Banned Books Week 2013: Is ‘The Trader of Saigon’ a threat to national security in The Socialist Republic of Vietnam?

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This month, a shipment of my debut novel, The Trader of Saigon, left the UK bound for Vietnamese booksellers. Last week, it was stopped by Vietnamese Customs and refused entry to the country. The reason given? I’ve officially been banned.

As best I can imagine, there are two possible explanations for how this has happened. Either the Vietnamese government knew of the novel in advance, had read it and made a considered decision on the unsuitability of its content for the population of Vietnam, or – more likely – a customs official opened the box, read the blurb and took a dislike to its mentions of the American War and the omnipresent, governing ‘Party’. Either way, the fact remains, I’m not getting in.

The explanation for why this has happened, however, is much more troubling. Banning Trader is a curious, but extremely telling decision. Aside from the fact that outlawing something makes it instantly more desirable, it demonstrates just how intolerant the Vietnamese government is of even the mildest criticism.

Trader is set in Vietnam in the early 1980s, when the civil war had ended but its legacy still thrived. It follows three characters as they navigate through the chaos, corruption and destitution of a country attempting to recover from decades of divide, against a backdrop of staggering social and political turmoil. The context is bleak and unforgiving, but the story and the characters are entirely fictional. Alexander is a US Army deserter who has fallen under the influence of an enigmatic Russian pimp known only as the Herder, and together they travel throughout Vietnam buying and selling vulnerable young girls as prostitutes and brides. Hanh is their unwitting victim; an impoverished Hanoi toilet attendant for whom every day is a battle to keep herself and her mother safe and fed. Phuc is a former businessman. By simply living in Saigon at the time the Americans were there, he’s been judged a sympathiser, and he now spends his days trying to come to term with his humiliating decline and avoid the attention of the pitiless men in charge.

Trader isn’t kind to the Vietnamese government, (nor indeed especially kind to the Americans, Chinese or Russians) but it isn’t explicitly about them either, and I worked incredibly hard to ensure that it was not unrealistic or extravagant. I did a great deal of research, including talking to people who lived in Vietnam at the time, to ensure that I reflected the period as accurately – and neutrally – as I possibly could. I have certainly not written a campaign novel. At no point during writing did I have the intention of making a political statement or stoking discontent. I wanted to portray Vietnam exactly as it was, and since the novel is set well within living memory, I’m really not telling Vietnamese readers anything they don’t already know.

For me, the consequences of being banned are trivial.  For Vietnamese writers, they are increasingly dire. In contrast to the rapid economic liberalisation that has enabled Vietnam to integrate so effectively with the international community, the past decade has seen the Vietnamese government significantly crackdown on freedom of speech.

This year, Reporters Without Borders’ annual ‘World Press Freedom Index’ ranked Vietnam 172nd out of 179 countries for the second year running, putting it in the objectionable company of Syria, China, Somali and Iran and North Korea. All news publications in Vietnam – of which there are around 80 – are owned and controlled by the government. Senior staff members are all required to be card-carrying Communist Party members. Journalists are subject to intense surveillance and sometimes imprisonment, and are stifled by increasingly restrictive laws. In the last year alone, 12 bloggers were handed jail terms of up to 13 years by the Vietnamese courts for what they described at ‘cyber-dissidence’. This leaves Vietnam second only to China for the number of netizens (habitual internet users) imprisoned. The apparent definition of what the Vietnamese government views as threatening information is also expanding. An investigation by the press freedom organisation, CPJ, found that the Arab Spring uprisings that toppled autocratic regimes in the Middle East and North Africa were deemed political firelighters, and their initial coverage prompted swift expansion of censored news topics, for example.

For fiction publishers, the challenges of censorship are equally common, intricate, and fraught with risk. A recent report by the International Publishers Association (IPA) described censorship in the Vietnamese publishing industry as extensive, stating “the screening of books [in Vietnam] is a complex, opaque, at time irrational, and highly bureaucratic process that books and other written materials have to undergo prior to- and post- publication”. The report found that suspension of publishers’ licenses and harassment, arrest and imprisonment of writers alarmingly common.

Indeed, many of the most internationally recognisable books by Vietnamese authors have been banned at some point in Vietnam, including Bao Ninh’s bestselling The Sorrow of War, and numerous novels by Duong Thu Huong. Duong Thu Huong is one of Vietnam’s most loved novelists, but even she has been imprisoned for writing about her experiences as a North Vietnamese soldier and criticising the government. Many of her works are still banned today, and she continues to be subject to surveillance and prevented from travel from her home in Hanoi. It’s an incredibly depressing situation for Vietnamese publishers and writers. As the IPA argues, not only are they being denied their constitutional rights to freedom of expression, they’re not being allowed to contribute freely to the cultural, social and economic wealth of their nation without fear of imprisonment or persecution.

Anyone who has visited Hanoi will understand how rampant book piracy is in Vietnam. Almost every street corner has a vendor with a stack of photocopied travel guides and English-language novels aimed at tourists, such as Grahame Greene’s The Quiet American, or Karl Marlantes’ Matterhorn. Significantly, the vendors are also extremely proud to promote Vietnamese literature, including the works of Bao Ninh and Duong Thu Huong. Their customers are as often local people as they are the tourists.

Vietnam is a member of the Berne Convention which aims to tackle global literary piracy and works for the protection of literary and artistic works, but if the Vietnamese government continues to be so strict about what is deemed acceptable reading for their citizens, then the photocopiers and underground publishers are actually doing the people of Vietnam – and its writers – an invaluable service and should not be stopped. Stories, memoires, reports and divergent perspectives, be they communicated through fact or fiction, are most important and most cherished in the places that seek to silence them.

So, if anyone is heading over to Vietnam in the next few months, let me know. I’ll slip you a copy of Trader. You can hand it over to a nice man on a street corner with a stash of photocopied books.