Writing the Exotic: Anne Panning on “Vietnam: Four Ways”

February 4, 2008 § Leave a comment

Anne Panning discusses the background to her essay, “Vietnam: Four Ways,” in the current issue of Brevity:

It’s hard to write about “exotic” places, and having lived in my fair share of  them—Vietnam, The Philippines, Hawaii—I always go through a period  where I try desperately to use these settings in my fiction.  I’ve found, however, that creative nonfiction—in particular, brief creative nonfiction—may be the best vehicle for me.  Why?  Because it doesn’t allow me to include any “what to pack, where to stay, don’t drink the water” information but it forces me to choose a singular, off-kilter lens from which to view the place and to do it quickly.  When I was writing there were originally “five ways,” but suddenly it seemed it could just as easily be “ten ways” or “twenty ways,” when in fact my goal was to capture the small fragmentary moments that defined the experience of the place for me.  So instead of focusing on large scale noticings (the presence of Communist soldiers everywhere), I looked at the small.

What originally sparked this essay was a street vendor making my son a  bird out of shaved ice one night when the temperature was around 95 degrees. There was so much drama in the simple act of getting the ice bird home without its melting.  I was also deeply affected by the loneliness and severity of the military swimming pool where I swam laps, and knew I had to write about it in some way.

I’m currently finishing a nonfiction book about my experiences in Vietnam with my husband and two young kids called VIET*MOM, and find myself still struggling with the issue of the “exotic.”

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