<%@ Language=VBScript %> <%response.buffer = TRUE%> No Parallels: An Interview With Fiction Writer Susan O'Neill
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No Parallels: An Interview With Fiction Writer Susan O'Neill

Former Army nurse, Susan O'Neill has written a collection of fictional stories which capture the essence of her 13-month tour of duty in Vietnam entitled Don't Mean Nothing. When asked why she chose to attack this subject three decades after the war, she talks about the residual anger of the '70s: "I couldn't have written about Vietnam if you'd bullied me with an M-16 ... . Once my kids were grown and gone, I found myself holding the newspaper at arm's length and realized that I'd reached the point where distance made things clearer. I figured it was time to put the experience -- or at least my interpretation of it -- on paper."

Interview by Alan C. Baird


Editor's Note: Susan O'Neil was interviewed after she returned from promoting her book at a pop culture conference in New Orleans.

What was the most outlandish thing you encountered in New Orleans?
I saw a transvestite prostitute, in chartreuse fishnet and a feather boa, standing next to a window display of whips and chains on Bourbon Street. But I hear that's not unusual for N'Awlins.

How does your book fit into a pop culture conference?
The Vietnam wing of the pop culture convention is mainly a bunch of teachers who are trying to get the word out at various colleges that we once declared war on a bunch of rice paddies in the South Pacific. Most of the students don't believe them, so these educators get together periodically to convince each other that it really did happen. Some of the teachers are Vietnam vets, and it's a tough sell.

Frankly, one of the most surprising things to me was that a war --er, conflict, since Vietnam wasn't really a war, if it existed at all -- would be considered pop culture. I mean, pop culture sounds like FUN! But I guess the conflict must have been fun for somebody, because it's all come around again.

Which of your stories from Don't Mean Nothing contain the closest parallels to our latest war?
None of them. There are no parallels between Vietnam and Iraq. None at all. Vietnam was a faraway country full of dark-skinned people who spoke a funny language and ate weird food and worshiped oddball stuff. They threatened us with an ideology unlike our own, the US government had ulterior motives for going there, and people protested in the streets.

It wasn't like Iraq.

Why did you decide to write fictional material about those wartime experiences?
I realized that my memory sucked. A nonfiction book was out of the question: I'd have had to get off my lazy tush and call up people and perform heavy research in order to do justice to everybody involved. Everybody's memories become revisionist after 25 or 30 years, including my would-be sources. So fiction seemed logical. It's also truer, I think -- you don't have to play that journalism game of reporting only what you see and hear; you can dive into the heart of an issue, role-play, pick at motives and make massive assumptions. I like to say that fiction writers are just grownups with imaginary friends. This book gave me a chance to play with mine.

You've described yourself as a "commie hippie pinko protester." How did you wind up in the Army?
I was sitting around in my nursing school dorm one day when a buddy stuck her head in the door and asked if I wanted to go to Chicago. It was a Saturday, and I'd just gotten back from the most exciting thing a person could do in that tiny burg: I'd been out campaigning door-to-door for Eugene McCarthy with a cute student named Warren, whom I'd been trying unsuccessfully to seduce (his strict religion didn't allow smoking, drugs, drinking, or dancing, so I figured there was only one recreation left, but Warren seemed to feel differently). Did I want to go to Chicago? Duh.

I was bored, and I went, in spite of the fact that I knew Judy was going there to join the Army. See, she came from a long line of military types. Her little brother even went to a military academy because he wanted to go, not because his parents considered it a good alternative to juvenile lockup. So she was planning to carry on the family tradition.

While I waited for Judy to sign everything in triplicate, the recruiting sergeant turned his high-beams on me. He said the Army would give me money for my last year of school, then they'd send me all over the world to meet hot guys in uniforms. Hawaii, he said. Germany. Japan. But I was no fool. I said: Yeah, what about Vietnam?

He laughed: You don't have to worry about Vietnam. There's a waiting list of nurses a mile long for Vietnam. You couldn't get there if you tried.

So I thought, Wow! I could get money, travel, and a double dose of irony, all at the same time. Wait until my friends heard that I, the hippie pinko commie folk singer, had joined the Army. It was better than getting pregnant, and the commitment was only two years.

All of which goes to show you not all commies are intellectuals.

So they gave me a physical, which consisted of shoving a mirror under my nose to see if I was breathing. I passed, even though my eyesight was obviously faulty: The recruiting sergeant had been only two feet away, and I couldn't see his nose growing longer.

Were you a good little soldier?
I was a decent nurse, but a terrible soldier. To begin with, I can't tell right from left without putting a big red R on my right sneaker. So I was in trouble at Fort Sam Houston, because the whole point of basic training is to learn how to march. This involves a lot of rights and lefts, complicated by the fact that you're singing dirty lyrics at the same time.

I figured it would be all right once I got to Vietnam, because I'd be too busy to march. Everything was fine until they deflated my first hospital (it was made of inflatable rubber segments, which can be a little dicey when there are rockets and mortars flying around) and sent me to Chu Lai, which wasn't a very busy place. And if things aren't busy in a war zone, then the real soldiers have time to nitpick. So I was in the Officer's Club, a plywood shack where the officer caste went to get drunk among their own so the enlisted caste couldn't make fun of them, and some good music was playing, so I took off my combat boots to dance. The next thing I knew, the head nurse was chewing me out for disrespecting the uniform. I politely asked her to transfer me to someplace where she wasn't, and she snarled, "I'll send you to the biggest hell-hole in Vietnam." And she did, which was good because it was so busy, nobody cared if I boogied in bare feet.

I later found out she'd put a note on my record forbidding anybody to give me a Bronze Star because I danced without combat boots.

Did the USO shows contain much subliminal/political content?
Standard USO shows were an art form deeply rooted in military symbolism. They began with a band of waif-like Korean women who played and sang "I Want to Hold Your Hand," to demonstrate the Asian desire to meld with Americans in a harmonious relationship that would ultimately elevate the culturally marginalized female gender --and, by extension, all downtrodden peoples -- to a state of middle-class nirvana. The young women reinforced this yearning for symbiosis with the heartfelt ballad "Green Green Grass of Home," in which they expressed the pain of their imprisonment in a cruel land. That the artists were Korean was, of course, allegorical for the plight of Vietnam, but it also highlighted the historical similarities between Vietnam and their own country. This was made clear in their reenactment of the ceremonial Korean dance, performed by three beautiful women in traditional costumes. Since America freed Korea in the '50s, one could not escape the parallels. I saw many tears drop on fatigue-covered bosoms, let me tell you, when those young women flicked their fans.

Finally, the tallest of the three dancers was left alone onstage to shed her traditional garb and dance to the plaintive song about a woman sold into sexual slavery in New Orleans in a place called the House of the Rising Sun, which symbolized the WWII enslavement of Korean women by the Japanese, the kingdom of the Rising Sun. The image was riveting and strangely moving, as she cast away layer upon layer of clothing, just as Vietnam was casting away its commitment to Communism. The end was especially inspiring, when the "enslaved" dancer, naked and supine on the stage, symbolically and repeatedly moved her hips with the help of a long, sheer strategically-placed silk scarf. The show seldom varied but for the color of the scarf; I believe each different color symbolized yet another country waiting for America's courageous fighting men to perform acts of liberation upon it.

The web has brought us Iraq's-most-wanted playing cards and Baghdad Bob talking dolls. What Internet crazes might have existed during the Vietnam era?
I personally would've liked to see Barbie's Army Jeep and Saigon Dream Hooch. They would've been perfect for the Combat Nurse Barbie. Which actually existed. The realities of Vietnam usually beat the hell out of anything I could make up. This is still the case: When I went back to Vietnam in 1999, I bought a whole pack of marvelous Ho Chi Minh postcards. These were serious items, meant to impress foreigners with Uncle Ho's majesty, his humanity, his approachability. One of them showed him in a sailor suit that looked exactly like the one worn by the guy in the Village People. It's just impossible to improve on stuff like that. Or the Cu Chi Tunnels, which have now become a tourist attraction, complete with a booth where visitors can try on Viet Cong uniforms, and special tunnel entrances enlarged to accommodate Western fannies.

Alan C. Baird recently coauthored 9TimeZones.com, a print/web project featured at the Whitney Biennial. Some of his online stories and scripts appear in Locus Novus, minima, 3am Magazine, In Posse Review, The Morning News, Identity Theory, Literary Potpourri, the-phone-book.com, Quick Fiction, and flashquake. He lives just a stone's throw from Hollywood; which is fine and dandy, until the stones are thrown back.

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