By Thao Dinh
Note to readers: There will be some Vietnamese words and phrases throughout the stories. There will not be direct translations, because my hope is that you will read closely and enjoy this language. Thank you.
I. RACE (THE UNIVERSE)
As the hospice nurse gently took away the ventilator and quietly left the room according to the patient’s wish, she gazed out the window to admire the lilac sunset upon the great flat-topped Table Mountains. The wind whispered, and she could hear the conversations of tropical seagulls. The writer realized life was not a race, but a journey. It was about savoring every moment. Why had she not known this sooner? Instead, she felt as if she had been in competition her entire life.
Turning her head from the window, the writer contemplated the trophies, prizes, and recognition papers neatly placed around her room. On the early awards, her name was handwritten in sophisticated calligraphy; some of the ink was blurred by raindrops. The fonts changed through time and ended up printed in Steve Job’s neat typography. At that moment, she understood that the world continuously progressed to strive for that final form that never came. Technology constantly advanced. And so, its global citizens got sucked into the twirl, forgetting what mattered to them or even who they were.
The writer closed her eyes. She saw her mother giving her a notebook. She ran to her mother’s arms, remembering how it all began. The same notebook, now crumbled with time, was in her hands; tears of happiness rolled down her wrinkled cheeks.
At least she found herself before leaving this chaotic world.
II. “VIẾT” (EARTH)
A snow globe was slowly spinning in the softest way to the melody of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. The sad song surrounded the small female figure inside—collapsing, lost, in the middle of a vast field of white.
The writer carefully moved the snow globe aside to begin her work. She turned on her Mac and typed the first few lines in English. As was her habit, she pulled out the heavy drawer of her cherry wood desk and ran her slim fingers through hundreds of printed documents, all color-coded to a specific order only she knew how to operate. She called them the Idea Book series.
Unlike before, the topic she was writing about was exotic and so she searched her files longer than she ever had before. She reached the bottom of the drawer and chanced upon the head of a pencil placed inside the spiral of a notebook she hadn’t seen in years. She opened the notebook and found her own childish scribbles, which she had long forgotten.
The laptop screen went black after minutes of being inactive, reflecting the image of a middle-aged writer frozen in the flow of memories. At forty-five, she had come a long way. And very far, too. Her mother must be very proud. The whole village must be. She traced her finger by the first pages and read out loud like a child learning to rhyme: “Learn. To. Write. Tập. Viết…” The writer sobbed, calling her parents: ”Bố… Mẹ..! Con nhớ bố mẹ nhiều lắm..! Con yêu bố mẹ nhiều lắm..!”
When she was small, she made a promise to her mother to learn to write and to become a writer. Her father bought her a luxury from the city with the money he saved for months – a notebook. Her mother told her to study hard so that she could have a greater future than her parents’ and the villagers.’ So, she made a promise to her heart, to her family, and to her home country.
From that day, she never left the house without her notebook.
III. Exempli Gratia (AIR)
The writer took a glass of champagne; it illuminated her red satin gown. She sat down in the front row where she stared at the ribbons celebrating her name. The room lights dimmed, leaving only a glimmering stage. Her head felt light from the aroma of wild berries as she re-lived a few days before when she spent time exploring the streets near Square Louis Michel as a little reward after another success. She had just turned thirty-five.
That afternoon, she had stumbled upon the peculiar Espace Montmartre building and decided to go inside. Little did she know, the thin-mustache figure featured on the building’s wall would change her career forever.
Melting clocks. Winged snails. A lobster telephone. Those were rebellious ideas. The writer felt attacked and moved back, bumping into a wall. All the rules that she strictly obeyed crumbling before her.
Amazingly, from the ruins sparkled a thousand brilliant kaleidoscopes. The writer’s pupils dilated and she felt something new sprout.
“…And now, we will hear from the author herself, as she shares her view on contemporary literature!” The applause was as loud as thunder.
The woman walked on stage, bathed in the spotlight where her diamond necklace shone most brilliantly. She waited for the applause to subside before speaking.
“I have always followed the rules. That must be why I am seen as appropriate, and people look up to me as a standard. I used to be proud of that. But recently, a serendipitous walk led me to a stunning art museum and imploded everything I once believed. I have followed the rules for the past thirty years. I know them well enough to break them. Most standards are but ‘shackles limiting our vision.’ I feel a new incarnation. Am I crazy to challenge contemporary writing standards? ‘It is not necessary for the public to know whether I am joking or whether I am serious, just as it is not necessary for me to know it myself.’ However, the necessary truth that Jobs knew, that Dali embraced, and that I realize is this: ‘The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.’ Genius thrives. Thank you.”
Leaving the audience in shock, the pioneer rushed outside; she could not wait to pour out the ocean of ideas blossoming in her mind.
IV. IN… and out (FIRE)
As soon as she found out she had a talent for writing, she was happy. Briefly.
She began writing in journals as a student and quickly gained popularity and critical acclaim. Her name was soon familiar to readers of all ages. She was satisfied.
Nevertheless, the higher one climbs, the harder it is to breathe. Her career path was anything but a straight, progressive line. At age twenty-six, she had complications with her second novel. She could not find a publisher.
Then she was able to put the bottle down for short stretches at a time and her second book was eventually published. The critics drowned her with cruel comments; when she walked on the streets passers-by gossiped about her scandals; peers cast aspersions on her.
Every time she could lift her head, life knocked her back down.
One day she startled to see herself buried in a pile of empty Stoli bottles and suicide notes.
She got up and sought help.
V. US (WATER)
The infinite blue sky was flecked with a few cotton-white clouds. The gentle breeze blew the bamboo bushes clear from the path as a woman entered a small village in Phú Thọ. With a big smile, she called for her daughter while she anxiously pulled out a thin, blank notebook from her threadbare straw basket.
The young girl cheered, running out and into her mother’s arms. The mother trembled as she handed her child the notebook. Paper was scarce and expensive then. The villagers were largely illiterate. The mother explained how hard it had been for her father to purchase the notebook for the child:
“Con nhìn này, một tập viết! Bố mua được trên tận thành phố mới gửi về cho đấy! Phải cố gắng mà học nghe chưa. Cố gắng để đừng có khổ như người cái làng này. Thích không con?”
“Dạ thích lắm! Mai sau con sẽ thành nhà văn! Con sẽ học viết thật giỏi, hì!!” the daughter exclaimed graciously, promising her mother she would grow up to be a great writer.
Looking at her innocent child, the mother could not hold back her tears. The moment she gave her daughter the notebook, she gave her a chance for a life she could never have.