Paradise of the Blind
Flawed Implementation: The Symbolism of Sticky Rice
In the novel Paradise of the Blind by Duong Thu Huong,the shifts in the government, cultural, and social factors in Vietnam under the implementation of communism are illustrated through the use of symbols, such as sticky rice.In the beginning of the novel, Vietnam is consumed with cultural values and solid family structures, but these values and families are soon destroyed as communism takes over the country.This instance is illustrated throughout the novel by the comparison of sticky rice to communism, cultural values, and family structure. Therefore, Huong uses the preparation of sticky rice as an analogy to the functioning of a communist government system.
The instance of preparing sticky rice is used to illustrate the hardships of the implementation of communism. In the novel, Aunt Tam was in the process of preparing sticky rice for a celebration and stated, “‘It’s not easy to make sticky rice with rose apple'” (Huong 150). This excerpt explicitly demonstrates the idea that the preparation of sticky rice is difficult, which is representative of the difficulties that derive from the implementation of communism. Although the preparation of sticky rice may be a challenging endeavor, the taste of “‘a sticky rice flavored with rose-apple juice…is exquisite'” (150). This portion of text illustrates the idea that the thought of rose-apple sticky rice seems great, but the difficulty of preparing such a delicate dish is much greater, which relates to the idea of instilling a communist government system. In theory, communism is an efficient and effective system, but to achieve success with this system in reality, the execution of the implementation of communism must be done perfectly. The implementation of this system is difficult because since the communist system advocates for a sense of equality and collectivism, each person must be treated the same, which is hard to accomplish. This concept is further supported by the fact that “after the rice is cleaned, it has to be dried with a hand towel, grain by grain if necessary” (150). The act of drying each grain of rice separately is a tedious task, and exemplifies the complications that evolve from striving to create a society based on equality. Each grain of rice is a representation of an individual in Vietnam, while the dish of rose apple sticky rice as a whole represents the country of Vietnam. In Vietnam, the population is too large for communist leaders and officials to ensure that each individual receives the same amount of a certain resource needed for survival, which immediately diminishes the idea of collectivism, yet strengthens the concept of individualism. The provision of resources, which were to be distributed equally throughout the country was depicted during the time of the Land Reforms. When the government took over, they wanted the citizens to encourage the idea of going “‘Down with the landowning classes'” (25). By bringing down the landowning classes, essentially everyone would be equal. The redistribution of land allowed everyone to receive an equivalent amount of resources, yet when the land was given back to the original owners, during the Rectification of Errors, it “‘looked like a neglected grave'” because the “land reform had ripped through the village like squall, devastating fields and rice paddies, sowing only chaos and misery” (77 & 33). These land owners had to rework the land to get it back to its original state, which was an exceptionally challenging task. Due to this, “each grain of rice was weighed like a pearl” (196). Since pearls are a symbol of wealth and rarity, this excerpt exemplifies the idea that the rice was not easily obtainable after the redistribution of the land. This illustrates the idea that the inefficiencies accompanied by the ideologies of communism hindered society because the citizens that were given land to cultivate were not properly educated on the process of farming rice. Thus, during the process of creating a sense of equality, the communist system hindered the society. Therefore, the preparation of sticky rice is used to represent the result of a flawed communist system.
The steam created during the preparation of the sticky rice is a symbol of information. During the cooking of the rice, even if there is “‘the slightest excess of steam, the rice loses all of its flavor'” (150). This quote is a representation of a failed communist system. The fact that the rice lost “all of its flavor” illustrates the inefficiencies of the system, due the incorrect implementation and the impossibility of creating a sense of perfect equality. The presence of excess steam, which ruins the rice, illustrates the result of corruption overpowering the communist government system, causing it to fail. This corruption is shown while Hang visited Uncle Chinh, a Communist Party functionary who claimed to be ill, she realized that he only needed her help in “‘preparing his trunks of imported goods,'” which to be sold on the black market (219). The fact that Chinh and other members of the Communist Party use official visits to Russia to make money by trading luxury goods on the black market illustrates the abuse of power,hidden within this government system.The hypocrisy of this becomes apparent while Chinh hectors his colleagues, telling them they ‘”must behave in an absolutely exemplary manner while [they] are in this brother country'” (171). This is a hypocritical statement because although he reminds his colleagues of their mannerisms, he uses government funding to participate in the black market. This facade of nobility and trustworthiness deceives the public, and further fuels their corrupt nature.Also, the act of Chinh manipulating Hang into visiting him to work for him,leads to the idea that the steam also symbolizes the amount information given to the public by the communist leaders. These leaders must give off the right amount of information, in order to control the public. If the public is given too much information, the public could disagree and decide to overthrow the system, which is illustrated by the idea that when “‘you mix [rice] with the rose-apple juice, the grains mustn’t clump together'” (150). This excerpt demonstrates the concept that when the communist government system is being introduced to the Vietnamese people, they must be cautious of rebellious individuals who could create a united front to overthrow the system. Thus, excessive corruption and giving off too much information would cause communism to lose its effectiveness and structure, just as the excess of steam would cause the rice to lose its flavor and consistency.
The symbol of sticky rice is used to represent the Vietnamese culture and family structure during the implementation of communism. With the preparation of sticky rice, even “‘the slightest excess of steam, the rice loses all of its flavor'” (150). This excerpt can also be interpreted to symbolize the loss of culture and family structure during the reign of communism. During this time, the Vietnamese people could not uphold their culture and traditions as a result of their preoccupation of surviving the harsh conditions that were now present due to the repercussions of the Land Reforms. Before the utilization of communism, most of the Vietnamese people “never missed a festival day,” which illustrates the idea of a resilient sense of cultural values (78). After the enactment of the communist government system, the “festivals, the ceremonies, even Tet…didn’t exist” (78). These passages depict the progression of the Vietnamese citizens neglecting tradition. The family structure was also negatively affected by communism, which was also due to the struggle to survive during communism. Later in the novel, Hang’smother,Que,”had kicked [her] out” and abandoned her (172). Que abandoning Hang symbolizes the destruction of family structure, which is seen throughout the progression of the plot. While food was scarce,Que gave her provisions to Chinh“‘he’s all the family I have left’” (111).Que scavenges for food for her brother, even though she and her daughter have nothing. Ina reiteration of the relationship between Hang and her mom, she states “‘I sought her love, while she sought recognition from the Do family’”(137).By placing such an emphasis on other people, rather than Hang, the author is implying that in difficult situations, individuals tend to search for something better. The act of giving Chinh food and trying to gain acceptance into the Do family exemplifies the idea of trying to maintain and rebuild a sense family.Therefore, the steam also aids in the understanding of the loss of people’s cultural values and family structure during the devastation and destruction of their failing government.
The preparation of sticky rice is used to illustrate the functioning of a communist government system.As the plot progresses, the deterioration of Vietnam occurs, due to the implementation of a flawed communist government system.Thus, throughout the novel, rice is used to portray different aspects of life, such as family structure, cultural values, and Vietnam as a whole, under communism.
Setting, Title, and the Central Theme of “Paradise of the Blind”
The novel Paradise of the Blind by Duong Thu Houng is a work that represents postwar Vietnam quite well, with the author holding nothing back in terms of her home nations virtues and ailments. So much is her unbridled frankness that the work has long since been banned in its country of origin, yet this largely seemed necessary for the author as the novel’s clear intent revolves around exploiting the glaring issues with the eras imperialistic regime and the profound effect this had on its citizens. Perhaps the best way that the issues the author sees with her country can be summarized in the varying significance of the novels bold title, giving a stinging retort to her nation’s misguided leadership before one even commences the novel. This truly is a story reminiscent of the country in question, the setting invokes the aura of the cultural and natural landscapes, its variety of peoples, and the war torn incoherent leaderships of the after years of conflict. Through the use of these unique characteristics the author is able to convey her dissatisfaction with the system which so wholly caused the suffering of the general populace and chained them down with mere illusions of confinement and rightful duties.
Truly, Huong has an insatiable respect for her homeland apparent in such personal and nostalgic passages as “ Evening sounds filled the air : rice being rinsed…women beating laundry on rocks at the edge of the pool, children shrieking and tussling”(75), the novel as whole characterizes the troubles that prevent the enjoyment of her beloved homeland. Of course, this is not her story but rather a young Hang and her experiences in life, the most significant moments being characterized but the time political and social climate (which for a time were very closely intertwined) Nevertheless because the stories of the author and that of the character are so seeped in similar circumstances that one would remiss not to believe that Huong poured her soul into the character of Hang projects her feelings of Vietnam through this character in what otherwise may have been a shameful way of expressing those controversial views. This is a country with a toxic political history marred with crimes against its populace the country itself was in dismay and suffering because of it, truly the circumstances and cultural views make this a one of a kind historical evolution with echoes of similar injustices throughout time. Though Hang views Vietnam’s landscapes and people and their quirks with a childlike passion she learns through the acts of her brother and aunt the kinks in the idealistic façade she wishes her home would be.
The setting serves as a contrast to the themes, at least in Hang’s eyes, that is, the pure and eternal, “ The indestructible purity of a countryside in peace. This was a world apart. This was a world apart, like a great lake. Even a tempest could only ripple its surface”(75). This description is the Vietnam, which Hang so desperately aspires to be a true one that is untouched by external or internal wrongs. It is perhaps a disillusionment to the hopeful reader that even this great gift that she keeps near her heart is slowly dissolved through the eager and conflicting endeavors of her uncle and aunt, “filtered through the dawning sun, an exquisite green that would only exist once, in one place in the universe. I’ll never know why this beauty was so painful to me”(83) an account that should have carried the same endearing weight that the prior example overflowed with, yet it is filled with a different emotion, a somber kind, for one may infer that the dissatisfaction with the leadership of Vietnam directly coincide with the sadness Hang feels with even the most beautiful parts of her home. It is in this paradise of the blind that Hang would seem to yearn for the sweet bliss of ignorance that her nostalgic childhood brought her.
The title of the novel is certainly a unique one and borders on being an oxymoron: how can a location be considered a paradise to those that cannot see? Some readers may say that one would have to be blind to sincerely call any place on this earthly realm a paradise. That certainly holds true for the overarching themes of the novel as Hang struggles to come to terms with her supposed ancestral duties she is ordered to do, “when you mature, remember this and fulfill your duties”(74), the speaker here is Hang’s aunt, a hardboiled women who she both reveres and despises, Hang feels this way because regardless of her aunts achievements in life her obsession with the memory of her brother and the insistence she gives toward Hang achieving the status that her blood had in her eyes is all that Hang would come to hate in adulthood. Hang’s ancestry follows her like a shadow, yet how does this relate to a “paradise of the blind”? Well, the fallout of the Vietnamese war sparked radical social and political change on account of the paranoia of the people they for a time decided to strip the landowning class, no matter their economic status, of all they owned; the nation was a communist state. Before they realized the error of their ways the people had already experienced great suffering and the tarnishing of their dignity and all import pride, this is characterized nicely in the advice given to Hang by her mother, “To live with dignity, the important thing is never to despair. You give up once, and everything gives way. They say ginger root becomes stringy, but pungent with age. Unhappiness forges a woman, makes her selfless, compassionate”(14). Hangs mother is not the only member of her family that suffered as her father was forever taken from her and her aunt becomes the counterexample to Hang’s mother’s words. The closest link that Hangs family has to the whole situation is her own uncle, who may very characterize the significance of the title better than even the towns own blind man. Through his anger and contempt for the higher classes he like so many others become lose sight of their goal, the reconstruction of the their people’s lives. Though this may seem subjective it was not so long after this that the nation began a righting of errors movement, their way of admitting the rash system that was the prior movement. And so because of the folly of man Hang suffers a weakened and dysfunctional family, one crippled on account of the aftermath of the nations journey towards paradise, their ardent belief that they could caused the literal and spiritual deaths of so many of Hang’s relatives.
Yet this is not the only example of metaphorical blindness present in the book the other is much more of a cultural “issue” that Hang and surely many of her peers see with the country one that in her eyes has caused her an equal level of suffering than the aforementioned case yet at a much more personal level. Hang’s Aunt is responsible for this turmoil as she so vehemently seeks to mold Hang into a woman worthy of her brothers bloodline that she loses sight of the pure unbridled spirit that she aspires to be. It is apparent that this fact is not lost on Hang rather she secretly adheres to do the opposite of her Aunt’s wishes and what becomes apparent at novels end is that Hang chooses not to be subjected to the whims of neither her aunt nor any one of her forlorn ancestors, “Forgive me, my aunt: I’m going to sell this house and leave all this behind. We can honor the wishes of the dead with a few flowers… I cant squander my life tending these faded flowers, these shadows, the legacy of past crimes”(258). The reader may come to the conclusion that Hang represents not only the innermost feelings of the authors but can also be considered a representation of Vietnam as a whole, subjugated to countless horrors on account of the past’s folly and the present’s blindness towards this “legacy of past crimes”. A somber conclusion, yet one must consider Hang’s declaration as symbolic of the chance that Vietnam’s people may yet acknowledge the mistakes of their past and set their sights on a vision of tomorrow.
The Role of Food in the Social, Cultural, and Political Landscapes of Paradise of the Blind
One of the most striking elements of Paradise of the Blind is its constant discussion of food. Through imagery and description of traditional foodstuffs, the novel emphasizes the Vietnamese’s deep cultural connections to and love of food. These descriptions serve to describe family and cultural dynamics of Hang’s childhood as well as highlight the differences between the culture of Hang’s Vietnamese homeland and the emptiness of the Soviet Union and the communist regime. The detailed description of Vietnamese food not only increases the already vivid imagery in the novel, it drives the story forward by highlighting Hang’s deep, entrenched love of her homeland. Her memories of Vietnam are as full of gustatory recollections as interactions with people. It shows that, for the Vietnamese, food is a powerful form of expression—socially, culturally, and personally. When giving gifts or showing hospitality, for instance, the offers come through food. The Vietnamese connection with traditional foods shows that, despite the overreaching conformity brought by the communist regime, the people of Vietnam did not lose their traditional culture, indeed, they held onto it stubbornly. Throughout the novel food dynamics are also used as a method of social interaction between friends, family, and enemies. During the great festivals, such as Tet, the actions of giving and receiving food reveal social status and familial devotion. These holidays bring families together, which also brings out family tensions. In Hang’s family, specifically, the lunar festivals are times when both Tam and Que go out of their ways to give gifts of food—Tam to Que and Hang, and Que to Uncle Chinh and his family. Que gratefully accepts these gifts; Chinh, though, views them as both charity and an insult. Yet he still accepts them because of greed and need, due to his illness. The festival foods, such as New Year’s cakes, pate, and sweet puddings, are generally more expensive. People must save extra money from hard work to buy them. The expense adds to both the generosity and insult of giving such a gift; it shows more charity, or condescension, towards the receiver of the gift.The novel further showcases the significance of food in relationships through Hang and her mother’s cyclical relationship. At the beginning of the novel, when Que is always attentive to Hang’s needs, their relationship is loving and close. “The air was fragrant with the aroma of the anise-and ginger-flavored beef soup. I grabbed my mother’s shirt. ‘I’m hungry, Mother.’ She was flustered. ‘Oh, how could I forget? We haven’t eaten anything since noon…” (109). Their relationship only begins deteriorating after Uncle Chinh becomes another factor in their lives, putting a new burden on their food resources. Their continually degenerating dynamic is almost always a result of a food shortage, usually because Que ignores Hang’s needs in order to satisfy her brother’s. When Chinh is diagnosed with diabetes, Que uses all her resources, both monetary and food, to provide for him. “Our meals started to shrink by the day. The few slices of roast pork or fried fish disappeared and were replaced by bean curd…in the end, even these were replaced by small fried dishes…the vegetables went next….most days, all we ate were cheap greens” (179). Que tries to justify these changes in diet by telling Hang they are “very nourishing vegetables. Wonderful for skin problems”(179) and tries to hide the truth of where their sustenance is going. Eventually, however, the rift that this shortage and neglect drives between mother and daughter can no longer be surmounted and they part. The fact that Que withholds food from Hang as well as money and adequate shelter deepens the reasons for their continuing conflict.Huong uses the juxtaposition of situation and gustatory imagery to highlight cultural and political differences between different parts of Vietnam, as well as differences between Vietnam and the Soviet Union. In the bleakest areas of Vietnam, such as the Commune K residence where Hang’s uncle Chinh lives, Huong shows eating as a joyless, even boring matter. When Hang visits her uncle’s family with her mother she observes a meal that has lost all meaning: “The woman rapped one of the boys on the head with her chopstick. ‘Eat. I forbid you to speak at meals.’…I examined the platter: there were three portions, each with fifteen silkworms. Next to them, there was a platter of river spinach and a tiny bowl filled with a bit of minced meat” (107). This description exists in sharp contrast to the one showing a lively village feast given by Hang’s aunt Tam: “Aunt Tam brought out a huge tray heaped with bowls of sticky rice, a pork pate, a pile of white porcelain bowls, ebony chopsticks, and a basket of ripe bananas….’Oh, my, this is a real feast you’re offering us,’ exclaimed of the women. ‘Bon appétit, sisters. Everywhere else, the host eats first. Only at Aunt Tam’s do the guests start first’” (146). This feast scene at Aunt Tam’s shows the enduring cultural significance of food in the country, where strict communist values collide with traditional customs. It also exemplifies the social importance of food as a gift, reward, and offering of friendship. Likewise, the differences between Vietnam and the Soviet Union can be seen in the contrasting descriptions of food. Hang’s attitudes towards food capture her homesickness and sense of displacement. The connotations that come with the descriptions of Vietnamese food are comforting, pleasurable, and familiar. The descriptions of food in Russia, however, suggest eating for necessity rather than pleasure. Nostalgia for the food, and the cultural meaning of the food of Vietnam, occupy a major place in Hang’s mind and soul. When she tries to find similar meaning and tradition in the food of the Soviet Union, she finds only emptiness and necessity—an alien concept to Hang, who grew up surrounded by the rich cultural significance of food in her homeland. This only serves to further alienate her. Looking for the familiar comfort of food amidst the foreign landscape, Hang finds nothing, only more disparity between her culture and this new, strange land. Unlike in Vietnam, where descriptions of food are as much a part of the story as the dialogue between characters, food description in the Soviet Union is scarce. This serves to create an overall colder, less hospitable atmosphere. More so, the food descriptions present are less than appetizing: “When we arrived, he was plucking hair off a pig’s foot, the cheap kind sold to people eager to save money. He stuffed it in a casserole when we arrived” (36).These attitudes toward food in areas where communist regimes have fully taken hold highlight one of Huong’s greatest criticisms of communism: How it leeches the individuality and vibrant culture out of an area. The idea of collectivism equality shows quite clearly in the bleak descriptions of food in the Commune K and Soviet Union. Everyone receives the same amount of the same food, usually plain and bland, as in Hang’s description of the Commune K meal. The cultural contexts and social mechanisms of the foods are discounted, which creates androgynous people and attitudes. This might be one of the overreaching goals of communism, to foster identical equality, but the loss of a vibrant cultural tradition is mourned in Paradise of the Blind. This loss is not only felt on the level of the nation, in the contrasts between the city and the country and Vietnam and the Soviet Union, but also in Hang’s sense of loss and alienation as she experiences the unemotional landscape of Russia.The treatment and descriptions of food in the novel vary sharply depending on the setting, and fully reflect Hang’s feelings, of both isolation and alienation, as well as of contentment and happiness. Additionally, the use of food accentuates and adds to the social, cultural and political situations in which the characters live. The way Huong treats these descriptions adds to the richness of imagery and characterization of the settings in Paradise of the Blind.
The Allegory of Rape in Paradise of the Blind
In the novel Paradise of the Blind, Duong Thu Huong tells the story of Hang, a native Vietnamese girl, following the establishment of independence in Vietnam and the imposition of Communism. Vietnam, with a historical background of invasion by foreign entities, was initially accepting of the system of Communism because it allowed them independence from their prior colonial oppressors. However, when corruption began to infiltrate the system, the flaws in the idealistic government system were illuminated. Through the allegory of the orphan rape in Paradise of the Blind, Huong demonstrates the failure of Communism in its implementation as a result of the ignorance of the Vietnamese to political injustices and the inevitability of corruption in a repressive Vietnamese regime.
Through the characterization of the deputy director, Huong demonstrates the inevitability of corruption in a Communistic system in Vietnam as a result of human weakness. The director is first described very benevolently, stating that “whenever he opened his mouth, it was always to give a morality lecture” (Huong 213). The deputy director is described as a moral figure, dedicated to the preaching of a “revolutionary spirit, a sense of discipline, international obligations, [and] civic duty” (213). Similarly, the system of Communism idealized concepts of morality, teaching the practice of supporting one another, and uniting members of different societal classes. The characterization of the deputy director shifts dramatically as the allegory progresses, revealing the hypocrisy of his character. The Director is seen “crushing a nine-year-old girl under him [as she] … squirmed beneath him in pain” (213). Rape is typically associated with lust and desire for power and domination. The rape of the little girl illuminates the human weakness of the deputy director, as he holds these very sinful vices of lust and greed as opposed to the traditional values of love, and the moral integrity he once held. Comparatively, the system of Communism held a dedication to moral values and sharing among all. However, in its implementation, the system became corrupt as a result of the inability of the Vietnamese to abide by these principles. Lured by the opportunity of wealth and power, many abandoned the original values and concepts idealized by the system of Communism.
The juxtaposition of the character Bich with the seven deadly sins reveal the inevitable corruption of Communism as a result of human weakness. The character Bich had a background as a “soldier, expelled from the French Colonial Army” (25). Bich has a background in the military, a position that is often associated with nobility and dedication to nationalism. However, his allegiance was not towards the Vietnamese people but rather to the French colonizers, the previous oppressors of Vietnam. In addition, Bich is described as “very lazy” (25). This alludes to one of the seven deadly sins; the sloth, which is characterized by the avoidance of engaging in physical work or tasks. Bich was promoted by Chinh to the status of “‘agricultural proletarian’ and ‘pillar of land reform’” (26). As soon as he achieved this very ironic surge to power, he became “intoxicated with himself. His satisfaction was that of a creeping, parasitic vine” (26). The description of Bich alludes again to the seven deadly sins, as he is crafted with the sin of pride for his own very misplaced abilities and accomplishments. It seemed noble to assist Bich because of his background as a war veteran dedicated to nationalism and equality, the epitome of Communistic values in Vietnam. However, his commitment to these principles are tainted by the weaknesses of his character, which are shown through the description of his sins. Similarly, Communistic leaders of Vietnam were unable to implement the system with its original intent due to their weakness in the face of the opportunity of wealth and power.
Huong’s characterization of the orphan girl demonstrates the vulnerability of the native people to corruption as a result of their lack of education and cultural background. The little girl is described as “mentally ill, the orphan of a railroad man” (213). The quality of the little girl’s mental state is similar to that of the natives, who were disillusioned and manipulated by Communist leaders as a result of their lack of education. In addition, the little girl is the “orphan of a railroad man” (213). Having no roots, the little girl is representative of the native people of Vietnam. The little girl is without a father figure, who typically is responsible for providing structure and purpose in a child’s life. With an extensive history of colonization and the occupation of foreign entities, Vietnam lacked a similar infrastructure to the father figure, having no roots or background to support the development of their country. They were therefore vulnerable to exploitation and corruption due to the possibility of a foreign entity or ideology assuming power in Vietnam. The deputy director, while raping the orphan, “gagged her with his hand” (213). The mouth is a mechanism of expression and communication. Her inability to speak and express her voice is similar to the ways in which the voices of the people in Vietnam were stifled by corrupt leaders. The people were unable to speak out against corruption and violence because of fear of conforming to political pressures within their government.
In addition, the orphan girl is described as very “sweet and very generous, sharing every-thing with us, even a mandarin orange or a guava” (214). The characterization of the orphan girl as very sweet and generous is juxtaposed with the description of the rape scene. This juxtaposition suggests that these characteristics of the orphan girl are exploited by the Director, leading to her manipulation. This is displayed through the characterization of Chinh regarding the treatment of his own family. Chinh pleads for money from Que near the beginning of the novel, stating that “My wife and I have asked for a transfer here to the capital… they’ve allocated us money for an apartment. But we’re going to need some money to fix it up and furnish it” (52). Que agrees to give money to Chinh because of her devotion to the puritanical values of family and sharing, similar to the values held by the orphan girl. However, when Hang traveled to Uncle Chinh’s house to ask for money to supplement the medical expenses of Que’s surgery, Chinh bickered with Aunt Chinh about these expenses, asking her “Can we borrow some [money]?’ [to which Aunt Tam replied] ‘Absolutely not. We have never borrowed money from anyone”’ (223). Uncle Chinh, although seemingly devoted to the Communistic concepts of sharing and equality among all people, refused to help his own sister as she is dying. Compared to the rape of the orphan girl, Que is exploited by Chinh for money, and when Que’s health is deteriorating, Chinh does not express the same devotion to these values, despite the fact that he has more than enough financial stability to do so and he very ironically preached these same philosophies in the past as a member of the Communist party.
The laughing children witnessing the rape of the orphan girl are crafted to represent the passivity of the native people due to their ignorance, resulting in the severity of corruption under the Communist government. A group of children, including the Bohemian in his childhood, heard “muffled screams coming from the other side [of the courtyard]” (213). They could see the “deputy director, naked as a worm, crushing a nine-year-old girl under him. She cried as he got on with his business. We shrieked with laughter. We took turns watching” (213). The disillusionment of the people of Vietnam is evident through this passage. Children are typically associated with the connotation of innocence and ignorance, unable to perceive acts of injustice and evil. Similarly, the native people are given qualities of the same ignorance, blind to corruption and injustice that occurred under their own government. Rather than perceiving the unspeakable act of rape and corruption with disgust and anguish, the majority of the children blindly laughed at the incident and allowed the girl to be violently exploited, with the exception of the Bohemian, who represents a very minute faction of people able to detect corruption within Vietnam.
However, the majority accepted injustice as a way of life and allowed corruption to infiltrate their country through their passivity. This is further exemplified by the historical background of the author Huong. At the age of “twenty, she volunteered to lead a Communist Youth Brigade sent to the front during the Vietnam War” (1). Huong, who centers her book around the repression and corruption that inevitably accompany Communism, was once part of a brigade designed to promote the system in Vietnam. The irony of her uprising as a political activist against Communism parallels the same struggle of the native Vietnamese. In the same way that Huong was swayed blindly towards the Communist party despite her contradictory political beliefs, the people were ignorant and were therefore very easily manipulated by their government.
Huong, Duong T. Paradise of the Blind. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1993. Print.
Differing Morals and World Views in ‘Paradise of the Blind’ and ‘Tiny Sunbirds Far Away’
Duong Thy Huong’s Paradise of the Blind (1988) and Christie Watson’s Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away (2014) explore the difference in morals between tradition and modernity to demonstrate that this constant conflict is critical for change in society. Paradise of the Blind is a bildungsroman text, which analyses the difference in morals between Vietnamese protagonist Hang, her family and her 1980’s post Vietnam war socio-political landscape. Tiny Sunbirds Far Away explores female heroine Blessing’s battle to comprehend the complexities of tradition, politics and race as she is thrust into the rural, oil-producing Niger Delta. Both texts critique key cultural issues, and how their protagonists aim to change traditional, outdated ways of thinking by their society by consistently striving in times of adversity.
In Paradise of the Blind, Hang is able to understand how her morals conflict with the status quo as she examines her own family and their surrounding society. The novel, a political allegory shows the direct parallelism of the relationship between Hang’s mother, Que and her uncle, Chinh, and the mistreatment of the working class in Vietnam by the Communist party. Huong constructs the character of Que to criticize the male-dominated culture. Que shows her devotion to Chinh, the only living male in her family by her readiness to starve herself and Hang in order to provide gifts of food for Chinh and his family. “I brought you some goodies.” (pg. 119), Que says to Chinh. In Vietnamese culture, food is a symbol of acceptance, benevolence and love, and the symbol of food in the novel showcases her emotional attachment to her brother, despite his inconsiderate actions. Chinh berates Que, shouting, “The merchants, the pretty tradespeople, they’re only exploiters. You cannot remain with these para-sites.” (pg. 50). As a radical activist of the principles of Marxism, he demands her to leave the merchants and begin a factory job, despite knowing that the income will be nowhere near sufficient for Que to support herself, and Hang. Growing up, Chinh remains a constant in Hang’s life, despite the fact that he is deaf to her personal needs and values. Hang questions herself, “What was I doing here with Uncle Chinh? Perhaps I would never be free of him.” (pg. 202) Her broken relationship with him leads to her breaking free from her traditional male-dominated culture, relying solely on herself and growing up into an independent young woman. Ultimately, the lack of importance of a patriarchal society to Hang compared to the older generation allows her to create a difference between the life she chooses for herself and the life her mother chose to lead.
In Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away, Blessing criticizes the unshakable, yet the dangerous tradition of female genital mutilation in the Niger Delta as she works as a midwife with her grandmother. The beginning of the novel represents her as an unsure, young girl trapped by circumstance. However, the audience follows her as her maturity and confidence grow when she battles to assert her own morals on this topic. Her grandmother states, “Birth is a problem always … Many girls die. One from every ten.” (pg. 157), yet still chooses to continue this practice. Being educated, Blessing struggles to comprehend how people allow genital mutilation to take action in the modern world as she witnesses it’s devastating impact on women. She further questions her grandmother, who simply replies, “The main reason is tradition, and holding onto culture.” (pg.157). People believe that the genitals of a female are harmful to babies and men. To Blessing, no tradition is important enough to risk a human life. Her grandmother advises her, “You will have to make decisions of your own, for your own reasons. This is the job.” (pg.339), From this point, Blessing has determined her own morals, and vows, “I will never cut a girl.” (pg. 340). Her morals are what further drives her passion as a birth attendant, as she wishes to educate the people of the Niger Delta about the dangers of female genital mutilation. Experiencing this, Blessing is able to identify the ‘flaws’ of the traditional way of thinking and strives to create a safer future for the girls in the Niger Delta.
As Paradise of the Blind moves along, Huong proves how the strength of an individual’s morality will consistently withstand in times of adversity through the actions of Hang. Hang constantly unties herself from traditional values in various scenes, whilst staying true to her personal morals. Huong plays with the emotional mother-daughter relationship between Hang and Que to demonstrate to the audience how important Hang’s sense of morality is to her, in a scene where she lashes out at her mother for not following her personal values. When Aunt Tam calls Que out for starving Hang to feed her nephews, and Que reacts by lying to Tam about where her money goes. In response, Hang explodes, “You lied to her… You told me never to lie, and since then I never have.” (pg. 187) Her mother becomes so furious that she proceeds to kick Hang out of the house, yet it is Hang’s value for the woman who raised her, coupled with Que’s sense of family devotion that brings them back together. However, in the way that Hang rejects society’s traditional ideologies, she stays true to her morals and forks a path of self-independence. “The traditional subservient role allocated to women in Vietnamese culture” (pg. 195), played by Que is not something that Hang wants for herself. Instead, under her Aunt Tam’s guidance, she makes plans to further her education by returning to university. Hence, the constant appearance of Hang’s moral conscience in times of hardship fork out a consistent path for change in society.
Watson’s novel displays how the unwavering appearance of one’s morals can have an impact on others through Blessing’s way of dealing with conflict. After Blessing’s white stepfather, Dan is kidnapped by local delinquents calling themselves ‘The Sibeye Boys’, a group of local women rally together in a peaceful protest against the government about the ongoing issues of violence, pollution and injustice in the Niger Delta. After the rally, she states, “We danced those guns to silence.” (pg. 431). In Nigerian culture, dance is a symbol of peace and Watson’s symbolisation of dance showcases that in a time of struggle, Blessing stays true to her values of peace. By not reciprocating the violence, she sends out a message to everyone that there is a way to handle political situations without guns. Blessing also shows her devotion to the Niger Delta, and the value of it’s culture to her by her choice to stay when her mother moves to the UK to be with Dan. “I belong here. I am home.” (pg. 457), she says to her grandmother. By staying in Nigeria, she goes on to spread peace in her community, and educate the people about childbirth. Thus, by imposing her positive values on her society, Blessing is the start of a brighter future.
Paradise of the Blind and Tiny Sunbirds Far Away both follow their respective protagonists, Hang and Blessing, through the development of their personal morals that differ from the social norm. Through the conflict between the younger and older generations, the audience is able to understand how cultural influence and external factors help mould an individual’s morality. Therefore, an understanding is gained on the way one develops and uses their morals to create a change in society.
Huong’s Characters and the Suffering of Women under Confucian Ideologies
Traditional ideals, particularly in Asian culture value male superiority in the household whilst the women, has to assume secondary roles in the family. Confucianism as the foundation of most Asian regions since the Han dynasty in China has defined the mainstream discourse on gender onwards. The Three Obediences and Four Virtues defining the social codes for a virtuous woman and specific gender roles became the cornerstone of the kinfolk and society in general. Consequently, the majorly patriarchal ideologies in Confucianism has been regarded as sexist and historically damaging to Asian women.
In Duong Thu Huong’s Paradise of the Blind the motif of one’s identity being defined for them is explored through the three main female characters from two generations Hang, Que (Hang’s mother) and Aunt Tam. The bildungsroman narrative focuses on Hang’s character charting her progression from a submissive girl to familial and cultural expectations to an individual who develops a fuller sense of who she is. Hang’s mother Que as a stereotypical character fits into the traditional side of Vietnamese society while the character Aunt Tam defies gender roles. Que suffers from the clutches of Confucian ideologies in that she is subjugated to the traditional female roles and familial loyalty that puts the male interests as the priority always. Whilst Aunt Tam despite defying the roles also suffers as an educated woman since she is not perceived by men as desirable, moreover, she is entangled in familial obligations to the dead. The Confucian ideologies teach that a virtuous woman obeys the men in the family; the father in childhood and before marriage; the spouses after they marry; and their sons in widowhood. Furthermore, social stigmas were placed on factors such as remarriage or education for women leading to the decline of status of woman. Thus, through the Vietnam backdrop, Huong expresses the suffering of women under Confucian ideologies due to the traditional gender roles, familial duties and loyalty, and societal expectations.
Through the female characters, Huong highlights their suffering under Confucian ideologies through the traditional roles that warrant self-abnegation and self-sacrifice. Que asserts “To live with dignity, the important thing is never to despair. You give up once, and everything gives way. They say ginger root becomes stringy but pungent with age. Unhappiness forges a woman, makes her selfless, compassionate” (Hương). Que continually accentuated the act of being self-sacrificing as a woman in Vietnamese culture according to the maxims and traditional practices of Confucianism. As a street vendor in Hanoi only making measly earnings, Que takes pride in the suffering in which traditions have enacted upon them. She fortifies Hang to express the same kind of selflessness showing the extent to which generations of women are bound to the traditional roles. The teachings threat female autonomy as mothers convey the ideals of passivity and subjection in the Vietnamese culture. At a young age after witnessing a peasant woman vending barley sugar Hang ponders, “I was mesmerized by her huge, splayed feet…scored with tiny cracks, encrusted with gray patches of dead skin. Decades before her, another woman, just like her…plodded along with the same feet” (Hương). Huong highlights that peasant women have been trapped in traditions which exacted extreme hard work and great suffering from them, and are passed down from mother to daughter. Furthermore Hang watches as her mother, Que, honors his brother and blinded by her loyalty to him even at times neglecting her own daughter.
Consequently, women around Hang specifically Que and Aunt Tam lead lives that are dependent on honoring the patriarchy and the dead thus suffer through familial loyalty and duties. As Hang is welcomed at the ancestral home as the heir she feels “as if I were drinking to some solemn, merciless vow, some sacred, primitive rite” (Hương). Hang alludes to the self-sacrificing familial loyalties she has witnessed through her mother and her foster mother, Aunt Tam and she is unsure of adopting the same position. Hang witnesses Que’s self-denying steps of devotion to her brother Chinh and her Aunt Tam’s loyalty from the bitterness of her wronged family. Throughout Hang’s childhood, Que is portrayed as consumed in servicing her only remaining family, her brother Chinh; she struggles and suffers to provide for his family which also entails two sons. The Three Obediences of Confucianism asserts that the maiden or married woman has an obligation to the males in the family her entire life. Thus, Que even neglects her own daughter to cater to his remaining brother and his sons as males are considered more important. The shackles of familial loyalty are also seen through Aunt Tam who is devoted to continuing the bloodline and tending to the wrongdoings imparted on her dead family. She even supports Hang’s studies not for her sake but in order to honor the memory of her grandfather and father. In traditionalist Vietnam culture, the people are defined by the rules set by their preceding generations hence the living must serve the dead. Hang who intends to separate from the bounds of familial devotions asserts, “We can honor the wishes of the dead with a few flowers on a grave somewhere. I can’t squander my life tending … shadows, the legacy of past crimes” (Hương). By the end of the novel, she realizes that this path will not bring her happiness and takes the risk to leave behind her familial duties in pursuit of her own happiness.
Additionally, Huong suggests that women in Vietnam have to fit a very specific criterion to be considered a real and virtuous woman, eligible for marriage. Hang states, “My aunt was very beautiful but since she was educated and aloof she couldn’t seem to find a husband” (Hương). It suggests that the sole role of a virtuous woman is to get married and domesticity, any other endeavors are against societal expectations. Being educated is frowned upon rather than celebrated. Moreover, the assertion suggests that the woman should only be beautiful and nothing else. Aunt Tam as an educated woman and aloof individual are main reasons she fails to attract a husband. In traditionalist Vietnamese culture, women have to abide by certain standards and social codes placed by centuries-old ideologies. Henceforth, women who subvert the norms but are still traditionalists, in essence, suffer the wrath of the ideologies. Essentially, the reasons why Hang’s decision to subvert the traditions is followed by complete detachment from the culture.
Accordingly, Huong illustrates the suffering of Vietnamese women under Confucian ideologies as a result of its traditional gender roles, familial devotion and loyalty, and cultural expectations. Huong explores this motif by describing Hang’s struggle against following the customs and being unhappy and broken and her quest to find happiness. Through her eyes, the customs has subjugated her mother Que and other peasant women into a life of self-sacrifice, unhappiness, and self-abnegation. The traditionalist culture fosters the veneration of the patriarchy and the dead at the expense of the women preventing thinking for oneself if one is female. The rigid social codes for women also nurtures an unfortunate life for women who challenge the norms while still imbued with the ideologies. Fundamentally, the thoughts allow for patriarchal devaluation and oppression through the obligations and expectations they demand from women.
Hương, Dương Thu. Paradise of the Blind. 1988. Web.