The Circle of Hanh
I have to admit something. Bruce Weigl’s The Circle of Hanh was not what I expected of a memoir about the Vietnam war. And this is a good thing. I’ll try to explain.
Upon opening this book and beginning to absorb the straight forward, yet artfully masterful wording, both tender and painful, I quickly discovered that up until then, I had unwittingly clung to a preconceived notion. It was the inclination toward a particular idea or hypothesis of what I would inevitably and inescapably find within the pages of a war experience.
You see, when I have imagined war memoirs, in both the distant and now not so distant past, I had always believed (foolishly innocent as it were) that they would naturally entail all the vivid descriptions of pain, loss, violence, chaos, and the shredding of the human soul that so many had focused, even relied upon. To be sure, there are many which follow this pattern. It is natural, and logical and essential in many ways. Those notions are so ingrained within the journey of war that without them one might even be inclined to question if the narrative was indeed a “war book.” And it is for this reason alone that I feel kind enough to absolve myself from the honest, perhaps even naive, misconception or oversight I had banked on as I began turning the pages.
The narrative has both a chronological and circular structure, something of which I have to say, I’m quite fond of. Beginning with his 1996 excursion to Vietnam so that he can bring to the United States his newly adopted daughter Nguyen Thi Hanh, he then flashes back to his past. It is a past filled with what it was like to grow up as the son of a steelworker in Ohio, the sexual abuse he suffered from as a boy at the hands of his babysitter, the soldier losing his innocence in Vietnam, becoming a writer and translator of Vietnamese poetry, and finally coming full circle back to his trip, where he endures the tedious bureaucracy of immigration and customs officials of Hanoi while fighting to pass a kidney stone before he can finally meet his new daughter.
It was quite a journey.
While I found all of the anecdotes endearing, moving, immersive, upsetting, sad, loving, and painful to read, there were a few that stood out to me. One was the story of his grandfather, who held a gun to the drunken doctor’s head who was delivering his first child. Both shocking and morbidly delightful for me to read, I found it very human and real. I mean, let’s face it, in that type of situation, would not all of us, at the very least, feel inclined to behave in such a way? Another was how Weigl began to realize his reverence for writing and storytelling. It was the day the Red Cross worker tossed Crime and Punishment at him while he was sick at a base camp in Vietnam. It stood out for me because I have such fond memories of when I was a child and a young adult discovering words and storytelling, although I have to admit, Crime and Punishment (of which I read as a teenager) left such a profound impact on me that I literally felt as if I was on the verge of insanity for a week. It was a very powerful book.
But to come full circle (please pardon the pun), what shook my preconceived conceptions of what a war memoir embodies was a suggestion that overwhelmed me with a warm, fresh outlook, a broader and more penetrating sensitivity of what it means to be human and to find oneself again.
Here’s what I mean.
What I got most out of the book is a sense of forgiveness, of love and healing in the aftermath of war, devastation, and violence. It’s personal for Bruce, but on a broader scale, this is also shown in the country, the people, how time has done its best to heal the ravages of the past. I began to feel a tremendous sense of “time healing all wounds” in this book, that there is a way back from darkness through love and forgiveness. It is of course a journey story, like most memoirs should be and are, and naturally it’s a journey for Bruce to find healing after the violence, his loss of innocence in Vietnam. But it is a journey of Vietnam and how the country has evolved over the years during and after the war, and I found it both interesting and amusing how he spoke of the younger children in Hanoi, how they are bored about hearing of the big war. It’s wonderful how time can erase all wounds. People move beyond the pain, the ravages and they rebuild. They carve new lives for themselves, and each other. And that is what Bruce wants to do. He wants to carve out a new birth for himself, not only for him to heal, but for Hanh, so that she can have a fuller life. In some very real ways, the story is about new beginnings and new paths to be walked.
And the circle is not only structural within the writing, but it is within him. He is rounding a personal circle here, a circle of his life, a path of youthful innocence, to guilt and loss, to coming fully around again toward love in the very country where all was lost to him during the war. By returning to Vietnam and embracing it, loving it, instead of allowing the wounds of the past to consume him in anger and resentment, he has found a path toward peace.
It’s so easy to hate the people you were pitted against, to blindly pin the blame on them, innocents just like everyone else caught in that disastrous violence. That’s the easy way out–to perpetuate the blame, the anger, to not let go of it. But that is misplaced and counterproductive to healing wounds and finding love. And I’d like to quote Yeats here because I think he said best what I am driving at:
“Those that I fight I do not hate.
Those that I guard I do not love.”
And I think there is something very important in this lesson here, for all of us who have done the dirty work of politicians sitting in a far away removed office, detached from the consequences of their actions. By not allowing ourselves to give into hate, hate the for the people we fought against without really knowing why, all of us caught up in the cogs of politics and warfare, we rise to a better level. We rise to a place of finding peace among ourselves, a forgiveness of the heart that opens doors of culture and community, whether it’s international or not.
I wish we could do that in Iraq. I wish Iraq would find time for peace and love amid the hate and violence. I wish people could understand that just because the forces that be force, or try to force us into believing that this person, this real person in front of me is my enemy, we are not enemies. We only allow ourselves to be fooled into believing we are enemies. We only allow ourselves as human beings to feel that a person is so greatly different from us that we must feel a hatred of them, when in fact our differences can unite us, enrich our own lives.
It’s a fallacy.
Difference should not make us hate. Difference should make us love and understand how precious we are all are, how unique and beautiful. And if that is realized, and love and forgiveness are allowed into our hearts, we can ingest what Bruce is trying to teach in this book.
For me, he is trying to teach that we can come full circle, out of the darkness and into the light of love. And that those who were once our enemies, can be welcomed into our homes, as part of our families.
We can grow together, learn from one another, share our cultures, and share in the mutual benefit of being people together on a small crowded planet.