The literary landscape, high and low, is awash in post-apocalyptic stories these days, particularly stories of a more ambitious sort (take Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Colson Whitehead’s Zone One, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, Edan Lepucki’s California, or Sandra Newman’s new weird and wonderful The Country of Ice Cream Star), a trend that’s easy to attribute to a pervasive sense of dread about the planet’s future among thinking people. Or, in the case of Whitehead’s zombie tale, a dread of the unthinking present. For a smart writer, a ravaged future world also offers something like a perfect literary playground, a cleared field where everything from language to human psychology to social convention can be reconsidered and reframed, critiqued or reimagined.
Poet Quan Barry’s debut novel would not seem to fit into this category, yet it inhabits an eerily similar ruined landscape, which happens to be the history of Vietnam. And if that field of history, viewed from a certain angle, resembles much of the rest of the world and time, Barry might be said to have created a post-apocalyptic present, a fictional world in which it’s possible to see how we always and everywhere are living among humanity’s ruins.
Barry seems especially well suited to the undertaking. Though born in Ho Chi Minh City, she was adopted as an infant and raised in the U.S. (on Boston’s north shore, her biographical materials specify). She is thus both of Vietnam and not, and traveling there as she has done a number of times could be a matter of finding a life that might have been, looking for a haunted past and listening to its ghosts, much as her fey character Rabbit does. On one of her trips, in 2010, Barry first heard the story of a woman named Phan Thi Bich Hang, who is the “official psychic” of Vietnam: “She was bitten by a rabid dog when she was 5 years old. And when she came out of her coma, she could hear the voices of the dead. And the government actually uses her to help them find the remains of soldiers and other people who are historically prominent in Vietnam.”
Hearing this, Barry, who’d been working for a few years on a book about an American nurse during the Vietnam War, thought, “that’s what this novel is supposed to be about,” and started writing She Weeps Each Time You’re Born, which begins with an American woman in present-day Vietnam seeking the mysterious Rabbit, who has lost her official status to a new psychic and is now kept under house arrest. “For Vietnam she gives up everything,” the woman’s guide whispers to her. “She will stay until every little one is heard. The northern and southern dead.”
The war is well underway when we first meet Rabbit, and the world is a dark, dangerous, and chaotic place. “[T]he air hangs fetid with the wet heat that follows the southwest monsoon.” The bridge across the Song Ma River is destroyed. The charred remains of huts dot the shoreline. “The patriarch had gone running back into one of the burning huts to find his granddaughter, the thatched roof like a woman with her hair on fire.” The faraway mountains are hazy with ash, and the night sky rumbles with distant planes. In the confusion of bombings and burning and death, people appear and disappear and nowhere is safe. And this is the shadowy, blasted countryside — often lit only by the flickering blue flames of the spirits of the dead — that Barry’s characters wander.
This, you might say, is a familiar wartime setting — but what makes it something more is the presence of those flickering spirits, the dead whose voices Rabbit hears, whose stories take us far and wide, in time and space, and make of all of Vietnam’s history a vast and troubled grave. And just as Rabbit is lifted, a newborn, out of her mother’s grave (apparently the source of her gift), humanity keeps rising from its own ruins and remains. What’s funny is Barry, in talking about her book, says she wanted to show more of the history and richness of Vietnam. “[W]hen we think of Vietnam here in the United States,” she says, “we think of it as a metaphor. You know, it’s synonymous with the idea of a quagmire.” The history of Vietnam is another quagmire. And upon this sucking, unholy ground a novel is built.
Upon her chthonic emergence, Rabbit becomes part of a makeshift family that roams Vietnam’s countryside during the war and “reunification,” staging an escape by boat that goes spectacularly wrong (even the water is a place of darkness and peril, afloat with human detritus), changing their human and geographic coordinates, giving us the intimate outlines of the view from above: “The population realigning itself because somewhere far away somebody had drawn a line on a map.”
In the death of an old woman along their way, Rabbit is able to hear of the awful French rubber plantations where the woman worked as a girl. In a trip to the forbidden purple city of Hue, the ancient capital, she hears of the horrors of imperial times. In Laos the voices of the Cambodian dead, the northern martyrs, the southern soldiers, the ethnic tribes, and the children overwhelm her. When walking one deathly landscape, Rabbit, we learn, has not thought of “the politics. Which stories the world is eager to bring into the light. Which stories it doesn’t want told.”
It’s probably not surprising that Barry’s first book of poetry, published in 2001, is called Asylum. And it’s probably even less surprising that Asylum harbors so many of humanity’s mistakes and sufferers and sins — the Salem Witch Trials, the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, Agent Orange’s deformities, the radioactive Bikini Atolls. Her next book, published in 2004, is called Controvertibles. In an interview about She Weeps Each Time You’re Born, Barry said, “I think the thing I’m most interested in is the idea of possibility.” That, to my mind, is the idea that her novel embodies. On this fictional landscape that I’m calling the post-apocalyptic present, where all the depredations of the past spread out like a broken boneyard, the blue lights of the spirit still flicker, and the dead still speak. And most important, someone hears.