From peasant poet to man of letters

(No.3, Vol.4, Apr-May 2014 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

On a gentle, sunny afternoon, at the headquarters of the Tay Ninh Province Literature and Arts Society, a crowd of the province’s familiar belletrists were assembled. Everyone was confabulating as they waited the lifting of the curtain on the Tang Poetry stage when suddenly, an odd figure appeared. He had a medium build and bore a bulging brocade bag on his shoulders. The crown of his balding head displayed a broad forehead, creating a powerful impression with his long, loose hair that fell behind his head to just cover the length of his neck. His image called to mind images of the scholars and erudites whom I often saw in books and periodicals.
I knew of Inrasara through his works along with the awards he won in country and abroad, but this was the first time I met him in person. He had come without invitation, causing quite a stir.
Inrasara always engenders surprise for everyone with such unpredictability. The writer Nguyen Vinh Nguyen relates, ‘Inrasara emerged on the literary scene in Vietnam like a legend.’ Some people call him a multifaceted cultural phenomenon, an uncanny character, or a top-notch poet. As for me, when I comprehend him, I think of his arrival in the mundane world and the world of letters as a benediction.

Whenever the old village women argued, Inrasara would run over, not to intercede, but rather to hear ‘the resonance of words.’ From the mouths of the old women, folk ditties, sayings, and proverbs flowed.

One folk saying — one line of a folk ditty,
Half a children’s song — a page from an old
I sought and culled,
Like a child looking to gather little pebbles,
(The pebbles upon which adults idly
To build a castle just for me to abide,
The castle where someday they’ll stop by to
take shelter from the rain — I’m sure!
(Sunny Tower, 1996)

In 1957, during a great drought in Ninh Thuan, South Central Province, trees withered and livestock died from thirst. It was precisely in that year that Inrasara greeted the world beneath the thatched roof of a poor Cham peasant family in the traditional embroidery village of Chakleng. Chakleng is the only village to have had its name inscribed on ancient steles and is the birthplace of the greatest king in Champa history, Po Klaung Girai. Perhaps that is the destiny that propelled Inrasara’s life to be associated with the best.
Despite being poor peasants, Inrasara’s parents still managed for he and his four siblings to get an education. Inrasara was always at the top of the class throughout his years. He was impertinent and audacious. Inrasara followed his father to raise buffalos from one village to the next. He played football, participated in cockfighting, fought with young children in the villages, and rode a bicycle all over Cham villages selling ice cream. He grew up to be a grape grower and veterinarian. He transported and traded goods from afar, opened a grocery store, and did embroidery business. However, I wanted to identify the Inrasara from the point he started on his journey to become the poet and scholar that would become renowned in the future.
By the third grade, Inrasara already knew how to cull folk songs from the book Literary Writing Practice in order to assemble verses with rhyme and commit them to memory. Then, when fifth grade teacher showed him how to write six - eight verse, poetry, words, and meaning merged inseparably with his destiny. In secondary school, he lived in a school dormitory in the small town of Phan Rang ten kilometres away from his village. On weekends, rather than return home, Inrasara wandered through Cham villages in search of Cham elders and enjoyed their intellectual discourse and borrowed ancient Cham manuscripts to copy. He even copied all of Aymonier’s voluminous Cham-French Dictionary.
Infatuated with books, after finishing his freshman year at the Ho Chi Minh City Pedagogy University, Inrasara quit, returned to his home village, and became a hired field hand in order to earn money to buy books. After a year in this way, he ultimately amassed a bookcase of five thousand books of all sorts. His hunger for learning was extraordinary. During the most impoverished period in his family life (when he had three sons), he still invited intellectuals and village elders along with Cham dignitaries to come to Chakleng once every quarter to talk. Inrasara merely evoked ideas, while it was the elders who did the speaking. In the afternoon, he treated them to a coarse meal and, in the moonlight of evening, he spread out sedge mats on the courtyard and, with a few teapots and several bunches of bananas, the ‘conference’ would come to an end.
Regardless, so much of the knowledge he gleaned from these ‘conferences’ assisted Inrasara in completing Cham Literature: A General Outline and Anthology in three hefty volumes and a thousand pages, over a period of fifteen years.
Having borrowed the words and wisdom of the elders, Inrasara returned these words and wisdom to the people of his generation and those to follow. In the summer of 1975, in his village, Inrasara inaugurated a Cham language class for seventy brothers and sisters of all ages. Mr Quang Dai Thinh, the principle of Phuoc Hai Elementary School, said that it was the first Cham language course since the Vietnam War ended in April that year. Inrasara was only eighteen years old at the time.
For a long time, Cham literature had only been known through the tens of collected legends and some epics that were translated into Vietnamese and printed here and there. ‘Cham Literature: A General Outline and Anthology was an unprecedented, thorough and systematic project on the literary heritage of this ethnicity,’ assessed professor and Cham scholar Bui Khanh The, PhD. Precisely because it recognized the significance of this endeavour, The Centre for Indochinese History and Civilization under Sorbonne University (France), presented Inrasara with an award in 1995.
As a peasant farmer, the province invited him to do language research at the Committee for Compiling Cham Language Books in Ninh Thuan. Four years later, he resigned and returned to being an agrarian peasant. As he opened a grocery store in his village, the General University invited him to compile the Cham-Vietnamese Dictionary and lecture on Cham culture. After six years, he retired. During his time ‘bound’ to the lectern, he brought into the world the Cham-Vietnamese, Vietnamese-Cham Dictionary and the valuable book Teaching Oneself the Cham Language.

Inrasara: Photo: Nguyen A

Then Inrasara renounced everything in order to become a freelance writer. His work reaped honours on top of honours. From the moment that he emerged in the capacity of a poet (although he had written poems since he was 13-14 years old, Inrasara never sent any of his poems to be published), his seminal poetry collection Sunny Tower (1996) won the Vietnamese Literature Society Award. Six years later, with his poetry collection The April Purification Ceremony (2002), he won this honour for the second time, and then this collection led him to win the Southeast Asian Literature Award. Finally and most recently, he won the Phan Chau Trinh Culture Award in 2009 (in the field of scholarly research), which brought him into standing with the ranks of the top scholars in the country.
‘A poet in a line of verse, a scholar in a poem, a philosopher in an anthology of poems,’ the paper Hanoians (Nguoi Ha Noi) thus epitomized the portrait of Inrasara the poet. Then Inrasara continued to astound readers with a new surprise: since 2005, he emerged as a critic in a series of keen, erudite essays with his unique, captivating style of criticism.
He didn’t stop there; he couldn’t. When speaking of Cham literature, would people forever recall only the name Inrasara? He wished otherwise! Thus, Inrasara along with several friends gave birth to Tagalau, An Anthology of Poetry: Creations, Collections, and Research on Cham Culture. That these ten editions of Tagalau came to pass over nine years is a marvellous feat. Tagalau was the only ethnic minority periodical in Vietnam.
Ever novel and always unpredictable, from life to art, from research to writing poems and prose, from creativity to criticism, Inrasara yet remains, like the Cham towers that continue to survive through the travails of time, and the vagaries of the human heart. He may be old, yet remains anew.

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