Sunday, May 6, 2012

All Apologies

Xin Chao, Lovers!

So it’s been awhile since I last wrote, which I was sort of hoping no one had noticed, but evidently someone did as my friend, Brian, recently emailed to ask if I’d a) been gored by a water buffalo or b) succumbed to that rare but potent skin disease endemic to Vietnam caused by chemicals the US buried in the soil here 40 years ago.


Considering I hadn’t before heard of said flesh-eating disease and have, since my arrival to Vietnam in January, been also suffused with a persistent but low-grade dread about contracting dengue fever, you can imagine the enthusiasm with which I greeted Brian’s recent email. After several minutes doing my best imitation of an Edgar Munch painting, I decided to pack away the computer, crack open a bottle of duty-free spirits and self-soothe with several hours of badly dubbed martial arts movies.

When I started this blog in earnest, I promised myself I’d write four entries a month: basically one a week, and I was pretty good about this up until this past month, when everything went cattywumpus. No, I have not been killed by a water buffalo (hard to do, as water buffalo horns face backwards, thus goring is only possible by being hit by a water buffalo running full tilt in reverse) nor contracted any fatal US-originating skin diseases. I did, however, lose a couple of weeks after a three-day boat and kayak trip to Halong Bay, after which I suffered another rare, but totally moronic “illness” called Mal de Debarquement, which happens when the (usually) female brain—thoroughly lavaged with new levels of progesterone and estrogen—can’t switch back to land mode post-cruise, and so the sufferer wanders around in a rocking haze, feeling like the ground is being constantly yanked out from underfoot. It strikes mostly women and lasts anywhere for weeks to months; some people, horrifyingly, never recover at all.





What this meant for me was 15 straight days in which looking at a computer became impossible for any time longer than about 20 minute intervals, after which I’d wooze and stagger, headachy and confused, panicked about my inability to focus on anything smaller than a wall. Driving around in taxis relieved the symptoms, as did, thankfully, doing my favorite thing in Hanoi: walking around the park at night, watching families play badminton, or dance meringue, or roller blade, or walk their dogs: children and young couples sitting in the grass, playing music; people sharing food and taking pictures of each other, strolling--like me-- for hours in the humid night, trying to cool down.

So. That was April.

On top of these physical malfunctions were other (somewhat existential) reasons for not writing. First, I had a couple of books that were published. Fellow writers in the ether, I don’t know about you, but there is nothing simultaneously more joyful and dispiriting than having a book of poetry come out. Here it is, the product of four to five years of work, carefully edited, typeset, elegantly printed and bound, at last available for public consumption and critique. Now sit back and watch it get tossed, with as little fanfare as possible, off the nearest cliff.

Or not, as the case may be. In some ways, it’s not the critical reception or lack of it that bothers me. The real problem with a book being published is that it marks the date when those years of obsession, those dizzying months upon months of revision, contemplation, research—all that fantastic agony—are over. Someone has now slapped those poems out of your hands, and left you with the realization—correct or not—that those poems are really, forcibly, irreparably done.

This makes the yawing hole that may or may not be your current writing life all the more apparent. It takes me a long while to refocus after a book comes out, and now I have two to compound the problem. It is not that I am blocked: I write, as much as ever, but nothing worthwhile comes of it. When things are going well, I am alive. After a book is finished, I am… not. In the back of my mind, I know this is part of the process itself: I go through it every time. What comes next is the new hunger. But it takes time to find it. After six books you’d think I’d know enough not to panic about that, but still I do. Each month that rolls by in which I am not hungry in that critical way that makes the writing of another book possible, I wonder: Was that the last poem I’ll ever write?

Added to that is the whole fact that here I am, edging closer and closer to the date my time abroad ends, and so far I have less than 15 written pages I want to keep. Somehow, this doesn’t seem like enough, especially on someone else’s dime. Every poem I write, I can’t help but think: Was that worth $52,000? A year away from your husband, the risk of your pets dying from treat-induced diabetes, the possibility of having all your flesh eaten away by the ghost of a war that will never really die?



You can’t think like this, I know: it just worsens the problem. But such is the joy of being a writer.

Finally, the last reason I haven’t written is because April marks the beginning of the season when people move away from Hanoi. April is the cruelest month, packed as it is with goodbye dinners and farewell drinks, and friends waving to you from taxis on their way to the airport. And one of those friends was Ruth.


This photo of Ruth was taken at Khoach Sang, a.k.a, The Worst Place to Vacation in the Whole of Vietnam. This is right before Ruth and I take our ride on the (literally) death-defying bucket of lugnuts passing as a Tilt-a-Whirl. Ruth’s colleagues at the university told us to go to this place, renowned for its mud baths (a local fungal slick optimistically advertised as a spa treatment) and its relatively untrammeled hiking trails, to which (bafflingly) none the guards stationed around the many paths allowed Ruth or me to access. So instead Ruth and I hung out in the hotel café with a big bottle of vodka, something that may or may not have been a plateful of fried pieces of an old purse, and spent the weekend alternately taking casually monitored amusement rides and getting drunk next to this:


I love Ruth. Ruth is a German water rights scholar, artist, and staunchly Leftist organizer from Hamburg. She’s the kind of woman who decides to turn an abandoned warehouse into a sprawling, super-cool art space. She’s the kind of woman who decides that getting a PhD in Political Science might not be the most practical thing and so becomes a master of carpentry, the kind of woman who wanders around the Australian outback for three months with little more than a sleeping bag and a map, the kind of woman who says to her obsessive-compulsive artist-turned-weightlifter boyfriend, “You know, if you keep trying to make me feel guilty about eating this piece of cake, I’ll break up with you right AFTER eating the rest of it,” the kind of woman who travels to Tasmania for a music festival on a mountaintop, who is willing to turn to a party full of strangers in which someone tells a homophobic joke everyone else is too cowardly to call out and ask, “I do not understand: Why are we NOT punching this person in the face?”

Ruth is exactly the kind of woman I want to be when I grow up.

Ruth is one of a fairly long list of cool people I’ve met this year: artists and scholars and NGO workers and architects, people who spend their lives traveling from one country to the next, fixing up buildings in war-torn nations or helping out with women’s rights, running travel tour companies or conducting interviews that will turn into books of investigative journalism. They are multilingual, engaged, hyper-curious people, and I am in awe of all of them. I have promised some I wouldn’t mention them in this blog to protect their privacy, in particular certain people in Paris (though you know who you are! Look at me, not writing about you! You who are so cool!), but the fact is, these are what have provided me the most inspiration this year. I always suspected my life to date had been fairly narrow in its aspirations. The people I’ve encountered this year have confirmed this, and if I’m grateful for anything, it’s the opportunity to meet people whose own curiosity shows me how much larger this world really is.





In a way, Hanoi in particular is to thank for this. Here, ex-pats obviously stand out. Even the Vietnamese-Americans (or -Australians or -French, the Viet Cu as they are called here) are—in large part—fairly easy to identify, which allows me to meet people I would likely have no access to at home. Like diplomats, say, or people who work for the World Bank. That’s the upside of being an ex-pat, and being an ex-pat in Hanoi, one of the toughest, most hostile, relentlessly stressful burgs on the planet, might contribute to the overall congeniality of fellow foreigners.

One notable thing about living in Hanoi is that the city itself is the hot topic of conversation among its residents. Every conversation requires a good half hour discussion about how the hell you are surviving here, what the fuck is WRONG with this place, when in God’s name you plan to leave, and yet why for chrissakes you can’t seem to tear yourself away. Hanoi is like that particularly charismatic yet undeniably psychotic friend you have, the one about whom you and all your other friends can’t stop gossiping.



I mean, in one day in Hanoi, my apartment doorway, plants, shoes and parts of my legs were sprayed all over with pesticide by the local hose-happy pest guy (oddly, something like that happened to Ruth, too, before she left: is this Hanoi policy?), I got in a shouting match with a local vendor intent on cheating me out of 200,000 VND and finally, almost fatally misjudging the distance between me and an oncoming rush of taxis and buses due to poor night vision, I found myself maniacally running not AWAY FROM but INSIDE OF heavy traffic in a kind of NASCAR-meets-Pamplona death match which amused the fifty or so scooter drivers suddenly whizzing alongside me no end.

This place is fucking killing us.

Anyway, this is why I haven’t been writing. To Brian: my apologies. To the rest of you: I’ll be better in the future. Maybe I’ll even try to make up for it by posting twice per week for May.



And to the guy who just sprayed down my feet with toxic bug juice: I’d call you some fairly choice names, though clearly my fair nation has left far worse in your own backyard. For that, I’m sorry. And sorry, too, that our various discontents and rages get to converge like this in a stew like Hanoi. My best wishes for you and your family. I’m just starting to understand what it takes here to survive.



  1. Sometime, in this lifetime I hope, I want to hear why you decided to go to Hanoi. This is so interesting to me. And I'm very glad to read this post. I bought the new book, and am taking it with me to Scotland.

  2. So sorry to hear about the prolonged MdD. The jury is still out on the Ba Tơ skin disease -- they are analyzing soil samples, but also thinking that fungus-covered rice could be an issue. Interesting observations about ex-pats in Hanoi; Bangkok doesn't feel that way, perhaps because it has had more "farang" for longer (and not as combatants).

    Between recommending potentially carcinogenic crème brûlée and informing you of mysterious fatal skin diseases in your current country, perhaps I'm a less than ideal travel correspondent. But I do hope you enjoyed the string quartet.