The Other Side of Heaven, edited by Wayne Karlin, Le Minh Khue, and Truong Vu

The Other Side of Heaven

If you, like me, have gotten your impressions of Vietnam and the Vietnam War mostly through American movies, the American press, American books, etc., the anthology of short stories The Other Side of Heaven can be a worthwhile way of exposing yourself to other perspectives.

I don’t mean to imply that most Americans have encountered only pro-American and pro-war propaganda. Quite the contrary. Actually a lot of the popular movies and such about the Vietnam War present the American role in that country quite negatively. But whether the Americans are the heroes or the villains, they’re still the main focus. The Vietnamese typically are portrayed as a mysterious “Other,” who serve merely as extras in a drama about complex, flesh and blood, American persons.

Half of the stories in this anthology are written from the Vietnamese perspective. Even within that, of course, there are countless sub-perspectives. The reader is given the opportunity to see the war through the eyes of Vietnamese men, women, civilians, soldiers, those allied with the Americans, those battling against the Americans, those who stayed in Vietnam after the war, those who left, etc. I definitely appreciated that.

Having said that, there’s a limit to how favorable an assessment I can offer to The Other Side of Heaven, because only a handful of the stories, a handful of the scenes, drew me in or seemed particularly memorable. I felt myself forcing my way through a lot of the book almost out of duty, like I should be liking this more.

I am not a literary critic, and I fully admit that this is merely a subjective reaction on my part, so I would urge people to give the book a chance and draw their own conclusions. The stories only made a deep connection with me quite infrequently and I have to give an honest response based on that, but others might find themselves affected quite differently.

I suppose one could find fault with the tendency of the stories to present the characters just a little too sympathetically. You’ll find very few “bad guys” in here. Presumably those would be the American politicians, generals, etc., and they’re left out of these stories almost completely. Instead, the stories focus on the Vietnamese, and on the type of powerless Americans whom we are supposed to more or less relieve of responsibility for the evils of the war—the grunt during the war and the veteran back home afterwards. And these characters are mostly presented in a way that conveys the message that if you really understood their circumstances and what went into the things they did, you wouldn’t condemn these folks. Not all that objectionable a sentiment certainly, but still, I wouldn’t have minded stories with just a little more bite, even at the cost of some of the reconciliation and healing.

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