Author Robert Olen Butler won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his collection of short stories about Vietnamese refugees in Louisiana, but because it humanized characters who fled the Communist regime in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, "A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain" was banned in the country that inspired it—until now.
This December, a government-approved publisher in Hanoi will release a Vietnamese language version of the 1992 book. Butler, the Francis Eppes Professor of English at Florida State University, finally will see his prize-winning work on store shelves in Vietnam—a place he first came to know while serving there in 1971 as a counter-intelligence special agent for the U.S. Army, and later as a translator.
Given the long wait, Butler says he is pleased about his book’s forthcoming publication by The People’s Public Security Publishing House, but not surprised. He describes modern-day Vietnam as a "nation of pragmatists that currently is undergoing an inexorable liberalization process."
And he should know. Since 1994—on top of teaching, writing three more short-story collections and 10 novels, and winning a plethora of literary awards—Butler has acted as a literary envoy for the U.S. State Department. Funded with grants from the State Department’s Public Diplomacy Program, his efforts are fostering literary exchanges between the United States and nations in Asia and Central and Eastern Europe.
Butler’s travels as envoy have so far encompassed 16 countries, among them Indonesia, Albania and Kosovo, and a foray to Serbia that at the time was the first official visit by an American writer in 15 years. Through lectures, interviews and receptions at universities, media outlets, embassies and venues such as the national libraries of Singapore, Vietnam and Austria, he has met with native writers, faculty and students, government officials, publishers and reporters. He made his most recent trip in September, when the news of his book’s pending publication in Hanoi prompted a visit to Vietnam as well as Japan, South Korea and Singapore.
The hoped-for literary exchanges now have begun or expanded, particularly in Vietnam, where "A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain" soon will join two other American books recently published there—President Bill Clinton’s autobiography, "My Life," and former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s memoir, "My American Journey."
While Vietnam’s Communist Party finally has sanctioned an official Vietnamese language version of Butler’s book for release there later this year, in 1997 a Vietnamese refugee—an exiled former diplomat living in Washington State—completed his own translation and distributed it among the Vietnamese diaspora in the United States.
"After my book was first published in 1992, the former diplomat wrote to me, saying, ‘At last, someone is speaking for me in an enchanted voice,’" Butler recalled. "Then, during my State Department trip to Vietnam in August, I spoke to the old-guard government-sanctioned writers in the Vietnam Writers Union, and not only were they very receptive to my aesthetic philosophy, but many of them had read and admired individual stories from ‘A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain,’ which had already been translated in certain literary magazines in Vietnam. Such responses, then and now, are deeply gratifying."
Butler notes that, technically, December won’t mark the first time "A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain" will have been sold in Vietnam. Within a half-hour of his arrival in Ho Chi Minh City during a 1994 trip, he entered a combination bookstore, book-pirating enterprise and ice cream parlor to find two stacks of bootlegged, shrink-wrapped versions of his Pulitzer Prize-winning work, with a choice of English or French.
"The shop’s proprietor offered me a 30 percent discount on my own book, plus a free ice cream," Butler said. "The Vietnamese long have been capitalists waiting to happen, and fortunately they are now signatories to international copyright laws."
Widely recognized as one of America’s most distinguished living writers, Butler teaches in FSU’s Creative Writing Program—recently named one of the nation’s top-10 graduate and top-five Ph.D. programs in the discipline by Atlantic Magazine. To learn more, visit the FSU English department’s Web site at www.english.fsu.edu/crw/.