Bronze Drum: A Novel of Sisters and War by Phong Nguyen

Bronze Drum: A Novel of Sisters and War
by Phong Nguyen

Phong Nguyen beats out a strong, feminist song in Bronze Drum, one that makes my Southeast Asian woman’s heart swell and weep and soar all at the same time. It is a rare moment when a book makes me feel seen. As a historian of Southeast Asian history, I am deeply grateful for this rare and unique novel that so brilliantly and beautifully captures an often overlooked era and people.

Southeast Asia’s ancient history is little known outside of academic circles. Even within that small enclave, many scholars of the region focus on contemporary Southeast Asia or modern Southeast Asia from 1300 onward. Many students, especially American students, see Southeast Asia through the American-centric lens of the Vietnam War (Note that the Vietnamese call it The American War). I, myself, as a scholar focus on the region’s post-colonial period, the peak of the Cold War between 1950 and 1970. Bronze Drum, by highlighting a much earlier colonization of the region by China, both appeals to my decolonizing spirit and makes visible my own historical blindspots.

The world turned its attention to Southeast Asia when its spices and trade with China made it an easy backdoor into that empire’s markets, around the 1300s. But, of course, Southeast Asia existed before then, had a history before then. But excavating that history has always been problematic. For one, in the post colonial world, history has become a contested domain. Its function as a tool of nation building and national identity, coupled with the need to appease various ethnic and national factions for the sake of collective peace has obscured some histories, elevated others. The demonization of the Han Chinese in Bronze Drums would not have gone over well in another time and place, and even today, the influence of China on the region’s economic and political stability cannot be easily dismissed. Southeast Asia has ever been and remains, whether we like it or not, in some condition of thrall to China.

But back to history. Another reason for overlooking ancient history is that nature has not been kind to historians of the region. Much of the region’s ancient histories have been difficult to document. The moist and hot climate of the region does not lend itself to the preservation of wooden or plant-based artifacts, only that which was hewn into stone has survived. Archaeology informs us there were many vibrant ancient civilizations here: the Dong Son, whose drums are those featured in Bronze Drums, the Majapahit in what is now Indonesia, the Sri Vijaya in what is Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia. There were Muslim sultanates in the Philippines and the Tai Kings in Thailand, and the ancient origins of the Court of Ava in Burma (today, Myanmar). Stele and monumental building like that at Angkor or Borobodur remind the world of these past eras and peoples.

The sisters in Bronze Drum are the Trung Sisters of Vietnamese mythology and ancient history, Trung Trac and Trung Nhi, who dared to subvert the Chinese Han invaders. Bronze Drum is a real history, though it is also Nguyen’s fictionalized retelling of it in the form and in the style of a mythic epic. The novel unfolds the fabric of the Dong Son/Lạc Việt world as it weaves through the Trung sisters’ fight for their kingdom and culture’s independence. The strength of Bronze Drum is that it reads as an epic should: it begins with the heroines just before they realize their fates, it recounts their moral turnaround, the moment they knew they had to be the leaders they became. The novel then impresses the reader with their triumphs. The novel then turns to their downfall. (I am giving nothing away here, it is well known the Viet fall to the Han and later, the French. History is the spoiler.) There is a sense of Joseph Campbell’s classic hero/epic narrative structure in Nguyen’s retelling, something that is sure to feel familiar to readers of Greek and Norse mythology.

But Nguyen provides the reader with more than just a myth here. Nguyen gives us insight into the interiority of the Lạc Việt actors, including the sisters who become female kings and warriors atop elephant backs, their courtiers and allies. The highlanders, Degars — also known as người Thượng — are featured too in Bronze Drum and the peasant community is not ignored or invisible as they are in so many heroic epics. They are as much the heroines as the Trung sisters in this novel.

If there was one flaw, I wished for more discourse on the larger political context and history of the Lạc Việt. The neighboring princes and chiefs and villages made appearances in the book, but I wanted more of that political intrigue, real politik dialogue, and sparring between characters. (I will not lie, for all their orientalist bungle, I enjoy James Clavell’s Shogun and Taipan and Gai Jin, for that kind of in depth political maneuvering.)

Nonetheless, Bronze Drum is epic. And this is not its only strength.

Its characters were mostly strong women and I deeply, deeply appreciated Nguyen’s feminism, bringing matriarchal lineage and culture to the forefront. The women of Bronze Drum are not frail, delicate flowers. They are not sexualized pussy cats like Richard Mason’s Suzy Wong and the nameless sex worker of Full Metal Jacket fame. The women of Bronze Drum are real Asian women, made of fire and water and air and metal all at once. They are sexy and sexual beings, they have inner strength and outward muscle, they think and speak for themselves. Even as they are mothers, wives, daughters, sisters, and nieces, they are denizens and creators of their own worlds and desires.

Phong Nguyen’s prose brings these heroines, these mythological warrior women to the center of the Lạc Việt world with ease. The novel flows, riverlike towards rapids, smooth and fast. The reader will want to surrender themselves to the story and let it carry them to the end.

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