Weak flesh, willing heart

(No.6, Vol.4,Jul-Aug 2014 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

Khong Guc Nga’ (Never Give Up) by Nguyen Bich Lan,
Writers Association
Publishing House, 2013

Writer and translator Nguyen Bich Lan.
Photos: Nguyen A

On my recent visit to the Vietnamese Women’s Museum in Hanoi, I saw a group of foreigners admiring a permanent display section that featured the eight most amazing modern Vietnamese women. They stopped for a long while in front of the picture of a fragile-looking woman – the youngest amongst the eight. The girl’s name is Nguyen Bich Lan, whom I have known personally during the past four years and well enough to say that her life story has inspired thousands of other people to overcome their difficult circumstances.
Born in 1976 in a small village in Thai Binh, North of Vietnam, Bich Lan led a normal life until she was thirteen years old. Then one winter day, as she crossed several rice fields on her way to school, Bich Lan’s feet collapsed under her. She was thrown into a ditch and couldn’t get up until a classmate rushed towards her and pulled her out of the muddy water. For months before, Bich Lan had been losing weight, and now she found herself unable to stand, let alone walk. She was confined to her room and lay there, watching life drip slowly past her.
Countless trips to doctors and medical experts brought only frustration. Bich Lan’s father struggled with his own issues, despite of his love for Bich Lan and his determination to save her. One more painful year went by. No doctor was able to diagnose Bich Lan’s illness. Her father left his ailing family, disappearing from their lives for the next ten years whilst his wife, having taken unpaid leave from work, travelled far and wide seeking out treatment to save their daughter’s life. Thus abandoned, her mother was left alone in a battle to save Bich Lan and to raise her other two young children. Bich Lan’s family sank further and further into poverty.
When Bich Lan was finally diagnosed with her illness, the world seemed to shut down on her. There was no known cure for her condition - muscular dystrophy, a disorder that weakens the body and hampers movements. The doctors whom she consulted believed she couldn’t live much longer as eventually her illness would cause a fatal dysfunction of her vital organs, including her heart and lungs.
It would be easy for Bich Lan to crumple and let desperation consume her. But during her darkest moments, Bich Lan saw in herself a burning desire to keep living. Not just to exist, but to live a meaningful life.
In the prison of her room, Bich Lan undertook the task of educating herself by reading books. One day, upon watching her younger brother learn English, she decided to give it a try. She studied day and night, and when she finished her brother’s text books, she asked everyone if they had English books and whether they could lend them to her. Without access to the Internet or CDs, Bich Lan learnt English pronunciation by listening to cassette tapes. The English voices on those tapes became her new friends. They seemed to hold the keys to doors which Bich Lan needed to open to discover herself.
Rather than lying there to wait for the death that doctors had predicted, Bich Lan wanted to rise up, take charge of her fate and relieve the financial burden of her mother. She opened the first private English class in her village. Her students didn’t mind that she had to struggle to hold a piece of chalk with her two hands. They loved her lively instructions and fun methods of teaching. Her classes became popular as her students obtained good marks on their English exams, but after a while Bich Lan became seriously sick and had to stop teaching.
Determined to never give up, Bich Lan valiantly fought against her circumstances and started to translate English books into Vietnamese. Her first book of translation, Daisy Thompson’s Never Doubt My Love, commissioned by the Women’s Publishing House, was published in 2002. From then on, Bich Lan has worked as if each moment was her very last. Despite her very frail physical condition, over the last twelve years, she has successfully translated thirty books, ranging from meaningful best-sellers such as Nick Vujicic’s Life without Limits to the poetic prose novel Sold by Patricia McCormick. Most of the books she chose to translate embody powerful social messages which are needed to transform our world into a better place. With her incredible talent and dedication, Bich Lan has turned hard-to-translate world classics such as William Faulkner’s The Wild Palm and JP. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man into Vietnamese works of arts.
Hearing about Bich Lan, one wonders how such an extremely ill person, whose weight stands at a mere thirty kilograms, who never finished high school nor attended any English course, could emerge as one of the best literary translators of Vietnam? How could someone who never attended any translation workshop win the most prestigious literature prize in Vietnam: the Literary Award by the Vietnam Writers' Association for her translation of Vikas Swarup’s Slumdog Millionaire?
Bich Lan’s literary success, however, hasn’t been limited to translation. She is the author of hundreds of poems and short stories; many of them have appeared on national newspapers and magazines, in collections of selected short stories. Her memoir, Living in Expectation, is also now one of the best-selling books in Vietnam.
Written in a vivid and beautiful language, the memoir takes readers on an unforgettable physical and mental journey through the rural life of post-war Vietnam, through the country’s medical network and its web of complicated family relationships. By experiencing the author’s personal struggle against death and desperation, readers will emerge with powerful lessons about living life to the fullest.
Bich Lan’s story is unique, yet she is not so different amongst millions of Vietnamese who are working hard each day to strive towards their goals. While Vietnam is famous for its beautiful scenery and delightful culture, I think it’s the courage and bravery of Vietnamese people that makes this country so special, and so worth experiencing.

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