Peril’s founding editor, Hoa Pham was recently one of four winners of Seizure’s Viva La Novella 2 competition. Her novella The Other Shore was launched at Readings in early July by writer, historian, teacher and translator Maria Tumarkin. Last year Maria was Hoa’s mentor in Writers Victoria’s Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) mentorship program.
Below are the speeches from the launch including a short excerpt of The Other Shore.
From Maria Tumarkin:
[This is a rough and raw text of the speech given at the launch of Hoa Pham’s The Other Shore. It was written to be read out loud.]
The Other Shore may look like a not-very-big book, you’d call it modestly-sized, but it manages – I don’t know how, in 40 thousand words or so – to speak with great power about wars that are never quite over, about ghosts that these wars leave behind, about what it is like to be young and to have an old soul, about gifts that are also curses, about honour, family, love, friendship, freedom and its many counterfeits, about the tragedy of the unburied dead, the price we pay for suppression of faith and desecration of places of worship, about the struggle to lead an ethical life in an unethical world, and about – perhaps most profoundly – what it is like to preserve purity, a good heart, in the face of corruption, deceit, self-interest and fear. A good heart – I don’t need to tell you – is a rarity of rarities…
Vietnam, the way Hoa lets us see it, is not ‘an outrageously fun tourist destination’, ‘a country going places, fast’, but a nation still bleeding ghosts from ‘The American War’; a nation, where the government, with expert cynicism, employs people with psychic abilities to identify human remains exhumed from mass graves, human remains belonging to those on the right side of the conflict or those with deep enough pockets, while, at the same time, giving orders – this only a few years ago – for a Buddhist monastery to be destroyed by a mob. Hoa lets us see the country where the historical and ideological divisions between the North and the South remain entrenched, if perhaps not apparent to those from elsewhere, and where being a young woman, if you have bigger things on your mind than marrying someone with good prospects – bigger things like, say, being a force in the world – is a mighty tough gig.
All of this in a book that, in many ways, is very simple. People like to use the expression ‘deceptively simple’ to mean that there is much more to something than meets the eye, that there may be sparkling jewels hidden in plain packaging. To me there is nothing deceptive about The Other Shore. Its simplicity is not a trick or a stylistic device, but a deep choice that lies very close to the book’s heart.
One of the great, exhilarating strengths of The Other Shore lies in Hoa not disguising the moral seriousness of her intent, in throwing Kim, the book’s protagonist, into the deepest of deep ends, in making her confront possibly the biggest ethical questions there are – what do we owe to the dead? What do we owe to the living?
Here she is, a 16 year old girl – loyal, deep-feeling, modest to a fault, unspoilt by attention or praise, not as beautiful as her sister, not as vivacious as her friends – discovering by accident that she has psychic abilities and, within days, here she is, a little baby really, in the middle of a mass grave on the government’s orders, touching human remains and entering the consciousness of those about to die. Entering them in their final moments. The slightest of touch and she is assaulted by images and sensations impossible to forget, and impossible to bear, even for someone triple her age.
You’d be hard pressed to find a more difficult, more wretched task. And a more necessary task too.
The dead must be reunited with the families for the world to keep going without sliding into madness. Without sliding further into madness.
As to the living, Kim can see right through them. That she could do without.
As Kim touches the unidentified, unmourned, unburied, unhonoured human remains, she herself becomes the dead – the Northerners, the Southerners, the Americans. She becomes them – the hungry ghosts, spirits pleading to be known and honoured.
There are countless unidentified human remains across the globe: in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Indonesia, Iraq, Australia… Plenty here, in Australia. Reading The Other Shore, I thought of them too, of their families and their countries. Hoa made me think of them, made me remember.
I remember talking to Hoa at one of our sessions at Writers Victoria about a number of publishers who have had some interest in her manuscript and who were at pains to see the spirits and the dead as metaphoric devices, ways of speaking poetically, allegorically, about the unfinished business of the past, about us being haunted by wars and violent histories, about the ways in which families are made out of the living and the dead. Hoa said to me, ‘These are not metaphors. They don’t stand in for anything other than themselves.’ And I thought to myself, ‘I am going to like this woman.’
In her sleep, the dead come to Kim, ask her for help. If you’ve been around long enough, you know that the dead do not just come to anybody.
American writer and poet Toni Morrison writes this of ‘speaking to the dead’:
Speaking to the broken and the dead is too difficult for
a mouth full of blood. Too holy an act for impure thoughts.
Because the dead are free, absolute; they cannot be
seduced by blitz.
The story of being chosen is as old as the world itself. We’ve been telling ourselves this story forever, except that the thing about being chosen is that it is exciting for the first fifteen minutes, and then you discover that you no longer belong to yourself, that the weight of responsibility you now carry can squash a whale, that each day you are faced with choices you don’t want to make. Sooner or later, you find yourself wishing desperately that you were not the chosen one. Why couldn’t she be chosen or he over there? Why the hell me?
Kim too wishes she were an ordinary teenager. But it’s not on the card. It’s not to be her fate.
I loved the undiluted intensity of Hoa’s chosen subject-matter and the simplicity of its language. Its purity. Despite the bigness of its themes, the book doesn’t feel overwrought, straining, bombastic, self-important. Not in the slightest. Pages breathe. The book speaks of life and death, yet it’s light as a feather. I couldn’t work out what was going on for a while there… How could it be? And then it dawned on me: it’s writing without an ego. This book is a spiritual and ethical act on Hoa’s part.
Congratulations, Hoa! May this book touch many hearts out there and give solace to the good hearts struggling to stay good, whatever is thrown at them; may it let them know they are not alone.
From Hoa Pham:
I’d like to thank Readings and Seizure for having me. Thank you also to the lovely Maria Tumarkin who was my CALD mentor from Writers Victoria. Thanks to Asialink, the Australia Council and the University of Western Sydney. And thank you to Alister Air and my family for being there.
Excerpt from The Other Shore by Hoa Pham
Prajna (Insight) Monastery, Bat Nha, South Vietnam, November 2009
The sound of the bell returns me to my true home. Opening my eyes I return from the depths of meditation, as if from underwater from the ocean. The bell echoes in the hollow of my soul and beyond. I look down at brown hands with prominent blue veins, once they were smooth as the marble of a goddess statue. Memories of lives, past lives begin to surface and I ask my mind to be still.
Breathing in, I am breathing in.
Breathing out, I am breathing out.
The sound of the bell penetrates my mind. Easing my posture I let go of my memories, which floats to the top of my thoughts like a leaf on a pond.
I am fresh, fresh as a flower.
I am still, still as a mountain.
Glass shatters and a ripple runs through the consciousness of the meditating monks and nuns. The hired mobs are back again. A rumour is whispered that the authorities in Bat Nha have paid villagers up to 150 kilometres away to come and destroy the monastery. I consciously breathe out my tension, trying to release my fear. In the middle of the sangha, circled by three hundred of my brothers and sisters, the practice is strong in the meditation hall. The terracotta Buddha statue at the front of the hall is still intact, though the white walls are filthy and desecrated with graffitti and piss. In a brown nun’s robe I feel visible and vulnerable. I attempt to return back to the island of peace and calm within, breathing in and out.
Na-mo Avo-li-ke-te-ra. Na-mo Avo-li-ke-te-ra.
Cross legged in the meditation hall we sing her name, Avoliketera, Quan Am, the goddess of mercy, she who hears the cries of the world. In the courtyard of the temple there was a white marble statue of her, holding a vase of water, her hand in a mudra. I dread to think what the mobs have done to her.
I have called her name in many guises, as the Lady of the Realm, as Mary the mother of God. I do not know if she has ever heard me.
The smell of incense infuses my robe and I return again to the peace within.
I feel the menace of the men surrounding us and feel sick in the stomach. We have been without water and electricity and much food for the past few months. Our practice shone brighter as we starved and took comfort from each other’s presence. But my fear has been nibbling at my peace, and I have wanted to run again. Breathing in, I try and cradle my fear like a child, soothing myself. I feel vulnerable as a nun in a drab brown robe, the men have leered at all of us.
Sanctuaries are an illusion, only suffering is real. I know that this is not what the Buddha taught, and my experience has made my own sayings out of his teachings. I believe that any safety I find is temporary, any refuge is not permanent. But my teacher would say, all things are impermanent and change. I hope that our situation will change, some days I cannot bear another moment of being under siege.
When I meditate my monkey mind replays memories, of times before when I have starved and begged for food. I try to let the memories go, flow through me back to the past where they belong. Then I am able to meditate truly, on the here and now in the present moment.
The rain falls in a steady drumming on the roof of the meditation hall. I catch myself swaying gently. Dizziness claims me for a moment and I open my eyes. More men have come into the hall, this time carrying crowbars and hammers. Some have a different look to them, and a shudder runs down my spine as they methodically start banging at the meditation hall walls with their tools. Police, I suspect, they do not have the disorder and violent randomness of the other men. The Vietnamese having no other enemy to turn on, now turn on themselves.
Catch Maria Tumarkin in conversation with philosopher Raimond Gaita at the Melbourne Writers Festival Sat 30th August.
Seizure is calling out for writers and editors for Viva La Novella 3! Chk out details here.
Details of where you can purchase The Other Shore can be found here.
 This poem excerpt is from Toni Morrison’s ‘The Dead of September 11’. The full text can be found here.