If James D. Redwood had not gotten such a high draft number in 1970, his view of the Vietnamese people would most likely be very different today, and his award-winning short story collection “Love Beneath the Napalm” (University of Notre Dame Press, $24, 183 pages) might have never been written.
“With such a high number I knew I would never be drafted,” said Redwood in a recent phone interview from his office at the Albany Law School, where he has been a professor since 1989.
Most undergraduates would be relieved to get such a number, but Redwood, who graduated from Oberlin College in 1971 with a bachelor’s degree in English, wanted to do some type of service to help the war-torn nation.
“All through the 1960s I had been very interested in the war and I wondered what was going on and why we were there,” he said. “I was also interested in doing some service, which is why I enrolled in the Peace Corps. I hoped to go to Vietnam but instead I was going to be sent to Korea.”
This was not acceptable and he wrote to schools and universities in Vietnam offering his service as a teacher of English. He even volunteered to pay his way there.
James D. Redwood
WHERE: University at Albany
WHEN: Reading at 4:15 p.m. Tuesday, Standish Room of the Science Library at the uptown campus
HOW MUCH: Free
MORE INFO: www.albany.edu/writers or 442-5620
“I was lucky to find a few schools who took me,” he said, “and I moved to Saigon in September of 1972.”
Adapting to people
Unlike many Americans in the military, Redwood was able to blend in to Vietnamese society. “The military was very isolated from the real people,” he said, “but I actually lived with different Vietnamese families and I worked with them. They became my family.”
He began working with the Shoeshine Boys Project, which was devoted to assisting street children displaced by the war by giving them a home, an education and the opportunity to learn a trade.
The closer he got to the Vietnamese people, the more he realized how similar they were to his own American family and friends back home. “One big difference though was how difficult their daily life was,” he said.
“As Americans we rarely feel in danger, but the Vietnamese at that time never felt secure and that took a tremendous toll on them both physically and psychologically. Even after the war many of them still had deep issues of insecurity.”
Redwood was in Saigon in 1975 when the city was about to fall to the Communists. “I went back to bring out two Vietnamese friends of mine,” he said. “It was a very emotional time. The South Vietnamese government wasn’t telling anyone anything, but the people knew that Saigon was about to fall and many of them were worried there would be a mass slaughter.”
There was no mass slaughter. “It was a mostly peaceful transition,” said Redwood. “The North Vietnamese just wanted the Americans to leave.”
Back to U.S.
When he returned to the United States he married one of the Vietnamese women he had taken out of Saigon. “She wanted nothing to do with Vietnam,” he said. “She had grown up in a country at war. She had a very unhappy childhood, and she wanted to put that life behind her.”
For that reason, Redwood never began writing about Vietnam till 1986. “When that marriage ended, I began to write short stories about Vietnam and its people. Those days in Vietnam were an important time in my life, and I needed to write about them.”
He had no training as a writer, and it took seven years before he published his first story. Since 1993 he has written numerous stories about the Vietnam War and its effects on the Vietnamese people. The settings are sometimes in Vietnam and sometimes in the United States. Last year he was the winner of the Notre Dame Review Book Prize.
William O’Rourke, the editor of the Notre Dame Review, has been publishing many of Redwood’s stories since 2005. “The first story I published was ‘Love Beneath the Napalm,’ and that story was a rare find. I knew I was going to publish it after the first sentence,” he wrote in an email.
According to O’Rourke, what makes these stories about Vietnam stand out are the different points of view. “They are not from an American soldier’s point of view. They are told from the point of view of a civilian and many times told from a Vietnamese perspective. The war ended almost forty years ago, and this collection is important because it takes a fresh look at the Vietnamese experience.”
Redwood is still haunted by the war. “The hidden costs of that war are staggering,” he said. “Even today there are so many American war veterans and Vietnamese civilians still suffering from that time.”
What has been helpful for him is that he has been able to write about his experiences. “I wish I had started earlier. Writing comes easily for me, but writing well is almost impossible. I love writing and I also hate writing, but I’ll keep at it. I’ve been working on a novel, which is very personal to me, about my time in Saigon, and I haven’t visited the country since I left in 1975. I don’t want to see what it’s like now because my memories of that time are so vivid, but when I’m done with this novel I look forward to returning and seeing the country.”