Dear Artist,

“What a bitter struggle is waged between talent and fate,” wrote Nguyen Du, author of The Tale of Kieu, the most revered saga in Vietnamese literature. So important is the 3,254-verse epic poem that most children in Vietnam know much of it by heart. Written in 1820, it’s the story of a young girl whose beauty is her principal talent but who suffers one miserable setback after the other. Finally, she is forced to sell herself. The Vietnamese take the story to be a metaphor for their country — beautiful but doomed. “When one is endowed with talent,” goes the moral, “one cannot depend on it.”

Migration of the Ladybugs, 2009 oil and alcohol-based marker on paper 80 x 110 cms by Tiffany Chung (b.1969)

Migration of the Ladybugs, 2009
oil and alcohol-based marker on paper
80 x 110 cm
by Tiffany Chung (b.1969)

On first examination, this idea holds both spirituality and beauty.

Talent is often thought of as those sorts of gifts we are born with — blessings like beauty and brains — or as abilities to be developed, such as drawing, painting or musicianship. One thing’s for sure: having talent doesn’t mean you’re fated to make it work for you. Like a flower blooming in a desert, talent can be unseen and unappreciated.

The development of talent takes fertile ground and dedicated application. Individualism — even eccentricity — is the key to invention and creative evolution. In societies that revere fate, talent is stifled. Like the proverbial nail that sticks out, talent gets hammered down.

Flowers, 2006 mixed media and photocollage on paper 40 x 40 cms by Tiffany Chung

Flowers, 2006
mixed media and photocollage on paper
40 x 40 cm
by Tiffany Chung

Where ideology lingers and opportunities are limited, fate becomes a dominant power. Here in Vietnam the annual income is $500. Unemployment is high. In the countryside, there are few telephones or television sets. Public information and patriotic music are broadcast on the streets and across the fields. Transportation is by foot or bicycle. Sanitation is primitive. Barefoot young women — programmed rice-transplanting machines — stoop knee-deep in flooded paddies. The passing water buffalo driver looks with benign apathy at the peculiar foreigner and wonders “why?”

For those talented ones in any culture who are fated with some degree of freedom from everyday toil, there can be little excuse.

Best regards,


PS: “Good fortune seldom came the way,

Of those endowed, they say,

With genius and a dainty face,

What tragedies take place.” (Nguyen Du, from The Tale of Kieu)

Operation Lam Son 719 – military dispositions and attacks, 1971, 2018 acrylic, ink and oil on vellum and paper by tiffany Chung

Operation Lam Son 719 – military dispositions and attacks, 1971, 2018
acrylic, ink and oil on vellum and paper
by Tiffany Chung

Esoterica: I’m laptopping you from noisy Ly Thuong Kiet Street in downtown Hanoi. Thousands of motorbikes pass here every hour, their stoic drivers masked against the bluish pollution that lends to an ethereal perspective in all directions. They move steadily, toot frequently and pay scant attention to the occasional traffic lights. The system works remarkably well. “Don’t do anything eccentric or quick,” shouts our guide as we step out into traffic. “Move slowly and with others as if flowing in a river — the waters will part for you.”

This letter was originally published as “Talent” on February 3, 2009.

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“My will exceeds my talents.” (Edvard Munch)



  1. Jérémie Giles on

    Much wisdom fully enjoyed once more stepping in the path of my 94th birthday on the 13th of February.
    Thanks for all your input Sara…

      • Jérémie Giles on

        Thanks George, One little correction. today February 14, I’m entering the path into my 94th year. I was born Sunday at 2.15 am February 13,1927.
        In Cambridge, Mass.—That would make you my Elder.

  2. Dear Sarah, Today as I struggled with un cooperative, I found myself thinking of your father. I really miss him and his gentle insights. I’m so glad you are still posting his letters as well as your own.

  3. Not sure what the takeaway is exactly, but glad we still live, if tenuously in a democracy. As a naturalist though one line struck me as typically human, and I’d like to share a not-art reply. The cactus blooming in the desert is appreciated, for whatever bat or insect feeds on its nectar and pollinates it. It is very integral to its place in the world.
    The art reply might be that the not famous among us may be succeeding in their own environment, sharing with friends, or saving their own psyche.
    Love your website and its wisdom. Thanks to you for sharing with us.

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