Brennessel, Barry. “Ánh Sáng”, Manifold Press, 2018.
A Chance Meeting
Since I began reviewing seriously some twelve years ago I have been lucky go meet some of the nicest people in our LGBTQ community. One of these was Barry Brennessel who I met at the Lambda Literary Awards after party some seven years ago. He introduced himself and asked if I would review one of his books back then and of course I agreed and since them I wait for him to have something new out. He always remembers to send me a copy. What I really like about Barry’s work is that he doesn’t follow formulae and writes as he feels. This means that everything is not tied together and there is no guarantee of a happy ending.
“Anh Sang” is set in French Indochina or French occupied Vietnam (whichever you prefer) during the First World War. We meet Minh who shares that French colonials treated the local citizens inhumanely and he was having quite a difficult time taking care of himself and his blind mother. The Vietnamese were forced to take a false French pride as they struggled against their colonial masters. I am quite sure that most of us have never read a gay story set in this part of the world and therefore we have to appreciate the writer’s research in daring to learn the background of what he is writing about and then presenting it to us. What I like about the writing here is that it is clear and to the point—- there are no literary or syntax surprises. Brennessel is also excellent at writing emotions and he takes us through the gamut of fear and confusion and ultimately rage.
Bùi Vân Minh had to grow up quickly when his father left home and went to the northern provinces. He had a responsibility to his family and he knew that his mother relied upon him. By chance, Minh meets Ngô Công Thao and he suddenly finds himself confused regarding how he feels for him. Ngo also feels what Minh feels and they both realize that they share something stronger than just friendship. However, life is difficult under the rule of the French and what happens as a result of World War I will change their lives completely. I really love the tenderness and the care of the writer in developing a first love story set against such a terrible time.
Life in Thái Nguyên City was difficult at best and the love that the two men feel hangs over it—at least in our minds. During wartime, it is difficult to live much less foster a romance and in this story, it is that love that brings light into the darkness.
Minh and Thao manage to find the short moments to express their feelings for one another and to give them hope that better times are coming for them. But then there is nothing traditional about this story so to expect it to end with a traditional happy ending seems to be too much to ask for. Everything comes to a head during the Thái Nguyên uprising of 1917 in which the anti-colonials destroyed the French rule. So what happened top our two young lovers? Do we get the happy ending we hope for or….. We do see them together one more time in the last pages of the story. I see no other way this story could have ended and it totally shook me for days.