REFLECTION FOR MELANIE
from Angie (3 March 2013)
Melanie’s sudden death is such a big loss that I do not even know where to begin. Her impacts on my life spanned over two decades, first as a mentor, then a colleague, then a very dear friend and a spiritual sister. There are so many loving memories with Melanie, that I can only highlight some here.
I first met her on a boat trip in Sông Hồng (the Red river in Hanoi) in the early 1990s at the time when Vietnam was barely open for scholars and visitors. So, Melanie and a few others (such as Irene Norlund from Denmark) were indeed among the first scholars to come to post-war Vietnam. I was doing fieldwork for my dissertation and on a personal journey, as a Vietnamese American, to find my cultural identity in my parents’ birthplace: the North. Melanie was a big name in Vietnam studies field (over the years, I had cited many of her publications, including a fantastic article on “The Labour Movement of Vietnam” in Labour History 1998 in my works), so I was totally in awe. But she allayed all my anxiety: being very nice, gentle, and unpretentious. She even expressed interest in my work! That little meeting on a boat set the stage for a long-lasting and loving friendship and collaboration for the next 20 years. Until she unexpectedly passed away.
We worked on two books together; one did see the light of day: Reaching for the Dream: Challenges of Sustainable Development in Vietnam (2004) which materialized a resilient effort started as we co-coordinated and presented in the July 1997 EUROVIET III Conference in Amsterdam. Melanie successfully brought together Vietnamese and non-Vietnamese scholars for their insights and analyses, as well as secured a grant from MacQuarie University to hold a workshop on this book in Darwin, Australia. The other book manuscript still has not been published: Opening the Door: Two Centuries of Markets in Vietnam. We finished this unpublished manuscript in 2001 with Đặng Phong (the first author, who passed away in 2010). Throughout the long process working on these two books, Melanie mentored me: in terms of her in-depth knowledge of the Vietnamese social and economic institutions, her broad political economic theoretical understanding, and her methodological rigor. I learned so much from her passion and intensity for rigorous fieldwork research, especially interviewing decision makers and people who were affected by the issues/problems under study. I had always admired Melanie for her perseverance in trying to understand a language that was foreign to her (and she mastered it, reading arcane Vietnamese research materials very well) and also in working closely with the Vietnamese (scholars, students, government officials, everyday people)–a task that was often challenging, not only due to the language issue but also politics. Our mutual Vietnamese friends and colleagues have always loved her and respected her perseverance in working with the Vietnamese, against all odds!
But our shared concerns for the well-being of women drew us closer together, to the point that in our email correspondence, we always called each other “Chị Trắc, Em Nhị” (older sister Trưng Trắc and younger sister Trưng Nhị)! We dared to compare ourselves to the Trưng Sisters, the two Vietnamese heroines who fought against the Chinese rule in 40 AD (the first century) and regained Vietnam’s independence, if only for a fleeting three-year period.
We both focus on gender equity and gender relations in our scholarly works. When I met her for the last time in Vietnam in 2011 (in commemoration of Đặng Phong’s first death anniversary), she was full of joy, sharing with me how excited she was in working with a very capable team at the National Economics University, Hanoi (a project funded by UN Women). She continued to focus on her concerns about long-term changes in gender relations brought about by economic liberalization (market system) since the 1980s. I continue to be inspired by her vision for social justice: to me, she is a wonderful feminist Marxist who brought gender front and center into her (socio-economic) class analyses. She was very much concerned about the negative impacts of the market system on poor women, or in her words: “the feminization of poverty” or “ruralization” of women.
But Melanie was very down-to-earth, and she knew how to enjoy the present moment. Yes, we shared many hours commiserating over our heartaches with our prospective men (at times with Ms Hạnh, our kind-hearted and hardworking landlady, whose life story inspired both of us while we did our fieldwork in Hanoi). Yes, we talked about justice issues for women, and for the poor in this capitalist world. But we also shared a lot of good wines and good foods while enjoying beautiful classical music, Vietnamese northern folk songs, films, and the performing arts that we both loved so much.
Melanie passed away way too soon. We had been planning for many projects together. The research passion for network analysis remained so strong in her. I cried as I reviewed a project that we had planned to work on together: “Migrant Networks in The Clothing Industry and Their Impacts on the Sending Communities in Cambodia and Vietnam.” Still the interest in networks, still in poor women workers, but the scope has become larger and more comparative within Southeast Asia.
There are just so many precious moments and experiences with Melanie in the last 20 years that it is very difficult to select. But this one memory stood out that tells me: this is the essence of Melanie, always dedicated to her friends and colleagues. We are both classical music buffs. I love Brahms symphonies, especially the third movement of his Symphony No.3, which I could not find in Vietnam at the time I was doing fieldwork there (1990s). To satisfy my “bourgeois taste,” Melanie bought me a Brahms symphonies CD when she met me in Hanoi and together we listened to it, playing full blast! To this day, I still listen to it, one of my many precious memories with Melanie.
In closing, I do think that one of the ways to keep Melanie’s spirit alive in us and to preserve her memory, legacy and vision is to carry on the projects that many of us have been working on with her, inspired by her, and that we know she loved and cared about deeply in her heart and mind.
Thương chi Trắc (love to older sister Trắc)
em Nhị (from younger sister Nhị)