Bruce Weigl: The bridge that war can’t break

By Tran Khanh Linh   April 12, 2016 | 02:15 am PT
A simple, over-sized black T-shirt - a pair of blue jeans - thin metal glasses - if I hadn’t done my research on this man before meeting him, I’d have thought he was Steve Jobs’ long lost brother.

Oh, actually not. Steve Jobs wouldn’t be so kind. He wouldn’t drive all the way to pick me up from my dorm just so I could visit his house on a gloomy, snowy spring afternoon. He wouldn’t wait patiently for fifteen minutes outside my dorm without a clue where I was as my phone had chosen the perfect time to die. Steve Jobs would have fired me, doesn’t matter whether I was his employee or not, unlike this man, who greeted me after the long wait with a big warm smile. My hand felt tiny in our cordial handshake.

I got into his grey car, thinking it was a bit small for its 1,8m tall owner. To my surprise, there was another person inside, Long Nguyen, 20, his friend's son from Hanoi. Studying at a nearby community college, he often spends his weekends at this man’s house like a family member.


From left to right: Albert L. Weigl, father of Bruce, Minh, Long and Bruce Weigl. Photo: Khanh Linh

We stopped in front of a grey, one story house exactly three minutes from Oberlin College, Ohio. The dusky sky and snow coupled with the greyness of the house gave the surroundings a depressing look, which was a complete opposite to the coziness we found inside once I stepped in. Although only a small table lamp was on, the generous amount of natural light from the various tall windows brightened everything just enough to lead the way.

Most of the decorations in the living room were brought from Vietnam, including a traditional Vietnamese water puppetry altar painted in red and gold, a 100-year-old water puppet gifted by a Vietnamese friend, and a beautiful Vietnamese calligraphy silk painting. Glancing at this house, you’d probably think the owner is a Vietnamese.

Crossing paths with Vietnam

Bruce Weigl, 67, is a well-known American contemporary poet who is now a distinguished Creative Writing Professor at Lorain County Community College. His literary career began unexpectedly when he returned home after a year at the Vietnam War, a war that “took away [his] life, but gave [him] poetry in return”.

Weigl was born into an European immigrant family that he describes as “working class and not educated” yet “full of love”. He grew up in Lorain County, Ohio where the only expectation for everyone was to graduate high school and work at the giant steel mill in town. Books, or any kind of literary encouragement, weren’t a part of his childhood. He joined the army in June 1967 in hopes that the government would later pay for his college, not expecting to go to war. But he did, because 1967, shortly before the Tet Offensive 1968, was a crucial year when a quarter of a million American soldiers were sent to Vietnam.

In a husky, low voice with brief pauses here and there, Weigl recalled returning home in September 1967, feeling an urge to write about his experiences. Untrained and inexperienced, Weigl decided to write anyway but found his early compositions “so bad that would make you weep”. He spent a year at a community college, which in turn helped him get into Oberlin College with a good scholarship.

“From there, it's been like a dream that I've never woken up from,” he said.

Wars, especially the Vietnam War, have been an unlimited source of inspiration for Weigl's poetry and translation work. His father, Albert L. Weigl, 90, said that Bruce “went to the war as a boy and came back as a man”. When writing about wars and their aftermath, however, instead of discussing the “usual things”, Weigl wants to go deeper than that, to explore how wars change people's “psychies” and make them rise from hell.

The daughter of two countries

In 1986 when relations between the U.S. and Vietnam were still yet to be normalized, a former North Vietnamese general invited Weigl to visit Hanoi as a guest. He accepted the invitation, thinking that it might be the only chance to ever go.

During this trip, he got a chance to visit an orphanage in a poor countryside area in Ha Nam. There, Weigl saw around forty kids of different ages playing with each other in a large room. Some immediately came to him and grabbed his legs, probably because they were curious to see a foreigner. Although the people there were caring and the kids had enough food, Weigl was heartbroken as he knew that their lives would be so difficult. “I wanted to scoop them all up and take them all home with me,” he said.

Having been an American soldier in the Vietnam War, Weigl felt a great responsibility to do something for Vietnam. So he went back home, discussed with his wife and 13-year-old son his idea of adopting a Vietnamese child in order to give him or her a life of opportunities. Everyone agreed, yet the adoption couldn’t happen until 1990 due to Vietnam’s strict regulations.

One day when Weigl was teaching at Pennsylvania State University, his wife called him, saying that a social worker was at their house with a portfolio of photographs and a description of a little Vietnamese girl. He went home immediately.

The portfolio was very thick, so the social worker asked if Weigl and his wife if they would need some time. He looked at his wife and said: “No, I don’t need to think about it. I wanna go get her!”

In his book The Circle of Hanh: A Memoir published in 2000, he talks about his ten-day trip to bring Hanh, his adopted daughter, from Vietnam to his home. He remembers taking her to dinner at Le Beaulieu, a fancy French restaurant in the luxurious Sofitel Legend Metropole Hotel in Hanoi, where she spat out orange seeds all over the table. Weigl smiled when telling me this story, because from that little eight-year-old skinny country girl who spoke no English, she has matured into a beautiful, independent and successful young woman.

Weigl told me I looked like his daughter, and Long, working on his computer at the dining table, agreed. In the photo frames placed on the bookshelf at the living room entrance, Hanh still has long, black hair with a big smile that strikingly resembles her father’s.

Weigl didn’t want to turn her into an American, so he made a deal with a Vietnamese couple from Hanoi who were getting their Masters at Pennsylvania State University that he would teach the wife English if the husband taught Hanh Vietnamese. Hanh didn't like having to take Vietnamese lessons after school, but now she’s very grateful to her father for helping her preserve her Vietnamese. Weigl did this because he thinks “if you lose your language skills, you lose your culture”.

In a Vietnamese article in Tuoi Tre newspaper in July 2009, Weigl said he’d be embarrassed if his daughter knew nothing about her origins. For many years, he made sure that Hanh had books, music, and food from Vietnam.

On the weekends, he and his wife would take her to nearby Vietnamese communities so she could practice Vietnamese with them. He wanted to maintain her identity so that when she grew up, she could make the decision herself whether she’d want to stay here or go back.

Hanh graduated from Case Western Reserve University and became a nurse. Although she's already 26 years old, married and currently pregnant, Weigl still calls her so intimately in Vietnamese, con gai yeu cua bo, which means “my beloved daughter”.

Vietnam is more than a war

“Did he tell you he won the #1 Teacher at Penn State? And all his awards?” Albert Weigl, Bruce's father, asked me.

“No, but I found that on Google,” I said.

“Yeah, I knew he wouldn't,” he said, smiling.

During our interview, Bruce Weigl never mentioned how his first book Song of Napalm was nominated for Pulitzer Prize or any of the poetry awards that he has received. He casually described himself as a lazy person who spends a lot of time doing nothing. “But when I looked down and realized I've published 25 books, I don't know where that came from because I don't remember doing any of it,” he said.

In his office at home, there's a big poster brought back from one of the publicity events in Vietnam for his book After the Rain Stopped Pounding in 2010. All the shelves are filled with books, which must be around a hundred in that tiny square room, decorated by Buddhist statues and souvenirs from the places he's traveled to. On the desks, there are photo frames of him during the Vietnam War, Hanh when she was eight, his little grandson and other beloved friends and family members.

To Bruce Weigl, Vietnamese poetry, in particular, affects his way of thinking. At Returning to the Vietnamese Home, a poetry night in Vietnam in 2010, he said: “I also started to study the Vietnamese language and to translate Vietnamese poetry because that work allowed my mind to return to a country as green as paradise, the green which I always longed for.

The more work I did on translation projects, the more I came to respect the beauty of the Vietnamese language, and the talent and intellect of the Vietnamese people. It also allowed him to learn more about his own culture and language, as he discovered words he'd never use in the process of translation.

To Weigl, Americans and Vietnamese are inextricably connected, due to not only the 20 years of the Vietnam War, but also the great number of Vietnamese refugees and immigrants in the U.S. He believes both countries still have shared experiences, whether they like it or not, and it's important that they find a way to live together.

What Weigl is most proud of is his 20-year effort to bring Vietnamese culture to American students. Being a Creative Writing Professor, he finds it fortunate that he has the context and venue to show students through poetry and works of translation that Vietnam is a country, not a war.

In the future, he wants to have a house in Hanoi where he can stay for half a year, then go back to the U.S. for the other half. “Vietnam has become a part of my life,” he said.

It's the place that not only allows him to meet interesting people, but also inspires him to write productively. “I just wake up every morning and write write write write write,” he said, “after my coffee and a bowl of pho.”

Weigl loves going to the tiny shops in the Old Quarter in Hanoi and bargain for buy stuff like a true Hanoian. Every time someone tries to sell him something at a higher price, he'd say the magic words a friend taught him: “Toi khong phai khach du lich!” which means “I'm not a tourist!” It works every time.

The bridge

Dinner was ready. Albert, Bruce, me, and Minh—another Vietnamese high school student who was staying with the Weigls, had burgers and fries, while Long had chicken wings, all from our favorite burger restaurant in town. We were talking about Albert’s marriage, Long’s future plans and Minh’s journey to the U.S.

Over that one table, we had three generations of people from two countries that used to be at war. But at that moment, the remnants of those 20 years—horror, grief, pain and hatred, to name just a few—were all put aside. A sorrowful history doesn’t necessarily lead to a sorrowful present and future when we have people like Bruce Weigl—the bridge that crosses boundaries and brings us all closer together.

Tran Khanh Linh is an Oberlin College sophomore, studying Interdisciplinary Approaches to Communications and Sociology.

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