Women on the Island


Deep in the forested Vietnamese island of Cat Bac, a jungle seethes with the irrepressible force of its own history. Haunted by agonies of temptation and frustration, "the women on the island" are prisoners of the power of the place, the power of the past, the power of desire and constraint. Yet like the jungle of jackfruit trees and bamboo itself, desire is a force that cannot be subdued.

This novel illuminates the plight of a generation of men and women in post-war Vietnam. It...

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Deep in the forested Vietnamese island of Cat Bac, a jungle seethes with the irrepressible force of its own history. Haunted by agonies of temptation and frustration, "the women on the island" are prisoners of the power of the place, the power of the past, the power of desire and constraint. Yet like the jungle of jackfruit trees and bamboo itself, desire is a force that cannot be subdued.

This novel illuminates the plight of a generation of men and women in post-war Vietnam. It explores issues of family and gender and charts Vietnam’s effort to redefine its relationship to its past and future. Popular writer Ho Anh Thai brings into view the struggle of women who survived their service during the war years. Like male veterans in America and Vietnam, they returned to a society which they had defended, but which in many ways had no place for them. By confronting these issues, Ho Anh Thai has contributed to the debate in Vietnam over the rights of unmarried women with children. Through the lens of this particular time and place, The Women on the Island probes the timeless question of how we find ways to live in harmony with the tangled and contradictory compulsions of our own souls.

University of Washington Press

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780295981086
  • Publisher: University of Washington Press
  • Publication date: 4/1/2001
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 176
  • Product dimensions: 5.30 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 0.40 (d)

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Chapter One

In this particular state forestry enterprise on an island offthe northeastern coast of Vietnam where nearly 90 percent ofthe workers are single women, there is not one person who isunaware of the legend of Tan Dac.

    It goes like this. Tan Dac was a courageous general underthe command of Tan Thuat. The general was famous for hislightning-like attacks against the French colonialists. When TanThuat's insurrection was finally defeated, Tan Dac led the tatteredremnants of his guerilla group to Cat Bac Island. Theyestablished a base camp near the passage to the northeasterncoast, and from there destroyed many of the enemy's ships.The guerillas were young, healthy, and strong, and hatred forthe French invaders boiled in their hearts and strengthenedtheir determination to seek revenge for Tan Thuat. They slippedthrough the jungles and over the mountains, set ambushes andbooby traps on the slopes, and lured ships into the mouth ofthe river. They suffered hunger and cold with patience andthey were more than willing to sacrifice themselves for theircause. Tan Dac was pleased with his men, and they regardedhim as a father and almost as a god.

    Then one day near the village of Viet Hoa, Tan Dac cameupon an old woman and her daughter. The old woman was onher knees gnawing and tearing at the grass and trying to pushher daughter's face into the earth. Seeing her supplicant's posture,Tan Dac asked her to come closer and tell him what waswrong. He was surprised and then enraged to discover thatthe woman's daughter had been raped by three of his guerillas.In front of the two women and the whole band, thethreedisgraced men were beheaded. Their unlucky heads rolled onthe ground, leaving three lines of blood, like red snakes. TanDac wanted to be sure his guerillas understood that they hadonly one right: to defeat the enemy. All personal desires, allother needs and hungers, had to be eliminated.

    The remaining guerillas obeyed their leader without hesitationor reservation. They continued to suffer hunger andcold, and tried desperately to stifle the normal sexual desiresof young men. And in reality, in the jungle and mountains ofthis island, it was rare to encounter anyone who could stirsuch desire.

    It wasn't long after the beheadings when the guerillas cameacross an old man on his way to pick bamboo shoots. He wascarrying a large, bulging jute-fabric bag, which he offered toTan Dac's men. Ca Dinh, one of Tan Dac's lieutenants, openedthe bag and looked inside. His face grew pale. He let the bagdrop to the ground, then roared, "Betrayed! Betrayed!"

    "What do you mean?" Tan Dac peered inside the bag,shocked at his friend's reaction.

    "My dear sir." Ca Dinh trembled with anger as he leanedover to whisper into Tan Dac's ear. "My dear sir, don't you seewhat's in this bag?"

    Without looking again, Tan Dac said, "All I saw were twojackfruits and a bamboo shoot."

    "Exactly. Two jackfruits and a bamboo shoot. They signifythe male organ, sir."

    It is said that the roar that burst from Tan Dac's throat thenechoed among the trees and shook their branches. He orderedhis men to chase down the old man. They caught him by RedFish Lake. Without a word, Tan Dac drew his sword and struckthrough the old man's neck as easily as if he were slashing atthe wind. The old man's head flew in one direction, and hispoor body fell down near the edge of the lake, dyeing thefoam at the water's fringe a deep red. The two jackfruits andthe bamboo shoot were thrown down on the bank next to thebody. Boiling with anger and humiliation, pushed by their ownstifled, thwarted desires, the men rushed upon the fruit andthe bamboo and chopped and tore into them, smashing them,slicing open the jackfruit and tearing out its seeds, which werestrewn all over the lakeshore like coins. In their hearts, theguerillas could only hold their hatred and their need for revenge.As Tan Dac had told them, all other hopes, sentiments,and desires had to be killed.

    The unfortunate old man's children and grandchildren soonheard the terrible news. They took up their spears and theirguns and cut their way through the jungle to chase the guerillas.Ironically, destiny led the two groups to come face to faceby Red Fish Lake. Again, there was bloody fighting betweentwo unequal forces. Again bodies were slashed and mutilated.By the end of the battle, only two of the old man's grandchildrenwere left alive. One escaped, but the other was capturedand led to Tan Dac. He smiled at the young man and said,"Don't you understand that we're fulfilling our duty to thecountry by doing our best to kill the French?"

    "Yes, I know."

    "Aren't you ashamed of losing your country to the French?Join us, and you can wash away your shame."

    "It wasn't the French who destroyed my family," the youngman said stubbornly. He looked straight ahead, his gaze unblinking."Who will avenge them?"

    He shared the same fate as his grandfather. His body toowas thrown into Red Fish Lake. Soon the brackish water ofthat lake was said to be cursed with blood. When the weatherturned cold, schools of red fish swarmed up and covered thesurface of the water like a red sail. In the eyes of the locals, thiswas the innocent blood of the unjustly killed, blood whichcouldn't be separated from the water, no matter how manyseasons it froze or melted.

    The surviving grandson sought vengeance for his family bybecoming a scout for the French. Day after day, month aftermonth, he led the blue-eyed, big-nosed foreigners throughthe jungle, in their hunt for Tan Dac and his guerillas. Eventually,the last surviving members of the band were found hidingin a cave. They were trapped, but steadfastly refused to surrender.After several months, believing that finally all of the guerillasmust be dead, the French sealed the entrance of the caveand withdrew.

    From that day, no one heard any more about Tan Dac andhis guerillas.

    But around Red Fish Lake, a large number of jackfruit treesappeared—a forest of jackfruit trees. The fruits ripened andbecame food for the birds and fell and were scattered. In theseason of jackfruit, whoever dared climb up the mountainthrough the jungle to gather fruit would become drunk fromtheir thick, suffocating smell. And not far from the jackfruittrees had sprung up a thick forest of bamboo. The bambooshoots grew everywhere, their life force a strength nothingcould stop.

* * *

Some ninety years later, when the state forestry enterprise wasestablished, Production Brigade Five, which was responsiblefor planting elshotria pantrine trees and processing the huongnhu extract from them, was settled in Viet Hoa. There werethirty-eight women in Brigade Five, ranging in age fromtwenty-one to forty-four. Many of them had been in theVolunteer Youth Corps, working on the Ho Chi Minh Trails,but when peace came, there were too few men, and no placein the cities and villages they had left so long ago, for theseleftovers from the war, many of them now past the age ofmarriage. Of the group, only Tham was lucky enough to finda husband. Cuong was one of the original inhabitants left inthe village, and he worked now as a storage keeper for theforestry collective. None of the women dared to make theirway through the jungle and climb up to Red Fish Lake, withits notorious jackfruit trees and groves of bamboo. But thejackfruit trees kept bearing their fruit and the bamboo shootsgrew thick and wild and without restraint, like a secret everyoneknew and whispered about. Though they had never beenthere, the image of that forest of jackfruit trees, those bambooshoots standing upright in their groves, appeared many timesto the isolated women, often more clearly and concretely thanany images of men they would try to conjure for themselves.Then unexpected good fortune struck one other woman inBrigade Five. Nha was only twenty-one years old, one of theteam's youngest members. She'd been on her way to pick upsome equipment at the headquarters of the collective, whenshe suddenly came upon a regiment of soldiers building a roadacross the island. She was spotted at the same time by Khanh,a regiment scout, and it was this way that the two young peoplemet. Soon after, one Sunday morning, all of Brigade Five wasthrown into an uproar over the news that a young man wascoming to visit them.

    From Khanh's unit to the state forestry enterprise headquarterswas a half-hour walk, and from headquarters it tookanother three hours through the jungle to Viet Hoa. The womenwere touched and thrilled by Khanh's dedication to Nha. Whenhe arrived, they surrounded him, shooting so many questionsat him that he could hardly answer. When he sat down to eat,a frenzy of chopsticks danced around him, piling the food inhis rice bowl into a Himalayan peak. Khanh tasted the exquisitesuffering of one who is loved by everyone. And when Nhavisited his regiment, she met the same fate.

    Once the love between these two became known, the boardof directors of the state forestry enterprise decided to have atalk with the regimental commander. They confronted franklythe question of how to encourage more bonds between thewomen in the collective and the soldiers. Such a "love project,"they reasoned, would lead to marriages, which meant that manysoldiers would volunteer to stay and work on the island aftertheir conscription. Finally, they agreed on a course of action.The regiment would often send several companies to cut timberand bamboo for the forestry collective. In addition, thecommander would encourage his soldiers to spend their Sundaysoff visiting the state forestry enterprise.

    The results of the "love project," however, were limited.Most of the soldiers were quite young, only in their late teensor early twenties, like Khanh. But the women veterans in thecollective were older, and the soldiers would have to addressthem as "big sister" or "auntie," according to tradition. Thatmethod of greeting inevitably built up a wall between the twogroups that no one was daring enough to break through.

    One Sunday morning, Nha woke up early, combed her hair,and carefully put on her makeup. Dissatisfied with her ownthings, she borrowed a red silk blouse from her friend Hien,and a necklace made of tiny seashells from Luyen. All of herco-workers gathered around her, helping her dress and makeup her face, reassuring her of her beauty, and when she finallyleft, she was cheerful and pleased with herself. That was howthe other women would remember her. None of them knewthen that she had departed forever. By the next day at noon,she still hadn't returned. Everyone began to worry, but all thewomen could think of different reasons why Nha might belate. Then another day passed and they began to get angry andnervous. When she hadn't returned by the next Sunday, thewomen were frantic. They received word from the regimentthat Khanh had waited all that last Sunday in vain. Had shegotten lost in the jungle? An emergency alert was issued. Theregiment scouts and the women from the state forestry enterprisescoured the whole western section of the island. Oneday, another, three days passed. Nothing. The search went onin force for another two weeks, and for another month afterthat smaller groups continued to look for Nha. Although therewere no predators in that primitive jungle, the trees and underbrushwere so tangled and thick that some places had neverbeen imprinted with the press of human steps. The jungle hadswallowed any trace of the missing girl.

    For some time after Nha's disappearance, no one, not eventhe bravest young women, dared to trek across the jungle fromViet Hoa to the collective's headquarters.

    Time passed and fear faded. One afternoon, Hien gatheredher courage and walked alone to the regiment base camp, tosee her boyfriend. An hour later, crossing the road that led toRed Fish Lake, she felt a breeze blowing through the junglecanopy above her head and felt suddenly dizzy.

    She sat down for a while to come back to herself, and thenbravely continued her journey. Soon, however, she felt a strangesensation, as if someone were trying to lead her the wrongway. The field of wild grass that she knew marked the beginningof the trail had disappeared. Panicking, Hien retraced herfootsteps and realized she had just missed the trail. A chill seizedher. Just a second more, and she would have repeated Nha'sbad luck. Like Nha, she came from the lowlands and was notskilled at navigating the jungle. Nevertheless, she had foundthe right way again and was determined to continue. Suddenlya flock of birds swarmed up around her, and from theirchaotic tumble she heard a low, sorrowful call: "Nha, oh Nha,Nha!"

    Terrified, Hien rushed back in the direction of Viet Hoa.As she did, she prayed: "Oh, Nha, you were wise when youwere alive, and you have become sacred in your death. Pleasedon't cause me any harm. Please bless me. We had no quarrelsbetween us or hatred for each other. The day you left, youwere wearing my red silk blouse ..." Hien ran, the wind whistlingby her ears, the trees swaying back and forth drunkenly.And the ghostly voices of the birds chased after her, cryingclearly now: "Doom! Oh doom, doom!"

* * *

After that, no other woman walked alone through the jungle.Nha's disappearance and Hien's frightful experience hung likea gray shroud over the whole collective. Whenever they had togo to headquarters to work or to attend a meeting or even tosee a film, the women only ventured out in groups. Their fearreinforced the feeling that the jungle had closed around them,surrounding them, keeping away any chance at love or happiness.At night they woke from uneasy sleep with the chokedfeeling of being hemmed in, cut off from the rest of humanity.They would hear the ghostly, agonized sounds of the birdscrying from the jungle and a chill would pass through them.

The state forestry enterprise had been founded in 1976, a yearafter the American War. In 1982, a festive mood had swept theentire area when it was learned that the Cat Bac region wasgoing to be designated as a national park. Once that occurred,the collective was placed under the management of the Boardof National Parks. During the inaugural celebrations thatmarked the event, the women of Brigade Five had dressed intheir best clothing and gone off gaily to headquarters so theycould participate in the celebrations. On the last evening, theywatched a film, then lit their torches and started back to VietHoa. But as they were making their way through the jungle,they were again struck suddenly by their solitude. They huggedeach other and sobbed. With the establishment of the nationalpark, their island was now officially a "forbidden place." Aforbidden jungle. How coldly that phrase echoed in their blood.From this day on, it would be illegal for anyone to hunt ortake timber from the Cat Bac jungle. While this decree wasgood for the environment, it served only to isolate them evenmore. Forbidden jungle! But now they would be separatedand forbidden themselves. Even before, this place had alreadyfelt cold and lonely; now this seemingly innocuous changemade them feel imprisoned, like nuns in a sealed monastery.

    The situation lasted another year, until the day Luyenbrought back news which cheered everyone up. One morning,along with Cuong the storage keeper, Luyen went to headquartersto get more farming tools and work clothes, as well assome crabs or fish they would use to supplement their poormeals. They flagged down a truck going to Cat Bac town.While she was there, Luyen stopped off to visit a friend at theexport company and received some news that she eagerly relayedto the other women when she got back. "There's a newguy at Yellow Cow Bay. Someone from the city. I hear he'sreally good-looking."

    "Did he take Phuc's place at the turtle rearing farm?"

    "Right," Luyen said, then added thoughtfully, "But isn't itmore correct to call it a turtle seeding camp?" She meant turtlebreeding. The other women laughed. One said:

    "Phuc is so afraid of his wife he doesn't even dare to put hisown seed into her, let alone into the turtles!"

    "Stop it—don't talk such nonsense. Listen, here's the bestpart." Luyen lowered her voice. "They say the new guy left thecity because of a broken heart. But I hear he can draw so wellhis pictures look as if he'd taken a photo of someone," sheadded.

    "He must be very talented," another woman murmureddreamily.

    "Is there a way we can get over to Yellow Cow so we canask him to draw for us?" a younger woman said, naively revealingher intentions. All the women burst into laughter, thenhugged each other, still laughing, trying to hide their shame asif the young man had appeared in their midst. Yet even thoughthey felt ashamed, each of them burned to meet the new man.

    It seemed an impossible task. Yellow Cow was a small isletthat lay in the bay to the east of Cat Bac Island. It would takeonly twenty minutes to get there by boat, but the eastern shoreof Cat Bac consisted of a sheer cliff that was nearly impassable.The only way to get to Yellow Cow was to walk or hitchhiketo the headquarters of the collective, then go by car to Cat Bactown and then continue by boat to Yellow Cow. None of thewomen had ever made that complicated journey.

    Now the temptation and the frustration were agonizing. Ittook barely twenty minutes for them to get to the edge of thateastern cliff and look down at the cow-shaped islet with itsgrassed hills that turned yellow in the autumn. They knewthat on that islet was a valley, and in it was an experimentalturtle breeding camp, and at that camp now was a man; young,handsome, artistic, and new. They would go, some of thewomen, to the edge of that cliff and they would stand andstare and dream of the fulfillment of their hidden desire. Sometimesthey had to fight back their tears. Even if they couldclimb down to the beach below, there was no boat for them torow across Yellow Cow Bay. He was so close, within reach oftheir gaze, but they could never meet him.

* * *

The more the women of Brigade Five were being stirred likean ant nest before the monsoon by the arrival of this man, themore Mrs. Cay, Cuong's mother, let out her anger on Tham,her daughter-in-law.

    "Fruitless tree! Childless woman! You're ruining the futureof my family," she shrieked directly into Tham's ear. "This stateforestry enterprise is overrun with unmarried women, all ofthem dying for a husband. My son could have as many wivesas he wants. What a pity he had to end up with a good-for-nothingslut like you!"

    She had harangued Tham with this cruel barrage for over ayear. Tham feigned indifference, acted as though she had heardnothing. But the more she tried not to hear, the more clearlyher mother-in-law's bitter diatribe rang in her ears. The wordsscratched at her brain and pierced her heart like thorns. Beingsingle and childless was sad and humiliating; it was true. Butbeing married without having children was even more so. Itseemed as though happiness had eluded everyone in BrigadeFive.

Excerpted from The Women on the Island by Ho Anh Thai. Copyright © 2001 by Ho Anh Thai.
Translation copyright © 2000 University of Washington Press.Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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