Local Writer, Vietnam Vet Discovers Transformative Power of the Art within His ‘Marble Mountain’

CSM professor and author Wayne Karlin will read excerpts from his seventh novel

CSM Connections Series Welcomes Wayne Karlin, March 6

How does the soul reckon with the actions the body is forced to make to stay alive? Can the soul ever heal when a single decision continues to reverberate decades after it was made? Will any good ever come of this? These are just some of the questions that local author and College of Southern Maryland Professor Wayne Karlin explores in his latest novel about the Vietnam War and the lives it continues to shape.

Karlin, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1963 to 1967, including a deployment in Vietnam as a helicopter gunner, holds a bachelor degree in humanities from the American College in Jerusalem and a master’s in creative writing from Goddard College. The recipient of numerous awards including five State of Maryland Awards for fiction, two National Endowment of the Arts Fellowships and the Paterson Prize for fiction, Karlin is the author of nine books including “Journeys to Vietnam,” “The Wished-For Country,” “Prisoners” and “Rumors and Stones.” His work has appeared in numerous media forms including journals, newspapers and movies, and he has taught at CSM for more than 20 years.

As part of CSM’s Connections Literary Series, Karlin will read from his seventh novel “Marble Mountain,” which tells the stories of four people discovering their identity and coming to terms with the war that has shaped and interconnected their lives. The reading will begin at 7:30 p.m., March 6, at CSM’s Leonardtown Campus, Building A, Auditorium.

In preparation for CSM’s Connections program, Karlin discussed Southern Maryland, war and transformation and the healing power of art.

CSM: Kiet and Alex Hallam reside in Southern Maryland. What is it like to write about where you live? How do you use and still protect your intimacy with a place?

Karlin: It’s a great place to write about. Southern Maryland has always seemed to me, in many ways, a microcosm of America with its history close to the surface, and the contradictions, strengths, choices, and problems of that history–its consequences–clearly visible. In other words, the place itself is a great character. At the same time, when I write about it, it is, like all characters in a novel, fictional. The county I write about is a county in a novel, not a real place. It contains enough of the real place to be, I hope, both believable and significant.

CSM: “Marble Mountain” is told through four characters, Alex Hallam, his adopted daughter Kiet, Duong and Thuy. As a writer, which was the hardest voice and story to embody and why?

Karlin: Each presented his or her own difficulties, but it wasn’t harder to write from one point of view than the other. It’s like acting: once you know the back-story of the person, personal history as well as age, gender, culture and so on, you imagine what you would be like if you were that person. Of course, the reader has to decide how successful you were at doing that.

CSM: One of the themes running through ‘ Marble Mountain’ is the idea of transformation. Could you talk about how ‘transformation,’ particularly the transformation of self, plays a role in each of the character’s lives?

Karlin: In each case, transformation occurs because of confrontation; that is, all the main characters have to confront some unfinished business in their own pasts, all tied to the war. Kiet must literally and symbolically find her true name; she is–also literally and symbolically–a displaced person. Kiet is incomplete until she knows her own history. Hers is a search for identity.

The other characters need also to re-form their identities, to integrate their pasts into their presents but to do so they must confront the deaths they caused and the people they abandoned. It isn’t until they perform that confrontation that they can try to make something good out of what has wounded them.

CSM: There is this moment in the novel when Kiet reflects on Vietnam and thinks “the sudden outpourings of a generation of Vietnamese-Americans insisting on the complications of the place whose oversimplification into a synonym for pain and loss had littered them across an ocean and across an America that had insisted on seeing Vietnam in only that way. But what else could it really ever be, for her, for her father?” Do you think the image of Vietnam is changing? And how has the meaning of the word ‘Vietnam’ changed through the years?

Karlin: Most Americans still really mean the Vietnam War when they use the word Vietnam. ‘During Vietnam,’ they’ll say, etc. But to have your whole history, culture and language defined by others only in terms of the violence and pain of a war is pretty reductive, and the new generation of Vietnamese-Americans here has been trying to make people aware of that. In Vietnam, by the way, that war is called “The American War” –but it’s not just called “America.”

CSM: A good portion of “Marble Mountain” is told through art particularly, Hat Chau Van (the music of incantation) and cai luong (Vietnamese opera). How did the idea to use art as a narrative device come about and how did it affect your storytelling?

Karlin: All of the characters try to deal with their pasts, and their pain, through art. Kiet is a dancer, trying to find her story; Alex, even though he is a former sheriff, is a sculptor, trying to find the shapes that will free him; Thuy and Duong use the forms of drama to be able to frame, tell and release their story. There is also the character of Trinh who is a photographer.

Art, because it is representative, and because it seems to be safe (you can’t be shot, after all, in a play or a dance, or be abandoned by your mother, or let your friends die) allows one to confront what needs to be confronted. But the sense of safety is an illusion: if the art is strong and true enough, it will become the experience; it can subvert and change you.

Fiction itself, the book in this case, tries to do the same, to, as I said above, put the pain of the past into a form in which it can be seen, confronted and integrated into a healthier narrative. To find what there is to be learned from the wounds of the past and build from it, rather than be imprisoned by it. Hopefully, we can see that in the lives of these characters, and in the way it is possible for a society to face the aftereffects of war in a helpful way.

CSM: John Steinbeck’s novel “East of Eden” is referenced several times in “Marble Mountain” including a particularly poignant reflection by Duong. Could you talk about why you chose this particular novel to represent Duong’s relationship with American literature/ America/ self?

Karlin: There are Vietnamese I met, former enemies, veterans of the other side of the war, who told me they had grown up reading certain American authors–mostly London, Hemingway and Steinbeck. Some even carried books by those authors in their knapsacks during the war. I wanted to imagine how it would be for someone like that who on the one hand knew us through our own literature, knew us as complicated and human rather than as the stereotypes one makes one’s enemies into in a war, and on the other hand still felt they had to try to kill us. “East of Eden” is, I think, particularly good in revealing the complications and dilemmas of its characters and the consequences of the choices they make. Besides that, I had just re-read it before writing this book, and had been taken by how good a novel it is.

CSM: So like “East of Eden,” personal decisions, rather than events, propel the stories of “Marble Mountain?”

Karlin: Exactly. It is tempting, and wrong, to see people affected by war only as victims. Each of the adult characters is in one way or another responsible for his/her own fate–either in a positive way or in a negative way. When they make the wrong choices though–in this case–they are given the chance to make other, right choices. The tension is whether or not they will.

CSM: Several of your recent works have dealt with veterans returning to Vietnam and their experiences. Could you talk a little about the importance of these journeys in the healing process?

Karlin: In a way, it goes back to the question of only seeing Vietnam as a war. If and when veterans are still dealing with trauma because of war, and if recovery means facing the cause of the wound, then by going back they have the chance to both literally see the place that they connect only with war and death–confrontation again–and to see it now not only at peace, but in most cases to find the people warmly welcoming and understanding. It’s a truly healing journey.

            Since 1990, the Connections Literary Series has held readings featuring national award-winning contemporary writers, poets and artists who share their work and time with residents of Southern Maryland. All readings begin at 7:30 p.m. The cost is $3, general admission. Tickets are available the night of each reading. For information call, 301-934-7864 or 301-870-2309, 240-725-5499 or 443-550-6199, Ext. 7864 or visit www.csmd.edu/connections/.


Using Art to Facilitate Healing

Art facilitates healing, according to “Marble Mountain” author Wayne Karlin, because it gives the user the illusion of safety. “You can’t be shot, after all, in a play or a dance, or are abandoned by your mother, or let your friends die.” Art allows people “to confront what needs to be confronted…if the art is strong and true enough, it will become the experience; it can subvert and change you.”

Excerpt from “Marble Mountain” by Wayne Karlin: “They were, he had heard, stone-carvers, living on and from the heap of marble they carved. The idea excited him, drew him. A village of stone-carvers. It sounded vaguely medieval, or something out of the Tolkien he loved to read, a guild of dwarf craftsmen in their warrens. He wanted to go to them. He was a carver himself, a whittler; in the barn behind his house a circle of figures he sculpted stood and waited, gathering dust, padlocked by his own father, who had vowed to destroy them like unworthy gods if Alex didn’t make it home. He was afraid of losing the cunning of his hands, felt the vibrations of the gun under them when he fired into the country transforming his flesh into the very echo of chaos, felt his fingers curve on the trigger hardening into a permanent claw; he needed to go to the carvers, shape stone instead of being shaped by metal.”

“Marble Mountain” is available for purchase at the CSM College Stores at the La Plata, Leonardtown and Prince Frederick campuses as well as the night of the performance. The cost is $15. For information on Karlin and “Marble Mountain,” visit www.csmd.edu/connections