THE QUESTION OF AUTHORSHIP AND ‘THIRD-WORLD’ AUTOBIOGRAPHY (LE LY HAYSLIP’S MEMOIRS)

I’m preparing my notes to teach Le Ly Hayslip’s memoirs, When Heaven and Earth Changed Places (1989) and Child of War, Woman of Peace (1993), and I realise that defining authorship in them is quite complicated.

Hayslip, born in Vietnam in 1949, moved to the USA in 1970, when she married Ed Munro, a civilian contractor –her ticket out of the devastating war. She spoke little English and, indeed, not enough to write a book on her own even years later, by the time she decided to narrate her life. Her teenage son Jimmy, educated in America and computer-literate, helped by taking down what she dictated, presumably partly the stories she had been painfully writing alone for years. Once she sold her first book, this was completed with the help of Jay Wurts, a Californian writer who advertises himself on his own website as co-author, developmental writer and editor. Wurts is, thus, credited as co-author on the cover of Hayslip’s first book (“with Jay Wurts”) though not on the second, where an adult James Hayslip is named even though the copyright notice only cites ‘Charles Jay Wurts’ as co-author. Complicated…

Of course, this is nothing new, as many autobiographies and memoirs are co-authored by writers like Wurts or by plain ghost writers (yes, I’m thinking of Polanski’s adaptation of Robert Harris’s thriller…). The other Vietnam memoir I’ve taught, Ron Kovic’s Born on the Fourth of July (1976), is not his alone, either, as he mentions in his acknowledgements that his friend and editor, Joyce Johnson, spent “countless hours… helping construct this book.” I’m well aware that editors play in American publishing a prominent role quite unwelcome in Spain, where both authors and readers prefer what could be called ‘purity in authorship.’ I wonder, though, why Johnson is not credited as co-author whereas Wurts is; it must be a matter of the actual writing done but, again, no idea how this is measured.

This ‘purity’ hadn’t bothered me much regarding Hayslip and Kovic until I came across Allen Carey-Webb’s article “Auto/Biography of the Oppressed: The Power of Testimonial” [The English Journal, 80: 4, Apr., 1991, 44-47]. In this essay Carey-Webb offers a list of Third World “testimonials” that might interest American students (college, I assume), ranging from Rigoberta Menchú’s to Hayslip’s. He, surprisingly, denies that testimonials are autobiographies (=texts worth literary studies attention) as “they are recorded and written down by a second person… Testimonials are a sort of Third World ‘auto/biography’ that brings to the center the experience of the unlettered, marginalized, and oppressed. They are ideal texts in which students and teachers alike attempt to hear the voice of the voiceless, investigate cultural and social differences, and raise questions about what it means to be ‘culturally literate.’”

Third World sounds to me here appallingly patronising precisely because Kovic is First World and he still needed, like many other of the “unlettered, marginalized, and oppressed” (or the simply untalented for writing) help from an editor. By placing Menchú’s or Hayslip’s co-authored written texts in a separate category on the grounds of their oral origins I think that Carey-Webb undermines their importance in increasing that ‘cultural literacy’ that we, teachers and students, so direly need –and as autobiographies, and what this implies for the genre. Actually, Hayslip, for all her pro-American bias, teaches an important lesson in how to acquire a mixed cultural literacy (under pressure from war). Her books, by the way, are very well written, in particular the first one. And, surely, many memoirs and autobiographies by First World persons are based on oral interviews, which is not quite Hayslip’s case.

Another essay, Killmeier and Kwok, “A People’s History of Empire, or the Imperial Recuperation of Vietnam? Countermyths and Myths in Heaven and Earth” [Journal of Communication Inquiry, July 2005, 29: 256-272] shows how Oliver Stone’s film version of Hayslip’s books, the underrated Heaven and Earth (1993), does something peculiar with language, having Le Ly use correct English in scenes where only the Vietnamese appear –though they miss that they’re played by an assortment of Asian actors– and pidgin English with Americans. This choice shows that Stone’s American audience was/is not ready for the required linguistic realism (have the Vietnamese speak their language with English subtitles). Yet, it also complicates the memoirs: they’re not translated, like Menchú’s, into English but thought directly in Hayslip’s migrant American English, polished by Wurts. Is this pidgin?

So, in my own pidgin, Third-World English, as, like Hayslip, I’m not a native English-speaker, let me say that I’m very glad her ‘testimonial’ has reached me through the First World bridge of American English, whether co-authored or not, oral or written, literary or not. It is the perfect companion for Kovic’s ‘First World’ ‘literary’ ‘autobiography.’

THE QUIET AMERICAN: GREENE, MANKIEWICZ, NOYCE AND PHUONG

I’m teaching a course on the witness in Vietnam War books and films. This includes Coppola’s overblown Apocalypse Now! with Heart of Darkness, The Quiet American with its two film versions, Ron Kovic’s truly sad memoir Born on the 4th July with Oliver Stone’s memorable adaptation, and Le Ly Hayslip’s moving two-volume autobiography, filmed also by Stone as the underrated Heaven and Earth. This week I’ve been teaching Greene’s novel and the films by Joseph L. Mankiewicz (1958) and Philip Noyce (2002) and, well, in a class with a female teacher and only female students inevitably the spotlight has fallen on the main female character, Vietnamese Phuong.

The Quiet American (1956) is celebrated as a good novel and an even better historical insight into the escalation of American intervention in Vietnam. Greene is highly critical of how the Americans betrayed the French to establish a corrupt south-based Third Force that disrupted tragically the anti-colonial war of liberation which the nationalist Vietminh of Ho Chi Minh were waging. Ironically, this anti-American novel became the Bible for many American war correspondents in the 1960s and 70s (see Nolan’s article, https://www.nytimes.com/2003/01/30/movies/graham-greene-s-unquiet-novel-film-print-quiet-american-still-fascinates.html). They seemingly identified with the jaded, middle-aged British journalist Fowler than with the naive but highly dangerous young Alden Pyle, the quintessence of American blinkered interventionism.

Now, if you strip the novel down to its core, Greene actually narrates a melodramatic sexual confrontation between Fowler and Pyle for the girl Phuong, Fowler’s mistress for two years. There is a clear metaphor here: Phuong is a sexualised representation of all of Vietnam, whereas the men represent two kinds of selfish colonialism: one more or less benign in its non-interventionism but also decadent (1956, when the novel was published, was the crucial year in which the Suez Canal was lost to Egyptian nationalism), the other quite evil in its paranoiac Cold-War approach to Vietnam’s anti-imperialistic struggle. To make the story closer to events, perhaps Fowler should have been French but since he is not, his patriarchal contest with Pyle for Phuong’s body is revealed to be just that: pure patriarchal rivalry, transcending the particular local conflict where it erupts.

Phuong is so obviously the stereotypical Oriental woman –beautiful, uncomplaining, always sexually available but undemanding– that I cringe all through the novel. She hardly reacts while Fowler and Pyle discuss to her face, though wholly ignoring her, whom she should choose. Her uglier sister Miss Hei uses, in the meantime, all her cheeky wiles to palm her off to Pyle and a cherished American future. Another stereotype indeed. The Vietnamese men hardly exist in this alleged war story, which helps present Phuong as a helpless maiden in distress, condemned to street-walking prostitution unless a white man rescues her. The men, of course, do not see that they just want to be her one and only client and fancy themselves, particularly Pyle, as her saviours.

The films do strange things to this Phuong. In the 1958 version she’s played by a pretty, but also pretty bad, Italian actress (Giorgia Moll), with the wrong body language, face and diction. My students, to my surprise, liked her better than the ethnically correct Do Thi Hay Yen of Noyce’s film version, maybe because Moll plays the role with Mediterranean passion and Yen is too close to the original passive Phuong for comfort (though also more of a subtle schemer). I puzzle about Moll’s miscasting, maybe a side effect of the film’s interiors being shot in Cinecittà. My provisional conclusion is that audiences were not yet ready for interracial kissing, though the film proudly announced that its exteriors had been filmed on location in Vietnam. Or maybe an Italian woman was as exotic as a Vietnamese one in the 1950s, for that matter.

The 2002 version has a different, serious problem: put beautiful 20-year-old Yen in bed with 61-year-old Michael Caine (as Fowler) and, no matter how mild the scenes are, instead of love you see a picture of blatant sexual trafficking in Asia, past and present. When Miss Hei declares that Phuong is Saigon’s most beautiful woman, I couldn’t help thinking she could do much better than Fowler –a disgusting thought; this is what patriarchal stories do to women spectators. No matter: such a beauty would have done better indeed in real life, which shows that the Phuong of Quiet American is plainly just Greene’s sexual fantasy (he was 52 when the novel was published, roughly Fowler’s age).

In the end, I’m sorry to say, The Quiet American boils down to the old patriarchal fantasy and is not such a great Vietnam War novel as too many think. Maybe, here’s an ugly thought, American journalists carried it in their bags expecting not to much to understand Vietnam as to catch their own Phuong.