I’ve been reading Quan Barry’s new novel, She Weeps Each Time You’re Born, and I feel haunted.
As I’ve gotten older, with the addition of a husband and two children, I’ve gotten more sensitive to painful story lines, particularly those involving children getting hurt or dying. I’ve had to stop reading many a book because I couldn’t deal with stories and images that came to mind. There was Behind All the Beautiful Forevers, with its stories about children in the slums of Mumbai. I stopped after the 3rd chapter. I couldn’t bear the suffering of the children picking through trash piles and abused by not just friends and neighbors but also their social system. Then there was Sarah’s Key, which I stopped reading once the children are separated from their mothers in the camp. Honestly, I nearly didn’t make it past the woman who committed suicide with her child in a Paris gymnasium where thousands were being detained.
Clearly, there is the maternal (and morbid) part of me that can’t help but imagine my children in these situations. It’s not hard for any parent to imagine what it would feel like if these stories were about their children. My empathy curve has certainly gone up significantly since becoming a parent. I don’t remember my younger self feeling this acute discomfort when I read The Diary of Ann Frank or watched To Live or Sophie’s Choice. I guess there’s also a certain degree of self-indulgence now—I don’t have time to read things that make me uncomfortable. There are so many books to read, why force myself through something painful?
But Barry’s book is different. Yes, there is immense suffering—a pregnant woman who lasts for only one chapter, bodies torn and burnt from explosions and fires, and the general hardships and depravity of wartime. There is even a baby, orphaned by her dead mother and Viet Cong father, wandering in destitution with her blind grandmother. I’m 100 pages into the story and had it had been any other story, I might stop here.
I won’t stop. Or perhaps I can’t stop. You see, this story is set in Vietnam, during a period that would eventually lead to the time of my birth. The story is about Rabbit, a girl born during the war and her otherworldly ability to talk to the dead. She becomes a complicated symbol of Vietnam in the aftermath of war and social upheaval—trying to move on while tethered to the suffering of the past.
In many ways, most of us are Rabbit, living our lives while still tethered to some past struggle or injustice. From Jews and the Holocaust, and African-Americans and slavery, to children of domestic violence and mental illness—we all have our stories. A key character in my story is the Vietnam War.
But why do our historical narratives have such power over us? How do they make us cringe at the slightest suggestion of suffering, even fictitious suffering? And why do they only manifest at certain times and not others? I have not always reacted this way to stories about Vietnam. In my youth, I was a scholar of the war and treated my own history with intellectual gloves, far removed from any emotion. But now that I can see myself in my children, now that I have to pass on a piece of myself to them, there is greater meaning in the stories, both real and make-believe. Perhaps all this is because we somehow hold the scars of the past in us, even if our memories are imperfect, even if these traumas were never ours in the first place. I don’t know if that makes each of us part of bigger narratives or reminds us of the singular human narrative.
What I do know is that my narrative, my scars live inside of me and they alight with Rabbit’s journey. They bring out a deep sense of sadness and pain that must be etched into my soul somewhere for there is nothing in my life now that could possibly cause it. They bring out a desire to mourn the lives lost, families ruined, and histories forgotten. But they also bring out a searing need to survive and triumph. And in persevering with the story, sticking with it despite the discomfort, I am, in a strange way, bearing witness to my own narrative.
In Buddhism there is much focus on the cyclical life. Barry’s book reminds me of the cyclical nature of my life. The girl born of war whose memories are lost bears witness to the trauma of that war 40 years later through the life of a fictional character.
Thanks for reading these musings about my Vietnamese heritage. Stay tuned for more as I prepare to return to Vietnam next month and document the journey on this blog.