EVENT Graham Walker's speech at the Moruya book launch in June
BOOK EVENT hosted by Moruya Books
Graham Walker launched Biff's book The Third Chopstick: Tracks through the Vietnam War on the 22 June 2022, hosted by Moruya Books, he has kindly given permission to publish it here.
My name is Graham Walker. I am the Research Officer the Vietnam Veterans Federation and have watched the development of Biff’s book, The Third Chopstick, from its beginning.
It is quite unusual in these days of rigidly held partisan positions on many social and political issues to find those who want to bridge the gap. Biff Ward is such a person.
The bridge she has built is over the social divide of the Vietnam war.
Biff has a long history of political activism. The causes for which she has campaigned include: the Ban the Bomb movement; Women's Liberation in its many facets; Radical Education; Close Pine Gap; Close Nurrungar; Indigenous causes; anti-harassment; Extinction Rebellion and the Greens.
Of special mention is that Biff, in the 1970s, was a foundation member of Australia’s Women’s Liberation movement which fought so hard for gender equality.
Biff represented the 70s phase of Women’s Liberation as one of the speakers along with Brittany Higgins at last year’s March4Justice rally on the lawns of Parliament House protesting that institution’s toxic culture.
Most relevant to the writing of The Third Chopstick is that Biff was also an active, passionate, and committed anti-Vietnam War protestor.
Biff says that ‘When the war ended in 1975, most of the protesters had moved on, and I had too, but some part [of the war] stayed in me’.
Biff realised she had no idea who the soldiers were who fought the war against which she protested -- they were a mystery in uniform. She also realised that she had no idea what fighting the war was like. These were blank pages she felt strongly she had to fill.
Some years later, there was a conference on the Vietnam War at the Casula Powerhouse Art Centre in Sydney at which papers on all sides of the war, including the protests, were presented. I was presenting a paper on behalf of veterans, on the Agent Orange issue.
I met Biff there. She evinced interest in understanding the veterans’ point of view, so I invited her to the headquarters of the Vietnam Veterans Federation, the Lion’s Den as she might have thought of it, and introduced her to veterans, many of whom were suffering from the traumatic effects of war service.
This was the genesis of The Third Chopstick.
So why is Biff’s history in the feminist and ant-war movements relevant to her writing this book?
The relevance is that Biff came to the writing of this book with certain passionately held social and political beliefs against the Vietnam war and no understanding of those who fought it. That is an unusual background for a writer who wants to understand war veterans and their experience. But coming from this point of view has given Biff’s writing an originality -- a certain energy, an edge – that is surprisingly dynamic.
It has, in many ways, made The Third Chopstick, a quite extraordinary book.
Having entered and being accepted into the world of Vietnam veterans, Biff was able to arrange many interviews, including with Ray Fulton, a tireless campaigner for justice for veterans. Biff relates her long association with Ray— a relationship between a severely traumatised war veteran and a passionate anti-war protestor. It is a great story.
So to the book itself which is in three parts but with each part closely connected to the others.
The first part is the story of Biff’s experience as an anti-war protestor. This she writes about in full colour:
Here is an excerpt:
‘As the phalanx of gleaming black vehicles with police outriders appeared high up on Oxford Street, we exploded into a forward shouting rush. I was pinned against a barricade, yet my voice didn’t miss a beat. I almost swooned, feeling our togetherness.
‘As the cavalcade curved in front of us, protesters on the other side of the road ducked under barricades and threw themselves in the path of the cars. The caravan slowed to a brief halt. Police and burly men in suits seized the protesters and hurled them aside.
Later, the press reported that NSW Premier Askin, inside one of the cars, had shouted,…. Run the bastards over.’
The second part of the book is about Biff’s long association with the veterans, a story with ups and downs and many surprises.
Here is an excerpt of one of the many interviews.
‘I didn’t go to the welcome home march in 1987, he said. I thought, It’s too late you mongrels.
Five years later, in 1992, the Vietnam Memorial was due to be opened in Canberra. Mick was angry because most of the funds were provided by veterans and their supporters. The government should have put in one hundred per cent, not twenty, he snapped. But a veteran he knew said it would be good to go.
A few days before, he was at the pub with his darts mates and when something came up about the competition, he said he wouldn’t be around the next weekend. When asked why, he said he was going to Canberra and when asked why on earth he would visit such a disgusting sod of a town, he said , It’s to do with the Vietnam Memorial.
There was a thud of silence.
I realised, he told me, that my mouth was utterly dry and my heart was booming, big bangs in my chest.
Before he could speak, someone else, on a croak, said, Why?
You’re not a ….
It turned out there were three others, alone in their separate trucks, drinking together for ten, fifteen, twenty years, throwing darts -- not saying -- never mentioning.
This vignette had me speechless. Later I heard similar stories from several men. They would describe their family, their friends, not asking, the local pub and the RSL, disowning them. So they withdrew into a world of aloneness, each thinking he was the only one. I call it, The Great Silence.
The third part is about Biff’s love affair with Vietnam.
She had immersed herself in an understanding of the protest movement and the veteran movement, but the story could not be complete without an understanding of Vietnam itself. These three elements for her were not separate. They were the sides of a triangle that needed each other to be whole.
So Biff organised a visit to Vietnam then returned again and again with tour groups she organised herself.
We are not given so much a travelogue but a story of the effect of being in Vietnam on individuals in those groups, some of whom were veterans.
Here is an excerpt:
That afternoon, we travelled further west to Black Lady Mountain. On the way, Ed filled us in. During the war, he said, hundreds of both sides died here. Many were not buried, and the Vietnamese believe their souls are hanging around the mountain, waiting to go home.
Ahead, a gigantic conical hill rose out of the plain, singular and menacing.
A chairlift deposited us three-quarters of the way up at a pagoda where the Vietnamese pray for the release of the souls of the dead. I joined Ed and Bob and Beth-Maree, a nurse veteran, in the doorway.
Ed was explaining to Bob that the fourteen-year-old guerrilla whom he killed could be with him, could become part of him. Bob could take the strength and talents of that boy inside himself, could let them live through him. It’s the shamanistic way, Ed added, warrior honouring warrior.
The ending of this book is one an imaginative fiction writer would be proud of, illustrating the old adage that truth can be stranger than fiction.
I hope you enjoy reading this book as much as I have.