It is Occupy Monsanto and International Action Against Biohazard Week. So in honor of that, I decided to post a (relatively short) excerpt from my fourth novel, called Orange Rain, which is about a legless Vietnam veteran and his Vietnamese prostitute girlfriend’s journey across mid-80s America to get revenge on Monsanto for the havoc its manufacturing of Agent Orange wreaked on their lives.
A quick bit of context so this passage makes sense: Max Wright is the legless veteran, Andre is a young black musician, their friend and traveling companion, and Mai Linh Tranh is the Vietnamese woman who is telling her story in this passage. They’ve been traveling east from the west coast for over a week together now, headed for Florida, trying to gather enough money together for a $15,000 cutting-edge prosthetic leg implant for Max; only when he’s able-bodied, he reasons, can he exact appropriate revenge on Monsanto. This is fiction, but it may as well not be–the things of which Mai speaks happened to countless people throughout the vile Vietnam War and America’s horrific, chemical warfare targeted directly on civilians. Here is my excerpt:
In the lilting, powerful manner of those who have faced the dark macabre heart of modern life head-on and survived—barely—Mai tells her story.
She grew up in a small agricultural village in Phuoc Tuy province, a hundred miles southwest of Saigon. Amid the great palm jungles. The local economy was almost exclusively centered on growing rice, bananas, mangos, plantains, coconuts and jackfruit for Saigon and the surrounding cities, as well as export to France, which still had official colonial ties to the country until the mid-‘50s. Mai grew up picking fruit. She studied in the local school for children. She read the work of Vietnamese poets, and the occasional literature from America and Europe translated into Vietnamese or French. As a child, she learned both languages, that of home country and colonial power, simultaneously.
The village was small, quiet, peaceful. It had a few hundred residents living in raised huts constructed of materials from the surrounding forests. Dense forests of palm trees, fruit trees, thick brush, and ferns twice as tall as she, leaves larger than a grown man. The children of the village explored and played in the forests. Forests inhabited by monkeys, beautiful exotic birds, innumerable denizens.
Mai explains how she was raised to view the animals with kindness and reverence. While much of Vietnam became industrialized after the World Wars and the French influence, a lot of its smaller hamlets retained a firm indigenous flavor, a strong connection to its past. The forests and animals were viewed not as outside resources to exploit, but as an integral part of their community.
In the mid-‘60s, when the pall of widespread warfare between their northern brethren and America was falling over South Vietnam, Mai married a childhood friend. His name was Tuc. He too worked in the fruit plantations—climbing coconut trees with just his hands and feet and a rope wrapped around his waist, cutting down fruit with a machete. Below, women came with baskets and collected the coconuts. Tuc wrote poetry in the evenings. After each night’s work he read it to her; she gave him feedback.
In 1966, the year America officially entered the conflict between North and South Vietnam, Tuc and Mai had their first child. They named her Binh Luc. The war had yet to touch their village with its heaviest hand. Most of the villagers were Buddhist—morally opposed to all violence. They’d heard of how the North Vietnamese Army occupied jungles throughout the south, how they hid from Americans, emerging to strike and then withdraw quickly back into its dense cover. But their village was relatively close to Saigon, an American stronghold. They simply wanted to be left alone, to go about their lives in peace until the regrettable conflict was over.
But it was not to be. In early 1969, the North Vietnamese occupied the village, using it to provide food for one of their forest encampments, twenty kilometers away. The villagers knew the NVA could be ruthless. But to these particular people the North Vietnamese were largely humane–they knew the importance of steady decentralized food supplies. They only killed people who resisted them. If the villagers denied the NVA its food, they would be massacred. But as a provider of resources to the enemy, they risked attracting the ire of American and South Vietnamese forces. And so it was that Mai’s village was trapped in the middle, even though they’d never moved.
They stayed in place—the war came to them.
Some of the villagers spoke in small meetings, in hushed nervous voices, of fighting back. They could knock off individual VC with their machetes. Then take their guns and expand their ability to resist. Others were just as vehemently opposed to the idea; both for pacifistic reasons, and for strategic ones. Tuc wanted to fight. America is the world’s superpower. It was only a matter of time, he argued, before they found out what was going on. Only by joining the fight did they stand a chance to be spared in the least from its distant technological brutality. A consensus was never reached.
In the fall of 1969, Mai became pregnant with their second child. It was unintentional, but they believed pregnancies should be carried to birth, even in such volatile times. Before the end of the year, American Special Forces discovered that the village was providing an NVA encampment with large amounts of food. Within a week, the jungles and rice paddies around the village started being sprayed with Agent Orange.
“Fuck!” Max cries. He clenches his fists, shakes his head with gritted teeth. “That’s why you were so upset when I was talking about it.”
Mai nods in quick slight motions. She’s holding the tears and sorrow at bay–just barely. She continues. Wanting to finish as fast as possible now that she’s started.
This time, the spraying wasn’t solely to kill off the forest cover for enemy troops. It was to poison and destroy their food supply. Just like with the genocide of American Indians in the early to mid-19th century, when U.S. cavalries massacred entire herds of buffalo. If you can’t kill the enemy directly, you can kill them just as effectively by destroying their ability to feed themselves. Except this strategy, clinical and utterly detached from reality, neglected to consider the noncombatants caught in the middle. But that was the attitude of most American decision-makers. If you’re not with us, you’re with the enemy. A common saying during the war: “If he’s dead and he’s Vietnamese, he was VC.”
Health problems erupted in the village. Outbreaks of chloracne—enormous pus-filled boils that could cover large areas of the body—were common. Tuc began coughing almost constantly, and got so dizzy at times he’d have to sit down. When she was three months pregnant, Mai had a miscarriage.
With that, Max sits up and screams wordlessly and punches the back window of the van with a shuddering crack. A white starburst fans out from the point of impact. Andre swerves, jolted by the sudden noise. He regains control and then pulls over to the side of the road. He shuffles, crouching, to the back of the van and sits next to Max and Mai. He takes her hand, rubs the back of it. Turns to Max. “Hey, it’s gonna be alright. Don’t break my window.” He holds his hand out to Max, too. Max takes it. Mai’s tears flow once more, but she forces herself to go on.
Dozens of other pregnant women in the village suffered the same fate. Only four babies were carried to term during that period, and three of them were disfigured. Two had cleft palates and missing and gnarled fingers. The third was born with a back and shoulder deformity that hunched her over so far, she had to walk on her hands as well as her feet. Like one of the primates in the surrounding jungles.
The villagers tried to plead with the Americans to stop, but they were all but invisible. Finally a group of men in the village, including Tuc, decided they could no longer sit by passively while their wives and children and friends were chemically slaughtered. Mai suggests that Tuc knew his sickness–the horrible chloracne that dotted and disfigured his beautiful face and body, and the chronic bronchitis–was a forebear of something much worse; that he sensed his own impending death, and had to do something concrete with the time he had left. He promised to return. But when they said goodbye, they acted like it was their last moment together.
A horrendous, nail-biting, nearly sleepless week later, only two of the fifteen villagers who ventured into the forest returned. They were both badly injured, near death.
Tuc was not one of them.
The two survivors told the weeping villagers what happened. They first came upon a group of five NVA a few kilometers from the village. They attacked with their machetes. With the element of surprise, they killed all five NVA, losing only two of their own. It was the first time any of them had shed human blood. But their goal was not to kill North Vietnamese. It was to stop the spraying. The villagers took the soldiers’ AK-47s, pistols, and half a dozen grenades, as well as physical evidence of their attack to show the Americans.
For three days, they tromped through the forest, following the path of Huey helicopters. Eventually they came to a landing zone. One of the villagers spoke passable English. They pleaded with the Americans to stop spraying Agent Orange in and around their village. The villagers even showed them pieces of bloody NVA clothing and told them about killing the group in the jungle, and how they didn’t want to be a part of the conflict; they just wanted their families to be safe. The Americans threatened to shoot them if they didn’t leave. Three of the villagers—all of whom had sick children or a wife that miscarried—snapped. One of them threw a grenade into a helicopter, and the other two started shooting. The helicopter exploded in a calamitous blast of heat and shrapnel. Tuc took a piece of helicopter blade the size of their machetes in his thigh. The Americans began shooting back. The rest of the villagers, the unarmed ones, tried to escape into the jungle. Most were gunned down by the Americans, even as they tried to surrender.
Tuc, limping badly and gushing blood, was in that group.
The spraying stopped several months later, only after pressure from citizen and scientist groups back in the states. In the interim, Mai, still ripped apart from the death of Tuc, lost her five-year-old daughter as well. Binh’s kidneys failed and she died slowly, painfully. Modern medicine would have saved her. But of course, without the modern technology that medicine was a part of, she wouldn’t have been sick in the first place.
Mai was shredded to pieces, in a daze of sorrow. She lost her baby, her husband and lifetime friend, and her daughter, all in the space of a couple years. As a War Widow she was eligible for a special, little-known American program.
Toward the end of the war, the Americans whisked her away to California, to Camp Pendleton in northern San Diego County, as part of an alleged humanitarian project to help families shattered in Vietnam. There, the refugees were trained in American culture by soldiers, given counseling for their grief, and released into this strange new world most of them hadn’t asked to be taken to. Mai certainly didn’t want to be there. She was confused, in a haze, alone…
“During the Vietnam War, between 1962 and 1971, the United States military sprayed nearly 20,000,000 US gallons (75,700,000 l) of chemical herbicides and defoliants in Vietnam, eastern Laos and parts of Cambodia…” -From the wikipedia page for “Agent Orange”
Here’s a three-part Chicago Tribune article about America’s continuing denial of Agent Orange’s toxic legacy in the form of cancer, rampant birth defects, etc.