CM December 22, 
1995. Vol. II, Number 10-11

image Two Shores / Deux rives.

Thuong Vuong-Riddick.
Vancouver: RonsdalePress, 1995. 166pp, paperback, $14.95.
ISBN: 0-921870-35-3.

Grades 11 and up / Ages 16 and up.
Review by Kathleen L. Kellett-Betsos.


"The Astrologer"

In Saïgon there was a famous astrologer,
whom everybody went to see.
The one day, in the sixties,
he started to prophesy
foreign countries for us.

He forecast to students, rich men, ordinary people,
even to the poor and the outcasts.
To all he predicted, "You will travel overseas."

We laughed, seeing expensive clothes,
leather luggage,
and on gloomy days said:
"Let us go to the astrologer's
so that he can predict our future,
our fabulous destinies!"


"Le Devin"

A Saïgon il y avait un devin célèrebre
que tout le monde consultait.
Puis un jour, dans les années soixante,
il commença à nous prédire
des pays étrangers.

Il disait aux étudiants,
aux hommes riches ou ordinaires,
et même aux pauvres et aux déshérités,
à tous il prédit: "Vous voyagerez outremer."

Nous avons ri, voyant
des vêtements chers, des bagages de cuir,
et disions les jours tristes:
"Allons chez le devin,
qu'il prophétise notre avenir
nos destinées fabuleuses!"

Riddick The subtle atmosphere of historical irony evident in this poem pervades Two Shores / Deux rives, Thuong Vuong-Riddick's first collection of poetry. Personal and political history intertwine as the poet considers her life first in Vietnam, then as a student in France, and finally, as immigrant, teacher, wife, and mother in Canada.

Poems such as "History," which enumerates the series of invaders and conflicts in Vietnam, and "My Beloved is dead in Vietnam," which laments the lover's death in a litany of battles, sensitize the Western reader to the long history of a conflict which North American culture, particularly in its films, has seen primarily from the American point of view. In "My Sister's piano," the complexity of allegiances in a land disputed by so many different forces is evoked through music: as the sister plays old songs such as "The Dream Passes," honouring generals of the French Revolution, the crazy uncle sings the national anthem of Red China, French soldiers sing "La Marseillaise," the Vietminh sing a song of the French resistance -- all background music to the Battle of Diên Biên Phû. In contrast, the turbulent events of May 1968 in France and the October Crisis of 1970 in Quebec, which the author also experienced, seem relatively innocent, as suggested in "The Whirlwind of History":

In Montréal I found two jobs,
But History followed me,
When La Crise d'Octobre 1970 exploded,
students told me: "The most tragic episode of our history!"
I thought: "Only one killed!"

Life appears more tranquil in Victoria, nonetheless nicknamed "Agatha Christie town" for its hidden mysteries, but it involves the difficulties of balancing academic life and family responsibilities, as suggested in the poem "Stress". Some of the most moving poems speak of the author's three children, particularly "After the operation":

"The small marble," my daughter asks,
"could it come back?"
I feel the scar on my chest.
"It could," I say." [...]
In the evening the children
Gather round me, lifeguards.

Vuong-Riddick's poetic autobiography is a dual language edition, written first in English then "recreated" in French. A comparison between the English and French texts reveal subtle differences. In the English poems, there inevitably surface French words evocative of the French milieu where the poet lived and worked; for example, in describing relationships in Quebec, the poet says, "I felt notre amitié / as a warm current / under the icy cold." In the French version, the effect of contrast is lost: "je sentais notre amitié / comme un courant chaud / sous le froid glacial."

Occasionally the images in English are more concise and more striking; for example, the simile in "For Anne"/"Pour Anne": "The months of pregnancy / were like a wrestling bout/ with the Pacific" is less effective in the French version: "Les mois où je t'attendais / étaient ceux où j'ai dû lutter /comme contre le Pacifique." This slight weakness no doubt reflects the difficulty of poetic re-creation. After comparing Vuong-Riddick's poems in French and English, language students may want to try this bilingual writing as an exercise.

I recommend this volume of poetry very highly and have every intention of teaching some of these poems in my own French classes. I would consider them suitable for English and French classes from Grade Eleven onward. The aesthetic appeal of the book cover and the typography are an invitation to the reader to enter this world of history, autobiography, and poetic imagery.

Highly recommended.

Kathleen L. Kellett-Betsos is a French Professor at Ryerson Polytechnic University in Toronto.

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Copyright © 1995 the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.

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The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364

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