New and Notable: She Weeps Each Time You're Born by Quan Barry

Poet, professor, and fiction writer Quan Barry's new novel hits shelves this week. Set in Vietnam in 1972, the story follows Rabbit, a girl born in the most unusual of circumstances: on a full moon night, she was rescued from the banks of the Song Ma River after spending three days buried in the grave along with her mother. It soon becomes clear that Rabbit has the uncanny gift of being able to speak with the dead. As Rabbit grows up amidst the chaos and destruction of the Vietnam war, death is everywhere, and her special ability allows her to paint a picture of the history of Vietnam's violent history. Not only can she hear the recently dead, but also voices from the distant past.

Quan Barry, born in Saigon, but raised in the U.S.A., states in this interview with NPR that she wanted to depict Vietnam's history by creating the character Rabbit as an embodiment of the country itself: " I was very interested in trying to transform Vietnam from the perceptions that we have about it in the West." Beyond the well-documented in pop culture role of the U.S.A. in the conflict between North and South Vietnam, which is the part of Vietnamese history most familiar to Western readers, the novel also goes deeper into the past, which has so often involved invasion by foreign armies. As Rabbit learns, Vietnam has been subjected to Soviet occupation, French colonization, and invasion by Cambodian, Chinese, and Japanese forces, to name a few. Rabbit points out that Vietnam is a “nation of people who have been dying from war for over a thousand years.”

Interestingly, Barry mentions in this same interview that the character of Rabbit was inspired by a real person: "a woman named Phan Thi Bich Hang, who is the "official psychic" of Vietnam. She was bitten by a rabid dog when she was five years old, and when she came out of her coma, she can hear the voices of the dead. And the government actually uses her to help them find the remains of soldiers and other people ... and when I heard that, I'm like, that's what this novel is supposed to be about."

Barry's prose is lyrical, as you'd expect from an accomplished poet, and interwoven with Vietnamese folklore, adding to the novel's magic-realist feel. The dead who speak to and through Rabbit have many stories to tell, and their combined voices provide a moving history of a nation which has fought to preserve its identity against the tides of colonization and war. 

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