Female writers give literature some ooh la la

Confucian prudery reigned supreme in Vietnamese classic literature – until Nguyen Du and Ho Xuan Huong came along in the 18th century to spice up the selection.

The woman poet Huong is thought to have authored some 60 highly erotic poems. While Du would go down in the history books for his Tale of Kieu, his real legacy is creating Vietnamese literature’s first nude scene, in which the heroine reveals herself in a bath:


Pure as jade, white as ivory,

Resplendent, sculptural – creation’s masterpiece.


In the colonial era, writers flirted with libertinism but never went beyond timid experimentation. In the 30 years of war following independence in 1945, especially during the partition of the country from 1954 to 1975, patriotic duties outweighed personal interests and moral rectitude was firmly upheld: the slightest misstep would raise brows all around.


Now, a more personal, more critical trend has emerged in literature, and its latest product — eroticism — is causing strong ripples. At the forefront are female writers, among them Phan Huyen Thu, Do Hoang Dieu, Y Ban and Nguyen Ngoc Tu.


Dieu’s Bong De (Nightmare) describes a young wife haunted by her deceased Chinese father-in-law, whose photograph she has seen enthroned in the clan temple at her husband’s native village. The first night of her visit, she is raped by his ghost, which plunges her into a nervous breakdown. With its explicit description of sexual acts, the story is a shock to many.


Y Ban’s I Am... Dan Ba (I Am... a Woman) is the story of a Vietnamese hired to nurse a rich man in Taiwan, who unwittingly arouses the libido of her lethargic master. Accused of sexual harassment, she is punished and then fired.


Best known, perhaps, is Canh Dong Bat Tan (Only Paddies and Paddies) by Nguyen Ngoc Tu. A duck breeder lives in sullen silence with his son and daughter, day in, day out, plying a maze of canals o­n a small sampan, which they make their home. After his beautiful wife elopes with a dealer in dry goods, he seeks revenge by seducing o­ne woman after another.


Loveless, the children become mentally disturbed. The philandering father finally takes hold of himself, but it is too late: his son, who had run away, returns with a gang of wild boys and forces him to witness the rape of his own daughter.


Tu writes with simplicity, always against the backdrop of her native province at the southern end of the country, where physical and moral misery exist alongside hunger for love and beauty, resignation and compassion. Whatever she describes flows naturally in light touches the average reader finds easily palatable. Her stories are not to the taste of some local officials, however, who brand them as "sexually-oriented, obscene and mud-slinging".


Critics are still divided o­n erotic literature, either decrying it as anti-tradition, hailing it as a progress or simply crossing their fingers. All agree, however, that it should not be used for personal gain.

Huu Ngoc