An Interview with Katherine Towler – by Binh Huy Nguyen

Nguyen: The second installment of your trilogy of novels, Evening Ferry, explores the complications and consequences resulting from America’s involvement in Viet Nam.  What was your relationship to Viet Nam prior to writing the book? 

Towler: I was a teenager during the Viet Nam war, or the American War as they call it in Viet Nam.  When I was thirteen, we observed the Moratorium Day protest against the war at my elementary school by wearing black arm bands and tolling the bell in the church steeple.  When I was fifteen, I went to Washington, D.C. for a demonstration against the war with my father and sister.  The war and the opposition to it defined so much in America at that time.  The music we listened to, the clothes we wore and the way we wore our hair, all felt part of the protests against the war and gave young people a sense of unity and purpose, or at least the young people in my corner of America.  The spirit of that time and the protests had a profound impact on me.

Since those years in the 1960s and early 1970s, Viet Nam has been a place that has lived in my mind, a place I have returned to again and again with a deep sense of shame at what my government did and a profound sadness over the loss of life on both sides.  I cannot say exactly how or why I came to write on the theme of war in my novels, but clearly the experience of coming of age at the time of the conflict in Viet Nam drew me to this topic.  I wanted to write about how war affects those who go off to fight and those who remain behind.  I was also interested in how the various wars shaped American and world history in the 20th century.  War became the backdrop for all three of my novels, through stories of how the wars of the 20th century defined the lives of the people on one small New England island.  The character in Evening Ferry who enlists and goes off to Viet Nam reappears in Island Light, 25 years later, so I wrote about both the young man going off to war and the veteran who returns haunted and struggling to make a life.  That character was inspired by a veteran I met, who shared stories about his experience in Viet Nam.

I read many books about the war as I was working on Evening Ferry and Island Light, basic history and classics such as Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried and Le Ly Hayslip’s When Heaven and Earth Changed Places.  I interviewed Viet Nam vets, including one who has made three trips back to the country beginning in the 1990s.  He told me very moving stories about how he was welcomed by the people and how he found the trips healing.  As a result of the research and writing I did, and my memories of the war coverage and protests, Viet Nam became almost mythic in my mind.  It was a place I felt connected to, though this sense of connection was based mostly on the guilt and regret of an American who, like so many others, wanted to change history.

N: You have visited Viet Nam at least twice since the book was published. How long did you spend in VN and if you can please describe what your role(s) there as an American? 

T: I spent six weeks in Viet Nam in the fall of 2013 and another six weeks in the fall of 2014.  I had the opportunity to teach in a joint degree program established by Southern New Hampshire University at Vietnam National University in Hanoi.  My students were Vietnamese undergraduates completing a finance and accounting degree.  I taught their general education requirements in writing and literature.

In addition to the time I spent teaching in Hanoi, I traveled with my husband in the Central Highlands.  We hired a Vietnamese guide and took a bird-watching trip before my teaching started the first year and after it ended the second.  These trips were wonderful experiences that took us to remote and beautiful places most people do not visit.  The birds were extraordinary.

N: I was born in Viet Nam and came to the U.S. in 1993 and haven’t returned since so I don’t know about the multitude of changes – economically, socially and culturally – in this hardscrabble country.  What did you know about VN and the War when you wrote Evening Ferry and what are some of the discoveries you made when you actually came to the country to live and teach for the length of time that you did?

T: When I arrived in Viet Nam in 2013, I discovered immediately that all my associations with Viet Nam, which had to do with the war, were of very little importance in the country today.  I found a fantastically vibrant country undergoing rapid development and made up of a very young population.  The terrible images I had carried around for years were replaced by something else entirely – the beautiful scenery, the friendly people, the great sense of life.  The young people I taught know of the war from stories they have heard from parents and grandparents, but their Viet Nam is not defined by the war.  They are interested in learning more about America and do not have bad feelings toward Americans.  On the contrary, they are eager to become friends with Americans.  I found this even in older people as well.  The older people I met in Hanoi were proud of having won the war and of having gained their independence, but as damaging as the war was and still is, with the effects of Agent Orange and the destruction of widespread bombing still evident, they gave the strong sense that they had moved on.  I came to understand that in some respects the war may be a greater psychic and unhealed wound in the United States than it is in Viet Nam.

N: The Vietnamese people value highly an artistic or literate culture.  Even though being a teacher in VN is not necessarily a lucrative vocation, one is very respected if s/he is a school teacher.  What were your experiences serving as a teacher?

T: Yes, I found that as a teacher I was given a great deal of respect.  In the Vietnamese culture, older people are also given respect for their experience and knowledge.  My work as a teacher and my age make me for all intents and purposes invisible in the United States.  What I do and the age I have attained are liabilities, not assets.  In Viet Nam the exact opposite was the case.  What an incredible relief and pleasure this was.  My twenty-year-old students were genuinely interested in me.  They wanted to get to know me and to tell me about themselves and their lives.  They were delighted to spend time with me outside of class.  It is hard to imagine a comparable experience in America, where boundaries between people of different ages are more pronounced.

N: Here in America, translation from contemporary poetries of VN seems to be more rare than translations from various other regions of the world such as Latin America, France, Italy and other West European countries, Eastern Europe.  One recent exception is the much lauded –rightfully so – translations of the poetry of Ho Xuan Huong by John Balaban.  From your perspective, why aren’t there these transatlantic happenings between VN and the US?  What can Vietnamese American poets and writers do to ameliorate this literary condition/set-back?

T: My time in Hanoi was short and my teaching schedule demanding, so I was not able to make time to try to meet Vietnamese writers.  I think the situation regarding translation has to do with the history of the war and how largely inaccessible Viet Nam remained to Americans until the normalization of diplomatic relations in 1995.  The Vietnamese language is very difficult for Westerners to master, so that may be a factor, too.  I would imagine that it is not that hard to make contact with Vietnamese writers now.  Everyone I met in Viet Nam loves Facebook.  The first question I was often asked when I met anyone under the age of forty was whether I was on Facebook.  Then they would produce their phones and look me up and immediately “friend” me.

N: I enjoyed very much your collection of conversations with writers that make up A God in the House (most particularly the lucid and enlightening conversation with Jane Hirshfield).  Can you talk about the religion(s) that you were raised with in your childhood?  How has your belief – or ‘practice’ is the term Hirshfield used to describe Zen – evolved or solidified as you have grown older?  What is/are the prominent religion/s that the characters in your fictional New England community subscribe to?  If you can talk about your religious/spiritual findings with Buddhism while living in VN? 

T: I am a member of the Episcopal church, the Protestant denomination in which I was raised.  I value the time I spend in church because it is the one place where I am reminded of the need for compassion and forgiveness toward others, and of the need to center my life on something other than material things.  Our public discourse in America has become so cynical and filled with anger.  American culture is ruled by capitalism and the god of money.  In church, I am brought back to a completely different message about how to be in this world.

Moments of spiritual insight or awareness can occur in church just as they can anywhere, but for me they are more likely to happen when I am alone and walking in the woods, when I am not looking for or expecting them.  I think less in terms of having a defined practice that I impose on my daily routine and more in terms of watching for those moments of deeper awareness that can happen anywhere at any time.  Trying to be open to those moments is a practice in a way, but not one that falls into a defined religious category or ritual.

It might be logical to expect one’s belief to solidify as a person grows older.  I am envious of those for whom this is the case.  I was interested in collecting the interviews in A God in the House in part because I wanted to talk to others who had “figured out” this question of faith and found a way to make it work in their lives.  I would say that my belief has not solidified but waxed and waned in ways I cannot predict or control.  I am less interested as I grow older in defining faith through a single religion.  I am more interested in trying to live in the moment of each day and trying to practice love to the best of my ability.

The characters in my books are New Englanders, descendants of the white Protestants who were the first Westerners to settle in this part of the country.  Some of them attend the Protestant church on the island, others are agnostics or atheists.  One of the major characters in Evening Ferry is a convert to Catholicism.  Like me, many of my characters struggle with defining their faith and their relationship to the church as an institution, though they may have a belief in God and experiences that could be called spiritual.  I have always been interested in people who convert to other religions with the conviction that they have found the right path.  I am equally interested in people who have a longing for some experience of the divine, but no certainty about what shape it might take or how to find it.  I put both kinds of characters in my novels.

I loved the Buddhist temples I visited in Hanoi and other places in Viet Nam.  I was struck by how Buddhist practice and ancestor worship were woven into daily life.  In restaurants and shops, parking lots and parks, you find altars to the spirits, and people lighting incense and bowing before them.  I observed people performing these rituals at all times of the day or night, surrounded by honking motorbikes passing by on the street or people exercising in the parks.  At the temple at Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi, I found people lighting incense and bowing in prayer beside a group of men playing checkers.  The lines between the sacred and secular were blurred; the sacred was integrated into the routine and ordinary.  This seems as it should be.  There is a greater separation between the sacred and secular in American life, in part because of our pluralism and in part because religious life and practice have lost any sense of relevance in the culture at large.  My town is full of churches and a synagogue, but the doors of these places of worship are locked most of the time, and they are struggling to survive with fewer members.

Hanoi is the noisiest and most crowded city I have ever visited.  It makes New York look like a sedate village.  The temples and pagodas are oases of quiet in the middle of this teeming life.  You can easily find a temple in many neighborhoods, step into it off the street, and enter a place of silence.  The Vietnamese are good at cultivating stillness at the center of what looks like chaos.  Though the Hanoi traffic is so wild, there is a calmness at the heart of it.  I seldom saw people express anger or get in confrontations.  Even though the motorbikes keep up a constant din of honking, no one seemed in that big a hurry.  All of this was so enjoyable for me, with my Western sensibilities and expectations.  I joked that I must have been Buddhist in an earlier life because I felt so at home.

N:  With my 12 years experience of living in Da Nang, I do know that the Vietnamese people are very very welcoming and gregarious when it comes to Westerners visiting their country.  You said that Vietnamese are eager to become friends with Americans.  Did you pick up the Viet language after your years there?  I – like many others – love Vietnamese cooking, did you enjoy the cuisines there?

T: I was overwhelmed and humbled by the hospitality of the Vietnamese people.  Wherever I went, people were so warm and caring.  I can honestly say I have never felt taken care of so completely and lovingly anywhere else.  There is greater emphasis in the Vietnamese culture on community than there is in the United States.  In America, the focus is on the individual, and we are all caught up in a rather mad and competitive race to prove ourselves as individuals.  Asserting oneself is not valued in the same way in Viet Nam.  Being connected to others, especially family, comes first.  I experienced this in such lovely ways when I visited the family of one of my students and felt their joy at simply being together and sharing a wonderful meal.

As you know, food is central to how people spend time together in Viet Nam.  Three times a day, they sit down to a meal of many different dishes, all using fresh produce and herbs.  I loved the food, and the way meals are a time set aside to be with family or friends.  When my husband and I were traveling in the North Central Highlands, over on the Laos border, our guide arranged one day for us to have lunch at a roadside stand on a remote road.  The place was not a restaurant but a store with a small stock of cigarettes and toothpaste and other supplies.  The owner served us what she was serving her family that day. We sat on little plastic chairs in a structure whose walls were made of tarps stretched over tree branches.  To be treated so well in an area that was occupied by the Americans during the war, and to have people of few resources share such good food with us, was an unforgettable moment.  I tried to capture this moment in one of the poems that accompanies this interview.

I took some Vietnamese lessons before returning to the country in 2014.  I mastered a few phrases and was able to understand and converse a bit, but the tones are so difficult.  I could get the vocabulary, but not the tones, and without the correct tone, people could not understand me.  They were delighted that I made the attempt, though.

N: You also write poetry in addition to fiction. Your poems about your time in VN will be published along with this interview.  Can you speak a bit more about your writing and how it was changed – if at all – by the experience of living in VN?  What advice would you give to a younger US poet who is considering visiting VN?

T: The time I spent in Viet Nam gave me a new perspective on myself and American culture.  As an introvert, I so often feel out of place in my own culture, where to be aggressive in promoting yourself and seeking success is the ideal.  Being quiet and reflective is not valued in America.  In Viet Nam, these things are valued, but there is a strong spirit of camaraderie and connection between people, too.  I found my short but intense time there liberating and affirming.  I observed how good my Vietnamese friends were at living in the moment, being spontaneous, and enjoying whatever was before them.  A tropical climate encourages this approach to life, but there was more to it than climate.  I tried to bring some of the openness and generosity of the people back with me.

I have traveled in Europe and always enjoyed the differences in culture, especially in rural areas where I could spend time in small towns and villages.  Yet the European countries felt different from mine only by degrees.  Viet Nam was a much deeper contrast in culture.  I hope that my time there has changed me and my writing.  In my writing, I think I have become better at being in the moment of what I am writing and not anticipating the finished product.  This is a shift that might have come with getting older anyway, but my time in Viet Nam pushed me further in this direction.  Instead of thinking of the finished poem or story and how it may be received by editors and readers, I am able to be with the work in a more immediate and focused way, and able to see that this is what it is about, the deep engagement and giving over of myself, not what happens to the work later when it is out of my hands.  Writing in this more centered way has returned me to the pure joy of writing, a joy that I lost in some ways once I was published and felt pressure to produce and to live up to the expectations of readers and reviewers.

It was helpful for me to be known as a teacher in Viet Nam, not as a writer.  Though the people I met knew that I had published books, this did not impress them much.  They were much more impressed with the fact that I was a teacher.  Being freed for a while of my identity as a writer helped me return to writing with a greater sense of possibility and the feeling that I was not locked into writing in one genre or in one way.

My only advice to an American poet considering going to Viet Nam is to go now, before the country goes through more change and development.  Don’t hesitate to use guides or travel with a group, services that are both widely available and reasonable in price.  You will find that people are interested in interacting with you almost anywhere you go.  Opt for ways of travel that make this possible.

Poems by Katherine Towler

Luggage

Four hours west
of Da Nang
on a mountain road
wide enough
for only one vehicle
I begin to lose
things.
The anti-nausea
medication, the ear plugs,
the little travel pillow
fall to the bottom
of a suitcase
I cannot reach
in the moat of luggage
ringed round
my fragile sense
of home.
Green fields of rice,
hillsides swept
in light have
other names
for me.

At the store
where we stop
the roof is corrugated tin,
the walls blue tarp lashed
to tree branches.
The woman selling
cigarettes and gasoline siphoned
into plastic Coke bottles
is pleased to share
her family’s meal –
pork and bamboo shoots
in a thick sauce over rice,
green papaya soup,
baked eggs and scallions.

This is what
it means to be rich
I think as the teenage
daughter studies my strange
hair and laughs
at the foreign
sound of hello
in her mouth
and the equally foreign
sound of my
xin chào,
her easy pleasure
erasing what seemed
necessary, carrying
the notion of enough
and not enough
off to the green canopy
of the forest
where we watch
the monkeys go
hand over hand
from one treetop to the next.

On the Streets of Hanoi

Across from the park

men perch on tiny stools

sipping sugar cane juice

from tall glasses

while the woman

who tends the cart

squats at the curb

beside a pan of water

rinsing the glasses of the men

who have come and gone.

She does not look at me.

I am a white ghost,

a haunted and haunting figure

in a history that will not be named.

My feet move

over broken concrete

as though feeling for words

on an empty page.

Motorbikes careen past,

horns honking,

folding me in their wild dance,

oblivious to any narrative

I might impose,

to the need for a narrative at all.

One hunger replaces another

in me, the hunger to be recognized

for the hunger to be free

of this American body

and the outsized appetites

I am shedding bit by bit

like the layers of clothing

I no longer need.

How is it that they allow me

to become one of them,

to add my mute offering

to the great song of life and joy

that is this city?

The woman looks up

from her pan of dish water,

her eyes a quiet invitation

to join the flow

of a human river

winding in silent

forgiveness toward the sea.

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