William Joiner Center Director Receives Award in Vietnam
April 17, 2011
For more than 25 years, William Joiner Center director and Vietnam War veteran Kevin Bowen has been earning the respect of the Vietnamese community for his work bringing doctors, teachers, and artists to Vietnam through an exchange program; for his poetry and translations; and for his study of the effects of exposure to Agent Orange.
Last month the 1973 UMass Boston alumnus traveled to Vietnam to be honored for this work, receiving the Phan Chau Trinh Award, named after the highly respected writer, poet, and early 20th-century Vietnamese nationalist.
The Phan Chau Trinh Culture Foundation, a nonprofit organization of scholars, writers, and educators in Vietnam, recognizes independent scholars who have made contributions to Vietnamese culture in four areas: education, translation, research in cultural studies and humanities, and Vietnamese studies. The foundation gave Bowen the Trinh Award for his contributions to Vietnamese studies.
Bowen was drafted and served in the 1st Air Cavalry Division in Vietnam from 1968 to 1969. Since then, he has made many trips to Vietnam, but this most recent visit, with his wife and children to attend the award ceremony, was particularly special.
“It was very significant because the people in the room were people who had been on all sides during the war,” he says.
Bowen says he shares the award with colleagues at the William Joiner Center for the Study of War and Social Consequences, which he has headed since 1984, and with UMass Boston and members of the greater Boston community who have hosted Vietnamese people since the early 1990s.
Bowen and the Joiner Center group were part of the first exchanges between the United States and Vietnam, sending shipments of medical supplies and equipment, and arranging exchanges of doctors, English and ESL teachers, artists, and writers.
“It was really sort of a leap of faith by people when we started the whole exchange program. The countries were under embargo, they weren’t talking about diplomatic relations, [it was] just trust for them to come here,” Bowen says.
Founded in 1982 and named after William G. Joiner, Jr., an African American veteran who died of a cancer associated with exposure to Agent Orange, the Joiner Center and UMass Boston in 1987 cosponsored a conference studying the effects of the herbicide used as warfare in the Vietnam War. In 1989, Bowen and a small group from the center went to Vietnam to document the effects of the U.S. embargo on Vietnam and the lingering consequences of the Vietnam War.
“The level of trust and understanding between our two countries in those times was low,” Bowen says. “Perceptions of Vietnam in the United States and of the U.S. in Vietnam were clouded by decades of propaganda and misinformation. The virtual elimination of funding for programs for teaching Vietnamese language, history, and culture in the U.S., and the similar cuts in programs in English or American Studies in Vietnam meant truly direct transparent communication was all but impossible.”
In 1990, Bowen and the Vietnam Writers Association hosted the first conference of Vietnamese and American veteran writers. In 1992, he had the opportunity to go back to Vietnam and interview writers from across the country. Playing Basketball with the Viet Cong, Bowen’s first collection of poetry, was published in 1994. His poems about Vietnam and the war have appeared in numerous publications since then.
Put simply, Bowen’s work has nurtured a history of collaboration with Vietnam.
Bowen is now in the process of planning a conference of American and Vietnamese writers in Vietnam. It will take place later this year and will involve some of the participants from the 1990 conference, along with some younger writers. He is also involved in a translation initiative in Vietnam and is continuing work on raising consciousness about Agent Orange issues.