Writers’ block

Portraits of writers hang in a new literature museum in Hà Nội, Việt Nam’s capital.

The ruling Communist Party of Việt Nam (CPV) deems them the best Vietnamese scribblers of the past millennium.

Recent ones belonged to the Việt Nam Writers’ Association (VWA), formed in 1957 on the lines of cultural associations in the Soviet bloc.

Its unwritten credo is that writers who challenge the CPV’s dominance over Vietnamese political life are to be punished and ostracised.

At the VWA’s five-yearly conference, which ended on July 11th, the honoured guest was Đinh Thế Huynh, the CPV’s propaganda chief.

Mr Huynh said the association’s development should hew to the Party’s view of Vietnamese culture—ie, toe the party line.

Yet dissent is growing within the VWA’s ranks.

In May 20 of its members quit, in one of the largest Vietnamese literary insurrections in years.

Fifteen VWA defectors now belong to an alternative organisation, the League of Independent Vietnamese Writers.

Phạm Toàn, a member, says he is “allergic” to the VWA and other state-affiliated associations, adding that, after so many years of Communist rule, “the term ‘talent’ has gone.”

The 80-odd members of the League, founded in 2014, tend be less confrontational than democracy activists and political dissidents.

Yet compared with most card-carrying VWA writers, says Bùi Chát, a League poet, they are generally less supportive of CPV dogma and more inclined to publish online or in private presses.

Writers_VietnamPortraits of writers hang in a new literature museum in Hà Nội, Việt Nam’s capital

The authorities are not pleased. Mr Chát says spies eavesdrop on the League’s bimonthly meetings in Hồ Chí Minh City.

The VWA’s vice-chairman, Nguyễn Quang Thiều, declared on July 3rd that Vietnamese writers may not belong to two writers’ organisations at once.

The directive sounds absurd, but it may have a chilling effect:

The VWA controls the country’s main publishing houses—and hence hundreds of writers’ (paltry) earnings.

A poet or novelist who falls foul of Vietnam’s state-controlled literary machine may find that his writing has far fewer outlets.

Such tactics seem old-fashioned.

Việt Nam now has one of South-East Asia’s most wired societies.

The proliferation of political commentary on Vietnamese-language Facebook pages makes it increasingly hard for spooks to keep misbehaving writers—professional and otherwise—in check.

The CPV, as it grapples with assertive Chinese nationalism, is also keen to deepen trade and security ties with America; its general secretary, Nguyễn Phú Trọng, met Barack Obama, America’s president, in Washington on July 7th.

Ramping up domestic repression is no way to convince Mr Obama that Việt Nam respects free speech.

Yet nasty old habits die hard.

In December Nguyễn Quang Lập, an award-winning mainstream novelist and screenwriter, was arrested in Hồ Chí Minh City under a vague national-security law used to criminalise dissent, apparently for having written articles critical of the Party on his blog, which had received more than 100m views.

He was released in February—to house arrest—and still has a huge fan base.

The VWA will have to decide whether his politics should keep his portrait out of the literature museum.

Source: The Economist

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