Paradise of the Blind by Duong Thu Huong is a sad story. It is billed as the first novel from Viet Nam ever published in the U.S., as well as a book banned within Viet Nam. It shows the world what was going on in Northern Viet Nam right after the western empires pulled out in the mid-1970s.
The story focuses on Hang, a girl who lost her father and is being raised by her poor, single mother. Their struggle is mostly due to an uncle’s power-brokering for the brand-new Communist Party in recently segregated Viet Nam. This uncle chased off the father, only shows up when he needs something from his sister, and contributes absolutely nothing to their household, which is barely scraping by. When Hang’s aunt (on her father’s side) finally reconnects with them, she becomes a new protector – but only at the cost of her mother’s love. It seems that, since Hang has been claimed by her father’s family, her mother no longer feels important in Hang’s life. Like this little girl is responsible for the idiot behavior of her entire family! It is a powerful depiction of how pain and self-sabotaging behavior is passed on from one generation to the next. BREAK THE CYCLE, PEOPLE!
Painful – but not surprising – to read of yet another culture where the women are expected to serve the men in their family, and sacrifice their health, their children, love, dignity, whatever it takes. And those men with power (though they had little else) are taking advantage and not living up to their responsibility to care for those supposedly in their keeping.
And in case anyone is wondering – the problem is not that it is men in charge and women not in charge. The same thing would happen if the women were all given unearned power w/no question. The problem is placing an entire class of people in charge based on that class/gender/color/whatever and another in the submissive role for not being of the proper class. Absolute power corrupts absolutely, yes? Unfortunately, on this particular planet, it is far and away the male gender that has been placed in the power role over entirely too much of the world, and therefore entirely too many women and girls suffering because of it. I am NOT bashing men because they are men; I’m infuriated at a system that distributes power so arbitrarily.
I am no student of Viet Nam, so I learned a lot here – but always through the lives of these very well-written characters, otherwise I probably would have moved on to some other book (there a big stack over there, taunting me). When I get worked up and angry at characters in a novel, it’s a sign of great writing. In the end, this is the story of cultural upheaval through the lens of one family. The book is wonderful, and I’ll be looking for more books by Duong in the future.