Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Hands down, the most inspiring native autobiography from the Vietnam War

Le Ly Hayslip, with Jay Wurts, When Heaven and Earth Changed Places: A Vietnamese woman's journey from war to peace(New Yori: Doubleday, 1989; Plume, reprint edition, 1993). "This is the haunting memoir of a girl on the verge of womanhood in a world turned upside down. The youngest of six children in a close-knit Buddhist family, Le Ly Hayslip was twelve years old when U.S. helicopters langed in Ky La, her tiny village in central Vietnam. As the government and Viet Cong troops fought in and around Ky La, both sides recruited children as spies and saboteurs. Le Ly was one of those children.

"From the age of sixteen, Le Ly had suffered near-starvation, imprisonment, torture, rape, and the deaths of beloved family members—but miraculously held fast to her faith in humanity. And almost twenty years after her escape to Ameica, she was drawn inexorably back to the devastated country and family she left behind. Scenes of this joyous reunion are interwoven with the brutal war years, offering a poignant picture of vietnam, then and now, and of a courageous woman who experienced the true horror of the Vietnam War—and survived to tell her unforgettable story." (From the back cover)

The story is told alternately from the point of view of the author growing up during the Vietnam War, and from the later point of view as an American citizen returning to Vietnam to visit her family for the first time since the war. The cross-cultural observations are telling, penetrating, but also graced with good will. The writing is engaging, elegant, even lyrical in places, something for which Jay Wurts undoubtedly deserves major kudos.

Readers familiar with the book will also likely know of the 1993 film directed and written by Oliver Stone, the third and final film in Stone's Vietnam War trilogy, which also includes Platoon (1986) and Born on the Fourth of July (1989). Based on Hayslip's When Heaven and Earth Changed Places, as well as her second book, Child of War, Woman of Peace (New York: Doubleday, 1993), the film is called, simply, Heaven and Earth. It stars Tommy Lee Jones as Hayslip's American husband, along with Haing S. Ngor, Joan Chen, and Hiep Thi Le. The cinematography is beautiful; and for most viewers, particularly if they haven't read Hayslip's autobiography, the film would seem nearly perfect. But the book is far more detailed, and more compelling. In the first place, while Oliver Stone does a masterful job, he simply bites off more than he can chew, and tries to pack too much into the film. In the second place, some of his "ugly American" biases do come through a little too ham-handedly at times. By all means, read the book. Skip the film, unless you're just not a reader.

Heck, I just discovered that the whole film is available on YouTube. Enjoy:

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