Images from Hell

By Norman Boucher / July / August 2005
May 3rd, 2007

In so many ways hers was a typical American childhood. Born in Saigon, Quyen Truong '05 emigrated to Hartford, Connecticut, with her family when she was seven years old, and did well enough in school to get into Brown, where she pursued a passion for the visual arts. "I knew very little about the Vietnam War," she told a gathering at MacMillan Hall on April 25. "My father never really told me stories, but he would always tell me, 'Be thankful for your safety and freedom of speech.' And he always told us to finish our food."

Not until she took a writing course taught by Senior Lecturer in English Beth Taylor did Truong press her father for his memories of Vietnam. He told her that he had been a member of a military intelligence unit in the South Vietnamese army and that after Saigon fell, he, then a newlywed, had been sent to a re-education camp for seven years. His suffering there - a daily ration of food consisted of a tangerine-size ball of rice, and he was allowed to see only one visitor a year - eventually became the inspiration for five black-and-white images she painted on large scrolls. The paintings were on display at the Watson Institute this spring as part of the commemoration of the thirtieth anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War and the tenth anniversary of the normalization of relations between Washington and Hanoi.

Before Truong spoke, Roger LeBrun, a University of Rhode Island professor and a medic in Vietnam, presented a sampling of the hundreds of photographs he'd taken there of people he described as on "the fringes of war." And after Truong, physician Augustus A. White '57, who worked at a combination MASH unit and evacuation hospital in Qui Nhon, showed photos he'd taken of horribly wounded Americans and Vietnamese, photos, he said, "intended to be in your face."

White's purpose was to get beyond questions of policy to show that "there's no good way to see a war. These photographs are intended to get you as close as possible - and, believe me, you're still a long way from experiencing it."

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July / August 2005