Lady Borton: After Sorrow

by Sarah Tilton, Feb 1, 1996 | Destinations: Vietnam / Ho Chi Minh City

In 1989 Lady Borton, an American living in Vietnam, learned the proper way to harvest rice. Working in the village of Ban Long, she joined the long lines of women in the paddies who taught her to hold the plants in her left hand, cut the stalks (five at a time) with the sickle in her right hand, and then lay the stems out evenly. "Like the women around me, I cut five plants and set them aside; cut and set, cut and set."

When Borton first arrived in Vietnam some twenty years earlier, days like this intrigued her but weren't possible: "the war and my white skin kept me from entering ordinary life...I lived on glimpses." But in the 1980s she was able to become part of life in Vietnam and she has written about it in her latest book, After Sorrow.

After Sorrow is a collection of stories Borton gathered between 1987 and 1993 when she was living in three villages: Ban Long in the south, Khanh Phu in the north, and Hanoi ("Vietnam's largest village"). At the time, such access to the Vietnamese by an American was almost unprecedented and Borton became an active part of the communities she met. With a reporter's eye for detail, Borton brings us into these communities revealing not only the peoples' daily routines, but also their customs, traditions and values. She is especially attuned to the roles of women, and her interviews and conversations with women make the book particularly insightful.

Borton inspired many Vietnamese women to tell stories they had never shared before. They talk about the war and the mat tich or "missing." They remember the bombings, carrying ammunition, guiding soldiers, and not being able to urinate while hiding in the in the jungle because it might attract the tigers. They also discuss family, weddings, and rice harvests.

Borton talks about Vietnam from a unique perspective, having lived in the country both during and after the war. In 1969 she joined the Quaker Service's amputee rehabilitation center in South Vietnam. Then, in 1983, she became one of the first Americans to return to Vietnam. Currently, Borton is field director for the American Friends Service Committee in Hanoi.