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‘Beyond being’: emergent

narratives of suffering
in Vietnam
Ti n e G am m elt oft University of Copenhagen

Intertwining ethnographic and literary accounts, this article explores the mutual relationship between
suffering and agency. The article describes how young Vietnamese women use narrative to find
meaning in the suffering that a late-term abortion causes. Seeking to further develop anthropological
use of the concept of social suffering, the article argues that existing scholarship has tended to
neglect the importance of human agency and imagination, hinging as it does on suffering as
entrenched within structural forces. The article contends that this neglect must be understood in the
context of the particular epistemological and ethical conditions under which anthropological studies
of human suffering are produced, and that closer attention to the human engagements out of which
ethnographic accounts are fashioned may bring into analysis not only the harm that social forces can
inflict on people, but also their capacities for action and imagination.

we must underscore the mixture of acting and suffering which constitutes the very fabric of a life. It
is this mixture which the narrative attempts to imitate in a creative way.
Ricoeur 1991: 28

On a bright day in May 1998 I went for a walk with 25-year-old Trang in Hanoi’s Lenin
Park. A few days earlier, Trang had aborted twins in her fifth month of pregnancy. As we
walked around the lake under the blossoming flame trees, Trang recited lines of poetry
to express how the experience of abortion had shattered her entire existence, disrupting
her sense of continuity and connection. The poem that she favoured most described the
feelings of a young woman who has been abandoned by her lover and now feels unable
to continue living. The poem ended: ‘Please God, understand that I am not at fault//An
immature heart does not know how to lie//In the dark my soul is praying for love ...’ .
The need to endow suffering with meaning seems to be shared across human
cultures. In this article I explore how young women whom I met in the course of my
research in Hanoi struggled to find meaning in painful experiences, using stories as
tools to revise moral identities and redefine social realities. At the centre of my account
are young women who, like Trang, have undergone late-term induced abortions. Start-
ing with Trang’s case, I explore the cultural resources that these young women used to
make sense of their predicament, while also discussing the role of the researcher in
assembling coherent stories out of fragmentary and tentative strands of narrative. It is
now generally acknowledged in anthropology that narratives represent a collaborative

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performance rather than a transparent rendering of social facts (e.g. Mattingly & Garro
1999; Ochs & Capps 2001; Ricoeur 1991). Yet, as I will show, important aspects of the
interactive process through which stories are constructed tend to remain obscured,
perhaps due to the prevailing reliance on literary models in understanding narrative.
In anthropology, the concept of narrative gained prominence with the literary turn
of the 1980s. Since narratives are often conveyed by language, there is a substantial body
of anthropological work (e.g. Good 1994; Mattingly 1998; Ochs & Capps 2001) that has
examined tropes and metaphors, genres, plots, narrative structures, and classificatory
forms and categories, often drawing inspiration from literary theorists such as Iser
(1978) or Bakhtin (1981). Along with the growing interest in narrative, there has been an
increased consciousness of the social constructedness of anthropological texts and of
the multiple ways in which anthropological writings are conditioned by the academic,
social, and political environments in which they are produced. However, while consid-
erable attention has been devoted to the processes of writing anthropology, less atten-
tion has been paid to how ethnographic encounters as human encounters contribute to
shaping anthropological texts. A core argument in this article is that if we wish to
comprehend how human suffering is endowed with meaning, the production of stories
of suffering must be seen as more than literary and textual achievements. Rather, it is
important to view the interaction between storyteller and audience as a human and
embodied encounter, in which the listener stands in a relationship of engagement and
responsibility to the sufferer. Drawing on the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas, I
contend that a closer scrutiny of this mutual human engagement out of which stories
of suffering are made may provide important epistemological insights which have not
yet received adequate attention in anthropological scholarship on suffering.

Investigating induced abortion in Vietnam

Global estimates cite Vietnam as having one of the highest abortion rates in the world.
In 1996, there were 83 abortions per 1,000 women aged 15-44, corresponding to a total
abortion rate of 2.5 abortions during each woman’s reproductive lifetime (Henshaw,
Singh & Haas 1999). Abortions are legal and may be performed until approximately
twenty-four weeks of gestation. An estimated 30 per cent of all abortions are obtained
by young, unmarried women, who also form the major proportion of those undergoing
late-term abortions (World Health Organization 1999: 22-3). The present study was
conducted in the spring of 1998 with the aim of learning more about young women’s
experiences of abortion. In the first part of the study, my Vietnamese colleagues and I
carried out structured interviews with a hundred unmarried women seeking abortions
in a major maternity hospital in Hanoi. The second part of the study consisted of
qualitative interviews with those of the hundred women who volunteered to participate
in a post-abortion interview in my home. Given the cultural sensitivity of the issue it
was very unlikely, Vietnamese colleagues had warned me, that even one young woman
would want to return for a follow-up interview. Yet, surprisingly, twenty-five women
did eventually turn up. At the time, I saw their participation in the research as an
indication of the vast need for knowledge and information about sexuality and repro-
ductive health issues in a population of young people with limited access to sex
education. In retrospect, however, I believe there is more to it than this. To these young
women, the experience of abortion and the events associated with it had been deeply
distressful, sowing doubts about their moral identity and the nature of their relation-
ships with others. Many described how they felt hurt by those whom they had trusted

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most. They all spoke with palpable anxiety about how, in the eyes of others, having lost
their virginity and committed the morally questionable act of abortion, they were now
considered ‘stained’ and ‘spoilt’, deprived of virtue and value. The experience of pre-
marital abortion, in other words, seemed to have threatened both their sense of self and
the life course they had anticipated and longed for. In this situation, as I shall show in
more detail below, telling their stories to a foreign researcher gave them an opportunity
to revise their identities as moral agents and restore a sense of coherence to their lives.
Narrative is an important way of ordering experience and of weaving inchoate sense
impressions and fragmentary episodes into a coherent conception of life (Bruner 1987;
Ricoeur 1991). In Ricoeur’s words, ‘A life is no more than a biological phenomenon as
long as it has not been interpreted. And in interpretation, fiction plays a mediating role’
(1991: 27-8). As human beings, we need to endow our existence with meaning and to
order experience in such ways that it falls into relatively coherent patterns where past,
present, and future are somehow linked together. The fact that human life is, in this
sense, ‘an activity and a passion in search of a narrative’ (Ricoeur 1991: 29) becomes
particularly clear in situations where things do not go according to plan, where our lives
unfold in ways that differ from those we had anticipated and wanted, and where we risk
losing our sense of orientation and direction (Becker 1997; Kleinman 1988).
The twenty-five young women whom I met were between 17 and 27 years old. After
accepting the invitation to take part in the research, they found their way to my small
two-room apartment in a quiet tree-lined street in the centre of Hanoi. Here we talked
about their lives and about the abortion experience over fresh watermelon and cups of
sweetened coffee from the café around the corner. At our first meeting at the hospital,
I had told them that they were welcome to bring a friend along if they wanted to, and
eventually nine of the women came in the company of their boyfriend, five with one or
more girlfriends (who in many cases had also had an abortion), while eleven came
alone. Some of my meetings with the young people therefore turned into lively discus-
sions with several participants, while others were more intimate one-to-one conversa-
tions. Those of the women who came to see me on their own were often visibly sad and
distressed. Several walked in, sat down on the sofa, and started to cry before saying a
word. After talking for a few hours, some disappeared into the streets and I never saw
them again, some invited me to visit them in their own homes or to join them for a
coffee or a beer at a café, and some returned to see me on a later occasion, often
accompanied by friends. While many stressed how busy they were – often following two
university programmes at the same time, working while also studying, or having two
different jobs – they still seemed eager to take the time to talk to a foreign anthropolo-
gist about their lives and were curious to hear about ways of living in the West. Nine of
the women were students, two were out of work, and fourteen were working as accoun-
tants, secretaries, factory workers, hairdressers, teachers, or cooks. With one exception,
they had all been to school for at least nine years, and most of those who were now
students were attending studies at university level. Whether they were students,
workers, or unemployed, they generally belonged to the more privileged sections of
Vietnamese society. The majority were registered as citizens of Hanoi, a privilege in
itself. Even though some had experienced difficulties in their lives, most said they had
grown up in ‘stable’ and supportive family environments. Several of the young people
drove shiny new ‘Honda Dream’ motorbikes, and nearly all wore well-kept clothes that
signalled an economic status well beyond that to which people living in more marginal
areas of Vietnam are able to aspire.

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In most cases, the women’s accounts revealed immense hopes and expectations for
the future. Contrasting their lives with those of previous generations, which were
characterized by warfare and economic hardship, the young people in this study saw
their own time as one of opportunity and increasing material welfare. In 1986, the
Vietnamese government introduced a policy of ‘renovation’, or Ðô’i mó‚i, under which
the centralized planned economy was dismantled and liberal economic reforms
introduced. Ð ô’i mó‚i also brought cultural changes, such as more editorial freedom
for the print media and greater freedom of literary expression.1 As described by the
young people in this study, the process of renovation has produced increased wealth
and welfare, but it has also made life more demanding in some ways than the imag-
ined life ‘in the past’. Today, they claimed, success or failure in life depends largely on
individual ability, energy, and talent rather than on shared, collective efforts or state
support (cf. Gammeltoft 2002c). As we shall see, the young people linked their abor-
tion experience directly to this increased pressure on the individual to manage her
life herself.
Seventeen of the young women in the study had first-trimester abortions, and
eight had undergone second-trimester abortions. While most of the women who had
first-trimester abortions were involved in an enduring loving relationship at the time
of abortion, several of the women undergoing late-term abortions had been aban-
doned by their boyfriends. Therefore they struggled not only with moral doubts
relating to the termination of the pregnancy, but also with the loss of their lovers
and of the immediate prospect of marriage and family. In this article I focus specifi-
cally on women undergoing second-trimester abortions, while also, where relevant,
referring to the experiences of women who had early abortions. At the centre of
my account is the case of 25-year-old Trang. Her story illustrates the suffering that
the experience of induced abortion entails, but also – and this is one of my main
contentions – the agency, ambition, and desire that lie embedded in these painful
Trang lived with her mother and elder brother Tuấn in a small house in a densely
populated neighbourhood in the southern part of Hanoi. Her mother worked as a
teacher and was also a Women’s Union cadre. Even though their house was not large,
Trang had her own room, furnished with a wooden bed with pink cushions, a drawer,
and a small wooden writing table with photographs of herself as a child. On the wall
over her bed was a poster with two large-eyed kittens. Trang showed me some photos
of herself and her classmates when she was still in primary school – nearly all the other
girls in her class are married and have children now, she said. As we were sitting on her
bed, she told me that her parents divorced several years ago because her mother would
not tolerate that her father had an extramarital relationship. This was one reason, Trang
explained, why her mother was so deeply shattered when Trang told her she was
pregnant; her mother knew that others would now blame her for failing to maintain the
intactness of the family that is generally considered to be a precondition for ‘family
happiness’ and the successful upbringing of children. Trang’s pregnancy would be seen
as a direct consequence of her mother’s inability to provide Trang and Tuấn with the
stable family life that children are considered to need in order to grow into proper
persons and citizens (cf. Gammeltoft & Olwig 2005). Trang completed her education a
few years ago while Tuấn was still studying. Her maternal uncle then helped her obtain
her current job as an accountant in a state-owned enterprise not far from their home.
In the longer term, she said, she was hoping to find a job with greater challenges and

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higher pay, but at present she was content. She was hoping to have children and a family
soon, and as her current job was not too demanding, it would be quite suitable for a
young mother.

The experience of abortion: suffering and the quest for meaning

A week before our walk in Lenin Park, Trang had spent four days at the obstetrical
hospital undergoing an abortion of the twins she had been carrying since the previous
Christmas. Here is an excerpt from her account of the termination of her pregnancy:

I had not thought it could take more than two days, but it took four. It hurt immensely. I have never
felt the pain of delivery before so I had not expected this. It hurt terribly, I could hardly bear it. I also
felt very tense and uncomfortable. It was not just ordinary pain. They started giving me medicine at
noon on Friday, then again four hours later. The pain was terrible. On Saturday morning the pain
continued. They gave me more medicine, but I did not have enough strength to push out the foetuses.
On Sunday the doctors did not come to work. On Monday morning they gave me more medicine. At
noon it hurt terribly. I could not stand up anymore, I could only crawl. Then at two-thirty I called the
doctor and said I could not stand the pain anymore. They gave me more medicine and after one hour
it was over. There was a lot of blood and the doctor said that because there were two foetuses, the
medicine had not been so effective. They were very small, smaller than a half-litre water bottle ... The
doctor gave me medicine for the pain and I felt dizzy, but I was still alert enough to hear the doctors
talk. They said it was a boy and a girl. They put them into a box and told me they would be taken to
Văn Ði ê’n graveyard ... After the two little beings had come out of me I saw that they were still moving.
That means they were still alive ... My mother cried all the time, and when the little ones came out she
was trembling so much that she collapsed on the floor. I would have liked to spare her that.

A few weeks after our first meeting, Trang and I went to an ice cream café by Hoàn
Kiếm Lake in the company of a girlfriend of hers and a male friend of mine. He did not
know Trang’s story, and politely opened the conversation by asking her how many
children she had. She looked at him with dark eyes and said without hesitation: ‘Two.’
Assuming that her boyfriend of two years was going to marry her, Trang had become
pregnant. Having finished her education and being employed in a stable job, she felt
ready for marriage and motherhood. She had looked forward to their wedding, she
said, and felt happy, healthy, and energetic while she was pregnant. However, three
months into the pregnancy her boyfriend abandoned her, claiming not to be the father
of the children. She spent a month pondering what to do and finally decided to follow
her mother’s advice and opt for abortion. As she said:

Vietnamese society is still very feudal (phong kiê´n). If an unmarried girl has a child, it shames her
family. People will say that her parents were unable to educate her. It is something very offensive ... If
I had my children alone, I could not survive economically. Emotionally it would be very difficult too.
I had to think a lot about this. It took me very long to decide. I felt that if I threw them away it would
be a sin (tôi nghiêp), a sin towards my children. And if I had them I was afraid it would also be a sin
... If my family helped me I could survive economically. But this is if we talk only about economics.
I have not said anything about morality yet nor about the feudal mode of thinking about these things
... These children, right from the beginning, they would not be recognized by people, and this makes
it difficult for their mother to receive help from others. Do you understand? If I am not married but
have a child, then it will be very difficult for my parents and anyone in my family to accept this child.
If it does not have a father, how can I expect others to help?

Suffering is, in Kleinman and Kleinman’s terms, ‘a universal aspect of human expe-
rience in which individuals and groups have to undergo or bear certain forms of burdens,
troubles and serious wounds to the body and the spirit’ (1991: 280). Trang was suffering

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at the time I met her. Forced into an impossible choice between the equally undesirable
options of giving up her potential children or exposing them, herself, and her family to
social ridicule and condemnation, she felt that she had lost control over her own life:

Living in Vietnam is difficult in many respects. Many. I often feel under pressure; I have to suppress
my feelings because I cannot live according to my own thoughts, my own desires. I often have to live
for others, I cannot live for myself ... I wanted to have children, but my family did not want this. So
I had to comply with my family. In order to maintain my family’s honour I had to give them up.

As Trang maintained, whatever choice she made, suffering would result. Eventually, she
opted to terminate her pregnancy, hoping that this would cause less suffering than
going through with it. Nevertheless, her loss of two potential children and the moral
implications of the whole situation for herself and her family made her feel utterly
depressed. As she said the first day she came to see me: ‘I come to see you today to try
to overcome my sadness. I feel so sad when I am at home, I just lie there thinking and
thinking’. Implicitly referring to the moral ideals of feminine endurance and resilience
that are widely circulated in public culture in Vietnam (Gammeltoft 1999; Pettus 2003),
Trang maintained that if other women can bear hardship without complaint, she too
should be able to do so. Only when talking to her closest girlfriend, she said, would she
openly express how sad she felt. In all other situations she strove hard to conceal her
feelings of sadness and despair, in order to protect herself from others’ negative reac-
tions to her predicament: ‘If others see how sad I am, they will only ridicule me even
more. They will say that I don’t know how to endure the trials and tribulations of life,
and that I should be able to bear the consequences of my own actions’. When I
suggested that she could confide in her mother, Trang shook her head. She explained
that her mother had already suffered enough because of her, and seeing her in despair
would only deepen her mother’s sorrow over what had happened.
To understand the character of Trang’s feelings, some background knowledge is
required of the moral worlds in which her experience was embedded. During my
conversations with Trang and the other young women and men, female virginity
turned out to be an issue of vital concern. In Vietnam, I was told, young women are
expected to ‘preserve themselves’ and stay ‘pure’ and ‘chaste’ until their wedding night.
Some of the young women considered these expectations to be ‘old-fashioned’ and to
belong to the past, when women were the passive objects of marriage exchanges.
However, they all described how they had to navigate their intimate relationships
within a social context of quite strict expectations regarding young women’s sexual
manners. Today, they explained, many people consider it acceptable for a woman to
‘give herself ’ to a man prior to marriage, but only if he is the one she will eventually
marry. If a relationship does not last, the moral repercussions for the woman, who risks
being considered ‘loose’ and ‘worthless’, can be heavy. These young women talked with
visible apprehension about their belief that their chances of an advantageous marriage
might be seriously reduced if others knew that they were not virgins; they also resented
the unfairness of the gendered nature of these expectations.
When the evidence of sexual intercourse becomes manifest in a pregnancy, and
perhaps, as in Trang’s case, even in a visible pregnancy, then the woman’s failure to live
up to dominant moral expectations is mercilessly revealed to her social surroundings.
In this context, the experience of premarital pregnancy and abortion becomes deeply
disruptive, not just because of the moral problems involved in putting an end to the life

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of a human being in becoming, but also because the sexual activity that the pregnancy
exposes may severely compromise the young woman’s future chances of finding hap-
piness in marriage and family life. Like many of the other women I met that spring in
Hanoi, Trang was therefore struggling with the question of meaning. In her conversa-
tions with me, she was searching for means to understand her own actions in ways that
would extricate her from the negative moral meanings that people around her attached
to her pregnancy. Why did this happen to her, she asked. Was it all her own fault, as
others seemed to assume, or could alternative explanations be found? As she said, ‘I ask
myself ... I don’t know what I have done wrong, that is, I don’t know why this has
happened, for what reason. I do not understand what the reason is’.

Endowing experience with meaning: stories of suffering

Before embarking on the analysis of the stories of suffering implicit in Trang’s account,
it is important to note that her attempts to articulate and find meaning in her suffering
did not take the form of any kind of consistent and coherent tale. Rather than a single
story about why things happened as they did, her account consisted of many different
narrative strands, of undeveloped ideas, and of tentative suggestions that, it would
seem, she tried out in searching for interpretative possibilities rather than presenting
narrative facts. I shall now briefly examine the different emergent stories that can be
drawn out of Trang’s account: a story of individual moral failure, a story of the power
of fate, and a story of overwhelming social forces. Each of these stories makes us see the
events surrounding the abortion in a different way. Each casts Trang in a different role,
and each assigns responsibility for misfortune to different social forces. While being
particularly evident in Trang’s account, each of these three emergent stories appeared
in many of the other interviews as well, forming a shared narrative groundwork for the
young women’s attempts to find meaning in suffering. As Rosenwald has observed,
‘When people tell life stories they do so in accordance with models of intelligibility
specific to the culture. Without such models narration is impossible’ (1992: 265).2 To
exist within a culture of narrative models and conventions is crucially important for the
way people tell their own stories. Each of the three emergent stories of suffering that can
be drawn out of my conversations with Trang thus draws on specific cultural forms,
resonating with influential literary reflections in Vietnam on gender, family, and sexu-
ality. Alexander Woodside notes that ‘Vietnam is and has always been one of the most
intensely literary civilizations on the face of the planet’ (1976: 2).3 When passing
through the streets of Hanoi, one sees shopkeepers and cyclo drivers absorbed in books
while waiting for customers, youth poring over their books on benches along the shores
of the city’s lakes, and coffee-drinkers in sidewalk cafés immersed in their newspapers.
In everyday conversations, subtle references to proverbs, sayings, and popular stories
often complicate the meanings of sentences for the non-native Vietnamese speaker. In
the present study, several of the women referred to poems or popular stories when
telling their own stories. The nineteenth-century epic poem The Tale of Kiề u and the
works of the eighteenth-century female poet Hồ Xuân Hu’o’ng were explicitly men-
tioned by the young women, and some quoted young poets of their own generation
whose poems depict painful losses and lost loves.
In Vietnam, a variety of sources of narrative models exist for storytellers to draw on,
and the plot types presented in this article, while being well established culturally, are
not meant to be exhaustive of all the kinds of stories people in Vietnam may tell when
talking about suffering. The linkages made between the women’s stories and culturally

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shared narrative models are the result of an analysis which started out from a close
examination of the women’s accounts of abortion, and then moved on to the identi-
fication of culturally established narrative strands with which these stories could be
associated. One prevalent mode of narrativizing suffering is therefore not included in
this article, as it did not resonate with any of the young women’s stories, namely the
heroizing perspective found in the ‘socialist realism’ which dominated the Vietnamese
literary scene from the 1940s to the 1980s (Healy 2000; Lockhardt 1992). Narratives
within this tradition are replete with stories of loss and suffering, describing individuals
who heroically give up personal aspirations and sacrifice intimate social relations in
order to realize the greater goals of national unity and independence. However, the
heroes in ‘socialist realism’ tend to be depicted in very de-personalized ways, and the
narrative emphasis is placed on collective struggle rather than on individual emotion
and experience (Healy 2000; Lockhardt 1992). Moreover, in sharp contrast to the
sacrifice and selflessness that ‘socialist realism’ celebrates, a premarital abortion usually
indexes immoral and illicit sexual activity in dominant cultural representations. Hence
the young women in this study were searching for other ways of turning their feelings
and experiences into socially recognized public forms. In this search, they used the
anthropologist as their sounding-board.

A story of individual moral failure

In Trang’s account, as in most of the accounts of abortion, the story of individual moral
failure was the one that emerged most clearly, a master narrative against which alter-
native stories were pitted in more or less explicit dialogue and contestation. The story
of individual moral failure is the story that ‘public opinion’ (du’ luân) circulates, the
story that runs through neighbourhoods, families, schools, and workplaces to shame
and stigmatize the young woman who has been rebellious or foolish enough to violate
orthodox moral standards of sexual behaviour. The teller of this story is not the young
woman herself but the people who constitute her daily social world, and yet the story
is powerful enough to become one element in the young woman’s own understanding
of her plight. The storyline is simple: a young woman fails to respect the sexual norms
of her society and is duly punished for her moral failing, thus losing her good reputa-
tion and staining her family’s honour. Trang told me how her mother had heard her
aunt sitting outside her house, chattering to neighbours about Trang and her apparent
lack of proper upbringing. She talked at length about the pain of being considered by
others to be ‘loose’ and ‘debauched’, and of knowing that this ruins not only her own
reputation, but also that of her family. Trang shared this painful awareness of being the
object of malicious gossip with most of the other young women in the study; they
all felt the pain of not being able to control or influence the stories that others told
about them.
The story of individual moral failure which dominates ‘public’ assessments of
Trang’s situation resonates with a rich tradition in Vietnamese literature of attaching
moral meaning to social events and drawing moral lessons out of difficult personal
experiences. Over the past millennium, Vietnamese literature has been profoundly
influenced by Chinese literature and by the moral didacticism of the Confucian classics.
In addition, the orally transmitted stock of folk literature in Vietnam – fables, tales,
sayings, and songs – is often very moralizing, setting out ‘to edify the reader or listener
by showing him that avarice is punished, ... and that kindness, humanity, filial piety, and
compassion to the poor are rewarded’ (Durand & Nguyên 1985). Even the renovation

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literature since the 1980s has been driven by a moral impulse, seeking new truths to
replace older ones, thus maintaining ‘old Confucian attitudes about the didactic
political-moral role of literature in society’ (Lockhardt 1992: 8). Trang was obviously
struggling against this moralizing version of her story, feeling that it represented an
unjust accusation. In her search for alternative meanings, the story of the power of fate
played an important role.

A story of the power of fate

Implicitly rejecting the ascription of moral fault and failure implied by the dominant
story, many of the young women emphasized the contingency of what had happened to
them. They stressed their own innocence and the powerlessness of their well-meaning
actions and intentions vis-à-vis the arbitrary and unpredictable powers of fate to wreak
havoc in human lives. Trang told me that a fortune-teller had once described her as con
gái cao s ô´ , a girl who gets married late in life, and as cô gái long d-ong, a girl with a hard
lot. He had said that even though she was courted by many men, it would be difficult
for her to get married, and she would meet many difficulties in her emotional life. At
the beginning of this year another fortune-teller had said that, contrary to her own
desires, she would neither get married nor have a child this year. Since she was already
pregnant and expecting to have a child, this had confused and upset her. But now,
realizing her powerlessness to shape her own life, she has come to recognize the potency
of fate and the ability of fortune-tellers actually to predict future events.
Much Vietnamese literature and poetry deals with feelings of not being in control, of
having to succumb to circumstance and to the life course that fate has in store for one.
The experience of seeing one’s life taking turns that are unexpected and unwanted, or
of being forced by contingencies to act in ways that go against one’s own moral
convictions, are common themes in popular literature, particularly in literature that
depicts women’s life experiences. A prime example is Nguyê n Du’s nineteenth-century
epic poem, The Tale of Kiều. The Tale of Kiều is about the vicissitudes which befall a
beautiful and virtuous woman who sells herself as a prostitute in order to save her
father from economic ruin, thus sacrificing not only her chastity but also her love for
her betrothed, Kim Trong . Despite being involved in one intense liaison after the other,
Kiề u remains pure at heart, ‘a spotless lotus flower growing out of the depths of the
mire’ (Durand & Nguyên 1985: 90). The Tale of Kiều is required reading in all Vietnam-

ese schools and has been immensely popular among generations of Vietnamese. Huỳnh
(1973) suggests that its continuing appeal lies in the fact that it touches a shared
emotional chord in Vietnamese people, which is the feeling of being wronged (oán).
Like Kiều, many people in Vietnam feel that they are the victims of circumstance, being
‘punished for crimes and sins they did not commit’ (Huýnh 1973: 20). When Trang and
other young women in her situation felt they were being unjustly punished, this feeling
resonates with a powerful theme in Vietnamese literature which – in contrast to the
Confucian morality tales – depicts the futility of personal moral strivings and carries
the message that moral virtue and happiness are not necessarily linked. However, the
story that was most forcefully expressed by the young women themselves was one of
overwhelming social forces.

A story of overwhelming social forces

While seeing her misfortune as a product of fate, Trang was also very explicit in her
critique of the social forces that had brought her to this pass. In particular, she was

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critical of the gendered dynamics of dominant moralities that assign sole responsibility
and blame for sexual ‘transgressions’ to young women, while letting young men go free.
When she found herself pregnant, Trang commented, dominant social norms left her
with very limited choices. She used this metaphorical description to convey her feelings
of constraint:

Imagine a society; you are only one of the wheels that are steadily churning, churning. If you alone
stop or if you alone step outside of the churning wheels, you cannot exist. I often feel that you are only
a very small wheel. If you split off and go on in your own direction, society still keeps on churning, but
you will be eliminated.

Like Trang, most of the women were very conscious and very critical of the social
mechanisms which place women ‘at a disadvantage’ (thiêt thòi), not least in situations
where sexual relations bring unanticipated results.
The social criticism expressed by these young women has a parallel in the attacks on
the established social order which characterize the work of the eighteenth-century
female poet Hồ Xuân Hu’o’ng, whose work is widely read and loved in contemporary
Vietnam. Her poems are sharply critical of all forms of male authority, lamenting the
lot of women who have to live as concubines or as unwed mothers (Balaban 2000). The
literature of the 1930s and the renovation literature of the 1980s and 1990s are also
critical of dominant social arrangements, often describing the contradictory moral
demands that shape and constrain women’s lives (Jamieson 1993). In other words, when
the young women participating in this study depicted themselves as victims of the
dominant socio-moral order, they were drawing on an established tradition in Viet-
namese story telling of exposing and criticizing the ways in which social systems may
constrain the individual and her desire for personal autonomy.
In sum, Vietnamese literature is a reservoir of cultural conceptualizations and expla-
nations of social suffering. It is striking, however, that the culturally prevalent narrative
models described here tend to represent suffering through either moralizing or victim-
izing perspectives. The agency of the sufferer is therefore generally conceptualized in
the negative, depicted either as causing misfortune by violating moral norms or as
being thwarted by ‘fate’ or social constraints. In Trang’s account, as in most other
accounts related by the young women, however, a fourth narrative strand can be
identified. This narrative strand differs from the above stories in two distinct ways: first,
by acknowledging the agency of the sufferer without blaming the victim; and, secondly,
by accepting suffering as an inevitable part of human existence and as the other side of
agency. In the young women’s accounts, however, this story was not expressed very
explicitly, but remained remarkably subdued in comparison with the other three nar-
rative strands. I shall therefore now try to unfold this fourth story, turning it from
subtext into text.

The underside of suffering: a story of agency and ambition

When Trang and I were talking about whether she would ever be able to forget her
current troubles, she said: ‘Perhaps when someone new comes and draws me into new
joys, then maybe I will be able to forget ... Have you ever heard of stories where a prince
suddenly appears? A prince appears, you like him, and you quickly forget about your
sorrows’. At the time of the abortion, Trang knew that she could still meet her prince
and get married, despite her failed love affair and her mistimed pregnancy. When she

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made the decision to undergo an abortion, therefore, she was also deciding to try again
to create a life for herself with a husband and children, a family life. In other words, even
in the highly constrained situation in which she found herself, there was an element of
choice. Trang could have acted differently. She could have had her children and used her
personal and social resources to carve out an existence for them and for herself, as other
unmarried women in Vietnam sometimes do (Phinney 2002). In this sense, while
Trang’s difficult situation was indeed a product of normative forces and societal con-
straint, she was also acting out of desire and ambition – a desire to experience the
happiness in her life that she imagined only family life can bring, and an ambition to
give her children the best possible chances in life. As she said: ‘Actually the food a child
needs is quite simple, it just needs a bowl of rice porridge to exist. But that is just
enough to live. It is not nourishing enough; a child needs proper nutrition. It is not
enough to keep it alive – you need to develop its life’. Living in a social world where
family and childbearing are elevated to a socially central and almost sacred status
(Gammeltoft 1999; Pettus 2003), Trang knew that being a single mother would have a
more negative impact on her chances of marriage than would a stigmatizing history of
pregnancy and abortion out of wedlock.
Thus, in order to realize her dreams of a morally respectable and economically viable
family life, Trang was willing to undergo the physical and emotional suffering that a late
termination of pregnancy entailed. This seems to confirm Cheryl Mattingly’s thesis
that ‘the presence of desire brings with it a readiness to suffer’ (1994: 818). Like Trang,
the other young abortion-seeking women involved in the study were moved not merely
by a fear of social condemnation, but also by more positive desires for a future life of a
certain character and quality. Without exception they all shared Trang’s dreams of a
happy family. In addition, many, particularly the women who had had first-trimester
abortions, decided to terminate their pregnancies out of their ambition to complete
their educations and obtain good and well-paid jobs in the future. The choice to seek
an abortion, thereby exposing themselves to the losses and suffering this entailed, was
made with a view to the future. This more hopeful version of the story, however, with
its positive conception of human agency, does not have an immediate parallel in
popular Vietnamese literature and poetry.4 That it was not more explicit in the young
women’s accounts may therefore simply be due to the fact that it is a story that was
more difficult for them to tell, as it lacked support from socially dominant symbolic
forms.5 This fourth story tends to fall outside common narrative conventions, and thus
may also have fallen outside the young women’s own conceptions of their lives. And yet
there is more to the argument than this. In the next section I present the main
proposition in this article, extending the analytical focus to consider also the ways in
which the telling of Trang’s story took place through interaction and engagement
between her and me, the teller and the listener.

Agents and victims: representations of suffering

In retrospect, when I re-examine my own interpretations of this material, I am struck
by the emphasis on structural constraint rather than individual agency that character-
izes my work (Gammeltoft 2002a, 2002b, 2002c). In spite of the hopes, expectations,
ambitions, and desires that the young women more or less explicitly expressed, the
interpretative focus in my work has been on the structural forces that limited their
options. This orientation towards structural force rather than individual agency seems
to be widely shared in anthropological studies of suffering. As paradigmatically phrased

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in the introduction to the edited volume Social suffering, social suffering is ‘an assem-
blage of human problems that have their origins and consequences in the devastating
injuries that social force can inflict on human experience’ (Kleinman, Das & Lock 1997:
ix). By noting this interpretive tendency to conceptualize suffering as the product of the
social order, I do not mean to suggest that social suffering is not created and distributed
by social forces. Nor do I want to say that all sufferers are agents to similar extents – in
some cases, social force is ravaging and totalizing. Yet I do want to point to the fact that,
generally speaking, suffering implies agency just as agency implies suffering. As Hannah
Arendt writes in The Human Condition,

Because the actor always moves among and in relation to other acting beings, he is never merely a
‘doer’ but always and at the same time a sufferer. To do and to suffer are like opposite sides of the same
coin, and the story that an act starts is composed of its consequent deeds and sufferings (1998 [1958]:

The combination of agency and suffering is a defining feature of the human condition;
as humans we are subjects in our own lives as much as we are the objects of forces
beyond our own control. In Michael Jackson’s words, ‘This oscillation between being
an actor and being acted upon is felt in every human encounter, and intersubjective life
involves an ongoing struggle to negotiate, reconcile, balance, or mediate these anti-
thetical potentialities of being’ (2002: 13). In order to avoid diminishing the humanity
of the sufferer, it is therefore important to acknowledge her agency and not just her
victimhood. We must allow conceptual room for the ways in which she actively seeks to
conceive, imagine, elaborate, devise, construct, and give shape to her own life and to
re-interpret and re-form existing cultural resources and social conditions. If one agrees
with Veena Das that ‘a discourse on suffering is worth having only if it helps the victim
to live forwards’ (1994: 164), then pointing out the moments of hope as well as the
visions and aspirations which drive people to live and act must constitute core elements
in anthropological representations of suffering. In other words, it is crucially important
to recognize the role that human imagination plays in experiences of suffering, as in
human life in general. As Jean-Paul Sartre has put it, ‘all existence is surpassed by itself
as soon as it is posited. But it must retreat towards something. The imaginary is in every
case the “something” concrete toward which the existent is surpassed’ (2001 [1940]: 217,
italics in the original). It is the imagination that allows us as human beings to go beyond
our transient being, to transcend the cultural conceptualizations that define us and the
conditions under which we live, to imagine our selves and lives in other ways, and hence
possibly to transform and re-create our worlds.
If, however, agency and imagination are so important, how can we account for the
considerable attention given to social constraint in analyses of suffering and for the
limited emphasis on individual agency? How do we as analysts come to carve out some
stories and not others from the many narrative possibilities inherent in accounts of
suffering? Answers to these questions require a close consideration of the role of the
audience in the construction of narrative meaning. In narrative studies, it is by now
commonly acknowledged that narrative is always a co-production, a collaborative
performance where the meaning of a story or a text, in Wolfgang Iser’s terms, ‘is not a
definable entity but, if anything, a dynamic happening’ (1978: 22). The reader of a text,
the audience of a narrative, are always imaginatively engaged in the story and con-
tribute to its production. Yet in order to comprehend the processes through which

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narratives of suffering are shaped, it is necessary to go beyond mere ‘readings’ of ‘texts’

to consider critically the intersubjective and human engagement out of which stories of
suffering are made.

Ethics and epistemology: towards a recognition of human agency

and imagination
When Trang first came to see me, desperate and crying, I found myself unable to take
my usual fieldnotes and suggested that we substitute the scheduled interview with a
walk in the park. The confrontation with her suffering seemed to compel me to respond
before recording and to shun any simple experiential reduction of her to a mere object
of research (cf. Behar 1996). Intuitively aware that, for Trang, telling her story to me was
a way of coming to terms with shattering experiences and a disrupted moral identity,
I sought to respond to her in ways that contributed to the construction of narratives
that moved her towards a self-forgiving understanding of her own story, thus shifting
responsibility on to something else – her unsympathetic social surroundings, the
gender inequality permeating Vietnamese society, the contingency of life. However, this
also involved moving towards an understanding which cast her as a victim of social
forces rather than an agent in her own life. In this way, I entered into her story and
contributed to its shaping in the fieldwork situation as well as in my later interpreta-
tions of this and similar stories. Arthur Kleinman has noted that ‘anthropologists of
pain find themselves in an ethical position roughly similar to that of the clinician. For
both, the moral requirement of engaging people who suffer is first to do no harm’ (1995:
146). This moral impulse to ‘do no harm’ compelled me to see some aspects of Trang’s
situation with greater clarity than others, turning narrative attention towards some
parts of lived reality rather than to others. My understanding of her suffering was
rooted in the conjunction of perception and imagination that empathy entails (Husserl
1991, in Crossley 1996: 6), being grounded in a feeling of ethical obligation towards a
suffering other. As Robert C. Solomon has pointed out, emotions lie at the very heart
of ethics, ‘determining our focus, influencing our interests, defining the dimensions of
our world’ (1995: 257). While emotional engagement may be a precondition for anthro-
pological insight (Rosaldo 1984), it may also compel the analyst to give priority to some
interpretations rather than others. In other words, sociality and relationship, and hence
the confrontation with morality, form the basis of our knowledge of the social world:
‘the discovery of mutuality is ... existentially prior to and foundational of other knowl-
edge of the social’ (Ridler 1996: 248).
These intricate connections between ethics and epistemology have been theorized by
the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (1996 [1951], 1998 [1974]). He asserts that
knowledge of the social world relies upon a prior being-together, an ethical bond
between self and other which is prior to the mediation of interests and objectives:

Our relation with the other (autrui) certainly consists in wanting to comprehend him, but this
relation overflows comprehension. Not only because knowledge of the other (autrui) requires, outside
of all curiosity, also sympathy or love, ways of being distinct from impassive contemplation, but
because in our relation with the other (autrui), he does not affect us in terms of a concept. He is a
being (étant) and counts as such (1996 [1951]: 6).

We do not comprehend others simply by making them the passive objects of our quest
for knowledge, says Levinas, but through forms of interaction and conversation in

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which the other has priority: ‘the comprehension of the other (autrui) is inseparable
from his invocation’ (1996 [1951]: 6). In other words, according to Levinas, the obliga-
tion to care for the other is prior to and a precondition of all knowledge, and the insight
that we may gain into the life worlds of others derives from this basic ethical relation.
Ethics is ‘beyond being’ in the sense that it is prior to thought and conceptual
While the universal and transcendental ethics suggested by Levinas can be ques-
tioned in an anthropological context – as understandings of obligation, care, love, and
sympathy may be culturally variable and highly heterogeneous – his reflections on the
linkages between ethics and epistemology merit attention. When the confrontation
with suffering compels the anthropologist towards engagement and response, this has
epistemological implications. It may orient interpretation and analysis in particular
ways, such as towards accounts that shift the responsibility for suffering away from the
sufferer and on to her society. While it is obviously important that the social forces that
produce suffering be exposed, the agency of the sufferer risks being denied and con-
cealed in the process. When evaluating the human engagements out of which ethno-
graphic knowledge is produced, therefore, a discursive or textual approach is too
limited; we need to broaden our field of inquiry to include the vital roles of emotions
and ethics in the fashioning of ethnographic accounts. It is necessary to pay close
attention to the fieldwork situation and to the embodied encounter between ethnog-
rapher and informant. As Michael Jackson writes, story telling events are ‘lived through
as a physical, sensual, and vital interaction between the body of the storyteller and the
bodies of the listeners, in which people reach out toward one another’ (2002: 28, italics
in original). In studies of pain, closer attention to the moral and emotional human
engagements out of which ethnographic accounts are fashioned may enable us to
comprehend not only the harm that social forces can inflict on people, but also the
capacities for action and the powers of imagination that they possess. Trang’s case
teaches us that, even when faced with overwhelming social constraint, human beings
are able to transcend current circumstances imaginatively, reworking reality as they
reach towards the future.

Epilogue: Hanoi, December 1999

A year and a half after our first meeting, I returned to Hanoi. The day I called Trang I
heard her happy voice on the other end: ‘I am getting married today; can you come!?’
Her wedding party was huge, with hundreds of guests, a buoyant atmosphere and an
abundance of food. Trang was sparklingly beautiful in her long white wedding dress,
posing for photographs on the arm of her husband, a pleasant-looking man consider-
ably older than herself. In September of the following year Trang gave birth to her
daughter Minh Ánh (‘Bright Light’).

This article was originally written for the ‘Presidential Panel’ convened by Charles Keyes at the 54th Annual
Meeting of the Association for Asian Studies (AAS) held in Washington, D.C. in 2002. Fieldwork in Hanoi was
supported by the Danish Crown Prince Frederik’s Foundation and by the Danish Council for Development
Research. The study was carried out in collaboration with researchers at the Center for Population Studies
and Information, National Committee for Population and Family Planning, Vietnam, and with the staff of
Hanoi Obstetrical and Gynecological hospital. In writing this article, I am indebted to suggestions and
encouragement from many colleagues. I particularly thank Michael Jackson, Charles Keyes, Philip Taylor,

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Neil Jamieson, Anne Line Dalsgaard, Tine Tjørnhøj-Thomsen, and the three anonymous JRAI reviewers for
useful and constructive comments. Names
¸ of all informants have been given as pseudonyms.
Critics maintain, however, that Ðôi m ó‚i in the literary field lasted only until 1988, and some writers are
complaining openly about their lack of artistic freedom (Tr ần 2005). At the 7th Congress of Vietnamese
Writers held in April 2005, Party General Secretary Nông Ðú’c Manh stressed that the Party expects writers
to be ‘responsible’:
Writers should contribute to promoting distinguished examples of Vietnamese patriotism, with an
active and creative spirit in our new times, driving back negative forces which erode virtue and values
and obstruct national development ... Vietnamese literature in the light of Hồ Chí Minh thought will
continue to promote the values and inner strength of the Vietnamese people while openly receiving
the cultural values of the world and turning to all that is genuine, good and beautiful. (Viê t Nam News
In the context of Vietnam there is a political dimension to this, as the Party sets certain limits to what can
be publicly expressed. These limits concern not only issues that can be defined as political in a narrow sense,
but also topics such as gender norms, family forms, or sexuality. As Party General Secretary Nông Ðú’c Manh
emphasizes, it is the ‘genuine, good, and beautiful’ that deserves a place in the national literature (Viê t Nam
News 2005).
This is, of course, a very generalizing statement. Yet the adult literacy rate is high in Vietnam (94 per cent
in 2000), as is the net primary school enrolment rate (92 per cent in 2000) (UNDP 2004). When I did
fieldwork in a rural commune in the Red River delta in the early 1990s, I was taken aback when my neighbour,
an old rice farmer, started quoting at length from Erasmus Montanus by the eighteenth-century Danish writer
and playwright Ludvig Holberg. In Vietnamese schools, the two main subjects are literature and maths, and
the literary works mentioned in this article are works that children become acquainted with at a young age.
Literature is widely read also beyond the school system, and most daily, weekly, and monthly newspapers and
magazines publish short stories and poems alongside more journalistic articles.
This probably has to do with the dubious moral status of the individual in Vietnam, where ‘individualism’,
in contrast to ‘collectivism’, often tends to be considered morally questionable (Jamieson 1993). ‘Individual-
ism’, understood as the pursuit of personal goals and the realization of personal desires, is often associated
with ‘individuals acting in a selfish, short-sighted manner, which could jeopardize the larger order of things’
(Marr 2000: 769). Recent ethnographies describe the gendered character of these moral expectations; in
everyday life, women, to a much greater extent than men, seem to be expected to show selflessness, modesty,
and altruism in relations with others (Gammeltoft 1999; Pettus 2003; Rydstrøm 2003; Taylor 2004).
It may, however, be a story that is beginning to be told in Vietnamese society today, as the liberalization of
the economy and accompanying cultural changes may in some contexts render it more socially acceptable to
assert personal, rather than collective or national, goals and aspirations in life. For instance, the aspiration to
become rich – which was considered highly suspect a few years ago – is now generally socially accepted (cf.
Templer 1999).

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« Par-delà l’être » : émergence d’une narration de la souffrance au Vietnam


Mêlant ethnographie et récits littéraires, l’article explore la relation réciproque entre souffrance et agency.
Il décrit comment les jeunes femmes vietnamiennes utilisent la narration pour trouver un sens à la
souffrance causée par une fausse couche tardive. Visant à élargir l’utilisation anthropologique du concept
de souffrance humaine, l’auteur montre que les études tendent à négliger l’importance de l’agency et de
l’imagination, qui s’articule sur la souffrance enracinée dans les forces structurelles. L’auteur affirme que
cette négligence doit être comprise dans le contexte de conditions épistémologiques et éthiques particu-
lières dans lesquelles sont produites les études anthropologiques de la souffrance humaine, et qu’une
analyse plus attentive des engagements humains desquels sont issus les récits ethnographiques peut
introduire dans la réflexion non seulement le mal que les forces sociales peuvent infliger aux individus,
mais aussi les capacités d’action et d’imagination de ceux-ci.

Tine Gammeltoft is Associate Professor at the Institute of Anthropology at the University of Copenhagen.
Her ethnographic engagement with Vietnam started fifteen years ago, and has included research into gender,
sexuality, and reproductive health and rights. She is the author of Women’s bodies, women’s worries: health
and family planning in a Vietnamese rural community (1999).

Institute of Anthropology, University of Copenhagen, Øster Farimagsgade 5E, DK-1352 Copenhagen K, Denmark.

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