The PEN Pod: On the Conversations that Help Us Heal with Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai
Debut novelist Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai is a poet, whose book The Mountains Sing made waves this March as a stunning saga of a Vietnamese family enduring hardships across the tumultuous 20th century. The book centers on a grandmother and granddaughter, and Quế Mai conducted extensive research through the course of writing it, but also based some of the fictional account on her own family’s story. Quế Mai spoke with us about her experiences of writing the novel, the necessity of more fiction about the Vietnam War that centers Vietnamese people, and what she’s reading now.
Tell us a little bit about this novel and how your family’s own experience informed it.
The Mountains Sing is a journey into Vietnam’s 20th-century history, via the lives of four generations of a Vietnamese family. As the reader enters this novel, I hope they will experience the impact of historical events on the lives of normal citizens, hear the language, taste the food, experience Vietnam and the Vietnamese culture in its full complexity and color. You asked about my own family experience and how it informed the texts. The dedication of the books says, “For my grandmother who perished in the Great Hunger, for my grandfather who died because of the land reform, and for my uncle whose youth the Vietnam War consumed. For the millions of people, Vietnamese and non-Vietnamese who lost their lives in the war. May our planet see another armed conflict.” So while this is a work of fiction, my family experiences inspired the story. Like most Vietnamese families, we were directly impacted by historical events of our country, such as foreign colonization and domination, the great hunger, the land reform, the Vietnam War, and many more events. So I fictionalized some of my family experiences into the book, but also the stories of many other Vietnamese I know.
“In Vietnam, there has been an outcry from the media and the public to have a memorial for the victims of the Great Hunger, or at least have a special day to commemorate those who died, but nothing has been done so far. And so, after 55 years of that debt, The Mountains Sing serves, I hope, as a memorial for the victims of the Great Hunger, to honor their suffering and to remind us that we should not let such a terrible thing happen again.”
Part of the story touches on the Great Hunger of 1945, and I don’t think a lot of people who aren’t familiar with Vietnamese history know about that famine and know about other parts of 20th-century Vietnam. Why did you feel it was important to make that a part of your story?
That’s a great question. I was compelled to write about the Great Hunger of 1945 because I lost three family members as a result of it. My father’s mother died together with her youngest son and her brother, during the Great Famine, and they were just among two million Vietnamese who perished. This horrific event was a direct consequence of World War II. But as you said, so little has been written about it, especially in fiction about Vietnam in English. So I felt it was important to imagine how it was, to document it through my research and imagination, so this event is not forgotten. In Vietnam, there has been an outcry from the media and the public to have a memorial for the victims of the Great Hunger, or at least have a special day to commemorate those who died, but nothing has been done so far. And so, after 55 years of that debt, The Mountains Sing serves, I hope, as a memorial for the victims of the Great Hunger, to honor their suffering and to remind us that we should not let such a terrible thing happen again.
You wrote in an essay that you hope the book recenters Vietnamese people in the context of the Vietnam War. Why do you feel that that’s necessary?
There have been thousands of books written about the Vietnam War in English. I feel that very few of them represent the viewpoints of people from inside Vietnam, especially the viewpoints of Vietnamese citizens who had to carry the burden of the war. Whenever Vietnamese women appear in this type of fiction in English, we serve as a background to the American stories. Vietnamese women don’t need to speak, or when we do, we appear very simple, naive, cruel, or opportunistic, or dependent on Americans to rescue us. So I wanted to write against that image. I wanted to show through my fiction the incredible courage, resilience, kindness, and complexity of the many Vietnamese women who surrounded me during my childhood and as I grew up and who remained very important in my life until now.
“Forty-five years after the war, the wounds that divided our country and families, both at home and in the diaspora, remained really deep and still bleeding. And for that reason, I wanted to place the Vietnamese people at the center of this book, in the hope that we’ll be open to difficult, but necessary conversations that can help us heal.”
Another reason for me to place the Vietnamese people in the center of this novel is that I want to honor more than three million Vietnamese people from north to south of Vietnam, who died as a result of the war, and many more millions who are still traumatized and displaced. Just like for the American people, the Vietnam War divided our families in our community. Forty-five years after the war, the wounds that divided our country and families, both at home and in the diaspora, remained really deep and still bleeding. And for that reason, I wanted to place the Vietnamese people at the center of this book, in the hope that we’ll be open to difficult, but necessary conversations that can help us heal. After the publication of the book, quite a few Vietnamese who live in many different countries have reached out to me, and they said, “I see my family history inside the book, and this is an amazing thing.”
A number of newspapers, including The New York Times and many others, have actually suggested that people read your book as a way to transport themselves amid the pandemic. Why do you think that is?
I think any book can provide a portal for us to escape the current pandemic, and for that reason, I have been reading much more than usual to take my mind off the worries, to get lost, to be somewhere, to be in the company of others. Because at the moment, we all need to practice social distancing, so if I’m allowed to recommend my own book, I would say that The Mountains Sing has the ability to transport the reader into an unfamiliar world, a world which they may not have been physically or emotionally. They get to speak and hear Vietnamese language, taste the food, experience the traditions and customs, while following the twists and turns in the river of historical events of Vietnam.
Many readers have said that my novel is especially meaningful at the moment. For example, the bestselling novelist, Julia Alvarez, author of In the Time of Butterflies and Afterlife, has kindly written about the reason why she loves The Mountains Sing, and she said, “In these traumatic times in which we are facing hard times as a global community as well as a nation, it is life-affirming to be reminded that many in our human family have endured difficult histories before and come through with kindness, kindredness, love, hope.” And I really hope that we can come out of this pandemic together as a community, and we let love and kindness shine the way for us.
“If I’m allowed to recommend my own book, I would say that The Mountains Sing has the ability to transport the reader into an unfamiliar world, a world which they may not have been physically or emotionally. They get to speak and hear Vietnamese language, taste the food, experience the traditions and customs, while following the twists and turns in the river of historical events of Vietnam.”
Lastly, what are you reading right now?
There are just so many good books and so, so little time. I recently finished The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré and So You Want to Talk about Race by Ijeoma Oluo. And I highly recommend these books because they invite us to act, unite, and do more for others. So I’ve been reading two nonfiction books that deal with difficult subjects, and the first is Death Becomes Us by Pamela Skjolsvik. This memoir looks death into the eyes, so that we can all appreciate life more. The other nonfiction book is The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11 by Garrett M. Graff. It’s a very well-researched and well-documented, moving book. I cannot put it down, and it reminds me that we have emerged from many terrible events and become stronger, and I hope we can do this with this pandemic, like I said. And I’m about to start Everyone Knows You Go Home by Natalia Sylvester. That’s a novel. And another memoir is Tell Me Everything You Don’t Remember by Christine Hyung-Oak Lee. I’ve heard wonderful things about these two books.
And I need to mention that I just started Wuhan Diary, a diary of the Chinese writer Fang Fang during the lockdown of Wuhan. This book is interesting because she wrote it as an online journal, to document her real experiences. So I remember when the pandemic broke out in Wuhan, I looked at the images on TV and in the newspapers, and I thought, “How terrible for the people who had to experience the lockdown.” And I followed her diary published on Vietnamese newspapers, and I was really curious. And now we’re all experiencing this type of lockdown experience. It’s not so nice, but at least we can be together in literature, and together in reading, and that’s a great thing that everyone can enjoy for now. This novel of mine was launched in the pandemic, and I’ve been so grateful to reviewers, readers, independent booksellers, and so many people who have shown me such incredible support and company to give me life. I hope everyone will stay safe and stay healthy, and when this is over, I want to go on a book tour and hug my readers. I miss hugging people.
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