one of the characters I’d seen in the cartoon magazines.



Model 2


During my last year in college, the subject of politics failed me, because I failed an exam about the spirit of collective ownership. Although I brought along with me many papers to copy — had written the main ideas on my palms and soles, swapped answers with students in the rows close by me — none of those tricky ploys prevented my failing. A year or so later, I chanced  to meet the teacher who taught me politics in a local beer joint. He admitted that as years went by, he had forgotten all the contents of his lectures. He told me that before each lecture, he spent hours learning each page of the lesson plan by heart. He forgot them all the day after the lecture. When he could no longer remember lesson plans by heart, he accepted his retirement. That day my teacher and I got so drunk, when we went outside, we both walked straight into an electric pole on the street corner.



Model 3


To ensure social order and safety, we were asked to spy on one another. Of course, I never knew who was spying me. I was assigned the task of spying on a neighbor. In the morning, he usually rode his motorcycle to work. Then in the afternoon, he went home. I used to follow him and jot down minutest details of his regular routine. But I was most frustrated when he closed his door and went to sleep at night. Who knew what he talked about with his relatives and what activities he performed in the dark? During our city block people’s meeting, I volunteered to stand up and conduct a sincere self-criticism. I self-admitted numerous wrong doings, and confessed my lack of interest in volunteering for clandestine duties. To keep the rule of secrecy for our long-term operation, I did not mention the name of the subject I was asked to spy on or his specific activities. I chose to use only general, vague and obtuse adjectives in my statement.



Model 4


I was invited to be on the city block planning advisory team. Our only point of reference was a 6 x 12 cm black and white photo. We took turns studying it then sketched ourselves a model. No matter how I turned the photo, vertically or horizontally, I could never find the detail. The advisory team met several times but never found an optimal plan. Then one by one, like amnesia, we forgot about that project as if it never existed. Some years later, I no longer heard anyone in my city block say a word about the advisory team.



Model 5


Last night I dreamed of living in a spacious, airy house situated next to a body of water. The air was clear, unpolluted. The drinking water and the food met stringent safety standards. I went with my loved ones into the house. Oddly, the back of the house was connected to many alleyways. We each picked an arbitrary one. The further I went, the darker it became. Sometimes, in the maze of alleyways we ran across each other again, or stumbled across furniture that someone had abandoned so randomly and disorderly encroaching the very sidewalk. At the end of a dark alley, I recognized the same bed that was carrying me in this dream.  That spacious house turned out to be a model house, situated right at the end of many alleys.



Model 6


The halo in my dream was far away. To get to the halo, people had to go through a fire gate. Many had tried, but nobody could go through. But I was determined to get there. Before going through the gate, I hardened my mind and trained my willpower. Finally, I went through the fire gate. But my entire body was burned, beard and hair disappeared. Behind that halo was just a barren field. Mice, that almost died, but somehow managed to survive, rushed out to greet me. Since then, I have been their king in the kingdom of mice.



Model 7


A science fiction project. Scientists could graft many different fruits in the same tree. Many fruit grew up together inside one big fruit, separated from each other by a simple membrane. People arrived at this science center bringing many of their favorite fruit, from citrus, longans, blood lemons, apricots, oleasters, gold apples, wampis from the North, to plums, mangoes, rambutans, jackfruit, grapefruit, berries, durians, and star apples from the South. When the fruit ripened, the outer skin was bright red in color. No one had thought how to make the fruit more than skin deep. The way to change each part of the skin to reflect the individual fruit, just under the surface.



Model 8


The model house was designed and built around a bird’s nest set in the fork of a tree branch. The outside of the house was entwined with barbed wire, equipped with electronic reconnaissance devices, radars, sound detectors, motion detectors... The house looked like a top-notch modern military base as well as a lair of long-extinct dinosaurs. In theory, the house was a paradise on earth, where no one could trespass, and it had no enemies, forever. But according to its design, that giant bird’s nest had to stay in the great tall fork of the tree branch. From then on, people actively planted trees and zealously tended even the tiniest of sprouts.






People hurry into darkness to observe the bright red river flowing slowly and gently. Hearts beat rapidly with anxiety as well as in elation. Doubtful questions quickly spread out in the night like a secret order given for a battle ahead. Is this a revenge bloodbath? Will our lives be submerged in a red sea?


Blood moves serenely in forgiving ways, as peaceful as a sleeping child’s breathing. Blood touches the air, blood touches historic landmarks, like a giant python slithering across a stone slab, like a ball rolling on a grass field. Like raindrops calling each other to gather and flow down to a low land.


A piece of chalk put next to a blackboard. Blood comes to open up  the senses, to waken areas of the brain for clearer thoughts, for each person to understand, to pick up the piece of chalk and copy each letter for themselves. To learn how to read a simple sentence articulately. How to write the name of their country.  How to write their own name.


Blood comes back to blooming season. Rice heavy with grain. Sweet potatoes growing big. Corns with plump seeds. Cattle hide and poultry feathers smooth. Fish stir in rivers and creeks, ponds and lakes. Blood guides slim fingers to sow rice seedlings, to check each corn seeds on fertile soil.


Blood tenderly flows by beds of moss, shaking the bodies of wild grasses. Blood makes the earth tremble, like eels and loaches rubbed with salt before slaughter. Blood spreads serene, carrying the power and sacredness of dreams. Soldiers from platoons and squads a long time buried by mortars and rockets, rise up from the underground like a spectral camouflaged branch of service. They march, in lines still, back to their old villages, each one going back to their old house. Miraculously, when they get there, not one of their relatives or neighbors is missing. Dishes served to welcome them are not ritual foods served on their days of death, but frugal country meals, with soup of ground crab and jute, and a plate of pickled eggplant.


The stream of blood pours chlorophyll into trees, jiggles and cleanses their canopies. Moods begin a reversal, as people in trances slap their own faces to wake up, their habits of indifference change for a moment, into a passion. Calls from a strange bird rise up, signaling extraordinary movement inside the earth. Earthworms dig one more level deeper to make the soil softer. A green frogling discovers the moonlight and calls its mother with affection. A fairy tern invites its partner to cross the ocean.


Unripe fruit, which has been picked before its time, now reappears in trees, waiting to ripen, to become sweet and fragrant one day. Flowers and fruit that have been burrowed by worms or pecked by birds tremble in their rebirth. Trees that have been cross-sawed, naturally reconnect their timbre. Tree sap flows across rotten logs, emitting a peppery smell, the familiar fragrance of new leaves and tree roots. Each tree is respected and protected as a living organism. Each person enjoys freedom, human rights, and dignity. Strong trees and healthy people live close to and for each other.


Surviving birds and wild animals flock back to receive blood like receiving their relatives back after an upheaval that has brought a time of separation. They bring back the severed tails, beaks, horns, fangs, and claws of their own kin — once  hunted down, then killed. They put these close to the flow of rivers, then kneel and crouch down in waiting. Blood arrives and gladly resurrects each layer of fur and feathers, heats up each cell, sweat glands and layers of skin.


Blood releases the animals into the wild, birds into the sky. Blood releases aquaculture marine lives, seaweed and plankton into the oceans. Blood lets ducks and water birds frolic and swim in ponds.


Everyone, including me, begins to breathe deeply, no longer breathing in fear. Suddenly we all have the same blood type. We all lie down and let the warm, bright red river flow through all of us. I am still myself but different tonight. Independent and free like the insect and the animal — happy and free as fish in the sea and birds in the air.






Water begins its flow into the mouths of the people, water carrying their ancestors’ souls and the sacredness of the land. Individuals join in a confluence of contrasting colors, colors that merge into a rising tide choked with sediment and sentiments.


The new flow regenerates seasons for breeding, laying eggs and transplanting. Red blood nourishes fetuses, nurtures seeds for flowers to bloom and the myriads of animals to reproduce.


Spirituality and micro-circuitry. Pathways of the Ch’i and spiritual software’s architecture. Structured and unstructured data of the material and the immaterial. Faces of humans, fauna, and vegetation are interconnected throughout chronological time and contemporary space.


The souls of data, waiting to be decompressed, urge contemporary people not to hesitate or mess about in one place for too long.


Personalities appear in human interface windows as they rise out of their rebirths, selecting other values this time. Other paths. Other philosophies. Other turns. Other idols. Other models. Other independence. Other freedom. Other happiness. Other feelings.


A Chrysopogon flower, silent for so long, now appears on a left corner of the screen. It emits a long sound like the warning signal of a computer infected by a virus: We have been through an era of junk! Such a signal does not make people angry or stunned, because by now everyone knows that they are not basic raw materials.


The anonymous Chrysopogon flower has created a domino effect, bringing forth the collapse of a series of chess pieces. A figure with an unknown face finally stands up and admits he is no more than a blunt knife. Then a second, third and fourth figure stand up to be accountable. Such self-acknowledgment from the growing headcount, an infinite army spreads out. People admit they are either a cleaning cloth, a ragged broom, a dustpan, a book with its binding undone, a  broken chair, or a fused iron. They confess to being a torn blanket, a split pair of shoes, outmoded articles of clothes, or an old plastic container covered with dust. Now all of them voluntarily come to the rallying point to be categorized, destroyed or to await their rebirth.


Saved files show up one by one like tombs. They are built like elaborately ornamented tombs, and even forsaken ones. The busy screen forms a Grave Visiting Festival day, full of offerings and the smoke of incense. The cooperative chairman of old reappears, astonished at being connected to the prophet, the advisory team, and the white-faced actors... The politics teacher meets soldiers from both fronts. The locks of solitary confinements are changed to keep only death row inmates incarcerated.


Even a piece of raw meat knows about the bird nest house, the kingdom of mice, and the narrow bed. The piece of meat happily looks back to the musty hole at the foot of the wall. The wasp inside suddenly appears on the screen and opens a door into a memory store, for it can read rare and precious documents, many not yet decoded. The wasp is now a source, a deadly point of weakness and holds the master key.


Stained souls struggle to emerge from smokestacks of universal incarnation towers, slaughterhouses, and waste processing plants. They bring along their unrealized ideas and wishes. An early rain pours down just in time. The souls rustle to mix with each droplet of clean water pouring on mother earth. The rain drops hope into people’s dreams, wipes plants clean, and serves as a washing basin for the entire area.


Polygonums, Commelinales, and ferns next to fences, together with Rasboras and mosquito larvae in stagnant water, suddenly glow. They long for freedom and the preservation of their honor. They connect with old trees and wild animals to achieve a far-reaching vision, a fierce spirit, and bravery.


They learn the eagle’s proud and painful way to renew its own body. When no longer able to fly high and far, the eagle strikes its beak on a cliff until it breaks to regenerate its claws. It dares to look straight into the sun without blinking and is not afraid of  burning  blindness.


The eagle flies up to the top of the mountain waiting for the storm. Ferocious stormy winds lift it on top of the rain. Its sharp claws grasp onto the storm’s shoulder creating a proud and sacred symbol.


Hải Phòng – Hà Nội, 25/8/2018




Biography of Nhat-Lang Le


Nhat-Lang Le (Lê Đình Nhất-Lang) was born in 1969 in Saigon, emigrated with his family to France in 1983, and moved to the U.S. in 1985. He has a B.A. in Linguistics and Computer Science from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Nhat-Lang Le worked for more than a decade as a software programmer, before switching careers to work as a news translator and editor for a Vietnamese media organization based in the Little Saigon area of Southern California. He is a co-author of Poems of Nguyễn Thúy Hằng, Đỗ Lê Anhdao & Lê Đình Nhất-Lang (Vagabond Press, 2017). He is the translator of two of Mai Văn Phấn’s collections Seeds of Night and Day (Page Addie Press, 2013) and Grass Cutting in a Temple Garden (Page Addie Press, 2014). He is a co-translator of Poems of Lưu Diệu Vân, Lưu Mêlan & Nhã Thuyên (Vagabond Press, 2014) and The Selected Poems of Mai Văn Phấn (Publishing House of the Vietnam Writers’ Association, 2015). His Vietnamese poems and translations have appeared in the printed magazines Thế Kỷ 21Văn Học and Văn, and the literary e-zines Tiền Vệ ( and Da Màu ( He has been on Da Mau’s editorial staff since 2007.



Biography of Susan Blanshard

Susan Blanshard was born in Hampshire, England. She is an internationally acclaimed poet, essayist, and best-selling author. Susan is English Translator-Poet for 9 award-winning bilingual poetry books. She is a Committee member of PEN International Women's Writers and a foundation member of Asian Pacific Writers and Translators. Susan has written more than 40 books: poetry, short stories, nonfiction, fiction and poetic prose. Her works include Honey in the Blood, Fragments of the Human Heart and book-length poetic prose Sheetstone. Selected poetry and essays are published in literary magazines including PEN International Women Writers’ Magazine. The World’s Literary Magazine: Projected LettersSix Bricks Press, Arabesque MagazineLotus International Women’s Magazine, Coldnoon International Journal of Travel and Literature, Amaravati Poetic Prism 2017, ICORN International Cities of Refuge. Nuestra Voz/Our Voice/Notre Voix - The Anthology of the International PEN Women Writers’ Committee. Susan lived in Hanoi for eight years and has written four travel books on Vietnam. She is married to an Executive Creative Director and best-selling author. They have two adult children. Susan resides near Sydney, Australia.





Chapter I: Point of View

Chapter II: Deep Red

Chapter III: The Stage

Chapter IV: The Crossroad

Chapter V: The Butchers

Chapter VI: The Dialogs

Chapter VII: The Models

Chapter VIII: The Dream

Chapter IX: Continuation


[1] Đồng Dù Base is in Củ Chi district, about 60km northwest of Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon. This is a military base of prime importance for the U.S. and the Republic of Vietnam before 1975.

[2] A bridge across the Ka Long River.

[3] Ka Long river is the natural boundary between the Quảng Ninh prefect of Vietnam and the Guangxi prefect of China.

[4] Chắn Coóng Pha field in Thán Phún hamlet, Hải Sơn commune, Móng Cái city, Quảng Ninh prefect is where the Ka Long river merges with the Beilun river.




Consumerism encourages people to acquire more things. It also entitles them to a second, reverse privilege: the right to dump things. Era of Junk tells an opposite story: people are abandoned by things. In other words, people are objectified. Era of Junk once again affirms Mai Văn Phấn’s distinctive style in his effort to deconstruct and make sense of the modern world’s degradation, a world where there is no clear demarcation between the Subject and the Object. His new work establishes a structure similar to a frame story, or to be more precise, a frame genre. Era of Junk, from the beginning sentence to the ending word, recounts a journey from the ambiguity of poetry to the transparence of prose.

(Tao Dan Book Joint Stock Company)

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