EastOver Press, 2022
It is always such a pleasure to read Khanh Ha's work, and his latest, All The Rivers Flow Into the Sea is no exception. It is a collection of short stories which, as the back-cover blurb notes, "brings to readers a unique sense of love and passion alongside tragedy and darker themes of peril." Here the author examines a cast of various characters who somehow manage to retain a sense of humanity while surrounded by trauma. For some it is life lived during the Vietnam War; for others it is either some sort of a connection to that war that continues to remain long after the conflict ended or who are just trying to stay afloat on a daily basis, doing what they must to continue to survive or to help others in their time of need. In each story, life comes under siege in some fashion; the book as a whole highlights the sense of just how interconnected these lives and stories have come to be.
These are not simply tales of war though; although the war and its aftermath are prominent here, the author also infuses the history and culture of Vietnam into each story, along with his beautiful rendering of the landscape and the environment itself. In "The Yin-Yang Market," for example, a young Vietnamese woman who had been adopted by an American woman as a child returns to the Mekong Delta and reveals some of her childhood memories to the innkeeper, centered around the orphanage where she stayed and the nuns who took care of her. One of these tales involves a visit to a market just past midnight on the fifth of the Lunar New Year, where all transactions are done in the dark, something she was told she would "never again see anything like" after leaving Vietnam. "The Girl on the Bridge" is harrowing in the telling, as a young man relates his family's story to a girl while waiting for help pinned underneath an iron brace on a bridge bombed by the Americans. It showcases the horrors of the Northern Land Reform, but on the flip side, it also reveals both the beauty and the sustenance that nature and the land can provide despite the politics and the pain. In some cases, encounters during wartime, as in the titular story at the end, come down to the risks involved in survival during the most difficult and most dangerous of situations. "All the Rivers Flow Into the Sea" is one of the most poignant stories in this book, one that left me thinking about what would come next in the life of the young girl who seems to finally find the answers to her hopes in an American man, only to have them suddenly taken away.
All the Rivers Flow Into the Sea is a gorgeous book that anyone even remotely interested in Vietnam should read; it is a fine addition to the small library of this author's books now sitting on my shelves, asking the question of what it truly means to be human and examining the very essence of humanity under great stress. It also seems to ask for reader empathy, and that I have plenty of for the people who populate this book. I am grateful to the author for my copy and I wish him all the best.
One more thing: I am grateful to Teddy Rose for being included on the tour of this book; if you would like to see what others thought of it the link is here.