Interview with James Janko, author of Buffalo Boy and Geronimo
By: Jaclyn Allard, Curbstone intern
Do you consider your experience in writing this novel a period of reflection, as well as a therapeutic outlet after your time in Viet Nam?
To sit alone and try to write one true thing is reflective, radical, an act of rebellion in today's world. The goal is to be an honest witness, and in the effort itself—whether or not "a good story" emerges—there is healing.
Although your book is fictitious, is there a great sense of reality in it for you? How true are the experiences of the characters to the actual events of your Viet Nam experience? Do you feel it possible or impossible to replicate such an experience, in fiction or nonfiction?
If I'd told a journalistic account of my experience, I would have missed too much. The Vietnamese, for instance. I didn't know them during the war. I wasn't drafted and sent to Viet Nam to get to know anyone. I had to go back decades later to meet these people and open my ears.
The platoon I was with had a high casualty rate, a bit over 50%. In detail, I only told about one American death, that of Geronimo's friend, Billie Jasper, killed by a booby trap. I think what I wrote about 'Billie' gives a reader some idea of what a violent death looks like and feels like. I took something that happened and wrote what I could.
At bottom, the level of violence that I witnessed is impossible for me to replicate in fiction, nonfiction, or spoken word. I can only leave hints.
Throughout the novel, both your main characters find a specific connection with nature. Hai bonds with his buffalo, while Geronimo's interaction with a tiger leaves him changed. What intimate connection with nature did you experience when you served as a medic in Viet Nam?
Ironically, I know the Vietnamese earth more intimately than I know the earth of my own country. I was a platoon medic for the 25th Infantry Division for around nine months. We operated in the Cu Chi and Tay Ninh areas, and were part of the U.S. invasion of Cambodia in May of 1970. I stumbled through rice paddies, forests, jungles, waded through swamps, and at night I lay down on Vietnamese soil ten thousand miles from home. I sometimes felt that the land was inside me, that it was growing in me, and this—rather than being a burden—was my one comfort. I was dazed, not quite believing I was in this war, but now and then the beauty of the place was too great to be missed. Lushness is too mild a word to describe the Vietnamese earth and the Cambodian jungles. Even the bombed-out Cu Chi countryside still had a few pockets that blossomed. In those I took refuge when I could.
What was the underlying purpose of creating two characters, typically viewed as enemies, but who share a common attunement with nature?
Nguyen Luu Hai is as complicated as a rice field. At a glance, a bright green paddy may seem lovely in a simple way, but if you look with care you see that you will never live long enough to understand all the life it contains.
Conchola (Geronimo) is complicated in a different way. Imagine a gnarly hedgerow, or a darkness where a tiger roams. I love what poet George Evans says in his poem, A Walk in the Garden of Heaven: "...someone must remember, someone refuse to be tethered." Conchola is lean, un-tethered. Everything's been stripped away from him but his conscience. He remembers what most Americans forgot or never cared to know.
While writing, I have zero interest in conceptual scaffolding. I work with feeling tones, scenes, smells, colors. It seems to me that I make few conscious choices while writing. Analysis—if there is any—comes later.
Buffalo Boy and Geronimo highlights the importance of nature, and the destruction that war causes on ecological stability. In fact, nature plays such a large role in your novel that it almost takes on the position of a character. Why is it important for people to recognize natural surroundings not only on a daily basis, but more specifically, during wartime?
Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese monk, writes, "In a tiny grain of corn, there is the knowledge, transmitted by previous generations, of how to sprout, and how to make leaves, flowers, and ears of corn. Our body and our mind also have knowledge that has been transmitted by previous gnerations."
As I see it, most Americans have squandered their knowledge for the sake of money and things. The artist Naomi Ido, speaking of westerners in general, said, "We have lost our sense of belonging to nature." I would add that we have lost our sense of reality.
Nothing is more harmful to the earth than the preparation for war and war itself. Even if the U.S. never uses its vast supply of nuclear weapons, the toxins involved in their production will continue to pollute the earth for tens of thousand of years. The culture of militarism is a culture of death.
In regard to war itself, the destruction of the land and its creatures is a lonesome subject. In Viet Nam more than three decades ago, we mainly mourned the loss of American lives, and today the same is true in the Iraq War. I too acknowledge the suffering of our soldiers, the tragic waste, but I want to point out that the natural world—that which sustains all forms of life, ours included—is also being destroyed.
The Vietnamese word for human is con nguoi; con means animal, and nguoi means person. The language is old enough to recall a time when human beings did not view themselves as separate from animals. In the present time, it seems to me that an awareness of the oneness of life is essential for the survival of many species, including Homo sapiens.
A much-needed documentary called Scarred Lands and Wounded Lives,The Environmental Footprint of War, will soon be produced by the Center for Environmental Filmmaking at American University.
The mechanical element of combat, troop maneuvers, and overall military life, are common themes explored by writers, such as Virginia Woolf, Erich Remarque, and many others when describing war. Do you view war and its tactics as something stiff, machine-like, and without thought? How might the use of nature and its destruction in your novel be an indication of the robotic and impassive takeover of the military?
Most of the destruction I witnessed in Viet Nam was the work of men and machines. In the Cu Chi area, we Americans fought against a resistance force that often disappeared into tunnels. Unable to find the "enemy," we called in the Air Force to kill the earth that sustained the "enemy." Planes bombed fields, forests, rivers, water buffalo, etc. Before I knew the term military-industrial complex, I witnessed its work first-hand. Poet Gwendolyn Brooks, in The Near-Johannesburg Boy, puts it this way: "To be mechanic, automatic, Quick—This is the way of the time of evil."
It could be assumed that you recognize a part of yourself in Geronimo, due to his role as a GI medic in Viet Nam. However, what other aspects of Geronimo do you relate to? And in what ways do you also identify with Hai?
Like Hai, I can't survive without beauty. Geronimo is this way, too. They are relentless in their search for beauty. They do not compromise; they do not give up. Beauty is where we meet.
Hai remains rooted in his culture, but Conchola—because of the destruction he has witnessed—no longer sees himself as an American. He wants to be Geronimo, a force of nature that cannot be killed by a bullet or bomb or anything mechanical. In the end, he is the opposite of the war machine. I identify with him when he stumbles through the jungle shouting, "Geronimo, Geronimo!" to scare birds and other creatures from an area about to be bombed.
Which scene and/or character do you find most true to the Buddhist teachings that run throughout your novel?
A chapter called "Hero" describes the nightly prayer routine of Ma Xuan, the buffalo boy's mother, by far the most devout Buddhist in the book. Buddhism has many cultural variations; for the Vietnamese, ancestors are at the heart of the religion. Ma Xuan has an altar with pictures of those who have passed on—her husband, her parents, her husband's parents. Que huong (ancestral homeland) is home in the depest sense. The placenta and umbilical cords of Ma Xuan's two children are buried in the land of the ancestors. Her husband is buried near the field where he worked, as are her parents. The ancestors and the fields they farmed, and the living who continue to work in these fields, are one circle, one web of union. When one lives in this way, and honors the dead in this way, how can one harm the land? It would be like stabbing one's own flesh.
Maxine Hong Kingston, in China Men, says it this way: "Men build bridges and streets when there is already an amazing gold electric ring connecting every living being as surely as if we held hands, flippers and paws, feelers and wings."
Recognizing the fact that this is your first novel, and the excellent critical acclaim it continues to receive, do you see yourself writing another novel? If so, will your material continue on the path of war, nature, or perhaps once again, a combination of the two?
I just finished a novel about baseball and where it intersects, or might intersect, with poetry and politics.
I'm now working on a new novel about Illinois boys (I grew up in Illinois) who end up going to the Viet Nam War. The Vietnamese call it the American War.