Recommended Readings, Weekly Reader
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Resilience through the centuries

There are many different places one can search for answers to the questions surrounding America’s 20th century misadventures in Southeast Asia. Perhaps a surprising source is a tale of resistance and resilience, passed down over two millennia, that is vividly recounted in a gripping new historical novel of ancient Vietnam.

Bronze Drum (2022) by Phong Nguyen brings to life a true story of two sisters who rise up to lead an army of women, overthrow their hated colonizers. and create an independent nation. Their resistance, which was ultimately defeated by those colonizers, the Han Chinese, nonetheless reflects a fierce desire for independence that the Vietnamese never forgot. Both the French and Americans learned about that desire first-hand almost 2,000 years later.

The story in Bronze Drum covers the years from 36 to 43 CE. We begin with the introduction of Trưng Trắc and Trưng Nhị, two noble women of Mê Linh — a feudal state within the kingdom of Lạc Việt that corresponds to present day Hanoi. The sisters train, study, and work to stay true to Vietnamese traditions, with its strong matriarchal bent. They are also different sides of the same coin. Trưng Trắc is “disciplined and wise, always excelling in her duty,” while Trưng Nhị “is fierce and free spirited, more concerned with spending time in the gardens and with lovers.”

As the critic and Woodlawn-Pope Leighy 2020 writer-in-residence Thúy Đinh notes in a review, (*)

Nguyen combines meticulous historical research with cinematic immediacy to illustrate the cultural chasm between Han and Lạc Việt worldviews. The Chinese imposition of a tightly controlled patriarchal system directly conflicts with the natives’ matriarchal model giving women the freedom to inherit property, have multiple partners, and form flexible family arrangements.

The novel’s title also alludes to the Đông Sơn culture in Vietnam’s Red River Delta, an advanced Bronze Age civilization that produced bronze drums with concentric carvings of animals, sea birds, vivid scenes of maritime exploits, and daily life. These bronze drums, when orchestrated to produce a series of coded rhythms for battle formations, represent the sisters’ most ingenious weapons against the Chinese invaders.

When their father is executed, the sisters’ world comes crashing down around them. However, rather than submit to the Han Chinese, they rally an army of Viet women and win an initial victory, driving the Han from their homeland. The sisters become co-kings and rule over their independent state. Unlike many of their male counterparts then and now, however, these clear-eyed Southeast Asian women “understand the cost of war and the fraught legacy of peace,” as Thúy Đinh notes. “The sisters’ short-lived quest for independence actually brings on nine centuries of direct Chinese rule, but also heralds Vietnam’s spirit of resistance that persists through the millennia.” At a critical juncture in the story, Nguyen — channeling the work of Toni Morrison and Viet Thanh Nguyen — has the sisters assert that “nothing ever dies,” affirming that the memory and the retelling of their story will be imprinted on the culture’s collective memory.

Bronze Drum is a terrific book on multiple levels. The writing is lively, the descriptions vivid, and the story full of surprises and insights, especially to a westerner who has not heard the tale from childhood. Objects and phrases take on multiple meanings. Most importantly, it shows how a country’s history can be shaped by memory, and the telling and retelling of the stories of the past, until it becomes integral to the present.

More to come…

DJB


*This is a local residency program at Woodlawn & Pope-Leighey House — a National Trust Historic Site — and Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture. The summer writers-in-residence focus their weeks on-site exploring ways to rediscover and re-purpose place and place histories, and use writing as a means to build community, to bring awareness to critical social and environmental issues, and as a creative force of empowerment.


This Weekly Reader features links to recent articles, blog posts, or books that grabbed my interest or tickled my fancy. I hope you find something that makes you laugh, think, or cry. 


Image by Quang Nguyen vinh from Pixabay

This entry was posted in: Recommended Readings, Weekly Reader

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I am David J. Brown (hence the DJB) and I originally created this personal blog more than ten years ago as a way to capture photos and memories from a family vacation. After the trip was over I simply continued writing. Over the years the blog has changed to have a more definite focus aligned with my interest in places that matter, reading well, roots music, and more. My professional background is as a national nonprofit leader with a four-decade record of growing and strengthening organizations at local, state, and national levels. This work has been driven by my passion for connecting people in thriving, sustainable, and vibrant communities.

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