An Exclusive Interview with Wayne Karlin, Homer Steedly Jr.
Connecting established and emerging authors with the community has been the goal of the College of Southern Maryland’s Connections series since it began 20 years ago, with this spring’s series no exception in bringing nationally recognized talent up-close and personal with a Southern Maryland audience.
Kicking off the spring literary events March 5 will be CSM Professor Wayne Karlin, an author who has been honored with the Paterson Prize for fiction and an Excellence in the Arts Award from the Vietnam Veterans of America. United States Poet Laureate Kay Ryan, a community college professor in northern California, will be featured April 2, as she brings recognition to The Community College Poetry Project, a three-tiered project she hopes will encourage and promote the importance of poetry and community college programs. Rounding out the series will be the Connections literary magazine publication reading, April 30.
CSM’s Neal Dwyer, a literature and languages professor as well as a coordinator of the college’s Connections programs and literary magazine, views the college’s literary series as an opportunity to connect and inspire people who may not realize that they have an interest, or talent, in the arts. This is accomplished not only through the writers who are featured as guest speakers each semester but also through the college’s twice-yearly literary magazine that features the poetry, stories, artwork and photography of Southern Maryland residents.
Since it began in 1990, Connections has featured National Book Award winners Tim O’Brien and Robert Stone, Pulitzer Prize winning poets Yusef Komunyakaa and Henry Taylor, and Maryland Poet Laureates Lucille Clifton and Michael Glaser.
Author of 10 books, Karlin will read from his latest, “Wandering Souls,” beginning at 7:30 p.m., March 5, at CSM’s Leonardtown Campus, Building A, Auditorium. In it, Karlin reflects on the struggle of veteran Homer Steedly Jr. to find peace for himself and the family of Hoang Ngoc Dam, a man he killed in Vietnam. Tickets are $3 and will be available at the door. The event is supported by Café des Artistes in Leonardtown.
Karlin’s previous works include “Marble Mountain,” “War Movies,” “The Wished-For Country,” “Prisoners” and “Rumors and Stones.” He is the recipient of numerous awards, including five State of Maryland Awards for fiction, two National Endowment of the Arts Fellowships, the Paterson Prize for fiction and an Excellence in the Arts Award from the Vietnam Veterans of America. His work has appeared in various media forms including journals, newspapers and movies. Karlin, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps including a tour in Vietnam in 1966-67 as a helicopter gunner, has taught at CSM for more than 20 years.
Kicking off National Poetry Month at CSM, Ryan will read poems from several of her collections, including the forthcoming “The Best of It,” beginning at 7:30 p.m., April 2, at CSM’s La Plata Campus. Tickets are $5; for information call the box office, 301-934-7828.
Ryan has lived in Marin County, Calif. and taught foundation English skills at the College of Marin for more than 30 years. She is the recipient of numerous awards including the Ruth Lilly Prize, a Guggenheim fellowship, the Ingram Merrill Award, a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship and four Pushcart Prizes. She has been included in “The Best American Poetry” collection four times and was included in its “The Best of the Best American Poetry 1988-1997” anthology. In 2006, she was named the chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, a post she will hold until 2012.
The Library of Congress’ 16th Poet Laureate, Ryan unveiled The Community College Poetry Project in October. “It is at a community college that a student can progress all the way from learning to read to learning to read poetry,” Ryan said in a Library of Congress press release announcing the launch of the project on Oct. 1, 2009. “That is, she can get the basic tools she must have to advance in the world and then go on and use them for the mind’s joy. This is a progression that improves both the student and her community every step of the way.”
The project includes “Poetry for the Mind’s Joy,” a web site to be launched by the Library of Congress that will feature poetry submitted by community colleges and a National Poetry Day on community college campuses April 1 that will include events, readings and a conference call/webcast.
Completing the Connections series will be readings by contributors to the spring literary magazine, beginning at 7:30 p.m., April 30, at the La Plata Campus, Learning Resource Building, Room 102. The event is free. Deadline to submit poetry, short stories or black-and-white photography for consideration in the magazine is March 17.
Author Helps “Wandering Souls” To Find Peace
CSM Hosts Professor Wayne Karlin for Connections Literary Series, March 5
In war, promotion and awards may accrue by conquering and destroying the enemy while avoiding the bullets, bombs and treacherous terrain. At home, though, there are no promotions or awards for navigating through the landmines of war’s aftermath. It is a journey of memories, a battle of “Wandering Souls.” College of Southern Maryland professor and author Wayne Karlin writes of this journey in his latest book “Wandering Souls,” which reflects on the struggle of veteran Homer Steedly Jr. to find peace for himself and the family of Hoang Ngoc Dam, a man he killed in Vietnam.
Karlin is the author of 10 books including Marble Mountain, War Movies The Wished-For Country, Prisoners and Rumors and Stones. He is the recipient of numerous awards, including five State of Maryland Awards for fiction, two National Endowment of the Arts Fellowships, the Paterson Prize for fiction and an Excellence in the Arts Award from the Vietnam Veterans of America. His work has appeared in various media forms including journals, newspapers and movies. Karlin, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps including a tour in Vietnam in 1966-67 as a helicopter gunner, has taught at CSM for more than 20 years.
Steedly started his Vietnam combat service as a second lieutenant leading the 1st Platoon of Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 8th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division. In October 1969, after a series of promotions and re-enlistment, Steedly assumed command of Delta Company, 1st Battalion, 8th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division.
On March 19, 1969, Steedly turned a bend in a trail in the Pleiku Province and came face-to-face with a North Vietnamese soldier. Armed, they stared at each other for a split-second before Steedly shot first, killing Dam, a 24-year-old medic.
Searching the body, Steedly found several small notebooks and papers which he took and sent home to his mother in North Carolina. For 35 years, Steedly’s memories and Dam’s papers stayed hidden until his mom returned them to him. With the help of his friend Karlin, Steedly then located Dam’s family.
As part of CSM’s Connections Literary Series, Karlin will read from Wandering Souls, which tells the story of Steedly and Dam’s fateful meeting, the returning of Dam’s documents and the return of Steedly to Vietnam to meet Dam’s family. The reading will begin at 7:30 p.m., March 5, at CSM’s Leonardtown Campus, Building A, Auditorium.
In preparation for the Connections program, Karlin and Steedly discussed memory, confronting ones past and helping veterans work through the healing process. A study guide and the interview are online at www.csmd.edu/Connections/readings.html.
CSM: Karlin, you once asked fellow writer Tim O’Brien why he continues to write about Vietnam and its effects. His response was, “It validates my memory.” Why do you keep returning to Vietnam as subject?
Karlin: For one thing, war and its consequences provide a writer with intense situations which dramatize basic human dilemmas. For another, the mind-sets and kind of decisions that got us into the Vietnam war, the particular situations of that war and the kind of damages it caused, are all are being repeated; and finally, when you are a writer, and when part of your own experience stemmed from an experience which was seminal and self-defining for your generation and your country, I believe there is a responsibility to write about it.
CSM: Karlin, as I was reading I was very touched by your concern and caring for Homer, especially when you brought him back to meet Dam’s family. Were there times when you almost abandoned writing this book?
Karlin: Many times, particularly after I brought the documents back–without Homer–and then he decided we should go back and he should meet the family. It seemed he had come to peace with many things after he saw (through film and my description) how much the document return had meant to and helped the family come to their own peace, and I was constantly afraid that actually meeting them, and then going back to the former battlefields, would undo that healing. As it turned out, my fears were unrealized.
CSM: You have worked on this project for more than five years, after all this time what is the thing that surprised you the most and why?
Karlin: The grace and courage of Homer in his effort to face the past, to carry its weight and make something good come from it, and the grace and courage of the Hoang family and a Vietnamese village, so willing to take into their hearts a former enemy and bring the war to an end.
CSM: Karlin, you appear in the second half of the book and periodically in the beginning. As a fellow veteran, how hard was it for you in the first half of the book to not include your own experiences of Vietnam?
Karlin: I wanted the book to be primarily the story of Homer and Dam–the American G.I. and the North Vietnamese soldier he killed, and I wanted as much as possible to stay out of the story. I only intrude into the second part of the book because I had to become part of the story, when I returned the documents Homer had taken from Dam’s body to the Hoang family and when I went to meet and travel with them and Homer. At that point, some of my own experiences were relevant.
Steedly: I think there is a lot of personal story there for Wayne as well. I think my return to Vietnam affected him almost as deeply as it did me. It was a healing experience. We all have demons to put to rest.
CSM: Karlin, in the book, you respond to Dr. Jonathan Shay’s theory that what keeps some soldiers from committing atrocities is “moral luck” by arguing, “What you do depends on not where you are but on what you bring with you to that place.” Could you discuss this idea further?
Karlin: Shay contended that under the “right” pressures, anyone would commit an atrocity. Yet, we see that even in the worst incidents, such as the My Lai massacre, there were soldiers in the exact same environment, under the same pressures, who resisted participation. If we accept that something in their background helped them to do so, we can ask what kind of training and pre-conditioning might be cultivated systematically. If we accept such behavior as inevitable for everyone, then there is nothing we can do about it.
CSM: Steedly, what did you bring with you when you returned to Vietnam that allowed you to confront your past and meet with Dam’s family?
Steedly: The sense of doing the right thing more than anything else. There was a family that didn’t know what had happened to one of their family members. It was only right that I go back and explain as much as I could about it.
CSM: Karlin, time and memory play a large role in this book and you even include a discussion with the Vietnamese writer Bao Ninh who describes early Vietnam War literature as being “the ghost of war.” Do you feel that the passing of time allows for greater truths to be told or that time is a hindrance to memory and truth?
Karlin: Time, of course, is the great enemy of memory. But, on the other hand, it can allow for contemplation of meaning. Homer had forgotten many details of his service; it was a survival mechanism–he’d even put out of his mind the fact he had sent home to his mother the documents he’d taken off Dam’s body. But the reality was that all of it had just stayed buried, and still affected him deeply. When he saw the documents again, after 35 years, as when he saw some of the battlefield where he fought, it all came back vividly, it was all just waiting beneath a thin membrane of memory.
CSM: Steedly, when you returned home, you didn’t talk about the war because you were afraid people wouldn’t believe you or would discount your experiences. What would you say to our current returning vets about your years of silence?
Steedly: They should find other vets, not necessarily even from the same war, but find other vets because those are the people they can talk to. You can’t talk to civilians about combat. You just can’t. It horrifies them to even think that you did those kinds of things and are now walking around loose. It doesn’t work. You need to find someone you can talk to without having to couch your words, or hold back your thoughts or tame up your language. Another vet can read between the lines, knows what you are talking about and has had the same feelings you’ve had or are having. I recently went to the 4th Infantry Division Reunion in St. Louis and met with 150 or so vets from the Vietnam War. Within five minutes you are talking openly and in detail about things you haven’t spoken of in 40 years. You feel comfortable because you don’t have to explain yourself or justify yourself. They know where you have been and that is what these vets need, so I encourage them to go to the Veteran’s Administration and vet centers and talk with people who have been in their shoes and talk their language. Don’t do what I did and wait 40 years to do it.
Also, I do think that of all the tragedies, the biggest tragedy of war is not the effect it has had on the vets, tragic as that is, but the effect it has had on their friends, families and spouses because when these vets came back they were different. It affects everyone around them. Any woman who stayed with a man who has lived through combat, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and all it brings deserves a medal.
CSM: Karlin, as we see the number of Iraq and Afghanistan veteran suicides increasing, how can a story such as this change the public and the military’s response to those who are afflicted? How would you like to see this disease dealt with?
Karlin: Like Homer just said, when he came back from the war he tried to talk to people about it, but soon found that no one wanted to listen, either because they were indifferent–felt it had nothing to do with them–or because he disturbed the more comfortable images they wanted to have. Because of this, the experience always remains inside, creates in oneself the feeling of being a pariah, outside the community–one can’t come home. In his case, as in many, it led to self-destructive, suicidal behavior. When Homer and I went to Vietnam last year, we helped the Hoang family find, disinter, bring to light, commemorate and then rebury in peace the remains of the man Homer killed. That process–not literally of course, but in essence and pattern–is what an individual, and a country, has to do to bring men and women home from war. The community has to be willing to listen, to share the experience and be changed by it–and even to make something positive come out of it–in order for the soldier to truly come home.
CSM: Steedly, how do you think families and the public can help returning soldiers?
Steedly: Good question, not sure I know the answer. Talk with another vet. Of course, when you come back that is the last thing you want to do. You want to return to a normal life. I think the military does a better job of encouraging vets to attend counseling which is a good idea because you arent going to do it voluntarily. It is too fresh and painful for you to want to go there. But at some point you really do need to talk about and touch your emotions. I was afraid of my emotions. I had so much anger and rage in me that I was afraid that if someone said something wrong to me I might go and kill someone. When I first came back, I never had a weapon far away and I had a real fortunate incident where I realized that my combat instincts might lead me to kill someone, but stopped in time and realized the danger.
Try to understand that it is scary coming back. You are coming back from a place with no rules and you are coming home to a place of rules. My solution for PTSD was that I became a workaholic. I worked six of seven days a week, 12, 14, 16 hours a day. I loved working with computers, was good at it and didnt mind working like a maniac, but that was how I dealt with it. I was so busy I didnt have time to think about Vietnam. I think that is how a lot of veterans handle it.
Sooner or later, it has to be dealt with because the little of things can bring it back. I thought I was perfectly normal, just a shy farm boy living 30 miles out of town in the country in a trailer by myself, who didnt make eye contact or talk to anyone. I thought I was coping well but now I know I had all the classic symptoms of PTSD. Of course, if someone had talked me into seeking counseling I might have gone once or twice to be polite but that would have been the end of it.
My healing has been quite dramatic and I am now in touch with hundreds of vets via email and phone. It has gotten to the point where I feel like I am back in a leadership role, back helping my troops.