Picks and Pans Review: Talking With...

updated 05/31/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/31/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

>Robert Olen Butler

LOUISIANA: "GOD, IT'S THE MEKONG DELTA!"

"VIETNAM RAVISHED ME SENSUALLY," says Robert Olen Butler, 48, who studied the language for a year in the Army before being sent to the country in 1971. "I worked for five months in military intelligence and then seven months as a linguist in Saigon's City Hall. I made amazing friends, from my favorite leper beggar to the highest officials. And after I came back, every day there were a hundred flashes of memories, prompted by a smell of overripe fruit, a certain perfume, a glimpse of a woman's ankle. And I was filled with the same sense of nostalgia, loss and even aspiration that the Vietnamese in my stories feel.

"That place haunted me for many reasons. For one, the situation mirrored Granite City, Ill., where I grew up. There, the cultures of what we perceive of as North and South are in constant collision. The city with its steel mills is full of exiles from Tennessee and Kentucky but also full of working-class people from northern Illinois and Minnesota. Very much like North and South Vietnam, which is torn between political systems, between Catholicism and Buddhism." Butler has written six previous novels, three of them about Vietnam. The first to be published, in 1981, got him a job leaching at McNeese State University in Lake Charles, La., where he still lives. When he first saw Lake Charles from a plane, "I said, 'My God, it's the Mekong Delta!' The same rice paddies, the same calligraphy of marshland waterways and that subtropical kind of haze. It seemed the most natural place in the world for me to be."

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